I kicked off this series on transformational teachers in our district with my original post, "How Can You Transform Your Teaching to Improve Learning?" I love seeing teachers that continue to learn and grow. My second showcase teacher is Dani Nyffler, 6th grade teacher at Wilson Focus School.
I first met Dani through our district's Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) program. She was also in my course for the Instructional Technology Leadership (ITL) endorsement program. What stood out to me was during my course, she was such a reflective practitioner through her blog posts and assignment reflections on how she was changing the way she had done things in her classroom for so long. I asked Dani to share a bit of the process of how she has set herself on a path of growth.
How have you transformed as a teacher in the last few years?
I have intentionally stepped out of my comfort zone. As a 19-year veteran of teaching, I found myself “comfortable” in how I was running my classroom. When I was accepted into the ITL cohort, I instantly wondered what I had gotten myself into. However, that was the wake-up call I needed to see that I was one of the teachers they talked about in the textbooks; the one who was still operating her classroom like a 1950s classroom, sending students out on a conveyor belt, year after year. I also found a new sense of confidence in myself that I didn’t know I had. I heard from people that I respected that it’s ok to fail and learn from it.
How have you noticed your transformation impacting your students' learning?
I think they are excited about coming to my class. I have heard multiple students say they “like my room the best.” Much of that is due to flexible seating and the arrangement of my room, but I like to think that some of it is also that students know when they come to my class, they get to do things that aren’t the normal sit and get. I give them opportunities to explore their interests and try to find ways to connect it to our learning. I believe they have a deeper knowledge of the way things work and they are able to see how it impacts their daily lives. They have to “buy in” to what you’re teaching. If they don’t see the point of it, you’ve lost them before you’ve even started.
What tips would you give to a teacher that wants to grow as an educator?
Tell yourself it’s ok to fail! That’s how learning takes place. Our society has made failing into such a negative thing. Almost no one gets anything right the first time they try it! I would also suggest starting with one thing. Work on that one thing until you feel comfortable and then add one more thing. Trying to change everything all at once will make you feel defeated and overwhelmed. Find one thing that you really would like to change about your classroom/teaching or an area that you’re really interested in and go from there. Rely on a good support system! Find people that will build you up for those days when things aren’t going great and you’re super hard on yourself. Keep the big picture in sight!
You do a lot with flexible seating and project based learning. Can you share how you incorporated that in your classroom and the struggles and successes you have had.
I came across flexible seating as I was reading a couple articles on Facebook. As I continued clicking on links regarding the subject, I found more and more research suggesting that it was good for students to have choice. It made so much sense to me! I went to my principal, with research in hand, and asked if I could try it. He gave me the go ahead and I began gathering my
new seating options. I dove right in, not wanting to start slow with it, I transformed my seating over spring break. When the students arrived back from break, I treated it like the beginning of the year and we covered expectations. That was a year ago, fast forward to today. I have had some struggles over the last year. 6th grade students don’t always make the best choices (chalk that up to maturity) and I have had to enforce some assigned seating. Revisiting expectations consistently has been something that I have had to make a priority since flexible seating is still such a new concept and lots of teachers still use assigned, organized seating.
This year was my first year that I really started to use Project Based Learning (PBL) in my classroom. I have read many articles on it and knew it was something I wanted to do. I always thought I was using PBL, but the more I read, the more I discovered that I was doing “group work,” not PBL. My students chose to work on Global Goal #6, the sustainability and cleanliness of water. I developed 5 groups to construct a product to express their learning (music, posters, video, play, and a pamphlet) and let the kids choose which group they wanted to work in depending on their interests. We shared the final projects on our morning news, with other classrooms, and the pamphlets went home with each student in the school. It was so fun to see the talent that these students have and their passion about the world even if it didn’t directly affect them. I have so much still to learn regarding PBL, but I continue to make that a goal every day. As I reflect on that project, I know the things that could have been done better, and I know the things that I need to do more research on. BUT, I remind myself that I’m doing it. With every project, I will learn more and the outcome will be that much greater.
Dani has proven to be an outstanding teacher at Omaha Public Schools that strives to improve her practice by learning and applying new strategies that will highly engage her students. If you want to keep an eye on what she is doing in her classroom, follow her on Twitter @daniellenyff1. A characteristic I admire in her is her continual reflection of what she can do better. That truly shows that she realizes that her transformation as an educator is ongoing.
Transformational Teacher Series ARchive
In my last post, "How Can You Transform Your Teaching to Improve Learning?" I talked about the steps I have seen teachers in our district take to grow and improve. One teacher that stands out in my mind when thinking of a transformational teacher is, Rena Sharp, 2nd grade teacher at Kellom Elementary. I had the opportunity to meet Rena her first year of teaching when she was hired on in 2008 as a 3rd grade teacher at Kellom where I was working as a technology specialist. She was one that came in excited to teach, learn, and share. She also had a natural talent for classroom management and working with students of diverse backgrounds. Rena was a really good teacher from the start, but what makes her great is her constant drive to better her practice. In our district she has risen as a leader by serving as her building's, Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE), and earned an endorsement in our Instructional Technology Leadership program. I had the opportunity to serve as her instructor for one of the courses she took. We introduced the educators in the class to the TPACK model that talks about creating the "total package" for a lesson by purposefully combining Technology, Pedagogy, and Content knowledge seamlessly together. I consider Rena a TPACK superstar! I asked her to share with me a bit about her transformation as an educator over the years that has placed her where she is now.
How have you transformed as a teacher?
I feel that I have transformed as a teacher in many ways. First, I have learned that technology is so much more than a replacement to curriculum or content. Through the use of technology, teachers can promote student engagement, collaboration, creative and critical thinking, as well as help student develop a deeper understanding of content. These are also crucial skills to develop for their success in future careers.
Technology is a way for me to transform my current lessons into ones that are more meaningful to my students. I also know that technology is vital to my students future as their world continues to be surrounded by technology. It is no longer a supplement in my classroom is it is an essential element in many of my lessons.
Finally, I have developed a different mindset when it comes to teaching and learning. I now see the student first versus the content. I focus my lessons on where my students are currently at, where they need to go, and the best ways to get them to their goals. Student centered learning allows students to work at their own pace and level to meet their individual needs. All teachers are working hard to differentiate their instruction and the use of technology makes this easier and to me a much more manageable task.
How have you noticed your transformation impacting your students' learning?
First, my students are excited about learning. They want to be in my classroom, and they are excited about learning. My students are proud of themselves and have found their strengths. But what I love seeing most of all, is all of my students being successful in the same skill, but in their own ways.
I have a very wide range of academic levels in my room, from ELL newcomers to students two levels above grade level. The use of technology has allowed all of my students to participate in the same activities, but at their individual levels. This gives my classroom a strong sense of community. They learn with and from each other.
What tips would you give to a teacher that wants to grow as an educator?
Don't be afraid of new things! I once heard a saying that has really stuck with me, "change is not scary, its uncomfortable". Many times when I try new things in my classroom, I tell my students this is new to me. I ask them to be patient and also take their support. We work through it together which helps ease my fear of failure and let's my students feel valued.
Don't be afraid to ask for help! Change is uncomfortable, but going at it with support can make it so much better. As educators we are excited to help others, and we need to lean on each other for all to be successful. Make connections with like minded teachers and use them to transform your teaching. This can be educators from your school, district, and now through the use of social media anywhere around the world! It is important to take advantage of the wonderful resources right around you!
You showcase a lot of what you do to engage learners in class on Twitter. Why is that important to you?
First, I want to start by saying I have only been actively using Twitter for about a year. And to be honest, I was resistant and overwhelmed by the whole idea! I'm thankful to a wonderful teacher, who supported me along way and helped me to jump right in!
Showcasing my classroom on Twitter is important to me for a few different reasons. First, my students love it! They are proud of their work and want to show it off! I'm happy to have their parents, community members, and other educators see the wonderful things they are doing in the classroom. My students love to see the feedback we also receive from others. It's connecting them to others beyond the classroom walls!
Second, it is my way to connect with other educators. I have learned so many new ideas and strategies through Twitter as well as connected to hundreds of like-minded educators around the world! We have been able to Skype or communicate with other educators, classrooms, and professionals through the use of Twitter. Also, when I find myself struggling I turn to Twitter to see how other teachers are doing things in their classrooms. To me it acts as an instant line of support when I need it!
Finally, Twitter is a major part of my professional development. Education is always changing and no two days or lessons are the same. It is my way of seeing what's happening in classrooms right now! It also gives me the flexibility to learn when and where I have time from the doctors office, to my daughter's dance class, or from the comfort of my couch. I can grab my phone and learn something new at any time! Twitter chats also play a key role in this instant form of knowledge. I can learn more and get more resources in a 45 minute Twitter chat than an hour long staff meeting. Plus you can find a Twitter chat on almost any topic!
My thoughts about Twitter have definitely changed, and I am now encouraging all teachers to join! It has become a powerful resource for me in many ways!
If you want to take a peek into Rena's classroom on a consistent basis, follow her on Twitter @Mrs_SharpOPS as she opens up and connects with other educators by sharing what her students are learning. View the Sway below spotlighting her work with connecting her students globally through the use of Skype in the Classroom. Check back to this blog in the future to see other transformational teachers I showcase in this series and to learn more about their journey.
Transformational Teacher Series: Introduction
I am constantly amazed by the outstanding teaching and learning I get to see in the classrooms in our district. I like to believe this is something happening in schools across our nation. I know that not all classrooms, teachers, students are at the highest level at all times as there is always room to grow. I like to focus on those rooms that have learning experiences that are making a difference and dig into what is making them great. There is a huge benefit to educators walking into the classrooms of other educators to share ideas, see models of good instruction, and to collaborate on strategies. The time it takes to do this is not always available. Luckily with social media like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and through blog posts, teachers can share ideas in a manner that opens their classrooms up to others.
I wanted to take time to highlight some of the teachers I work with that have transformed their teaching over the years. These teachers have sought out professional learning opportunities to develop their skills and application of those skills. Over the next couple of months, as we close out this school year, I will highlight a transformational teacher in a series of blog posts. Each teacher has a unique story of how they have reconstructed their strategies for teaching.
What makes a transformational teacher?
A willingness to learn and grow is the start of any positive transformation. It comes with the understanding that it won't be easy, but it will be worth it. It also is known that it doesn't happen overnight and improvement is ongoing. It comes from incremental steps as new strategies are applied, reflected upon, adjusted, and turned into quality habits. This Edutopia article, "4 Things Transformational Teachers Do" highlights this key factor:
"The key to transformational teaching is not reacting, but rather a grinding obsession with analysis and preparation."
It also identifies key strategies a transformational teacher puts in place.
How do we build transformational teachers?
In our district, we offer a variety of professional development experiences for teachers. There are two specific programs our Instructional Technology Training team focuses on that allow me to build relationships with educators across the district. First, we modeled our district's Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) program off of the global one Microsoft provides. It is a three year rotational program that builds up the technology integration skills of teachers to apply their learning in their classroom with the goal of them sharing their learning with others and serving as leaders in their building. Many of the transformational teachers I will be showcasing have grown from this program. My colleague, Melissa Cleaver, created the image below that highlights the key components of the program. Our district's MIE program allows teachers to build on their interests as they learn new tools, pedagogy, and strategies for implementation.
The second core program we support is a cohort of teachers working towards their Instructional Technology Leadership (ITL) endorsement with a local university. The ITL program is grant funded and focused on our librarians and MIEs gaining deeper skills than what our MIE program above can provide. It is an intense look at the 21st Century Skills our students need, the pedagogy behind teaching these skills, and the technology that will support this. This is where I have seen the greatest growth of our transformational teachers. The intensity of the program allows them to apply their coursework to their classroom. The end goal of the program is to not only transform them as teachers, but to create connected educators that will share their experience with others. I teach a course in the program called, "Technology for Diverse Learners." As part of the course, I visit the classrooms of each of my students. These visits allow me to form a stronger relationship with the educators and support them through their learning. Many of the transformational teachers I will showcase have completed this endorsement program.
How can You Start your transformation?
Finding the model teachers in your building or district to collaborate with is a great start. Look further to those sharing on social media and through blog posts including the ones I highlight in this series. Edutopia shares, "9 Ways to Plan Transformational Lessons" that can be used to reflect on your current lesson planning. Your starting point may be to find an area in your instruction that you know needs to be improved on, but you may feel uncomfortable shifting. Then take the risk.
2017: A look Back
In the education world there are really two "new years" that we encounter. The one we all celebrate on January 1st and the start of a new school year. Both are a great time to reflect on the last year's challenges, successes and look forward to what we can accomplish in the year to come.
I kicked off January 2017 by publishing my first blog post titled, "How can blogging bring value to your personal and professional life?" In the post I talk about my #oneword2017 that would be a focus for the year. The word I selected was "action". At that time I was feeling very much like a consumer of information without ever creating, and blogging was one way I chose to reflect and share what I was consuming. There were also areas in my life that I felt were stagnant, and with some action steps I could propel them forward. James Clear does a great job explaining the power of action in this post, "The Mistake Smart People Make: Being in Motion vs. Taking Action". I subscribe to his weekly email blasts as they give me a good push towards my goals as he constantly reminds me that the action is more important than the goal itself.
I've listed some of the highlights of goals I reached that offer a glimpse of the "action" I took in 2017 that stood out to me as I closed out the year.
2018: Moving Forward
The most important variable in relationships is emotional connections.
- Jim Knight
The last book I read in 2017 was "Better Conversations" by Jim Knight. Through the eleven books I read with colleagues, the authors continually mentioned the importance of relationships as a key indicator of success. This helped me determine that my focus in 2018 would be on strengthening relationships with family, friends, and at work. I blogged about it in my last post, "What are You Most Grateful For?".
As I was reflecting on 2017 I felt like I had a good level of action, but a bulk of it was for my own growth and gain. I talk often about seeking balance in life, and what I'm talking about really is a balance in my relationships. I may rarely feel that elusive balance, but what I do notice is when I feel a strong imbalance in one particular area. In the education world the imbalance comes in different waves. This is why looking ahead in 2018 I want to put more focus on the emotional connections being made in the relationships I have with family, friends, and colleagues.
When thinking further about the actions to reach the goal of strengthening relationships, it includes a lot that I learned in the book, "Better Conversations". How to be a better listener, make emotional connections, offer and accept bids from others for those connections. One way to connect is to find activities that bring more joy to our lives. I feel in the last couple of years I have not allowed enough time in my life to really have quality fun with others in my life. I know reality includes work, to-do lists, stress, etc, and can't be rainbows and sunshine all the time. No one can change that, but I can make efforts to find ways to make it more joyful.
When I look at this in action it can include something as simple as taking the extra ten minutes during the work day to joke and have fun conversations with co-workers, a half hour to play a game with my kids, an hour to sit and relax with a glass of wine with my husband or plan for a babysitter so we can go out. I need to schedule in more "phone dates" with my best friends that live far away, plan overnight trips to visit friends, check out a new restaurant or go for a cup of coffee with those close by. I LOVE to travel and I need to make the budgetary and time efforts to add that back into my life. I started thinking about this at the beginning of December and becoming more aware of when I worked this into my life to build up relationships.
Over winter break I spent an afternoon planning the initial steps of a weekend trip to visit a friend, a trip with my best friends over spring break, a family trip to take my mother-in-law to see the ocean for the first time. I signed up with friends for a 10 mile race with music along the path and brunch at the end. I have plans to run a half marathon and do another mud run with my family and friends. I took up an offer from my sister to watch our kids so Mike and I could go out on a date night. I made a point to take time to play hot wheels, Legos, and basketball with my boys. We painted. We bundled up to go sledding. I created a chasing game called the "kissing monster" to keep us from going too crazy during the cold snap...and my boys keep requesting that game. I have a closet that didn't get cleaned out, this blog post didn't get done as fast, and I have emails to still answer. In due time that will happen, but I can let some of that go as the to-do list will never end, but time with others can.
Joy in the Classroom
Below is a very popular image that tends to pop into my mind at this time of year. It is labeled as phases a "new teacher" goes through, but I really look at it as phases anyone in education goes through. I feel it in my own role as an instructional technology trainer even when I'm not in a classroom, but working with teachers.
With a new school year starting in August it is similar to a new calendar year. We are full of ideas and visions of what we hope to accomplish. We all make our "new school year resolutions". Successes happen but without reflection and celebration they may go unnoticed by others and ourselves. Roadblocks that stop some goals make us look back during the disillusionment stage and feel the disappointment that we aren't where we want to be yet. If actions are not planned and put in place towards these resolutions, they may not take hold.
A favorite phase of mine in the graphic above is the rejuvenation stage of the year. Relationships have been built, gains have been made, and new ideas can be attempted. It is a time of year that I see teachers more willing to take risks and try new ways of teaching students.
I challenge myself and others in education to push that rejuvenation stage earlier in the year, even working to wipe out the low stages of attitude happening each year. Students can feel those phases coming through their teacher.
In my son, Chase's first grade class, the teacher amazed me during the month of December. It is a very hard time of year as personal lives are hectic, school lives are packed with holiday events, and students are a little more stir crazy. His teacher built in a number of engaging activities that I questioned if she was slightly crazy to bring that on for herself. She worked in STEM activities she had never tried as part of a class she is taking, she joined a Skype call from a local museum to share about the holiday traditions around the world, and had a class "Elf on the Shelf" that she worked into classroom activities. The elf was a nightly discussion with my son Chase. He could not wait to get to school each day to see where "Winter" the elf was that day. Much to his surprise, one day Winter was hiding in Chase's desk. She added memorable experiences to their learning.
Similar to my own resolution to build relationships in my life by adding in more activities of joy, a teacher can find value in injecting new activities that will bring joy to learning. This can push them through the low feelings students and teachers may feel midway through the year. Below are a few activities that could add a little spark to the new year as students come back from the holiday break:
Relationship Resolutions: be a better listener, stop gossiping, spend more time with familySkype in the Classroom.
It might seem a trivial to add more fun into my life as an action towards my goal of making relationships stronger. Teachers may feel there is too much content to cover to add in new ideas that may rejuvenate their teaching and add excitement to their lesson. However, I think everyone could find life a bit more joyful if we made some efforts in this area and at the same time, build stronger relationships with those we involve. Don't we all need a bit more "joie de vivre"? I know this feels like a resolution that will add value to my life, I look forward to keeping, and it doesn't feel like work.
It's Thanksgiving weekend...a time to reflect on what you have in life. Thanksgiving morning I woke up in my mom's farmhouse where we had spent the night. I took a run that morning on the open country road. I love running to think, reflect, set goals, plan, and there is no better place than away from the city. I love how it clears my mind to have that space. As I was running that morning I was thinking about how blessed I was in life. Most tend to reflect on this at this time of the year. Some might think naturally of food, water, shelter, career, money, etc. My thoughts kept circling around the people in my life and how thankful I am for the relationships we have built.
my two worlds
I live in two worlds. You may feel this way yourself. I have this personal world of my close friends and family, but a whole other world at work where I spend a large bulk of my daily life. When reflecting on the people I appreciate, my thoughts naturally go to my family. My immediate family of my husband and two kids along with the extended family of parents, siblings, niblings (nephews and neices...real word I didn't make it up), and in-laws. I also love the circle of friends I have grown in my personal life, from those that are hometown, life long friends, to those I have met as I progressed into my adult life.
The other world I spend a lot of time in is my work life. I've been extremely blessed to feel "at home" in the two schools I worked at and the current role I have as an instructional technology trainer. I have made so many friends and strong connections through the years. Not everyone feels this way at work and it can have an effect on your happiness and productivity. Research shows that having friends at work is more beneficial than trying to separate your work and personal life. There may be some struggles with it, but in the end the benefits outweigh the negatives. I know that I would not feel the level of engagement and happiness I have at work, if I did not have a strong connection with those I work with.
Here are a couple sample posts if you care to read more on this topic:
"We All Need Friends At Work"
"Work Friends Make Us More Productive (Except When they Stress Us Out)"
When I reflect on what I'm grateful for in this world, it stands out in my mind the people I work with on my team. We informally call ourselves a training team, but behind the scenes we joke about being a "family". We truly work as one. We struggle through disagreements like a family. We celebrate successes when one wins an award, a team member is newly engaged, or one crosses off a bucket list item. Our work family rallies around those going through struggles in their personal life or when a goal we planned to move towards as a team goes off path. Beyond my immediate work family is the extended network of colleagues that we have connected with. The teachers and leaders in the buildings that we have grown to know as we discuss their needs and try to provide the best support for them are a key part of what I love about my work.
Gratitude for Relationships
What is always striking to me is how separate these two worlds can be for those I interact with. My personal life connections and work life connections rarely interact. My personal family knows little about my work family and vice versa. However, to me they all intertwine into the world within me. When I look closely at what I most appreciate about my life it is definitely not material possessions. It comes down to RELATIONSHIPS. In my life, I am most grateful for the relationships I have had and continue to have. The relationships with those I'm close to in my personal world and in my professional world. It is what I focus on when I ever feel off balance in life. I look towards what relationship is not getting enough attention. It can be in my personal life, my professional life, and even the relationship with myself.
As Thanksgiving weekend comes to and end and I'm finalizing this post I feel a balance in my relationships. I've had time with close family and those I have not seen in a while. We've reconnected through good meals, a long game of Phase 10, reminiscing of old memories, and teasing one another. I've taken time to catch up with friend who had a recent surgery, reached out to some via text, and spent down time with a couple on our deck as the unseasonably nice weather granted us that outdoor time. Holidays help us with this reconnection of those close to us. We slow our lives down to have that hour with a person, a slow cup of coffee, an extra long card game, or a walk to the park. The problem is, these times come too far and few.
This morning I started the book, "Better Conversations", by Jim Knight. I'm one chapter in and I so need this book. With relationships being the number one thing I'm most grateful for in my life, I need to prioritize the cultivation of them. I'm at an age that I know which relationships need to be focused on and don't feel ashamed to let some go. This book is setting out to share ways to communicate better and build habits for better conversations. A quality that will enhance anyone's relationship in their personal or professional life. Most conversations don't happen over a holiday when we have large amounts of relaxing time. It may be a conversation that is quick and fast at work, or on a rushed morning to get the kids ready for school. It might be those longer conversations as we plan out at work the best way to tackle a problem, or as my husband and I plan out our goals for the future. As we come close to December, I have already set a focus on strengthening relationships as my current goal for 2018. I feel this book is going to lay a great foundation for this journey. If I hold my relationship with others so dear to my heart, then I need to take a concerted effort towards making them as strong as possible and the tie to this all is communication.
What drives you?
I was talking to a friend recently about what drives people or motivates them in life. I asked, "What drives me?". He responded, "Your family, you seem driven by family." This pleased me, but also surprised me a bit. I'm always looking for a sense of balance in my life. Balance as a mother, friend, wife, my role at work, and with my own self. This usually comes down to time and the relationships that connect with others in those roles.
What is "Drive"?
If we break it down to the barest level from the dictionary "drive" is defined, "to strive vigorously toward a goal or objective; to work, play, or try wholeheartedly and with determination." It seems elusive to really understand as it is not tangible. I really think of it as your motivation. You have to dig deeper and for me it was helpful to ask another person. If you think about others that are close to you, it might be possible that you could identify what drives them based on the actions and words that come from them. This ties closely with recognizing what motivates you and what motivates those around you. Identifying this will help to understand myself and the others that I have close relationships with both personally and professionally.
In a recent book I read, "Creative Schools", by Sir Ken Robinson, he spoke often about there being two worlds.
"We live in two worlds: the world within us and the world around us."
Finding your drive
I wanted to dig a little further as I contemplated this and found a good listing of factors that could motivate a person from, Audrey Marlene in post called, "Motivation".
In another book I read this summer, "Brain Rules", it was pointed out that as humans we have natural drives that we may be aware of such as our hunger drive, thirst drive, sex drive, but we also as humans have a learning drive. A deep desire for learning. This really hits a big part of what drives me. When I'm looking for opportunities to improve, to grow and become more capable it all comes down to learning and seeking out new challenges for more growth. When I have a moment of free time, I'm searching and yearning for more information to fill my mind, solve a problem, or move me to the next learning point. Having recently watched Sir Ken Robinson's talk, "Finding Your Element", it made me start reflecting on my recent discussion about what drives me and also what my "element" or passions in life were and how they connect. As I watched it, he kept coming back to what you feel talented at.
My Passion in LIfe
I have a passion for learning and teaching. It isn't maybe as exciting as someone that has a passion for art, music, dance, medicine, serving others, etc., but it is mine. I wanted to be a teacher ever since I was in the 3rd grade. Learning cursive, multiplication, reading chapter books, it was all so exciting. I absorbed it and my love of learning led my mind to deciding early on that I wanted everyone to feel the excitement that comes with learning.
When I graduated high school I had talked myself out of that career path as I knew it would not financially be the best move. I set my sites on the business world. In one of my business classes I was required to volunteer for a program called Junior Achievement. I was tasked with teaching a lesson about city planning to a class of 4th grade students. I was essentially handed all of the materials and a plan, but then I had to teach it. I went in there wondering if 4th graders would even care about city planning. As I started the lesson and encountered them excitedly learning it was an experience exactly what Sir Ken Robinson was talking about. Like a natural resource buried inside, I felt great during that lesson. I felt alive. I felt like I was talented and they were learning. I felt like I had a natural finesse similar to how I assume a skilled athlete can move around a playing field and be just at the right place at the right time. The classroom teacher told me I was a natural and I should be a teacher. I'm not going to make you think this lesson was life shattering, but to me it was as it set me on a completely different course. I went to my advisor the next day and changed my major to education and have never looked back. I've always had a strong belief in finding a career that would be one I loved and would challenge me as much as it fulfilled me. Connecting the learning that I was in love with to a career that would allow me to continue to learn and help others learn seemed like the perfect fit.
Learning on the edge
This year marks my 20th year as a teacher. It is unbelievable as when you are doing something you love it goes so fast. People talk about retirement and it is not even a thought in my mind. Even when it comes I know I will move into another role that will couple my desire for learning and teaching together. When I learn something new I have a strong desire to share it with others. To me learning and teaching others goes hand in hand. When I learn something new it is a thrill to me. Learning can be in a conversation, book, blog post, podcast, training, and in just about any experience in life. I refer to it as my brain fuel. Without it I don't exist.
A recent 10 Minute Teacher podcast I listened to had guest, Randy Ziegenfuss referring to a thought from Robert Marzanno that promotes a person to "work at the edge of one's competence". This phrase struck me as that edge is where discomfort comes in. Many hold back on feeling that discomfort no matter their age. As adults we tend to want to be experts in our field, always wanting to appear as though we know everything. This causes many to not value the importance of pushing their learning further.
I get uncomfortable myself. I'm experiencing it right now as I write a course for a local university called, "Technology for Diverse Learners". It is a topic that I'm not an expert in. I am not highly skilled at knowing the best way to teach English Language Learners, students with special needs, and high ability students. I know technology, and I have experienced teaching students with a multitude of needs. However, now I'm purposefully planning how to teach others. It is a topic that for years I have wanted to dive into deeper, but I have not had the purpose to push myself. Like many teachers I did my best to figure it out along the way, but not purposefully. I'm definitely at the edge of my competence, learning different categories student needs fall in, accessibility features on a variety of platforms, assistive technology, and exploring Universal Design for Learning for the first time. Despite the doubts in my mind, I'm so excited to learn this and prepare to teach it to other educators.
This takes me back to what drives me. I would love to look you straight in the eye and say it was my family. That sounds quaint. It sounds like a response I should say. However, I identify my drive as seeking out opportunities to improve, to grow and become more capable. This comes in my personal life and professional life. I'm curious, I'm that nerdy person that looks up all new words encountered, stands in the grocery store and scans food items on my phone to learn their nutritional value, reads all of the flyers people oddly place in public restrooms. I then may be that annoying person that needs to run and tell someone or tweet one of the new facts I just learned. I email a teacher I know that will try something new with me and set up a time to dive in. I count myself as one of those lucky people in life that has found a way to blend my drive with my passion as I work on a life of learning and teaching.
Wondering about your drive, what your passion or natural element might be? Maybe ask a friend, take a look at the list of motivators above. What do you tend to be drawn towards? Be honest with yourself and be realistic too. I hope and dream for my two young boys some day that they will have the capabilities to connect all of the right elements together in their lives as adults. It makes for a very happy one.
Reflection....ugh I dread it. It takes time. It makes me think deeply. It makes me look at myself closely. Why is something so powerful so hard to do? This post is all about the value of reflection, but I will straight up admit I don't have it all figured out. Even the title of my overall blog page has "reflection" in it. I reflect a lot when my mind is open: car ride home from work, on a walk or run, when I'm attempting to fall asleep at night. My problem is taking my reflection and going deeper by sharing it with others, writing it down, or reviewing it to make changes in my action. It is something I deeply believe in, but I need to put into practice. With the new school year, I'm trying to build in time to reflect on each week and make a point of making that a part of my blog posts as a way to deepen the process and hopefully build on myself personally and professionally.
This also expands on a tip I shared in a guest post for Microsoft, "Integrating Technology in Class for Great Results: 6 Tips from an Expert". I shared the tip to "Reflect and Revise" with this idea:
The most powerful learning comes from reflection. This needs to be done not only by the student, but also the teacher, via dialogue, writing, or video. Reflect on the learning activities you provided and the technology you integrated to determine if it enhanced or hindered the learning experience.
It won’t always be a success, but the value comes in recognizing and adjusting. This goes back to listening to your students. Ask questions, check for evidence of learning and add your own insight to reiteration of your learning activity.
A story of Professional Reflection
I had the opportunity for a recent curriculum day to repeat the same three hour session four different times over two days. This is a rarity, but also a wonderful time to reflect on what is working for the learners and what is not working and what can be adjusted before the next group. The workshop was focused on K-2 teachers integrating technology to support the 4Cs: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. It was a choice breakout session of teachers coming from all across the district. We didn't know our audience's background other than the grade level they taught. I was working as a co-presenter with members of our Instructional Technology Leadership Program and we planned meticulously for the three hour session. We wanted to provide enough background of the 4Cs to give them an awareness level, and a wide range of tools to utilize that would serve their interests, but not overwhelm them. Our main goal was for them to take away one idea to implement in the classroom at the start of the year.
At the beginning of the workshop we did some quick formative assessments to gauge teacher background on our topic and see what their interests were for what we were sharing. This allowed us to make some quick decisions as presenters of which stations to include or pull out that we had planned for them to choose during the last half of the three hour session. We had a great first session with no real technical issues, the audience was engaged, and they walked away verbally telling us how great the session was. We repeated the same session that afternoon and it all seemed to go smoothly. As I was preparing to leave and repeat the same sessions the next day, I had a chance to glance at the surveys our district has them fill out at the end of the session. The responses overall were marked at "strongly agree" and I was feeling great. However, as I looked at the "comments" section on each survey there was a similar message. "Wish we had more time.", "Such great ideas, wish we had more time to dig in." More time, more time, more time.
After that day, I felt like any teacher does after a long day...tired. I wanted to just walk in the next day and repeat the sessions. It was good enough, the other presenters I was working with knew what we were doing, it would be easier the second day. That night the comments from the survey kept running in my head and made me start thinking of how could I allow them more time. After three hours of being with us what did they mean? I couldn't have an open dialogue with them, but I could reflect on my past experience as a teacher. I knew how it felt attending PD sessions when I was a teacher. There were so many sessions I attended that shared great ideas and tools. Many times I was excited to use the new learning, but I didn't have the time to set up and plan for the application in my room. I always left with good intentions to implement, but once the day-to-day hustle of a classroom started it often times never happened. It was time for me to heed my advice and realize, "the value comes in recognizing and adjusting".
I went back to work the next morning, tweaked some of our slides, talked to the co-presenters, and decided to take out a large activity of sharing towards the end of the session. We had in our minds that all teachers would want an understanding of what every breakout group had learned from the choice station they made. There is definitely value in that, but based on the survey comments we thought it added more value to give them more time and focus on them giving the tool they were interested in more learning time and planning for application. As presenters we did a quick overview of each tool and how it could connect to the 4Cs and be implemented in the class. The teachers then decided which tool they were interested in learning more about and they had close to an hour to really dig into that tool with their group. Taking advice from a colleague, I created a quick Microsoft Form that they could fill out if they wanted one of our district training team members to schedule time to work with them on implementing their new learning in the classroom. The Curriculum Day survey comments came back after those two sessions without anyone asking for more time. They were strong in their message of satisfaction. Even one said, "Best curriculum day session I have ever attended. No...Seriously!" My reflection and revision of how the training was set up improved the learning experience for the attendees. The value of this reflection can carry over as I plan future trainings.
Reflection for Student learning
How can reflection translate to the classroom? A student can reflect on what they have learned and the process of how they were able to learn. Most students will be like me....they will not understand at first the value of reflection, the value of taking the time, and it will feel uncomfortable if they have never been asked to do it before. When I was teaching a graduate course this last year I asked students to reflect on their learning through blogs. They hated me for it. Truly...I think they did. It took more time, it made them really synthesize and analyze what they were learning. It dug into their souls as I asked them to make personal connections to their learning. Then many of them admitted during our course reflection that blogging was surprisingly a wonderful source of reflection and deepening of their learning.
Reflection, like any other useful skill takes direct instruction, modeling, scaffolding to make it work and for students to be successful. It is something that can be started at the youngest of ages with questions, dialogue, pictures, video and built upon and strengthened as students grow. It is a life skill that will benefit everyone personally and professionally and the process of reflection needs to be taught.
Resources for Teaching Reflection
Primary students can be supported through the reflection process with modeling and think alouds as the teacher reflects. Having students watch another student reflect on their learning can be a powerful example. The below example activity, created by educator Patsy Cleverly, is one of many you can do with primary students to set them on the path of reflection. It allows you to insert a variety of learning goals, but the true reflection would come in discussing the student's process of learning each goal.
Reflection Learning Worm
Older students can share their process of learning in a variety of ways, but it starts with them really asking questions of themselves. You can scaffold this by providing question prompts. The below resource, created by Jackie Gerstein, with a focus on Growth Mindset, has many questions to guide a learner. The student can self select a few to look at or as they become stronger reflect on each of them.
Personal Accountability and Reflection
The questions above are great and can teach students the process of reflection, but I also, as a teacher, want to see evidence. A student could easily look at the list of questions in the resource above and say yes or no to any of them. With dialogue you could get further, but sometimes you don't have the luxury of time to discuss the learning of each student individually. This is why I love the "Progress Assessment Tool" that was explained in this Angela Watson podcast with guests Ross Copper and Erin Murphy, and shared in their book, "Hacking Project Based Learning". This tool adds evidence to the process of reflection.
Progress Assessment Tool
Blogging to reflect
Here I am about to publish my sixth post on my blog. I started this for my own personal reflection and I will say it is not easy. I've struggled with finding out the best way for me to get into a "flow" of writing. I have realized that I am one that likes to sit for hours in that "flow", and I don't always have that time on my side. The biggest realization is that each time I complete a post, it is a deeper look at myself. A reflection of what I have learned and what is important to me. George Couros, who I find myself using as a resource often, talks about the power of blogging for reflection in his post, "Another Reason to Blog; Proactive Through Reflection". His last line speaks to me as to how valuable each post I make is in my process of learning and reflection that will help me grow professionally and personally. I hope you find a way to reflect on your own practice and to add it to your learning activities with students.
If we do not take time to look back, how will we ever be able to move forward?- George Couros
I recently had the honor of writing a guest blog with Microsoft titled, "Integrating technology in class for great results: 6 tips from an expert". I looked back on that post recently and wanted to go further with each tip in a series of blog posts. I'm going to dive into my second tip of, "Shift to a Student-Centered Environment" first. Based on the limitation of words I had to adhere to in the original post, I never went into the actual physical space as part of the environment. It is a good time to reflect on this at the start of the new school year when many teachers are focused on setting up their classroom environment. Before I expand on the tip further, here were my original thoughts:
Stand back and release control. There are a variety of student-centered pedagogies to explore such as inquiry, project and/or problem-based learning, design thinking, and culturally responsive teaching. The end goal is to give students ownership into their learning.
For instance, use creative discovery time when introducing a new tool. Instead of giving step-by-step instructions, let students discover and interact with one another. Imagine a class of students starting on Minecraft: Education Edition for the first time. Do you really need to be the expert, or can your students play that role?
The physical environment you set up for your students can lead to a deeper focus on student learning, collaboration, and communication. It was one area that my tip did not touch on, but can easily be tweaked by not only the teacher, but also the students. Most teachers getting ready for "Back to School Night" feel like the room has to be perfect, like the pictures you see on Pinterest. I wonder... could it be a blank slate ready for your students to help you design?
Dani Nyffeler, is a sixth grade teacher in our district that recently earned an endorsement in Instructional Technology Leadership. Part of that endorsement program really pushed Dani to look at not only her learning activities in class, but to look at the whole learning experience. She developed a strong interest in Project Based Learning (PBL), and I shared with her the book, "Hacking Project Based Learning" as a great book to provide a starting point. The book opened with the first chapter, "Develop a Space that Promotes Risk Taking". The authors outlined the following steps:
The learning space can include the physical: seating, lighting, decor, but also the way students use the space in different ways such as individual, collaborative, and/or creative learning. When looking for ideas, it is great to check out what other schools are doing to redesign their learning spaces. Here are some of my favorites:
1. Check out this one from Baltimore County Public Schools for all things focused on the learner:
The Learner Centered Environment
It is an ocean of resources, and a whole section is dedicated to "Classroom Arrangement". Below is one example of an interactive it displays on using your space for a variety of learning stations.
For even more examples from this district, they have a page dedicated to their Lighthouse Schools: Learner Centered Environments with photo galleries showing students interacting in their physical environment created for student learning.
2. As you embark on redesigning your classroom, view some of the tips from Edutopia: 8 Tips and Tricks to Redesign Your Classroom. One thing you will notice through the tips is how involved the students are in the process. This is the key!
Focus on more than the physical Space
Setting out to redesign your classroom may seem like a lot to take on. It is not something that may happen in a day or perhaps even a week, but like Dani it can be worked on over a year and tweaked for each group of students. The physical environment is not all that is involved in making a Student Centered Environment. It is just one step, but can be overlooked or held back on as a task that is too hard.
As our district sets off to open buildings this coming week to 52,000 students, I was out working with teachers on their first professional development days last week. I could see the look of worry in their eyes as their thoughts were more on setting up their classroom than the meeting they were sitting in. Some had the typical classroom to set up, which is an arduous task. However, one of the schools I walked into that was in the midst of construction honestly looked like a bomb had gone off in it. Construction was still in progress, wires hanging from the ceiling, boxes needing unpacked, and rooms still empty. No matter what, the students are coming and that building will be open and ready.
The physical space can be worked on as the days go by, but the one thing that needs to be forefront for all staff, no matter the worries in their mind, is number one on the list-- Build Relationships by making the students feel welcome and cared for. That is all that really matters to them.
Fear of Failure
"I'm afraid I'll fail, I'm afraid I will fail my students. I really just don't know where to start."
Dani Nyffler, a sixth grade teacher in our district, made that statement and then continued talking excitedly about a project we were planning. Her words clouded my thoughts, and I struggled listening to her as I started reflecting on her statement.
I would identify Dani as an early adopter, innovator, risk taker, whatever word you want to label the teacher you love to work with that is excited to learn and try new ideas. I had approached Dani to work with me on designing a project wrapped around my learning in the book, "Hacking Project Based Learning", by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy. I wanted to apply some of my new ideas directly in a classroom and knew Dani was a great choice. She had already transformed the physical space of her class with flexible seating, allowing her students to help design the environment. She was closely reflecting on her teaching practice as a member of our district's Instructional Technology Leadership Endorsement Program. She had happily agreed to plan a project with me, started reading the book, and we carved out time to start meeting so we could plan out at least one project before the end of the school year.
Her concerns of failure stopped me in my tracks because I completely understood why she felt that way, and the fact that I was uncertain myself of where to start. I think both of our fears stemmed from knowing that true Project Based Learning (PBL) can be effective and powerful if done right, but could also go the other direction if not planned out. We had both created "projects" with our students in the past, but now we were armed with just enough information to know that there are better ways to meet student needs through PBL. We were looking to do it in the best way. We were both afraid of the unknown. I consider us both open to new ideas and taking risks, but how about the educators out there that aren't as open to change? Will they allow themselves to take risks?
Why take Risks with Students
George Couros shared what Innovation Is and Isn't, "To simplify the notion of innovation, it is something that is both new (either invention or iteration) and better. Innovation is not about the “stuff”, but about a way of thinking."
The words, something that is new and better, is the key to this. I feel as educators, and in general any human, should be looking towards new and better ways to keep growing. As our world keeps moving forward, so should our educational practices. Looking for innovation in our classroom can be modeled by the teacher and continued on as students. Being transparent with your students when you are trying something new, feeling uncomfortable, learning yourself, and sometimes failing and then reflecting for improvement is an essential success skill to instill in students.
When you make changes or choose to be innovative there is always a level of risk involved. How do you determine what is worth the risk? When we are responsible for the growth of students, how do we make responsible risks towards innovation? How do we ensure parents, administrators, and other teachers that the risk is worth taking?
Levels of Risk Taking
I have a six year old son, Chase, who takes on new ideas very cautiously. My two year old boy, McKennon, on the opposite end, makes irrational risks which can lead towards danger at times. Some say it is a first born vs. second born trait, but I also think it is strongly connected to their personality type. One example of the many differences in their risk taking disposition was evident on a recent trip to a new playground. If interested you can view the videos below, but in summary you will see my oldest son carefully planning out his attempts on the equipment, wanting me there for support and to watch him. Every new attempt had a layer of fear in his voice, but as a kid he was still willing to try. In the background is his younger brother, who he nicknamed, "chaos", trying everything even beyond what he should. Fear never seems to enter his thoughts, but is constantly on my mind when he is out in the open. I often times was running over to keep him from leaping off of the six foot high edge. This scenario mirrors their bike riding, interactions in public areas like the zoo, swimming, and more.
My oldest son has always been careful about anything that seemed new. I have to push him to try something risky, like this week, a back flip at swim lessons. By the way, once he did one he loved it! How can we support educators with a similar disposition as him and especially those that feel no need to change what has "always worked". They stay stagnant and comfortable, but miss out on opportunities to move forward and in turn move students forward or foster an innovative mindset. How can we take a teacher, similar to my youngest son, that dives in head first to any new idea in the education world, quickly implements each one without much reflection on the effectiveness, and sometimes creates more chaos than growth? Somewhere between my two boys is a balance towards responsible risk taking.
Responsible Risk Taking
I thought back on Dani's fear of failure as we attempted Project Based Learning. I reflected on successful risk taking I have experienced or supported others through and recognize some key components towards risk taking. The steps below can help individuals and schools strategically plan for innovation to ensure success.
Wait, don't leave me here, don't nod off on this one. I'm not talking about deep educational research, unless the risk warrants it. I mean the type of research where you determine why you need to take the risk. Is there something in your current practice that could be improved upon? The type of research where you look for resources to help guide before you start. Has anyone tried this new idea that you can learn from? Can you prepare yourself before taking the risk by identifying the advantages and disadvantages? Don't spend too much time and energy on this one that you find yourself never getting to the next more important step. Some of the greatest learning experiences have come from a teacher moving forward even if they were not comfortable.
Plan and implement the change or new idea. This can be daunting depending on the breadth of the risk. We often want to wait until everything is well thought out and you are sure of success. In my case of biting off Project Based Learning with Dani we were not sure how to start because we wanted to try and do so much. We wanted to design the most amazing and powerful project using all of the ideas we had learned in the book. We needed to break our goals into smaller chunks. We could start with a project and focus on 2-3 core ideas behind Project Based Learning and continue to build on it as we did more. I love this idea as an approach to taking risks that seem hard to start from the post, "Elon Musk: The Secret Behind His Insane Drive."
How often do you take time to do this? I know it is one area that once I'm done with the learning activity it gets pushed aside. If it is a new idea you are implementing, take the time to truly reflect on the value. Consider the Return on Investment (ROI) to help determine if it is worth the risk or if it just needs to be tweaked. Was your new idea worth the time? Did the students learn better? Did it teach them any new success skills? This reflection should not include only the teacher's inner thoughts of how it went. Get feedback from the students on whether it enhanced their learning or helped them grow in some way. Ask for ideas of how it could have worked better. If it was a large risk there is a good chance you have some type of data you can analyze over a period of time to see if it is working. If the Return on Investment is not high, perhaps you don't need to add it into your practice or need to make adjustments.
Once you have reflected move into enhancing the idea for the next time. I worked with two middle school teachers that embarked on their first endeavor with Project Based Learning. They jumped into the project quickly as time was against them, and they were uncertain how successful it would be. Overall it was a great opportunity for student learning, but the best learning came from the teachers. They sat down with me to reflect on the project and were amazed by what some of the students produced. They also had ideas of what they needed to change for the next time. Experiencing the new idea was just as important as reading a book about it. The continual growth of the teacher is just as important as the student in this process. This is a crucial skill to model and teach students.
Being an innovative teacher or leader alone is not enough. The end goal should be to spread the mindset to others which will add to the innovative culture of a school. This all comes back to relationships. This needs to be the central core to anything a person is embarking on including responsible risk taking. When risk taking you can build relationships by:
Share in the comments your own experiences and tips for risk taking. What could you add to my suggestions above?
Discovering The LAUNCH Cycle
I stumbled on the book, "Launch", by AJ Julliani and John Spencer somewhere in my massive web of the Twitter PLN world. When I read the description outlining a framework to follow for Design Thinking it caught my attention. Design Thinking was a term I had heard about through a few blogs/tweets, but I really didn't understand it. However, it seemed to have a lot of value for learning. I'm a lover of someone giving me a framework to get started. Some may feel like you shouldn't follow a system for Design Thinking, that it should be more organic, but this makes sense to me and was what I needed. I think it is a great place to start as an introduction for teachers to use the LAUNCH cycle in the classroom to introduce Design Thinking.
As mentioned in the book, "We live in an era where test scores are mistaken for learning." However, we also realize that there is so much more that students need such as critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity skills to name a few. Creating opportunities to foster these skills by creating makerspaces, project based learning, and the use of Design Thinking are great ways for any teacher to enhance these skills in the learning experiences they create. The LAUNCH Cycle provides a flexible framework to get started. The cycle includes the following phases:
Maybe you have already embraced the the idea of students designing, making, tinkering, creating. This framework brings some guidance to it, and allows it to be more focused and thoughtful. The students can move in and out of the phases even repeating them as they design. You can start small with a quick 20 - 45 minute design challenge and introduce the LAUNCH Cycle, or push further into a project that uses the LAUNCH cycle over several days or weeks. I have found ways in my own life both professionally and personally to use the LAUNCH cycle phases even when not designing a physical item, but when creating plans, blogs, and tackling work projects.
The authors of LAUNCH, created a Global Day of Design slated for May 2, 2017 for this current year. It is the second annual event to bring awareness to the importance of Design Thinking and allow a day to focus on using the process to create. Classes are encouraged to use that day or any day that works for them to include Design Thinking in their process of learning. Their website provides a wide variety of challenges to choose from that covers several curricular areas.
I saw an opportunity for classrooms across the globe to connect and collaborate on what they are designing and the process they are going through. As a Skype Master teacher, I created a Skype Collaboration on the Microsoft Educator Community. Teachers can first sign up for the Global Day of Design and then move to the Skype Collaboration and connect with a school to share in the following way:
Access the Skype Collaboration below:
Design Thinking and Global Day of Design Skype Collaboration
The following Sway is included in the Skype Collaboration, and includes additional resources for a successful Skype collaboration and Design Thinking experience.
Mother, wife, teacher, learner, information seeker, outdoor lover, & I guess now a novice blogger.