Adapting to Change

“When our students get into the real world, they’re going to need to do X, Y, and Z…”

Sound familiar? I’ve been hearing this for many years in education, and, if I’m honest, have said it a lot of times myself. It’s one of those educational catchphrases that the older, wiser, mentor often says, and we new teachers lap it up without giving a lot of thought. Part of that is because sometimes school seems so much different than the outside world, we’re sometimes isolated from a lot of the reality of how people interact and communicate outside of our classroom walls. We can examine these two pictures of classrooms, and recognize that not a lot has changed, even though so much around us actually HAS changed.

Aside from the interactive board at the front of the room in the color photo, not much has changed from the classroom of the 1950s. While this is not true in all schools – lots of wonderful, immersive learning experiences are happening – it is still quite common to see the traditional desks/table in rows.

My brilliant friend George made me think about this topic again the other day when he wrote a blog – On the “Real World”. You should definitely read the entire post, but I especially relate to the idea that we have to “prepare students for continuous change and adaptation.”

How often does your schedule change? How many times have you logged into Google and noticed something changed, or management structure changed (again), or a process on how to submit for a reimbursement was adjusted? This can be frustrating and induce some stress, especially if you’re used to doing something the same way and have been doing it that way for a long time. Change is inevitable. We have to learn how to adapt to it and adjust.

Changing presidential administrations in 2017 was a huge challenge for me – and millions of Americans. It can be hard to adjust when things change and we’re not happy with the outcome. Our students experience those things, too, and it’s essential we equip them with the skills to process and deal with that. We must model it for our students – with as much grace and dignity as we can muster. As educators, we also must acknowledge change can sometimes be good, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time. Evaluation and putting aside personal biases is a tough thing to do, but essential if we want to properly evaluate situations.

Do as I Say, Not as I Do…

Why is innovation critical? The other day, General Motors announced that it will be laying off 1,100 workers in the Lansing area. Their plant that currently produces the GMC Acadia is cutting its third shift, and all of those jobs are going to Tennessee. This is the fourth layoff they’ve announced since November 2016. Here in Lansing, we have also endured Oldsmobile – a company born and bred in the Capital City – closing its plant and ceasing to exist as a product. Michigan’s auto industry and its struggles shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who lived through the Great Recession. And while in many ways GM and Chrysler are doing much better, it’s easy to look around and see the effects of the Great Recession on the local economy. Across the board, more and more jobs are being lost to automation and advances in technology – not to “bad trade deals” as a certain leader has alluded to…

Listening to the YouTube Live this week, a couple of things stuck out to me:

“The jobs that can be automated eventually will be. That’s why we need innovators.” – George Couros

I couldn’t agree more. There is vast opportunity for new jobs, to solve complex problems, to fill an existing need, and to generate a lot of money for local, state, and national economies. Obviously on a micro level, a new job that fills a need could be very lucrative for someone, on a macro level, in order to stay relevant we must change and innovate. And yet…we are still working on outdated machines and within models that were designed to solve 20th century needs. It’s pretty crazy when you think about it.

A place where I see this dichotomy is in education – in professional learning specifically. George referenced that a lot of the problems in education aren’t from the teachers themselves, but from their leadership. I (mostly) agree with this. We ask a LOT of teachers – collect an inane amount of data, differentiate, be innovative, integrate technology to a high level, reinforce social skills, teach curriculum, support all learners all of the time in culturally-relevant ways, etc. While all of these things (aside from the overwhelming data collection…) are essential to supporting students and helping them learn and grow, it can be really hard to do, especially when you’re being asked to do things you’ve never done before. Having leadership that models and brainstorms with you ways to be more innovative and feel like you have permission to try new things.

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We had a PD day not long ago on implementing our new math curriculum. Rather than giving people time to share ways they have used the different components in their classes, the PD was focused on the “nuts and bolts” and reviewing (for the umpteenth time!) the online resources available. While that is helpful for some people, other teachers benefit from hearing how their colleagues are changing their teaching strategies.

Another example I see time and time again is asking teachers for feedback – on a paper survey – and only at the end of a session. While feedback is an incredibly powerful tool, it needs to be done throughout the process, and there are ways we can utilize technology to make it more efficient.

I loved Sarah’s thoughts around good leaders providing support and space for their teachers. It’s kind of reminiscent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – we need to feel cared for and loved before we can do anything else. Teachers need to know that their leaders have their backs and they have the opportunity to capitalize on their strengths and fly. When I was still in the classroom, I was never afraid of trying a new technology out with my students because I knew that they would figure it out – and teach me something new in the process. Teaching 8th grade students about the Constitutional Convention (prior to the Hamilton craze) could be somewhat challenging to make it meaningful and relevant for them. So I worked on ways to create innovative learning experiences. We made videos that parodied reality shows – Real Housewives of Colonial America for example. Students had to really KNOW that material in order to create a coherent and accurate video. But, I wouldn’t have had the courage to do that if I didn’t have a principal who understood that my ability to connect with students on their level was a strength and I needed the space to be able to do that.

How do we move more leaders and teachers in this direction? I truly believe a culture shift in how we define professional learning opportunities is crucial. Teachers willingly give up their weeknights and Saturdays to engage in Twitter chats or attend EdCamps because they have control over the type of learning they experience. These types of learning opportunities also provide teachers the time they so desperately need to really think through challenges, create innovative projects and lessons, to collaborate, and to connect. Additionally, there needs to be an expectation – and accountability – that the provided time is really being used for that purpose. While there is value in spending 5-10 minutes “venting” about the problems, it’s not the most productive use of your 60 minute PLC time – EVERY week. Or half listening while grading papers and responding to email while your colleagues are speaking – it’s rude and unprofessional. I get it; I taught middle school for 4 years, often had 180 English essays to grade, etc. But at the same time, we would not accept that behavior from our students, so why do we think it’s okay for us to do that? Teachers and administrators need to change the culture of professional learning – space and support – but also accountability and professionalism.

What say you? How can we create more innovative learning experiences for teachers and administrators?

#IMMOOC – Season Two

Last night some pretty smart people kicked off another round of the #IMMOOC – The Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course focused around the book – The Innovator’s Mindset. I participated last year, but when I heard there was going to be another round of the IMMOOC, I was thrilled. It’s always fun to connect with new people and challenge your own thoughts and ideas.

One of the questions from this week is centered around the idea of the purpose of school. What is it we are actually trying to do with our students? For me, as a former social studies teacher and current technology integration specialist, the purpose of education is to teach students how to engage with the world around them. They obviously need content knowledge to contextualize their ideas, but we really need to support our students in analyzing information, formulating their own opinions, creating new and innovative things to change our world and their experiences with it, and to find creative ways to solve problems.

I always get push back from teachers whenever I bring up the idea of innovation and design thinking. It can be really hard to find the time, but, like most things in life, you make time for the things that are important to you. In the YouTube Live Episode 1, John Spencer said something that stuck out to me: “Curriculum maps are just that – maps. Maps should inspire possibilities.” Too many times teachers get stuck in marching through the curriculum, stuck on one path and not veering off from it or incorporating other standards and curriculum into what they’re teaching.

My favorite part of the episode? When George discussed some pushback he got from a teacher – “Innovation isn’t in the curriculum.” His response: “Yeah, well neither are worksheets.” Right!?! I mean…we do things we KNOW are bad for kids because it’s what we know, it’s what we’re comfortable with, it’s “easy.” This isn’t to say that there aren’t teachers out there who aren’t doing innovative things or out-of-the-box thinking. A challenge I see a lot is that the environment in which a lot of our teachers are currently operating in isn’t always conducive to innovation. It can be hard to take a risk when you feel like your administrator doesn’t have your back.

So how do we get more innovation in our schools given the current climate? I think it’s crucial to talk to kids since they’re the ones we’re in this business for! Kids can solve some pretty interesting problems if we give them the chance! When we do what’s best for kids, we begin to push kids to take ownership of their learning and to show what they know in new and innovative ways.

The System

I’ve been spending a lot of time in professional development – in book studies, Twitter chats, reading and engaging with blogs, and talking with other teachers and ed tech coaches at events – and I’m really confused.

It seems like so much has changed in education and yet nothing has changed. We know better how students learn. The skills and demands that students will be expected to have are far different than those that existed when I went to school. Our world is much more connected. Technology and access to information inundates and sometimes overwhelms us. It can feel impossible to process all that information sometimes. And yet… I still walk into classrooms and see teachers refusing to let students engage with the world. I hear teachers tell students not to touch anything until they are given explicit instruction. I watch students puzzle and problem-solve on their own, but then shut down when forced to follow along step by step with a teacher or trainer. The thing is, adults feel safe when someone tells them what to do step by step. Kids don’t! Think of a toddler. How does he or she learn? A little boy puzzles over how to get the block into a hole; he tries several holes until he finds the shape that matches the block.

We want students to be problem solvers. We want them to be critical thinkers. Students no longer need us to TELL them what they need to know, we need to show them how to find the answers. We need to teach them HOW to assess and analyze the information they’re given. Students need to apply the knowledge they have in ways that are meaningful, make sense, challenge them.

Nothing is going to change in education until we – the system – changes. We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have to be okay with giving up some control. We have to be alright with students exploring – and maybe stumbling upon something they shouldn’t. And when they do, we capitalize on that and use it as a teachable moment. If we only tell kids what NOT to do – and punish them when they make a mistake – how likely are they to actually try and innovate?

What If…?

Listening to Kaleb Rashad as part of Week 3 IMMOOC I was so inspired and energized. I wish ALL administrators had his passion and energy. His message about relationships and equity really resonated with me. Early on, I recognized the importance of building relationships with my students and making connections to their worlds. As I have moved to various educational settings, this is still true, and perhaps even more so when working with adults. Some students will follow the rules and be compliant; they have learned how to play the game of school. Teachers are incredibly busy people and their time spent in professional development needs to be meaningful, targeted and full of impact.

Designing professional learning opportunities that resonate with teachers can be really hard when you’re in a system that is stuck in traditional ways of doing things. My district currently has a once a week “late start” Wednesday. Each Wednesday across the district, teachers spend 2 hours with their colleagues immersed in professional learning. While it sounds good in theory in that we aren’t asking teachers to stay after school, all teachers are present, it’s a consistent schedule, etc., in practice it is somewhat different. For starters, many of the weeks are pre-set by the district. That means that building principals – who know their staff better than anyone – don’t have as much autonomy to decide what is on the agenda. Additionally, two hours isn’t always enough time when there are myriad items on the agenda. Being the only technology integrationist in the district, it is impossible for me to be in 25 buildings at the same time. It makes it pretty difficult to provide support to more than one building a week. Of course we end up with a situation where it’s a “one-size fits all” PD instead of tailored to what teachers want, need, or are interested in.

Here are my ideas on what innovative professional learning looks like:

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#IMMOOC Week One – Opportunities

So, I’m super excited to be participating in this awesome MOOC with lots of amazing and brilliant folks on the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros. One of the biggest challenges for me in my role as an Instructional Technologist is letting go of some of my own ideas about what technology integration SHOULD look like, and being more open to hearing other teachers sharing what their visions are. While many of the teachers I work with are eager to utilize technology in more meaningful ways, they aren’t sure how to make that happen. At the core of any real systematic change is the ability to listen to and understand one another. Sometimes in the busyness of the day, teachers and I aren’t always speaking the same language.

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Photo courtesy of George Couros: gcouros.ca

One of the prompts for this week is: “‘Change is an opportunity to do something amazing’ How are you embracing change to spur innovation?”

So one of my big goals for this MOOC is to change the way I “do business” to generate some innovative ideas. Spend more time listening and asking questions (of both teachers AND students) and less time talking and trying to provide solutions. I feel stretched in a billion different directions and, when I walk out of a teacher’s classroom, I want to feel like I have helped him or her, so I often feel pressure to give him or her a quick answer or a solution. Rather, I want to embrace the opportunity to do something amazing by CHANGING the way I communicate. Asking questions and really thinking deeply will help me to provide more meaningful supports for the teachers I am working with.

The Innovator’s Mindset – Week 5 (Chapters 8 &9)

So much from Chapter 8 (Strengths-Based Leadership) resonated with me!

What if we stopped operating on a deficit model that focuses on a leaner’s weaknesses and started operating on a strengths-based model that builds on the learner’s strengths?

When I think about my own learning experiences as a student and later as a teacher, I was alway most comfortable when I was working in areas where I felt like I had something to contribute. English and Social Studies classes, discussing how I build relationships with students, utilizing technology to transform learning – those were spaces where I felt comfortable sharing and leading conversations. Too often we are focused on what we need to improve, we’re forced to sit on committees or teams that are designed to help us grow in areas we struggle. This creates a feeling of discomfort and can sometimes make us feel like we’re not good enough or not doing enough. Most of the teachers I know are some of the hardest working people I know, so to feel like all the energy and time you’re exerting isn’t enough is insulting and demoralizing.

Focusing on the strengths of the people in our buildings is a pretty different idea than the one we currently employ. Part of that is a symptom of our culture’s obsession with data and testing. We are always measuring and analyzing, trying to improve upon our baseline. And while all of those things are important, it’s not always the most empowering to constantly focus on where you need to improve.

George discusses the story about his own school district and how they created powerful professional development opportunities for their district by creating teams focused on specific initiatives. These teams were chosen by teachers so they could work in areas they were comfortable, and they worked on creating experiences that would allow teachers to learn and observe how to utilize new technologies in their classrooms.

My own experience has been similar in many ways to what happens in a lot of districts – a huge amount of money becomes available through a bond or a grant – and a TON of “stuff” is suddenly in school buildings. Sometimes these purchases are done without any thought or conversation about how these technologies will transform learning or even logistical ideas like how apps will get pushed, what filters will be in place, if students will keep the devices with them all day, etc.

In the world of education – where resources are often scarce – not understanding the potential of a device leaves us continuing with traditional learning but at a higher cost. Let’s take the time to understand what is possible from a learner-centered point of view, instead of blindly buying technology and then asking ‘Now what?’

It’s been my experience that many teachers are not comfortable with using a new technology until they have figured out all the ins and outs of it. While I understand this desire to try to eliminate any challenging situations, sometimes that’s where our best learning comes from. Students love being able to share what they know and look like the experts. So rather than stressing when a technology isn’t working, tapping into the students’ collective knowledge can be a powerful learning experience for both the teacher and the student.

Teachers often ask me “What else is out there?” And while I appreciate their enthusiasm for new technologies, I worry that sometimes it’s more like being at a circus and pulling out all kinds of stuff from a “hat.” Rather than deepening our exploration of how one or two tools can create even more richer learning, teachers are wanting to dip their toes into every single new app or website. It’s natural to be lured by fun and engaging sites and apps, but are they (the apps and sites) really doing anything new or transformative? Are they engaging students or empowering them? 

Questions for Discussion (Chapter 8)

  1. What are the current strengths of your organization and how do you continue to move them forward?
  2. What are the strengths of the individuals you serve and how have you put them into situations where these strengths will flourish?
  3. How do you find the balance between “mentoring” and “micro-managing” to ensure people feel supported and comfortable taking risks?

Questions for Discussion (Chapter 9)

  1. How do you model and explore new opportunities for learning in your own practice?
  2. What opportunities are you providing for informal learning, exploration, and “play” with new technologies in your organization? 
  3. How do you move from “standardized” to “personalized learning opportunities for your students and staff?

The Innovator’s Mindset – Week 4 (Chapters 6 & 7)

These two chapters focus on empowering students and what tactics schools and districts can utilize to bring all voices to design empowering opportunities for everyone.

George begins by sharing his focus on engaging students during his first few years of teaching.This was very relatable to me. Knowing that social studies is generally the subject students hate the most, I made it a personal mission to create learning experiences for my students that were filled with passion, energy, and excitement. I was exhausted at the end of every day having expended so much energy helping students learn about why the debate over the Constitution was so meaningful. While I believe that I made learning fun for my students – and they were able to make connections to the world around them – I’m not certain I created empowered learners who found problems and solved them, who questioned in a respectful way, who shared their voices. On page 96, George quotes Bill Ferriter: “Engaging students means getting kids excited about our content, interests, and curricula. [Empowering students] means giving kids the knowledge and skills to pursue their passions, interests, and future.” This really gave me pause. Have I been created engaged learners or empowered learners?

The common thread between these two chapters is the idea of compliance. So often we teach students how to be compliant – follow the rules, do what’s asked of them, not to question. While some routines and procedures are necessary, especially in a lower elementary school classroom, we have to be mindful of what we are asking our students to do. If we want them to have a voice – to feel empowered – we cannot squelch every independent thought or action. Chapter 7 focuses on designing a mission and vision for schools and George uses the example of his school district and how they attempted to get input from all learners in their school community – students, teachers, parents, administration. By teaching students to be compliant, we are teaching them that their voices don’t matter. Conversely, by bringing them in to the conversation to design what’s most important to a school (its mission and vision), students are far more likely to be engaged and committed to what the school is trying to do.

What do you think? Are schools teaching students to be compliant? Why do you feel this way? 

Questions for Discussion (Chapter 6)

  1. How do we create learning opportunities and experiences for students and staff that focus on empowerment as opposed to engagement?
  2. What new statements would you create with the “School vs. Learning” image? Are they on one side of the spectrum, or are these statements closer to the middle? 
  3. How do we create classrooms and schools where students and voices are not only heard but needed?

Questions for Discussion (Chapter 7)

  1. How do you involve the greater community into creating an inspiring vision for learning in your school or organization?
  2. Does your vision (individually and organizationally) reflect the powerful learning opportunities that are available today? Is it compelling and empowering to educators?
  3. What are the small steps along the way that you will need to make the vision a reality?

The Innovator’s Mindset – Week 4 (Chapters 4 & 5)

Sometimes life happens…and I have been buried in work! You can read about the first three weeks of the book study here, here, and here.

Chapter Four focuses on the importance of relationships in driving innovation in classrooms, buildings, and districts. My student teaching experience was in a 7th grade classroom, and I understood early on that having a relationship with them was crucial to being a successful teacher. This shouldn’t be mind-blowing knowledge; we tend to work better for people whom we respect and feel respected by. Too often, though, this important aspect of growth is overlooked in the name of getting stuff done.

George asks, “How do you create opportunities for your school community to have learning driven by their personal interests?” I try to keep this idea at the fore when designing learning opportunities for my teachers. Through the summer, I host open office hours for teachers to drop in and get individualized attention. Teachers really appreciate the chance to sit down one on one and discuss an idea or get some troubleshooting done on a tool or app. I have also begun doing these office hours with a couple of schools. They hire a floating sub and teachers sign up for a 45 minute session with me. Here, I can show a new tool or – even more effective – speak to the teacher about their content and curricular goals and brainstorm ways to utilize technology to modify student learning.

Adjacent to the idea of having relationships with your staff and learners is how to be an effective leader. My first principal was a person I respected and who I knew respected me. He was always ready to listen, offer support when necessary, asked deep, thought-provoking questions, and challenged some of my actions when he wanted me to see something from a different angle. He also was a great leader. He listened to staff concerns but also pushed us to take our teaching to the next level. He truly “got it.” Being an effective leader isn’t easy, and I’m sure all of us have worked for or with people who were ineffective at leading people.

I love this quote:

In a world where digital interaction is the norm, we crave human interaction more than ever. That’s why the three things you need to ensure innovation flourishes in your organization are relationships, relationships, and relationships. Fifty years ago, relationships were the most important thing in our schools, and fifty years from now, it will be no different.

Chapter Five lays out the eight characteristics of The Innovative Leader: Visionary, Empathetic, Models Learning, Open Risk-Taker, Networked, Observant, Team Builder, and Always Focused on Relationships. Being an Open Risk-Taker means you are taking risks “out in the open” so that others can see you doing it. I did this a lot with my students. Sometimes we forget that we ask kids to be uncomfortable a lot – and expect them to do it without complaint. But when we are asked to do something we don’t want to do or aren’t comfortable with, we resist. Sometimes a lot. Taking risks and being vulnerable in front of others isn’t always in our comfort zone. But by showing we trust those around us enough to be supportive of our risk-taking, we are able to grow as leaders and members of a community.
One of the areas I need to improve upon is being more Empathetic. I have such energy and passion for technology and how it can create connections among students, teachers, and others around the world, when others are hesitant to jump in  – or don’t quite see how it will all come together – I get frustrated. It’s hard to remember sometimes that not everyone is at my level of knowledge when it comes to technology tools or what’s available. Figuring out where people are and being able to move them from THEIR Point A to THEIR Point B (thanks for this idea, George!) is important rather than just pushing them to move from where they are to where I think they should be.

Discussion Questions: (Chapter 4)

  1. How do you build relationships with individuals in your district, school, and classroom?
  2. How do you empower others to take risks? Examples?
  3. How do you create opportunities for your school community to have learning driven by their personal interests?

Discussion Questions: (Chapter 5)

  1. What are some ways that you get in the “middle” of learning to understand the needs of those you serve?
  2. What is a new learning initiative that you would like to see in your school, and how do you model this learning yourself?
  3. Which characteristic of the innovative leader do you consider personal strengths? In which areas do you need to grow?

The Innovator’s Mindset Book Study – Week 3 (Chapter 3: Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset)

In week 3 of our book study, I’m exploring the 8 characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset. (Psst! It’s not too late to catch up on the first two weeks of our book study – Week 1 and Week 2)

One of my favorite things about this chapter is that it starts out with a short story about a teacher who left the classroom for a few years and upon her return was surprised at how much had changed. Not wanting to be left behind, she began reaching out and pushing herself out of her comfort zone to create new and meaningful opportunities for her students. Throughout the chapter, George returns to that teacher in applying one of the characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset.

The eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset are: Empathetic, Problem Finders (love this!), Risk-Takers, Networked, Observant, Creators, Resilient, and Reflective. The characteristic that stands out most to me is that of being a risk-taker. While for a lot of people standing in front of a group of kids and talking can be very risky, most teachers do not have a fear of public speaking. Rather, it is much riskier to open yourself up to something you’re not comfortable with. For me this involves asking for feedback from teachers and staff on my professional development offerings and training sessions. It can be challenging and a bit scary to ask for feedback, especially from teachers with whom you don’t have much of a relationship. Being split among several buildings makes it hard to really build a meaningful rapport with teachers and it can be scary to ask for feedback. Of course, this constructive feedback is crucial for our own personal growth and can push us to improve and change – to innovate. George asks at the end of the chapter: “What risk might you take to change learning experiences?” For me this includes asking for feedback at every session, not just a few select meetings. Beyond that, it’s important to evaluate the feedback with an objective eye and take it as a way to grow. It can be hard to listen to feedback without immediately getting defensive or trying to explain our decisions. While some of that is a natural response, it doesn’t do much to push me to grow or improve.

The other characteristic of the Innovator’s Mindset that really resonated with me was that of Resiliency. No one needs to tell teachers that their job is difficult. We know it better than anyone. And it can get really hard to continue to feel positive and excited about your work when you are pulled so thin and stretched in so many different directions. The focus on testing and data has made creativity and innovation feel more and more challenging and out of reach. Teachers must be resilient in the face of these difficulties. By embracing the amazing things are kids are doing and seeking out meaningful learning opportunities for our students, teachers can practice this characteristic.

What about you? Which characteristic(s) of The Innovator’s Mindset resonates with you? 

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What risk might you take to change learning experiences?
  2. How might you create an environment that fosters risk-taking?
  3. How do you exhibit the innovator’s mindset in the learning and work that you do currently?