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What sets your soul on fire?
What are you so passionate about that people can tell by the look on your face and the sound of your voice when you are talking about it?
Professionally, my short answer is education. Of course, there are many layers within that topic, and areas that excite me more than others. Overall, I believe in the power of relationships within the educational realm and the impact transformative instructional practices make on the world. My flames get fanned in multiple ways.
I was created for building relationships. That has played out in my role as a teacher and a leader. I’ve worked with teachers and administrators in ten different states and two countries (so far!). My main role is to lead change in instructional practices toward student-driven learning. My favorite part of this work is the relationships I build with those I coach through the ongoing professional development. I even love the debrief meetings with administrators at the end of a contract. These are times of reflection, celebration, and visioning for next steps. None of this work would be as impactful or sustainable if I didn’t first work to build authentic relationships.
There is power in connections. I am most energized after conversations with like-minded educators. These discussions typically happen spontaneously. They might take place online (Twitter and LinkedIn are my favorite ways to connect globally), in classrooms while I’m coaching teachers, in hallways of districts where I work, over drinks with colleagues after hours. I like talking with people who challenge my thinking or introduce me to a new idea or way of doing something.
I recently had dinner with a colleague I met almost a year ago. She was teaching in a 1:1 classroom long before it was a thing. Her innovative teaching practices and her depth of knowledge on teaching with technology have continued to grow and expand over the past decade or so. I think I’m pretty well-versed on the subject, but she always shows me something new. The best part is that a personal friendship has developed from what began as a professional partnership. She’s someone I trust to shoot straight with me. We both leave our conversations with feelings of growth and inspiration.
I am also fed by good learning. This will sound cliche, but I am a lifelong learner. I love to learn in various ways, but I especially love to share my learning with others (kinda why I became a teacher). One of the conferences I’ve had the privilege of presenting at is the HECC conference in Indianapolis. My half-day sessions were on leading change. I got to work with over fifty educational leaders from around the state on strategic planning and driving sustainable change initiatives. The actual presentation didn’t provide half as much energy as the side conversations I got to have with the leaders in the room. The collaboration that happened just because we had just the right learners together was phenomenal to experience.
Whether it’s strategic coaching, professional conversations, or personal learning, my soul is set on fire through relationships with other people. My hope is that I fan their flames as much as they fan mine. What sets your soul on fire?
I am a former curriculum director who loves technology. It’s a fairly new love affair. We’ve been a serious item for almost six years now. Here’s the backstory: I began teaching in 1998 when my students would get to go to the computer lab once a week for a lesson planned by the librarian. I was pretty much on crowd-control during these lessons. I add that to say that I’m a self-taught tech integrator who was definitely not born a digital native. As my teaching progressed, so did my time leading lessons in the computer lab. But technology available to my students in the classroom was minimal, at best. My last year in the classroom (2010-11), I had my teacher computer and three old iMacs for my students to use. They could basically only use them to play games and take Accelerated Reader quizzes. I was a pro at making copies on transparency sheets to use on my overhead projector. My weekly computer lab trips were usually reserved for publishing writing pieces, typing practice, or math fact drills. We are, obviously, not talking about any innovative technology infusion.
After I became the curriculum director for our district in the fall of 2011, I quickly realized that we needed to catch up with some forward-thinking districts when it came to tech integration. Our elementary schools were just getting equipped with SMART boards that year. Our math teachers at the high school had Promethean boards and doc cameras. The other middle and high school teachers had LCD projectors. That was as tech-rich as our district got. In that year, I started a blog, joined Twitter and LinkedIn, and began immersing myself in learning about edtech solutions for transforming instruction. I followed edtech leaders, subscribed to blogs, read articles, and attended conferences on the subject. At one point, our Director of Technology visited my office and candidly said, “You know, when I heard you were named our new Curriculum Director, I was a bit worried.” I just laughed, because I knew he was referring to the lack of technology integration I previously had in my classroom. He went on, however, to assure me that he had changed his mind and knew they’d made the right decision when they hired me. That only happened because I was motivated to further my own learning and stretch my thinking when it came to teaching and learning.
The second year in that role brought about even more growth. Our district was wanting to move to a 1:1 environment for our 5th-12th grades for the following school year. That led to me being appointed as the 1:1 steering committee chair to conduct research, explore options, and learn as a team in order to make the right decisions for our students. During another office visit from our DoT, he joked that he’d just read an article about how tech directors and curriculum directors should be married. We laughed about this, but the point was, and still is, completely valid. Technology and instruction are no longer separate entities in schools. These two facets of a student’s education must work seamlessly together. I was fortunate to work with a DoT that understood and respected that fact. I was the one who got to attend instructional technology trainings and workshops. I was the one who led that integration into our classrooms. And being a former classroom teacher, the current teachers were more open to the idea of change coming from me. But it took both departments working together to provide devices and ongoing professional development in order to sustain lasting change.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I am still working within the technology-curriculum marriage. As a consultant, I often get to work with districts who purchase Dell laptops and/or Chromebooks for their teachers and students. I get to go in and provide training for teachers and administrators, and then work one-on-one in job-embedded professional development with them multiple times throughout the school year. I like to say that Dell is the foot in the door, but the true work lies in transforming instructional practice. I show teachers how to use technology to leverage rich resources and learning opportunities to provide their students with personalized learning experiences in student-driven environments. I don’t just give them a list of good websites. I don’t just teach them on a specific student-centered learning strategy. I marry the two together, and beautiful learning is born through this union.
I collaborate virtually on something with someone every single day. Some recent examples include:
- sharing a grocery list with my husband through Google Keep
- planning an anniversary party for our parents with my siblings via group text messages
- Scheduling school visits with teachers and administrators through a shared Google Sheet
- Working on a writing project with a colleague using shared Google Docs
- Collaborating with other eLearning peers in a Slack community
- Reviewing a Policy and Procedure guide I wrote with my team via Join.Me
- Working on a procedural table with colleagues through OneDrive
- Having a virtual meeting to discuss a current project with district leaders in another state using Google Hangouts
- Attending a board meeting with people in Lima, Peru from my house in Indiana via Skype.
- Email (obviously, too many examples to discuss)
- Messaging with my PLN via LinkedIn and Twitter to grow professionally together.
We live in an age of mass collaboration, and the tools provided make it easier than ever. I don’t have a favorite platform, as you can probably tell I choose the one that best meets the needs of the task. What are some of your favorite ways to collaborate?
When I started teaching, our evaluations had three categories: Excellent, Satisfactory, and Needs Improvement. Then, there was a list of characteristics and behaviors with check boxes next to it. I’m pretty sure I never received a mark less than Excellent. And that is what I wanted. That yearly evaluation was something to just get over with. The follow-up conversation with the principal was a formality to hear her say I was doing a great job, and then move on. A few years ago, Indiana adopted a more stringent plan for teacher evaluation and accountability. There was an extensive rubric with various categories and four evaluative terms for your work: Highly Effective, Effective, Improvement Necessary, and Ineffective. This occurred right as I moved from the classroom into district administration. I remember the superintendent telling principals that teachers that only had a year or two of experience couldn’t receive any Highly Effective ratings as that implied that they didn’t have any areas that needed growth. I was tapped to work with teachers who fell into the Improvement Necessary and Ineffective ranges. In my three years as the curriculum director, I was never asked to work with any of the teachers in that capacity. This new evaluation tool was more effective than the old, however, I still didn’t use it to better my own work performance. Instead, I looked to feedback from my peers, my boss, and the teachers I worked with. I knew that I wasn’t Highly Effective in every area of my job, and I also knew that there was always new learning to be found. I am a work in progress. And whenever someone gets to the place where they think they have no more improving to do, there is a major problem. Here are some ways I’ve learned to keep moving forward and making progress in my professional life:
- Have an open mind.
- Connect with others.
- Find the ways I best learn and then seek out those opportunities.
These practices have done far more for my professional growth than any observation/evaluation ever did. How do you continue to progress?
This fall, I worked with a great group of educators in Texas as they begin the process of transforming their instruction by integrating technology into their daily lessons. I led them through a two-day process of evaluating their current teaching and thinking critically about what changes they can make in the way they interact with and instruct their students.
Toward the end of the first day, one of the young teachers approached me and explained how she began the school year teaching economics, but just a couple of weeks prior, due to staff changes, the principal came to her and asked if she’d switch and take over the AP Macroeconomics classes. What do you say to your principal, but yes? So she accepted and has been in survival mode ever since. She was frustrated by the required textbook and how boring she felt her class was (contrary to how she’d like to be teaching), and couldn’t see how to infuse technology into such a rigid curriculum.
I could’ve just heard her words, told her a couple of quick tech tools and sent her back to her table. But that wasn’t what she was needing. I chose, instead, to truly listen to her. Strong leaders take in all of the information available to them when they listen. I focused on body language (this poor lady was ready to bolt), the tone of her voice (strained, at best), and the actual words she was saying (she was literally crying for help). Then, I started asking questions.
I went back to her seat with her, pulled up a chair, asked questions, and continued to actively listen. I asked her to show me the curriculum she was supposed to use. I asked her how the students could access it. I asked her how she liked to teach in other courses. I learned so much through asking questions and listening, that I was able to be a much better support and serve her more effectively by listening first.
Do you feel listened to, or merely heard? If you are in a leadership position (and teachers, you are all the leaders of your classroom, so this definitely applies to you, as well), do you take the time to actively take in all that people are (and aren’t) saying to you? To be a servant leader, we must first be active listeners. This makes the journey about those we are serving, and not just about a title or position. The focus moves away from us, and onto those whom we are serving. So ask questions, and then just listen.
I use the TIP Chart when working with teachers on increasing student-driven learning via best practices surrounding technology infusion. Here are a few snippets from recent visits at the Bill R. Johnson CTE Center in Crowley ISD.
Mr. H teaches a Correctional Services class. The lesson I recently observed involved students creating radio communication tools. They were given access to the Course Communication List and then collaborated as a team to determine if they needed anymore 10-codes or codewords. Students accessed their research and information fluency skills to research other department 10-codes for examples as well as to think about codes that would have helped in previous scenarios they experienced in prior classes. Their jobs were to create tools that explained proper radio communication and proper use of duress codes to other law enforcement classes. They were split into two groups for the project. One of the students is the Captain of the class (voted as such by his peers), so he appointed the topic to each team leader. Lieutenants (Team Leaders) were charged with making sure their teams remained on task. There was a group participation rubric to guide the teamwork aspect, as well. Prior to this lesson, Mr. H had shown students some various tech resources (Marvel Comic Maker, Storyboard That, video, Prezi, etc.) that they could use to create a final project that would teach about their particular communication tool. Students were actively engaged throughout the class period.
Mr. C teaches Advanced Commercial Photography. I visited during a lesson on studio lighting. For this lesson, the students worked in groups to research a studio portrait style that they found visually interesting. Then they worked to replicate that lighting style by first using lightingdiagram.com to virtually place their subject, camera, lights and background. Once complete, the pair/small group went to the studio to use that diagram to place subject, lights, and camera in a similar arrangement to see if their capture was the same look as the one they researched. Through research and collaboration based on prior knowledge, the students learned about the placement of lights, exposure, shadows, form, key lights, fill lights, background/hair/rim lights, while using online software to plan before they shoot. Their critical thinking skills were tested if the lighting diagram planning failed to yield the “look” they were hoping to achieve. Mr. C intentionally designed this opportunity to allow students to synthesize research, communicate/collaborate with peers, and apply critical thinking skills to address an authentic task.
Mr. M teaches an Advanced Film class. During my most recent visit, the school was having a pep rally. Mr. M’s class was responsible for filming the event. They had to employ knowledge of recording equipment by using proper monitoring of equipment to ensure quality recordings; setting appropriate levels before recording using broadcast standard tools; identifying standards for logging notes or comments in the original recording process. The students were given crew positions the day before the pep rally and were to fulfill the requirements of each position during the production phase of the pep rally projects. The setup was similar to other events some of the students had previously filmed so those students were able to take on the teacher role in different aspects of production. One student was the director who decided where the cameras were set up and what shots the cameras needed to cover. The director wore a headset that allowed him to talk to the other students to give them instructions throughout the production.
I saw evidence of student-driven learning in various areas. The students accessed prior knowledge and experience to address the authentic task of filming the pep rally. Communication and collaboration among peers took place throughout the pep rally to ensure quality results. More communication and collaboration happened after the pep rally during the editing process. Students used critical thinking and problem-solving skills to determine key placement for setup, camera lighting and positioning.
You may not teach photography, corrections, or film, but what strategies did these three employ that you could apply in your classroom? This journey to student-driven classrooms is about transforming instructional practice, and these teachers are setting the pace.
Other posts on this subject include:
Have you ever heard the quote, “When one teaches, two learn”?
This supports the mindset of, “The true strength in our classroom lies in the collaboration of learners, not in the knowledge of one expert.”
Gone are the days where the teacher is the only expert in the classroom. Classrooms need to be a place of a community of learners—the teacher included.
The Methods of Teaching and Learning Need to Change.
I become a bit giddy when I get to visit classrooms where the teacher already understands this—when a visitor has to look to the fringes to even find the teacher in the room. In one week of visiting Crowley ISD in Texas, I witnessed the collaboration of learners in classes such as Math, World History, English, Audio/Visual Design, Computer Programming and Aerospace Engineering.
Aerospace Engineering Class
Students chose an aerospace advancement or achievement to research. Their teacher, Mr. P, gave them some guiding questions to use during the research but allowed them a choice in how they could present their learning to their peers. They had to be ready to justify why they selected that information to share. At the end of the project, the students will spend time reflecting and elaborating on what they could change/improve creatively for the next project.
Computer Programming Class
Mr. R, the teacher, gave the students the mission of writing code for a BB8 Sphero robot. The students jumped right in and started figuring out how they were going to write the program. This is the decision-making process of programming. The objective was to use the Lightning Lab app to program the Sphero to move in a square down four different hallways. The students walked the halls, timing how long it took them to get to each intersection to use as a basis for their code. After writing the code for the Sphero, they took it out to the hall for the first trial. It was fascinating to watch the learning process unfurl organically as the students tested each program, collaborating on the successes, failures, and adjustments needed after each trial run.
Audio/Visual Design Class
This was so much fun. The students each researched an important historical event and then wrote a script for an episode of the television show, Timeless. The author of each script became the director. They cast the episode and assigned roles to the other students in the class. Here, the Author-Director is laying out scenes with her actors while her Director of Photography gets photos for her storyboard.
The writers had to work with a $0 budget and spent time walking around the school to block where different scenes would be shot. For the episode I watched being laid out, scene locations included their classroom being converted into an Apple Store, an outside corner of the building being used as the backdrop of an alley in New York City, and a science lab being staged as a classroom. Mr. M, the teacher was a strategic observer as the students were making decisions about their personal projects in real-time. Other students offered opinions and insight as the scene unfolded.
That’s Great for Electives, but What About Core Subjects?
I know some teachers may be thinking this—how can I give up control when I have so many standards to meet prior to state testing? Great questions, but not very valid when talking with those teachers who are doing just that.
Ninth Grade Math
One teacher I know has made intentional changes this school year to move from teacher-directed instruction towards student-driven learning. Recently, she assigned her students to work with a partner to create a PowerPoint to show the Laws of Exponents. At the end of their PowerPoints, they have to ask questions that their peers should be able to answer from the content of the presentation. These questions at the end are essential to getting the students to think at higher levels. Students will conduct a peer review using a teacher-created rubric to evaluate Content, Slide Creation, Slide Transitions, Images, Grammar mechanics, and Tech Connection.
After talking with Ms. W, she shared her desire to offer more student choice next time by letting them select the platform for the presentation. This is a great next step, and it may require her demonstrating how to use something (i.e. Comic Strips, Prezi, etc.), and restricting their use of PowerPoint. Otherwise, most students will stick with what is “safe” and what they are most familiar with. I also suggested getting the students to provide input in constructing the next rubric, so they are driving the assessment as well. As an interesting side note, Ms. W communicates with students outside of class via Remind and Kik, encouraging communication and collaboration beyond the classroom walls.
Ms. V’s AP World History Class
I always enjoy visiting this class. My most recent trip showed the beginnings of an Interest Group Research Project. Students chose their groups (with 2–4 members), chose their interest group, and then discussed how they would present their project (live action vs. animated). Their mission was to research a group and then create a commercial in order to persuade and entice people to join their group. In addition to the commercial, groups must turn in a two-page typed essay answering the teacher-created questions to show thorough research. They were given one week to complete both portions of the project. Too often, projects are given too much time, drawing out the process and killing the engagement level. One week was sufficient time to research and produce their learning while maintaining interest in the project. As a result, the class will learn about fifteen different political interest groups while driving that learning themselves.
Remedial/Target English Class
Ms. M teaches this high school class where she is now focusing on student-driven activities for research, communication, critical thinking, and innovation. While I was visiting she assigned a research project that students will complete using PowerPoint. Each pair chose a persuasive speech topic; they will create an original PowerPoint supporting their opinions and have to research data for one of their reasons. Then, they can research more information, but by requiring at least one rationale they are able to practice citing sources including pictures/videos. In addition to research, students are required to incorporate slide transitions, animations, picture and videos to enhance their PowerPoint.
For the next project, she may consider opening up presentation platform choice to include more options, maybe even stepping away from Prezi/PowerPoint format altogether. This was a great choice of assignment as it enabled the students to concentrate on research and persuasion strategies.
The Move Toward a Student-Driven Learning Environment
I get to work with teachers all over the United States. These are only a few snippets of what I get to experience watching them move toward a student-driven learning environment. They share a common mindset of wanting to create space for students to be engaged in their learning by taking ownership over it. Traditional teacher-directed classrooms are not necessary for, and actually prohibit, success on standardized testing. Deeper connections are made through authentic learning experiences. These teachers understood that and they have the pleasure of watching those connections happen in the minds of their students.