Tag Archives: innovative teaching and learning

Finding the Genius

This was a fantastic story, shared and created by Michael Wesch:

What I loved about this was the idea that sometimes our perceptions of students, lead to their new reality.  If we think of a student as lazy, what things do we do that actually feed into that?  But if we look for their strengths and how to build upon them, that perception also becomes a reality.

This is one of my favourite images on that very topic, most likely inspired by the Einstein quote,

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing that it is stupid.”

climb a tree

If we hold a certain knowledge that others don’t hold, it doesn’t make us smarter than them.  It just means that we have different strengths.  In the mechanic that doesn’t have a high school degree, yet can fix my car, I see genius. Finding that genius is part of what great educators do.

“Fads” and Innovation

It is easy to dismiss something as a “fad”.  I hear that a lot and the word is obviously used to dismiss something.  I have used it myself, but I have been really rethinking this idea in the terms of education.

“Growth Mindset” might be considered a fad. The “flipped classroom” might be considered a fad.  “Maker Spaces” even might be considered a fad.

But for any of these things to even be considered a fad, they have to be widely embraced by a large amount of people.  Anything that is widely adopted or embraced, quickly becomes widely criticized as well.  What is important to note is not that we shouldn’t ask questions or challenge popular thinking.  I believe that makes us all better.  But simply dismissing something as a “fad”, especially as an educator, sometimes shows a lack of willingness to learn about the strengths of any one trend.  There are things that I would challenge and question about all of the things I listed (flipped classroom, growth mindset, maker spaces), but what I do know for sure, is that these things have people asking questions about their practice.  That’s a good thing.

Even though no idea is perfect, there are always elements that will help students, if we choose to look for them.  They may not help every student, but I have yet to see any one thing that helps every student.  Learning is extremely personal, and there will be no “standardized” idea that solves all of the problems in education.

Challenging and questioning ideas is great, but simply dismissing them and labeling them as a “fad” might actually alienate the people that are trying to create something better for kids.

3 Ways to Curate and Share Great Content

One thing that I pride myself on, is the ability to curate and share the work of others.  I have been blessed with a huge network on social media and I want to use that to not only share my voice, but hopefully the voice of others as well.  There are certain blogs that I like reading all of the time, but I also want to find the “best” stuff that is being shared right now, so if I limit it to what I already know, then it is much harder to find that.  That is why I have a few different spaces to find and share content.  Many people ask me how I “find my stuff”, so I wanted to show and share how I curate information.

  1. Inoreader – After Google Reader dissolved (sigh), I wanted to find a great RSS reader that looked similar.  After much research, I settled with Inoreader (inoreader.com), which was a great way for me to add and share blog posts.  With this service, I could easily make my own “bundles” of blogs by any category that I would want to create.  This way I was getting some of my favourite content coming to me, instead of going to it.  Here is how my home page looks:

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What I also loved about this site, was how easy it was to share to social media sites.  On the bottom right of each article is a “share” button, so you can do it directly from Inoreader.  If I know someone blogs consistently I add it to my reader, but if they don’t post for awhile, I don’t have to worry about constantly checking for updates.  It is a minimalist site and that is why I prefer using it.  Less is better sometimes when trying to find information.

2. Zite –  Zite is a mobile app that finds articles for you based on things that are popular in your “network”, or based on topics of your own personal interest.  What I like about this site is that it often helps me find stuff that wouldn’t necessarily be in my blog bundles and it becomes a personalized magazine.  If I don’t like the content being shared, I can give it the “thumbs down” and it will note that for the future.  Here is how the interface looks on my main page.

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Again, nice and clean.

The other awesome aspect is the ease of sharing from your device for the content.  You can share to a plethora of social networks (again, on the bottom right corner).  Zite gives me unique content, but it is important to be aware that if you share or read a blog from any author, it will note that and eventually always share that post.  This is both good and bad, as I try to use that space to find unique information.

3. Tweetdeck –  I love Twitter, but it is very hard to information on any topic unless you utilize hashtags or lists to help you out.  Tweetdeck (tweetdeck.com) allows me to search by hashtags, and even if I am not following someone, if they share to the hashtag that I am following, it is really helpful.  Here is a snapshot below:

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My very good friend and AMAZING leader, Dwight Carter, shared an amazing analogy on hashtags, likening them to “TV channels”.  As shown by the image above, the “channels” I am watching for content (in this example), are #psd70 (my school district), and #cpchat (Connected Principals Chat).  This way I can see what is being shared in my school district, while also seeing what other educators are sharing that they feel is relevant to school administrators.  What is important to note here is that #cpchat is not exclusive to only school administrators sharing to the hashtag, but anyone that feels the information they have found is relevant to school administrators.  I try to help people find content by filtering it for them.  For example, if I find something that is great for kindergarten teachers, I would use #kinderchat.  For science teachers, I would use #scichat in my tweets.  This helps others find great stuff in an area of interest.  (Here is a list of educational twitter hashtags from Jerry Blumengarten to help if this is new to you.)

Many people ask “who should I follow?”  I always try to encourage them to find a hashtag that is relevant to them first.  If you are a math teacher, following other math teachers does not mean that they will share stuff related to the topic. But if you follow #mathchat, the opportunity to find stuff that you are interested in on that topic, is more likely to happen.

This list is not meant to be the only way that you can curate and find content, it is simply part of the way that I do it.  I encourage you to write in the comments any other ways you find content and share it with others.  This is something that I think is important for educators to do, because it is also something students should understand and make part of their learning as well.

Hopefully this helps some people find and share their own content as well.

Building Relationships Through the Use of Technology

What do you want leaders to do with tech?

This graphic above that I  created with Bill Ferriter is something that I hope sparks conversations, but also stories of how these things are already happening in schools.  I am going to use it as a guide to show how technology can enhance, amplify, and accelerate leadership. I encourage others to share their stories from one of the “better answers” above.

Building Relationships

As I was at an admin meeting as a principal, and listening to something that really had nothing to do with the my own school or building, I remember usually using this time to catch up on email.  Since I had to stay at the meeting, I thought that I would use this time in a valuable way.  One time though, I decided that I would read student blogs since they had just started.  I was blown away by some of the things that kids were writing, so I decided to comment and share some of my thoughts with them.  This was a great way for me to connect with our students while I was out of the building and get a glimpse into their learning.

What I didn’t realize was the impact that this would have on our students.  I remember coming back to school and seeing a few of the students that I commented on their blogs and it felt like they were ready to throw a parade for me.  It was amazing at how excited they were that I simply commented on their blog, but then I thought about it.  I would have been so excited if my principal would have done the same thing when I was a student, but the reality is that when I was a kid that it didn’t exist.  Many of the students appreciated the time that I took to write something simple to them and acknowledge not only what they were creating and sharing, but also how hard they were working.

After this experience, I went out of my way to comment to as many of my teacher and student blogs, no matter what they had shared.  Reading a blog is beneficial to the reader, but commenting actually really connected to the person willing to share their thoughts. Even if it was a simple announcement of something that happened in the classroom, taking the time to read and, more importantly, comment, helped to create better connections when I saw the people trying something new in person. I would not hide myself in my office and comment to student or teacher blogs, but would do this when I had some down time, as I tried to connect in person as much as I could when I was in the building.

What I have truly believed is that technology isn’t meant to replace face-to-face interactions, but if anything, it can enhance them.  Those couple of minutes of commenting, actually created something where my students showed that they appreciated my effort, and I theirs.  Being able to show that you value someone, even from afar, is still showing them they are valued.

Technology used in these meaningful ways can create connections that we might not have necessarily been able to create from afar before.

Don’t Over Plan Day One

Leaders Today

Lately, I have been doing more and more workshops starting with nothing on my agenda.  I have a topic that I suggest we talk about and an idea of what we can work on, but what I have noticed is that we never stick to the agenda as a group, so why am I spending an inordinate amount of time putting something together that we are not doing.  My focus does not start with the learning, but with the learners.  Their questions and thoughts now lead the session, not only what I think they should learn.  Although, I don’t over plan my sessions, I believe that my understanding of the topic allows me to go in different directions.  That being said though, I will never know everything on any topic, whether I am deemed an expert or not, but because of this crazy invention called the “Internet”, and all of the people that are in the room, I know we can figure out whatever we need for that time.

As I thought about this process, I connected it to my first days of school as a teacher, when I first started my career in education. It was basically the exact opposite.  I would spend days preparing my classroom and decorating it, and even though, I would say it is “our classroom”, the items on the walls were my choice.  I would even have each child’s name written down as a welcome on a basketball, because I wanted them to feel welcome.  The problem is, the basketball was about what I loved, not what they loved.  If you hated playing sports, and you walked into a classroom that featured your name on a basketball, you might not feel very welcomed at all.

Then came the icebreaker activities.  If you are an introvert, day one is going to be extremely tough for you, because we are going to make you get up, walk around, ask and answer questions that totally make you feel uncomfortable, because the student being uncomfortable doing something they hate, is not as important as me feeling safe that the entire day is planned out with things to do.

Wrong.

What if you wanted to learn the student’s names, you asked them to create their own art to display it on which represents something they love?

Instead of decorating the room with what you think should be on the walls, ask the students what they would like the room to look like, and plan how you could shape and decorate it, over time.

Instead of planning the entire day, why not create opportunities to talk to them and learn about them, and get a feel for what your year, or even the day could look like?

If I really think about how the year started for me as a teacher, it was more about the students to get to know me, than it was about me getting to know them.  There actually should be a balance.  Trust and respect are reciprocal feelings; they are not earned only from one direction.

This is not to say don’t plan anything, but to really think about the tone you are setting at the beginning of the year with what you are doing.  Is this more about you, or the students?  Looking back at my own practices, the answer was definitive.  I am trying to get better.

The major shift here is from engagement to empowerment.  I wanted to make sure the students had enjoyed their day, but now I see the importance in not only saying that it is their room, but making it their room.  If we want to create the leaders of tomorrow, there is no better time to develop our students as leaders than today.

The “Basics” and Innovation

I heard a story once that really resonated with me (I will share it as best as I can from memory), in where an artist is creating art on the street, and a person walks by and wants a picture drawn of themselves.  The artist shares the price of fifty dollars to the patron, to which they agree, and so they start to draw.  Ten minutes later, the artist completes the beautiful piece that is so amazingly creative.  Even though the patron is very happy with the creativity and the high quality of the piece, they challenge the cost of fifty dollars, believing that something that took such a short time to create should not have the high price tag.  The artist responded, it took me ten years to be able to do it in ten minutes; much of the work that I have done to be able to draw this picture so quickly, you have never seen.

This story really resonated with me as I was reading article after article tonight about the battle between the “basics” versus “innovation” in education.  It seems that you may be on one side or the other, but here I lie in the middle.  To be able to be innovative in any area, there often needs to be a fundamental understanding of basic concepts.  To be a great musician, at some point, you would have had to learn some basic concepts of music.  The speed that you may have learned them in can vary from person to person, but you learn them.  The best writers in the world at some point learned how to read and write.  There are always exceptions to the rule, and I am sure that the real life Matt Damon from the movie “Good Will Hunting” exists, but this is not the norm.

I believe that the “basics” in many areas are still important in our world, and maybe sometimes I guess that is an assumed notion. But I also think that many students didn’t learn the “basics” in the way they were taught when I went to school.  I think about those students and then how we have access to so much information in our world from educators, parents, students, and communities, that the opportunities to help as many kids as possible is something that we need to access and capitalize upon.  But I also think about my own experience in school, and even though in grades one to probably around grade seven, my marks were usually in the top three of all students in my classroom, yet I never felt smart enough because I wasn’t ever number one.  Being ranked in school continuously led me to the Ricky Bobby belief that “if you’re not first, you’re last”, and I kind of mailed it in for the rest of the time as my student, was barely accepted in university, and struggled academically for years.  I knew the basics but never really saw myself becoming anything.  I never saw myself as a writer, a mathematician, a scientist, or anything academic.  And do you know why I went to university?  Because my parents made me go.  Not because I had an epiphany when I was six years old that I was going to be a teacher and did everything to get to that point.  My parents expected me to go to university so I did, and after four years of floating around, I then decided to go into education.  I took six years to get a four year degree.

So why did I do well in my first years of school? To please my teachers.

Why did I get through university? To please my parents.

And why did I become a teacher? Because I didn’t really know what else to do.

At about the age of 31, was the first time I identified myself as an educator not by profession, but by passion.  That took someone tapping into my strengths and interests, and helping me see those things in myself.

At about age 35 is when I first viewed myself as truly a learner. And now five years later, I am starting to see myself as a writer.  In eighteen years of school as a student, writing paper after paper, I never once saw myself as a writer, but at the age of 35 where I felt I could finally explore my own passions, did I even start to really go deep into my own learning.  And after almost 1000 posts am I starting to see myself as a writer.  I am thankful that I have found a love for what I do, and I do not see it as a “job” but as part of my being.  That is a beautiful thing.

Did my experience of school help me get here?  Absolutely, and I am thankful to so many teachers who spent so much time helping me to create the opportunities that I have today.  Without those “basics”, that were not only reinforced in my education, but also at home, amongst a myriad of other factors, I would not be doing what I am doing today.  The question I have though is why didn’t I see myself as those things earlier? More importantly, as an educator, how do I help students see themselves in that light as well.  Believe me, as someone who believes powerfully in the notion of “innovation in education”, I still cringe at spelling mistakes.  I hate them.  I would love kids to be able to know their times tables, not simply discount them as something a calculator will do for them.  But here is the thing…You might know how to read and write, but that doesn’t make a you writer.  If you are a writer though, you know how to read and write; that’s a given.

As I think about the next time someone challenges me with the question, “what about the basics?”, my thought is that there are so many educators that not only want that for our students, but so much more.  My parents came to Canada not to provide the same opportunities that they had back in Greece, but to create something better.  That is my drive as an educator; to create a better version of school than what I experienced.  It is not that I think less of my own  teachers as a student, but that I want to build on what they have done.  My hope is that the future teachers of the world will not recreate what this generation has done, but make something so much better.  Is that not our wish for each generation? To do better than what we have done?

What made the artist spend ten years to be able to draw the picture in ten minutes?  It was not only practicing the basics, but at some point, they were inspired and saw themselves as an artist. Hopefully schools can be a part of that spark.

Sometimes We Just Need To Ask

What’s your dream job? Have you ever been asked?

As a principal and vice principal, nearing the end of every year, when when our leadership team would look at staffing, we would send out an email to all staff and ask them, “As we are currently undergoing staffing, we were wondering if you could describe your dream position next year, what would it be?”  Obviously, there was only so much we could do if you said astronaut or reality tv personality, but in the context of the school, we wondered what opportunities could we create.

What was important in asking this question, was simply, asking the question.  We could not guarantee that we could create the job that you wanted, but if we encouraged people to share what they had dreamed of doing, maybe we could?  As an elementary principal, I remember one teacher saying that although they loved working with grade five students, they would really like to work with kindergarten or grade one students.  The crazy thing was we had a grade one teacher, that wanted to work with our older students.  A simple swap was made, and both did amazing at their jobs, and unbelievably grateful for the opportunity.

Another teacher shared how much he loved teaching one subject and wasn’t too passionate about the other.  They loved working with students but really wanted to be passionate about the subjects they taught.  A couple of adjustments and it was done!

I also remember our grade two teacher at the time saying, “My dream job is teaching grade two and I get to live it every single day, but I just want to tell you how much I appreciate you asking in the first place.”

Giving people the opportunities to try something new or pursue something they love is not something we should only value for our students, but also our staff.  Sometimes people are afraid to share what they want because they didn’t even know it was a possibility in the first place. The way we saw it, was that if we can move people into positions where they feel most passionate about what they are doing, they are more likely to be successful as individuals, elevating the organization as a whole.  What was surprising was how many times we could actually accommodate the requests.

I wouldn’t have known that in the first place, and that is why we asked.

Understanding and Removing Barriers

Grant Wiggins, a visionary education reformer who has made a tremendous impact now and will continue to do so even after his recent passing, and was one of the developers of “Understanding by Design” (with Jay McTighe), shared a powerful “guest” blog post of a learning coach mirroring two students for a day each in her school (it was later acknowledged to be written by Alexis Wiggins).  Here was the initial plan for the process from Alexis:

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

The post was telling as it shared how much Alexis struggled through the process of “being a student”, and it led her to the following three key takeaways:

    1. Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
    2. High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.
    3. You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

Now the point of sharing this is not to challenge the ideas that she shared (as this is from the perspective of her school at the time), but to think about the process.  This is not the norm for many students in schools around the world, but as leaders, how do we know this?  Do we often make assumptions in what is happening in our school, or do we actually experience something different?  One of the toughest groups to teach in the world is other teachers, and to go from that viewpoint, some of the expectations we have on our students, is not something we could handle for an hour, let alone, a full day.  The one quote from the blog post that really resonated for me, was when the student was asked about her perspective in class:

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, and how little of their learning they are directing or choosing.

Can you imagine going to a place every day where you felt your voice didn’t matter?  That part shook me.

The power of this post was not only in what was written by the author, but also the comments (there were 285 as of the time that I referenced this article and probably they will continue to receive more), that came from a variety of people, including students and educators.  The comments had a range of stories shared from personal experiences as a student, and struggles to accommodate something different as a teacher.  The reality of the learning environments that happen in our classrooms, are that they are not only created by the teacher, but the entire school.  If this is what school looks like for our students, what are we doing as leaders to help support to create something new?

The Impact of Our Decisions

One of my own thoughts as a central office administrator, was to be in our schools as much as often, to support our educators.  If you really love education, this can never happen enough, but I saw this as crucial to the work I was doing.  If my decisions had an impact on classrooms, then I better experience and see the impact of those decisions.

What I would often do is take my laptop and sit in a classroom in a school for anywhere between three to six hours, where I would get to the point that the teachers and students did not even notice I was there.  That way I could really see what their experiences looked like.  What I struggle with in our mobile world, is how reluctant we are to take our computers as leaders and do some of the administrative work in our classrooms?  I could answer my email a lot faster in my quiet office, but there are so many reasons why I would rather do it in the classroom.

What needs to be clear in this process is that I was not there to evaluate the teachers.  In fact, it was more to evaluate the environment that was created by the school district.  What I had noticed is how much “other stuff” teachers had to do, to make things work.  Whether it was going through an arduous logon process with students, or constant issues with WiFi, they looked less like teachers, and more like magicians.  From an IT department perspective, Internet is often “fast” and the logon process is quick, but times that by 20-30 students in a classroom (if you are lucky), and you have many frustrated educators that go above and beyond to create powerful learning opportunities for our students.

If we want “innovation” to happen in our schools, we have to be willing to sit in the environments where it is going to happen, and be able to not only discuss teaching and learning, but also do everything in our power to remove barriers from those that we serve.  One of the things that I have noticed in education is that we do not need “managers”, but we need “leaders”.

The truth is we need both.

We need leaders to have a vision of where we can go in our schools, but the “management” part is about making sure we have what we need to get there.  Stephen Covey (paraphrased) said that we manage things, but we lead people.  The educators that we serve, need the “things” to work if we truly want to create a “culture of innovation”, and support in creating an environment that we would truly want to be in as a learner ourselves.

Resilience and Innovation in Education

“The person who says it cannot be done, should not interrupt the person doing it.” Chinese Proverb

Oh if it were that easy!

The reality of the work of someone with the “innovator’s mindset” is that the work is going to be questioned because it is something new and can often make those around them uncomfortable. Comments like “let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater” are often disguises of a fear of moving forward. If you really think about change, many people are comfortable with a known average, than the possibility of an unknown great.  With that in mind, to be innovative, we will have to focus on moving forward even when there is risk of failure and being criticized involved.

Trying something new is always going to be up for a challenge, and I have watched so many struggle when that challenge becomes public.  It is not about ignoring the naysayer (sometimes you should really listen to them), but about having the conviction to push forward and do something that you believe will make a difference.  As I listened to the first episode of the podcast “Startup”, one of the things they talked about is the importance of passion and conviction to become successful.

If you don’t believe in your idea, why would anyone else?

One thing that I have learned from my experience as an educator is to always focus on the question “what is best for kids” when thinking about creating new ideas to further your work in schools.  If you are trying something new in the context of learning, and this question is at the forefront of how you make your decisions, you are doing the right thing.

The other pushback you may face from trying something different is actually from the students.  As stated earlier, many of our students are so used to “school” that something outside the lines of what they know terrifies them just as much as any adult.  If school has become a “checklist” for our students (through doing rubrics, graduation requirements, etc.), learning that focuses on creation and powerful connections to learning, not only take more effort, but more time, which sometimes frustrates many students.  Yet if we do not challenge our students in the learning they do in school, what are we preparing them for? What mindset will we actually create in our students?  It is important, if not crucial, to really listen and act upon student voice, but it is also just as important to help our students become resilient and face adversity in the school environment.

Being a huge basketball fan, I remember watching Phil Jackson coach the Lakers, and when the other team had some success against them and most coaches would have called a timeout, Phil Jackson made them struggle to learn to work their way out of it; they could not be dependent upon someone coming in to save them (Phil Jackson has the most championships of any coach in NBA history). Do we create spaces for our own students that pushes them out of their comfort zone and they have to work themselves out of it, or do we provide the solutions for them?  It is important to understand when to help a student back up, but it is also important to help them sometimes figure it out on their own.

Resilience is not only needed to be developed as an “innovator”, but just as a human. Life is full of ups and downs, but how you recover and move forward is not just important to how we learn, but how we live.

IN TO THE

Competition Is Great Depending on Who Wins

“Collaboration” is one of the words that is often discussed in what is crucial for our students today.  There are so many variations and quotes surrounding the idea that we are better together, and with that, I would totally agree.  The problem sometimes with this is that collaboration is often seen as the opposite of competition. In reality, the two should actually support one another.

Here is when competition is bad…

School “A” is competing with school “B” for students.  Because of that, they are not willing to share the things that they are doing with other schools because these are now “trade secrets”, and giving them away to the “competition”, might actually reduce enrolment.  Although the idea of not sharing your stuff to gain a competitive advantage, is sometimes a fallacy (if no one knows you are doing anything great, why would they come?), this mindset is not about helping kids, but helping ourselves.

And here is where competition is great…

I was having a conversation with a district level coordinator that told me about two high schools using the same hashtag to share amongst their schools for the same subject.  The collaboration between the schools was beneficial to not only the teachers, but more importantly the students.  The competition came in when one of the schools did an activity that the other school was not doing and the kids thought it was amazing.  Not wanting to be outdone, the other school quickly had their own similar activity, with some tweaks to make it better.  Both of these schools are more than willing to help one another, yet not wanting to be outdone.  Who is the ultimate winner of this competition? The kids.

I don’t know one teacher that wants to have the classroom that kids don’t want to go to, yet I have seen a lot of teachers that are reluctant to share. When we see “sharing” as something that both supports and pushes us to be better, the big winner will always be our students.

Competition is only a bad word in education if our students are the ones losing out.

When we see sharing as something that