Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Where Are The Ideas?

Most kids these days are born digital. They live in a digital world, using digital tools, and connecting in digital environments. If we are doing our jobs right as teachers, students should also have the desire and motivation to pursue fresh and innovative ideas and create things people care about.

They have the tools. They have the ideas. Why aren't more of our students working with an entreprenurial mindset? Why aren't our kids making, designing, or marketing themselves. their ideas, or their creations? Does it have something to do with our classrooms? In a world where employers are begging for digital literacy and soft skills proficiency in the next generation of employees, we persist in asking "googleable" questions and forcing students to complete worksheets in the name of points and credit. As a result, we destroy any creativity, passion, or desire to create work students are proud of. 

If there's a solution, it's not an easy one. Most would say, "push an entrepenurial spirit" in the classroom. Teach courses on marketing and selling. Make public school business school. But to believe these are the solutions would mean ignorance to the real beauty and power of what entrepreuership is; A passion or a belief so much in your ideas that you feel the need to share them with others.

Neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs nor Mark Zuckerberg took a class in entrepreneurship while they were in school. They weren't taught to sell or market. It was never about making money or being efficient at managing resources. They were empowered to design and create something first, then market their idea to an audience. And the enduring truth that made their ideas reality was that they had others around them empowering their work and ensuring them that it was meaningful. I think we can take a meaningful lesson from that as teachers.

The secret to entrepreneurial mindset in our classrooms lies with indulgence. It lies with the respect of a student as a human being. It depends on supporting passion, curiosity, and talent, even when those things don't fill up columns in our grade book.

Human beings are born with the desire to create and innovate. We are also born with a propensity for socialization, to communcate and collaborate. These skills make us natural entrepreneurs. Sometimes ideas are silly. Sometimes they are crazy. Sometimes they are so stupid you don't even want to let the kid finish the sentence. But sometimes those ideas are Facebook. 

Monday, October 16, 2017


October 16-20 is Digital Citizenship Week. Schools around the country take this opportunity to build awareness and educate students on a very important topic in their lives; how we behave in digital environments.

Internet safety? Creative copyright? Fake news? These things might not be part of our core curriculum, but they are still crucial lessons that must be taught to our students so they can protect themselves in an increasingly digital world.

I have three rules for teaching this stuff to kids:

1. Be Proactive - Focus on what students can change in the future to use technology more confidently and wisely. Focus less on the mistakes they have made in the past. When you go negative and slam kids for screwing up, they shut down. Keep your message positive and about what they can do better.

2. Guide without using Fear - There are many scary things online that can place children in unsafe situations. Rather than focusing on the fear of these things, we want to empower students to know how to handle these situations and harness digital technologies in positive ways. They should not feel afraid or hopeless -- we want students to feel empowered and safe when they use technology. The internet should not feel like a minefield.

3. Focus on Behavior - Somebody once said, "It's about neurology, not technology." And while I don't know who uttered this powerful quote, I respect the concept a great deal. When we teach kids how to use digital tools in safe and legal ways, we are teaching behaviors, not technology skills. The best digital citizenship lessons don't even involve using technology.

If you want to get equipped to have these discussions or would like resources to start empowering your students to inhabit digital environments, start these these resources:

  • Common Sense Media: A full curriculum loaded with resources and activities to work through with your students. This goes way beyond one week, and that's amazing!
  • Google for Education Digital Citizenship Training: A full course for you as a teacher to explore to learn more about digital citizenship and how to teach it in your classroom. Nothing can prepare you better for teaching this stuff than learning everything about it first.
  • Google's Interland - An integrated online web-based game designed to teach the fundamentals of internet safety to younger students. A fun and engaging way to learn about behavior in online environments.
  • MediaSmarts: Resources for digital literacy and safety including overlooked topics like excessive internet use and managing online privacy.
  • NetSmartz: Online training, lesson plans, and student project kits for teaching digital literacy and citizenship.
  • Teach InCtrl: Inquiry and collaborative lessons and learning activities designed to teach key digital citizenship concepts. 
This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you want more resources, or just would like to follow along with the conversation and the movement, check out the hashtag #digcitweek on Twitter. The more we all talk about this stuff and champion it's importance, the more kids we can empower with this knowledge.

Monday, October 2, 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 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.

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.

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.

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!

Thursday, April 6, 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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Control What You Can. Manage What You Can't

A lot of what you experience as a teacher is out of your control. You cannot change the administration. You can't change the policies. You can't pick your students, or your curriculum, or the time you are in the building.

If you want to own what you do, you've got to own your classroom. I finally learned that after I had been teaching for a few years. This, of course, doesn't mean that we don't TRY to change anything else. I have been known for investing my my building, seeking out leadership opportunities, and being a present force for positive change on a large scale every day. But my classroom has always been my number one priority. And the only change I could control is what happens there.

I have worked with and mentored many teachers. No matter how many warnings I give about classroom management, no matter how I model for them, teachers always have the same issues. And it makes their lives harder. Daily I am met with defensiveness and hostility when I give advice about classroom management. And I totally get it.

As a first year teacher I was awful. My year was awful. Seriously. It was perhaps the hardest year of my life. I killed myself every day because I kept expecting my students to change. I was counting on administrators to punish my students into compliance.  After affirming that I wasn't going to quit (I really considered it after year one), I vowed to never allow my classes to be like that again.

That summer I studied every resource I could find about management. I picked the brain of any teacher I could find. I scoured the internet looking for ideas. This mindset created something inside of me that "got it". If I could manage and lead this group of diverse people in my room every day, everything else would be easy. My second year wasn't perfect, but I was on my way. Since then I have had minimal discipline problems. I work with some tough kids. They all learn. They didn't need to change. I did.

Now I walk through classrooms as a mentor and I see again and again nearly EVERY classroom problem attributed to poor classroom management. Even teachers I see that have been in classrooms for twenty years struggle with it. They make the same mistakes over and over again. They make their lives and their student's lives miserable. They go home exhausted. They hate their jobs. They are hoping that kids will change.

No matter my test scores, no matter the positive feedback I get from teachers and administrators, no matter the fact that kids literally sing about how much they love being in my class, most teachers still don't believe me. If you believe me, and know it's a problem, and want to learn more, let's keep going.

Set the Tone Early

Everything--and I mean EVERYTHING--you do during the first week of school sets up the next 10 months. You must plan for this week accordingly. I recommend that you have all your processes and procedures built into your week one lessons. You need it down in your brain before students walk in. Before the first day you need to figure out how you want your classroom to operate. Every detail. Then, make sure students are doing it right. Some things will take practice. On day one if the group comes into your class like a herd of wildebeest, they need a do over. No judgement. Just another opportunity with some positive feedback about how it's supposed to be done.

I DO NOT mean that you spend hours practicing walking across the room, using pencil sharpeners, etc. What I am saying is that from day one you must integrate feedback of student expectations in your classroom into every event. Lay it on thick. Lots of noticing language. Lots of praise.

"Wow, Johnny, I love how you put the scissors back without being asked! Thanks!"
"Oh my goodness Sally, you were walking so quietly back to your seat I thought you were a ghost!"

You'll also find the more you do this, the more habit you create for positive noticing and feedback. You'll naturally start doing this kind of thing the rest of the school year. This is key


Everything you do from this point on must be in line with what you set up your first week. Many teachers start off strong, but then become more lenient, to the point of dismissing their initial plan and expectations completely. You must avoid this. DO NOT start being nice and relaxing on your rules for any reason. I tell my students it doesn't matter if it's day 1 or day 180, you break a rule, we'll be having a chat.

Positive Classroom Culture

Again, this starts on day one. I am a big believer in PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support). Look it up. Anyone who has seen me work with students would probably say that 95% of my interaction with students is positive. I notice what they are doing right constantly. This of course doesn't mean I won't call out a student or deal with a classroom issue, but I always frame the feedback with positive language. This is not easy and requires practice and patience, especially when the kid that really knows how to push your buttons is leaning back in his chair with scissors in his mouth for the 4th time this week.

Some examples:

"Wow, I love how Sally entered the room and started working right away. Well done!"
"OMG you guys entered our classroom so quietly. Thank you for making it easy to get started today!"
"Johnny, I can tell you are working really hard on this project today. Thanks for the effort."

Some days it's corny. Some days you are off and you just aren't feeling it. But every day this is required. Even if you don't put your heart and soul into every positive comment, it's important to stay consistent so the culture of your classroom emphasizes positivity and willful compliance.

Some day after your lessons are over, reflect on your interaction with students. Is your language mostly positive or negative? Does the way you talk to students make you feel good? Does your language sometimes deepen your frustration?

Set a goal. Say 5 positive things to your class tomorrow. Then ask yourself the same questions. See how it's different.

Mutual Respect

I only have a few major rules in my classes. With each class I think of the major rules that will promote the most positive learning environment for that group of kids. My number one rule is of course the Golden Rule, and that generally takes care of everything when your class runs on respect.

On day one I will say something like this:

"In life, you're never going to like everyone you work with. You're never going to like every teacher. Some of you might not end up liking me. But, we should respect each other anyway. We're going to have good days and bad days, but those days are always going to be spent together. We all must respect each other to make this work."

I'll be honest, students don't ALWAYS like me. But this mindset stops students from acting out simply due to that fact. I wish every student loved me, but that's unrealistic. But we can still respect each other. And usually, even if you don't like someone, if you treat them with respect, you end up becoming friends whether you like it or not.

Relationships with Parents

Please stop seeing parents as enemies. I see teachers mess this up all the time. People call me weak, but I will always work to satisfy a parent and do what they need unless it's completely unreasonable.

If parents like you, their kids will probably like you. If they like you, they will most likely come to you first with concerns before running to administration. If parents like you, they will overlook your simple mistakes. If parents don't like you, all these situations become huge dumpster fires.

So pick your battles. If a parent emails me and asks for an extension on an assignment for junior, I'll give it to them. Why create an enemy and manufacture drama to save two days on an assignment? There are always going to be requests -- some are going to be unreasonable. Be able to live with your choice AND the consequences of the choice you make.

Make sure your first interaction with parents is positive. DO NOT wait until parent teacher conferences to speak to a parent for the first time. Parents should be able to pick out their teachers in a crowd within the first month of school. Get creative with how you manage this. Have a family night in your class. Invite guest readers or presenters. I also call at least one parent every day before I go home just to say something nice about their kid. Small gestures like that can go a long way. Even if you have to leave a voicemail.

Here's an example interaction with a parent. Totally corny, but I don't care:

"I love the relationships I form with students and parents. If I am ever having any issues or concerns with your student, you'll be the first to know. I truly thank you for your support at home and please understand that involved parents like you truly make the difference with our kids. Thank you so much for your time."

I have conversations like this DAILY. If you invest in parents early and their kids know their parents trust you implicitly, that is going to go a long way with some of your chronic behavior issues. Of course, I still have issues with parents -- what I am saying is that by being proactive and engaging parents positively early and often, you can ensure that 99% of your interactions are positive.

Don't be a Dictator

Rules are important. Unfortunately I see teachers sometimes put rules before the students they are supposed to teach. We all must do the things our administration tells us to do, we have no choice on this. But on the stuff we can control, we really need to pick our battles wisely.

An example: You have a no food rule. But Tommy brought in a cookie today. He has started eating it, but he is also working intently. He's not making a mess. He is not distracted. It's the first time he's done this.

My response: "Hey man, I noticed you brought a cookie today. You know we have a no food rule, but since it's not a huge problem right now, I'm going to let you finish your cookie. I appreciate that you're working and not making a mess. But, in the future please remember our no food rule."

I have also seen teachers lose their minds over something like this. Exploding and blowing up the kid and in the process derailing the entire learning environment for the rest of the class. It just makes no sense. You've also ruined that kid's day and probably made yourself a lot angrier than you really need to be about the situation.  Two things matter when dealing with a classroom discipline problem; how you frame your language and which battles are worth fighting.

Chances are that if you address situations positively and and respectfully, they will work out. I see teachers that yell constantly and cause scenes about small issues regularly. These teachers are feared. If that's just your style, fine. I'd rather have kids that don't fear me and I'd rather not have a heart attack before I'm 40.

Save your mean voice for when you need it. I rarely yell, but when I do, my students l-i-s-t-e-n.

Off Days

Even the best students will have bad days. Pick and choose how you handle these moments.

Let's say one of your students just broke up with their boyfriend and they are super depressed about it. Should I blow them up about taking notes? I think I'd rather pull them aside and personalize my approach for dealing with this.

"Normally you're on task, but I can tell something is wrong. Today I'll let this slide, but could you maybe write me a letter about how you're feeling so I can understand? If you can't do that, I'm going to need you to get on the notes. Why don't you go get a drink and come back when you've made a decision about how the rest of class is going to go?"

Some students will write the letter. Some will take notes. Either way, I can live with it. The point is, I worked with them to overcome the problem. It didn't need to be a big deal. A lot of the behavior problems we deal with are due to something happening outside of your classroom. Don't try to fix something you can't control through force. Try and manage it.


Build in some breaks and rewards. Some people are 100% against this and think kids need to invest and want to be successful for themselves. I agree, but I think there's space for both mindsets. Hear me out.

If my students are super hyper and getting out of control, I'll flip the lights off and tell them to "get bored" for a minute or two. Shut off your brain. I swear this works. And it prevents huge problems that I can see coming pretty clearly. When things are calm, we can start again.

Create opportunity for transition and movement. Most kids can't sit and get for more than 15 minutes. Unless you are the worlds most fantastic and engaging speaker, you are going to need to give kids a break. I do simple things like having students get up and touch the backs of twenty chairs and then sit back down. Or have them get up and shake hands with five people before returning to their seats. Not every student needs or takes advantage of these breaks, but many kids absolutely need this.

Some teachers are opposed to the idea of rewards on principle. I'm not! Here's what I do:

  • Thank you notes, especially for the "cool kids" that hate when you shout out how awesome they are in front of class
  • Classroom Incentives -- I've always done classroom points that I award for positive behavior I see. We might earn a game day, pizza party, ice cream -- I usually let the kids pick.
  • Random Treats - nothing will get your kids pumped like a box of donuts in the morning. "You guys have been working so hard, I thought I'd pick up a treat for our class. Thank you so much, guys!"
  • Student Awards - Stuff like Student of the Month/Character Traits/Superlatives. Administration and grade level does a lot of honoring, but you can do the same thing in your class. Find a nice certificate template online and print some awards. Call home with the kid and brag to their parent. This goes a long way.
  • Get creative. Free homework pass, teacher chair pass, 20 minutes extra reading -- find something your learners are about and use it.
I know some of these things cost money. Obviously I don't do this all the time, but a small investment can go a long way. Some of you lucky folks out there might be able to get your school to help with this as well. However it comes, the investment is always worth it.

Controlled Chaos

Sometimes your classroom is going to be out of control. It'll be loud. It'll go off topic. Kids will mess around. When this happens, do you have a way to bring them back to earth? No matter the grade level, every teacher needs a quiet signal to get your kids attention. Have one. I don't care what it is. "Give me 5", "If You Can Hear Me...",etc... 

No matter how messy your class gets, if you can bring them back, you'll always have control.

I tried this but......

So you say you're doing this and it still doesn't work. Your class is still out of control. You're still having problems with students. Your next step is to make a plan with administration and parents. This means that you have done every intervention (calling home, guidance, conference, etc.) and this student has not changed. 

This means there's more to the story. You need to completely understand the rules and procedures in your school and how situations like this are addressed. If I have done everything I can for a student, and it still isn't working, then it becomes an administrative issue.

That's It

No matter how many times I work with teachers, they seem to choose the hard way. Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I see teachers use the same strategy with a difficult student, even if it is not working. If it is not working, stop doing it!

Get on the pathway to new management. As the end of the year closes, what in your class needs to change? Did you have processes and procedures this year? Were you consistent? What worked and what did not? Do you truly have classroom management? Reflect on your practice. Take what is good about who you are and bring it into your teaching. Change what doesn't work. Control what you can. Manage what you can't. And don't be afraid of change.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Stop the Assembly Line

The title of this post refers to a conversation I recently had with a new teacher and his disappointment that his mentor teacher did not "gift" him his lesson plans upon completion of his clinical teaching practice.

"But another guy in my class had his mentor teacher give him 40 gigs of lesson materials! 40 GB!"

That's a really great gesture. And I totally get wanting to set up a new teacher with that kind of support to make them successful. But that's so bad for students. And the teacher. It's bad for our profession.

Here's why:

1. You have no clue what grade level you will be teaching. Let's say you are certified 6-12 as a social studies teacher (most states give their certifications in this way). That means that there are a total of 7 grade levels that you could potentially be teaching. Since your mentor gave you buckets of lessons, you didn't prepare for your new gig adequately. Now it's the first day of school and your room looks great, but you have no idea what you are teaching!

2. You have no clue what classes you will be teaching. Let's use social studies again -- You might be teaching US history, Geography, and Civics. What if you are teaching world history? What about another elective like psychology, law, sociology, philosophy, comparative government, religion, etc.? This isn't unique. Your certification entitles you to teach in that content, but within our content we see increasing diversity year by year in course offerings. This doesn't even scratch the surface of interventions or remedial classes or units you might get thrown into.

3. You have no idea what the academic level of your students will be. Let's say your friend with the 40 GB of lessons student taught an AP class at a suburban high school. Those lessons will be basically worthless if he/she is teaching a lower level class in a Title I school. Lessons should be created to match the needs of the students. There is no magic lesson plan that could be given to any student.

4. You have no idea of the cultural background of your future students. A lesson created for a wealthy, majority white suburb will crash and burn in a lower income, majority-minority school. As I said above, there is no magic lesson that can be given to every single student. The magic comes from you building relationships with students, getting to know about them and their culture, and then shaping your lessons to match their academic and cultural background.

So stop the assembly line. There's a feeling among some teachers that once you teach for a couple of years, you have done all the prep work for the entirety of your career. That you can take any student that comes into your classroom and slap your content on them as if they rode through your room on a conveyor belt. And then your job is done.

This in practice is terrible for students, but it's also poison for a teacher's mindset. If you truly believe that you can get to a place in your education career where you no longer have to design learning experiences based on the unique qualities of the learners in your classroom, you are mistaken.

We all have to be reflective and mindful of our students and our relationships with them. We must value professional development and seek to make our practice in the classroom better every day. We must be connected and collaborative with colleagues in ways that challenge us and support us to be better, but don't simply provide with a "magic pill" to fix our teachers.

If you want to be proactive and prepared for your first years, your best bet of finding a stash of lessons will be when you get hired at your first position. Ask your department head and the other members of your content team for access to their lessons (or in most cases, Google Drive folder). I'm sure they'll be more than willing to share. However, you will still have to modify their lessons to reflect your teaching philosophy and your students background. What if the lessons you get are all lecture-based and you like to incorporate student movement or Socratic seminars? What if the lessons you get are for AP but you're teaching on level? What if you like to have students write using a certain strategy or format but the lessons you were given are the complete opposite? For me, I'd rather just put in the extra time to make the lessons (or piece them together from other lessons I find) than use someone else's lessons.

When it all boils down to it, like it nor not, the best lessons are the ones that start between your ears. Now ditch that assembly line and become the artisan your students deserve.

Monday, March 6, 2017

It's Easy for You

Dave Burgess has a great line about the six most insulting words you can hear from a colleague, 

"It's easy for you, you're creative." 

The implications of statements like these, when made by teachers, are serious. First of all, nothing about this is easy. Someone like me that has a lot of passion and energy for what I do, I deal with it daily. There's a suggestion that, for some reason, there are magical fairy teachers out there that don't have to work as hard because they have some sort of natural gift. They were born with the lesson planning gene.  I hear it all the time. Conversations usually start like this:

"How do you manage?"

"When do you sleep?"

"When do you see your family?"

Sure these statements are usually made in jest, and are designed to be complimentary. They make me feel like I am one of the teachers in those crummy clipart pictures, arms folded as I look knowingly at the camera. But when I tell teachers that my personal life is fine, that I get eight hours of sleep (most nights) and that I wrestle with my kids on the living room floor every night, I get the same response.

"Well, I don't have time for that."

I think it goes without saying that no one gets better at anything without some sort of persistent effort. Some sort of personal sacrifice. But in education we are always trying to figure out how we can get away without doing that. Getting maximum output without changing the way we do anything. Newsflash -- you can't.

At some point you have to challenge yourself. Look in the mirror and make a commitment to try something new, get uncomfortable, push the envelope in some way.

I think about the trajectory my career has taken. I began my career as a very mediocre and uninspiring elementary teacher. I apologize to the kids in my classes those first few years. I was worried about myself most of the time -- worried about it being easy. Four years later I quit teaching and took a job working in student affairs at a local college.

After living in the non-teaching world for a year and seeing the soul-sucking nature of not enriching the lives of students every day, I decided to challenge myself. I took a job in a new district, teaching something new. I made a commitment to be outspoken and be a leader. To challenge myself as I challenged my students. Something clicked.

I pushed further. Took on leadership roles. Started coaching. Then I challenged myself to advance my own education with a masters degree. I became invested in my job and I became a teacher leader. And I reached every goal I set for myself.

I continued to challenge myself -- get certifications, present at conferences, mentor other teachers. Things kind of started to snowball. That's gotten me where I am today. The thing is, it's never been easy. It's been work the whole time. Hard work. And I have never loved my job more.

There's no substitute for being good, and there's no way to be good at what you do without tremendous amount of effort. Yet, knowing this, and knowing what it takes for a teacher to move from mediocre to good to great, we still have teachers that say crazy things like...."It's easy for you."

Really, it's not. But even if it is, that's only because it was hard for a long time.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

They don't know what they don't know

Last night I gave a talk to parents about social media. I was asked to briefly discuss the "big ones", Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat -- just discuss how they work and what students do on them.

As I worked my way through the different apps, I was a bit surprised about the questions being asked. The apparent lack of understanding of basic technology kids take for granted. Their parents don't seem to get it. Your kids are on social media and, very often, they are trying to deceive you.

This post isn't to castigate parents for being out of the loop. I understand that. It's hard to be informed on everything with so much going on online. By the time you track your kid down on Facebook, they've moved on to Instagram. Heck, some of the questions got me Googling at the end of the session and I discovered some new apps and sites I didn't even know about...but that's another blog post.

This is just a reminder for me and others who understand kids and tech--we have to shine a light on this stuff. We need to commit to building trust with parents and give them good information about what kids are doing. We need to stay informed. We have a responsibility to understand the digital world and inform parents and students of the costs and risks associated with irresponsible technology use.

Responsiveness is key, both in understanding the landscape, and knowing how the kids we are in charge of are navigating it. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Beta Culture EDU

There's a new epidemic invading our software and devices -- maybe you have noticed it. You just downloaded an app suddenly it crashes. Maybe your phone restarts at odd times. Your buggy video game keeps lagging. These sometimes annoying, sometimes odd, sometimes infuriating moments are signals to an increasingly prevalent beta culture.

Strange term, I know. For those that aren't familiar, beta culture is a trend where products that typically spend weeks or months in testing are finding their way to your fingertips much more quickly. It used to be that testing cycles ruled release dates. Nothing made it out until it was perfect--until enough data had been collected to ensure that test groups were satisfied with a product. Now, many companies are willing to put an imperfect product in your hands knowingly, realizing that you won't mind. In fact, you have become the beta tester. You are providing feedback directly about the product you have invested in, hoping that it will improve.

When we think about the implications this has for our culture--and education by extension--this is actually a pretty interesting mindset shift. We have gone from expecting perfection and refusing anything less, to accepting an interesting idea on its merit. And wanting more enough that we are willing to be part of the growth future of the product.

Another interesting implication of this shift is the acknowledgment of the audience as the barometer for success. Sometimes our vision for a product isn't even what people want -- maybe they like a feature or an interface -- something that isn't even essential to the original idea.

I like this graphic from Demetri Martin that shows what success looks like - it's an involved journey that takes you many places, not a straight shot from point A to point B.

Beta culture actually suggests another wrinkle to this graphic. That we recognize it's a process. We accept something isn't perfect, and that's okay. We still put our idea out for the world to see, and use the feedback to create something people really love.

How can we change assessment or our vision of academic success to reflect this cultural shift? How can we create feedback models that will inform development of ideas in ways that best meet the needs of our audience?

I don't know all the answers to those questions, but I think this is something we should definitely consider as we look to the future. When we emphasize things like growth mindset, entrepreneurial spirit, and design thinking, we must concede that beta culture is naturally a part of that. How can we use it?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sweet Ideas for Valentine's Day Tech

Something we often take for granted is how much kids care about holidays. While most folks probably stopped caring about things like Valentine's Day years ago -- your students still think it's a big deal! Why would you throw this engagement opportunity away??? Instead, let's use it to catch our students' attention and trick them into learning a few things while we're at it! Read on to check out four "sweet ideas" for integrating tech this Valentine's Day.

1. Culture Reports

Something most holidays are useful for is a good old fashioned research project. You might be surprised to find that while most of the world celebrates Valentine's Day in some way, many cultures do it in different ways and for different reasons. Have your students check out some articles and then report back to the class how different cultures clash on their celebration of the day. Here are some articles I have used in the past:
There are tons more articles like this on the net. Have students do a share out on something like Padlet, have them compare and contrast with a mind map on Coggle, or have them create a screencast where they discuss as a news report or podcast. 

2. Historical/Literary Reenactments

You know, where might not be a more appropriate or acceptable time to discuss the great love stories that have occurred throughout time than on Valentine's Day. I mean, can you considered how you might reimagine the love story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra? Pop 'em into Blabberize and have your students relate the historical love of the tortured couple in their own words. 

Want to make it literary? You can do the same thing with Romeo and Juliet, Katherine and Heathcliff, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy -- I mean there are tons of directions you can go with this one.

Or just have students come up with their own love stories. The written expression of love isn't for everyone, but if that's what a kid wants to write, let them script out the love story and design their own characters. Even more creative!

You can even get the little ones involved with ABCYa's Talkify app. Talking pictures have never been so fun!

3. eCard Publishing

Another direction you might go is with some traditional writing and composition projects. Poetry is an easy route here. Read Write Think has a nice themed poem designer for Valentine's Day. It structures the prewriting and the drafting right in the app -- it would work for primary on up for most grades, although it might seem juvenile for older learners. 

Festisite is another similar tool that provides the structure while the student provides the words. The heart template will serve the needs of most for a Valentine's Day creation. A lot of fun for students of all ages.

Of course, if you want to make the creation a bit more authentic, you might have students create their own ecards rather than using these auto designing publishers. Piccollage is a way for students to use their own pictures to create ecards. Canva is a great desktop publishing tool on the web where students will have a number of tools at their disposal to create very slick, professional looking cards, depending on the time and effort they want to put into it. Another option would be a create a Google Slides template for students to copy and edit to their own liking. Saving a slide as a PDF is just another way of publishing your own ecard.

4. Video Projects

Video is always my go to for creation tasks -- if we can make a project that ends with a video, that's usually pretty fun and engaging for our students. Adobe Spark Videos are quick, easy, and allow for pretty simple customizations. A great way to create a video card for students if they want to really impress their friends or family. 

Sorry for the hacky, schmaltzy video -- quick and easy 😁.

Valentine's Day clearly gives you a lot of options for student creation tasks. Depending on what you want to do with it, there is a great variety of what your students can end up with. When it comes down to it, as long as you are giving your students a chance to create something and show it to the world, you can't go wrong.