Sunday, September 3, 2017

Just Do It

As a tech coach, most of my work is directly with teachers. Typically I will try and have a reflective conversation after we've worked through a lesson or activity. One thing these conversations typically feature is a regret, a lamenting of the difficulty of students using technology. A common feeling is that it isn't worth the time or the hassle. I hear it all the time:

"It's too hard."

"They ask too many questions."

"They can't keep up."

"This would be easier on paper."

All of those things are true. Right now. But the reality is that those things are only true because we don't emphasize using digital literacy skills in our classrooms. We get bored and complacent about the way we teach and give up on trying new things, regardless of how important they are. We do things because they are convenient and easy and we give up on things as soon as we sense difficulty.

It's what you do with that difficulty that is key. Robert Greene author of Mastery, gets the core of what I am talking about here:

“The pain is kind of challenge your mind presents - will you learn how to focus..., or will you succumb to the need for immediate pleasure and distraction?”

It's not just with technology. It's with anything. If you aren't willing to work through the pain and the discomfort, you'll rarely make any kind of growth or build confidence with anything new. True confidence is born from pushing through things that suck. The longer you sit with the pain and discomfort — and actually create something meaningful, the more confident and successful you will be.


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Trouble with Templates

I’ve written about creative struggle before. Specifically how creativity is work and there’s not creative gene. A side effect of not working to be creative manifests itself as a low expectation for students to be creative as well.

Many teachers believe that creativity is innate in students. That students who are creative are just random, and that some students have “it” and some don’t. This is an issue with the way we teach as much as how we train teachers. Little work is ever put into teaching creativity or the creative process. We know that many teachers struggle with being creative themselves, but do you ever think about how this can impact students when teachers don't understand creativity?

First, a history lesson.

In times gone by it used to be that creativity was a natural part of everyday life. Back in the days of artisans and artists, innovation was just what people did to get by. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that routinization of tasks became a necessity. Since most jobs required mastery of repeated processes, there was less need for artisanal work. Less need for thought. Less need for innovation. And schools were developed to support the model of development of basic skills for routine labor. That was key in the development of our nation. This was a template for the way we needed people to operate to maximize efficiency and productivity.

But in a post-industrial society, this template can be quite harmful. While we still need productivity and efficiency in our lives, much of what remains of our industrialized society is automated. We no longer need to train people on basics like we did before. We don’t need to template their lives to be ordinary workers carrying out simple tasks. What we need to do is more encouragement of innovation, free thought, expression, and creativity.

We need to teach students to develop their ideas and own them. Stop borrowing and start stealing. Templates can be a great thing, but when they become a crutch, we rob students from coming up with their own methods and ideas. If we search for a template every time we get started with a project, what will we do when we come up against a challenge for which there is not template? How will we ever innovate if we are always looking for blanks to fill?

We need to encourage motivation for creativity by not assigning grades to the creative process. Creativity and innovation is stifled if we standardize what achievement or effort looks like. I know we need things like rubrics to help develop feedback models and we need assessment data to gauge the needs and progress of students, but do we really need to slap a grade on everything? Too many opportunities to get creative are wasted because students want to get the best grade rather than chase their curiosity or find an inventive way to do something. Grades scare us away from creativity. More recognition of effort and process. Less emphasis on product and assessment.

Sometimes creative efforts in others don’t seem creative to us. When my daughters draw pictures of hearts and rainbows, I often see cliche representations of things that have been done a thousand times before. It is so easy to criticize these types of efforts and not see them as the first steps to something greater. The problem is, we don’t see those first steps in the process of being creative. We let it stop there, thinking these students don’t have “it”. This is just the starting point. This is where we need to start encouraging creative thought and innovation. “How can you take this farther? How can you experiment with this idea? How can to tweak this design to make it personal to you? A heart stands for love...how else could you express this?” In the classroom, these are often the most powerful conversations I have with students -- the moments when we are being reflective about the work we’re doing and how we can make it a more personal reflection of who we are and what we care about.

Demonstrations are tricky. When we show “the way” we make our own vision seem definitive. It doesn’t challenge students to create their own vision, rather it pressures them to create a carbon copy of what we have done. As an example, often in my class we would create video book trailers. I would show them one I had created in the past -- this would inevitably lead to 25 different takes on my process, my layout, my music, my transitions, etc. Ultimately I was disappointed because these projects were not popping with student personality as I hoped. I learned that by allowing students to lead the demonstrations, having them learn the tools but not see my process and vision explicitly, we were able to emphasize their own creativity. We have powerful projects that were fun, creative, and exploding with personality.

Speaking to that, we probably show examples too much and don’t spend enough defining the problem. Explaining the why. Are we just asking students to Xerox an idea or a process? Or do we want them to experience and immerse themselves in in those ideas and processes? Something I learned was to discuss problems with students. Have classroom conversations about big ideas. Challenge them to address those rather than just showing them an example and having them create their own version.

These and other problems contribute to the templates we find ourselves stuck in. Many of us can’t take a risk or get creative because we have build such rigid walls of what school is supposed to look like. Something to think about: How are you challenging students to get creative? Do you make creativity a cornerstone of the work you do in your class? Do you ask students to address problem or create projects? Do you emphasize the process of creation or the completion of the task?

Reflect on this and consider how you might be able to make creativity something you model and emphasize in your classroom every day.



Friday, June 9, 2017

The New Digital Divide

When I first started teaching the digital divide was access. Educators were set on making sure that technology was available and ready for student use. The goal was for equity was in the physical presence of devices. And while physical presence of devices might not be where everyone would like, we are living in an area of unprecedented ubiquity of technology in education. With 1:1 initiatives and BYOD programs, many schools have done the work of closing the access gap. However this access has only highlighted a larger issue in our schools -- the digital skills gap.

The New Digital Divide.

Now that we have technology in students hands, what are we doing with it? Not enough. I've posted before about the myth of the digital native, about how we don't do enough to challenge, train, or encourage even the most practical technology use. Since we assume kids know how to use technology "well enough", we shortchange them on the real world technology skills they  need to be marketable, employable, and viable in a 21st century economy.

Studies show that 78% of middle skills jobs require baseline digital literacy. This means understanding stuff like spreadsheets, word processing, managing communication software like email, etc. And the more connected our world and economy comes, the more this number is going to grow. The truth is, if we want to produce students that are ready for even the most entry level of jobs, they are going to have to have baseline digital skills.

And if you think we already do enough of this, think again. A report by ETS shows that the United States is one of the poorest performing countries in digital literacy. The study, which looked at labor force millenials' (ages 16-34) ability in technology rich environments, shows that among developed countries, the United States ranks near the bottom with 56% below proficiency level 2. For comparison's sake, Finland was 32% and Japan was 33%.

All of this to say, in an increasingly globalized world, the United States isn't competitive enough when it comes to imparting the skills to be successful in modern economic environments. This is bad news for the country, but even worse news for our students who will struggle to gain employment and make a livable wage.

To address this, it is imperative that our schools develop digital literacy goals on an institutional level. We need to work with employers and institutions of continuing education to target the most high impact digital skills that our learners need today and in the future. And we must integrate these skills into the content we are already teaching. Digital literacy is more than something that would be helpful -- it's something modern students require. And we must do more to ensure it's taught and modeled in our schools.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Myth of the Digital Native

I am sure we are all aware of the term "digital native" by this point. You know, the idea that kids born in this generation are blessed with a technology gene that allows this to do "AMAZING" things with technology. I get so irritated by this term, because many people who share this ideology have no idea what the implications for that belief are.

Listen, just because your two year old can play games on an iPad doesn't mean they are a technology wiz. When a parent tells me their kid is some digital genius because he can get Netflix going on the TV all by himself I just want to rip my eyeballs out and roll them down the hallway. 

You've probably had this conversation with a parent. 

"Oh little Johnny is going to work in tech. He spends hours on his computer every day. He beat Angry Birds on my phone in ten minutes!"

Sounds like this kid has already audited his way to a computer science degree.

But really, think about it. So many people are fooling themselves into believing the consumption of digital content is authentic ability in using technology. This regressive thinking is shared by many teachers! A large part of my job is working with teachers to integrate technology, and many conversations usually begin or end with, "But, doesn't this stuff just come naturally to them" or "these kids are great with computers....why teach it?"

It bugs me because we THINK our kids can use computers when they really can't. And these vague understandings about what teachers should be doing with technology has damaging and far lasting consequences for kids in the 21st century. Technology skills will be the new baseline for work skills for the next several decades. Yet we assume students already have these skills when they can barely turn on their screens!

And so when we argue for increased tech in schools, the argument cannot be "that's where they are." The argument must be that our kids need to see it used effectively and with useful outcomes. That the application needs to be deeper than turning on a device, opening an app, or playing a game. Using a device does not mean you are in control of the technology.

This should start with primary grade teachers. A basic understanding of technology for communication. Understanding and using correct terminology (Sorry, a video on the internet isn't necessary a YouTubes). Why making a Google Slides presentation is not computing but in fact simply a way to present information. Showing that articles on the internet are not necessarily true and that we need to have discernment about media and be literate in our understanding of it.

This requires leadership and a changing of focus in our field and in our schools. Tech isn't something kids are natives of -- it's something we are all, to differing extents, immigrants to. We have invested so much money in technology, yet struggle to use our tech for any kind of authentic use. As we get deeper into the 21st century, I am hoping that our leaders start to realize this and begin to understand the power in their phones, tablets, and other devices, and how we can improve the way we use these things. Let's unlock the power of the device. Let's give students the power to explore, create, program, code, and design. Not just to make education better, but to make our lives better as well.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Blogging Buddies

So these last few weeks of the school year definitely wiped me out.....I hate to make excuses, but I have been too busy to publish any of my half finished blog posts.

To give myself some incentive, I joined up with some other tech coaches in an #ETCoaches Blogging Buddies Group.

I'm excited about having a renewed purpose to get back into my blog and looking forward to networking with some new folks who are focused on similar issues in education today.

Here's the group of educators I'll be following -- join us if you're interested in renewing your focus on reflective practice and networking with similarly positioned educators!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Creativity Rut

It's easy for teachers to get caught in a rut. Especially creatively. There's only so much mental strength we can give to thinking outside the box. And for as much time as we spend Pinning and Retweeting these amazing ideas we see in others classrooms, those acts alone don't motivate us. It's true -- many of us are passionate about new ideas and innovating and providing inspiring learning activities...we even do tons of research to find those ideas. We just never trust ourselves enough to put them to action. Think about it ....how many times have you had an amazing idea for something to happen in your classroom, but you never actually took the time to carry it to actuality?

The trick is action. The name of the game is finding time to practice so you can start trusting yourself to try new things. So you can build some confidence with new ideas. And so you can just flat out change the culture of that place you have been stuck for so long. When you start learning some new things and put some new ideas to practice, you'll start getting consistent results.

So what does it take to actually get creative in your teaching? I don't know...but I have some ideas that might help.

Anticipate Achievement

I know a place where I mess up a lot is assuming something will fail before I truly give it a chance. Just because something seems hard or hokey doesn't mean it's going to fail. And the truth is most of us kill off all our best ideas in their infancy because we just assume they won't work out anyway. They are "too ambitious" or "unmanageable". If you're going to be creative, and you are going to get outside the box, you need to expect success. Does that mean there won't be problems? No. But it will at least mentally prepare you to see your idea to an end.

Tom and David Kelley have a great quote in their book, Creative Confidence;
"Creativity, far from requiring rare gifts and skills, depends on what you believe you can do with the talents and skills you already have."
There are so many roadblocks to that kind of belief. To a creative mind, those problems and obstacles that derail most of us are seen as a challenge. They are a place where you can start to think critically about why something won't work and what you can do to address that problem. But these challenges are not an end. Just a natural part of the path to your goal.

When creative minds get an idea, they go to work. They manage the process. They design their plan. They combine, reverse, adapt -- and often they end up with something quite different than what they started out with. But the magic was in the process. By expecting success, you saw your way to something powerful. And you didn't quit.

Fuel Your Expertise

Psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman have written about how working to the strengths of your character energizes and fulfills you. Knowing who you are and what you are about is a powerful thing. It strengthens your character and builds confidence in who you are. The same is true for pursuing your passions. When we get stuck in a place where our creative juices aren't flowing, we have probably forgotten to energize and engage our own interests in our work. What are you good at? What are you passionate about? How can you turn that into a learning experience for your students? When you engage your mind in something you are an expert in, it can help you get creative when you share it with others.

Maybe you love photography, or writing, or music -- whatever it is that you care about, transform that passion into creative energy. All of these things can be turned into innovative learning experiences if you think about how you can relate them to your classroom environment.

Forget Talent

A common stumbling block for people who are afraid to try something new is an assumed lack of talent. For people like these, they rationalize their lack of curiosity or creativity by assuming others have some sort of magical creative gene that wasn't passed on in their genetics. That's garbage. In Daniel Coyle's book "The Talent Code", research shows that time and time again the main variable to excellence in any area is a commitment to "hard work, mental struggle, and extreme attention to detail." The only thing you're good at when you are born is breathing. The rest takes work. The difference is DEEP PRACTICE. If you want to get better, you have to give the appropriate time and energy to become better. It's no different with creative pursuit. If you want to be creative, START DOING IT.

Keep a Journal


People that work with me often know that I always keep one of those three inch top spiral bound notebooks in my pocket at all times. And while most people think this is so I can take notes and jot down reminders on the go, the best use I get from my notebook is the creative ideas I have that I can write down. The trick is stopping and listening to those ideas. Most of us don't.

Your creativity has a switch. And we have a little internal critic in our brain that switches it off every time we stop thinking about our weird or wacky ideas. You continually sabotage your creativity when you never allow yourself that indulgence. You censor yourself. Julia Cameron says that writing those ideas down "gets to the other side of our fear, our negativity, of our moods…Beyond the reach of the censor."

How often are you beyond the reach of the censor?

We all often give no thought to creative ideas or even think critically about the issues that arrive in the day to day. Keeping a journal might be a way to combat that. Or maybe you need to infuse your passion. Or maybe you you just need a reminder the failure isn't the end. Whatever it is, the best way out of the creativity rut is action. What action will you take?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Plant Your Trees

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

This proverb is so appropriate when we think of our careers in education.

How many times have you put off that great idea you had? How often do you kick yourself because you imagine how far along you would be with that idea if you had started the moment you had it? How defeated are you just thinking about that right now?

This is the teacher's lament. We convince ourselves that we are so busy and so overworked that there's too much to attend to. You feel like the world is just passing you by and that the ideas and passions that once filled your bucket aren't worth the effort anymore. We are all guilty of beating ourselves up and saying "it's too late". Giving up rather than investing in our ideas because it seems futile anyway. The prophecy is self fulfilling. The only boundaries preventing you from your dreams are created by you.

Working in technology I see this a lot. Teachers who do not believe that something new is accessible to them. That freely admit, "I never learned how to do this." I think the saddest part of this mindset is the assumption that the story of their life is written. That they are bound to spend the rest of their career face pressed up against the glass watching the rest of world pass them by.

There's truth in the proverb. The best time to change WAS 20 years ago. It was also 10 years ago. And last year. And yesterday! But you cannot go back. And while time is passing you by, NOW is still the perfect time to act.

Action requires guts. It takes guts to admit to yourself that you need to change. More guts to commit to changing. And to admit you are worthy of what you want. When you think about it, every step you have taken to get to this point has been a choice. What is preventing you from making this one? Nothing but the barriers in your own mind.

In education it is very easy to get overtaken by the mundanities of the day to day. If you haven't been there, it's only a matter of time. Inevitably we will lose touch with our desire, our inspiration. We will stop feeding our passion, we will deaden our fire, and we will begin to go through the motions. That's natural. But not permanent.

What I find exciting and interesting about this is that, sometimes, if we are lucky, we can get that fire back. If we are open. If we seek opportunities. If we indulge our passions and desires. If we invest in new relationships. If we allow things we have long forgotten to re enter our hearts, we can refocus.

Being a connected educator is a large part of this for me. Connecting with passionate individuals makes that kind of change real. When I am feeling uninspired and that I have forgotten to plant too many trees, I just hop on Twitter and I look at the forest growing before my eyes. I pop into some classrooms of teachers I haven't seen in awhile and soak in their energy. I visit a new colleague in a new school and find something wonderful I have never seen before. I try out a new tool or app that I have been interested in but haven't opened my time up to. I read a dusty book that's been sitting on my shelf for too long.

If your classroom is a garden, what condition is it in? There are seasons when we are busy planting, toiling, and enjoying the fruit. There are seasons where we are maintaining. And then there are seasons when the weeds are coming too fast and we get discouraged and lost. Which season are you in? Here's a process for the uninspired to tend their garden.

Prepare

No gardener plants until their soil is ready. Have you prepared for change? Have you challenged yourself to learn something new? Redesign an aspect of your practice? Until you set a target, you can't start moving. Read a new book and get an idea. Check out a hashtag on Twitter. Get your soil ready.

Plan


Where will you grow your tree? What kind of tree are you growing? You know what you want to do, but you need a gameplan on how to do it. Consult some mentors in your life. Lay out a timeline or a target so you know what it will look like when your tree has grown.

Equip


Every gardener needs the right tools to do the job. A quick way to short circuit any real change in your life is to neglect to invest in that change. Education, experiences, relationships -- there are a lot of paths this can take. Attend a conference. Join a book study. Take a course. Create a cohort of teachers in your building. Do something to equip yourself with the necessary skills to help you reach your goal.

Maintain


Every garden grows a weed or two. Or 60. The process of change isn't an easy one and there are going to be some ugly messes that pop up in the process. How well you handle setbacks will dictate your progress. When things get hard are you going to quit? Or are you going to double down and find a way to make it work? Everything worth growing requires some maintenance to help it bloom into something amazing.

Pick your fruit


Hard work deserves rest now and then. Don't be afraid to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Bask in the beauty of what you have created. If we can't look on what we have cared for and grown with a satisfied smile, we might be going about this the wrong way. It is inspiring to see how far you've come. Accomplishment is motivating and feeds your desire to move on to the next task. Make sure you give yourself that simple pleasure.

Reflect and Recharge

This work is hard. Take a break and think back on the process. What worked? What didn't? What will you do differently next season? Just like our gardens might not yield the perfect results in our first season of growth, neither will anything we try for the first time. Reflection and adjustment is a crucial part of informing the process for your next attempt. Remember, you can try again. Now rest and get ready to make your impact greater next time.

What are you waiting for? Seize the day. Sure, the best time to get started was 20 years ago, but you're here today. The present is still the perfect time to make a difference. Plant your trees now so you don't end up back here next time you wish things were different.