Category Archives: Education

Power, Privilege, & Pressure — Redux

When I wrote my Power, Privilege, & Pressure post two days ago, I was aware of Alton Sterling’s tragic death in Baton Rouge, but I was unaware that Philando Castile had also been shot to death, not far from my Minnesota home, on a street I drive at least once a week. If fact, on that street, a number of years ago, I too was pulled over for an illegal U-turn by a member of the Saint Anthony Police Department. I was given a warning, and other than the embarrassment of making an illegal turn directly in front of a police car, I had no mental or emotional concern for my own well being. But, then again, I am white (and male and heterosexual), so my unearned privilege and life experiences both served to reduce and eliminate any concerns I might have had.

I share all of that because moments after I published my previous post, I learned of Philando’s death. And, my sadness, anger, grief, and frustration have been weighing on me ever since. The turmoil, chaos, and horrific loss of life in Dallas only served to intensify all I was feeling. Everyone involved in anyway in all of this death and devastation has been, is, and will remain in my thoughts and prayers. But, I also know that seeking comfort from God cannot be where any of this ends — for me, or for our communities or country. The deaths, all of them — including the ever growing number of people of color who have been shot by law enforcement, are all profoundly tragic. And, like everyone (and I mean everyone) who has spoken out in any way in the midst of this, I do value, respect, and cherish the people who have become police officers and do their best to protect and serve. But, I also believe that the circumstances in Dallas are terribly for two reasons. Yes, the loss of the five officers and the wounding of the other seven is one of those reasons. But, of at least equal status, is the fact that the violence against the police has slammed the door on any potential conversations about the clear, national issue that the United States has with law enforcement officers killing people of color, particularly black men. All one needs to do is look at the vitriol exponentially exploding on social media that is attempting to blame the peaceful protest in Dallas for the violence against the police, or to blame President Obama for discussion the tragic realities of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths, or Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota who articulated what most (if not all) of us know to be true — Philando Castile would be alive today if he were a white man. The simple fact is that none of those things (or any of the other mean-spirited, outlandish accusations that are being hurled) is true.

Two things “caused” the horrible deaths of those Dallas police officers and the wounding of others. The first is that the Dallas police did their jobs. When gunfire erupted near the end of the peaceful, well run protest, the police officers did what they are trained to do; they ran toward the gunfire, told civilians to run to safety, and did their best to protect the innocent and themselves. Please note that I am not “blaming” the police for this awful situation. Police officers daily place their lives on the line for all of us, and particularly on the streets in Dallas, their action were brave and heroic. And, they lead to the deaths and wounding of officers. They had a choice. They could have run with the civilians and hid. If they had, there might have been fewer dead or wounded officers (we will never know), but I do feel safe in stating that more would likely be dead. Those five slain and seven wounded officers put themselves in harm’s way and made the ultimate sacrifice, doing the job they had sworn to do. The second “cause” was the decision and actions of a clearly disturbed individual who had decided that all police officers were to blame for the deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement. Micah Johnson, a member of the Army Reserve and a veteran who served one tour in Afghanistan, claimed, before being killed himself, that he had been planning his attack for some time as a personal protest against police violence. The discovery of bomb-making materials in his home would appear to bear that out. Clearly, Micah Johnson’s decision to attack members of the Dallas police force were calculated, terrifying, and painfully tragic. But, they were the actions of one individual — something that has been seen repeatedly in the history of the United States, particularly in the last fifteen years. The death and destruction that a single person can inflict, particularly one who is well-trained with weapons, is staggering. And, the police attack in Dallas is no different. We cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of that, or vitally necessary conversations about police interactions with people of color will continue to go unspoken and unheard.

In the wake of the Dallas police deaths and woundings, the situation is already becoming another sad example of political spin and rhetoric. We have to stop that for the good of our country, but more importantly for the common good. The anger, sadness, and frustration that so many people are feel is natural, but we need to work to move beyond that. And, those of us with power and privilege need to lead the way by setting aside our grief and pain. We need to reach out to our sisters and brothers of color and walk with them to break open the deep causes behind the slayings of so many people of color by those who should be protecting them. Honest conversations about race and privilege and oppression need to take place everywhere in U.S. society, but not just within police departments — they need to happen in schools, between neighbors, within companies, on buses, amid legislators, among strangers, etc. And, whenever possible, these conversations should be initiated by those who hold power and privilege in this culture. Until those of us who sit at the top of U.S. social pyramids wade into the conversations, little to no deep change will be possible. And, make no mistake, engaging in such conversations will be uncomfortable and difficult for those of us with power and privilege. Personally, I have been actively working to unpack my own power and privilege for the past twenty years. And, while I am proud of the growth I have experienced and the wisdom I have gained, I still have numerous moments when I indulge in my unearned privilege and when I struggle in honest conversations about privilege and power. But, if this country really does believe in equity, diversity, and justice, we have no choice. It is only through getting to know each other and growing in our empathy that we will ever become the country the United States aspires to be.

More than anything, those of us with privilege and power need to open the door to dialogue and then spend a lot of time listening and believing what our sisters and brothers have to tell us. The believing, in particular, is often difficult because one of “super whitey’s” myths is that our culture is “just” and “fair” (and that is underscored for those in privilege and power by life experiences that on the whole have been just that). A perfect example jumped out at me yesterday. While skimming comments for an article about Mark Hughes, the man falsely identified as a “suspect” by the Dallas police, I read a comment doubting that Mark Hughes and his brother had received thousands of death threats because Mark’s picture was tweeted by the Dallas police (even though Mark surrendered the rifle he was carrying the moment he learned police wanted to speak to him and turned himself into them). When I read Mark Hughes’ comment about the number of death threats, my immediate thought was that he probably had many more than “thousands.” He had been falsely labelled a suspect after 12 Dallas police officers were killed or shot and was carrying an AR-15 while dressed in a camo t-shirt. I can easily see tens of thousands of Dallas residents and stunned individuals around the U.S. and the world using Twitter to express to Mark Hughes, the man they thought had done the shooting, their desire to see him dead. But, for the commenter, the idea of even a few thousand people calling for someone’s death purely based on a Tweet seemed impossible, likely because if something like that were to happen, it would mean that the world is not the just and fair place the commenter had been led to believe it was. But, that is exactly the point. Perhaps the person making that comment was not “white,” but I doubt it. Those of us with privilege are programmed to strongly disbelief stories of gross injustices which is a great way for “super whitey” to maintain the status quo. If those in power do not believe the stories of the people who are oppressed, there is little reason to foment change, and those who are oppressed start to realize that there is little reason to keep sharing painful stories that are constantly dismissed. Because of that, those of us with privilege must listen and believe what is shared with us, regardless of our discomfort or our intrinsic desire to challenge situations that seem impossible to us. If we do not, dialogues will be undermined from the outset, and our sisters and brothers of color will have no reason to trust our desire for genuine change.

Finally, I must comment on the impact of social media in all of this (and not just because I am a technology coordinator whose blog focuses on teaching). Social media’s incredible power and impact has been highlighted throughout the terrible events of the past week. Whether it is the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile or the chaos of the sniper attack in Dallas, incredible and painful video and audio has been available to the entire world via the Internet. And, while that is not necessarily “new,” livestreaming the ongoing confrontation with a police officer after one’s boyfriend has been shot (revealing the eerie calm of a woman at gunpoint and the stressed, frightened tone of the officer holding the gun) most certainly is. The pace at which technology changes overwhelms even most ardent advocates of technology, and while I doubt anyone ever conceived of livestreaming as a way to document the injustice of a police officer’s actions, I am confident that it is not the last time such a video capture will arise. Given all of that, and the on-going backlash and blame-slinging that is dominating social media, it is more important than ever that we discuss openly both the impact that social media can have and how good communication and discourse (with or without technology) takes place. Schools, in particular, need to reexamine and explore how we are addressing micro-writing and what methods (if any) we are using to teach effective communication through charactered-limited messages. My guess is that most schools have nothing in place to address micro-writing, yet the reality is that it is not only the most common way in which students communicate, but also it is already one of the most dominant methods of communication for adults — personally and professionally. If we want our students to succeed, and our country and world to become a more honest and open place, we need to teach how to get our ideas and thoughts across clearly and concisely when we only have 140, or so, characters available (especially if a hashtag is warranted). Ironically, micro-writing is one component of the final ISTE 2016 post I intend to write soon (but more important material has obviously pushed it to the side for now).

I do know that I have written some “radical” things in this post, at least from the perspective of most people who do hold power and privilege, and I am certain that plenty of people will disagree with me or dismiss me outright. I certainly do not claim that I have all the “answers” (or, quite honestly, any answers at all), but I do know that our efforts as a society and country have not really “worked” up to this point, especially when it comes to healing the relationship and trust between law enforcement and communities of color. Something has to change, and that change has to happen at deep, fundamental levels. If not, we will all continue to witness and to grieve tragic, senseless deaths like the ones suffered by Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, as well as nightmarish violence like the attack on police in Dallas. While it is possible (and even likely) that those of us with privilege will continue to grieve an Alton Sterling or a Philando Castile, but then get back to our normal routine, the reality is much different for our sisters and brothers of color. Even something like a decision to order flags to half-mast for the deaths in Dallas carries a sting because even if the intent of that decision was nothing more than recognizing the national tragedy of all of the deaths this week, part of the impact remains focused on the reality that flags are only being lowered after white officers were killed, once again minimizing the deaths of two men of color. Again, to be clear, the intent of the decision was honorable, but any unintended impact also must be recognized. And, if one is a person with power and privilege, it is likely that she or he is already trying to mentally defend the intent of lowering the flags to half-staff. But, my reason for pointing something so emotionally charged is precisely to illustrate how quickly those of us with privilege can lose sight of our sisters and brothers who experience oppression on a daily, hourly, moment by moment basis. If we can step back and let go of our internal assumptions, try looking at the situation from the other side. In a 48 hour period, two men of color were killed by law enforcement officers under, at best, dubious circumstances. The President of the United States, himself, even ended his comments with these words:

“In the meantime, all Americans should recognize the anger, frustration, and grief that so many Americans are feeling — feelings that are being expressed in peaceful protests and vigils.  Michelle and I share those feelings. Rather than fall into a predictable pattern of division and political posturing, let’s reflect on what we can do better.  Let’s come together as a nation, and keep faith with one another, in order to ensure a future where all of our children know that their lives matter.”

How hard would it have been to asked that flags be lowered at that point? President Obama acknowledged that the two shootings were not isolated incidents. Instead, the decision to lower flags only came after police officers were slain when a lone gunman attacked police in Dallas with the intent to kill white officers. Recognizing that people of color feel a negative impact from that does not diminish the tribute to the officers. Instead, it is a moment of empathy and a recognition that the decision did cause pain, even though that pain was never intended. If those of us who hold power and privilege are not capable of extending ourselves empathetically over something as small as a flag at half-mast, then our road to healing and reconciliation is far longer than any of us can conceive.


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Filed under Education, Empathy, Injustice, Insights, Leadership, Oppression, Power, Privilege, Risk, Technology, Wisdom

Power, Privilege, & Pressure

My blog is about educational technology, technology integration, and sharing thoughts and insights about how to be effective with students and teachers, using technology as a tool to help transform what happens in classrooms (and during professional development). All of my posts for the past week have been about ISTE 2016, and I still have one more that I want to write, but as a member of many communities — educational technologists, educators, parents, Minnesotans, U.S. citizens, human beings — broader, far more fundamental topics must be raised.

While many of our world’s problems capture my attention each day, two blog posts I have read in the past week have pushed me to set aside my usual focus on technology. The first was a short, but insistent post by Dr. Scott McLeod on his Dangerously Irrelevant! blog: #educolor — The most important hashtag you’re probably not following. Scott is one of the first educational technologist and leadership specialists I ever encounter, and I hold him in high esteem. I was particularly struck by two things. First, Scott was taking the time to recognize how easy it is for discussions of technology and educational transformation to gloss over the reality that injustice based on race, gender, sexual preference, and so many other things are still a constant presence in our schools (and that we need to do something about that). Second, Scott was absolutely right that I was not following #educolor, so I started. Which lead me to the other blog post that has been the even more powerful reminder that promoting and discussing appropriate uses of technology need to take a back seat on a more frequent basis. Yesterday, I was privileged to read Shana V. White’s blog post: No offense… (which I came across specifically because I am now following #educolor). While the interaction described in Shana’s post made me frustrated, upset, and angry because of the way she was dismissed, it also made me uncomfortable because my silence on issues of privilege certainly played a role (albeit small) in helping to create a world where she could be dismissed. So, I am choosing to raise my voice now, in hopes that one day, Shana and others will no longer have to face inequitable situations at any level.

I am a white, heterosexual male which gives me a tremendous amount of unearned privilege and power, certainly globally, but even more so in the United States. And, I have a pressing responsibility to use my privilege and power to not only call attention to the inequity that has created (and continues to create) them, but also to openly challenge the institutional systems that perpetuate these injustices at all levels in our society. A brilliant woman, Dr. Heather Hackman (former professor at Saint Cloud State University and now full-time consultant on issues of diversity, equity, and social justice), regularly has groups with whom she works write out index cards, “What had I done today to fight…?” The word or words after “fight” are areas in which the individual has power and privilege — for me, they are racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Heather then asks the participants to post those index cards in a prominent place where they will be seen every day — bathroom mirror, car dashboard, desk, etc. The entire point of the exercise is to provide me, as a person who has been given undeserved power and privilege (because of the lighter tone of my skin, the presence of a Y-chromosome, a sexual preference for members of the opposite sex, etc), a daily call to action. People who are members of oppressed and underrepresented groups constantly have to work twice as hard (if not three or four or five times as hard) to garner the same respect, attention, professional deference, etc that is simply given to me — whether that is within the educational technology community, the larger community of educators as a whole, or the overall culture of U.S. society. If that system of injustice is ever going to be dismantled completely, I (and others) who have privilege must join our voices with our sisters and brothers who have always been at the forefront of these struggles for equity to ensure that all of us are afforded the respect and acceptance that we deserved based on our work and interactions, not some arbitrary physical or genetic trait, or our sexual preferences. And, people of privilege finally owning their unearned benefits and working to end them can never be seen as the “reason” for the eventual success of achieving equity — in fact, a claim like that only perpetuates the privilege itself. The people who are daily oppressed and underrepresented by “super whitey” (a Heather Hackman term that I quite enjoy) battle and struggle against issues of privilege and prejudice every single day — multiple times each day. They will be the reason our society and world achieves balance and equity; those of us with privilege need to raise our voices to lend strength and support — and to help loosen “super whitey’s” grip on the reins of power and privilege.

I do know that significant strides have been made in the United States in the past 150 years when it comes to issues of injustice and oppression, but one need to look no further than our current presidential campaign to know that racism, sexism, and homophobia are not only alive and well in the United States, but also that they are tolerated in frighteningly open and widespread ways. Privilege is “super whitey”‘s insidious way of luring even the most decent people down the road of intrinsic bias and prejudice. When the prevailing culture, its engrained norms, and its established institutions all subtly (and often not so subtly) underscore constantly that white, heterosexual men are “right” place to put trust and faith and responsibility, it can become easy to ignore the completely unfounded nature of those beliefs. And, when people who do fall into one or more of those privileged groups are challenged on the unjust nature of those rewards, it is significantly easier to let the guilt and shock become defensive righteousness than to admit that “merit” has been unfairly award for circumstances completely out of an individual’s control. But, that reality only makes it more important that people like me do challenge the injustice of privilege ourselves. I become a better, more balanced, more grounded individual when I do begin to recognize that my “luck” and “good fortune” that I have regularly experienced in school, at work, in daily interactions are partly (in not sometimes completely) influenced by unwarranted beliefs placed on me simply because of my skin tone, anatomical sex, and attraction to women. When I have a better sense of who I am and my true abilities, I am a better dad, husband, friend, brother, son, educator, friend, and person. There is no question about that. While I do want to afford far more opportunity and equity to my sisters and brothers who are oppressed as a result of my privilege, the reality is that my own mental health and emotional well being are best served by challenged my unearned privilege.

I feel incredibly blessed that I have been exposed to people and ideas over the past fifteen years that I have allowed me to start challenging my own privilege, but I also know, like so many of us who have been unfairly given these benefits in U.S. culture and society, that I have a long way to go. I should not need Scott McLeod, Shana V. White, or anyone else to remind me that I need to challenge my own privilege and the systems that have created it each and every day, but I do. And, because of that, I am tremendously grateful for communities and movements like EduColor and for people who are willing to share their stories and challenges. I do hope that this post and my actions in my daily life can help one (or more) other person who holds privilege and power in some capacity to recognize it and to challenge it. The future of education is vitally important to me, and I firmly believe that technology used wisely and appropriately as a tool is a vital key in creating student-centered learning steeped in pedagogy. But, none of that will matter, if our classrooms and our conferences and our large world remain a place where some of us are given benefits simply because we were born a certain way.

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Professional Development Done Peculiarly (Well)

Of all of my ISTE 2016 experiences, the most unusual was “Fear the Sitting Dead” run by Steve Dembo and Adam Bellow. And, please do not read “unusual” as anything other than out of the ordinary, which was not only extraordinary, but was also exactly their point. I also want to underscore that selecting this session is yet another example of my “luck” at ISTE 2016. Walking into the room I had no clue who Steve and Adam are. Now, I do, and I have a much better sense why hundreds of us would pack ourselves tightly into every available seat in the room. I have the feeling that if the Colorado Convention Center would have been legally able to allow “standing room” spectators that we would have had two to three times the number of people in the room. Steve Dembo is Discovery Education’s Director of Social Media Strategy and Online Community, as well as a former Kindergarten Teacher and Director of Technology at a school. He is also an author, a high recognized and awarded national speaker, and the creator of the Discovery Educator Network. Basically, he knows his stuff when it comes to educational technology, how to use it, and how to help teachers and students engage with it. Adam Bellow is the founder and president of eduTeacher and eduClipper, a former classroom English teacher and Technology Training Specialist, a nationally recognized and awarded teacher and technologist, and the new CEO of Breakout EDU (yeah, that Breakout EDU). In other words, both of them are a big deal. Having seen them in action, their accolades are absolutely deserved, and I cannot wait for my next opportunity to see either one. But, now, on to the session and it’s brilliant insights into improving professional development.

Steve and Adam opened the session with a couple examples to illustrate the sessions title (“Fear the Sitting Dead”). The first was covert footage from an extremely painful training session where the teachers being trained were forced to repeated aloud the trainers instructions — some times one word at a time. The room collectively cringed in pain. The second was lovely poster/meme featuring a quote that expresses what so many educators have thought at one time or another, “If I die, I hope it is during a staff meeting because the transition to death would be so subtle.” The laughter that ensued was only mildly tinged with sadness and regret because we all knew that more than a kernel of truth was expressed in the statement. Steve and Adam then called us to realize and/or remember that good professional development should not be “done to” an individual, instead it needs to be actionable (just like the transformations we are all working to bring about in classrooms for our students). More than anything, Steve and Adam wanted us to see that educators need to be engaged and invested in what they are learning (and doing) just like students. And,as they would remind us throughout the session, one of the easiest ways to do that with professional development is to make it “different,” to catch the audience off guard, to disrupt their expectations — basically, to introduce change.

It was at that moment that Steve and Adam opened the floodgates, even with an enormous audience, to engage us with a wide array of possibilities. Their first offering was tremendous — — and it was nearly a complete failure. The site provides a “hot or not” format for ideas, and it provides a quick way both to engage learners and to have them help select the direction of an activity, lesson, or session. The problem for Steve and Adam was that wireless infrastructure at the Colorado Convention Center was not ready for 200+ users to be simultaneously attempting to access the same website in real time (and I would guess that 200+ people trying to hit the same survey, at the same time, was also taxing the servers). Not only did Steve and Adam handle the technology problem with impressive aplomb, but also the site’s brilliance and impact was obvious even with only a moments interaction. The few seconds I had interacting with the site convinced me, and I will definitely use it with my teachers. I will also encourage them to consider using it with their students because everything that Steve and Adam shared was applicable to professional development work and daily classroom lessons.

Steve and Adam transitioned from digital idea input to a kinesthetic, analog example. Although many of us lacked a key element for the activity (paper, of all things), Steve and Adam introduced us to the “Snowball Fight.” Basically, participants are asked to write an idea or suggestion on a piece of paper. The paper is then wadded into a ball and is thrown in the direction of another person. Each person then picks up a “snowball” that someone else has thrown in their vicinity and adds to that person’s idea or suggest — maybe fleshing it out, maybe asking a question, etc. Once the new material has been added, the paper is rewadded and thrown again. Depending on time and the facilitator’s end goal, the process is repeated until declared done. While Steve and Adam did note that a “Snowball Fight” can be difficult to curtail (as wadded paper continued to be tossed for at least 60 seconds after they had transitioned out of the activity), they clarified that soliciting the ideas and input was only half of the activity’s goal. The other half was the physical engagement by the audience. It not only provides a way to break up monotony, but also it radically shifts expectations (who goes to a PD session expecting to throw wadded paper), and it injects purposeful humor and fun.

Steve and Adam then elaborated more on the importance of breaking professional development paradigms. They offered that the best way to improve engagement (whether working with faculty or in a classroom with students)  is doing the unexpected. Things that trip up expectations put people on the edge of their seat, and when they are on the edge of their seat, they are more aware and more engaged. Steve and Adam did stress that one still wants to provide a comfortable, safe space for the audience, but the idea should be to balance the comfortable with the uncomfortable. We all learn best when we have some level of discomfort because we do pay better attention to what is happening around us. Steve and Adam then shared a litany of ideas as to how we could achieve that discomfort. One suggestion they made was to build “touring” into the professional development session (or class time). That could range from purposefully moving to another area in the building to observe something or to perform a specific task. Or, it could be an actual “field trip” to another location. While the end result of relocating does need to connect to the overall content of the session or class, the primary reason for the movement is to disrupt expectations and the”normal” routine. Another idea that Steve and Adam put forward would be to make half of the day an “unconference” (an edcamp) where the structure is decidedly informal and relies on the teachers (or students) deciding the topics of discussion and the format of the various interactions. By combining a more traditional morning, with a far less structured afternoon, a balanced level of creative discomfort can be achieved. Next, they suggested using Periscope or a similar app/service to “drop in” on a class, not only broadcasting it unreal time, but also allowing participants in the training (or class) to engage in a Q&A exchange with the teacher and the students. The idea is outlandish, more than a little unsettling, and completely brilliant. What better way to understand the importance of transforming education than to watch a classroom live and to engage with its participants. And, as Steve and Adam continued to stress, doing that would most certainly disrupt the usual patterns of educational professional development.

The idea of introducing digital aspects to teacher training led Steve and Adam to other “online” suggestions. Adam suggested involving teachers in Twitter Chats using Participate Learning, a service that helps educators participate and post in Twitter Chats. It organizes the chat and all of its resources, as well as allowing the user to compose tweets within it. It even adds the appropriate hashtags for the user. While the concept of a Twitter Chat is daunting for many educators, Participate Learning suddenly makes the idea not only possible, but even sensible. Steve then offered Slack as an internal way to create digital training resources, especially Slack’s ability to generate an endless series of “rooms” where specific information can be placed for select group while still keeping everything interconnected. He even added that Discovery Education had made extensive use of Slack with the White House. And, beyond what Slack can do on its own, the service can also be integrated with Twitter, Google Drive, and numerous other tools. A “slackbot” can even be used for essential information — Steve used the example of a guest wifi password that changed weekly. More than anything, Slack provides a means for both real time and asynchronous chats that can provide an entirely new way to deliver individualized professional development.

Steve and Adam then shifted into high gear and peppered the audience with even more ideas. They revisited the idea of an unconference/edcamp as a way to create and emphasize a team culture that fundamentally shifts engagement in training. They followed that with a “Rocks” versus “Sucks” continuum (Steve did own that at Discovery Education the word sucks is not used, but numerous terms could be substituted for it). The idea is that a question or idea is put forth, and then the participants vote with their feet placing themselves somewhere on the continuum passed in the strengths of their convictions. Once everyone has stopped moving, the participants are asked to discuss for a set period of time why they placed themselves in that spot. Then, the participants are told to reposition themselves if their opinion has shifted at all. And, then, another discussion ensues. By combining movement, physical proximity, and reiterative dialogues, the training becomes more interactive and foments more “buy in” from the audience. Another idea they offered was “Spotlight on Strategies” — a controversial statement is made, and those who agree with it are asked to stand. They are then asked to discuss with someone sitting why they stood up, and the person who remained seated is then asked to explain her or his position. We did a two-minute version using the statement, “Students are smarter because of the Internet.” The discussions that ensued were interesting and eye-opening, and we were merely practicing the idea. Steve and Adam then raised the idea of “speed-geeking” where a broad group of teachers (or students) would be asked to give short rapid presentations (5-10 minutes max) to provide others just a taste of the topic, idea, or digital tool — much in the model of TEDx. The audience would then self-select and rotate from presenter to presenter during a set period of time. A variation on that is pechaflickr which based on a single keyword pulls 20 (unfiltered) images from Flickr and then cycles through them putting each image up for 20 seconds. After watching this random collection of images, participants in the professional development would be asked to discuss what they saw and their reactions to it. They did note that a pechaflickr is one thing that should not be used with students (due to the unfiltered nature of the images). Their next suggestion was hosting a CoffeeEdu (a one-hour unconference at a coffee shop conceived of by Alice Keeler). Its quick, unstructured nature would definitely redefine the nature of teacher training. A more elaborate idea would be a DINE session, which is a four course and four question meal. The four questions would grow out of the acronym — Digging in, Integrating tech, Not sure where to start, and Every student every day. The idea is wildly radical, and yet intensely appealing. Not only would having a professional development session during a good meal be fun, but also it would definitely make others want to be a part of the session.

Then, as if the ISTE session could get any weirder, Steve shared with us an experience he had in 2005. He attended Blog Walk in Chicago. The gathering’s purpose was to discuss and to explore the impacts that blogging was beginning to have in different areas of education. Things started with Post-It Note brainstorming. Folks then transitioned into small group discussions about the ideas generated during brainstorming. None of that was out of the ordinary, but at a set time, knowing that adults (like students) can only sit/focus for so long, everyone got up, put on their jackets, and went for a walk in the Chicago cold. Everyone was in groups of two or three, and they were given a topic to discuss on their walk. They repeated the process throughout the day, and those walks produced some of the best insights. Because exercise activates different areas of the brain and causes a rush of endorphins, we all think better when we are active. To illustrate this, Steve and Adam then told us (an audience of 200+ people crammed into the room) to “take a walk.” They actually sent us out of the room and asked us to discuss the success or failure of professional development at our own schools. Not only were the conversations lively and engaged, but also 98% of us re-entered the room (even though we had already gotten tons of great information). It was truly remarkable. The thought that struck me was that engaging in an intelligent conversation during a professional development walk is diametrically opposite of the idea of the “sitting dead.”

After our stroll, Steve and Adam closed the session with some of their coolest suggestions yet. They suggested not only promoting sketchnoting, but also asking sketchnoters in attendance to share their work. Steve even observed, “Imagine having notes or minutes that others actually want to read? When is the last time any of you ever encountered that?” Once again, that excellent idea could be applied at a training or in a classroom and would definitely reinforce any content discussed while reinvesting the participants. Next, Steve talked about a Discovery Education series of community nights that featured students doing the training and teaching. Beyond garnering tremendous interest and buy in from the adults in attendance, using student-led training provides a fantastic opportunity for the students to demonstrate and to prove mastery of their own learning. Steve even shared a recent experience where he attended a professional development conference in Mexico that not only featured student-led sessions, but also it was entirely run by students. Next, Steve and Adam shared that Northfield Community Middle School in Northfield, NJ has a daily EdCamp period where students completely structure and direct their own learning. This change is radically transforming their school into a far more engaged and far more passionate learning experiences for students and teachers. From there Steve and Adam shared that Grosse Pointe South High School in Grosse Pointe, Michigan runs a school-based TEDx-like program allowing students to pursue passion projects during Genius Hour and then presenting them during Innovation Days. Both examples demonstrated the impact that learner-directed initiatives can have when it comes to increasing participant interest and engagement. And, Steve’s and Adam’s point in raise them was to underscore that if such passion-based ideas could make students so much more invested, imagine what it could do for teacher professional development training sessions. Finally, Adam offered up (quite humbly) Breakout EDU as an excellent tool to invigorate both teacher and student learning. Having a group work race against time to escape their room is a brilliant way to not only disrupt traditional expectations, but also to foster genuine collaboration and problem solving. Getting into the puzzle box requires creative thinking and innovative insights, and the participants start looking for radical solutions that energize them. When Steve and Adam asked us if any of us had done Breakout EDU about 75% of the room raised their hands, but what was more noticeable was the considerable spike in electric energy that ran through the crowd. Those folks had not only “done” Breakout EDU, but also they had been transformed by the experience, and it had clearly shifted a paradigm or two for each of them.

For their wrap up, Steve and Adam offered these thoughts:

  • Professional development is important every day, not just on the scheduled days of the school calendar. Look for ways to integrate a culture of on-going learning.
  • Professional development does not need to be complicated. Many of their examples simply involved getting a few people together and asking them to explore an area of mutual interest.
  • Do something once, and it is easy to do it again.
  • A single change in a school’s professional development “routine” will break expectations forever and will open all kinds of doors.

As I stated at the start, this 60 minute session was unusual and extraordinary. I left with my mind exploding with the ideas they had put forth. My biggest challenge now is making sure that I do not try to cram too much into the training sessions I am developing for my own faculty. I do not want to overwhelm them; I simply want to help them grow in the passions that they already have for learning and for students. Although many of the ideas that Steve and Adam put forth were not “new” or elaborate, that was exactly the point. Choosing to implement any of the suggestions that they made should be simple and straightforward, and it is fantastic to know that the idea has been successfully implemented elsewhere and has netted excellent results. Great professional development (and classroom teaching) needs to be engaging and inspirational, not horribly complex and overly convoluted. I look forward to sharing the successes (and failures) that will unfold as I implement some of these ideas, allowing me to ward off the dreaded “sitting dead.”

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Filed under Classroom, Collaboration, Creativity, Education, Excitement, Innovation, Insights, ISTE, Professional Development, Student-centered

Coding to Create Curriculum

A wonderful thing happened during the 2015-16 school year. Somehow, I managed to email my 3rd-5th grade teachers about Hour of Code and at the perfect time. Essentially, every one of my teachers was looking for “something” to do with their students. As a result, all students in grades 3-5, as well as our 6th and 7th graders, not only participated in coding activities during Computer Science Week, but also many of the students continued to work on activities throughout the school year — both as a part of their classes and on their own. Needless to say, I say thrilled, but I also knew that we had only begun to scratch the surface. Some haphazard activities age a long way from formally including computer programming and coding literacy as an integrated part of our entire K-8 curriculum. So, as I headed to ISTE 2016, one of the many things percolating in my brain was find a tangible hook to get my teachers excited about bringing coding and programming into their classrooms. Enter Jake Lee and his brilliant use of coding to teach content!

I honestly think I had a ridiculously good streak of luck when it came to selecting my ISTE activities. While I did pick a few knowing that the speakers were fantastic, for a vast majority of my sessions, I based my choices on descriptions and my gut. That is particularly true of my BYOD sessions because I chose them months earlier. Jake Lee’s session on coding was no exception. I entered hoping the session would give me a few ideas as to how I could get my teachers to embrace coding in their classrooms. Instead, Jake’s session provided the answer, essentially in its entirety, and he even provided an abundance of resources and curricular material between the session webpage and his iTunes U course that explores classroom coding in even greater detail. It was stunning to realize both the magnitude of Jake’s generosity and the simplicity of his solution.

Although Jake certainly does “teach” coding to his first graders, his deeper purpose is providing them the coding skills so they can enhance and engage in their own learning. The coding becomes the vehicle through which they engage in other content, not to mention the problem solving, organizational skills, collaboration, design elements, and decision-making that are inherent in the process of coding. Jake begins his coding instruction in an analog state. First, he has his students play Robot Turtles, a wonderful board game created with fundamental coding skills in mind and funded by Kickstarter. The next stage is also “analog” in that it does not require a device or computer, but it does involve a robot — Bee-Bot — on which the the students directly enter graphic commands to program it. As it becomes clear that the students understand the fundamentals of programming and the pre-planning required to create an accurate program, he moves them into a digital environment. First, they use apps like Scratch, Jr which allows the students to create actual programs using on graphic commands. It is also at this point that Jake transitions from “learning to code” to “coding to learn.” After the initial introduction to Scratch, Jr, Jake’s coding activities always have a purpose to them. While coding is fun, students can get stuck there, and Jake wants his students to realize the wide array of things students can do with their code. He has them create introductions about themselves and presentations about other content areas. He has even allowed his first graders to create an app designed to help the Kindergarteners next store recognize sums of five. By coding to all areas of content, Jake makes the material not only integrated, but also provides authentic “literacy” in coding and its process of creation.

The final step in Jake’s classroom is the introduction of full-blown robots — Jake uses Dash from Wonder Workshop. Not only is Dash durable and resilient, but also all of the apps from Wonder Workshop are free, intuitively designed, and logically build upon each mastered skill. It is with Dash that Jake’s “coding to learn” approach blossoms completely. Once the students master the basics of programming Dash and maneuvering the robot through a maze, Jake turns them lose, both to take on lessons he has created (like “Silly Sentences” where Dash must select a noun, a verb, and an adjective to make some wonderfully bizarre statements — Jake’s students are also responsible for generating the word cards) to activities of their own design that always incorporate other content (Jake and his students created their own robot-based addition game called Capture the Kingdom, and his students programmed Dash to do a bee pollination, “waggle” dance). Throughout our session, Jake continued to underscore, especially with Dash, that the purpose of all of his activities was NOT for his first graders to learn beautiful, elegant coding (he repeatedly described the actual coding for the “waggle” dance as frightening), but instead for them to be empowered by their ability to code so that they are actively engaged in the own education across all content areas.

I left Jake’s BYOD session electrified by the possibilities his insights opened for me. And, in the subsequent days, my enthusiasm has only grown. While I am still plotting how my school will find the funds for at least a few different “robot” options and scheming how I will introduce the coding possibilities to my teachers without overwhelming them, I am overjoyed that I have a clear picture of how to bring coding into my classrooms without disrupting the existing curricular activities. Rather than trying to replace what is already happening, or asking teachers to squeezing in “one more thing,” my focus will be getting teachers to link coding to existing learning and activities. I am wise enough to know that even that will result in growing pains and periods of frustration, but it is a much smoother road than the one I had been conceiving that would have put coding at odds with other grade level content. Best of all, I have a plethora of resources from Jake Lee and tangible, viewable evidence that using code to learning not only works, but that it actually allows students to thrive and to be far more invested in their own learning. And, even if I can not find the funds for Bee-Bot, or Dash, or Ozobots, or Sphero, or any other robot, the fact is that unplugged/analog activities like Robot Turtles and apps like Scratch, Jr will still allow my teachers to bring coding into their classrooms and to use those things as tools to facilitate their content areas. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant! It is easy to see why Jake was selected as an Apple Distinuished Educator and why he is sch a fantastic teacher. I extend a huge Mahalo! to him, and I look forward to the adventure ahead of me!

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Filed under Classroom, Coding, Collaboration, Computers, Creativity, Education, Excitement, Insights, Integration, ISTE, Robotics, Student-centered

ISTE Ignites, Invites, & Incites

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

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.

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Art, Educational Enlightenment, & Inspiration

Whenever I grow frustrated and disillusioned about technology integration and educational reform, I now have a new place where I can go to lift my spirits —! I had the privilege of listen to Cathy Hunt twice at ISTE 2016, and I will seek out any session that includes her whenever I have the opportunity. The work she is doing with her own students at St. Hilda’s School in Australia and with thousands of other students around the globe is mind-blowing. Cathy constantly finds new ways to inspire them to blur media, techniques, academic disciplines, and digital & analog possibilities to create art that is radiant, remarkable, and revolutionary. Best of all, though, is that those stunning pieces are a byproduct of her real aspirations and accomplishments. More than anything, Cathy wants every student to become a self-confident, independent thinker who makes conscious, thoughtful, authentic choices and who is able to collaborate effectively, accept and receive genuine feedback gracefully, and challenge the status quo regularly. She is an artist in ever sense of the word and creation is her constant state of mind.

Cathy takes the exact same approach when she works with other educators. One of my sessions with her was a BYOD class focused on using iPads to create visual art. And, while we made some incredibly cool images during our hour together, Cathy’s deeper intent was for us to recognize that we can do tremendous things with our students through technology tools, especially when we start to breakdown the barriers schools tend to naturally generate. (In other words, to tell our students, “do,” when our initial reaction is to scream, “don’t!) Cathy even told us that the apps she had picked were ones a school would usually not select. One of them, MegaPhoto (a ridiculously large collection of selfie filters), would seem frighteningly frivolous to most educators, even those deeply committed to educational technology. Yet, Cathy rapidly showed us how effective it could be as a creation and creativity tool. And, while we were using it to generate some truly incredible images, her real hope was that we would see how the apps students already have on their own devices can be some of the best options for breaking education out of it continued twentieth century, teacher-centered mindset. By opening ourselves to apps and options like a MegaPhoto,our classrooms can become more engaging and more student-centered while also helping student tap their own innate potential and letting them see the miraculous things that are possible when they become more intentional and thoughtful in their decision-making.

And, exciting as those prospects are, Cathy also made sure that we know the process will be messy, uncomfortable, and scary. The best picture Cathy displayed at ISTE 2016 was a table covered in painted papers, surrounded by students some of whom were still actively painting, while the others were holding iPads and photographing sections of the art (coming frighteningly close to wet brushes filled with paint, fresh painted paper, and uncover palettes of paint). Even the most die hard technology enthusiasts had to have cringed when they saw it — I certainly did. And, that is exactly why Cathy included it. If education is truly going to adopt real transformational reforms, we have to take tremendous risks. We have to let students get paint on their iPads, and rather than shame them for that, we need to celebrate that they were bold enough to capture a brush in mid-stroke as paint sprayed off the bristles. The technology coordinator in me, who loving cleans student iPads each summer to make them pristine again, feels nauseous at that prospect. But, the committed reformer knows that reality rings with pure truth and is elated by it. Letting go means letting go. Knowing and learning is MORE important than the tools we use to get there. It is the ultimate example of NOT letting the tech drive the teaching. Those of us who for years have equated the importance of a one-to-one device to that of other tools like pencils and pens now have to accept that device damage should be treated like a broken tip, especially one that results from enthusiastic, passionate writing. I would never fault a student for breaking her or his lead because the student was so engrossed in writing a piece that she or he pressed too hard, so how is getting paint on an iPad because the student was so committed to capturing an incredible image any different. Without risk, there is no learning. And, embracing risk means accepting the consequences, unconditionally. Perhaps, that lesson from Cathy Hunt is the one that I will cherish most of all!

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Inspiration, Investment, & ISTE

I have had such good intentions to write regularly for this blog, only to have far to many distractions pull me in other directions. But, I am thrilled to be writing my first post in well over two years because I have just finish four incredible days at ISTE 2016. The conference was jaw-droppingly amazing (and completely overwhelming). Imagine 14,500 passionate, enthusiastic educators who are actively seeking more engaging and authentic ways to bring technology into student and teacher lives descending on Denver, CO for 5 days of intense sharing, seeking, and searching. Truly mere words cannot harness intensity and excitement of the experience. In no uncertain terms, the future of education was being hatched and conceived in every single moment. To be a part of it is absolutely a blessing.

And, sad as I am that the conference has ended, I cannot wait to start sharing the ideas, insights, wisdom, and wonder that I gleaned from my experiences and encounters. I will do my best to share some of the most astounding items over the next few days. But, one of the most fundamental realizations for me is that I need to begin sorting through my own beliefs, approaches, and growth. Thus, I need to invest myself in making this blog a reality, not just a good intention. I look forward to sharing the things that catch my eye as I build my own knowledge and develop my personal learning network (PLN). I also cannot wait to offer up the successes and the failures that happen at my school — processing and exploring what can be learned from all of it. I hope there are some folks out there who will join me on this journey, and I hope their voices will be raised as well.

This first post back is a short one, but I promise some incredible, mind-blowing items in the days to come (with links to truly brilliant material shared by the fantastic presenters I got to enjoy at ISTE 2016).

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