Thursday, July 31, 2014

I'd rather be 'that guy' than no guy at all, I think

So, I was recently at a conference.

This conference was made up of mostly superintendents, assistant superintendents and members of our state education organization.

I enjoy attending events with this type of audience because I tend to learn a lot about leading and overseeing a school district, which I hope to do at some point in my education career.

Having said that, several times during the event people would stop me and say something along the lines of...

'Hey, you're that Twitter guy that always posts stuff online.'


'Hey, you better stop tweeting so much or your fingers will fall off.'


'You're that technology guy who tweets about technology all the time.'

or, my favorite...

'Do you actually do anything at work or do you spend all day tweeting?'

Obviously most of these comments are playful and fun in nature and are pretty harmless.

However I began to think more about the comments and the more I thought the more I questioned what was happening.

So, yes, I was getting recognized and acknowledged by superintendents and state officials who are leading school districts all across the state of Missouri. Sounds pretty great doesn't it!

For someone who is looking to network and develop an awareness around their brand, this is a dream come true and one couldn't ask for more.

But, I keep coming back to one question:

Do I really want to be known as 'that guy?'

Do I want to be known as the tweeting technology guy?

What about all the other things I do in my school district that have nothing to do with technology and have nothing to do with tweeting?

Here's the thing, I know I'm not alone in this dilemma. I know this happens to other people as well.

We're getting recognized for something that only makes up one small part of who we are as educators while the many other parts (which I'm sure we are equally proud of) seem to go unnoticed.

Do they really know who we are and what we're all about...?

Do they really know we do much more than tweet and advocate for technology in the educational setting?

The more I thought about it the closer I've come to an answer.

After much deliberation...

I think I'd rather be known as 'that guy,' than 'no guy' at all... I think...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

But I've already got too much on my plate...

One of the many beauties of working in education is the constantly changing environment in which we work.

As society evolves and as new technologies become available, the opportunities that are available in our classrooms and in our schools are plentiful and exciting. Additionally, as we learn more and more about learning theories and their impact on the brain, we are bombarded with new ideas and new approaches to student learning.

With all this excitement comes the challenge of the 'plate.'

So, we are all given a plate and most of us have our plates pretty full. Most of us have more to do than there are hours in the day. Most of us struggle to find the time to truly address what's on our plate.

One of the things we struggle with in education is balancing what we currently have on our plates and those things we want to add to our plates.  We also must consider those things we don't add to our plates because there's not room.

Here's the thing, with all the new thoughts on student learning and with all the new opportunities that are available as a result of technology, the quality of stuff we can add to our plates is at times better than the quality of stuff that already fills our plates.

A choice must be made...

A choice to take something off to make room for something new...

This is a common and frequent conversation within the walls of school districts. It's the type of conversation that gets people 'fired up' and 'passionate' if you know what I mean.

But, I must fall on one side of the fence... and the side of the fence I fall on is the side that says, 'yes, I'd love to try that because I think it will help our students.'

Far too often we shut the door on possibility because we become married to what we've always done and what we are comfortable with.

Here's my advice, take a chance and push something that isn't producing off of you plate and replace it with something that has potential.

Obviously in the beginning you won't know if this change will pan out or not, but if it has potential then that is better than something you know isn't working.

Take a few minutes and consider your 'yes' ratio when it comes to trying something new and experimenting with a new approach.

Hint... if you are more frequently saying 'no' and keeping all those things you've always done on your plate, then I think you may be missing out.

Better yet... I think your students may be really missing out too...

Saturday, July 26, 2014

5 easy ways to improve your classroom learning space

We are continuing to learn more and more about how kids learn. As a result, this information has significant implications on how we design and recreate our learning spaces. Here are 5 ways to simply and easily improve your classroom learning space.

1). Check out your lighting system...

It's easy to think that turning on all the lights in the classroom is what you should do. That's why we have lights... so they are used, right? Well, I encourage you to experiment and mess around with how you use the lights in your classroom and observe how it affects your students and their behavior. I've found that when the lights are dimmed or not all turned on, the classroom mood is calmer and more relaxed. I've found students to be more at-ease and more comfortable. Also, do you have spots in your classroom where different colors of lights are available? Different colors and brightnesses affect each of us differently, so having a wide-range of spaces available will enhance your classroom. Natural light is the best, so if you have that available, be sure to use it!

2). Sometimes less is more when it comes to classroom decorations...

As a teacher, white empty wall space was my enemy. I did everything I could to cover each and every inch of wall space because I wanted to have a cool and awesome looking room. I never really realized it at the time, but this type of learning space was 'too much' for some of my students to handle. They were unable to retain their focus because there were too many stimuli. There has also been quite a lot of research recently on the topic of room decorations being a distraction for students and that limiting what is included in the learning space actually enhances student learning. Ask yourself if there is a practical and functional purpose for what is in your room, or if it's because it's 'cute.'

3). Add some tunes...

When we are cleaning the house, cooking dinner or washing the car, many of us enjoy listening to music while completing these tasks. Music does more than just entertain our ears while we work, it can also inspire us, it can motivate us, and it can completely recharge our mood on a cloudy and rainy day. Music also helps to keep our focus on the task at hand. Music allows us to disengage from the rest of the world while streamlining our focus on what we are working on. Too often we discourage music in the classroom because it may distract the students, but a little music in the background may be just the ticket to increase engagement and focus on the task at hand. Check out how different types of music affect different types of activities to take adding tunes to your learning space to the next level.

4). Make sure your learning space is mobile...

Physical movement and activity have huge implications on the brain and on how kids learn. A learning space that is constantly stationary and never moves is not taking advantage of what we know about how kids learn and how the brain works optimally. Allow your learning space to be mobile and flexible and encourage movement as part of your everyday approach to learning. Some don't like that moving spaces will make learning less predictable and add more variables, but in the end, the positives will far outweigh the negatives in terms of student engagement and student learning.

5). Have a space for creative thinking and open and visible collaboration...

Every learning space needs a space where kids can get their ideas 'out there.' Learning spaces also need a spot for kids to work collaboratively while brainstorming and discussing. Take a wall in your classroom and use IdeaPaint or add a few whiteboards for kids to document and record their thoughts while working. Make sure this space is visible for others because the process of learning should be celebrated and embraced. We shouldn't focus just on the outcome, but also on the process as it's just as important.

What ideas or strategies would you suggest to improve a classroom learning space?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dear Principal: Some things I need you to know...

Dear Principal,

I'm sure you are just as excited as I am for the upcoming school year. The summer has been full of learning for me and I am definitely recharged and ready to do this!

There are however some things I'd like you to know and some things I will need from you this school year. Please don't take this as me telling you how to do your job, as your job is very difficult and encompasses much that I probably don't understand. Please read this with an open-mind and remember that I love my job and I aim to do what's best for our students.

1). I'm planning to try some new things this year that I've learned this summer as well as just wasn't able to fit in last year.

I need you to understand that when I try these new things they may not go over well. There may be confusion in my classroom and it might just be a total disaster. But, I do promise to learn and improve from what I'm trying. Having said that, if you come in to do an observation and I'm trying something new, I need you to understand I'm taking a risk. And, just as we tell our students, it's OK to fail sometimes because that's an important part of the learning process.

2). If we are going to be gathered for a staff meeting, please do everything in your power to keep it positive and constructive. 

I know the hot trend now is to empower building staff and to allow them to run and control meetings in an effort to get buy-in and to get ownership in the process. I completely agree with this approach, but at the end of the day, you're our leader and I assume you were put in this position because you have a specific skill-set and expertise that allows you to move our building to consensus. Sometimes when teachers lead the meeting, not all voices are heard and the meeting can become disconnected and confrontational. We need you to be present and we need you to ensure this doesn't happen. Most people don't enjoy confrontation, so the idea that we will 'police' ourselves isn't always sound. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a meeting high-jacked by a personal agenda while building administration sits by and does nothing.

3). If I make a mistake, please let me know. If someone else makes a mistake, please let them know and not me.

There's an epidemic in leadership that undermines the integrity of leaders all around the world. It's simple... don't reprimand and lecture everyone about a problem that you are having with only a few people. As Todd Whitaker would say, don't use the 'blanket monkey' to avoid dealing with those few individuals who are causing the problem. When you speak to the entire group about an issue, we all start to second guess ourselves and worry if you are talking to us. Do everyone a favor and increase the chances of eliminating the problem by going directly to the source. Your entire staff will appreciate this, I promise you.

4). Push me in my thinking and help me grow as an educator.

This is difficult for some people, but it comes with your job, so hopefully you can handle it. I need you to push back on my ideas and some of things I'm doing in my class. I need you to help me grow and develop as an educator. I need you to be an instructional leader in our building. Now, I'm not saying I want to be completely torn and ripped apart when I share an idea, but push me and question me and make me squirm just a little bit to justify my idea and approach. This will help flush out my true goals and objective and create clarity in what I'm trying to achieve. I might not like you at the moment, but I will respect you in the end.

5). We are all busy and we all have a full plate. Help keep my plate full of what matters most.

Yes, there are things you will be told we need to do from the 'higher-ups.' Yes, there are things we need to do to stay in compliance and stay legal. Yes, there are pieces of information and data you need to help in your decision making process. But, let's not forget why we are here and what our primary focus should be. Help me and others in our building to keep the focus on student learning. Avoid as much as possible asking us for mundane paperwork and menial tasks that steer us away from what our ultimate focus should be. We will need your protection and coorperation here because it's very easy to say it will only take a few moments. Each time we say it will take just a few moments a small puppy somewhere cries because we all know that nothing takes just a few moments. Also, all these 'few moments' tasks seem to pile up quite quickly.

Thanks for taking time to listen and please know we are all looking forward to a great and wonderful school year!

Thank you,

Your favorite teacher...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

5 ways to boost creativity in your classroom

1). Find opportunities in your class that allow your students to be the lead learners.

Our kids come to school with a unique and different skill-set and far too often these wonderful abilities are suppressed under the weight of objectives and learning targets. What would happen if students were able to take their skills and build on the required objectives and learning targets? Better yet, what if students helped to come up with those objectives and learning targets? What if we allowed and encouraged our students to share their genius with others and join the ranks of teachers as facilitators of learning...?

via the Huffington Post
2). Do whatever you can to change up the learning space and get students to do things outside of the traditional classroom space. 

The learning spaces and environments that kids experience have huge implications on how they respond and what they are able to imagine. In a traditional four-walled classroom, students' creativity is limited and contained just like the classroom itself. Open up student minds by getting them outside and by getting them in different spaces. A cheap way to boost creativity is simply to keep the learning space fresh and unique.

3). Don't use rubrics for everything and don't tell students what the final objective is.

This might sound counter intuitive and against all typical teacher training programs, but far too often rubrics crush any level of creativity and when the final objective is outlined in the beginning there's no room for flexibility or variation. Let go and don't allow yourself to be consumed with how you are going to assess, grade, and how you are going to hold students accountable.

4). Encourage risk-taking and embrace failure.

When we tell kids it's not Ok to fail, we are telling them to never take risks and we are encouraging them to focus on playing it safe. Ironically enough, the biggest risk our students and even us educators can take is not taking any risks at all. Playing it safe is actually the most unsafe thing one can do, and it's in classrooms across the globe that we need to encourage kids to take risks. Naturally, these risks will result in failures, but it's in this process of risk-taking and failure that kids are able to take 'what is' and creatively think about 'what could be.'

5). Praise great questions over great answers.

The type of environment that breeds creativity is an environment where kids are free and encouraged to ask deep and thoughtful questions. Students are pushed to ask questions that have multiple answers and very rarely do these questions have a correct answer. When great questions are asked great opportunities for creativity quickly become possible. When students think they have an answer to a question, change things up by asking them 'what if...' and change a variable. Students in time will start to anticipate what questions will be asked which will open up their minds to a world of possibility.

Good luck in creating an oasis of creativity!

Monday, July 21, 2014

An open letter to educators

I write this post for all those who call themselves educators.

I write this post for superintendents and the schools boards for whom they work.

I write this post for both central office and building level administrators.

And finally and perhaps most importantly, I write this post for teachers of all grade levels and all content areas.

There is a vicious epidemic that has been spreading and continues to spread unchecked across the globe. The achievement gap that is so often spoken of is merely a cover for what is really happening.

We don't have an achievement gap, we have an opportunity gap...

We have schools that are providing life-changing opportunities and experiences that others can't even fathom. We have kids who are doing work in their classes that is both impacting and affecting the world in which they live while other kids are doing worksheets from outdated textbooks about material and content they can't relate to.

There are kids who are being positioned to be game-changers in their respective parts of the world while others are being comfortably placed among the ranks of industry that is disappearing with skills that haven't been in demand in a decade.

The opportunity gap is widening at an accelerated pace during a time when technology and global connectedness are soaring.

Sure, it's easy to say that kids and their families have a choice as to which schools they attend. Families can move to different communities or choose to attend private or parochial schools that provide some of these wonderful before-mentioned opportunities.

But there's a reality that most know but seem to ignore.

Most families and students don't really have a choice as to where they reside and where they attend school. Communities are built around schools and more frequently than not, those schools who offer vast opportunities exist in communities that most can't afford. The 'haves' and 'have nots' legacy is deeply entrenched in education.

For educators, there are many variables that we can't control and as a result we must learn to work with and accept what we are presented.

This challenge can look very similar to an excuse and justification for why we can't or aren't able to do something.

I refuse to let what we can't control dictate what we can or can't do... and so should you.

When you go to school, fight for what our kids don't have. Fight for the opportunities that our kids can only dream of. Fight for the opportunities that our kids can't yet dream of. Fight to put an end to the opportunity gap and whatever you do, don't use it as an excuse.

Remember, the next time you hear about some school or district doing something amazing with their kids, keep in mind that the only thing preventing you from doing the same or preventing you from doing something better, is you...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

10 pieces of advice for new teachers

In just a few short weeks new teachers around the world will embark upon an exciting and crazy adventure. This adventure will surely have its fair share of ups and downs. In spite of that, this adventure will allow for countless opportunities to serve and positively impact current and future generations of students. This adventure will be like no other adventure...

Here are 10 pieces of advice I'd like to share with new teachers as they prepare for this adventure:

1). Strong student relationships will be your best friend. Get to know your students and get to know what makes them tick. Learn about their interests and hobbies and make sure they know you care about them. When students know you care about them, they will trust you. The strong relationships you create in the first few weeks of the school year will set the tone for the entire year.

2). Find time to go observe other teachers. Maybe this happens during your plan time or you work out some special arrangements with your building administrator, but going to observe other teachers teach will be very valuable for you. Also, don't just go and observe the teachers who you hear or think are good, go observe all types of teachers from all different content areas.

3). Don't be afraid to say, 'I don't know.' The people who always have an answer and the people who go to great lengths to make themselves sound smart or sound like they have every answer typically come off fake and insecure. You're new and it's ok not to know everything. Sometimes not knowing allows you to see things from a different and unique perspective which can be a positive. Embrace what you don't know.

4). Treat all students as if they were your students. Yes, of course you will have your own students, but at the end of the day all students are our students and they deserve to be treated as such. It takes a whole village and now you are a part of that village, so do your best to never say, 'those aren't my students.'

5). Plan for more and prepare for more than you think you need. When designing lessons and thinking about learning activities, it's often hard to know how long it may take. This is especially difficult for new teachers since in most instances they've never done that particular activity before. You'd rather have too much than not enough... but be careful and recognize that quality will always supersede quantity. This is especially true for student learning.

6). School districts are not employment agencies. In order words, you were selected to fill this teaching position because you bring a specific skill-set and/or expertise to the mix. Don't be shy to voice your opinion and don't be shy to speak your mind. You've got a set of experiences that others don't, so be sure you play an active role in what happens in your school and avoid being just be a spectator.

7). Look in the mirror before pointing your finger. Sure, there are things that will be out of your control and things that will happen that you can't control, but at the end of the day, there are more things that we can control than we can't. Additionally, when things don't happen like you want them to or think they should, it's a lot easier to change what you are doing than to get others to change. Lastly, it's quite empowering when you take responsibility for what happens rather than shifting the blame to others.

8). Be aware and be on the look out for 'that' group of teachers. Most folks are good at heart and want to help. Unfortunately that leaves a few folks who aren't always equally committed to helping and seeing others succeed. Similarly, there are some folks who appear to thrive in the presence of others' failures. This group will be attractive because they welcome new members, and they especially like new young teachers who don't know any different. You've been warned...

9). Say 'yes' more often than you say 'no,' but don't be afraid to say no. As a new person, you will have opportunities to be a part of committees and groups. You will also be asked to attend professional learning events. You may even be asked to pilot new programs or initiatives. This can really add up quickly in terms of time commitment but you can also learn a lot in the process. Get involved but also remember that there are only 24 hours in a day, so there may come a time when you have to say, 'no thank you.'

10). Take responsibility and ownership for sharpening your own saw. Sure, you will have some conference and learning events you can attend, but don't let your learning and growth be limited to what your school or district provide. There are so many informal learning opportunities available to you, so be sure to take advantage of them. When it comes to your learning and growth, you know yourself best and you know your needs best, so take control of your own learning.

Good luck and enjoy this wonderful adventure... we've been waiting for you!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Leadership: Dynamic vs. predictable

For me, leadership is one of the most complex and most exciting things to talk about and think about. I find leadership to be the eternal engine that keeps everything moving. Similarly, leadership appears to be the linchpin factor when it comes to organizations and structures that succeed and those that don't.

We all know the leader who is dynamic.

We all know the leader who is innovative and creative.

We all know the leader who bucks the system and pushes others beyond their borders.

We look up to this leader and respect their ability to take what is and turn it into what can be.

This type of leader is the type of leader we read about and hear about...

This type of leader plays big and wins big.

This type of leader also plays big and loses big.

Knowing that, I recently read an article titled, 'The Boring Trait Google Looks for in its Leaders.'

Naturally the title of the article attracted my interest, but it wasn't until I started reading the article that I really became interested.

The premise of the article is that leaders who are 'predictable' are those who create the most effective and most productive work environments.

This seemed to fly in the face of everything I thought about leadership.

How could someone who was predictable be a good leader?

When did 'boring' and 'dull' become leadership qualities that we would hope to obtain?

I then started to think about it and the more I thought about it the more it made sense.

So, think about those leaders with whom you work.

Think about your own leadership capacity and leadership philosophy.

Can you imagine a world where boring and predictable leadership would be valued and would be an integral part of one of the most forward-thinking and innovative companies in the history of our world?

Kind of hard to imagine isn't it...

Just remember, those folks at Google seem to have something figured out...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

What makes you so special?

Too often we hear that we are just normal people doing normal things. Too often we hear that our impact is limited and indirect at best. Too often we hear that the little things we do won’t ever add up to make a difference.

Too often we don’t give ourselves the credit we deserve…

So, what makes you so special?

You know people that other people do not.

You’ve met and made connections with people who have a particular skill-set and expertise.

You’ve experienced things in life that most haven’t.

The things you’ve experienced are unique to you and the impact they’ve had on you are specific to you.

You’ve played an integral role in shaping the lives of those around you.

The lives of those with whom you spend time are forever and will always be influenced by you.

You have an intrinsic motivation that only you know and only you understand.

You see beauty when beauty’s not easily visible by others.

Your words reach far beyond just those who hear them.

Your actions send a continuous ripple across the globe.

You’ve made people smile & you’ve made people frown.

The world wouldn’t be the same without you.

So, the next time you hear someone say or you think to yourself, ‘what makes you so special,’ think of this list and be confident in your role and know that it is you that makes you special.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What if schools were more like Facebook?

Recently I had the opportunity to get a tour of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. The couple hours I spent there were quite the experience and I couldn't help but think about how culture really affects and impacts overall organization success.

I had to get a picture at the main Facebook sign at the entrance.

This is a picture of one of the many open spaces that exist on the Facebook campus. As you can see, the chairs and environment are quite inviting for both workers and visitors.

This is a picture of one of the other main open spaces on the campus. The campus has buildings that make up the perimeter while the middle parts of the campus are open and used as travel spaces to the different buildings. 

This is a panoramic picture of the main food court area. At Facebook, they provide breakfast, lunch and dinner to all employees and all visitors. The goal of this is to make the work environment as convenient and hospitable as possible. Teams and colleagues frequently eat meals together in an effort to enhance collaboration and team bonding experiences.

This is another one of the many spaces that employees may use to get some fresh air, sit and eat and take advantage of a different space. The entire campus is WiFi ready so employees are able to work anywhere on site.

Another open space... employees at Facebook are encouraged to go and walk around campus for their meetings as opposed to sitting down and talking. This model encourages physical activity as well as increased productivity and creativity as a result of the large open campus.

What's trending on #twitter wall at Facebook... you have to know what's being said to stay ahead of the curve.

This is a bike repair shop that is on site. Many employees bring their own bikes to travel around campus and this shop ensures everyone has an operational bike. Not pictured, but there is also a dry cleaning/laundry service available to all employees on site.

In all of the working spaces there are kitchens that are stocked with every kind of breakfast/snack food you could imagine. When you need a snack or a brain break to avoid being hangry, just get up and get something.

You can't have a snack without something to drink...

This is a vending machine with 'tech' equipment one may need at work. If you forget your iPhone charger at home, come to this machine and get one. If you need a keyboard for your computer, come down and get one. If you need batteries for your mouse, come down and get them. Though this comes at no charge to the employee, the prices are listed next to each item so employees see first hand what it costs the company to provide this service.

This image isn't from my visit. The image is via Lifehacker:

This is a typical working space at Facebook. As you can see, some desks are lower than others. Every desk has the ability to go down for sitting and every desk has the ability to raise for standing. There are no traditional offices at Facebook as employees are expected to work collaboratively in open and 'unsiloed' spaces.

When you need a break from working stop on by the arcade to get your creative juices flowing. There are also spaces in the arcade to sit and work if you just need a different 'space.'

Massive BBQ stands are set up on a daily basis because everyone likes to eat the occasional BBQ.

Be sure to stop by the Facebook Wall and write something before you leave. Many of the spaces and walls at Facebook are covered in IdeaPaint as each space is designed for open and transparent thinking/collaboration.

So, obviously Facebook is a little different than the traditional school or school district, but I'm sure there is something education can learn from their culture. I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn't want to work in this type of environment. The level of creativity, innovation, flexibility and professionalism are pretty amazing at Facebook HQ, so what can we educators learn from this?

Should we be trying to create learning environments like this in our schools and districts?

How would students feel if they got to come to school at a place like this?

How would visiting a place like this inspire and motivate students to want more from their educational experience?

Maybe Facebook represents more than just social connections...

Maybe Facebook is laying the foundation for something pretty special when it comes to cultures and work/learning environments...

Just maybe...

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Embrace the shake

I recently had the opportunity to hear Phil Hansen speak at #iste2014. For the record, he is a phenomenal speaker and is an inspirational breath of fresh air to us all.

Phil goes on to tell a compelling story about his journey in art. As Phil got more and more engrossed in his creations, he soon developed an uncontrollable 'shake' in his hand that limited his ability to do his most used and most comfortable form of art, pointillism. Phil tried to compensate for this 'shake' by tightening his grip. Though with good intentions, the continual tightening only made the shake worse. In time, Phil removed himself from art completely.

After being away from art for a few years, Phil visited a neurologist who informed him that his 'shake' was permanent nerve damage. Phil was devastated with the news. The doctor then followed that statement up with a simple but yet profound comment.

'Why don't you just embrace the shake?'

It was from this point on that Phil went on a renewed art journey using all types of art that wouldn't be limited or impacted by his shake.

Overtime, Phil created some magnificent and beautiful works of art. Though these pieces of art weren't in the form he was most passionate about, he was nonetheless able to create something of immense beauty.

Phil believes that 'embracing a limitation, could actually drive creativity.' He also stated that 'we need to first be limited, in order to become limitless.'

So, what does this mean for educators?

We are rich with limitations and roadblocks in education. We are overwhelmed with variables that are inescapable and beyond our control. We are surrounded with failure and inundated with excuses.

We all have a choice... just as Phil had a choice.

The question is simple... how are we going to respond to our limitations?

Are we going to look at our limitations and our uncontrollable variables as a source for creativity or we will allow them to hold us down?

As we look toward a renewed and refreshed school year, how will we respond when it doesn't go the way we want or expect it to?

Will we embrace the educational 'shake,' or will we allow the educational 'shake' to hold us down?

The choice is yours...

Watch Phil's TEDtalk and get your dose of inspiration and motivation to embrace your very own shake...