Shirley Feedme and Mr. Showme

For sake of a really long post, I hope you can understand, if even just a bit, the impact that technology has had on the way today’s students prefer to learn.  That’s rarely debated in the year 2015.  Tom Whitby said recently “If any teacher could take the content in their head and put that into the heads of their students, those students would still be limited.”  The days of teachers being considered masters of content are gone.  Students come to school with more content in their pockets.  Employers aren’t seeking workers who are loaded with content, rather, they’re seeking workers who are capable of learning because required skills to perform specific jobs are also changing quickly due to the impact of technology.  Read the title of this 2012 NY Times article:  stayrelevantMy point is, educators are not exempt from this action of nonstop learning.  Regardless of what century you were born in, teachers need to shift their mindset and take advantage of the learning opportunities all around them.  It’s more than just deciding to engage.  I believe what prohibits most teachers from learning and implementing new ideas, methods, and tools is a mindset.  Allow me to draw this out for you.  Shirley Feedme is a student in your class.  You have invested the typical time and energy you devote to designing quality lessons for your students.  You teach the lesson and everything appears to go as expected.  Students have their devices out, you’ve provided them the assignment, and the students begin working.  Shirley raises her hand beckoning for your assistance.  Shirley says she can’t do the required tasks because she doesn’t have a pencil.  So you walk over to the spare pencil tray, retrieve a pencil, and deliver it to Shirley.  A few minutes later Shirley beckons you again.  This time Shirley proclaims she doesn’t understand the assignment.  Despite your attempt to go over the directions with the entire class before providing the assignment, and despite the directions being written clearly in bold letters at the top of the page, you give in and explain it to Shirley once more.  Later Shirley beckons you once again.  Shirley tells you she can’t remember some important facts you provided about the topic during your lesson.  So you proceed to spend the next few minutes seated beside Shirley Feedme reviewing the facts with her one last time.  Spoon Feeding Teaches NothingWho’s doing most of the work in this scenario?  Who’s doing most of the learning in this scenario?  Go ahead, you’re allowed to smile.  Of course, what kind of teacher would read that and not have feelings of disgust at the actions of that teacher.  That behavior by that teacher denigrates the profession for all of us.  Yes, this situation is entirely fictional, but I wonder how often it happens in classrooms every day?  How empowering were those actions for Shirley Feedme?  I provided this scenario so I could shift to the next scenario:

The teacher down the hall, Mr. Showme, has been teaching for 20 years.  The school district just recently rolled out a 1:1 initiative with Chromebooks.  In addition, they released a district-wide learning management system too.  Mr. Showme attends the provided trainings over the summer.  School begins.  Fast forward to the next summer.  Mr. Showme’s evaluation last year indicated that he needed to increase collaboration in his classroom, begin issuing assignments via the learning management system, and decrease the amount of paper he uses each year.  Mr. Showme feels frustrated and defeated that the school is no longer providing anymore trainings on the Chromebooks and the learning management system.  In fact, the trainings they are providing are on a different topic that he’ll need to learn before the school year begins.  This scenario is once again fictional, but I wonder how often it occurs in school every year?  Mr. Showme is relying solely on school-district provided opportunities to learn.  He’s even hoping that those opportunities provide the time for someone to sit down with him 1:1 and show him exactly how to increase collaboration, use the LMS, and decrease the paper usage.  I see a connection between Mr. Showme and Shirley Feedme.  Could Mr. Showme be Shirley Feedme’s teacher?

Both of these individuals are going to struggle to succeed in today’s world.  Today’s world will pass them by, rather, individuals who leverage technology to receive information, facts, explanations, procedures, videos, etc. will do the passing.  Mr. Showme could have leveraged social media to connect with a group of educators who have been using Chromebooks in the same content and same grade level, but he didn’t.  Mr. Showme could have watched the 4-5 minute video tutorials provided on the learning management system’s webpage, but he didn’t.  Mr. Showme could have asked the teacher down the hall how they issue their assignments via the LMS, but he didn’t.  The real issue is, Mr. Showme needs to change his mindset.  It’s not that he can’t do those things.  I wonder if he ever thought about doing those things?  Perhaps he did think about doing them, but he didn’t feel it was his responsibility to do them.  Either way, Mr. Showme is quickly sinking into irrelevance because of his mindset.

Learners Inherit the Earth

Today’s educators must embrace the mindset that learning opportunities are all around us.  We won’t always have another to hold our hands during the training and show us exactly how to learn and implement the newest tool, method, or idea.  What we perceive as barriers e.g., lack of time, training, or people, are really not barriers at all.  Employees in all walks of the job force are being asked to adopt this very mindset.  Those that cannot acquire knowledge on their own are being passed by those who can.  Give a man a fish




I Hate Math

This post is entirely fictional, but, no doubt it rings true for far too many students.  There’s a lot here.  I’d like to hear your thoughts.


My name is Danny and I’m a little nervous about moving up to the middle school this year.  Math is my worst subject and my last teacher made me sit in the back of the classroom to keep me quiet.  I hope I can sit in the back of the classroom this year too.

The first week was ok.  I really liked some of my classes, but my math teacher was lecturing us about knowing our multiplication facts and I can’t remember anything past my two’s.  I might try to sit in the back of the classroom next week and see if he notices.  I just want to be left alone.  I got a C in math last year.  I hope I can get a C in math this year too.

I failed the first math test, but so did half of the class.  The teacher stood and griped at us for 15 minutes after passing the tests back.  I guess no one else studied for the test either.  I don’t know how he expected me to finish it because I didn’t know how to do half of it.

I don’t think I’ll get a C in math this year.  Maybe I can get a D.

The math teacher threatened us with more math again.  I swear, if I lose my recess and have to stay inside to practice this stuff I don’t understand!  I just wish they would leave me alone.

I got an F in math.  Maybe 7th grade math will be better.  Good thing I passed gym, library, and social studies.

This teacher seems cool, I may actually try this year.  I have some friends in math class too.

The teacher separated me from my friends because I guess we were talking too much.  I was bored, she had been talking for 20 minutes straight.  Now I have no one to talk to.

At least she’s letting me use a calculator.

I have no idea what she’s talking about and Shawn answers every question in class.  I’m glad I’m sitting in the back of the class.  I wish I was back in 5th grade math where I actually knew a little bit.

I spent the entire class period working on my science homework and the teacher never said anything to me. YES!

I actually tried to finish my math homework today and the teacher said it was a day late, she wouldn’t take it.  You’ve got to be kidding me, does she know how long it took me to do that?  I should have just copied off of Shawn before school.

I actually have a C in this class.  It’s a good thing she grades every homework assignment.  I can cheat on those and still keep a C in the class.  I’m lost when it comes to the tests.

Another F in math class.  I don’t know why I even try.  I’m good at gym class, computer class, and science this year.

I am dreading math class this year.  I hardly learned anything last year and now I hear this teacher is really hard.

I don’t know who I’m going to copy my hw from this year either.  I don’t even want to come to school.

All the teacher talks about is how high school is so much different and how he’s trying to “prepare” us for high school.  I could care less about doing 35 problems out of the book every night.  I don’t have time for that stuff.  I’m just going to put my head down.  I’d rather sleep through this class.  It makes me want to claw my eyeballs out.

Good.  I got my F, now let me move on.

High school!  I would do anything to skip math class every day.  I have hated math for as long as I can remember.  At least they can’t keep me inside for recess this year, we don’t have recess at high school! HAH.  I don’t care what the math teacher says, I’m not wasting my time, there’s no way I can do this stuff.  I have failed math ever since 5th grade.  I wish I could go back to 6th grade math, I think I may actually do ok in that class now.



Putting The Problem Back On The Students

My classroom is student-centered and instruction is blended.  I’ve got 23 Macbook Airs in my room.  I don’t know for sure but I imagine this is my students’ first experience in a student-centered blended classroom.  I say that because their reactions to my classroom indicate pretty clearly the type of classrooms from which they have previously been a part.



In a very general sense, my instruction runs in three phases: Instructional, Practice, Assessment.  It’s a lot more fluid than that, but that’s enough to understand the purpose of this post.  The instructional phase represents the time that I offer the most support.  Perhaps it’s the phase that appears most like a 20th century classroom.  I incorporate a buffet of opportunities for my students to dive into the skill or concept.  The next phase represents the biggest phase, from the standpoint of time.  During the practice phase I often gauge the level of support needed by my students by the number of hands up in the classroom.  During this time, I rarely address the entire class as a whole, rather I spend most of the time down on a knee beside one student or a group of students.  I issue the daily agenda through our learning management system, Canvas, and this allows me to spend more valuable time with my students.  As I said, during the practice phase, students generally get my attention with a raised hand or a verbal cue.  During the class, I find myself constantly gauging the level of support needed by the class, diagnosing common weaknesses, and identifying common strengths.  This means I occasionally need to stop and address the whole class.

I’m realizing, through observation and conversations with students, that the number of hands and verbal cues I’m receiving during the practice phase doesn’t necessarily indicate the level of support students need, rather it indicates the level of support students want.  Putting the problem back on the students means I have to intentionally exercise caution during my interactions with students in order to continually put the problem back on the students.  Most importantly, I have to employ the right kinds of questions when dealing with students.  Questions that require them to think, because it’s likely they would prefer that I respond in a way that liberates them from thinking.  See, the number of hands up during class more accurately indicates the lack of thinking.  The system I have put in place in my class arms each student with opportunities to learn.  In general, I’m finding that they view these opportunities, even using Google, as a way for me to stop teaching.

Ultimately, I’d like for my students to develop resilience, grit, and perseverance that empowers them to relentlessly dig at their problems before giving up and seeking support from me.  

This goal is not achieved without a teacher that is intentionally aware of the effects of each interaction with students seeking support.  It requires the teacher to act more as a coach.  A coach empowers his/her students to hone the skill of learning by putting the problem back on the students.  The right questions are key for a teacher or coach to put the problems back on the students.  For example, one of my students held her hand up for 15 minutes in class this week waiting for me to make it around to offer support.  When I made it to the student, her question was “Is this a negative sign or a minus sign?”  First, bless her heart for holding her hand up in the air for 15 minutes.  I’m afraid she worked harder holding her hand in the air than she did in solving her problem.  My response could have easily been “that number needs to be treated as a negative” and I could have walked away and moved on to the next student.  That would have done nothing to foster resilience or risk-taking in that student.  The situation that exists with this student depicts the struggles in all of my students.  She has never been empowered to take control of her learning, take risks, and accept failure.  These skills are critical to success in today’s global society, yet they are perhaps the most neglected in today’s classrooms.  Students have been conditioned to believe that arriving at the right answer is the only measurement of achievement that matters.  Risking failure or making a mistake is shameful and not something that is embraced by many of today’s classrooms.  The following tips can help you begin to empower students to embrace failure as part of the learning process.  This is critical to putting the problem back on the students.

  • Be aware of your language and the impact that it has on cultivating learners.  Praise and encouragement are not the same thing.  Too often praise is given as a result of the product.  It’s more effective to provide encouragement during the process.  Be sure you’re emphasizing the process over the product.
  • Questions, questions, questions.  Your questions are key to empowering students to leverage the tools available to solve their own problems.  Your questions should require reflection and risk taking.  Too often students are spoonfed the answers, rather than provided opportunities to think.
    • Can you draw a picture that may help? 
    • What would happen if you tried it? 
    • Is there a similar problem we’ve done that may help us understand this one? 
    • Have you Googled it?  Yes, that’s right.  Teach your students to leverage the tools they will use in the real world.  If you don’t want your students Googling your answers, then start asking better questions.
    • What have you tried that hasn’t worked? 
  • Talk about a growth mindset.  Our students should know the term and understand that growth is not limited by prior experience or our genetic makeup.


  • Growth-v-Fixed

Math Class 2.0

I saw this tweet this morning and it almost consumed my thinking during my 45 minute commute to school:


I even responded to Andrew with:
 image (1)
If you don’t know Andrew Stadel, he is the mind behind Estimation 180.
Andrew, Dan Meyer, and a number of other authors are also the brains that created this awesome list of 3-Act Math Tasks.  I’ve been watching these guys (@mathletepearce is another good one) for a while and they really make you consider what your math practice looks like and how effective you are at designing memorable opportunities for students to develop conceptual knowledge of math over procedural knowledge.  They are THE evangelists of opportunities for deeper thinking in math class.  Just look up Dan Meyer on Youtube and his talks will likely blow your mind.  Dan speaks at NCTM conference every year.  He now works as a fellow for Desmos, and what he’ll do with an already amazing product at Desmos will be unbelievable I’m sure.
I also found this video Here’s Why Math Is Taught Differently Now  and it just seemed to fit the theme this morning.  The video is 8 minutes long but I really encourage you to view it when you have time.  The skill he dives into is two-digit multiplication and I know none of us really teach that specific skill, but the video is more than that.
I don’t write this post to condemn or judge anyone’s practice, in fact, like most of my blog, I’m judging my own.  The bulk of my own class, dare I say, all of my class is spent on memorizing algorithms and procedures long enough to pass a test, then forget it.  As is stated in the video, that works for some people (perhaps that’s why we chose to teach math, it worked for us) but for most people, it’s proven to be a miserable way of developing a joy for math and gaining a deep and lasting understanding of math.
Honestly, I thought of the conversation yesterday in dept meeting about quadratics.  I obviously have no clue how quadratics was taught last year and I’m certainly not making any judgments on that, but why did the students forget it all over the summer?  What prevented them from recognizing a quadratic this week on the POD?  I’ve taught 8th grade math for 5 years and it hasn’t went unnoticed that my own students forgot way more math that I taught vs what they actually remembered.  Teaching mostly freshman this year, it’s pretty clear that these students aren’t any different than the ones I used to teach in Parkersburg.
Consider this post from Dan Meyer about Photomath.  If you haven’t heard of Photomath, it’s a mobile app that allows anyone to use their device to scan a variety of math problems, and it spits out the solution along with a series of steps to solve the problem.  PhotoMath
Dan’s post epitomizes the changes that really need to occur in more math classrooms.
I just needed to get some things off my chest and this was the best way I could that.  I wish there was more time to talk about these things and there’s no people I’d rather talk to then the people I work with.  I’ve been trying to change my practice by myself and it’s hard.  I’m fairly connected and it’s still difficult to learn, integrate, and develop a more conceptual understanding in my students.  Not to mention all the other barriers that math teachers face: the products of an educational system that doesn’t require mastery of standards in order to pass.  However, I know this to be true:

Remediation: A call for change

Having spent about 4 weeks in the high school math setting, I can say with certainty that reaching those students that are hard to reach is not given enough attention in middle school, or at any level for that matter. The quality of math courses at the high school cannot endure the percentage of students sitting in those courses with monumental deficiencies.  A student that has failed 6th grade math, 7th grade math, and 8th grade math lands him or herself in 9th grade math at the high school level a high percentage of time.  That statement is not meant to condemn the practice or lack of practice of holding students back when they can’t perform to a minimum acceptable level.  The statement simply means the system places a growing percentage of students and teachers in a difficult position, to put it kindly.  This post really isn’t meant to spout statements that math teachers have been spouting for years.  Instead, I’m reminded of the importance of reaching EVERY student all the time, especially during the critical years where learning foundations are established.  More specifically, I’m thinking about what that requires.

To combat this cruel series of events that plays out every year, many schools are turning to extra periods of remediation and intervention, loss of recess, extended class periods for math, and a deluge of other techniques that really only increase the time to “learn” math.  Instead, I wish more schools, administrators, teachers, etc. placed more of the focus on improving the experience for those students in their regular math class.  I’m not talking about adding time, taking away an elective so the student can be placed in remediation classes, or doing more of the same thing only longer.  I wish more teachers considered why that student was failing their class instead of how they can get that student to spend more time doing math.  None of that is to say that more traditional means of remediation aren’t or can’t be effective.

It’s time to look at remediation from a comprehensive whole-child perspective.  I feel like we’ve completely overlooked reaching that child during class and jumped straight to “what can we do to that kid during remediation?”  The following list represents the tip of the iceberg, but I wonder what results these would yield in comparison to traditional remediation techniques.

  • The failure that is occurring, by teacher and student, can only be remedied if a relationship is present.  In fact, if you’re talking remediation but the conversation doesn’t begin with “How do I get into this student’s bubble?  How do I break the shell?  What can I do to reach his or her heart?” you’re wasting your time talking strategy, technique, or pedagogy.
  • Have you called home?  The first call home should be on purpose, it should be early in the year, and it should be positive.  Not sure which students need called?  Unfortunately if you just listen to the previous grade level teachers, they’ll probably indicate who needs a phone call.  The names usually follow “just wait till you have…”
  • A handwritten note takes a mere seconds to write.  “Never underestimate the value of a well placed compliment. -Todd Whittaker”  The students that need the most love, the most reinforcement, and the most pats on the backs, ask for it in the most unloving ways.  Don’t let that stop you from writing a 30 second note.  This practice seems easy, but when you’re talking about these students, you have to watch for something positive, on purpose.  I know, positive behaviors may be like Bigfoot, you hear about him every once in a while, but you never see him.  If you watch on purpose, you’ll find something to write about.  Think about it, we watch for negative behaviors all day long and often find them.  Try watching for positive behaviors a while and see what happens.
  • Have you given up a lunch break to eat with a student or group of students?
  • Have you visited the home?
  • I know what you’re thinking, “Gee Wiz Oldfield, there’s no way a person could do all these things.”  The perpetual and consistent failure that these students experience year after year acts like a huge weight on the everyone: teacher and students.  The quality of courses is not enduring this weight that is only getting heavier year after year.  The level of performance is declining and bars are lowering.  What we’ve been doing isn’t working.  Nothing great is accomplished by doing something easy.

I’ll be honest, the focus of this post came from my own frustration entering the high school math realm for the first time this year.  I was previously an 8th grade math teacher for five years.  I often wondered back then how teachers at the high school actually taught their courses at the level required by the standards without failing more students.  I thought one of two things were occurring: the teachers were extraordinary teachers of the kind of talent I could only dream about, or the teachers recognized the cavern between the instructional level of the students and the performance required of the standards and spent the year measuring student learning at the current level then stamped a grade on the report card under a course name that did not really represent what was being taught.  I believe the cure involves better reaching those students who are hard to reach.  Consider the penalty if they get left behind?  Prior to high school, the penalty is… they move on.

Now don’t get me wrong, do I believe instruction and pedagogy need to improve?  You bet I do!  I believe too many students sit in classrooms designed for a style of learning that is irrelevant and disengaging to today’s learners.  That’s for another time.


The Handwritten Note




I adopted the practice of writing handwritten notes about 3 years ago.  It wasn’t until this year that I really began to harness the power.  Before, I would occasionally write a note when a student performed extraordinary in class.  If I recognized that a student had overcome a large obstacle in content, I would try and write the note and deliver it within the same day.  At my previous school, we had Blennerhassett Middle School post cards that you see in the above picture.  I moved schools this year and realized that as far as I knew, I didn’t have anything similarly suited for writing handwritten notes to students.  I have used Vistaprint this year to order business cards that include my contact information, website, and instructions on signing up for my Remind class.  On the back of the card, I included a motivational image from Dave and Shelly Burgess, authors of Teach Like A Pirate. IMAG1052 IMAG1054

In addition to ordering the business cards, I also ordered postcards for handwritten notes.CYMERA_20150820_075401


This year I determined to leverage the power of a sincere note to a greater degree than I had before.  During the first few days of school, I made literal and mental notes about students through observation and conversation.  I tried to identify students who seemed disengaged.  In some cases, I have students who are repeating the course for a second of third time.  As I identified those students, I watched closely for that small spark of excitement, engagement, or some input to any conversation.  That was when I jumped on the opportunity to praise!  As soon as I could I wrote a handwritten note, checked out their schedule, and began delivering the notes during my planning period.  In four days of school I have delivered four quality notes with a sincere and personal message to that student.  I ordered my Vistaprint cards late so I had to use notecards for a few days. IMAG1045

Often the only feedback you get from a handwritten note is the evidence of excitement, motivation, and engagement that student displays the next day in class.  Occasionally you’ll get a “thank you” in return.

A couple years ago I had a student that many educators would have considered a handful, to say the least.  During our team plan, this student’s name would come up often when discussing behavior issues.  This student was among the top five offenders in detention-hall that year.  I wrote him a handwritten note praising him for his perseverance during an exercise in class one day.  A few days later I noticed his binder laying on the floor next to his desk.  In the clear plastic sleeve on the front of his binder was my handwritten note.  He was displaying it proudly for all to see.  I didn’t want him to notice, but I tried to quickly snap a picture of that binder that day.  The image isn’t real clear but that’s my handwritten note in the sleeve.  IMAG4724 He never thanked me for my note.  I got all the thanks I needed when this student worked his butt off in my class the rest of the year.


Mouse Traps & Blindfolds

IMAG1033IMAG1034 I saw this life changing lesson performed during a church service about three years ago and I have used it in the classroom ever since.  I call it a life changing lesson, titled after Dave Burgess’ LCL’s he uses in his classroom (Teach Like A Pirate).  The experience begins by blindfolding a volunteer at the front of the classroom.  It’s necessary that the volunteer take his/her shoes off as it helps increase the suspense or thrill.  Obviously you need enough clear space to establish a point A and point B for the volunteer to travel.  Once blindfolded, the teacher will grab his/her bag and begin to pull out mouse traps, knives, forks, scissors (anything that will elicit some gasps from audience).  Strategically place the mouse traps and other obstacles out front of the volunteer, creating a maze-like pattern of dangerous obstacles.  I do this slowly, while instructing the volunteer to stand very still.  I even let a mouse trap or two snap loudly to help build the intensity.  Often the volunteer will nervously ask “what was that Mr. Oldfield?”  I typically respond “Oh that was nothing.  You trust me right?”  Anything you can do to help increase the intensity here will help hook the audience and the volunteer.  Once the path is set, I explain that the audience will have opportunity to direct the volunteer down the path, but they’ll have to be careful and very specific in their directions.  What usually plays out next is a combination of the audience calling out directions, some good and some bad, while I stand next to the volunteer confirming some orders and monitoring his/her safety.  Once the volunteer has surpassed one or two obstacles, I will step on one of the mouse traps, setting it off loudly.  This normally ignites some anxiety in the volunteer.  I kick the trap out of the way and the volunteer continues.  Once the volunteer has completed the journey, he/she is allowed to remove the blindfold and look back at the obstacles.

The next portion of the lesson is where the teacher facilitates the valuable learning experience.  My discussion begins by acknowledging that this experience that took place actually represented something larger.  I like to give my students some time to discuss at their tables some ideas they may have about what they think the entire experience represented.  Next I usually reveal the three key players in the experience: the mouse traps, me, and the crowd.  I allow my students some time to discuss the three roles and who each of them represented.  During the discussion at the tables, I make my rounds listening and guiding the discussions in the right directions.  The easiest connection to make seems to be that the mouse traps represented danger or obstacles that lie in our paths.  So that’s a good place to start with your students.  You can carry the rest of the discussion out however you best see fit.  But I think it’s important to emphasize the distinction between the teacher and the crowd, and who those two parties represent.  In my opinion, the teacher represented the following groups of people that you may want your students to recognize: parents, teachers, coaches, pastors.  The crowd represented the following groups of people: classmates, friends, teammates.  While developing this distinction, I always try to remind my students which person kicked one or two of the obstacles out of the way for the volunteer.  I (teacher) kicked an obstacle out of the way because I was close to the volunteer.  It’s all about distance, literal and figurative.  Typically classmates, friends, teammates have an impact on us, but they can’t really remove obstacles from our path.  Their impact is never that direct.  But parents, teachers, and coaches sometimes have an impact that can be that direct.  Moral of the story is that during my students’ years (14-17 years of age), they often tend to distance themselves from those who have the most impact on their journey.  The class always agrees that the volunteer never would have made it through the path without any guidance.  It’s often the case that they never would have made it exclusively on the guidance of the crowd, because it was sometimes hard to distinguish between good advice and bad advice when listening only to the crowd.  The noise level also made it hard to hear the right voices.  Bottom line, it’s nice to be reminded at 14-17 years of age, that as much as we sometimes think we don’t them, we really do need those people who offer to walk life’s journey right by our side.



How Do I Change and Why?

I regularly read blogs from a circle of educators that I follow on Twitter.  Though I haven’t actually met most of these people face to face, I feel as though I know them well.  Each time I read a new post, I have a good idea where their feelings and thoughts are coming from.  With that in mind, this post comes from an educator entering his 7th year.  Five previous years have been spent as an 8th grade math teacher in a middle school setting.  I became a connected educator about 3 years ago and I started blogging to keep a record of my own growth as an educator.  To be transparent, I’m also in the middle of Learn Like A Pirate by Paul Solarz and many of Paul’s points inspired my motivation to write this post.  I’ve started the change discussed in this post and I wanted to write down my thoughts today.

Rewind 4-5 years ago and the phrase “student-centered instruction” or “learner-centered classroom” were buzzwords I probably would have used in a job interview, but that was the threshold of my experience with those phrases.  Looking back, my preservice training in college wasn’t bad, but I did not enter the profession in 2009 armed with the shifts in teaching that prepares a teacher to reach today’s students.  In fact, my student teaching and my first year as a full time teacher likely reflected the exact same teaching style that I received when I was in middle school back in 1997.  I want this post to highlight some steps any educator could take to begin to move away from a very teacher directed classroom dominated by rules, compliance, and students playing the game of school.  If you’re a teacher today you’ve definitely heard of the phrase “student/learner centered classrooms”.  You’ve likely heard your principal, instructional coach, professional development facilitator spout those terms about your school as if everyone in the building, regardless of experience, knows exactly how to initiate those changes in their own classroom.  Not to mention, the fear and anxiety some educators may feel every time someone stands and talks about a classroom that sounds nothing like their own.

I’m not going to outline these steps in any order, though I’m pretty adamant about the first one.  I realize that whatever order some of these appeared for me, may certainly not be the same order in which they appear for another educator.  The point is, read these points and consider which ones you can begin to initiate now and be brave enough to risk the change and see what happens.  If you haven’t gathered yet, I am a believer in this “new style” of teaching that describes teachers as more of a facilitator of learning than a driver of learning.  In fact, I spent much of the first week last year explaining to my 8th grade students exactly what my role would be.  You see, in a student’s eyes, a learner-centered classroom can sometimes lead a student to believe that the teacher does nothing.  My students’ evidence of teachers’ work is bound to:

  • the teacher towering over graded papers
  • the teacher standing up front and “teaching” for several minutes before assigning homework and retreating to his/her desk for the remainder of the period
  • the teacher rigidly supporting classroom rules by enacting consequences in the form of D-halls, pink slips, you name it
  • the teacher adhering to strict deadlines meaning he/she will not tolerate late work and zeroes will be given if such work is turned in late

Notice that all of those actions begin with “the teacher”.  In my students’ eyes, they typically evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher by the actions of the teacher.  This is understandable and I’m not trying to place guilt on any student, not at all.  The classrooms that most teachers today grew up in were dominated by the teacher.  The leading in the classroom was driven by the teacher.  Teachers took part in most of the action (24/7) while students were mostly passive.  The learner-centered classroom seeks to reverse most of the features of 20th century classrooms.  Below you’ll find some shifts that any educator can make to his/her classroom in an effort to transform it into one where students take risks, willingly lead, monitor their learning, and engage.

  • As I said above, I feel this first one needs to happen immediately.  It’s difficult to shift and transform yourself and your classroom if your level of feedback to students is suffocating under the level of grades you give.  Let me say that again: feedback needs to heavily outweigh the number of grades your students receive.  As a facilitator of student learning, this is one of your most important jobs and it’s one that your students, regardless of age, probably won’t recognize.  In fact, if you’re good at it, one could argue that the students shouldn’t recognize it.  I sometimes use the analogy of the rudder.  Passengers never see the rudder and rarely can even tell when it’s moving, but it impacts the direction of the ship constantly.  Your feedback can come in the form of a whisper in a student’s ear, sitting with a few students while they work, catching a student during lunch to talk to them about their work, a handwritten note, or a posttest conference.  There are nearly countless ways to offer feedback and perfecting any one of those ways is an art that today’s teachers need to practice.  If your grades outweigh the number of times you offer feedback, make this priority number one.
  • Information literacy is perhaps the most important skill our students need today.  The responsibility for this skill cannot be placed on any one teacher, grade level, or department.  21st century teachers are no longer masters of content tasked with unloading this knowledge into the brains of today’s students.  Many of our students come to school with content in their pockets.  The role of any teacher should be to design instruction that provides students opportunities to acquire content and create.  This is a huge task in my opinion, because depending on the grade level, it’s not uncommon for students to be more information literate than the teacher.  Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly many classrooms today where the teacher is doing more work than the students.  Here’s a start, consider the amount of work your students are doing and consider the work you are doing.
  • Do you have “A” students who breeze through your course without putting out much effort?  Do you find those students put forth minimal effort required to achieve their A?  Do you have struggling students that you find hard to motivate?  A learner centered classroom is not described by one pace fits all.  Rather, a learner centered classroom is driven by improvement.  Students aren’t bound to rigid deadlines and rewards aren’t determined by grades nor are punishments determined by compliance.  To place a priority on improvement and learning, the teacher needs to communicate flexibility in deadlines, learning styles, pacing, home lives, and relationships.  Teachers in learner centered classrooms are likely leveraging technology to aide them in managing this new flexibility, especially when it comes to learning.  Do you allow retakes on your summative assessments?  It’s tough to prioritize improvement over grades if you aren’t willing to allow retakes on your assessments.  What would a second or third opportunity to demonstrate learning do for that student that you find hard to motivate?  Incorporate relentless feedback during that cycle and I’m confident you’ll have a student willing to try to improve his/her score rather than one disappointed again with a low grade.  Accept that zeroes do nothing but let that student off the hook.  If your assignment was important enough to design than it should be important enough for students to complete.  Placing a priority on learning means zeroes have no place in your classroom.  Zeroes belong in a teacher directed classroom, not one that is learner centered.
  • Let your students lead.  Consider some menial tasks that you are carrying out during a typical week.  How many of those tasks could be completed by students?  Allow them to lead.  Paul Solarz writes in Learn Like A Pirate that allowing your students to interrupt the class at any time is one important aspect of a learner centered classroom.  Students will feel empowered when they understand their teacher is serious about allowing them to interrupt the classroom.  This obviously takes practice, flexibility, modeling, and constant feedback to direct appropriate interruptions and misdirect inappropriate interruptions.  Communicate early and often your system for allowing students to interrupt the class.
  • If the only evidence of learning you have from your students is a letter on top of a test, quiz, assignment, etc. than you are likely driving too much of the learning and your students are likely forgetting a high percentage of what you’ve worked hard to teach.  A learner centered classroom means students are given the tools and opportunities to not only regurgitate their learning, but apply and create with their newly acquired knowledge.  Evidence of learning in a learner centered classroom comes in a variety of forms.  2015 presents classrooms with a buffet of choices for teachers and students to incorporate in their classroom as means to demonstrate our learning.  Students today are creating avatars that demonstrate learning, they are creating social media accounts of historical figures using Fakebook , they are producing instructional videos and uploading them to a global audience, they are blogging and documenting their learning through text and pictures, and they are using Minecraft to visually represent the acquired skill.  These are just a few drops in the bucket of ways that students are doing and creating with their learning.

If you’re like me, you have probably thought at one time, or perhaps you’re thinking it now: “this all sounds good, but it just wouldn’t work for my students” or “I like these ideas, but I’d be the only one trying it and it’s just not worth it.”  Imagine with me for a minute, what type of students our schools would be sending out post-high school if all classrooms were learner centered.  Imagine what the work force would be like if all teachers made it a priority to design classrooms where students felt comfortable to lead, felt comfortable documenting their learning in a variety of ways, viewed content as something that is readily available, but viewed application of that content as a necessary skill to survive today.  Imagine what content and skills would be retained if students stopped playing the game of school and started valuing growth and improvement over a grade.  I have already imagined it and that’s what convinced me to step out and try it.


Help Wanted: Change

I have put considerable thought into this post.  I’ve avoided it for weeks.  I was reminded recently of what Dr Brad Gustafson said about blogging in his interview with EdTech magazine:


From: http://www.edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2015/05/qa-principal-speaks-out-power-youtube-can-have-schools

I don’t want this post to be negative, though it may sound that way to some.  I hope it ultimately makes a difference.  That’s why I do the things I continue to do; to make a difference.

I have been a connected educator for almost three years now and the evidence can be seen by observing my practice, reading my blogs, and viewing my digital footprint on Twitter.  I’ve also endured a rather trying year, professionally.  This post will hopefully reflect the frustrations I have about being a reflective connected educator stuck in a school and evaluation system that does little to empower educators to become better.  Sadly, it feels like there’s no room for an educator who has a passion for learning.

During this school year I’ve engaged in the following learning opportunities:

  • moderated and designed questions and topics for #wvedchat
  • visited Beaver Local Schools to participate in their day-long CE session with Dave Burgess: Teach Like A Pirate
  • completed the following webinars with Alliance for Excellent Education
  • My wife and I hosted the 2nd annual state-wide Edcamp event in Parkersburg, WV.
  • I read the book Teach Like A  Pirate and began incorporating the questions into my lesson plans.  I also made the TLAP philosophy a part of my classroom IMAG7209 (1)CYMERA_20150427_171802
  • I read the book by Eric Sheninger titled Digital Leadership: A Changing Paradigm for Changing Times
  • Eric supported me in developing a week-long graduate course I taught over the summer for RESA V
  • My wife and I attended Edcamp Columbus for the second year in a row
  • I participated in Connected Educators Month by participating in a Google Hangout sharing my story of how I became connected and what it has done for my practice
  • In an effort to start having conversations about instructional practice with educators inside my school building I attempted to start a weekly morning meeting.  The attempt was not embraced by enough staff members to keep it going.  Thank you to those who came.  As Todd Whitaker says, “nothing happens at random in great schools”.

I also continued to document my progress in refining my assessment practices to better communicate student learning.  Throughout this process, I began to move my classroom towards becoming paperless.  I incorporated more digital tools to provide me more formative feedback about my students (Kahoot, Nearpod).  Most importantly, I did something about that feedback.  I have participated in countless Twitter chats on topics including leadership, blended learning, professional development, family-community engagement, and building relationships, just to name a few.

I’ve written before about how isolation is now a choice educators make.  Every day I choose to connect with other educators, whether it be through Twitter, Yammer, Facebook, or Google+.  Yet, I still feel tremendously isolated because there are so few educators in my area engaged in the conversations of growth and development that I choose to be a part of so often.  Note: my wife, Julie, is also a connected educator engaging in her own opportunities for growth and development.  We often share a lot of these opportunities through conversations at home.  The isolation, though, was exacerbated during my end-of-the-year evaluation with my administrators.  Not a single thing in this post was discussed during my evaluation.  None of the efforts I’ve made to improve my practice were acknowledged during the course of my evaluation.  I want to confess that I don’t engage in those efforts listed above for higher pay, awards, or notoriety.  My investment in growth and development is done simply because I want to be the best educator that I can be.  I want to provide my students the highest quality experiences during their year with me.  However, it was very defeating leaving my evaluation questioning why anyone else would want to engage in similar opportunities.  Telling my story and sharing the tremendous value in these learning opportunities with others has provided little benefit in the eyes of my bosses.  I have a tremendous PLN and certainly don’t take them for granted, but it’s extremely lonely being in a school with little growth and development every year.  I was disappointed that my efforts to grow and improve my practice went unrecognized by my administrators and the evaluation system.  Aside from my self-evaluation where I filled boxes with typed narratives attempting to provide “evidence” of my own evaluation, I feel like I made zero progress in the eyes of those ahead of me.  My students low standardized test scores were acknowledged during my evaluation, perhaps indicating that I’m wasting my time investing in the opportunities for growth listed above.

What reason do other educators in my area have to engage in opportunities for growth, reflection, and learning?  There aren’t any administrators sharing their story of how the investment is changing their practice.  The evaluation system provides little to no recognition of your efforts to improve.  The only standard of measurement, that one data point measured by standardized tests, may be the only story ever heard by those above you.

I work in a school building that has almost zero conversations about improving instructional practice.  As a result, I appreciate the amount of opportunities I get to engage in those conversations online.  I apologize for the negativity in this post and do not intend to offend anyone.  I hope this post results in much needed change.  A change that empowers others to begin adopting a growth mindset.  I hope the change allows others to be recognized for their attitude and actions towards growth and development.  I hope my own fire is not extinguished but until my family can afford to move, I’m struggling to justify the burn.  For those that are offended, consider these questions:

  • What opportunities did you leverage to improve your practice?
  • What are you doing to empower others to learn, reflect, and grow?
  • Who do you have in your professional learning network that is better than you?
  • How do you engage in professional conversations with other educators?
  • What evidence of continuous improvement can you point to this school year?



The Value of a PLN

A professional/personal/powerful learning network, as many call it, is of tremendous value to all educators, especially administrators.  Today’s schools are begging for a lead learner to step up and navigate the rapid changing waters of education.  Yesterday evening from my couch at home I tweeted four administrators that have provided me priceless wisdom, resources, encouragement, support, feedback, and scrutiny over the last couple years.  Eric Sheninger, Dwight Carter, Craig Vroom, Bobby Dodd were the ones I chose to include in my tweet.  I’ve personally met two of these administrators, Craig and Bobby, at Edcamp events in the Columbus, OH area.  I have not met Dwight or Eric face to face but have connected with both of them numerous times through Twitter.

Below you’ll see a screenshot of the conversation that emerged in a matter of minutes via Twitter.  Within 15 minutes I was provided quality resources by leveraging my PLN for resources.  You’ll also see that I included Remind in my original tweet and they also came to my rescue and provided me with quality links, one being authored by Eric Sheninger.


Working in isolation is now a choice all educators make.  It’s a choice to neglect the power of a PLN and refuse to make it’s presence part of your practice.  Working in isolation is the enemy of innovation.  Why not leverage the power of so many influential voices?  If you’re leading a school, you can’t afford not to.  Chances are your thoughts and your solutions are not unique and someone has already tried them.

I want to separate the resources provided to me yesterday to make them accessible to other readers interested in the same topic.  If you haven’t caught on yet, my intention yesterday was to gather resources about how administrators are using text message-based communication with their staffs.  I’ve been a long time user of Remind and Celly in my own classroom, but I was curious about how those tools are used to increase communication from administration to staff.  Remind has just released a beta version of their chat which offers users the ability to establish office hours to allow 2-way communication via text message.  I won’t go into further details as I’d prefer you check them out for yourself!RemindOfficeHours