Thursday, June 27, 2019

5 Questions to Help You Reflect on the Past School Year

By this point in June, many teachers have wrapped up their latest school year and are enjoying a relaxing summer. Our school year ended two weeks ago and I've been doing some reflecting on it.

For me it definitely was not one of the best in my career. Still, there were some extremely positive moments and I learned a few important lessons. In an effort to clarify and remember, I came up with this short list of reflection questions to work through. I hope you also find it helpful.

1)  How did the past school year compare to the ideal one I hold in my mind? 

Before answering, reflect on your picture of the ideal teacher having a great year. Common advice I get from many colleagues is to "be realistic", essentially prompting me to loosen up on those ideals. Well balance is important, I think we can gain a lot by mining those visions that drew us to the profession.

When comparing your ideal to the reality of the past year, don't just think of it overall. Write down the highs and lows that come to mind. When were things closest to the ideal? What stands out in those times? When was it furthest away? Why?

2)  What was the best thing I learned this year about being a good teacher?

Maybe it jumps right out at you, but in my case I had to start listing things. I thought back over the months and jotted down notes. There were lessons I would have forgotten had I not plumbed deeper.

Make a list of things you learned or things that you knew but that were made more real to you. Pick one or two that you think are most important. It's a good exercise to state them succinctly. If you can take the time, make a post about it and share it on social media.

3)  What habits, practices or resources need to change so my upcoming year will be better?

As I said, the past school year was a challenging one and I found myself abandoning a lot of practices--or at least vowing to in my frustration. If it's not working, why would I keep doing it? Right?

There's no doubt there's a time to let things go or to break patterns. But sometimes it's better to make some adjustments to them. From specific lesson plans to daily habits or even colleagues you hang out with, what are some changes you could make?

Of course, I don't mean to imply you can fix everything with some changes. Not all the less than ideal (or outright dreadful) aspects of a school year are within your control. Identify those too as you reflect.

4)  What should I stop doing?

Are there things you need to let go entirely? If you decided in the previous question that some things were beyond salvaging, list them here.

5)  What actions can I take between now and the new school year to make it my best year ever?

I wouldn't get too hung up on the goal setting, but it is important to set direction and some deadlines. Along with any plan, set a time in three or four weeks when you can review your list and see if you're making progress.

If you found this helpful or if you have any reflection practices you like, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an email to let me know.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Open Door

I had one of those moments this week when I feel both the excitement and terrifying responsibility of my job.

We started a new semester with the Communications and the Media class. I've written a lot about it on my other blog. I enjoy it immensely. If only we had a class like that when I was in school!

So I came in the class to give my usual pep talk. I explained the importance of being able to communicate with video and how tech allows us to be creative and reach many people. 

I talked about opening the door of opportunity. I told them I'm waiting for someone from our school, possibly that very class, to accomplish something big. I want them to discover their talents and passions as they use digital tools to reach many people in ways they never dreamed. 

I assure them this has nothing about getting an English credit. It's about personal potential and being amazed at how much we can do. I think only in epic. 

After my short intro I gave them a survey so the teacher and I could divide them into different jobs by their interest. Before I saw the results from the survey I talked with her about a couple characters in that class that I suspected could be hard to motivate. One I knew, the other not so much. Already both of them had been resistant to something she asked of them the day before. 

I looked through the surveys. Both of those students indicated they were interested in being on a tech team. One picked the live video announcements and the other chose our roaming "features and on-site" crew. 

The thing is, for both of those teams I listed an option of "not interested in this group". They heard something in what I said or saw something in our previous school news program that sparked their interest. 

I find that so encouraging that these guys, both hardened by a routine of assignments and tests for credit, had at least an inkling of interest in creating something to show the school. At the same time, it is frightening that now I have to do my part with these two. I mean, they might give up at the first frustrating tech challenge. We always have some. Could I really help them see learning can be life changing?

I have to trust we were not brought together by accident. The job I have has always felt like a gift. I believe the things I told the class about the door of opportunity and their potential. I believe they have a purpose to achieve and the technology can make it happen. 

We will see how it goes. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Is It Worth Giving Up a Weekend?

"Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from." -Seth Godin

I've worked as an instructional tech trainer for ten years now. I've learned many people just assume technology should save us time. It's so obvious to them that it goes without saying. The automatic question in their mind is How can this thing help me save time or make my job easier?

When the tool looks complicated instead, or if the resulting project we could complete with it seems too daunting, well, why would anyone bother with that?

Of course, a lot of tech does make life easier and it gets jobs done faster. But for all those people using tech to save time and make it easy, there are a few who see what amazing things can be accomplished with tech plus hard work.

Why settle for average?

The most memorable projects I've done exhausted me. They surprised me with how much work they involved. Like the time I gave up most of my holiday break editing the music videos I made with fifth graders, they can make me wonder if I'm crazy.

But that's what it takes to accomplish something amazing.

And we do all want amazing, don't we?

Friday, April 6, 2018

Excellence in Education Award

This is a post copied from my Classroom Games and Tech blog.

I've been wondering if I need to trim back on the extra work I do in education, then I was notified recently that I won the Excellence of Education Award from the Michigan Lottery.

The honor brought with it some interviews (one on camera, which is part of the video below) and some soul searching. It has been a great honor and a chance to sort out what I've done right over the past two decades. It's given me much to consider as I plan the rest of 2018.

Candidates for the award are nominated by students or staff members from their district. In my case Melinda Newcombe nominated me. Melinda is a high school English teacher I've worked with for a long time now. She will tell you I immediately questioned her judgment when I found out I won. I eventually decided it would be better to go with it than offend her!

I decided two things if I was going to accept the award. First, I have to give God credit if I have ever done anything right in education. Teaching has been an uphill struggle for me, especially those fourteen years trying to teach high school math. While some of it fit my personality, a lot of it certainly did not. I decided teaching is a calling and I stuck with it. I learned to pray about it and trust I was where I was supposed to be. 

My book for success would have two chapters--Trust God and Marry Well. I don't know much after that.

Second, I hoped this would bring some positive attention to our district. I work with many excellent educators, many better than I could hope to be and many who helped me be better. 

The only reason I would get recognized over them is because I work with so many more teachers and students. It increases my chance to be noticed. If I had to pick one of them to nominate, I honestly don't know how I could ever choose between them.

As anyone in education will tell you, good teachers make tremendous sacrifices for their students. I see many at LakeVille doing that every day and this has been a reminder to do better at highlighting their successes.

If you're interested in seeing the announcement for the award, it's here.

And here is the video as it aired from one station. (Note that they put the wrong name on the screen for the person who nominated me. I made sure it was corrected at other stations, but their videos weren't so easy to embed.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

10 Takeaways from A Mind for Numbers by Dr. Barbara Oakley

When I was editing the second part of our epic* Learning Journey Series, I was excited to come across this article from Mindshift about Dr. Barbara Oakley. Our video series uses a hike as a metaphor for learning, so this quote from Dr. Oakley caught my attention.

“There’s a race car brain and a hiker brain. They both get to the finish line, but not at the same time. The race car brain gets there really fast, but everything goes by in a blur. The hiker brain takes time. It hears birds singing, sees the rabbit trails, feels the leaves. It’s a very different experience and, in some ways, much richer and deeper. You don’t need to be a super swift learner. In fact, sometimes you can learn more deeply by going slowly.”

I watched her TED Talk and immediately was hooked by how she makes the science of learning practical.

I looked up her book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and recorded my top 10 takeaways below.

Two things to keep in mind before I start my list:

Dr. Oakley hated math when she was in school. She did not feel she was good at that subject or science In her mid-twenties, however, she decided to get a degree in engineering. She learned how to excel at both subjects and now she is a professor of engineering. Her personal experience plus years of studying how we learn best resulted in this book and much of her other work.

Though I'm excited about what I learned from it, I was a little disappointed in the book. I’ve been working in the middle school math class a lot this year. I had high hopes for the book after I read the description. I was let down only because I think a lot of the people who found hope in the book’s title would not finish reading it. It is long, overly repetitious at times and it could use some more concrete examples in parts. I don't know if a struggling learner would press through it to glean the important lessons it holds, especially if they're also trying to keep up in a class. I do recommend it highly to teachers, thought, since they can take the key ideas and bring them to struggling learners.

So let’s get on with those key ideas:

1)  Most importantly, this book continually reminds us that anyone can learn anything. Dr. Oakley’s story is powerful, but so are the many others she highlights throughout. She tells their stories and at the end of the chapters, she lets some people tell their own stories. She says persistence is often more important than intelligence when it comes to learning.

2)  We can get too caught up in following our passions. Dr. Oakley knows from experience that sometimes passion can come after we learn we can succeed at something. It’s a powerful lesson for anyone growing up in this time of rapid change:  Try it. Once you learn it, you might discover you have a passion for it.

3)  There are two types of thinking and we need to employ both when learning complex concepts. There’s focused thinking, which comes to mind for most of us when we consider learning. That’s putting in the hours, with full attention on the task. But there’s also diffused thinking, which takes place in our subconscious, after we stop focusing. I can attest to this, as I often find the right way to organize my paper or the right line for a song after I close my computer and walk out to make tea. Regular breaks in studying is important.

4)  Besides regular breaks, make it a habit to learn math and science steadily, studying and practicing every day. Also review topics over time. Returning to them again and again over time helps move the ideas into long term memory.

5)  Chunking is a major concept in the book. I think of it as compressing a lot of related ideas or a concept. As you need to use those ideas, solutions or procedures, you can unpack the whole concept quickly without holding every piece in your limited working memory. It aids in problem solving.

In my own teaching, I use the trip from our homes to school as an example of a “chunk”. For most of us, that trip involves a lot of roads and turns to remember, but we can just think of it as “on the way home”. We travel it without realizing most of it and minor changes to the plan are easily accounted for. We don’t freak out and forget everything just because one road is blocked or because we have to stop at the post office sometimes.

6)  Practice, understanding the basic ideas and focused attention help build these important chunks of understanding. Learning on your own can also help. Also (as teachers will tell you) this deep understanding can develop from explaining concepts to others. And warning:  Dr. Oakley specifically points out multi-tasking when studying makes it very unlikely you’ll develop this deep understanding.

7)  Our focused approach to learning and even our focused attention can trick us into thinking we know something better than we do. Reading notes or a book over and over, for example, can make us feel we learned a lot, when really it might not stick. Instead, practice recalling the information from memory. At the end of every chapter, she reminds us to look away and try to remember the list of items in the chapter summary.

8)  Get enough sleep. When preparing for a test, if you don’t get your rest, you probably undid any other preparations you made.

9)  Dr. Oakley refers frequently to the Pomodoro Technique when learning or setting any important habit for success. The idea is you set a timer for 25 minutes and ignore all distractions during that time as you work on a task. When the timer goes off, reward yourself with a short break.

10)  Build discipline and fight procrastination by committing to important routines and tasks each day. It helps to write your planned tasks out the night before so your diffused brain can think on them.

And a bonus (unstated) takeaway I couldn't ignore was this:  You have to be intentional about real learning. It’s hard work to learn what doesn’t come naturally, but the good news is that it’s possible.

*That video series I was finishing is only epic by my standards! I think it's worth seeing though. Please watch it and share it if you're so inclined.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A metaphor for K - 8 learning - The Learning Journey

I've been working this year with Brenda June, a math teacher at our middle school. We are completing a MACUL funded project where we and the students created "learning chats". I'm excited to say I just completed the editing on the largest undertaking. (Click here to see some of our free resources related to the project.)

It was a three-part series called the The Learning Journey. Brenda and I have been gathering resources for over a year and trying out many things in her classes. We took what we learned to develop a metaphor for learning. Our hope is that we can use it through through all subjects and grades K - 8 in our district.

While the videos are not perfect, we are very proud of the message they tell. I'll be glad to hear any feedback you might have for us. Just send me an email.

The first video in the series introduces the metaphor and gives "Three Big Questions" for self-assessment. Note that we were perfecting our production process and this is the roughest of the series!

Part two looks at how to identify your next step in learning. It focuses on the first of the Three Big Questions.

Part 3 wraps up with a very important look at the third Big Question. Each possible answer results in different next steps.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Is there a good create versus consume ratio to suggest to students?

Whatever you're into, I'm sure you've realized there's an overabundance of new pouring out nowadays. For me it's games. Hundreds of new board and card games come out every month or two. I could never keep up with them. I see it's the same with movies, television shows, books, video games and music.

And it's not just in entertainment. There are loads of good ideas coming out of every area you could think to spend your time and money.

Any amount of free time can be devoted to sorting through the options and trying as many as possible. How much of our lives and our students' lives are spent doing that? Listen to the conversations and it's easy to see this is a huge part of our lives.

But at the same time, we live in a fascinating world of opportunities, where what we create can also reach the world. If you're good enough, you don't need to get picked by a publisher to have your own content reach an audience. For the younger generation, this means it's important to develop creativity skills and learn how to be heard among the millions of others also making some noise. That requires practice which requires time.

So we can devote ourselves to endless trips to the buffet and we can cook up our own dishes to add to the table. I don't know anyone who strictly does one or the other. We can do both.

What I've been wondering lately is what's a healthy balance between the extremes of consuming and creating content? 

Yes, it will vary for each person. Some are more creative than others. But as an educator, I would like to suggest some guidelines for the older students I work with. And I'd like to suggest a guideline for teachers too, since they can be good examples to the students.

It's too easy for young people to get lost in the enjoyable flood of new things to explore. If they put all their time into consuming like that, though, how can they hope to develop those important skills of succeeding as a creator?

You can respond to the question I tweeted about this here or I'd love to hear from you by email.