First Days of School

Back when I was still a classroom teacher, our principal always used to email us before school the wise words of Harry Wong – “You only get one first day of school!”

Such a simple message but really powerful and a wonderful reminder to all of us to strive to set the tone for the first day of school. How do we want students to feel when they walk into our classroom? How do we want to feel at the end of the day?

Building relationships is such a crucial part of establishing a culture of trust in our classrooms. Our students need to know the adults in their lives care about them and respect them as people and as individuals.

When I taught 8th grade, my partner teacher and I shared students; he had them for English and I had them for Social Studies. We did a block schedule Mon-Thursday and then on Friday we saw all classes. So, every quarter, on a Friday, we’d combine our classes and do some team-building activities that centered around validating students and their talents, and generating a stronger sense of community. Middle school students are so great; just on the cusp of figuring themselves out but still wanting to be a little kid every now and then. They want their independence, but they also want to fit in and often conform in order to do so. I loved seeing them grow and change throughout the year.

I know a lot of the teachers in our district are focusing on climate and culture the first week of school, and rightly so. Before you can expect people to work for you, they have to feel valued and respected. It’s important to model that all voices are important, all perspectives are welcomed, and acceptance rules the day. But it’s not only crucial in the first week of school, it’s important to revisit and remind throughout the year.

What are some of your favorite ways to build community in your classroom? How do you cultivate trust all year long?

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 10.52.49 AM

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?

Podcasting

If you’re like me, podcasts have completely taken over your listening preferences. I listen to pods while I’m getting ready for work, running, driving to work (which reminds me, I really need to cancel that XM subscription…), cleaning the house, etc. They are awesome and FREE, which is even better.

This year I decided to challenge myself and get a little bit outside of my comfort zone. I started a podcast! Wha!? It’s pretty sweet, and for the 3 people who subscribe, I hope you’re enjoying the content! Fun fact, there’s more to it than just recording yourself. The hardest part was going through the process of how you share the podcast once you have it created.

Thanks to my PLN, Twitter, and Google, I decided on Shout Engine as the host for the podcast. Once you have a place to host it, you also then need to use the RSS feed to submit to iTunes. It’s a bit of a process. But, now that I have the workflow down, it’s pretty neat. I’m co-hosting the podcast with my coworker Eric Spicer, who is a Technology Integration Specialist at Averill, one of the schools in our district. The two of us try to have a digestible how-to video or technique to implement and we also end the podcast with a short tech tip. Our goal is to eventually get teachers using podcasts in their classrooms – as learning supplements and eventually as ways for students to showcase their work.

You can check out our podcast on iTunes or on Shout Engine. Let us know what you think!

What podcasts do you listen to?
How do you use podcasts in your classroom/professional sphere?

Sharing Stories

Last week I had the pleasure of working with one of my favorite people and her awesome students. She’s a reading specialist here in Lansing and last year I introduced her to the Global Read Aloud last year and she read Fish in a Tree with her students. This year, her kiddos are reading Pax, and, like me, they have all fallen in love with the story of a young boy and his pet fox.

One of the things we love about the GRA is that it allows students to make connections over a common story with people from all over the world. It’s so validating for students to be able to hear people commenting on their ideas and opinions, asking them questions, and making connections.

On Thursday, the students and I used the iPad app Shadow Puppet to create short videos about their favorite character in the book. Prior to my lesson with the students, Mrs. Jacobs had the kids draw a picture of a scene from the book that included their favorite character. They also had a script of what they wanted to say, since some students freeze up when they have to record themselves! After a quick lesson on how to use Shadow Puppet, the kids were off to the races. It was awesome to listen to their explanations about why they chose a particular character.

After everyone recorded their videos, we uploaded them to YouTube. Then I got to sit with the students and Mrs. Jacobs and talk about what they had read so far. I have read the whole book, so the students were anxious to pick my brain about what happens in the book. It was fun to hear their questions and to not really answer any of them, because no one REALLY wants to know how it ends before you get to it!

We are a bit behind the official reading schedule for the Global Read Aloud, but we are really enjoying the deep dive and discussing the book. We’d love to connect with you over Google Hangouts or Skype. Let me know!

 

#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.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-4-28-58-pm

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.

First Day of School

Today, thousands of young scholars attended school for the first time in a couple of months. Teachers have spent lots of time decorating hallways and classrooms, perusing their class list and trying to learn student names, scouring Pinterest for engaging ice-breaker activities that students haven’t done countless times before, and students arrived in their new clothing, freshly sharpened pencils, a variety of colored pens and markers stuffed in brand new backpacks. Some students were anxious to begin their first day of formal schooling. For others, this is old hat, and they are marking time until they walk across that stage and collect their diplomas. Many parents anxiously waved goodbye to their children through misty eyes and tried to look brave.

As I traveled through some of the schools today, I was struck by how, despite the incredibly hot and humid weather, teachers, secretaries, principals, cafeteria workers, janitors, and other support staff greeted their students with smiles and hellos. Our schools are not air conditioned, friends. Here in the Mitten state we often don’t need air conditioning but for a handful of days in the fall and spring. But these buildings many of the teachers teach in are old with few windows that open, that cling to the heat, so that even early mornings don’t offer much respite. I know I have a hard time concentrating and being a pleasant member of society when I’m sweaty and feel like I can’t cool down. Not to mention working with 25 K-3 students, or saying the same “Welcome” speech 6 or 7 times to a group of eight graders and still maintaining my charming personality!

Bravo, Lansing teachers! Day one is over and I am inspired by you. We have a wonderful community of supportive, passionate, inspiring teachers here in Lansing. #LansingComeUp!

School Year Goals

One of the best parts of working in the education field is the opportunity to start fresh each school year. Similar to how lots of people set New Year’s Resolutions on January 1st, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what my goals for this school year are.

Rather than come up with a list of three or four “things” I want to implement in schools or projects to complete, I have decided to focus instead on something that is both small and large. Last year, I heard George Couros speak at ISTE, and one of things he said really stuck out to me: “What if every teacher tweeted one thing a day they did in their classroom […] and took five minutes a day to read each other’s tweets? What impact would that have on school culture?” You can read more about Building Culture from George here. 

Today’s educational environment – in Michigan especially – is challenging and demoralizing. Threatened with closure, almost 100 schools throughout the state are waiting to learn their fate. The state’s largest public school district (Detroit Public Schools) have students and teachers in buildings with mold growing on the walls, floors, and ceilings. It’s a mess, and it can be really hard to stay positive and work throughout the school year to continually try to innovate and come up with ways to engage students. It is challenging when you’re in the thick of it, to remember all those little moments that get buried in the daily minutiae of teaching.

So, this year, my goal is to tweet out one thing each day that I did or saw in my classroom observation. As the Technology Integrationist for the entire district – all 25 schools – I am sure I will have a lot of things to share! I’m going to share to the hashtag #LansingComeUp. As part of the mission to bring positivity and hope to this area, students brainstormed this hashtag as a way to show people that great things are happening in our schools and we are coming up. I invite you to join me; let’s make this year the best one yet!

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?