Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Missing the Mark

(Photo shared by Allan MacVicar)

Grading is my least favorite part of teaching. Truthfully, I kind of hate grades altogether. But before I get myself in trouble, let me lay out what is really going on here.

I absolutely love to read my students' work. I get giddy over their projects. I stay up late reading through their blogs and marveling at their individual, unique voices shining through in each post. I find honesty, vulnerability, and truth in what my students produce in my class; I just hate assigning a grade to it.

This got me thinking tonight, as I was grading, what these grades really mean for our students, and the inequalities grades create. It is a intellectual measurement we put on children, based around knowledge and information they should know. Sometimes, it is tied to what they should produce. "By the end of grade 7, students will be able to..." 

What if this was the same for physical development? A certain height, weight, body frame, all predetermined based on one's age. I, for one, would have failed every single grade after elementary school. This is not an exact apples to apples comparisons, but I am hoping you are getting where I am going here.

I have engaged in a number of chats and conversations in the last week with a focus around making learning personal. This hits home for me as I work to nurture my students in their own, self-directed learning. They are all so different, in every single way. How can I possibly expect them to all line up at the end of the year and pan-out the same? This seems fundamentally unfair, dishonest, and just poor practice to try and mold them and stretch them to all be the same. 

As I continually reflect upon what my students learn and produce, I am reminded daily how powerful their own personal learning stories are, how much they can tell us if we just ask them to explain. We learn about their fears, struggles, passions, and strengths. We can see how they learn, not just what they have retained. Our students are fostering these stories through blogs and portfolios, hosted on student-created websites. 

My analogy? Their sites are their learning homes. They take pride in their home, build it up over time, make it their own. Each home tells a special story of the people that live there, their history, their dreams. These homes are a safe place to explore unknown spaces and reflect upon where we have traveled so far. 

So here I am grading papers when there are voices to be heard and shared... 

In this space, I will try to validate the journey of each of my students by knowing and nurturing each one of their learning stories. With each I will listen carefully, care deeply, and share widely. I will acknowledge I but a small part of this story, yet the role I play is hugely important.

If we really value our students and their voices, how are we helping them tell their story? Where are they housing their voices? Are they heard? How do we validate and help grow our kids on their own path and not the predetermined one marked by someone that has never seen their faces or looked into their eyes? 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Week at Warped Speed

(Photo by Richard Shaw)
The last week has swept me up and carried me along at warped speed. It was full of travel, conversations, connections, some disappointments, and lots of smiles. It only seems appropriate to now take some time for reflection.

Last Friday, I left Maryland before sunrise to travel to the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. My colleagues and I were welcomes openingly into their school to observe the unique learning environment and practices students and teacher engage in daily. SLA is amazing example of student-driven, Project-Based Learning. We spent the day visiting classrooms, talking with students and teachers, and engaging in the very natural learning that takes place here.

Sitting down with Chris Lehmann was one of the highlights of this trip. If you have never spent time in Chris' openoffice, it is hard to explain the experience fully. Chris addresses every single student that passes his office (the doors are open on both sides to allow full access for everyone). He says hello, compliments, and encourages everyone. His love for people was felt when we talked with students and teachers alike. To quote one, "Working for Chris is the best thing that could ever happen to anyone." It takes an amazing leader to make individuals feels so special, yet at the same time build such a strong, collaborative community.

After our visit, my colleague and I continued up the coast to New Jersey. Here, we attended #Edscape, hosted by Eric Sheninger and New Milford High School. Not only did we attend amazing sessions, we had the privilege of hearing George Couros speak as the keynote. On top of that, I met up with a many people I had connected with previously and made some new friends. The learning, the connections, the heart and soul of the event, it was all so much more than I expected. I left for home feeling so incredibly grateful for the learning and conversations I was able to have with some of the most visionary people in education. 

I traveled back to Maryland and the week carried me along, but I was brought back to conversation that I had with George over the summer at ISTE. He asked me what I would change after listening to a speaker. I am often brought back to this question when reflecting upon experiences. I have engaged with some of the most important, forward-thinking visionaries in education. What have I learned? What did I take away? What will change?

The change for me, this time, is not to make any big changes. As I visited SLA and talked to so many different educators, I realized I am on the right track. I saw so many of own practices and my students' habits in the students and classrooms at SLA. I offered my own connected educator experience and shared the story of our school at Edscape. I showed others how we design our own curriculum, offer our students amazingly relevant learning experiences, and bragged all about our kids and teachers. 

I realized, for the first time, that it is time to just give these new practices a chance to become natural. I was encouraged and supported. The change for me is to not add anything new. The change becomes perfecting the craft of implementing everything that is currently new. My change, will be to not change everything, but to sit comfortably in the new that already exists, looking to how we can now improve and get better in this current space.

In an age when change and evolution of culture is happening so quickly, when do we stop and narrow our focus? How do we balance change and relevance with the chance to practice and do something well? As teachers, is there a space where both these thing exist? In trying to navigate this slippery slope, we must always ask what is best for our students, reflect upon the decisions and progress we have made, and always keep our eye on our goals.

As I reflect on these experiences, I will be mindful of what is happening now with my teaching and my students. We will change and grow as the world around us evolves, but we do this with purpose, never comprising the practices we have made current commitments to. 

We will be thoughtful in what we currently practice, ensuring that we are not locking into everything new, passing idea. We will focus on the important learning and growth taking place currently, always being open to the change that is best for us. When the time is right we will embrace that change. Right now, we sit mindful in our current learning space.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Power of Autonomy

(Photo by John Hendrixson)

Releasing control can be hardest thing in the world. As a teacher, I want to plan, prep, prepare, and ensure that everything is perfectly in place to make certain my classes run smoothly and my students are successful.  Calm, productive, engaged, that is what we all want for our students, right?

In the past few years, I have embraced a different approach to teaching. It can still be calm, we are productive, and students are engaged in learning.  Although, most of the time, it is a little messy.  We make noise and we make a mess. We talk, think, chart ideas, argue, debate, draft, dispose, and create. My students are able to explore the process of learning and discovery, mostly without my help. I am available to provide guidance and direction, but mostly I just support them, encouraging them to feel confident enough to push their thinking and challenge one another to be better.

This happens with autonomy, allowing students to explore without tight restrictions. With autonomy and control over their learning process, students are empowered to learn like real people, in the real world, learning about real things that matter. This is where passion is born.

This past week, I learned how powerful this notion of autonomy is for adults, not just my students. We brought this approach to our professional development with our first FedEx Day. Teachers and staff could work on a project completely of their own choosing, the only two rules being it had to benefit students and they had to deliver something at the end of the day.

I have never seen our staff so excited during a professional development. They loved having autonomy, were empowered by making their own choices and managing their own time, and inspired by what others were doing. We collaborated and created.  Then we shared. What more could you hope for from a smart and dedicated teaching staff?

(FedEx Day comments from staff, board members, and parents)

Like my students, our staff exceeded my expectations. They took full advantage of this time to work on new projects, develop and build new things, and design opportunities for our students. No one told them what to create, which allowed teachers to focus on something they were invested in and passionate. Most worked on something that had been rattling around in their brain for a while and just never had time or space to make a reality.

In reflecting upon this experience, and the joys and struggles of providing autonomy to my students, I have realized that it takes a level of courage to say, "I trust that your ideas are better suited for you than my plan for you. I trust you to take charge. I trust you to be great." I think this is why people love to engage in self-directed learning. They are suddenly valued, their ideas and plans trusted, their products validated. 

So what did I learn? Our schools must provide teachers the time and space to collaborate and inspire one another. If you do not have a staff that is able to be explode when giving autonomy, you need to reevaluate your hiring process and the people you are trusting with our kids. I learned that when given the chance to inspire one another to be great, our staff will work their butts off to ensure everyone is successful, supported, and encouraged in their own creative process.

I learned there is a paradox at work here. When given autonomy, we build community.

What are you expecting from your students and staff? Are you giving them the space to be amazing? Or do you control and direct their creativity and productivity, only to find the results are lackluster? Even bigger, are you brave enough to relinquish your own expectations and allow the people around you to release their talents? How are you empowering the people around you, students and adults alike, to inspire one another without restrictions?

In a world that is unpredictable and ever-changing, we grasp to shreds of our lives that can be molded and controlled. It is human nature and it makes us feel safe. In a world that is unpredictable, though, we must walk the road together, being willing to push one another to grow and change. Let's take a moment to explore what is unscripted and beautiful about our ideas. Let's get messy. Let's have the courage to trust the greatness in each one us. Let's create something wonderful together!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Self-Management #SAVMP

(Image Shared by Entertainment World)

I am notorious for taking on too much. I say yes too easily. My schedule becomes full without me even realizing it is happening. Part of  the problem is that I view everything I am excited about as a priority, so I make time for new commitments. I am a big picture thinker, and sometimes I forget to think about the details involved when I agree to be part of exciting new initiatives. The other part of the problem is I am willing sacrifice my personal time and passions to accommodate my professional responsibilities.

Not smart.

A large part of being a successful educator is learning how to effectively manage your time. It means knowing how to utilize time in school and time outside of school. It is a delicate balancing act, one which I usually find myself teetering over one edge or the other. This year, especially, has been one of great personal sacrifice. As things were added to my plate, the items pushed to the edges were the things I held most sacred, my relationships and my passions.

Again, dangerous territory.

I recognize that when you dedicate all of your time to your professional life, you lose perspective. For me, I become disenchanted and lose patience. This is the breeding ground for burnout. This is where people begin to give up. Or, worse, just become a negative presence.

So, how do we manage it all?

I recently (...yesterday) asked this exact question to my assistant principal. She is, hands-down, the most organized and productive person I have ever met. I admire her ability to categorize and conquer all tasks, and she does everything with impressive completion. I have never once seen her do anything remotely resembling the wasting of time, energy, or resources, and her outcomes are a testament to this. She is my time-management role model.

Her advice? Ditch the To Do list. Assign dates and times to every task that is a priority. Put them immediately on the calendar and then complete them when their time arises. Until then, don't stress about any one task. I am assuming this is not isolated to professional priorities, but personal as well. The focus should be on completing tasks and productivity with certain time frames. If there is no more time on the calendar, you either need to say no, or replace something that already exists.

Pretty smart, huh?

Going forward, I am also reminded to "Be Gentle With Myself." I will strive to achieve some semblance of balance is all areas of my life.  When I manage my time well, I can then manage myself better. I will not forget that my students suffer when I am not at my best, and that is not acceptable. I will prioritize for my healthiness and our happiness.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Shared Vision

(Photo by William M. Ferrirter)

Recently, I have made some new friends. They are a lot like me but much smarter and way more talented than me. They know how to do really cool stuff and have skills I do not possess. We hang out and share our ideas. They inspire me and make me feel valued. They help me work out tough decisions and push my thinking so I can be better at teaching, and really, better at life.

Most of these people I have never met in real life. We live in different time zones, different countries, different continents. Yet I know them and their dreams, thier hopes, and what they love. They have shared their words, voices, and hopes with me, and encouraged me to do the same with them. After hanging out, I am left grinning because I know my heart has found partners in learning. We have a shared vision.

This is more than being a connected educator. This is about being a friend, an advocate, a coach, a teacher. With a shared vision comes common ground, caring hearts, and the expectation of greatness. These are the people that help raise the bar for who I am as a teacher, a leader, and a friend. They drive me to do better for my students and for myself. They do this by believing in me and waiting for me to share my experiences.

In a world where we compartmentalize and categorize, I encourage you to break the barriers and demolish the walls. Reach out and get to know people. Make connections, then nurture them because they mean something. Caring does not last one month. Connections are not contained to conferences. Inspiration should be ongoing, not momentary. Relationships that happen in isolation of your real life are, in fact, fake.

Who are you sharing your vision with? How are you respecting and cultivating lasting relationships with people that will understand, support, and challenge your ideas. How can we first connect- but then travel the distance with our like-minded friends?

I will commit to share my vision honestly with those that share my common space, finding those that want to journey the same road as me. I will hold tight to the people that search out my heart, meet my students, and push my ideas into greatness. I will help build these connections into a culture of sharing and learning. Let us work to craft this culture of connected people into a family.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


(Photo Shared by Mzacha)

nothing goes as planned.
Even when you cross all the T's and dot all the I's.

Some days,
you think too fast and speak too soon.
Even when you try to catch the words,
it is too late to pull them back.

Some moments,
you just cannot find the right space to stand.
The the noise and the mess and the time and the walls run together and nothing feels right.

Some hours,
the hands stand still and speed-on at the same time.
Even when you think and stare and blink you cannot make it stop,
or go,
or make sense.

the way you act in the moment is not who you really are.
Even when it happens twice and you already apologized.

Some days
are just meant to end.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Inspiring Greatness #SAVMP

(Photo by Richard Shaw)

This week I had the absolute pleasure of spending time with my little brother. He is 20 years-old and absolutely brilliant. He is also at his second college in two years and amazingly uninspired. He recounted his college experience to me as boring, completely scripted and guided, and leaving him without any chance or opportunity to think critically. He's an English major and feels like everything he is asked to know or do in class he could teach to himself using the Internet and common sense.

This is a tragic story of a bright mind being snuffed out and crushed down by education. I just keep asking myself how this is even possible. Why do students, at all levels if education, consistently feel voiceless and disengaged?

Immediately after this conversation with my brother, I participated in a Google Hangout organized by Jimmy Casas. Everyone that participated was connected through our involvement in the School Admin Virtual Mentor Program. Together, we discussed our own leadership goals and strengths, and visions for our students and schools. I walked away with my heart completely filled with joy and inspired to reflect on how I could push myself to be a better leader in every aspect of my professional life. I felt like I had struck gold by just being allowed to causally engage with some of these great leaders in educations.

My interactions with the #SAVMP participants have left me with a unique feeling of inspiration. It is the same feeling I get from connecting with talented educators. The feeling that I can push myself to be better because others have shared their own struggles and successes. It was a conversation with George Couros that dug me out of a blogging hiatus and helped springboard me into being a connected educator. When I think about the resources and conversations on twitter, the blog posts, the community of learners and leaders, I keep wondering how is it possible that there are so many visionaries and forward-thinking leaders in the world, yet my own brother is left questioning the role and purpose of education in his own life?

In light of the juxtaposition of these experiences, one heart-breaking and one heart-filling, I am forced to reflect on how I will inspire greatness in the people around me. How can I help others be brave enough to share their unique strengths? In and outside of my school community, how do I help others genuinely believe in, and act upon, their own greatness?

I want to inspire everyone around me to be great. With my students, staff, friends, and family, I will strive to know what they love and help encourage and foster that passion. I will be honest and reflective in a role, always willing to look at how I can be a better motivator. I will work towards finding my own sources of inspiration, thus modeling the drive and motivation that comes from letting yourself become fully immersed in what you love. I will help others be great.