Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Innovative Practices: Changing Minds vs. Creating Cultures

Photo by Richard Shaw
This has been an excellent month for learning.  As usual, with great learning experiences come deeper questions and challenges.  I was lucky enough to work with An Estuary's Summer Institute, which included a group of teachers from all over the country.  This was a talented group of teachers that are dedicated to developing themselves, their staff,  and the teaching profession.

One of the questions that kept arising in our session was how to get other teachers and staff members to "buy into" new and innovative teaching practices.  It can be a scary place for teachers when they feel like they are all alone in their school, trying new practices, and being the odd man out.

My experience has shown me that it is more powerful to create a culture of innovation rather than changing people's practices.  What I mean is that when you are in an environment where teachers are not expected to be innovative, it usually doesn't work to tell them they need to change.  No one likes to hear this, especially if they feel successful in their current practice.  

So why not create something new, a culture that doesn't already exist, and then invite others to participate?  How can you harness the power of connections and relationships to create real change? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Make Suggestions Solution Oriented 

Even though you have some new tool or idea that you think is great, trying to get all the teachers on your floor to adapt it without reason might be a hard sell.  I never suggest anything to our teachers unless it offers a solution to a problem they are having.  I listen to what teachers want, then I help them find the tool that works for that task.  The conversation usually looks like this: You wish you could get quick quiz results?  Oh, have you tried these apps? No? They are awesome-want me to show you how I used them?

When teachers are able to see how something applies to them, impacts their students, or offers a solution, they are much more likely to try something new.  The key here is that you need to build a community in which teachers talk, listen, and problem solve together.

2. Tap into Strengths

Just like our students, each teacher brings something unique and special to their instruction. I know teachers that lecture all day long, but have the most incredible relationships with students.  How can we tap into those strengths and build a stronger culture of innovation?  

One powerful way you can help involve teachers is inviting them to add their strengths to your lessons. Ask them to co-teach or help with a lesson where they can bring these qualities elements.  Not only is this an amazing professional growth experience, the kids love when you disrupt the normal flow with "guests" in the room to add new flair.  Personally, my closest colleagues have been those I have taught alongside. 

3. Shut-Up and Smile  

Whenever something new is created there are skeptics.  That is normal, natural, and (for me) motivating. If someone isn't on board, just shut-up and smile.  Most likely you will not change their mind in one conversation.  Your efforts will be better spent being an example to your school community, taking your own risks, sharing your experiences, and always leaving the door open for the skeptics. 

If we want to create this culture, we have to model it.  Be purposeful in your practice.  If you lead by example and model innovation, your students will be the spokespeople for the work that happens in your class.  Other teachers will begin to seek you out because they want to be a part of this new culture. You won't have to recruit if you invite them to join you on their own terms.  

At the end of the day...

Teachers want to grow and are inherently drawn to reflection and self-improvement. Similarly, they are usually discouraged when others try to implement changes, as our teaching practices are a personal part of who we are as professionals.  Making space for teachers to dive into something new is much more rewarding than trying to get them to change what they already know. 

How are you working to make innovation the expectation, rather than the exception? What do you do to encourage, support, reflect, and build this culture together?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Teacher Brand: Breaking Down the Traditional Perception

(Photo by Richard Shaw)

How many time have you been in either a personal or professional situation in which someone asked you what you do for a living?  As educators, how many of us have become used to answering, "Oh, I'm just a teacher..."  For the last couple of years, this has been my default answer, as if being a teacher was somehow beneath whatever it was that everyone else in the room was doing on a daily basis.

I think, for me, I always felt like I wasn't really part of the adult professional world.  I interact with kids all day long, and very rarely do I get to play with the "big kids" at business or corporate events.  I also fell into the trap of having to justify what I do over the summer when everyone else is working, or explaining how my schedule was not really 8-3pm, although it does appear that way on paper.

The feelings teachers have about themselves became really clear to me during my first week of work with the Digital Harbor Foundation. The foundation took us all to our first ISTE in 2012, and they surprised us with MacBook Airs when we arrived in San Diego. The video below shows the surprise in action. 

If you pay close attention in the video, you will probably notice something striking about this event. Every single teacher in the room is excited, clapping and laughing.  But every single one of us are holding and staring at our new business cards.  Not a single person picks up their computer until they have unpacked these cards.  At the end, one fellow even states, "It's like I'm a real person." This small card did more to empower us than any piece of technology could have ever done.

To many of us educators, we rarely get the chance to feel like professionals.  Yet, the work we do, our experiences, and our opinions are vitally important.  This was brought to the front of my mind again this past weekend as I attended the Education Technology Innovation Summit in New York City.  I was one of (approximately) five teachers in attendance at this event. This seemed so strange to me because without teachers and students, educational technology can't really exist.

I found myself having to respond to the question, "So, what is your business?" or "What's your product?"  There was also a lot of explaining around the fact that I was not leaving the classroom to join a start-up or create an EdTech app.  Some people, at first, were not completely sure why I was even in attendance.

But at this event, I was not just a teacher.  I was my own brand.  Educator, Technology Leader, Mentor Teacher.  What I do each day in my school moves far beyond the scope of just teaching, and I was able to clearly articulate that to the people that are creating, developing, and selling products and ideas in the EdTech world.

I came away from this experience realizing that we as teachers hold so much influence and power. People want our perspective and our advice.  They need our experience.  This is not limited to EdTech businesses, but also the leverage we have to influence change within our own schools and districts. While we can wait around and hope whatever it is we want to fall into our laps, the alternative is to go out and make change happen.  We, as educators, have the power to make this happen.  If we are direct, dedicated, and brand ourselves in smart and powerful ways, people will be knocking down our doors for our expertise. It starts with the confidence to believe that what we do each day is important for everyone else to understand, and then we explain it to them.

So, I challenge teachers to dig deeper next time you are tempted to respond that you are just a teacher. Reevaluate how you present your professional self and people might start to reimagine what exactly the profession of teaching is all about.

Friday, July 19, 2013


Photo by Margaret Roth

This summer, I decided to allow myself to indulge in passion.  Maybe I am the only one (though I doubt it), but sometimes I let my work and responsibilities take over my life, and those things I love to do get pushed to the side.  Truthfully, it got to a point that I actually forgot what I was passionate about. I was losing pieces of myself and I had to make a change.

Part of this realization came from researching and planning to implement 20% time, or Genius Hour, in our curriculum next year.  I began to think about what I love. What would I create for a Genius Project? I had no idea; I could not think of one project I would create.  How could I possibly lead my students through this process if I couldn't identify my own passions?

This got me thinking about the Golden Circle.  Simon Sinek describes this concept in his "How great leaders inspire action" talk:

Sinek breaks it down to explain the three parts of the Golden Circle: What (results), How (process), and Why (purpose). He explains that people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  To me, this is the difference between a powerful and effective teacher, and a teacher that just teaches.  If my students understand the purpose, and more importantly, their own purpose, we can accomplish anything.

So, that has brought me to this question: Why?  What is my purpose?  Sinek captures the power of knowing how to answer this question by saying that if you don't know why you do something, how will you ever gain the loyalty of others?  How can I lead my students without doing some very deep soul searching to discover my "why."

I am not ready to answer that question yet.  I need more time to organize my thoughts and beliefs before they will be ready to publish.  But I have done a few things each day that have ignited passion and pleasure back into my life:

1. Music: I had not allowed myself to become lost in music for some time.  I didn't even realize how long it had been since I had really listened to and enjoyed music. I basically haven't turned it off since making this observation about my life.  And, in my opinion, I am so much more creative and fulfilled when the songs are blasting. (You can see what I listen to while blogging by following the hashtag #bloggingjams).

2. Dancing: Ok, so I am not a dancer, nor am I any good at dancing.  But I love dancing!  Up until this point, I have felt pretty comfortable dancing out with friends or at weddings, but I didn't usually just dance to dance.  With my rediscovery of music, I am also committed to dancing at least once a day.  It is now how I spend my breaks from working.  It is exhilarating.  (You can see an actual video of my dad and me at my wedding-it is pretty silly about a minute and half in...)

It runs in the family
(Photo by Ken Staab)

3. Gardening: My husband and I began seriously gardening this year.  We planted vegetables and wild flowers.  I had no idea that I would love growing our own food, or how much it would bring my husband and I together.  We have spent a lot of time in our (tiny) backyard tending to our harvest.  Watching everything grow and enjoying the fruits of our labor has been incredibly, and unexpectedly, fulfilling.

Why am I doing these things?  What is the purpose of them?  They make me incredibly happy and fill my heart with joy.  Of course, there are many areas of my life that are fulfilling, but that doesn't mean I am passionate about all of those things.  In the end, I want my students to walk away from my class, and their overall education, feeling how I feel when I dance or garden.  I want them to be filled with joy and amazed that they could be learning so much and feeling so good at the same time.  These passions should not exist in silos, but they should seep into all areas of our students' lives, including the classroom.  But even that isn't enough.  We need to move from the passion-drive class to helping our students live a life full of passion.

So, I will continue to strive for a passion-driven life.  Will you?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Philosophical Musings

Photo by Richard Shaw

As I try to get myself connected with teachers and the larger education community through social media and blogging, I have been doing some digital housekeeping. Cleaning up my digital footprint and updating my portfolio. I decided that I should review, and probably rewrite, my educational philosophy that I have posted on my portfolio site.  I wrote this statement of belief during my first year teaching, in graduate school, and in my very early twenties.  Surely my beliefs about teaching and learning have changed drastically enough for me to put all my wisdom into a new philosophy. 

So, I read the statement. Thought about what was written.  Scratched my head. Then I smiled.  It was perfect.

You see, I was under the impression that because I have learned and grown as a teacher and learner that my foundational beliefs had changed, but this is not the case at all.  Almost six years ago I wrote,

The progressive philosophy, popularized by John Dewy in the nineteenth century, focuses on pragmatic, democratic learning and social living skills.  Dewy proposed that education is a living-learning process, which should be fostered through active and interesting learning.  Additionally, the teacher acts as a guide for the learning of problem solving and scientific inquiry, but is never seen as the active authority of students' learning.  Learning is based on student interest, while integrating critical thinking and problem solving involving larger human problems and affairs.  

What I realized is that I didn't need to revise this document, I needed to use it to gauge my success and growth as an educator.  Am I the teacher described above? Do I allow interest, inquiry, and problem solving involving issue that really matter to my students and the world around them?  How many times to I impose my rule and "active authority" over the learning happening in my classroom?

I also started to reflect upon my own interest and passions.  In the past, I have struggled to let my students (and others...) seeing the "real" me, feeling somewhat disconnected and closed off.  I am passionate and driven, and if I cannot let down my guard to show this to my students, how can I ever expect them to learn these qualities from me?

So,  at my core, I strive to encompass and demonstrate the qualities I described in this philosophy.  I also am making the decision to not just incubate and nurture my students' passions this year, but to explore my own passions along with them.  

In reality, I can probably learn more about passion-driven learning from my students than they can learn from me.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Future is Now

Mrs. Shaw's students

Admittedly, it doesn't take much to impress me; I am pretty easily entertained. That being said, last week I had a discussion with some colleagues that was so mind-altering that I am still trying to understanding how I had not realized it before now.

As we continue to build our school's new curriculum, we are engaging in a number of discussions about "resources."  I put this in quotes because resources are no longer simply textbooks and lab materials.  Resources are available all around us, at the click of your mouse, literally at your fingertips. 

When I asked about the decisions made around science textbooks, I was told we decided to get digital subscriptions. Ok, makes sense to me.  Then I was told that it was actually going to be cheaper to get a class set of Chromebooks then it would be to order enough textbooks for all our middle schoolers.  
Mind. Blown.

I had to stop and ask myself why I was so surprised.  This actually makes sense and seems like a complete no brainer.  The Chromebooks are just one tool, though. This is how we will access all the additional materials, whether it be the "textbook" or anything else students could possibly need to learn about various science topics. This obviously expands the knowledge and learning worlds beyond what could be found in one book. It is now more cost effective to get ALL the "resources" than just one textbook.  

The future is now.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Data with a Soul

Photo by Kelly Brady 

"Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change." 

-Brenè Brown

The hardest subject for me in school was math.  I had a private tutor from grade one all the way through college. To this day I get physically nervous when I am forced to do anything more complex than multiplying numbers.  

So, as a teacher, you can imagine how I feel when I am faced with data.  During my first year of teaching, it was literary hard for me to breathe when I was dealing with student data.  And mastery charts, forget it, that was a complete nightmare.  I think and understand the world around me in words and images, so this was always such an area of struggle for me.

Granted, I understand the power of data, especially when it comes to our students.  Data helps us understand what students know and how to teach them...right?  

Of course it does, but I am of the belief that the type of data I have been asked to keep and analyze, standardized test data, is not the best judge of what my students know, or more important, what they are capable of actually learning and creating.

Today, I watched "The Power of Vulnerability," a TED Talk by Brenè Brown.  Actually, I watched it three times.  I was paralyzed listening to her talk, and I got chills thinkings about how her ideas about vulnerability, worthiness, and courage apply to me and my students.

There were three main ideas here that moved me pretty deeply.

1. "Stories are just data with a soul." 
This phrases resonates deeply within me as a writer and lover of literature.  It also applies to the move I am making to document student achievement through portfolios and blogs (stories) rather than tests and data charts.  My students deserve to tell their learning story to the world, to take ownership of this journey, and to be in charge of the process.  They are not numbers on a chart, they are humans with souls.  This is their path to knowledge, let's help them share it!

2. "Connections- it's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives." 
Brown talks about all sorts of emotional conditions that both interfere and guide us to having a meaningful life.  Connections, she argues, are foundational to having courage and a sense of worthiness.  Without connections, we are unable to fully accept love and find a place of belonging.  

Courage, she states, means "to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart."  In guiding my students, this is what I want them to be able to do in their own lives.  To love and be authentic.  To feel worthy and have the courage to share who they are with others.  This can start with sharing their own stories and accomplishments (and struggles).  This cannot happen with A,B,C,D options.  

3. "We perfect, most dangerously, our children."
Brown notes that, in a world obsessed with perfection, we have convinced ourselves that we must also craft "perfect" children.  She states that children are hardwired for struggle, we don't need to iron out their flaws. If we create an environment in which our believe they are worthy of love and belonging, they will shine in times of struggle.  They will have grit and perseverance (or whatever other character buzz-word you want to insert here).

The idea that we can help our students have the courage to be imperfect, while still absolutely believing they are worthy and loved, sounds utopic.  I hope that as an educator I can have the courage to apply some of these profound concepts into my classroom and through my connections with my students. Maybe, it starts with putting away the data tracking and listening to their stories.

How do we build a population of students that believe they are worthy of love and belonging without helping them first embrace vulnerability and imperfection? How can we encourage our students to be courageous through the opportunities we give them to tell their own stories and connect with the world?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Teaching ≠ Learning

(Photo by Richard Shaw)

I love being a teacher.  Surprisingly, though, my favorite thing about being a teacher is not actually teaching. My favorite thing about teaching is the learning.  Teaching and learning are not the same thing.  My most rewarding moments as a teacher come from being involved with the learning process, and sometimes that process has nothing to do with "teaching" anything.

Today I was invited to talk with a number of teachers involved in a summer institute professional development through An Estuary. They spend all week involved in a variety of different sessions held by Margaret Roth and Shelly Blake-Plock.  These teachers learned about topics ranging from Design Thinking and badge development to policy and funding in urban schools.  Today, I sat with them during their "unconference" style last day, in which we discussed a number of self-directed topics that were identified as important to this group.

(Photo from An Estuary
What really struck me was that this was not your typical group of teachers that might expect to find at a technology professional development.  Most people in this group expressed a deep desire to learn more about EdTech because they did not know about teaching with technology.  This was a group eager to learn about a new pedagogy because they deeply recognized they would be replaced and ineffective if they did not embrace a new wave of learning taking place among our students.

I am not sure what Margaret and Shelly "taught" these teachers this week, but I do know what they learned.  And more importantly, I know how they changed, because they shared with the group what they would take away from this experience.  One teacher stood in front of this group and was brought to tears when she shared that she finally felt like people had taken the time to help her learn about all these things she had no idea existed or how to use in the classroom.  She was walking away with a community of other teachers that could help her continue to grow as a professional.

It reminded me of what I strive to achieve with my students.  It has nothing to do with what I teach them.  My students have a capacity to learn one thousand times more than I could ever teach them, so why should I be so pompous as to think I should be the sole distributor of information?  My job is to create an environment in which as much learning as possible can take place, and then support and cultivate my students' drive this desire to learn and grow.

What are you doing to support learning with your students and colleagues?  How can we help the people around us be inspired to learn and grow?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Cultivating a Culture of Thinkers

(Photo by Richard Shaw)

Recently, I have made it a goal to be hyper-metacognitive about my own learning and creatives processes.  In an effort to identify what inspires me and pushes me to be innovative, I have taken time to reflect and analyze not only what I am learning, but all the internal and external factors that form the learning that is taking place...

What? Yes, I am actually doing this.  And it is exhausting.

I have also been spending a lot of time reading about the work Project Zero has done and taking ideas from their research.  It is fascinating work worth looking into if you are interested in innovative and creative thinking.

One specific project, A Culture of Thinking, is explained here:
We define “Cultures of Thinking” (CoT) as places where a group’s collective  as well as individual thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular, day-to-day experience of all group members. Drawing on previous research by Ron Ritchhart (2002), the CoT project focuses teachers’ attention on the eight cultural forces present in every school, classroom, and group learning situation. These forces act as shapers of the group’s cultural dynamic and consist of language, time, environment, opportunities, routines, modeling, interactions, and expectations...However, this work doesn’t happen by teachers merely implementing a defined set of practices; it must be supported by a rich professional culture.
This brought me to an interesting place.  How can I help create a culture of thinkers among our staff?  How can I help inspire them the same way I have been inspired by attending ISTE, engaging in social media, and blogging?  

Amazingly, this all came together while I was at a meeting with my administration this week.  I am so lucky to work with administrators that want to support a rich professional culture (and also trust my crazy ideas).  During this conversation they agreed to let me rework the "Technology Committee" at our school, rethinking its purpose and goals for the coming year.

Thinking about the Culture of Thinkers project, I came up with the Committee for Innovative Teaching, which would take the place of our previous technology committee.  Focusing on three major initiatives, this committee would serve as a safe space for teachers to talke risks and share their innovative classroom practices.  We would no longer being a group of people worrying about technology as devices, but would be engaged in being leaders in innovative practices.

In a world that is transforming rapidly before our eyes, a culture of thinkers, both in adult and student communities, is vital.  How is your school creating a culture of thinkers?  What has worked to inspire innovative teaching and transform practices?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Supporting a Community to Build Stronger Students

(Photo by Ken Staab)

What does it mean to have a strong character?  Is this the same thing as being a good citizen?  I have been pondering this idea recently as my school works to implement a character education program.  We were extremely thorough and thoughtful when researching and deciding what would work best for our students and our school community.  Even though I am pretty skeptical of most character programs, I am excited about the work we will be doing with this program, mainly because it focuses on actual relationships and teaching practices rather than "character qualities."

This caused me to reflect upon my upbringing and analyze how my own character was crafted.  I believe I am a good person (though FAR from perfect), and honestly, this has more to do with my parents and family than with any teacher or school I ever attended.

I am really lucky to have been raised in an incredibly loving and nurturing family.  My father is a natural and life-long coach.  My earliest memories are of him teaching me how to dance, ride a bike, kick a soccer ball, and read.  He coached every team my siblings and I were ever on and continued coaching local football and basketball after we grew out of the leagues.  He became a surrogate father to many young men that still look-up to him as adults. Now that my siblings and I are grown, he works as a fitness coach and teaches classes at a local gym.

My mother was a stay at home mom for most of my childhood and went back to school when I was young to become a nurse.  Watching my mother as a student shaped my understanding and pride of education and learning.  I have vivid memories of sitting at the table with my mom while she studied for her exams, watching as she hosted study groups, and celebrating with her every time she aced a test.  It was a true example of the rewards of dedication and determination.  She went on to become a hospice nurse. Her patience, kindness, and strength made her loved by many families and their loved ones experiencing their final days of life.

My parents worked hard to instill morals and values in us, but their actions were more of a lesson than anything they would ever tell us.  I learned patience, kindness, teamwork, open-mindedness, and love from what my parents did naturally everyday. Additionally, my parents had a huge network of people that supported our family.  Neighbors and friends that were as important to my upbringing as any family member.

My "extended" family (Photo by Ken Staab)

This prompts me to wonder how we can support parents to help build the best children and adults we can.  This is a team effort, and good citizens are not created in a vacuum.  Our students will be blogging as a learning reflection this year, creating a space where they can communicate what they are learning, struggles and successes they encounter, and dreams and ideas they hope to achieve.

What if we encouraged parents to do the same? Our school is lucky to have a strong community of parents, but what if we were able to connect them through blogs?  Holding true to the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, could be build a stronger village by helping parents support one another in this way?  With so much focus on connecting our students, doesn't it make sense to expand this to our parents as well?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Are You Ready to Scrumble?

As teachers, we know taking time to reflect upon both major and minor events in our personal and professional lives is imperative for growth to occur. It has been really enlightening to read the reflections of so many talented educators that attended ISTE this past week. Like so many of my peers, I have spent some time trying to sort out everything I experienced at this conference, both the positive aspects and the "let downs."

A common sentiment I keep hearing is about the sessions offered at ISTE. Many people blogged about how they were disappointed that numerous sessions revolved around apps and devices with little discussion of the intangibles of EdTech. These educators, and myself included, feel a little let down that there were not more formal opportunities to explore issues of teaching rather than purely issues of technology.

Over and over I read about some of the more important experiences teachers gained from ISTE, and they all involved connecting with people and building relationships. The conversations were what people found most enlightening. At #ISTE13 I Found the One Tool That Will Change Education!, a blog post by Amanda C Dykes puts it much more eloquently than I can:
Okay, so we know that educators want, no- they need, more than just sessions about technology. We need to interact, talk, collaborate, and problem solve together. We can do that in the Blogger's Cafe, over coffe or dinner, and even at the Unconference event. But what I am seeing and hearing is that this is not enough. We want this to be a bigger part of the conference events. We want it to be more thoughtful and deliberate.  

I remember thinking throughout the conference that I didn't think I would ever be comfortable standing in front of so many people delivering information about an app or device, or even pedagogical theory. I began to realize that this is not because I am not confident in what I know but that this is not how I best learn information. It is no longer my primary method of instruction in the classroom. Plus, it allows for very little, if any, collaboration with the other people in the room.

How do I learn best? Where do I thrive? I am at my best when I talk, think, laugh, and debate with others. I thrive when I am free to use resources all around me to gain more information as it is relevant to the discussion and meaningful to the problem solving process. For me, innovation comes from the freedom to allow my ideas to flow and change with the ideas of others.

And then it hit me. Scrum Sessions. For those of you that are not as familiar with this brainstorming and problem solving strategy, TechTagert gives an excellent definition:
Scrum is an agile software development model based on multiple small teams working in an intensive and interdependent manner. The term is named for the scrum (or scrummage) formation in rugby, which is used to restart the game after an event that causes a play to stop, such as an infringement. 
Scrum employs real-time decision-making processes based on actual events and information. This requires well-trained and specialized teams capable of self-management, communication and decision-making. The teams in the organization work together while constantly focusing on their common interests.
Now, this is a technique that is meant to happen over a period of time and in a software setting, but what if we took this concept and applied it to an ISTE session (or sessions, depending on the level of involvement and topics involved)?

Just hear me out on this.

Instead of one or two presenter giving information to a large group, small groups work together to discuss, brainstorm, and make action steps for change around an issue or topic for which they deeply care. People with diverse backgrounds and experiences collaborating and challenging each other and the status quo. Within that session we would have the space to write, research, talk, challenge, and solve. Then, at the end, each groups is able to share whatever it is that they come up with during the session.

The purpose would be to have relevant and meaningful conversations. There would be the possibility of finding solutions or at least gaining new perspectives. It would enable deeper topics to be explored while also encouraging collaboration.

Am I crazy, or could this work?