I will treasure many moments from my first ISTE conference, but perhaps the most spectacular (and the one from which I will be drawing ideas and inspiration for years to come) was the ISTE Ignite Session #2. An “ignite” session is a series of short presentations that happen one after another in a one hour time period. Ignite Session #2 at ISTE 2016 featured eleven speakers each with 5 minutes and 20 auto advancing slides. I had decided to attend because the format intrigued me and because I knew at least 2 of the speakers were excellent. What I was not prepared to experience was all eleven presenters dazzling the audience with a diverse array of topics that complemented each other and provided a powerful call to action that I found impossible to ignore.
Leading off the festivities was Carl Hooker, one of the speakers I had come to see. Dynamic, witty, and electric, Carl never fails to engage his audience in new and innovative ways. The Ignite session was no different, sauntering in the stage in sunglasses, he had us riveted with fascinating insight good teacher are good deejays. Playfully reflecting on his own experiences as DJOfftheHook, Carl had the audience laughing heartily as mixed his message beautifully, cross-fading between humorous observations with brilliant insights — a good deejay knows a variety of music is needed, a good teacher knows different students respond to different learning opportunities; a good deejay works to avoid the empty dance floor, a good teacher works to avoid a room of blank stares; a good deejay realizes tempos must vary from frenetically danceable to intimately slow, a good teacher realizes activities must vary from chaotically interactive to quietly reflective. Throughout his five minutes, Carl’s humor remained laced with his insistent insight that the most important thing for deejays and teachers is knowing and serving one’s client, for deejays the bride and groom, for teachers the students. The core message playing the students first and centering one’s curriculum on their needs resonated deeply for me and set the tone beautifully for the remaining fifty minutes.
Next up at the Ignite session was the equally dynamic and engaging Cathy Hunt, the other person I had come to see. Carl Hooker had need with humor and wit; Cathy Hunt plunged us into awe, appreciation, and adaptability. As I discussed extensively in my previous post — Art, Educational Enlightenment, & Inspiration — Cathy’s five minutes and twenty slides were filled with breathtakingly beautiful examples of stunning student artwork generated through the creative uses of technology. Gorgeous and glorious as the art work was, though, Cathy’s real purpose in sharing them and messy creative process that led to them was to make us realize that those student pieces were only possible when barriers were lowered and risks were taken. She stressed that the transition to transformational, student-centered education was not “safe,” nor was calm or orderly. But, Cathy also revealed that those risks are completely worth the discomfort and chaos because of the authentic and engaged student work that results from such experiences. At ten minutes and forty slides, the message of actively placing students at the center of any curricular effort was blazing through to us all.
As the third speaker took the stage, all I initially felt was empathy because who would ever want to be the person to follow both Carl Hooker and Cathy Hunt? Needless to say, Kunta Hutabarat needed no such empathy for he was more than up to the task. Best of all, while Carl Hooker is a nationally known speaker and the founder of the original iPadPalooza and Cathy Hunter is an internationally renowned art teacher, Kunta is a dad from Denver, and that is exactly how he started his speech, humbly and simply. But, what he had to share in his allowed five minutes was colossal and captivating. Kunta is one of five parents who started the Super Saturday program at Adams 12 Five Star Schools in the Denver area. Initially, the program had only those five parents and a handful of students, but in just a few years, Super Saturday had over forty parents involved, seventeen classes offered, and hundreds of students served. Most impressive, though, is that the event is completely organized by the parents who also teach all of the classes. Super Saturday provides the adults a chance to teach their passions and provides students the opportunity not only to learn, but also to witness adults engaging in activities they have enjoyed their entire lives. As impressive as the concept it, though, it was Kunta’s electric energy that enraptured the audience. Every word he spoke came from his core, and it was obviously clear that Super Saturday was transformative for everyone involved. The most poignant moment for me came when Kunta delivered his steps to creating our own Super Saturday programs: find interested parents, find a willing host school, turn the parents creativity loose. That was it. And, while part of me wanted more, I realized that the beauty in his directions was limiting “formal” school involvement as much as possible. The essence of become a more student-centered teacher or school is releasing one’s hold on content control, and Kunta was offering yet another innovative and exciting way to do just that. And, to underscore the brilliance of his message I will share one item that happened after I returned home. The day after ISTE, I heaped on my principal a string of unending ideas from the conference. The only one that made her light up the moment I shared it was Super Saturday. Though removing a school’s input from Super Saturday’s course might feel frightening (and might lead to some “messy” moments, thank you, Cathy Hunt), the end product will be a thrilling, engaging, and amazing opportunity for students (and parents) to learn in new and unique ways. Even though Kunta’s time and focus were wildly different from Carl Hooker and Cathy Hunt, the essential theme was there — embrace change and let go.
As Kunta finished, my anticipation rose. We were only three speakers into Ignite Session #2, and my brain was already an inferno. It took only moments to recognize that the remaining forty minutes were only going to intensify that blaze. Melinda Kolk was the next to speak and the next to place transformational education front and center in our minds. Melinda’s 5 minutes were laser-focused on creativity, plain and simple (although creativity is anything but plain and simple). Her passion radiated from the stage, lifting us all as she told us to cultivate our own creativity if we want the same for our students — “believe you can, then let it go” was her challenge. And, then, she started to hit her stride. Melinda peppered the audience with an endless stream of ideas and aspirations — be open to new experiences, see beauty in chaos (and sit with the discomfort), value creativity AND celebrate diversity AND make time for both, help students stretch themselves be that in a maker space or on a blank page or through a digital screen, and always remember that it is about asking the questions (not finding the answers). Her words swirled around us as her paces and tempo increased, weaving the very world she wanted us to conceive where one starts with wonder and then imagines what fantastic things can be done. A place where our students can wander and then get to making (because construction is mandatory to build meaning). To round out her time, Melinda gave us a final litany to guide our journey: expect and reward creativity, celebrate effort (not only “success”), and make creativity a habit both for ourselves and for our students. And, then, as she informed us that it was time to “jump in,” Melinda was done, and we all took a breath while giddily reeling from her frenetic enthusiasm. But, even in the aftermath of her glorious frenzy, I once again felt the sessions underlying refrain — place students at the center and challenge what has always been.
In perfect counterpoint to Melinda, Caitlin McLemore came to the stage, urging us to embrace failure and to see its innate good. While the radical shift did produce a bit of mental whiplash, Caitlin’s calm and cheerful glee about the beauty of failing more than balanced the transition. Although Caitlin’s topic might sound glib to some, her tone was anything but that. Her earnest, genuine appeal to the audience drove home the depth of her belief in the need to teach students how to fail. As Caitlin unpack her position, the appeal of teaching failure became more obvious by the second. She stressed the importance of failure in learning resilience and how it gives one the “grit” to become a life-long learner with a growth mindset that sees “mistakes” as something “interesting.” Caitlin particularly underscored the importance of helping girls and young women learn to fail and to appreciate the wisdom gained in failure, especially when it comes to building their confidence and helping them pursue careers in STEM fields. She then shared the secret to “teaching” failure — the engineering design process/the scientific method. Get students to ask questions, lots of questions. Then, have them work to find answers to those questions. Next, have the students test their solutions and answers. When the testing ends, processing begins by having the students discuss and examine their results. Based on what they find, the entire process begins again. The iterative nature of this cycle drives home the vital nature of gaining greater insights from the things that go wrong and do not work. By going through the process repeatedly, student not only learn how to celebrate failure, but also they see how significantly all of those mistakes improve the final product. Caitlin did drive home that all of this needs to take place in a safe space. We must create environments that provide both comfort and confidence when the failures take place. And, she also challenged us to model failure for our students. As she wrapped up, I was reminded of a friend’s favorite saying, “There is dignity in risk.” Caitlin’s touting of failure resonated in the same way. The dignity that exists in risk is there because of the potential to fail. In a profession where so many of us are hyperaware of our actions because we never want to look weak or foolish in front of our students, Caitlin’s challenge to embrace failure is a tough message to sell, but like every other speaker in Ignite Session #2, she captured our hearts and heads with the clarity of her insights. And, once again, challenging the educational status quo for the good of student success provided a deep framework for her beliefs.
The sixth speaker took the audience in yet another direction as she encouraged us to embrace scannable technology and the concepts embedded in ACES. Monica Burns time and slides were also a decided shift for the audience because she grounded them in pragmatic, practical material — QR codes and augmented reality — things we could have walked out of the ballroom and started doing with students or each other immediately (heck, we each had a QR code on our badges). Rather than making Monica’s presentation mundane, though, the practicality of her ideas only heightened her ability to feed our interest and to stoke our desire to enact her beliefs. Monica highlighted the multitude of ways that QR codes and augmented reality apps can make ordinary lessons and activities extraordinary. By using those tools to connect videos, files, websites, audio clips, images, and anything that is “linkable” to daily classroom activities, a teacher can make even the daily 5, attendance, or the milk count a mysterious and unexpected adventure. Monica’s acronym ACES provided an easy way to remember how easily QR codes and augmented reality can transform any lesson or activity. The “A” is for the access that scannable technology provides. Within seconds a teacher can have students in an entirely different world, rather than writing a URL on the board and slogging through the inevitable typing errors, or even having to take the time to set up web clips on multiple devices. A QR code or an augmented reality app only need a quick scan and then the connection is flawless. The “C” is for a teacher’s ability to curate content through scannable technology. Material can be handpicked and individualized for every student or every resource, and no one is the wiser. The only person who knows where the QR code or augmented reality object leads is the user doing the scanning. The “E” is for both the teacher’s opportunity to embrace a wide array of content and the empowerment that is given to students through scannable technology. Because anything that has a link can be connected to a QR code or augmented reality object, the possibilities are endless. And, because it is so easy to set up scannable technology even primary students can eventually create their own. Both students and teachers are able to go well beyond the walls of their school building. Finally, the “S” comes from the incredible sharing that scannable technology allows. Student work can be brought to life and be made visible in a multitude of ways. The brilliance of Monica’s presentation was that its simplicity allowed every audience member to imagine her or his own possible uses for scannable technology. Her five short minutes ripped out into hours, even days, worth of ideas and approaches. And, even though Monica’s material was tangible and down to earth, it too rattled the cages of traditional teaching and moved students and their needs to the center of the educational world.
Following Monica’s tangible tools were the enormous possibilities that can result from two little words — what if. Debra Atchison used her presentation to share with us the stories behind edcamp Global and edcamp Global Classrooms, and how asking what if led to these two incredible events. Apparently, Debra’s colleague, Jaime Donally, came to her one day and ask, “What if we created our own edcamp?” Debra was open to the idea, and as they spoke, the question was posed, “What if we worked on the edcamp with the Central and Eastern European Schools Association?” Debra had been doing some work with them, and so a partnership was born. In the end, when all of the dust had settled, edcamp Global came into being — a 24-hour edcamp, involving people and groups literally around the world in 39 different countries, using a wide array of social media tools, and involving over 1800 educators. Needless to say, I was impressed by the power of Debra’s two little words. But, Debra had more to present. After the success of edcamp Global, she and Jaime asked those two words again, “What if we do the same thing with students?” Enter edcamp Global Classrooms. After presenting the ideas to others and soliciting help from all over the world, edcamp Global Classroom took place and involved 60 countries, 1200 classrooms, over 30,000 students and teachers, and in 9 different languages. Debra’s (and Jaime’s) impact and the power of those little words was readily apparent on the awed faces throughout the ballroom. Debra let us all know that the second annual edcamp Global would be taking place on July 29 and 30. She also issued us a challenge, what if we all joined in? Debra let us know that help would be provided to anyone interested in facilitating part of the edcamp Global. Clearly, Debra and Jaime are doing things that shatter the traditional paradigms of education. Not only are they creating edcamps — the antithesis of typical professional development in education — but also they are doing well outside the frame of their own community, or even country. It is also worth noting that like every other presenter, their ultimate focus turned out to be on finding ways to engage and to empower their students. Information about edcamp Global can be found at http://edcampglobal.wix.com/edcamp.
Once again, I found myself wondering who had the misfortune to follow such a jaw-dropping presentation, and, once again, I was awed by the incredible things that the next speaker had to share. Brian Huang followed Debra on the stage, and he was more than up to the task of following the gargantuan entity that is edcamp Global. Brian shared with the audience his heavy involvement in the maker movement through his work at SparkFun Electronics and their Department of Education. The entire idea behind the maker movement is “let them build it; they will learn.” Brian’s experiences have shown him that making creates passionate, confident, self-reliant learners. And, he explained how easy it is to get started. At the core of much making is a piece of electronics called the arduino board, which was originally designed to allow artists to make interactive pieces of art, but because it is so easy to use and program, many makers use it to create innumerable things. While the “Maker Faire” is the culminating event for any maker community, it was imminently clear from Brian’s presentation that the Maker Faire is not the reason why making has such an impact. Rather, the success stems from the opportunity to create and to learn from that process. The tactile nature of the experience, coupled with its intellectual stimulation (and its lessons in failure, thank you, Caitlin McLemore), are what truly drive the movement. Brian even shared a story about a boy who clearly had a passion for making when Brian first met him a few years ago. The boy also showed an uncanny ability to use the arduino board in unique and creative ways. That boy is now 14, and after raising $45,000 in 3 days on KickStarter, he is the CEO of his own company Qtechknow that makes numerous variations on the arduino and actively helps others around the world becomes their own makers. Brian closed his presentation by showing impressive programmable light sculptures that students had not only made, but also had designed, created, and even machined pieces to use in them. He showed other pieces that had been created using 3D printers, cardboard, found materials, LED lights, and even old glue sticks. Finally, he should some of the creations of educators at ISTE 2016 who had joined SparkFun Electronics to truly appreciate what making has to offer. In the end, making is all about the arts and physical computing, and it is clearly both incredibly fun and incredibly educational. Before Brian left the stage, I was resolved that every classroom at my school will eventually have a maker space, especially because Brian had provided another, completely unique way to redefine learning by shifting the focus to students and by turning old beliefs and practices on their heads.
By this point in Ignite Session #2, I was convinced that things could not get more intense, and then Jaime Chanter started her presentation. Certainly other speakers had been a dominant presence on the stage, but no one took control of the room like Jaime did. Drawing the audience in with both her intensity and her humor, Jaime left us no choice but to recognize the desperate need for change and the importance of making our classrooms feel more like coffee shops. She opened by telling us that she was so excited for ISTE 2016 that she had driven from the East Coast with her six kids which drew hearty, but slightly uncomfortable, laughter. Jaime then made sure we knew that we were actually all under the spotlight by observing how often educators can feel good about the “comfortable space” they created by adding bean bag chair in the corner. With two questions, she proclaimed the kind of change she wants to see — Do you still do most of the talking? Do you still have a front of the room? While laughter rang throughout the ballroom, it was clear that everyone was just a bit less comfortable than they had been mere moments before, particularly when Jaime informed us that we all need to sit down and shut up. She then offered her vision of an ideal classroom (which really was remarkably like a coffee shop), one where students are given options and opportunities to learn and to do in ways that best suit them. One of the most memorable comments Jaime made was that when we are doing school right, our students should be complaining about going out to recess and having to leave for home. Some of her edgier ideas made me smile because I am a kindred spirit — we should brand our classrooms so students feel like they are part of something, devices should be out and on and actively used, e-reading should be practiced (and while a book frees great in one’s hands, get over it), allow gaming and let them create their own, and don’t block sites (instead, teach them to be responsible). While Jaime kept up her honest and glib tirade, a deeper truth kept rising to the surface — schools still feel uncomfortable and look very much like they did in the 1950s and 1960s. Educational reform and change are not only necessary, but also they are vital to allowing children to experience future success. Given the choice, where would each of us rather spend our time, at a relaxed and inviting coffee shop, or in an out-dated and outmoded classroom? I certainly know how Jaime and I would answer that question — which was the whole point of her message in the first place. In closing, Jaime reminded us that the best thing we could do for ourselves and for our students would be to do something that scares us every single day. In that discomfort, most of us will find the courage to make changes that will lead to student-centered learning and new ways of teaching.
Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk — The Danger of a Single Story, Katharine Hale followed Jaime’s intensity with a quiet resolve unlike anything else I had seen. Her quiet presence, coupled with her subject, spoke more loudly than the first nine speakers combined. Katharine’s message was simple, in our own way, we educators perpetuate a single story myth all our own. While we claim that every student’s story matters, in the end the focus still seems to be on achievement and “good” grades and “high” test scores. Those who do not fit that story are stunted to the side and labelled and, far too often, ignored. To Katharine’s credit she challenged herself to change that reality, and while piloting a one-to-one program in her classroom, she found away to make all her students’ stories matter and to help those students make positive changes to their stories. By selecting specific apps for each student, Katharine was able to guide all of her students to opportunities that celebrated and challenged them appropriately. If that sounds like a lot of work, it is, but the purpose of technology is not to make a teacher’s life easier. Well used educational technology should make a student’s educational experience richer and more fulfilling, and that is exactly what Katharine did. Her reserved demeanor hides a bold, fierce soul which she revealed not only in the story of her transformed classroom, but also when she threw down the guttiest gauntlet I saw at ISTE. Katharine warned the audience to beware of “story repeaters” — technologies that might seem helpful, but actual cause a student’s story to be diminished once again. For her examples, she named 2 incredibly popular tools — Kahoot! and Quizlet. Kahoot! is a browser-based, rapid response question format that teachers and students adore. So, for Katharine to challenges is preeminent status was amazing, but she was also correct. While Kahoot! is wonderful for a majority of students, those who process more slowly are at a decided disadvantage whenever the Kahoot! theme music starts playing. Quizlet is an app that provides a flashcard-like experience, allowing students and teachers to create their own sets, as well as the ability to download thousands of card sets created by others. Like Kahoot! it is an impress tool, but not for everyone. Some students will be trapped by repetitive nature of Quizlet, stunting their ability to use the information in a larger, more meaningful context. After delivering her warning, Katharine provided a spectacular example of why it is so important to know students at a deeper level. One of her charges struggled mightily with spelling, but rather than simply throw some spelling apps at him, Katharine realized that they would only trap this student in his current story. Instead, she had the student message her every time he struggled with his work, and she showed him how to use the auto-correct functions built into his device to recognize and to learn from the spelling errors he was making. Not only did his spelling improve, but he passed his state language exam for the first time. While the one-to-one technology enabled this positive change to happen, the causal agent was Katharine and her knowledge of the boy. She was able to tailor a solution for him and for all of her students. Yes, that means a lot of hard work, but the pay off is completely worth it — celebrating and positively changing the story of every student. Katharine’s presentation was a pause that allow the audience to finally catch its collective breath, but it also carried a far greater impact because it was so subtle and sublime. On top of all of that, though, the theme remained — students at the center and radical shifts from established paradigms. Katharine Hale might look like a typical, conservative elementary teacher, but clearly she is a rebel to the core.
Closing out the amazing experience that Ignite Session #2 had become was Michelle Bourgeois, a veteran teacher who has been innovating and integrating for thirty years. While it might seem more appropriate to some that a younger, hipper teacher would be asked to close such a dynamic series of presentations, nothing could be further from the truth. Michelle was the perfect person. Her focus on “wonder” provided a glorious end to a truly remarkable hour. Michelle started by talking about the two Erics she had in class during her first year as a teacher. One was a bright, eager student who wanted to be a scientist. The other was an older boy who had been held back 3 times and was clearly growing more disillusioned with what school had to offer. With the arrival of some classroom computers, Michelle saw the opportunity to make her classroom into a place of “wonder” — not some magical land where she would save her students, but rather a safe space where all of her students could learn to appreciate and be curious about all of the mysteries that the world had to offer. By doing that, she provided both Erics (and all of her students) the ability to control their own education, to pursue topics and ideas that got them excited — and, subsequently led to those students learning far more than they would have if she had forced them to learn from a predetermined set of lessons. Now, thirty years later, Michelle watches for wonder everywhere she goes, and she finds in numerous places. Some of her examples were the Kindergarten teacher who keeps wonder alive with play — filling her room with physical ramps, while also having students experiment with ramp apps on devices; the 3rd grade teacher who keeps wonder alive by having her students journal using blogs; and the art teacher would keeps wonder alive by having students use selfies and QR codes to create a portrait hallway that the entire school appreciates. Her challenge to us, and really the challenge issued by all eleven speakers, was to push for wonder in our own classrooms: to build opportunities for wonder, to go beyond the ordinary in our lessons and our expectations, to allow technology to open new worlds of wonder that previously would have been impossible, to fill our students’ worlds with wonder every single day. Michelle offered this quote from Rachel Carson to remind the audience that wonder always needs a mentor, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” Wonder needs to be nurtured and shared and appreciated; that is our role as educators. Finally, Michelle closed with these words from Robert Fulghum, “Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody
really knows how or why, but we are all like that.” Learning to embrace the unknown and to revel in the questions are some of the greatest gifts we can give to our students. Like everyone else during the session, Michelle, in completely unique and different ways, had driven home how important it is that we all move students to the center of our educational visions and that we work to transform and redefine what school is and how school works.
ISTE 2016 was remarkable for me on a multitude of levels, and I know that I will still be unpacking and processing and learning from my experiences (all of them) until ISTE 2017 and beyond. But, in the Four Seasons Ballroom of the Colorado Convention Center from 4-5 PM on Tuesday, June 28 something magical happened — at least it did for me. Certainly, the Ignite model (eleven speakers, five minutes each, twenty auto-advancing slides) had something to do with it (and I will most certainly be looking for ways to work that into some PD opportunity at my school). And, the fact that all eleven presenters were skilled and talented orators and educators needs to be factored in. I would love to tell the world that I want to be each and everyone of them when I grow up, but that would be a lie for 3 reasons — first, I am older than most of them; second, I am fairly pleased with who I already am; and third, I actually am hoping that I never do “grow up” (and I would guess that more than a few of the Ignite speakers feel the same way). But, even taking into account all of those other things, a synergy took place that shifted that entire hour into the realm of wonder. How else do I explain spending over 5000 words and countless hours on this blog all to rekindle a small spark of the inferno that was ISTE Ignite Session #2? Or, that fact that I will spend countless more hours replaying moments of the session whenever I am seeking inspiration or looking to deepen my own commitment to dynamic, engaged, student-centered, authentic educational experiences? I feel remarkably blessed to have present for this stellar convergence, and I know that I will hold it up as one of my defining inspirations for the rest of my life as an educator. I hope that I have done some level of justice to the event, but even if I did not, I am glad to share even a glimmer of what I witnessed. And, writing about it only deepens my resolve to continue working for the educational reforms that we all crave and that ran through each of the eleven presentations.