Category Archives: Commentary

What leadership really means

dancing-156041_1280This week, I had the opportunity to share some things my district is doing to move its way into the realm of virtual and blended learning. We have made some strides, but we have a long way to go before the dream of truly personalized learning is a reality.

As part of my presentation, I shared the video some of you may be familiar with, “Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy“. This video tied in well to the keynote speaker the day before, Steve Dembo, who had let us all know that the way to build new realities in school is to start off looking like a nut and hope that others will decide to join you so that you’ll look like less of a nut.

I have a respect for the video and the message it delivers, but it misses one vital point. In the video, nearly the entire crowd eventually joins in, either because it looks like fun or because everyone else is doing it and they don’t want to be ridiculed for not joining in. What I see in the video that is vitally important, however, is that the last folks who joined in the dance likely had no idea what the point of the dance was to begin with.

The movement caught on, but those who followed it didn’t necessarily know why it started in the first place.

In education, it is so important that we not only act as the lone dancing guy, or the first follower, but that we make sure that our message is so clear that it gets passed on through those that choose to follow.

If the dance itself becomes the focus, our vision is lost.

True leadership is often about laying the path and providing a venue for the “dancers” to take risks and for the “crowds” to follow. Laying that path takes strategic planning, future forecasting, and flexibility along with an acknowledgement that we are simply putting opportunities in place for others to grow.

Isn’t that, ultimately, what “school” is about?

An interesting discourse

I have been attending the SxSWedu convention in Austin this week. It has been a good experience – I have learned new things, been in rooms with people who don’t just talk about changing things, they are actively involved in that change. My highlight, however, took place, for the most part, this afternoon and evening when I participated in a social event designed like a game called Learning is Earning 2026.

The game, designed by Jane McGonigal and in collaboration with the Institute for the Future and the ACT Foundation, is centered around a world where education has been transformed into a social credentialing system. Citizens earn “edublocks” when they learn something new and are encouraged to do so through a points system, as well as potential job opportunities and student loan payoffs. Once a person has learned something, they are encouraged to teach others.

The game I participated in this evening was designed to engage its participants in thoughtful dialogue about the pros, cons, potential impacts, and other important considerations surrounding this idea. I have to say that when I first watched the promo video for the “Ledger” system that would house edublocks, I was excited at the possibilities – and I still am. However, the act of participating in the conversation tonight really got me thinking about all of the potential problems that would have to be solved before a system like this would work.

I won’t go into details about all that I learned tonight – I fully intend to explore these possibilities further. What I would like to say is that the entire platform, where my participation was encouraged by a points system and possibilities of “leveling up” and even potentially being invited to the Institute offices in California, was extremely engaging. The diverse opinions and perspectives of the group, coupled with the incentives, kept the conversation lively and made me more likely to play devil’s advocate to dive as deeply into the content as possible.

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My original character on UO

Is it my old gamer self shining through (I used to spend hours and lots of real dollars on my citizenship on the Great Lakes shard of Trammel in the Ultima Online MMORPG, or is it a generally competitive human nature that fueled my participation? I believe some of the people I had discussions with this evening would say – Does it matter?

My big question from tonight is – Can the incentive to learn be material (money, points, prestige) or should it be a desire to learn for the sake of learning?

Reflections on GTAATX 2014

When I came home from the Google Teacher Academy in Austin last week, I was exhausted, but in a good way. I wanted to write a reflection, but I also wanted to let the experience simmer a bit so that I would write one that was not influenced by the “high” that was GTA.

Today, I read posts from fellow GTAATX folks, including a very thoughtful and honest one from Karl Lindgren-Streicher and a data-filled one that made my science heart leap by Matt Vaudrey. Although the latter made me a bit sad since the data doesn’t lie and the data says I was one of the two oldest people in the room, both of the posts gave me the opportunity to reflect almost a week after the first day of the event. What the reflection revealed to me is the topic of this post.

GTAATX crew

Photo by Danny Silva

I agree with Karl that the Academy was an awesome experience that could have been even more awesome. I was energized and encouraged by a fantastic group of educators who, like me, believe that together, educators can truly change the world. I also felt sad that we didn’t get more time to plan and develop the strategies that will begin the transformation. Although the sessions were helpful in their own right, I found my mind wandering back to my project and the work I was anxious to get started.

My inner science and sociology geek absolutely loved the session from Chris Aviles (@techedupteacher) where he shared several resources that provide all the data needed to get conversations started in nearly any content area. Data that is relevant to students because it has been gathered through Google and social media outlets.

I loved the information Amy Mayer (@friEdtechnology) provided and her down-to-earth style of discussion. It was also really cool that for the first time ever, a Google Teacher Academy included a student of hers!

The problem-solving and design parts of the Academy were the most beneficial. Not only did I have the opportunity to sort through and begin working on my own project, I got valuable feedback from the minds in the room. It was also a great way to learn parts of the Google design process, which I will find useful in my experience as a presenter and coach.

I won’t go into details about the tools I learned about – you can check out the GTAATX hashtag to see all the things that were shared over the two days. The Google training team did a great job – tweaking the sessions to meet our needs and they were super receptive to feedback with a strong desire to improve future academies.

I am so thankful I was a part of the experience and I hope that I will be able to continue the momentum!

Getting myself to move – Day 1 of #GTAATX

It was with mixed feelings that I traveled to Austin in the wee hours of the morning so that I could attend the Google Teacher Academy. Mind you, this is an opportunity only given to 52 educators out of hundreds of applications. It is an opportunity to sit in the collaborative, ideation tank that is Google for two days, immersed in networking and learning with some of Google’s brightest, and over 52 of the most creative leaders in education technology.

Still, I was tired, having spent the evening at a ladies event at my church and finally pulling into the hotel parking lot a little before 2 a.m. (after stopping three times because I was falling asleep at the wheel). Would I get enough out of these two days to make the trek worthwhile? Would I feel okay about missing two days of work and putting out fires in order to have this experience?

After Day 1, I have to say there is nowhere else I could have been today. Sitting in a small room with so many people who share the same vision and have the same out-of-the-box ideals and hopes was energizing. As I worked through the Google design process today, I remembered why it is that I am so passionate about the things I pursue in education. I could see that passion ignited in the others, who, as we had conversations at our tables, began to realize they were truly preaching to the choir – no longer speaking so passionately to deaf ears, their cries of reform and relevance were falling on ears just as enthusiastic as they were themselves.

This has been such an inspiring semester for me. The four-session series called the 4C Cadre (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking) at my district has reignited the creativity that had gone dormant in me. Miami Device in November put me with some of the greatest minds in EdTech so that I could realize the I, too, had something important to contribute.

  • Today, at the Google offices in Austin, I learned about the concept of moon shots and realized that, although my philosophy has always been about allowing baby steps from the teachers who I support, I needed to have a much bigger vision of where we are heading in order to make those baby steps mean something.
  • Today, I learned that there are a lot of people just like me out there – trying to change the world one teacher/student at t time.
  • Today, I learned, as Joe Marquez said, that “this is not MY classroom, it is OUR classroom” and we all share the same responsibility to teach and should be given the same opportunity to reach.

Blown away.

Top three classroom management tips that have nothing to do with procedures

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn my profession, I have worked with first-year teachers, seasoned teachers, and teachers in between and have noticed one common thread – struggles with classroom management. This is not to say that all of the teachers I have worked with have classroom management issues – instead what I’m saying is that when I see issues in a classroom, or ask a teacher what their biggest struggle is, classroom management is usually at the top of the list.

When I see classroom management issues, I can usually see the reasons for it. It isn’t always about procedures and it isn’t always about whether the teacher has prepared a meaningful lesson that will reasonably take the whole class period to complete. Often, it has so much more to do with the way the teacher interacts with his/her students.

I’d like to point out the three most important things (in my opinion) to consider when examining the reasons behind classroom management issues:

1. Like children. We all got into this profession, hopefully, because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. However, I have seen teachers who clearly do not like kids. Whether they have always disliked youngsters or whether they have become burnt out and resent them, the result is always the same – constant battles between students who are keenly aware of their teacher’s dislike for them and the teachers who are just counting the minutes until class is over.

If you find yourself in a position where you are quick to make statements like “kids nowadays have no respect” or “teenagers are just a bag of hormones” – you may want to step back and see your students for what they are – young versions of the adults you and others will influence them to be. Young people are all the hope and possibilities contained in our futures, wrapped up in little bodies and brains that are (or can be) excited into wonder. Be in awe of them as they walk in your door. Smile at the realization that you have been given one more class period to be a part of who that child will be for the rest of his/her life.

2. Have clean slates. I’m not talking about making sure to clean your whiteboards or chalkboards, I’m talking about wiping clean the slate in your brain that says “Johnny always gives me trouble” or “Susan never has her books”. This slate absolutely must be clean every single time a student walks in your door. If you are remembering Julio acting up during yesterday’s class while he is trying to answer the question you just asked, you will react differently to his answer than you would if you had wiped the slate clean. It is so important that each new day is truly new – that our students understand that if they made a mistake yesterday, it will not be held against them today. If you tend to hold grudges, or predict how your “troublemakers” are going to react, the result will be constant battles with specific students which quite possibly could be because of your own influence.

3. Think about the big picture. I have witnessed teachers spending many precious minutes of instructional time enforcing rules that have no bearing on the potential for learning in that classroom. If I have a rule that says my students cannot chew gum in my class, and it takes me the first five minutes of class each day to make students spit their gum out, I’ve just placed gum as the most important thing in that classroom for the day. We all know it is going to take longer than five minutes in a secondary classroom, because students who are subject to rules that make no sense to them will stretch those rules to see how far they can go. I’m using gum as an example, but what I want you to do is take a look at the rules you have in place – are they really necessary? Did you just add this one because the teacher next door has it on her list? Does it really matter if Tanya has a pierced lip?

Ask yourself: Does this affect the ability of students in my classroom to learn? If the answer is yes, then it must be a part of the rules you enforce in your classroom. If the answer is no, choose your battles wisely, because it is very easy for us to make a small situation much worse and demand much more time than is warranted. When working with teenagers, this is especially important because when they are in your classroom and you think they are thinking about other things, they are often considering the reasoning behind the rules and the reasoning behind the assignment you just gave them. If they cannot “buy in” to why they have to comply, they won’t, and some of those students will turn nonsensical rules and irrelevant assignments into the miserable hours of disciplinary issues that some teachers face daily.

I’m not trying to say that procedures should get thrown out the door. Obviously, there must be procedures in a day of learning that has so much in it and so little time. These tips are just a way to think about classroom management AFTER you have the procedures in place and are still struggling.

Take a look at your style from an outsider perspective. Then take a look at it from a student perspective. Reflect on those perspectives and make the changes necessary to provide the best learning environment for your students. You will go home at night much less stressed and there is a bonus – you will build stronger relationships with your students.

Because I am a teacher

When I was in college, I had a professor tell me that I was made to be a science teacher. At the time, I was an English major and science was the furthest thing from my mind. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that she was right. It was my Biology class that I was excited to go to each week and my English classes I dreaded.

Still, she had said “teacher”, and I wasn’t so sure about that. I had teachers through my K-12 education who had made me want to be a teacher and I had teachers during that same time that made me want to have nothing to do with education. I was skeptical.

During my sophomore year, I got a paid gig doing supplemental instruction for Biology students. This wasn’t tutoring, per se, it involved planning on my part. I had to attend various Bio lectures, then create a supplemental lesson plan designed to revisit the content from lecture in more visual or hands-on ways. My students were usually either athletes who were being forced to attend by their coaches or non-traditional students who really didn’t want to have to pay for the class more than once.

I found that I loved those classes. I loved sitting in the lectures, I loved planning, I loved getting to know my students, and I loved differentiating for them (before I had ever heard that word in reference to education).

I changed my major to Science Education, then Biology itself, and happily continued pursuit of a degree. During my senior year, I found myself restless and anxious to finish, anxious to have my own students. At the time, Yahoo had a feature that allowed users to create chat rooms and I began to create one called “Biology tutoring”. I would get students from all over the word and of all ages. A few continued to chat with me throughout their Biology experience (and two of them still contact me from time to time, all grown up). I found these little snippets of “teaching” to be something like sustenance.

Fast forward through my high school science teacher career to where I am today, an instructional technology specialist. This means I don’t have a classroom – or students. I take on teaching gigs for online classes, which helps to sate my appetite for teaching young people. However, I have discovered one way that also satisfies that need without any effort on my part – a YouTube video.

Yes, a YouTube video. Not just any video, but one that I uploaded three years ago. This thing is embarrassingly simple and goofy-looking. I created it quickly to help some of my online Chemistry students learn an alternative to dimensional analysis. I posted it to YouTube for them. I never thought that three years later, I would be approaching 20,000 views.

The part about the video that satisfies me are the comments. They ebb and flow. Sometimes I will get a new comment each week. Other times, I might have to wait a month, but those comments always give me that warm fuzzy feeling all over again. Sometimes they just tell me thanks, sometimes they ask me questions (which I try to always respond to), and sometimes they share the video with their friends or teachers.

I have the heart of a teacher. I might not be in a classroom. There might not be any students who even know my name, but I have made a difference to, surprisingly, mostly college students who are struggling through Chemistry and find my video.

When we are struggling with whatever stresses are coming our way – and as educators, this is an ongoing flow – we must always remember that we are making a difference – because we are teachers.

Igniting and restoring passion

Today was the first official day of Podstock. Brad Flickinger was the keynote speaker this morning and many of the things he said really resonated with me. The title was “The Secret Path to Great EdTech Lessons”.

Brad quickly revealed the “secret” is passion. Igniting passion in students is the only way to get them excited about learning. The first step was instilling curiosity and he showed some of the ways that he does that – through projects and extracurricular activities. He said once students get just a taste of success, they will continue to work hard and do well. It is human nature – we feel that small indicator of success and we want to try again – and do it better next time.

Brad is a dynamic speaker. His style pulled me in and even though he was talking about elementary projects, I could see ways that his ideas could work for my schools. He talked about making everything seem real so that students will work harder – if they know something is contrived, they will give less effort to it.

I sat listening to Brad’s sincerity, being pulled in to the peaceful idea of students achieving because they are excited about what they are doing, when he decided to give us the real “secret”. This secret wasn’t about igniting passion in students, but was the surprising benefit of focusing on students . . .

Teachers regain their passion for teaching when students are passionate about learning.

So many teachers are burned out – tired of the administrative tasks, tired of the uncertainty of political agendas, tired of fighting against apathetic students. Many of them end up leaving the profession or retiring at the earliest possible moment because they just can’t continue. What Brad talked about just might be a solution.

Later in the day, as I introduced myself for my presentation, I talked about the Girls of Technology – an organization I co-created to build a sense of community among girls who have chosen to follow STEM career paths. What it has become is so much more, and I have found myself even more passionate about that organization than I was the day we first began brainstorming the creation of it. I thought about what Brad had said – that the passionate students didn’t even have to be the ones in your classroom – they could be an after-school organization, a sports team or a band – the result is still a teacher with a renewed passion for education.

I thought back to my first year teaching, when seeing just one student’s face light up during a pond water lab gave me the energy to teach another year, and I really understood what Brad had said.

We saw a similar dynamic yesterday during LaunchMe, when Ben Honeycutt gave his presentation about Open World – a solution created by students to solve a real-world problem. His talk, and the passion behind it, ignited passion in the educators who witnessed it and helped us remember the reason we are all here.

Let’s all try to find our own passion by igniting passion in our students. It is all about them, but what an awesome and unexpected result – loving our jobs again, remembering why we started in the first place, and making a difference in somebody’s life.