Doing a project, or project-based learning

I’ve been reading a book called Project-Based Learning: Real Questions. Real Answers. How to Unpack PBL and Inquiry by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, and I find myself reflecting on my past as an educator. As a science teacher for most of my career, I had a lot of opportunities for project work to happen in my classroom. But here’s the thing, I’m not sure that I was always achieving the full potential impact of project work. And I think the difference lies in whether we are “Doing a project” or if we are engaged in “Project-based learning.” I’d love to dig into those ideas a little bit more.

Doing a project

When I taught sixth-grade science, a section of the standards we covered each year was related to space science. One standard was something about gaining an understanding of the planets and objects in our solar system. It seemed like a great opportunity for a project. So, I opened a word document to start writing some directions. I pulled together resources (checked out books from the library, found some websites to share, and collected some videos on our solar system). I decided that the best format would be a poster. When I finished my directions, it was about a page long. The only choice that a student got to make in the project was what planet/object they wanted to learn about.

While we were working on the project, I provided class in time to do research. I provided supplies for students to make their posters. I met with students regularly on their projects to make sure that they were on the right track (most of these meetings were about whether or not they were following the directions). At the end of the project, I collected the posters, and as I went through them, I noticed a few things.

Every one had the name of their planet/object centered at the top of the poster. Everyone had one of the same two dozen pictures that I had printed out for them to use. Everyone had the same types of facts (size, mass, distance from the sun, length of the day, length of a year, etc.).

Now, there is nothing wrong with this project. Students learned about their planet/object. Students created something that they were proud of. Students were excited to have them displayed around the classroom as well as in the hallway outside of our classroom.

But what they did, I don’t know that I can call it true project learning. I had the privilege of meeting Chris Lehmann when I was at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia. Something that I’ve heard him say is:

Think about it. Websites like Serious Eats or Bon Appétit post some amazing recipes. Many of those recipes have been developed by professional chefs working in professional kitchens, and then they are tested by others in their home kitchens so that the recipe can be adapted so that I, as a home cook, can make J. Kenji López-Alt’s All American Meatloaf recipe in my house and end up with a result that looks (and hopefully tastes) like the version that Kenji made himself (by the way, this is seriously one of my family’s favorite recipes that I make, and is worth every second of the time it takes to make).

So, what’s the point? What does recipe testing have to do with project work? Well, recipes are developed so that anyone who makes them can make a version that they can be proud of. But if you are great at following recipes, I’m not sure that you can call yourself a chef (yet). Similarly, doing a project is more likely about following directions, especially if a category of your rubric is based on following directions! Often, doing a project has more to do with following directions than learning.

Project-Based Learning

So, let’s think about how Project-Based Learning might be a little different than simply doing a project. Here’s an example from when I was teaching social studies.

One year I was part of a team of sixth-grade teachers. Within that team of teachers, my role was to teach all our students in science while the other teachers would teach our students other subjects. Then each one of us would teach social studies to our homeroom class. One of the years I was teaching social studies, my students got into doing “extra” research on the topics we were learning about. As we were approaching our unit on the Roman Empire, I wanted to lean into that interest that they had. Instead of teaching that unit in the typical format that was suggested by our curriculum guide or our scope and sequence, I decided to create a project. But this was when I was several years deeper into my teaching career. I had learned from some of the issues of “doing a project” that I had learned as described above.

For this project, instead of creating a word document that was full of directions, pulling together a bunch of resources, and then expecting a similar outcome, I decided to go very much minimal. I wanted to see what my kids would come up with. I decided that I was going to create the conditions for students to dig into the things they were most interested in about the Roman Empire. And my students did not disappoint! So, here’s what we did:

At the time, there was a single standard that said something along the lines of “understand the rise, fall, and cultural achievements of ancient civilizations in Europe and Mesoamerica.” Then it listed several examples including the Roman Empire.

On the day we started the project, I had no directions sheet. I had not pulled together any resources. I put the standard on the board, and as a class, we dissected what it meant. We talked about what it meant for an Empire to rise and fall. I had students share what they thought the phrase cultural achievements meant. I let them make conjectures based on current cultural achievements. Students brought up music, art, clothing, design, architecture, and so much more.

Next, we talked about resources we might be able to use to learn about some of these things. Students brought up our textbook, the library, digital encyclopedias, and the web, among other options.

The next day, I gave students time in class to learn. I had gone to the library and checked out everything I could on Ancient Rome. I checked out the iPad cart (does anybody else remember those) and put a handful of quality resources on my class website (this was before having an LMS like Canvas for a middle school class). But I also told them that if they had other ideas of places they might look for information, they certainly could use it. I told them that by the end of our third day, they needed to select a topic they wanted to learn more about and share with the class.

The next few days in class were a blur of research and work time. When students were struggling to find what they needed, I would sit down with them, but they also worked collaboratively at times. My role was that of a guide, not the all-knowing sage. They became aware of others learning about similar topics and they shared resources. On Monday of our second week of the project, we came back together for a brief share of what they found most interesting about our topic, and then we started talking about ways they could share what they knew. Some students wanted to make a poster, a few wanted to create a PowerPoint, one student who was studying architecture wanted to build a model, yet another student said she was going to design and sew a Roman outfit. We set a target due date of Friday for students to share what they had learned.

That week, our classroom converted to a working space every day in social studies. We had kids designing, building, sewing, and more! They spent time developing and then practicing their presentation. The learning was electric! A couple of times I needed to pull the class together to go over a few important details where I noticed some misconceptions. When Friday came, it was sharing day. The kids were so excited to share what they had learned. We invited our principal and assistant principal, our librarian, and anyone else who wanted to come for a visit that day. We had food, we had a fashion show of Roman clothing, we had a student who built a miniature working Roman aqueduct. This is a project that will stick with me forever!

Pulling it together

What I want to point out about the difference between the Space Science project on planets, and the Ancient Rome project was in how the learning happened. In the space science unit, learning happened prior to the project. We tacked a couple of days onto the end of the unit for students to put together a poster of things they had already learned. All the resources and materials were provided by me, and the results were identical. But in our Ancient Rome project, the work we did for the project was where our learning occurred.

One of the things that I figured out by the time I led my students through our Roman project is that some of the best learning experiences take place in integrated learning experiences that are fun and authentic! And even more important than that, I’d argue that the overall learning that happened for students during this project went far deeper than what the standard asked for.

Next week, I plan to look at how we might go about planning a great PBL experience for your class. I also hope to share some of the mistakes that I think I made in some of my earlier PBL experiences (hint: assessment! It can be hard in PBL settings!)

I’d love to know more about your thoughts. Have you ever noticed a difference between doing a project and engaging in project-based learning? Is there something that you’re still wondering about? Let me know! This is a topic I’m going to be digging into in the coming weeks, and your questions may help guide my direction.

Are we a teaching organization, or a learning organization?

Recently I’ve been thinking about a statement I heard once – I honestly can’t remember who I heard it from first, but I think I recall versions of the quote from Dave Burgess, another version from Matt Miller, and yet another version from George Couros (all are some of my favorite authors in the educational space). The quote basically says that teachers who have a 25-year career need to avoid teaching 1 year 25 times.

Let’s unpack that a bit – the gist of what they are saying here is that as teachers, our students change from year to year. Their needs change from year to year. The world changes from year to year. A teacher who teaches 1 year 25 times is someone who has their “January” binder or folder that they pull out every year and it has all the activities for the month of January pre-created. In environments like this, the focus is on the teaching – often it’s about “what is easier for the adults in the building?” The problem is that it may not be what’s best for our students.

Instead, what these authors say we should strive for is to teach each year one time. We adapt our lessons and curriculum to meet the needs of our students, to meet the needs of our community, and to meet the needs of what’s happening in the world right now. And to me, that’s the beauty of the Professional Learning Community! Your PLC team is there to support one another in identifying needs, doing some research on how to meet those needs, and then testing it out.

As I think I have shared before, I’ve been reading the book Professional Learning at Work this school year. I finished it over winter break, and it has me thinking about what it takes to be a school that is focused on learning rather than just on teaching.

Let’s take a moment to define the differences – in a teaching organization, we might have our list of standards and skills or lessons from the textbook, and we say “I have to get through all of this!” It’s almost like we create a checklist for learning. Once I get through item number 1, I move on to number 2, and so on down the list. Can you see a problem with this? I don’t think students can be thought of like items we’re producing. A checklist will not meet the need of every learner in a classroom. Learning is not about developing a lesson design, implementing the steps, and ending at a finished product. I think we all know that students don’t work that way. Learning rarely happens as a straight line – instead, it’s often made up of a bunch of squiggly twists and turns.

On the other hand, a learning organization is all about looking at learning as a process of perpetual renewal – for us as teachers and faculty, for our students, for our community. We get there by focusing on the emotions that have brought us to the career path of teaching, and the emotions that keep us coming back each day (no matter how good or bad yesterday may have been). Ultimately a learning organization is a place where the community is passionate, driven, and in a continuous process of growth.

In a previous blog post, I wrote all about “My Why” – the things that motivate me to do what I do (You can see that post here: Starting with why). I encourage all of us to do a little self-assessment – where are you now? Do you trend towards the teaching mindset? Or do you trend towards the learning mindset? Are you comfortable with where you are? Is what you are doing helping your students to learn and grow?

If you feel completely comfortable with your answers, good for you (To be honest, I’m not sure I can say that I am 100% comfortable with my answers). But if your reflection leads you to feel like you have some growing to do, then go with that. Reassess what you can do to improve. My goal is to help lead a school that is a true learning organization. I see our process as one of continual growth and renewal, and I’m always thinking about how I can help in that process. We will never get to a point where everything is perfect! Even when we meet our initial goals, that creates a place where we can set a new goal. 

What are you working on? What growth do you seek? Share with us in the comments below!

What does the research say?

A couple weeks ago I wrote about John Hattie’s work developing a ranking system that rated the effectiveness of a variety of influences on student learning. If you didn’t get a chance to read that post, you can find it here: Research, meta-analysis, and John Hattie. As I shared in that post, sometimes it’s overwhelming to begin looking into educational research for ideas to implement in our classroom. What I love about Hattie’s work is that he does most of the heavy lifting for us. He has combed through nearly 1200 research studies, and has a list of 195 influences that can relate to learning outcomes.

In today’s post I’m going to look at a couple of the most promising influences on learning outcomes. These are the things that we might use to find the answer to the never ending question of “What works best in education?” As a reminder from last week’s post, mileage may vary based on the background and influences in your classroom, but the larger the effect size in Hattie’s meta-analysis, the more likely it is to impact learning for the students in your class, and an average effect size is a 0.40. Anything over a 1.0 would have a huge impact.

  • Teacher Estimates of Achievement (Effect size 1.62): We all naturally make judgements about students. For a long period of time, research has shown that teachers have lower expectations for students from low-income families and black students. In an interesting study out of Brown University, boys and girls who start school with the same types of behavior problems generally end up in very different places down the line. Boys in this group have lower test scores and lower graduation rates. Why does this happen? Boys from this background are not expected to be successful, so they aren’t. I’ve always loved the Henry Ford quote “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”  What if we change that quote slightly – Whether you think they can or think they can’t, you’re right. The research is solid – when we believe that our students can learn and be successful, they are much more likely to live up to it. We’ve all had moments where we think (or say) “That poor kiddo just can’t do it.” Be aware of these thoughts, because they can impact your attitude. Our attitude affects our choices, and our choices have consequences.The reality is that if we believe we can make a difference for these kids, they are more likely to be successful!
  • Collective Teacher Efficacy (Effect size 1.57): This refers to a group of teachers who believe that through working together, they are able to develop students’ abilities. Basically, if you believe in yourself and your own abilities, you are much more likely to be able to help your students to learn and grow. When a teacher has a high level of efficacy, that teacher is likely to have a higher level of effort and persistence, be more willing to try new teaching approaches, set more challenging goals for themselves and their students, and attend more closely to the needs of students who require extra attention.
  • Self-Reported Grades (Effect size 1.33): Another name for this strategy could be student expectations – how prepared do students believe they are t show what they know? Children are generally pretty accurate in predicting how well they will do on a test prior to taking it. As the teacher, you would then find out what those student expectations are, and then pus the student to exceed their expectations (Growth Mindset!). A way to do this would be to ask a kiddo to write down their predicted score on the top of an exam prior to taking the exam.  se that information to engage your students to try to do even better than what they predict!

There are many more influences in Hattie’s meta-analysis, but I wanted to point out these three because they are all more than 3 times the average effect size, they are all relatively easy to implement, and especially in the case of the first 2, they are entirely reliant on our own beliefs about students and learning!  We’ve talked a lot about growth mindset in education – to implement these influences, we need to practice our own growth mindset!

Hattie - Good things follow

What are your thoughts?  Do any of the three influences above strike a chord with you?  What can you do with this information to impact the learning of your students?  In a recent interview, I heard one teacher talking about the importance of starting right now.  Sometimes in education we’re tempted to wait until after a break, or until the end of the semester.  The teacher shared that in her opinion, if you know better, why wouldn’t you want to do better?  Take something from this post, and think carefully about how you could use it for the benefit of your kids, and then… Just do it!  Don’t put it off, dive in!

Growth mindset and the innovator’s mindset

In the past 6 weeks I have been participating in #IMMOOC (Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course). For those of you who aren’t aware of #IMMOOC, the course is centered around the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros. The book focuses on these guiding questions:

  • How do you move from “pockets of innovation” to a “culture of innovation”?
  • How do we start to innovate inside the box?
  • How do we move from “engagement” to “empowerment”?
  • What does innovation mean for education, and should every educator be an innovator?

In the first week I wrote a blog post titled Innovate…why? in which I pointed out my 3 main reasons for innovation in education. One of the items I shared was on the role growth mindset plays in innovation in education. After posting my blog, I got the comment below from George:

Couros Comment

With this comment, I began thinking about the role that growth mindset plays in The Innovator’s Mindset.  Couros defines this mindset as:

the belief that the abilities, intelligences, and talents are developed so that they lead to the creation of new and better ideas.

I believe that all teachers agree that we are looking for ways to help the learning that happens in their classroom be “new and better”.  As I read more and more of The Innovators Mindset, I began making connections between what I read from Couros, and the book Mindset by Carol Dweck.  In this book, Dweck shares a quote from Benjamin Bloom that I feel relates to The Innovator’s Mindset:

After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.

Think about the power of that statement. This is not about the top 1-2 percent – the ones we might call geniuses – being able to learn anything. It’s the belief that with the right circumstances, anyone can learn anything.  What does that fact do for you as a teacher? I know that for me, that drives me to think about what those appropriate conditions are that will lead to the best possible conditions for learning.

I don’t think that the traditional model of school creates those best possible conditions for learning. I think that we as educators reflect on what we can do to learn and grow in ways that will create new and better learning environments for our students. As I think back on the conversations through Twitter, through the guest sessions, and the text of The Innovator’s Mindset, there are a few things that I see as imperatives, and all of them take a growth mindset from us.  Here are 4 of them:

  • Risk Taking: This is not just about getting our students to take risks, it’s about modeling our own risk taking as educators. During our course kick off with Jo Boaler, a statement really resonated with me – “It’s hard to give kids a growth mindset if you don’t have a growth mindset about your own learning.” Statements like “I’m not good at technology” or “Math was never my strong suit” show your students a fixed mindset, and does nothing to encourage their own risk taking. Instead, we might say things like “We’re going to try this and see how it works out.” Even if you fall flat on your face, you modeled for your students a willingness to step outside your own box, which encourages them to do the same.
  • Homework: You better be coming at me with research on this one, because I know some of us in education view homework as a must. As Alice Keeler pointed out, that 10 minute per grade level rule of thumb for homework is totally bunk with no research to support it.  “Some dude just made that up” she says.  The research on homework, especially at the elementary and intermediate grade, shows that the effectiveness is very low. On the other hand, relationships have a very high correlation to learning and growth. What gets in the way of those relationships? One thing is the negative interactions that happen at the start of class when we are discussing homework that wasn’t completed last night. If we take that away, we instantly remove one of the barriers to great relationships with all kids! If you must give homework, assign 20 minutes of free reading time. That reading is correlated with a lot more success than any worksheet! And if the worksheet is so important, shouldn’t you be doing it in class so that the students have appropriate guidance?
  • Grading Practices: For years, there has been a tradition of teach the lesson, hand out the homework, collect it the next day, grade it, put it in the gradebook, and hand it back (that’s what was done to me, and at least for a while, it’s what I did in my classroom). Let’s be honest though – most of those papers we hand back end up in the trash. Kids didn’t value them. Parents often only valued the grade in the gradebook, and how it affected their child’s overall grade. Learning was not the focus, an A-F letter grade was all that mattered. When we put a grade on anything, that signifies an end of learning on that topic. If we want to continue the learning, meaningful feedback is so much more powerful.  And I have to ask, are there times that you don’t pick something up as quickly as a colleague? Maybe some new tech is taking you a while to get used to, maybe you’re trying to figure out how to embed more inquiry into your math, whatever it is, there’s probably somebody who “got it” more quickly than you. Should you be evaluated lower because it takes you longer to make it work in your classroom? I want to applaud those who try something new – even if it takes longer than the teacher next door to them! Students are entitled to the same chance. If the focus of your classroom is on learning, how can we not reteach to those who struggle? How can we not offer a retake to someone who wants to show that they are learning and growing? We need to celebrate that learning, whenever it happens!
  • Flexible Seating: This isn’t just about putting fancy furniture into your classroom and then assigning seats just like you did with desks. True flexible seating is like what happens each time you go to Starbucks to work. I know that sometimes I like the table and chair so that I can spread out. Other times I like the high table so that I can stand while I am typing, or use the stool if I must sit. And every once in a while, that comfy chair in the corner calls may name. How sad would it be if every time I walked into Starbucks, they told me where I had to sit? Kayla Delzer reminded me that “Starbucks is a better learning environment than our classrooms.” A true flexible learning space leads to ownership and choice, which leads to more motivation, which leads to better learning. And here’s the fact – if flexible seating can work in kindergarten classrooms, there’s no way you can’t set the norms for your class to make flexible seating successful! Have kids try out each seating choice, have them reflect on what is their best learning space and why, and then encourage them to choose the spot that works best for them! As you set the norms, remind them that you always have veto power on any poor choices that they make, and then give it a whirl. Why wouldn’t we want our students excited to get to class so that they can pick their just right seat?

OK teachers, how many of you are feeling challenged by some of the things in this post? That’s ok! Are you feeling intrigued to make a shift? Then just do it! Don’t wait for the weekend, don’t wait for Thanksgiving Break, if you believe that a change here could impact learning for your students, then take that leap. Have a growth mindset, but even more, have an innovator’s mindset to try something that will be new and better for your students!

Couros - Best for this learner

Research, meta-analysis, and John Hattie

Marzano on Research

All right, be honest, how many of you have begun to dig into some educational research article, and before you make it all the way through the abstract, you’re feeling a little bit overwhelmed? Trust me, my hand is up too! As educators, we all know the value of research based strategies and skills, of using best practices, and of trying new ideas to meet the needs of our kids. Even with that knowledge, there are times that it is so hard to try to make it through the research.

Add to that another frustration that I sometimes come across when reading research… The fact that they don’t all seem to agree! I can read study A and it says to try one strategy, but study B gives me another option, and before I can make my mind up, someone shares study C with me, and it tells me something totally different. Talk about frustrating!

So imagine my happiness when I started to learn about the idea of a meta-analysis. For those of you that aren’t familiar with that phrase, a meta-analysis will combine data from multiple studies and develop conclusions that have a greater statistical power.

That brings me to the work of John Hattie, the author of Visible Learning. In his work, Hattie developed a system of ranking a variety of influences based on how great an effect they had on student learning. The study was most recently updated in 2015, and includes a list of 195 effects. When you look at the effect sizes, you will see a variety of items with a number score based on the effect size. In Hattie’s work, he identified the average effect size as a 0.40, and uses that as his guide for what works best in education. The things that fall above the 0.40 are considered successful, while things that fall below do not have as meaningful of an effect.

While not every strategy will work for every kid in every situation, the more you rely on the strategies that have higher effect sizes, the more likely you are to provide meaningful learning opportunities for your students.

So I guess all that’s left is to look at the rankings. This link will take you to an interactive visualization of Hattie’s rankings: Hattie Rankings Interactive

Some advice on how to read this visualization:

  • The larger the effect size (in other words the higher the number or larger the bar) the more likely this strategy would be listed in a “What works best in education?” blog post.
  • Several things that we often think of as “go to” reasons for student success and failure (home life and things that happen outside of school) fall pretty low on the list.
  • Many things that are within our control have very large effect sizes.

Hopefully you take some time to analyze the items that appear on this list, think about what it means, and think about how integrating some of these strategies into your teaching (or maybe just your thinking) could have an impact on learning for your students. One of my big takeaways as I analyzed the data that appears here is that we should change the things that are within our control, and ignore the things that we can’t control.  The data here, along with our own common sense of what’s best for kids, tell us that we do have control over the learning that happens in our classroom every day.

What are your thoughts on Hattie’s rankings? Are there any that you feel missed the mark and are too high or too low? What about things that aren’t on the list? Anything that you think needs to be there? Share with us in your thoughts below!

No, really… What are YOU learning?

In last week’s post, I wrote a little about the role that we as teachers play in developing our students.  I suggested that one of our primary goals should be helping to develop a strong disposition of learning for our students.  If you aren’t quite sure what that means, let’s unpack that phrase just a bit…  I found a webpage from the New South Wales (Australia) Department of Education that had a great definition of learning dispositions:

What are learning dispositions-
New South Wales Department of Education: Learning Dispositions: https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/curriculum/learning-for-the-future/futures-learning/learning-and-teaching/learning-dispositions

The page goes on to define the following commonly identified dispositions that are relevant in thinking about future-focused practices.  This list includes: Persistence; Agility and flexibility; Motivation and drive to learn; Metacognition; Problem-solving and questioning.  If you’d like to know more about any of those ideas, follow the link that goes with quote above.  At the end of the short article there are also some great links to go a little deeper, and even some ideas about how you might teach and model these skills.

So… Now that we have a shared understanding of that strong disposition of learning, the follow up question that many might come to is how do we develop those dispositions of learning in our students.  I believe that one of the best ways to teach our students is through our own modeling.  If we want our students to develop these dispositions, we have to first share them, then talk about how we use them, and then show our students the fact that we use them in the moment.

One of the ones that stands out most to me, and ties most closely with my post last week is the motivation and drive to learn.  Part of the reason I started to write this blog was as a way to document my own learning, but I also began blogging as a way to share with you the awesome things I was learning.  Those reasons are probably obvious to you.  But one of the other reasons I started a blog was to model my own learning for each of the teachers and staff in our school.  My hope was that through seeing the steps I was taking to search out and learn about my own curiosities, you might be driven to do the same.  So now, I’m going to ask you to think about the question that I shared last week: What are you learning?

If we believe that our students need to have a disposition for learning, and we can agree that an important piece of that disposition is having a motivation and drive for learning, then the next conclusion is that each one of us has to be a learner too.  What is the most recent educational book you read?  When’s the last time you read a blog about education?  When’s the last time that you searched Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or some other social media site to find ideas for activities that could impact learning in your class?  And even more important than that, when’s the last time you modeled something that you learned for your students?  Or shared with your students the fact that you had learned something new?

We can tell our students until we’re blue in the face that it’s important for them to be self-motivated, that they need to have a drive to learn, but one of the best ways we can show them why it’s important is by showing them that we are taking steps to continue to learn.  Think about the power that would come from opening a lesson with “this is something that I have been learning about” and then going into an interesting, exciting, and engaging lesson.  If the students see you as a learner, that may be a motivator for each kid in your class to think of themselves as a learner!

So here’s my gentle nudge for you to think about – how can you bring your own learning into your classroom?  How can you bring your own passions into your classroom?  Modeling yourself as a passionate and interested learner – about anything – will model for your students the value of being a learner.  And then, if you want to take it to the next level, how can you encourage your students to bring their own learning and passions into your classroom?  Give them a voice and a stage to share what they are learning about so that they can model for each other that disposition of learning!

What do you think?  Can we encourage our students to have stronger dispositions for learning through modeling our own dispositions for learning?  What haven’t I thought of?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

#IMMOOC Week 2 – The networked learner/leader

Recently I wrote a post about my takeaways from the book The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. One of the big takeaways that I had from that book was the fact that the innovations that led to a digital revolution did not happen in several giant leaps. Instead, innovation takes place through little steps that are layered on top of each other. In addition, most of those tiny steps did not occur because of one person. When you think of the iPhone, who do you think of? For me the first name to come to mind is Steve Jobs.  And while he was an important part of the process that made the smartphone a marketable thing for consumers, that idea would never have been possible without the work of so many other innovators in the digital revolution. Names like Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Robert Noyce, Grace Hopper, and Bill Gates (along with many other innovators) all made it possible for the iPhone to be the powerful tool that I carry around in my pocket every day.

Not too long ago, I was at #DitchCon2017, put on by Matt Miller. During his keynote, Matt put a picture of the Twitter logo on the screen and said “This little bird saved my teaching career.”  As educators, we all get into our own little silos and forget that there are lots of other people doing the same work as us.  If we forget to lift our heads up and look around, we may miss someone else’s awesome idea that could make learning for our students new AND better.

I have been on Twitter since January of 2010.  Initially I joined in order to follow athletes, pop-culture icons, politicians, and people of that nature.  One day while I was driving to school, I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR and I heard a story about #Satchat, and I saw a totally new purpose for Twitter (in fact, the first 3 educators that I followed were Brad Currie, Scott Rocco, and Billy Krakower, the co-founders of #Satchat).  Suddenly I realized that Twitter wasn’t just a way to absorb information from pop-culture, instead it was a way for me to learn and grow.

Twitter became my new go to for learning.  I began seeking out ways to leverage hashtags to find ideas that could impact the learning in my classroom.  I participated in Twitter chats and learned from educators who were just as passionate as me.  Sometimes I just lurked and listened, other times I dove in and shared my ideas.

Today, I talk to everyone I know about how we can use Twitter (or Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Voxer, etc.) to learn and grow in our own ways.  Once I started to participate more in Twitter chats, I began to grow followers.  The more followers I had, the more I had to think about what was really valuable information to share with them.  I became very intentional in the types of things I post (not that I’d never post a silly gif or my thoughts on the Cubs or Colts).  This has led me to seek out high quality information to share, and causes me to be constantly reading, learning, and getting better at what I do.

We all would agree that collaboration helps us all grow.  Sometimes it’s great to collaborate with that colleague down the hall, but sometimes it’s awesome to be able to collaborate with someone on the other side of the world.  As Couros says in The Innovator’s Mindset, “Isolation is often the enemy of innovation.”

Going back to my lessons from Isaacson’s The Innovators, the best innovations that we will make as educators are not going to happen in giant leaps and bounds.  They’re going to happen when we continue to layer our own ideas on top of the other innovators that we are learning from, and we can create truly mind-blowing, amazing, awesome learning experiences from our students!  Networking is one of the best ways that I know of that we can do that!

A cool new app (for me)

 

I recently came across a hashtag on Twitter that I found pretty interesting: #PersonalizedPD.  As I was going through some of the tweets with this hashtag, I saw this tweet:

It caught my attention for a couple of different reasons – first there was the #PersonalizedPD idea that I was interested in.  Second, there was some gamification to the learning that was happening which sounds cool and potentially highly motivating.  I decided to send Jeff Mann a reply to the tweet saying that I had a few questions.  Later in the afternoon I got a response from him asking if I was on Voxer.  I had heard of it, but never set up an account, but I really wanted to learn more about the Superheroes of AMCMS.

Twitter is great for learning in a lot of ways, but if you want to be able to have a real conversation with someone, it’s not ideal.  Just like a text chat, you can only type so fast, and you lack the tone of voice that goes with a true conversation.  Plus you’re limited to 140 characters in a tweet.  So, I downloaded Voxer, set up an account, and told Jeff I was in business.

VoxerBasically, Voxer works like a walkie talkie, but also has the ability to send text, photos, and videos within the app.  After setting up my account, I was sitting on my deck while Jeff was driving home from school in Texas, and we had a conversation about the Superheroes of AMCMS.  At the end of the conversation, he asked me to send him my email address, and he was going to email me some additional resources for continued learning.

While this chance encounter was cool, I could see Voxer being used within a school building for a group chat with members of a PLC team, or having the account of your teammate to be able to chat.  I know we’re all comfortable and used to texting, but I noticed that the back and forth that Jeff and I were able to have happened much faster than trying to text back and forth with one another.

Do you have any ideas for additional ways that you could use Voxer within your classroom?  What about with your colleagues?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Childhood trauma

Last weekend I was listening to the most recent episode of the TED Radio Hour, a radio show that is based on a common theme, and then embeds portions of TED Talks, as well as interviews with the people who gave those talks around that central theme.  The episode I was listening was titled “Hardwired” (click here if you’d like to listen to the episode), which was looking at how human behavior is based on both our genetics, as well as our experiences in life.

One of the speakers who is included in this episode is Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician in San Francisco.  After listening to her portion of the radio show, I had to watch her full TED Talk.  In her talk “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime” she talks about the unbelievable impact that trauma can have on childhood brains, as well as the long term health impacts of those who have lived through trauma.

Many of us are tempted to say “that doesn’t happen here.”  I challenged you to watch the TED Talk and think a little more critically about what Harris has to say about trauma.  This does happen here.  There are students who walk into our school every day who have faced adversity that has an impact on their brain development.  Next week, I’ll follow up with a little more of my thoughts on trauma in kids, but I hope you will find the time to watch this excellent TED Talk.

One key to student success

With it being the beginning of the school year, many of us have been spending countless hours getting ready for our students.  We made sure our classrooms look just right, we made sure to pick the perfect activities for our students to get to know each other (and for us to get to know them).  Before the first day I’m sure you were all just as excited as I was thinking about this school year.

One thing that many of us think about during the summer time is how to help our students to be successful.  For those of us in education, that is something that we all want for our students.  I’ve read many philosophies of education, written by lots of great teachers, and all of them say something about helping our students to be successful.  So what needs to happen in order to help our students be successful?

As I was thinking about this question earlier this week, I found myself drawn back to a book that I read a while back – What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know by Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles.  I know I’ve mentioned this book in previous posts – if you haven’t yet, it’s definitely worth the read!

In order to create cognitive growth for our students, they have to be willing to take risks in their own learning.  They have to be willing to try things that they’ve never done.  They have to be willing to fail from time to time.  Failure leads to growth for all of us!

The problem is, failure is scary.  How many of us have not tried something because we were worried we wouldn’t be able to do it?  During my high school years in Bloomington we would hang out at the Indiana University outdoor pool.  If you’ve never been there, one thing you should know is that there are multiple diving boards, including a platform.  I had a couple of friends who were divers, and they made it look so easy to go off the 3-meter springboard, or any one of the platforms.  I on the other hand, while being a strong swimmer, was scared to death to jump off that top platform.  Multiple trips to the pool, and many times watching others go for it, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Finally one of my buddies got me to go up the platform with him – “don’t worry, if you don’t want to jump, you can go back down.”  Once I got to the top, he jumped right off.  I was next in line, I turned around and there was a line behind me.  I didn’t want to walk past all of them, so I walked up to the end of the platform, looked over the edge, thought about it for a moment or two, and went for it.  What a rush it was to take that jump!  My fear had held me back and prevented me from a fun experience.

For some of our students, the fear that I felt about jumping off that platform is what they feel about reading aloud, or writing a story.  Maybe a teacher has told them that math isn’t their strong suit, so they don’t want to solve a problem for the class.  We expect our students to come to school for 180 days to do something that feels risky.  How many adults would do something risky every day?  A lot of us might just give up.  For the kids who feel this level of fear about their academics, they may say to themselves “If I’m not good at it, why even try.  I don’t want to embarrass myself.”

These students need our encouragement and support to build enough confidence to take risks.  That comes back to our classroom culture – the expectations we set about how students treat each other, as well as the things we (the adults in the room) say in the classroom.  Kids need to feel safe enough to be able to take risks.  Brown and Knowles share the following list of things students need to feel academic safety:

  • No one laughs at them when they attempt to ask or answer questions
  • Teachers establish realistic academic expectations and outcomes for every student
  • Students’ efforts are recognized, as well as the products of those efforts
  • Teachers eliminate competitive situations that create inequity among students
  • Teachers develop cooperative grouping strategies that encourage students to collaborate in their learning and share their knowledge and expertise with one another
  • Teachers play the role of learning facilitator to encourage student independence
  • Teachers choose alternative instructional strategies to meet each student’s learning style
  • Teachers recognize and appreciate talents other than academic skills

This list is not meant to be the end all be all solution for all our students, but it provides some ideas that we can reflect on in our planning and preparation to make sure that our students will feel safe in our classroom.  They need that safety to take risks, and they have to take risks to grow.

What steps do you plan to take in your classroom to make sure that all of your students feel comfortable to take risks in your classroom?  How can you model your willingness to take risks in your own learning and growth?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.