Teachers—Don’t be a Joke

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I recently came across this joke on Pinterest. I like a good joke as much as the next person, but being an educator, my first instinct was to be offended.

My second inclination was to look at it from a different perspective.

This riddle can definitely be true to life. I have had teachers like that. I have sat in class, completely disinterested, for the entire period while listening to the teacher lecture. I don’t think I can ever say that I was engaged and enthralled by a lecture. I recently observed a couple of middle school classes that were like this as well. I was bored out of my head for the students. While some teachers still prefer teaching lecture-style, no one wants to be a joke.

There are some simple ways to avoid it.

  • Be interesting and make your class interesting.

Student engagement is top on the academic scene’s list of must-haves. It needs to go a step beyond that declaration, however. Using a recent, real-life example from my own daughter: kids can be completely engaged in a showing of Monster’s University, yet it has zero relevance to the middle school class that is supposed to be preparing them for college and careers. My daughter can also be thoroughly engaged in playing Minecraft with her friends during health class while the teacher doesn’t teach, and yet, that is not part of the curriculum. So, teachers need to be both interesting, and make sure that their class content and instructional methods are interesting. This can be achieved in different ways.

There are definitely times when direct teaching is necessary, but the keys to keeping that interesting are enthusiasm and brevity. I’m a big fan of the mini-lesson. By mini-lesson, I mean no more than fifteen minutes of teacher talk. This can be in whole class or small group settings. Even during this time, the learning will be more effective if it is interactive. During these mini-lessons give students time to talk with partners, groups or discuss as a class. Keeping students involved will make you and your class that much more interesting. Relating the content, activity and purpose to their own lives will increase the interest levels more than anything else you can do. Nobody likes busy work and students are no exception. If they see how the learning can add to their lives or to others they care about, then they will be more invested in the process and outcome. To end, I’m a huge fan of Genius Hour and Project-Based Learning. Both are student-driven, giving them the power over their own learning.

Student choice (in how they learn and how they prove their learning) is more important than just about else in the classroom. The only thing that trumps student-driven teaching/learning is having a teacher who takes time to listen to and learn about them. Teachers who genuinely care about their students first have students are engaged and active in the classroom.

  • Don’t talk too much.

This may sound simple and it is if you are willing to give up some control. If the information, strategy, or concept you are wanting to teach can be discovered by the students in another way, then let them loose to do their learning on their own. You really don’t have to talk at them. Likewise, you don’t have to give them all of the resources necessary to learn. Chances are they will find learning methods and resources that fit their needs better than what you would have selected for them. This is where technology is your best friend. Ongoing lessons on digital citizenship (i.e. fair use and finding credible sources) need to be taught up front and in the moment when letting students direct their learning paths. There are many resources available to help ensure your digital natives become responsible digital citizens, but Common Sense Media is one of the best. Their lessons are high-quality, grade-band specific and cover a plethora of topics.

  • Learning management systems will also make your life easier by giving you and your students one place assignments, class announcements, sharing web links, holding class discussions and collecting assignments.
  • Have students work collaboratively in teams, and share their learning with you digitally, and/or face-to-face in group meetings. Let them lead these discussions as it’s their learning taking place anyway.

As an educator and a parent of school-aged children, I want all classrooms to be engaging places to be. There are teachers who have forgotten why they entered the profession. There are some who don’t enjoy coming to school each day. But, like I mentioned earlier, no teacher wants to be a joke. It only takes a few small steps in the right direction to move from teacher-directed classrooms to student-driven environments. There are plenty of people, like me, who are more than happy to help in that transition! Just like collaboration among students is necessary for good learning to take place, so it is among professionals. We all need people who can tell us good jokes while giving us good guidance so we don’t become a joke when we aren’t watching.

Know any good teacher jokes?! Only joking! Share with us your techniques which keep you and others from professional stagnation.

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Posted in Education, Leadership, Professional Experiences | Tagged , ,

What are you meant to be?

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I used to play school with my big sister. Of course, being the younger sister, I was always the student. She showed me what it meant to be a learner. For some reason, my younger brother never wanted to play school with me when I got older. 🙂 Luckily, my younger neighbors allowed me to discover what it meant to be a teacher. And being a teacher was always a career aspiration of mine as far back as I can remember. I dabbled with thinking about other possibilities along the way, but when I dug deeper, they never matched up with my visions for my future.

Fast forward 18 years into my life as a career woman. I left the classroom five and a half years ago, but have never stopped teaching.

I was having a Google Hangout chat with a friend this morning and he asked if I was going to continue consulting. My immediate response was, “Absolutely. I love the work.”  His reply, “or maybe it’s time you took a cabinet position in the department of education….” I jokingly told him to call Trump and recommend my name for Secretary of Education, but then I went on to say if I could do my work without dealing with the politics of it all, I’d be more interested in something like that (at the state-level, pretty sure I’m not ready for D.C. – haha). Unfortunately, politics gets in the way of education even at the local level. I just want student-centered instruction, teachers who care about kids, and administrators who give them the training and support they need. On top of that, I want state testing that’s actually beneficial for student learning and not as a yardstick to measure teacher effectiveness (as there are much more thorough and accurate ways to measure this). And wouldn’t it be amazing if our elected officials (including school board members) had backgrounds in education if they are going to be making decisions about educating our children? I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a valid point.

After we went back and forth a bit about the issues facing students and teachers in the United States today, he said, “YOU NEED TO FIX THIS.” And while I appreciate his confidence in my abilities to fix the entire national problem, I am trying to fix it in the ways that I can in this moment. I’m starting with having conversations with school leaders. I’m working with teachers to change the way they think about instruction. I’m working alongside them, in their current environment with their current resources, to reframe teaching and learning.

So, while it’s never too late to be what you’re meant to be, I’m right where I have always supposed to be. Teaching, learning and leading others to do the same.

What are you meant to be?

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Preventing Burnout: It’s all in the relationships

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I walked into a teacher’s classroom today that I’m coaching in Texas. This is her fifteenth year as a high school physics teacher, but her first in this district. It was easy to see that she was feeling a bit overwhelmed, a fact she confirmed a moment later. She is frustrated by the lack of lab equipment, the money that’s coming out of her own pocket to give her students valuable simulations in place of the labs, and almost zero collaboration among her department. My job going in there today was to lead her through some technology integration reflection, revisit goals, and plan next steps. I couldn’t do that without first listening to her heartaches. In a thirty-minute meeting, she mentioned three times that she didn’t know how much longer she’d be there. My goal for the morning shifted a bit, to first valuing her as a person and a teacher by letting her share her thoughts.

It’s no secret that burnout happens to teachers. Here’s the thing with this particular teacher, however. I think her frustrations could all be alleviated with a trusted group of colleagues to walk through this year with her. It doesn’t sound like anyone (team members or administrators) has taken the time to build a relationship with her. She’s staying at school to offer extra help to students until 6:00 at night. She’s finding and planning rich instruction for her students, sharing it with her colleagues, but receiving no help in return. She’s feeling undervalued, and alone. As I walked out of our meeting, I stopped at her door and said, “I know that I don’t work for your district, and I live in another state, but if you need anything, feel free to reach out. And, if you just need to vent, I’ll read your email.” She smiled. She thanked me. And then she took a big breath to mentally prepare herself to teach the next group of students walking into her room.

I’ve worked in many schools in this district, and I’ve never gotten this feeling of a lack of collaborative spirit before. It makes me wonder if it’s specific to her building, or even just to her department. I’m thankful that she’s a strong teacher because I’m confident that her students are still receiving robust instruction in her classroom. But what happens after this school year? So much of this could be alleviated quite simply by a peer reaching out and caring. I often write about the importance of administrators building relationships with their teachers, and about teachers forging relationships with their students. But what about teacher-to-teacher relationships? Those are just as important. We need colleagues to bounce ideas off of, to celebrate with when something amazing happens in class, and, yes, even to complain to every once in awhile to maintain a functional level of sanity. While I don’t work in just one district anymore, I am so appreciative of my colleagues that span the entire nation and beyond. If I didn’t have other educators to collaborate with, my practice would suffer, my professional development would lag, and my mental outlook might not be as positive.

Just like I always tell my own children when a new student moves into their class, “Be a friend. You have no idea how difficult this transition probably is for them.” When a new teacher, staff member, or administrator begins working in your building, be a friend. Take time to get to know them. Offer support, advice, or a listening ear. Those small gestures could be what keeps them doing their job well and staying in the field of education, and will make you a better educator, too.

Posted in Education, Leadership, Relationships | Tagged , , , ,

The Light of Learning: Why Leaders Need to Light the Path

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Great leaders have many common qualities and I am  fortunate to work with many of them in numerous districts across the country (and one outstanding director in Mexico). What I find over and over again is the best educational leaders share the desire to learn, and a mentality of communicating their expectations through personal  modeling. Those are two of the best traits in good leaders: Leaders Learn alone and alongside their colleagues, and Leaders Light the path by modeling what they expect to see within their organizations.

 

Last week, I was introducing digital formative assessment tools to a group of seventh-grade teachers. One of the assistant principals in the group called me over and said, “I can see Formative being a good tool to use after a staff meeting to get feedback. Is there a way to collect responses anonymously so that teachers can give honest feedback?” After explaining to him how to do that, I suggested that Google Forms might be a better choice in this situation. I then told him how he could create a “class” of teachers in Google Classroom to push out information, professional articles and videos, and surveys to his staff. This way, he is modeling what he’s expecting his teachers to do. What I appreciated most about this leader is that 1.) He was at the professional learning meeting in the first place.  This is the best type of modeling because he is showing his staff that what they are learning is valuable enough that he wants to learn it and apply it right along with them, and 2.)  He was looking for a way to utilize the same technology that his teachers will be using in their classes.

“To activate others, to get them to be enthusiastic, you must first be enthusiastic yourself.”   ~David J. Schwartz

Last month, I was delivering a training on digital citizenship.  The first session was mainly attended by computer lab teachers and English teachers. I was disappointed that no one at a building or district-level of leadership was there, as digital citizenship is the responsibility of all teachers and leaders when teaching in a digital environment.  Two days later, I was delivering the same training to a new group of participants. This time, I had principals, instructional technology coordinators, assistant principals, technology directors, and teachers all in attendance. I was thrilled to see leaders at each level of capacity embracing the need to learn more about digital citizenship and how it applied to themselves, their staff, and/or their students. As always, my training highly interactive and each person left with steps in place to apply immediately in their classrooms, buildings, and districts lighting the path for their colleagues.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” ~John Quincy Adams

In August, I had the privilege of spending an entire day working with administrators in the West Morris Regional High School District. Every administrator (even the athletic director!) attended this full-day of professional development surrounding technology integration plans for their district. We discussed organizational management, effective and personalized professional development and how to lead more engaging (and worthwhile!) staff meetings. Although there were a few who made it obvious they did not want to be there, overall the vibe and learning environment was very positive. These administrators spurred on by the assistant superintendent, saw the value that their own learning plays in becoming stronger leaders.  

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” ~John F. Kennedy

Next month, I get to spend a day presenting at HECC in the leadership strand. The leaders who attend will be challenged to connect all stakeholders within their sphere of influence to establish and drive a unified mindset. I’m excited to get to meet and work with fellow educational leaders in my home state of Indiana. I am also hopeful these administrators come with real problems, seeking to be part of real solutions. By sacrificing their time for this conference, they will be increasing their knowledge, and establishing strategies to light the way for effective blended learning in their schools and districts.

You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” ~Ken Kesey

I often get to work with teachers and technology coaches and less often with technology directors and principals. I rarely get to meet with superintendents, curriculum directors, or assistant superintendents. Why is this? Why do districts tend to spend their professional development budget on teachers, but not other leaders? I’ve heard how difficult it is to be “out of the office” for a day of training. It’s just as challenging for teachers, however, to give up a day of instructing their students. If the learning is valuable and needed, then we make the time. Imagine if the highest level of administrators caught the vision of learning and lighting the path and passed it onto their staffs. What could happen in our schools and nation if every student was taught by passionate and competent teachers who passed on their love of learning by fostering their own professional growth? Imagine the possibilities!

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Old School Innovation

Growth mindset. Future ready. 21st century learning. Changemaker. These are all buzzwords in and around education. I use them a lot myself, having the majority of my work centered around innovative instruction using technology as a resource for authentic learning. But in early August, I had the opportunity to go old school – back to the basics. I was invited to a small school in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico to train their teachers and staff. The most “senior” full-time teacher on this staff has five years teaching experience. In just three years, this school has grown from five teachers to over thirty staff members, and now supports students in grades pK-7. At least half of the teachers in my trainings have never taught before outside of college. I know four of them didn’t even go to college to become teachers, and yet have found themselves called to this mission. So while I am usually working with districts on integrating technology and transforming learning through various blended learning strategies and digital-rich resources, I had to refocus, drawing on those first few years that I was in the classroom. My only technology was an overhead projector – not an interactive whiteboard, and not even an LCD projector and doc camera. No, just the old school overhead projectors with Vis a Vis markers.

In Mexico, was training on Classroom Management, Time Management and Lesson Planning, Effective Assessments, Differentiated Learning, Active Learning Strategies, and Authentic Learning. Most teachers in the United States can count on some form of technology to assist and/or enhance their teaching (at a minimum). It’s so much easier to use data to drive your instruction when you can use handy online formative assessment tools. Differentiation is easier to maintain with fidelity when you have the entire internet and digital devices in the hands of the students. I had to constantly reframe my thinking when putting together this week-long professional development. My “growth mindset” had to learn to grow in new (or old) directions.

I’ll be the first to admit that developing the training was a challenge for me, at times. But I found myself grateful for those years I spent teaching “old school style” with just that projector, a desktop computer, and my class full of eager minds. I had years of resources to discover in my memory, dust off, and add to that helped pull everything together into something that would be beneficial to these young teachers and the students whom they’d be getting “future-ready”.

Most of the teachers I was working with were from the United States. There was a handful from Mexico themselves. Halfway through the week, one of those sweet ladies leaned over to me and said (in way better English than I could replicate in Spanish), “You are helping me so much. I watch you and think I want to be like you.” I can’t even begin to explain how that comment filled my heart. My hope and goal is to serve the educators I work with well, but I don’t always know if what I’m providing is meeting their needs. These teachers gave up an entire week of their summer vacation for training right before school started.

The morning consisted of my workshops and the afternoon of school policies, and language acquisition lessons as this is an English-immersion school. Many of the teachers had only lived in Mexico for a week when I arrived. They were going through culture shock, new job shock, and information overload. And yet, not a single one complained. They all showed up early so they had time to share coffee and sweet bread with each other. They hugged me each morning and seemed genuinely happy to be there again. Did I mention that the school was not air conditioned? And that it was August? In Mexico? Get what I’m saying here? They don’t have access to many of the “comforts” we take for granted in American schools, and yet I was received with more gratitude and welcome than often occurs in the U.S. No one complained about working during non-contractual hours. No one asked why lunch wasn’t provided. No one walked in early, looked at their phones during the training, or got sidetracked talking to their colleagues. No one made excuses as to why they couldn’t use certain instructional practices I was teaching because they didn’t have enough resources. These were teachers who embraced creativity and critical thinking in ways that would support their students. Their aim at this school is to reach each student’s heart first, and their mind second. That’s the best kind of teaching I can think of. That’s the kind of innovation I want to see in classrooms everywhere. It should always be about the kids. These educators truly are changemakers, preparing their 21st century students using old school innovation.

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By the way, this school is totally donor-supported. If you are interested in learning more about El Mantiel and Global Education Ministries, check out their website, or find them on Facebook

Posted in Education, Faith, Leadership, Professional Experiences, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , ,

Navigating the Unfamiliar

I am what you might call a frequent flyer. I have flown in and out of many different airports for my work and traveled internationally numerous times in the past for vacations. But none of those experiences prepared me for the frustrations I was to experience recently in the Mexico City airport.

My family was traveling with me to Puerto Escondido where I was to spend the week training a school of teachers. We were adding in a family vacation, and I was thrilled to get to include them on this trip. Since I am the more seasoned traveler, I was sort of leading our pack. Here’s the first issue: none of us speaks Spanish. While I can get by in a stilted conversation, trying to read airport signs to direct my family through immigration or to find our connecting flight felt almost impossible. I felt like we were often wandering hopelessly throughout the terminal. Our boarding passes said Gate B, but the only signs we could find were all numerals. Anyone we asked, just told us we were too early and to check back later. But to check back where?! I just wanted someone to help me navigate this unfamiliar place.

When I had time to finally sit down and relax (we still didn’t actually know where the gate was, but we had a long layover, and apparently they don’t assign you a gate number until 40 minutes prior to departure), I realized how our experience is so similar to people going through an organizational change.

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The signs in the airport didn’t offer much guidance. We looked puzzled enough, however, to prompt several people to ask if we needed help. They would give us a point in the right direction, or help translate something we read or heard. Leading teachers through a new initiative often requires similar assistance. Sometimes they just need a sign to point them in the right direction. Sometimes it takes a leader to tell them where to go. And other times it takes an outside person to walk beside them and help translate what they’ve seen or been told. Each guide is helpful, and sometimes all three are necessary to enact sustainable change. I get to play a part in all three roles when having the pleasure of guiding teachers and administrators through changes that occur around improving instructional practices.

When people resist change, it is usually tied to some type of fear. If I can relieve some of their anxiety, they are more open to the change being proposed. Reasons for resistance vary. They can include a lack of credibility in either the vision or the leadership, lack of support, conflicting culture, fear of failure, and previous negative experiences. Some people are worried that the change will lessen the need for them or their role. Others think they won’t be able to learn the new information or strategies necessary. And others don’t even know why they resist change, but it’s just plain uncomfortable for them. How can I help alleviate their fears and relieve that burden? I listen. I hear their words and I listen for what they aren’t saying. I ask questions to guide the conversation, if necessary, but mostly I just listen. From that, I learn what is scaring them most. I also get a quick look at where they are in readiness for the transitional change.

We know people accept and adapt to change in different stages of readiness. Some jump right in (sometimes before the change vision has even been shared). Others join the mission with little need of leadership after the change is initially communicated. These folks only need leaders to check in with them periodically. Others are open to change but need more guidance establishing a procedure to move forward. They benefit most from the professional learning and goal development I lead them through. Once they have a plan in place, they can see how to navigate this change. Then, we get to the people who are the most fearful and resistant. They require the most of my attention and that of their leaders. We listen to their fears, and then we start to break them down, so we can disarm the anxiety surrounding the change. Professional learning and goal development still benefit them, but they need more one-on-one guidance and more frequent face time as they work their way through the change procedures. Their fears may continue to resurface. They are often the ones who sometimes get frustrated enough to declare, “I just wanted someone to help me navigate this unfamiliar place!” Leaders need to keep a positive stance and continue to communicate the vision behind the change, helping these “resistants” persevere to take small steps forward. Leaders will need to think through what knowledge, understanding, and skills are most necessary for successful change adoption. How might they, as the school leaders, help every employee develop these understandings and skills? And then break it down into their own next steps, and their employees’ next steps. By thinking through each detail, the leaders will better alleviate anxieties surrounding the change, and better equip their employees to make a smooth and sustainable transition.

 

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Students are buying. What are you selling?

As an educator, I have always been in the customer-service industry. As a classroom teacher, my “customers” were my students. My job each day was to put my students’ needs first. To make sure I was creating relevant and engaging learning experiences that helped each of them grow every day. If they were bored, unhappy, sick, tired, or misbehaving, it impacted their learning and that of their peers in the class. While these may seem secondary to those not in education, teachers know how meeting these basic needs comes before any knowledge learning can occur.

“Do the best that you can in the place where you are, and be kind.” ~Scott Nearing

 As a curriculum director, the teachers and my fellow administrators became my clients. I saw my position as a support role to make them more effective and efficient while making their lives a little easier.

 Now as an education strategist, consultant, and learning coach, my focus is the same…helping the teachers and administrators with whom I work. My first job is to alleviate fears and help them feel more comfortable. My second job is to equip them with knowledge, skills, and resources to positively impact their students. In all of these roles, I’ve needed an open and compassionate heart to hear the person, before we could “go to work”. Through all of these experiences and interactions, I see it as my responsibility to remain professional and friendly, putting others’ needs first. Because of that, I am doubly appreciative when I see excellent customer service in other areas of my life.

Recently, my work schedule had me in New Jersey at the beginning of the week and Florida at the end. My hotel room in New Jersey had a Keurig machine with one pod of decaf and one of regular coffee. Those were gone after the first morning, and I jotted a quick note to housekeeping requesting extra (because let’s face it, when I’m traveling I need more than one small cup of caffeine in the morning). That evening when I returned to my room, I found two of each. The following day, the housekeeper was still in my room when I got there. She quickly offered me a genuine smile and asked how my day was. We exchanged pleasantries, and then she asked me if I was just drinking the regular coffee. I said, yes that was my preference, and she went directly to her cart in the hallway and brought me back four pods of coffee. Then she said, “you aren’t using the condiments, though?” I said, “No. If it was the yummy liquid creamer I would, but I’d rather drink it black than use that powdered stuff.” She said, “I’ll be right back.”  She went down to the kitchen, and then came back with a small bowl of five liquid creamers for me. This small gesture of kindness filled my heart. She did not have to go out of her way to get me the creamer. I wouldn’t have even known she had access to any. She could have easily left the room after our initial greeting, but instead went the extra mile to hold a meaningful interaction, and put my comfort first.

Wednesday night had me returning to the same hotel near Tampa that I had stayed in the previous week. As soon as I walked in (I should also tell you that last week was the first time I had ever stayed in that hotel), the desk manager said, “Welcome back, Mrs. McLaughlin. How was your flight?” He proceeded to hand me my keys, thank me for being an elite member, and gave me a little bag of goodies. It felt genuine, and not like something he was obliged to do as part of his job. That conversation gave me a little burst of energy after a long day of traveling, and then when I opened my door, I found this:

 

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This is not a luxury hotel. I paid next to nothing for my stay there. And, yet, their employees went out of the way to make me feel welcomed, to make being away from my family a little less difficult, and my stay more comfortable. Plus, chocolate!

I like to think that I do that in my own profession. I believe that building relationships has to be what happens first before true learning and change can occur. I believe in the power of servant leadership. So I try to get to know the people I’m working with first. I enjoy genuine conversations with them. I hope that they leave our interactions with a little more energy, and feeling more comfortable with the change we are walking through together. Small acts of kindness and courtesy can make all the difference.

 

 

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What does it mean to be a nerd?

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I entered a G/T class in fourth grade and quickly understood what it meant to be a nerd.  Unfortunately, I was one.  I bucked that image as soon as I started junior high and didn’t look back.

Today, however, my teenage daughter would definitely call me a nerd and I embrace that label. I get excited about perfect-looking avocados when I cut them open, fun new Chrome extensions, and writing blog posts on airplanes.  

I can sit and talk with someone about teaching, leadership, educational technology, writing or books for as long as we have time (if they are interesting, that is).  I get excited when that person has a similar passion for life and wants to share it with me.  I was practically bouncing up and down when a friend asked me to explain the Chromebooks that her children will be getting through school next year.  I may get a bit emblazoned when discussing some local leadership practices that go directly against what is best for students and teachers.  Do those things make me a nerd?

How about these?

  • I make up silly songs to make my son laugh.  
  • I use words like “rad” to make my daughter roll her eyes.
  • I take pictures of perfectly-ripened avocados.
  • I read picture books to kids using silly voices because it’s more fun for me.
  • I read.  A lot.  And not always thought-provoking nonfiction. (or hardly ever actually)
  • I love to play board games. And card games (especially Euchre and Cribbage).
  • I like math (well only Algebra-type math. Trig is not fun math, and no one can convince me otherwise)
  • I wear a helmet when I ride my bike.
  • I have living room dance parties to hip hop from the 90s.
  • I say things like, “Look at the sky. Isn’t it beautiful today?” to my kids who are so wonderful that they always look and agree.

I could go on, and probably get even nerdier if that is even the correct term. I’m not so sure. It seemed right when I started the post, but now other words are resonating more with me, like

  • Passionate
  • Intelligent
  • Fun
  • Goofy
  • Aware

Disparaging labels are flung too freely these days – often we are the ones using them about ourselves. And while I’ll still jokingly call myself a nerd when the occasion calls for it (because I own that, people), I need to also embrace my awesomeness. If not for myself, then to be a good model for my children who are always watching and listening.  But really, for myself, too.

 

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Learning that Amuses the Mind

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I have two children, and I think they are both pretty amazing. The hardest part about the job I do as an educational consultant is being away from them. So, sitting on the airplane on my way to Arizona, my mind wandered to a scene from home this morning before I left. My son, Evan, has always had an active imagination. We could give him the recycling bin, some tape, and a pair of scissors and the kid would be entertained for an hour creating. His creations tended toward typical boy stuff: a shield, numerous swords and daggers, guns, and even a military-style helmet for our cat (not the most willing model, you can imagine). Once when he was three he came outside wearing a creation that he called his “toy underwear”. He would kill me for writing about it, but we laugh about it to this day, almost seven years later (so if you are reading this and you know him, please don’t rat me out). It more resembled a cardboard pencil skirt – but that’s not really the point. Our kitchen was his Maker Space. His “creating” has many platforms still. He loves to build Legos, set up military operations with his plastic army men, and construct forts from couch cushions. Today, I was doing some work before leaving for the week. My husband was working from home, and our daughter had just left for a church conference. Evan was left to entertain himself. I knew he was building one of his famous couch forts, but then he ran upstairs and asked me to help him find “war clothes”. He found a black shirt from an old ninja costume, paired it with some dark gray basketball shorts, and then found his camo face paint. (Really wishing I had photographic evidence right now.) Keep in mind that he is doing all of this just for himself. No one gave him the idea, no one gave him any direction at all, and no one was evaluating it in the end. It was purely something from his own creative mind, for his own enjoyment.

This is what school learning should be like. Learners (of all ages and in any setting) should get to choose what they study, how they study it, and what they do with it. It should be for their own benefit. Do I think that someone else will benefit from Evan’s creative thinking skills someday? Absolutely. But that’s not his motivation today. It’s okay if kids and adult learners alike pursue something out of pure curiosity or enjoyment (learning other skills along the way).

I know what you are thinking. How can we evaluate that type of student-driven learning? Their learning will be evident in the process. Evan wanted to show me something later on in the morning. He turned one fort (oh yes, there were multiple forts in multiple rooms) into a stage for a magic trick. I was his audience. Part of the fort repeatedly fell down during his trick. He had to reconstruct multiple times. He got frustrated. He rethought the design. He tried a few more ideas before finally getting one that worked for the duration of the magic show. Did I tell him how to fix it? Did I tell him that it even needed fixed? No. He saw that for himself because he was the one who created it to begin with. His learning was evident through his trials, his words, and his finished product. I caught bits and pieces of the process while working in the other room. The best part of all was seeing him laughing and having fun despite the failed attempts that he worked through. We want learning to be fun. I’ve heard it a thousand times, but do we really do what it takes for the learner to think that it’s fun? I would have never come up with that idea for Evan. I would have told him to write a comic book, or play with Legos if he’d asked me for ideas of what to do. While he might enjoy those things, what he chose was perfect for where his mind was at that moment. He got there because he had the freedom to do so. It’s definitely possible on a larger scale like in a classroom, if only the teachers get out of the way of the learning.

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Moving from Idea to Action

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All good leaders are full of great ideas. The key is knowing which ideas to develop  and when. Some may never go beyond the idea phase.  Others may be able to be brought to fruition fairly easily. Others take study, strategizing, collaboration, and mindset shifts. Regardless of the idea and how it develops, all success revolves around the culture of the organization. It might be something that you pursue just for yourself. So, the organization is essentially you. You still have to have that “culture” established that allows you to step out in courage to make the change, or go for the new idea that’s forming.

Most of the time I work with organizations who have established the need for a change but need help carrying it out. Sometimes I’m involved in the strategizing, but I’m always part of the culture. How do we encourage all stakeholders to see the vision? How can we alleviate fears that almost always surround change? How can we ensure long-term sustainability? These are all aspects that I get to have a hand in, and are all major aspects of a growth mindset culture. 

What ideas are percolating in your mind? In your workplace? I’d love to hear about them.

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