How do we redesign education?

Last summer my school applied for and was selected as one of 14 schools in the state of Kansas with the mission to redesign what school means in the 21st century. We were given permission to reflect on and change anything we felt would truly make the greatest impact on our students. After conversations with the state and the district we only had a couple of rules:

  1. We had to stick with our current beginning and ending times for the day (district)
  2. There would be no additional funds for this redesign (state)
  3. We had to stick within the current state standards (both)

For more information from the state check out: http://www.ksde.org/Agency/Fiscal-and-Administrative-Services/Communications-and-Recognition-Programs/Vision-Kansans-Can/School-Redesign

I am one part in this giant cog of change and redesign. It has been at times challenging, exhausting, frustrating and rewarding all at the  same time. And we aren’t even close to finished.

 

Personally, the biggest way this has impacted my teaching is it has forced me to reflect on everything I do. I’m constantly asking myself why I teach a lesson a certain way, use a certain novel, or even why I teach novels at all. It’s definitely a humbling and scary question to ask myself everyday: why? Why is this important for my students and how do I want this lesson to impact their lives after they leave my classroom?

Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of my current teaching questions I’m wrestling with. Please feel free to share, post, comment, and question. Part of the way I grapple with things is to talk about it with others, and chances are that your insights will either challenge me to rethink my philosophies or allow me to strengthen my beliefs on certain topics.

I always tell my students at the end of every video, and I think it’s fitting here:

Until next time…book it forward…and be awesome!

Teach Students the Why

This weekend I spent a lot of time reflecting on what the students know and what they don’t know yet. On Friday they took a quiz and, along with a couple of assignments, I realized that I did not do an adequate job preparing them to read a non-fiction text. This was especially troubling, because we were already half-way through one.

I had to regroup, so I made a list of all of the things that were the most vital for understanding the text and the one that stood out to me the most is something that has been a theme of mine all year. I didn’t tell them the why.

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We are currently reading Freedom Walkers by Russell Freedman. It’s a great text about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Many of the students know who Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are, but they don’t know the details of their story. To them these are two figures from a long time ago that we talk about in school.

Today I decided to focus on the why. I started by asking them, “why did I choose this book out of all of the books I could have selected?” They had some great answers along with some superficial but still true responses. We talked about the physical book: the font is bigger, fewer words per page, and there are pictures on almost every page. We also talked about the importance of the Civil Rights movement in history. Several of the students brought up the importance of learning about history so we don’t repeat it. Finally, several students brought up comparisons of things that happened during the movement and how they relate to the world today.

Overall, it was a great foundation that I should have started with at the beginning of the unit. The next thing I asked them was, “how would you have ended segregation if you grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s?” They struggled with this question like I knew they would. After a couple of minutes, instead of asking them for their answers I asked them how difficult it was to decide on a strategy that would end this massive problem. Then we talked about having a laser-like focus on a problem. We talked about how the bus boycott was meant to end segregation on buses, but their hope was that it would lead to more progress. We talked about taking small steps toward a bigger goal.

I’m hoping this moment to regroup will set them up for success later on. The hope is that in a few weeks they will decide on their own challenges, their own movements they want to start to make the world a better place.

 

*This is a post that I wrote while I was still setting up my new website. It’s a couple weeks old but still pertinent.

Our Flight to Tibet

Last night I was in the middle of a great Twitter chat with the #xplap crew about immersive engagement and planning out today’s lesson at the same time when I got an idea. Why was I talking about immersive engagement and not creating an immersive lesson at the same time? It seemed a little hypocritical, so at 9:30 at night I changed up all of my plans and this was the result:
We are 7 chapters into the novel Peak by Roland Smith. At this point in the novel the main character is on a plane flying out to Tibet to climb Mt. Everest. My original plan was to have the students do a flipped reading of the next 2 chapters (using EdPuzzle). To make this a more immersive experience I decided that we would fly on the plane to Tibet as well.
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To start the hour I had the students wait in the hall until the bell ring. I had a sign on my door that said Stock Air: Gate SFT1. When the bell rang I walked out in a suit and tie (not my normal attire). They asked me why I was so dressed up. I told them that Flight Attendants always dress up and asked them for their tickets. When they couldn’t show me their tickets I told them I had extras for them and proceeded to pass out a plane ticket to each student.
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I then tore off a portion of each ticket and welcomed them aboard the plane. My desks were lined up in rows to look like airplane seating. The next time I do this I’ll hang some sheets from the ceiling to make it narrower and look more like a plane.


After everyone was aboard I told them that they would need to download the inflight entertainment by downloading the EdPuzzle app. I also told them that the airline would be providing headphones if anyone needed some.
Once everyone was situated and ready to go I played a safety video from the flight attendant:
https://youtu.be/cboLVVzxe2s
I then told them to prepare for takeoff and played audio of the pilot giving a message:
https://youtu.be/ajsO8roa-uQ
And that was it. The kids spent the rest of the “flight” reading their books. I put a picture of clouds on the screen to remind them that we were flying. They were doing exactly what I had originally planned, but after setting it up this way I had the greatest class period. The kids were engaged in their reading, I didn’t have behavior issues, and all of the kids got to work right away. Throughout the hour I would do things like ask visitors to the room how they were able to fly up to our plane and told kids leaving to use the restroom to be careful because of turbulence, anything to keep the illusion alive.
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When class was about over I asked them to put their trays in the upright position and clean up their seating area. Then I played an announcement from the pilot:
https://youtu.be/FiVLMsYsGMk
When the bell rang I thanked them all for flying Stock Air and asked them to consider Stock Air for all of their future travel needs:
https://youtu.be/sTIku2iCIj4
All of this came out of an idea I had at 9:30 the night before. Was it hectic trying to throw everything together at the last minute? Absolutely. Are there things I would like to do differently? Yep. I’m planning out all the ways I can improve this for next year. But those things didn’t matter to the kids. They enjoyed a new, unique experience.
Don’t be afraid to get out there and try something different even if you don’t have all the details worked out. Things have a way of figuring themselves out, and now I have an awesome idea for next year.

My response to #gratitudesnaps

We’ve all had those days. You spilled your coffee on the way to school. The printer jammed so you don’t have the copies you need for your first hour class. Little Jimmy decided a fork and an outlet would make a great combination. Maybe your lesson wasn’t as elaborate as you wanted it to be. Maybe the students gave you blank stares when you tried to explain a new concept. Everything in your day just bombed. You start to spin into that negative space where everything seems like it is failing miserably.
I promise there is an upside in this post.
A few weeks ago I read a great idea in a blog post on Twitter, #gratitudesnaps. The hashtag was created by the queen of #booksnaps, @TaraMartinEDU and the culinary, gamified guru, @tishrich. The goal was simple, get out of that funk. There are amazing things happening all around us and sometimes we need to be reminded to look for those positives in our lives. Each day participants posted a picture of something they are grateful for with the hashtag #gratitudesnaps. It’s a great way to reflect on the good things in life when it seems like things are too negative.
You can read the origin story here: http://www.tarammartin.com/gratitudesnaps/
As soon as I heard about it I was hooked. I spent the day looking for things to snap, found one, and posted it to twitter. The next day the same thing happened, I found things I was grateful for and chose one to post a picture of. I was so excited to share what I was grateful for.
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And then I missed a day.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t grateful, I just got caught up in life and missed it. I promised myself I’d do better the next day and I did. I posted a couple more snaps the following days including extra snaps to make up for the one I missed.
And then I missed another day.
I was failing at this assignment that nobody required me to do, and I was beating myself up over it. I felt like I was doing #gratitudesnaps wrong and people would notice. They would go on my timeline and realize that my dates didn’t line up and I didn’t post a picture each day and they would judge me and the world would end. At least that’s what I told myself.
Later that week I was in the car stressing about what pictures I could take to catch up, and I realized something. I missed the whole point of the activity. The activity was meant to reflect on the good things in life. Instead of focusing on the positive, I was focusing on the pictures and how everyone would like them. I was focusing on how they would make everyone else feel instead of focusing on the way they would make ME feel.
It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of life and miss the bigger picture. It’s easy to take something fun like this and turn it into a chore. It’s easy to think that there is just one way to do something.
I’m happily days behind on my #gratitudesnaps. I had several days where I posted multiple pictures and days where I snapped a picture and kept it for myself. And days where I chose to enjoy the moment instead of taking a picture. I’m loving the activity. It’s reminding me what my priorities are.
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I saw Tara the other day at a Dave Burgess presentation and she mentioned that she created a padlet with all of her snaps and quickly saw some trends in what she values. That’s what I plan on doing too. I love this reminder of the joys in my life.
Sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to walk our own paths.
Today my #gratitudesnaps is to Tara and Tisha for encouraging people to put a little more positivity into the digital world.
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You're more than "just" a teacher…

If you know me at all, you would know that I don’t use profanity, ever since I was a little kid and got my mouth washed out with soap. I’m not a saint, I’ve said plenty of things in my head that shouldn’t be repeated, especially when the copier goes down, and I forgot my coffee, and I just finished my 3rd IEP meeting of the day. But I don’t use it in my everyday vocabulary.
However, I always tell my students to use the words that best fit the story you are trying to tell. There is no other way to say this.
I am a bad ass teacher.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of going to the ISTE conference in San Antonio. While I was there I saw brilliant educators all around me.  On Sunday night of the conference I went to a reunion event of sorts for people who have been on the “20 to Watch: Educational Tech Leaders” list from the National School Board Association (I was on the list in 2016).  Part way through the reception we all went around the room and shared who we were, what year we were on the list, and what we are currently working on. As we went around the room there were CEOs, company founders, college faculty doing amazing work in research fields, superintendents, and a teacher…me.
For a split second I was embarrassed. I thought “Look at all of the amazing things that these people are doing, all the titles they have next to their name, and then look at me. I’m JUST a teacher.” And then I thought to myself that phrase…
I am a badass teacher.

I’m beginning my 10th year of teaching, and I’ve had several people ask me what my next step is, usually implying that I should start looking toward administration. I feel like there is this perception that being a teacher is just a stepping stone toward something else. If administration is your calling, and you feel like you could make great change at the administrator level, I think that’s fantastic. However, I hate this idea in education that the only way to move forward in your career is to leave the classroom. I have witnessed amazing leaders in all areas of education.
One of my colleagues, Ashford Collins, doesn’t just teach his students to stand up for social change, but lives it by organizing a peace walk in the local community. That’s a bad ass teacher.
Amy Hillman, along with the other science teachers in my building invites members from the community in for a giant science night with thousands of people in attendance. Those are bad ass teachers.  
My wife, Jenica Stock, organizes an after school technology club for her students because she knows the amazing benefits this opportunity gives her students. That’s a bad ass teacher.
For the past 5 years I have helped organize book drives to give over 3000 new and used books to families in need in our area. I also coach an after school LEGO robotics team, present at conferences around the country and write for websites like Edutopia. That’s bad ass.
Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like “just a teacher” or in my case I made myself feel like less than everyone else for my choice to be in the classroom.
As you kick off the new school year, embrace your inner bad ass, and share with others why you’re a #badassteacher.

My first attempt at Facebook for the classroom

Social media is an ingrained part of most of our lives. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, it’s hard to keep up. Adding to the challenge, as a middle school teacher I have to balance the effectiveness of social media for students, colleagues and parents. Each group has their preferred social media outlets.
Last year I started a classroom Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat account for my classroom activities. I posted pictures of the students actively engaged in amazing activities and shared about upcoming events.
Twitter was great for sharing my activities to other teachers and school personnel. But students and parents weren’t very active in this space. I already use it for my professional activities and this tied in nicely with that.
Instagram was great for engaging with students and sharing their hard work with their peers. Many of the students interacted in this space, sharing positive comments when students won awards and enjoyed reliving some of the craziness that is room 502.
I couldn’t get into Snapchat. The students are in that space and enjoyed my posts, but when I post something I want it to be more permanent than Snapchat which disappears after 24 hours.
This year my goal is to dive into Facebook for my classroom. I’m hoping more parents will be engaged in this space. Personally, I spend more time than I should checking my Facebook feed, and I think there are plenty of parents that feel the same way.
I created two Facebook pages, not accounts but pages. I made the mistake of creating a new account at first but realized this wouldn’t accomplish the right goals. A page allows you to control what people see and doesn’t give access to your personal Facebook account. I don’t care if parents see my personal account, but most of them are more interested in what’s happening in the classroom and less interested in the pictures of my adorable children I’m constantly sharing.
One page is a professional account for me to share my blog posts, interesting articles I come across and share the same awesome classroom photos that I share on my Instagram and Twitter accounts. In a future post I’ll share how I post to multiple platforms at once. I’ll probably share this Facebook page in more professional settings with other educators, when I present at conferences, etc. However, I’d gladly welcome any parent who would like to see my teaching philosophy.
The second page I created is a classroom page. On this page I’ll share the same Instagram photos from the other account. I’ll also post event information, announcements, etc. I’m debating posting some parenting articles I find too, but I don’t want it to come across as too preachy. The goal of those articles would be to encourage parents to read with their kids and keep them up-to-date on the technology their kids are using.
We’ll see how this goes. I’m hoping it will help me reach more educators, parents and students. If you’ve used Facebook for your own classroom, please share any tips or tricks to help make it successful.

The ISTE Make It Happen Award

A few days ago I had the honor of receiving ISTE’s Make It Happen award at the MACE conference. I was nominated for my effective use of technology both in the classroom (creating awesome Youtube videos, encouraging a wide range of tech tools, implementing engaging writing strategies using technology, etc.) and outside of the classroom (coaching the FLL robotics team, starting the Books for Backpacks initiative, advocating for my students by being part of a wide range of technology committees in the district, etc.). Most importantly I was recognized for my ability to make learning fun and keep the kids engaged in their learning.
 
It was a privilege to get recognized for the work I do in and out of the classroom. I can’t describe the experience of walking in front of an auditorium full of people and getting affirmation that I’m good at what I do.
 
I’m not good at sharing stuff like this. I do a terrible job “tooting my own horn” as they say. But I think it’s important to share accomplishments like this as often as possible. Not for our own self-gratification, but to change the narrative about public education.
 
Every week I see negative stories on Facebook and in the news about a teacher who did something they weren’t supposed to or a rant about some educational policy that the poster/news commentator disagrees with. That’s not the narrative I want surrounding my profession. I see too many skilled educators around me to believe that that is the most important story to be told right now.
 
Unless we go out and share the amazing things happening in our classrooms, someone else is going to tell the story of education. We either have to accept someone else’s story or tell our own.
 
On that note, I didn’t get my award because I’m the only great teacher out there. I received the award because I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who tolerate my crazy, support my ideas, and help keep me grounded when necessary. Nothing I do would be possible without a strong network of amazing educators.
That’s the narrative I want to tell. What’s yours?
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Perception is a tricky thing

Several months ago my wife and I needed a new car.  We did the research and looked at a wide range of cars.  We eventually found a car that we hadn’t seen on the road before.  It was a Ford Fusion.  We love everything about the car and found a dealership that was nearby with a great deal.  As soon as we took it home I noticed something.  There are a lot of Ford Fusions out on the road.  Not only that, but there are a lot of cars on the road that came from this dealership that I had never heard of until that day.
 
Perception is a funny thing.  We tend to perceive what is important to us and what directly impacts our world.  Our brains filter everything else out, it’s just background noise.  What I thought was a unique car, was actually fairly common, but I didn’t perceive that until I needed to single it out from the noise.
 
It’s easy to fall into that trap in the classroom as well.  There are times when students will bring things to my attention that I don’t realize are occurring.  Sometimes they are pointing out that an assignment’s instructions are confusing or that they feel I’m treating the class unfairly when I give them a consequence.  It’s uncomfortable.  Nobody likes someone to call them out for something they perceive is wrong.
 
I don’t always agree with their assertions, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they have this perception.  I have two choices: either I can ignore it and hope they change their minds or I can take the time to look at the situation through their eyes and try to figure out why they feel the way they do. Change can’t happen unless I can truly understand all sides.  
 
Ultimately, I may still disagree with them. But seeing the world through their eyes gives me the opportunity to present myself in a different manner while still attaining the same results.  And sometimes I come to realize they were right all along.
The world would be a much better place if we could all take the time to perceive things through another’s eyes.

Kicking off a new school year…

Tomorrow I will begin my ninth year of teaching.  This is my 9th year of preservice trainings.  My 9th year of new initiatives and new ideas for transforming our classrooms.  My 9th year of detailed explanations about why my assessment data should be better.
It’s easy to drown in all the minutia of school, the directives and new pedagogy that will revolutionize teaching.  Sometimes it’s important to reflect and remember why we do what we do.
I don’t teach because I want to transform my students into test taking masters.  I don’t teach because I relish the thought of torturing my students with stories they won’t care about.  I teach because I know that I can help guide my students toward a better understanding of who they are.
This year my grade level counterparts and I are focusing on three themes in Language Arts: survival, identity, and hope.  I want my kids to read and write in my class, not solely to become prolific readers and writers.  I want my kids to read and write in my class to discover who they are and to realize that who they are MATTERS.  I teach world changers.  I teach kids who can move mountains and innovate.  I’m teaching the generation that will find peace in the chaos.  I teach so that my students will see the good in the world, to show them that there is hope for the future.  I teach them so that I can remind MYSELF that there is hope in the world.
Tomorrow I will walk through those doors and look into the eyes of my students, and I will be happy knowing that the future is in their hands.
As you go about your school year, I wish you all the best and hope that you take some time to reflect.  Remember that it’s not about a test, or a reading score, or a grade.  It’s not about instituting the correct lesson plan format or the correct note-taking strategy.  It’s about ensuring that your students walk out of your classroom a better person than when they entered it, that they are more prepared for their future, and most importantly that they are ready to make the world a better place.