“So, Mister, have you taught this class before?”

(This post originally appeared in my former blog, “Thatothereduguy.blogspot.com” in September, 2015. Since I now post only to this site, I am moving and republishing some of my more popular posts.)

Yup. This is the beta version of me. 

Yesterday, I was explaining to my students — as an aside while teaching about the need for systmeem and software updates on their laptops — about what a “beta” version was, and why software developers are so dependent upon them. Then it hit me.

As an educator, I am in beta version.

It has been almost 13 years since I taught high school and I have never taught Honors Computer Information Applications — or anything like it — before. I have taught 7th and 8th grade language arts or related courses for the past 13 years.

Two days ago, one of my 9th grade students asked me, “So have you taught this class before?” When I admitted that I had not (wondering secretly what I was doing that might have tipped her off), she smiled and advised, “Well, I guess we’re both going to learn a lot this year.”

I smiled back and agreed with her wisdom.

So when I explained that a “beta” version of a software application or game was an early version still in development and released for the primary purpose of finding the bugs and to get feedback from end users, it dawned on me that I was also talking about me. (One of my students helpfully reminded me that beta versions of video games are often cheap and sometimes free.)

As a junior high English teacher, I was teacher of year on my campus, and last year I was our district’s Junior High School Teacher of the Year and a nominee for state teacher of the year in Texas. I was — I am — a good teacher.

Now, I am starting over. New campus, new grade level, new content area, and a boatload of high expectations from my peers and my administrators.

Here’s the problem: I also have a boatload of bugs to work out, and a profound need for feedback. This became clear last week when I had two administrative walkthroughs on two successive days and both administrators wrote to me about a need for more student engagement. Part of me was devastated. I have always prided myself on my ability to engage and my success with technology integration.

Now, I teach in a 1:1 laptop campus and my classroom has 24 brand new desktop computers. I have a beautiful presentation station, projector and sound system. Plenty of tech. In fact, tech is what I teach. I have a question, though? How do I integrate technology into a technology class? I am struggling to make Microsoft Office sound exciting and engaging.

I will get it figured out because I am a good teacher. I will learn how to approach this new content with the passion that I brought to my English classes. I will “teach like a pirate” again and be able to look Dave Burgess in the eye again. I am already better this week than last.

Still, it’s hard to be a “beta” version of me.

Fortunately, I know it. My students know it. My administrators know it. I work with an unbelievable faculty. I also have my Twitter PLN. There are so many valuable professional relationships there, but @JenWilliamsEdu@RoweRikW@jcolley8, @BedleyBros and @hiphughes and @DonWettrick especially keep me challenged, motivated and laughing.

The bugs will go away, but right now they make me a little crazy.


Introverts and Extroverts in the Classroom

(This post originally appeared in my former blog, “Thatothereduguy.blogspot.com” in August 2015, and since I only post to this site, I am moving some of my more popular posts.)

We all make resolutions and decisions this time of year about how we will handle our classrooms in the upcoming year. One of the decisions that I have made that will profoundly affect both me and my students is this: I will learn how to communicate more individually with my students.

I have not always approached my students as individuals. Image1There. I said it. Sometimes teachers feel like there isn’t enough time in the world for lesson planning, committee meetings, and all of the other pulls we have on our time to really get to know our students well enough to treat them as individuals. I have come to believe that their learning and ultimate success depends on this, however. Especially the shy, introverted ones.

You see, I identify easily with the bold, brash, outgoing extrovert students who are like me. The shy ones, the introverted ones are a different kind of challenge. Since many times they are not behavior problems and they NEVER interrupt class, it is easy to let them be.

Recently, I came across a reference to author Susan Cain and her website quietrev.com while listening to a podcast by the Bedley Brothers . I found their site by following them on Twitter @BedleyBros . She presents a strong argument for teachers not to try to get introverts to “get over” their introvertedness and become more extroverted. In fact, she says, most of the really wonderful things that have been accomplished by introverted people through the years have been done because of and not in spite of their introvertedness. Check out her interview on the Bedley brother’s podcast site, or for a more complete treatment of the subject, her TED talk “The Power of Introverts”.

Having completed a week-long bridge camp with my incoming ninth graders, I have already begun to identify some of my introverts (as well as my extroverts) and wondered about how to connect with them at a level where I can help them learn best. Here are a couple of ideas that I have worked on during my prep time this week:

Diversity in my Lesson Strategy

I will allow for self-paced and individualized learning by encouraging individual learning goals and allowing students to work on their own instead of in groups all of the time.

Find time for 1:1 Communication

I have joked with some about my “Student Conference Kit” that is composed of a baseball and two baseball gloves. I have experienced that tossing a baseball back and forth in the parking lot provides a wonderful time to talk about “stuff” unrelated to class. I keep the items on a shelf in the back of the room, and students know how they are used, and they have the freedom to ask for some baseball time. I also feel free to invite students when I sense the need for some 1:1 time. Male students and female students both have enjoyed it in the past.

Sometimes my introverts are also my “tough” kids. Abuse of their introvertedness in past classroom settings is one reason that they are sometimes tough to handle. For help with that, I am reading Serena Pariser’s ebook, The Simplest Way to Win Over the Tough Kid!  Check out this California educator and conference leader’s website at http://www.serenapariser.com/  You can actually get a free copy of that ebook by joining her mailing list. 

Welcome to the Revolution!

(This post originally appeared in my previous blog “Thatothereduguy.blogspot.com” on August 13, 2015. Since I now only post to this site, I am moving some of my more popular posts.)

There’s a revolution among us.

Since my introduction to Twitter a little over a year ago, it has become increasingly clear that things are changing in education. So far, they seem to be changing separately on several different levels. If the these separated forces ever completely coalesce and merge into one stream, the the slowly moving creek will swell into a river of rapids and whitewater change.

As I begin a new year, I am bombarded with the potential for a complete revision of every aspect of my teaching philosophy and practice. That, by the way, is a good thing.

There are several educators and ed consultants who are each driving their own battalion into the battle, and they are slowly influencing thousands of educators around the world to do things differently. I’m calling them The Revolutionary Ten. They are listed below in no particular order, and each represents a strand of change which they are commanding.

  • Alice Keeler @alicekeeler – Among others, one of her banners is the “No Homework” banner. Passionate about the idea that our class time should be structured so that homework is not necessary.
  • Mark Barnes @markbarnes19 – One of several educators leading the “No Grades” movement, Mark is fervently working to help educators consider how to assess student success in terms of growth and improvement without averaging grades.
  • Don Wettrick @DonWettrick – We always think of Genius Hour when we think of Don, but what he is really selling is student empowerment. Check out his book “Pure Genius”.
  • Rick Wormeli @rickwormeli2 – Standard-based grading and latework/redo reform are the challenges he is putting in front of us for the year.
  • Kristen Swanson @kristenswanson– One of the original organizers of the edcamp movement, Kristen challenges the professional development status quo and asks the question, “Can we plan a better party than them?” The answer is apparently yes, as teachers are taking control of their own PD with unconferences.
  • Michael Matera @mrmatera – There are several leaders in this camp, but Michael is the one that comes to mind most often for me when I think of the gamified classroom. What? Students playing games to learn? Shocking. Holy Minecraft!
  • Craig Kemp @mrkempnz – From his home base in Singapore, Craig is one of the leaders in a global connectedness movement that has teachers learning from other teachers all around the world. The silos are being torn down.
  • Erin Klein @KleinErin – She has become my go-to consultant for all things classroom design. A clear leader in the “ditch the desks” movement that has us out of our rows and columns and into collaborative clusters.
  • Angela Maiers @AngelaMaiers – She has helped us all discover that we are all geniuses and that we must “choose2matter”.  Community service and making a difference are becoming the norm in classrooms around the world.
  • Jon Bergmann @jonbergmann – Jon has literally turned classrooms upside down all over the world with the flipped classroom movement.

Now, here’s my point. All of these people have contributed to the makeover of my whole educational existence. The teacher that I was 10 years ago — maybe even 5 years ago — would not recognize the educator that I have become.

This is much more than a movement, but imagine what would happen is all 10 of these people ever landed in the same edcamp. What would it be like to see them unite in a coordinated effort of educational reform? That’s what I’d call a revolution for sure.

Just imagine it. I can’t wait.

Alexa at School – Week 1

This week began with my bringing my Amazon Echo Dot to school and putting her (I don’t like calling her an “it”.) to work in my classroom as my teacher’s aide. The experiment is working well so far and my students and I have come up with some fun ways to get her involved in what we do. Granted, I teach ninth graders so their imagination is a little limited, and I DO have to watch more carefully to make Amazon introduces Amazon Alexa, Echo and the All-New Echo Dot atcertain that they don’t get her involved in anything not school appropriate. That being said, I honestly think that elementary students would have a lot of fun with her in the classroom.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

  • She’s quick, but she doesn’t multi-task well. She functions best if we speak to her one at a time, so a few classroom guidelines are in order.
  • She was super easy to connect to our school WiFi. I had expected a few issues here, given our firewall and connection policies, but those didn’t materialize.
  • Her basic functions gave us lots to play with at first, but we have moved on to the Alexa Skills Store for more specific functionality.
  • The first task that I assigned to her was to remind my students of upcoming assignments. I had to be careful how I worded them for clarity’s sake, but she is able to recite our homework and assignment list by being connected to my Google Calendar. (This is a fun one, and easily done!)
  • For active learning events, I simply ask her to “Roll the dice!” or “Flip a coin!” and I have my pair and share activity underway.
  • She is able to serve as a countdown timer with alarm when I need to control the flow of independent learning time.
  • If I were an elementary teacher, I would also user for some individualized or small group literacy assignments by asking her to tell a story and inviting students to draw or illustrate what they hear as she tells the story.

Next up: I plan on using an Audible or Kindle subscription to secure audio books and working on how to engage students with a read-along.

“Come on, Alexa. Let’s Go to School.”

“Alexa, are you certified to help teach my students today?”

I’m not speaking to a student teacher in my classroom, and I’m not planning with my substitute teacher who will be in my classroom the next time I have to be off campus.

“Alexa, I need a moment. Play my rain forest sounds meditation.”290_echodot

I’m speaking to my Valentine’s Day present from my wife — my Amazon Echo Dot — and I’m kind of inspired to imagine ways that she (or, is my Echo an “it”?) could help my students learn something more than the weather and traffic reports.

What really got me started thinking was a recent blog post by Dr. Bruce Ellis, Senior Director of Professional Development with TCEA, who wrote “Alexa: Your New Teacher Assistant” . In his post, he ponders both the application of voice user interface and Amazon Echo-like technology in the classroom to teach everything from literacy to math, to social studies and science and yes, even the calming music for a reflective writing assignment.

As I began to consider the possibilities, I began to imagine how it would help with ESL and maybe even special needs students of a wide variety. I have since discovered the Alexa Skills Store at which Alexa owners can equip and personalize Alexa with a huge number of specific skills related to the reason they own the Echo.

So with this post, I am hoping to do two things:

  • encourage my PLN to help me curate specific uses of Echo-like technology in the classroom, and
  • announce the beginning of a grand experiment in my own classroom as I buckle Alexa into the passenger seat of my car and drive her to school with me tomorrow.

Let me know if you’re trying something similar (I promise to give credit for every amazing idea we come up with together.) or even if you’re just wondering if something will work. I’ll be glad to experiment on it with you. I’ll be back in a few days, hopefully with a few amazing ideas and stories.

Mindfulness? In My classroom?

Until a short time ago, I had never heard the term “mindfulness” and even today, had to Google it to see exactly how the word might be defined. I was reading a post by a David Guerin on Twitter in which he referred to a recent NPR article, “Teachers are Stressed, And That Should Stress Us All”, in which Patricia Jennings, author of Mindfulness for Teachers, made the observation “These teachers were better able to cope with classroom challenges and manage their feelings, which made it easier for them to manage their students’ big feelings. And that, says Jennings, helps students learn.”

That got my attention. Although I know a lot of teachers who are feeling the effects of stress in their lives, student trauma and stress is kind of a hot button for me right now. I have been reading a a lot lately about how the stress and trauma that many students experience off-campus is contributing the behavioral challenges they present and the lack of academic success they experience on campus.

In short, kids are hurting and when they bring that hurt to school, teachers hurt. It’s quite a cycle. I’m not too far from theorizing that if one had the ability to alleviate some of the hurt experienced by students (or at least the symptoms of the hurt), then a lot of the hurt and stress experienced by teachers would be lessened as well.

But the thrust of Jennings book — and the NPR article — is that teachers can only control what they can control and if we would practice “mindfulness” we would be better at controlling our space.

“What is mindfulness? Definitions vary, but Jennings likes to think of it this way: attending to things in the moment with curiosity and acceptance.”

I think that means that we look at our momentary circumstances and observe, “Hmmm. Well, I guess stuff happens.”

I might be pushing the boundaries, but it seems like that is what some people are describing as having a strong EQ — emotional intelligence.

So, if mindfulness makes us better educators, could it also help our students be more successful learners. Could we all benefit from taking time to realize that we are created as human “BEings” and not human “DOings”?

What if I found time as our school day begins for my classroom to become an unofficial “Mindfulness Zone” where for 15 minutes students had the option to come and meditate? I have no formal training in meditation, but I know how to sit quietly and think. That brief time — before school actually begins — could be a buffer for students — a kind if demilitarized zone in the war between what they bring to school and what they are asked do at school.






How Higher-Ed is influencing my classroom management plans

Nearing the end of the fall semester, our faculty met yesterday to consider a couple of important decisions related to next semester. The big one was out unified policies related to late assignments.

First, a little background: we are an early college high school in our third year. That means that we exist for students who are “at risk” of not attending college without some assistance and encouragement. It also means that out students — most of them first generation college students — are working on their high school diploma and associates degrees simultaneously. Their goal is successful completion of both in four years. It means that our ninth graders take at least one class each semester that is a full-on college class taught by the faculty from the community college on whose campus we are located. By 11th grade, our students will be completely immersed on the college campus and integrated into college classes for 100% of their course work.

My job, as a ninth grade technology applications teacher, is to facilitate their learning experiences and to help them get ready to perform at a high level and think like college students although they are barely 15 years old.

What does that really mean? Well, in part, it means that since “higher ed” does not accept late work, or allow “re-dos” on assignments that I have to factor that in when setting up my classroom procedures and policies. Since “higher ed” instructors have a much wider latitude in how they teach and even what they teach, I have to somehow prepare my students for that occasional teacher who wants to spend the entire class period chasing a rabbit down a hole instead of teaching my students how to understand the intricacies of world history or economics or anatomy and physiology — even though that is what the test next week will cover.

The “real world” of higher ed can be a harsh place. Consider the 11th grade former student who came to see me because she is getting a D in psychology because that is her average. Never mind the fact that every assignment in this professor’s class was a subjectively-graded assignment in which the margin for error was far more than the one point she needed to pass the course. Never mind that that that one point — actually, it was .6 of a point — means she will have to retake the course to get graduation credit for it. “You just should have scored one point higher on one of your assignments,” she was told.

Philosophically, I believe in teaching toward mastery which is messy and almost always demands re-dos and late assignments, yet I also have to help my students develop the stamina and mental toughness that will help them be successful in their college classes. By the way, you would need to recall that we are not preparing my ninth graders for a future reality that will hit them then they are 16 or even 17. Since they have a college speech class next period, this is their present reality.

Late assignments? Higher-ed will give them a zero and move on to the next assignment.  I do not give them a zero for late work and I do not reduce their score on that work when it does come in the next day. I try to separate the behavioral issues from the academic issues. I want my academic data to reflect learning, not behavior, so I hound them until they get the work done while working with them on their behavior and seeking to move them toward more responsible completion of assignments.

It is a much thinner line that I walk than the one that my peers in other, more traditional high schools walk. They have four years to walk the tightrope of college readiness. I have one foot on one rope and the other on a parallel strand. For my students, college readiness is “now”, not later.

As a faculty, we are unanimously committed to our students’ success as both high school and college students, so we will find a way and the dialogue will continue. Since I have no inclination that higher ed will be changing any time soon, we will adapt in order to find the methodology that takes into account that we teach students who would be foundering on any other campus. We teach students who believe in a big dream. We also dream big dreams for our students.


Whose empathy — theirs or mine?

One of the more important questions — especially in light of current social upheavals in our nation today — being asked about classroom management involves what one writer has called “The Most Important Back-to-School Supply.” In 2014, Edutopia carried a blog post by Homa Tavangar in which she wrote, “My most important back-to-school supply doesn’t fit in a backpack, and it can’t be ordered online. It’s as essential as a pencil, but unlike a pencil, no technology can replace it. In a sense, like a fresh box of crayons, it can come in many colors. Better than the latest gadget, it’s possible to equip every student with it, and even better, when we do, it can transform our world.”

Most of the time, when teachers speak of empathy, we are noting the lack of this important quality in the lives of our children and we are trying desperately to find a way to instill it in their minds as one of several “soft skills” that have the potential to make them much better human beings. Perhaps we should be equally — or even more — concerned about modeling it in front of them and allowing our students to see it lived out in the relationships that we build with them.

To make this happen, two things are vitally necessary. First of all, we have to understslide1and just how much most of our students need us to be empathetic.  Secondly, we must come to terms with the fact that our empathy may just have a dramatic effect on the very academic outcomes we are often under so much pressure to produce.

Allow me to speak to the latter necessity first. Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future (2006) wrote about Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia (p. 52) developing an empathy index and a tool with which to measure physician effectiveness. The data produced by that tool reshaped how doctors are trained all over the world, and it pointed to a direct connection between empathy on the part of the physician as perceived by patients, and their overall well-being. It is not too far a leap (although I have not yet been able to find any clear data to back this up) to imagine a similar connection between the empathy experienced by out students and their overall success and well-being in the classroom.

Sugata Mitra, professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in England, as early as 2010, coined the phrase “granny cloud” to describe how he enlisted more than 200 British grandmothers to serve as encouragers to struggling students. The result that he described was more than amazing as these women did little more than love on students — many times over the Internet via Skype — and praise their work and effort. He offers that there is a direct link between a student’s ability to self-learn and his emotional well-being.

Now, that being said, let me deal with the first necessity in our understanding of deploying empathy in the classroom.

One of the most rapidly growing subgroups that we as teachers deal with in our classrooms is the emotionally disturbed or ED students. The roots of this disorder might be found in a wide variety of sources ranging from domestic violence, bullying, physiological factors, sexual or other forms of physical abuse, but the students we deal with daily are coming to use in greater pain and more angry than ever before. They are building wider and wider learning gaps because their ED prevents them from learning at the same rate as non-ED students. Our students — and no age group is immune — are hurting and it is keeping them from learning. Perhaps more than  any other time in history our students need teachers who have the capacity to, as Pink puts it, “stand in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. ” If Mitra is correct — and the data would seem to support it — even our best, brightest and emotionally healthiest students will benefit as well.

It is simply imperative that we stop trying to teach empathy and start living it in front of and direct it fully at the students who walk through our doorways every morning. As much as we have to do every day — and God knows we get busier every day — it is more important to every outcome we say we hope to achieve that we get better at being instead of better at doing.  After all, we are created not as human doings — but human beings. When we really value our students they way they are and for whom they are and not so much for what they do in our classrooms, empathy becomes much more possible and more effective.

Is Technology “Just” a Tool?

A recent Tweet featured a graphic from the World Economic Forum that appeared inside a more complete article that asked the question, “What skills do graduates need to get a job?”

While the article focused on European data, there are probably some striking parallels with similar concerns in the United States. If the presupposition that we are educating our students in order for them to become gainfully employed as a young adult is true, then we should give some thought to this question. (I fully understand that it takes more than a good job to enjoys one’s life, but I haven’t met a lot of unemployed or underemployed people who were all that happy with their existence.)


Now, I teach 9th graders how to use their technology skills to accomplish a wide variety of practical tasks — including how to use them in their other content area classes. The chief measurement of my success (as far as my district is concerned) is their completion of requirements for the IC3 certification. The IC3 is a computer literacy exam normally used to assess and train adults in the marketplace and is heavily weighted on Microsoft Office, Windows and digital citizenship.

So when I saw the graphic shown above in a friend’s tweet, I found myself wondering how I could use my classroom as a proving ground for those skills and still accomplish my assigned curriculum objectives.

In my class, we are up to our knees in cardboard these days as my students use what they have been learning about how computers work to build cardboard models of computers. They are limited to cardboard, duct tape, yarn and markers. It’s impressive what some of them are doing. They learned about CPUs, motherboards and microprocessors. snip_20161128140337Now the are building them and assembling them in an appropriate facsimile of working computers. If that’s where it stops, it’s not so much. Let me introduce you to a young man named Aslan (not his real name). He came to me this morning and described how over the Thanksgiving holidays his mother caught him taking apart the family computer. When she finished yelling at him that he had “better be able to put it back together or he would be buying a new one!”, he smiled and explained that he told her, “No problem. I’ve got this, Mom.”

“How did that work out?” I asked.

He smiled again. “I didn’t know I could do it. I couldn’t do it before, but I’ve learned stuff and it feels great.” It was my turn to smile. “Go learn stuff” is kind of our class motto.

Now, I doubt that he will ever get a job building cardboard computers, but think about what he said, and consider the list in the graphic above. How many of those skills did he demonstrate in the process of taking his computer apart and putting it back together — with confidence?

In the right hands, technology is “transformational”, according to George Couros in The Innovator’s Mindset (page 141). In the wrong hands, it is just an expensive electronic pen and paper, substituted for the “old school” real thing. This is why it is so important that all educators understand the concept of not using tech to merely substitute for other tools, but to allow it to enable us to redefine what we do in our classrooms. The SAMR model should be as important to pedagogy today as Bloom’s.

I write this as I conclude my participation in #IMMOOC — an author-led online course in which I joined several hundred educators in a study of Couros’ book. I write this as I continue to find ways to innovate by not just doing something new — but by doing it in a way that is better (See Couros’ definition of innovation, page 19).

If I seek to teach in a student-driven classroom, technology is the accelerator that enables an individualization and a personalization that were just not possible a few short years go.

Technology “just” a tool? No, not hardly. It is a transformation waiting to happen.



#IMMOOC Am I a “school” teacher or a “classroom” teacher?

About twenty-two minutes into this past week’s conversation with Kaleb Rashad, George Couros raises the question about the difference between a “classroom” teacher and a “school” teacher. Co-host Katie Martin responds by offering the explanation that in many instances teachers live and work in silos that separate them from their peers and from many of the other students on their campuses. Rashad joins in the conversation by adding that there is a benefit to viewing every student on campus as my student and every fellow teacher as someone whom I am meant to lead.

The context is a discussion about the value of trust and the benefit of relationships and the roles that they play in creating a culture of innovation.

I teach at an early college high school that is in its third year. Our students are simultaneously working on requirements for their high school diploma and their associates degree from a local community college. We are, in fact, located on the campus of Tarrant County College, in Arlington, Texas. We have just launched our third cohort of 108 students and will graduate our initial cohort in 2018.

I teach a required technology applications course, and on my campus every student is my student. With only 108 ninth graders, I see everyone, every day. As a result, they are quite literally all my students. I have taught on larger campuses and in situations where there were students who had not take my course, and I can tell you that it makes a huge difference in the culture of our campus that we all teach everyone. We have a vested interest in the success of every student, and it continues even after they move on to the next grade level.

I don’t know if the size of our cohorts (110 -120) was originally designed to create this kind of situation or not (I will be asking about this.), but if so, it was a genius move that is to the benefit of every student. This makes the relationships much stronger, resulting in a greater atmosphere of trust — and, if Couros is correct,  it will enhance our ability to grow a culture of innovation.

I guess my point is that I did not choose to be a “school” teacher instead of a “classroom” teacher. That decision was made by the design of the school in which I teach. I am, however, reaping the benefits of that role both in the relationships that I have with my students and in the leadership opportunities that I have with a small faculty of about 16 fellow educators. Had I been given the choice, (and certainly after hearing Rashad’s passionate plea in favor of the option) I would have sought out the role of “school” teacher, for sure.