The Frontline of Education Reform

I finally have some time to sit down and get several thoughts out into a blog post. I know I am not alone, but the last five months have been crazy, and writing a blog post has not been my priority. I’ll start by setting the scene. My district started back on August 10th with full five-day attendance for all students. We have no special schedules; it is all kids, every day. I was concerned that the required mask-wearing would be a huge issue, but students are wearing masks for the most part. There are currently four categories of students in the district. 

Home-Schooled Students: These are the students/families who have chosen not to attend school. Our certified staff has no contact or responsibility for these students. I am not sure if there are any services provided for this group, but families are essentially responsible for their children’s learning.

Remote Learning Students: These students have chosen not to be at school but have the district provide them with their learning experiences for the first semester. Our school district has chosen to contract with two 3rd party vendors. One vendor is for K-4th grade and the other for 5th-12th grade. These students use our iPads to learn on these platforms. We provide technical support for these devices. While this support has been challenging, we are muddling through it. There is a certified teacher who students are assigned that act as a guide through the curriculum. These teachers are not responsible for the actual teaching of the material. Ideally, these teachers are a point of contact for these remote students.  

Quarantined Students: This group of students is fluid. They are waiting on COVID 19 tests to come back and might only be out for a few days while some were in close contact with a student who had tested positive. These students could be out for up to fourteen days. Quarantined students are learning right along with those students who are attending school in person. They also have a district-issued iPad.

In-Person Students: Think traditional school setting, except with masks and one-way hallways and stairs. The district encourages a three-foot social distance, though that is difficult for some classrooms. Students who are in school are issued an iPad. Both quarantined and in-person students are using Schoology as the LMS, which is new to all of us. 

Enough about the background of my district…I want to turn to the blog’s title, “Frontline of Reform,” because one hope that I have for our collective experience since March is that education will change for the better. I hope that teachers, administrators, and even parents will self-reflect and see that there might be a better way of “doing” school. The schedule rolled out by my district gets students back into school, but at what costs? I want to skip over the overall health concerns and get to the pedagogical concerns. Over time many teachers have worked on implementing new strategies that involve collaboration and student voice and choice. Like any district, not all teachers embrace these new strategies, but I can see that we are making strides in thinking about what it means to educate our youth effectively. Social distancing rules are making classrooms look a lot like they did when I started teaching in 1991. Desks are back to straight rows with students facing the front of the room. Gone are the creative classroom layouts that promote more student interaction. There are fewer opportunities to do group work, and, as a result, collaborative activities are harder to plan and implement. I am worried that these changes will set us back in terms of pedagogy.

As more and more in-person students quarantine, it is evident to me that this is the group that might drive education reform. I think these quarantined students, and the teachers trying to teach these students, are on the front lines of education reform. The fluidity is problematic because teachers don’t know who will quarantine on any given day. More importantly, these students have been stressful because teachers don’t know what/how to provide for them. Do they record lessons and send them to students? Do they make them a part of the class by having them join a Google Meet? When and how do they take tests and quizzes? The answer to each of these questions depends on the teacher. These types of questions are common. When do I have time to record lessons when I am also teaching a classroom of students? Is there a privacy issue with having a live class meeting? Can I require a student to attend my Meet at the time of my class? How can I guarantee the integrity of my tests if they are at home? Is it fair to give the same test to students who might be able to use Google to find the answers? Can I just wait until they return to school to make up the assessments? 

I could go on and on with the questions that teachers have about this group of students. Here is the thing, I think teachers working through these problems and the answers they come up with can make school better. Our district is lucky to have coaches that teachers can turn to to help navigate these questions. For the teacher who can’t imagine giving the same test to at-home students as in-person students, they might start to think about the purpose of assessments. If a student can look up answers on Google, is that the most effective type of assessment? A self-reflective teacher might start to think about ways of designing assessments that focus more on application rather than knowledge. A teacher engaged in self reflection might begin to ask if a recorded lesson is effective for students who are home, maybe it would be just as effective for in-person students. That same teacher could explore different possibilities of what class time looks like. Perhaps it is less direct instruction and more student conference-based. Ultimately, I think if we do it right, we can make some significant strides toward making schools more relevant than they have been for some students. 

For this period to not be a lost opportunity, teachers have to be given time and be willing to self-reflect. If teachers are always just putting out fires and working one day at a time, they will not be able to leverage this new experience for their students’ betterment. Administrators and Board members have to be creative by figuring out ways of giving teachers time to start to be proactive rather than reactive. The onus isn’t just on the official school leaders; educators need to take a hard look at what and how we have been running our classrooms and make changes that will benefit students moving forward. One of my fears is that when all this is “over,” we will wipe the sweat from our brows and go back to the way that we were. I don’t want all of the work of teachers to be in vain. 

Don Sturm

The Box

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When I read The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros three and a half years ago, I remember the change that happened within me. This guy was speaking to me about ideas that I had been thinking about for a number of years but couldn’t articulate nearly as well. The concept of innovating within the box was particularly intriguing. It became my overarching philosophy as I worked with teachers and administrators to make school a more relevant place for students. Innovating within the box made sense and was an easier sell. Common sense says that we cannot change ingrained systems overnight, but we can make changes within the box of school as it now exists. I would work with teachers to try to make their lessons a bit more innovative but still inside the box. This was my role…little changes that might start the ball rolling to bigger, more impactful changes.

I am in no way bad mouthing the idea of innovating within the box, but I do think that we need to start to think more about that pesky box. Since reading The Innovator’s Mindset, I have encouraged others to tip the box on end, turn it around, turn it upside down, etc. This has caused some teachers to think about changing their practices, but ultimately after all these changes, we are still left with a box. The eyes of some teachers have been opened to the oppressiveness of this box. For example, changes to age-old grading practices have been attempted but, ultimately, grades still have to be given. The hope of getting students to see that grades are not everything might work for that semester, but they will move on to the next grade level and/or subject matter and back come traditional grading practices. The students are still in that box!

 

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So what do we do? I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about that box which is school. I even picked dissonance as my #OneWord2019 to match with this idea of genuinely starting to question what schools and education should look like in the future. The goal of creating dissonance within teachers, administrators, students, and community members is that we can start to experiment with truly outside the box ideas. Ultimately, I think we need to start making the box look less like a box. Maybe start by cutting a hole in the box so that outside the box thinking can enter. Remove one side of the box so it looks less like a box. One way that I try to help others deconstruct the box is by running deep dive professional development opportunities where the goal is to force participants to think about what it looks like outside of that comfortable box in which we have been functioning for so many years. Topics include taking a hard look at issues like grading and assessment practices, student compliance, and the role of student voice and choice. How do you encourage outside the box thinking?

Don Sturm @sturmdon

Be a sprinkler, not a firehose!

Firehose

I have always been a reflective person…maybe even to a fault. I know that I talk a lot. It is hard for me to keep my mouth shut and not offer an opinion or ask a question at meetings. I can be seen as pompous and overconfident at times. I genuinely like to help people. Troubleshooting is a strength of mine and, as a result, I tend to be a fixer. Ok…you get the idea, but the one aspect of me that I struggle with the most and want to change is that I know that I can be a firehose of ideas and thoughts.

To those who have experienced my soaking, I am passionate about what I believe is best for the kids in our schools. My passion can sometimes be a bit much for people. Add to that the animated nature of my personality and you have a full-blown firehose going on! Some colleagues joke around with me about this proclivity to push and throw out idea after idea, but I know that there is some element of truth to their kidding. I really do get it!

sprinklerMy goal moving forward is to work to be more of a sprinkler than a firehose. People will still have the opportunity to get soaked, but it will be at their pace. Watch kids who run through a sprinkler. Some go full bore through it, some stand right on top of it, some hang back to get a little wet. This last type almost always ends up getting soaked once they get used to the temperature of the water or they see others having fun playing. This will be a challenge, but I think it is important for me to make this a goal. One way that I can work on this is to make sure that I am fully listening to those who ask for my help or advice. Truly hearing what teachers have to say will help me to better sense whether they are the run through the sprinkler full bore type of person or one that needs to feel the sprinkles for a bit before they commit to run through it.

My goal for the school year…Be a Sprinkler…Not a Firehose!

Don Sturm

The WOW-Factor!

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You may have recently seen posts on social media warning about the dangers of screen time for young people. While I don’t want to take the time to deconstruct all of their arguments, I do get it! There are concerns about how much screen time is too much screen time. Most people would probably tend to agree with me that common sense should play a huge part in this debate. I don’t think a device is a good babysitter for an infant. I think moderation for most things is a good thing. The problem with this debate is that there is a lot of fear-mongering that takes place and not a lot of research to back up those beliefs. We are at a time in history where devices, like it or not, are an integral part of the world and we as teachers need to recognize the importance of this fact.

As teachers, one action we can take to counter the critics is to provide rich activities with the devices that we are having students use. We need the WOW-Factor! Convincing a critic is not easy when devices are being used as mere substitutions for what has always been done. Let’s face it…a digital worksheet is still a worksheet. Why waste screen time on that type of activity? What is needed is for students to be creators of content. This is where the WOW-Factor comes into play. Allowing students to use devices to make decisions on how they will show their learning will go a long way in showing those critics that devices do have value. This decision-making process should be an important part of the experience of school for students. The key…we have to regularly give students these types of opportunities. Will it make the classroom look and function differently? Will the role of the teacher change? Absolutely, but that is what we owe to students who are attending schools in 2018! There are so many ways to allow students to create that it would take many blog posts to cover them. Starting to use apps/services like Buncee, iMovie, Explain Everything, Book Creator, SeeSaw, etc. is a great starting point. These apps/services allow students to start with a blank canvas and create. This blank canvas is about them showing you and the world what they know and how devices can be used in an effective way.

Here are a couple of examples that teachers in my district have shared with me that show the real power of devices in the hands of students. When the technology nay-sayers see a Wow-Factor product created by a student, you have provided the hook to start a different discussion about the benefit of devices in the classroom.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Pz6cZv5dI

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GGSDE8Z7Gn8

Don

It is all about perspective!

Buncee_Creation

I was helping a new instructional coach come up with ideas for a video she is making describing her new role. She mentioned that when she described the role of an instructional coach to a classroom one student mentioned that she must know everything. Her response was something along the lines that she didn’t know everything, but she could see the classroom from a different perspective because she wasn’t the classroom teacher.

This exchange really got me thinking about the importance of perspective in education. Vocabulary.com defines perspective as, “the appearance of things relative to one another as determined by their distance from the viewer.” There are many examples of how we try to gain perspective. Players on a football team can only see the field through their helmet. Even the best players can only see so much of the field at one time. Teams counter this lack of perspective by placing coaches in elevated perches to gain a view of the whole playing field. This new perspective helps coaches make decisions based on the big picture. NASCAR teams employ spotters who sit on top of the viewing stands to help drivers “see” more than they can while in the car. Urban planners use aerial perspectives to make long term decisions about how cities should expand. From their perspective, the Thai soccer team trapped in a cave only had one way out and it was blocked. It took others outside of the cave to see the big picture and make decisions that lead to the happy ending of that story.

So what does all of this have to do with education? As educators, I think we need to ask one simple question, “How can I get a different perspective of my classroom?”. The answer could be asking an instructional coach to come in and provide that added point-of-view. It could be visiting classrooms to see how other teachers are working with students. Recording your lessons and reflecting could help you see your classroom in a different light. Social media can add a different perspective as well. Becoming active on Twitter helps you to gain perspective because you have contact with others and how they educate their students. You may not like or agree with some of what is shared, but the experience will force you to reflect on what you do in the classroom. In other words, you have gained a different perspective. The app Voxer has been a powerful force for me in gaining a different perspective of education. My #4OCFpln Voxer group challenges me everyday to look at the field of education with different lenses. I believe my social media presence helps me to do my job better because I am exposed to a variety of perspectives ranging from different grade levels to different regions of the country and other parts of the world.

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Simply put, today’s teachers have to gain perspective to be the best educators possible. Gone are the days of doing things the way that you think is right without considering other viewpoints and strategies. What will you do to gain perspective?

Don Sturm

Twitter @sturmdon

Voxer @dsturm823

Morning Routine

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Though I have many unfinished posts in my draft section, it has been awhile since I have hit publish. Here goes my latest! I am fairly active on Twitter and my morning ritual is to Tweet out a quote on a background made with Buncee. Simple right?

Over the last couple of weeks I have had a few colleagues ask me about the purpose of this ritual. Their inquiries into my practice tend to be fairly nice and pleasant, though I sense the underlying feeling is that my morning routine is sort of a waste of time. I want to provide a little insight as to why I do what I do. Ultimately, I do it for no one other than myself. I post it publicly because that is what I preach to other teachers and students. Put your stuff out there! Create rather than consume! It just MIGHT resonate with someone else but, if not, I am ok with that as well.

The process I use to get and post the quote is the most important part of the ritual. It starts with thinking about what is important to me on that particular day. Monday might find me thinking about happiness, while Wednesday might be a growth mindset kind of day. Once I have my topic I set out to find the perfect quote. I read over a lot of them as well as trying to “verify” that the quote can be attributed to the person who is being claimed to have stated it. Sometimes I even to do some background reading on the person. This practice has lead to me reading book(s) by the person after finding out more about them. Laszlo Bock is a perfect example. I found a quote by him (see below) and ended up reading Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. Definitely worth a read!

If you’re comfortable with the amount of freedom you’ve given your employees, you haven’t gone far enough. –Laszlo Bock

My next task is to use Buncee to add a background and/or images. Here again, there is more to this than just picking the first image that comes to mind. I add, take away, add again, delete, etc. until I find the perfect visual to go with the quote. The wonderful thing about Buncee is the huge number of visual elements that can be pulled in to make just the right impression. All that is left is to post it for the world to see…or at least my followers!

So what makes this routine mean something to me? Simple…my brain is working and making connections. In my role as a technology integration specialist I preach that classrooms/teachers/students need to be doing more of this. I am trying to set the example that what I am doing has purpose if for no other reason than it makes my brain think and make connections. The quote and philosophy behind each image sticks with me because of the process, not the number of retweets or likes it receives. Just think of the possibilities if your students could be given more options to create products that were meaningful to them!

Simple right? Not by a long shot!

Here is a link to my Buncee Board where I have started to collect my quotes.

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Forging New Paths

PathIt has been awhile since my last blog post, but now that the 2016-2017 school year is over it is time to think about next year. Summer is the time that teachers relax and regroup from the previous school year, but for many it is also the time to reflect on their teaching practice. I would argue that many times this is the only time when true reflection occurs. During the year we are often pulled in so many directions that is challenging to have meaningful and deep reflection. This post is meant to get you thinking about next year!

Think about the times that you have walked through the woods. Most of the time is probably spent walking the worn path. While this might be done because of posted rules, many times it is done out of sheer convenience. Why wouldn’t you take a path that has already been forged? Think of all the difficulties of going off of that path. There are sticker bushes waiting to grab you. There is poison ivy all over. How will I know where I am going? People will think I am weird. Yes, all of those things could happen, but think about the possibilities waiting to be experienced off that path. When you take the worn path you are seeing and experiencing what others want you to see and experience. It is probable that the path offers the least resistance around an obstacle that lies ahead. Maybe the obstacle is worth admiring, not skirting around. Going off path might be challenging, but that is what makes it fun. You will see things that others have not.

Education is similar to that worn path in the woods. We do things the way that they have always been done because that is what is easiest or most convenient. Does this sound familiar…The way that I teach (fill in the blank) has to be done that way because that’s just how it is done. Economists use a term called path dependency to describe why people do what they do. Path dependency is simply the idea that past practice (history) dictates what we continue to do even if there might be new and better alternatives available. It is the worn path in the woods.  There are advantages of that worn path in education. We know where we are going. We know how long it will take us. We know the obstacles that will be encountered. But…what are you and your students missing out on by being path dependent? There will be no way of knowing until you try.

My challenge to you is to try to walk off the path next school year. How can this be done? Read…there are all types of books written about ways that you can step out of the normal routine. These books don’t have to be purely subject specific. Jump onto social media and follow others who are stepping, or have stepped, off of the path. Pick their brains about what works and what doesn’t work. If you are one who wants to remain on the path, don’t stop others from going off course. This will be challenging for those schools that are departmentalized by subject or grade level because there is THE WAY that curriculum has to be taught. If you have someone who wants to try something new…LET THEM. If that teacher won’t be able to give the quiz on the same day as every other teacher because of this new way, the world will not come to an end. An even better alternative…agree to follow them as they step off the path. This type of action will be the only way that you will know if there is something better out there.

The transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden because he was tired of living life according to habit. He went into the woods to “live deliberately.” This is probably the familiar part of the story. What is important to know is that he left the woods, at least partly, because he saw himself falling into the same rut day after day. Don’t fall into a rut where all you do is take the path that has been forged for you.

“It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so, with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity.”

Henry David Thoreau

Walden

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Sometimes you just have to try it!

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I am probably dating myself with this image, but I think Mikey can teach us a lesson…Sometimes you just have to try it! When considering the Week 4 blog challenge, the graphic “5 Ways to Lay the Foundation for Innovation” by George Couros resonates with me in my role as a technology integration specialist. Attachment-1

I should mention that I am not a huge fan of that title because it seems to work against the first point in the graphic-Powerful learning first, technology second. I really see my role as more of an instructional coach, but I digress…point number four is my focus! The quest for educators who are in my position, no matter the title, is to get teachers to just try things. They may or may not like them, but they have to give new ideas and methods a try or they will never know. Sort of like trying brussel sprouts for the first time! With this in mind, I try to create learning situations where educators really have no choice but to try these new ideas. A couple of recent examples in my district come to mind.

The district administration team in my district was willing to let me run with an Edcamp style inservice in March. There were no administrators who were completely against the idea (at least I don’t think so), but there were some who were hesitant about trying this new idea. You can imagine the concerns:

  • What if there are no experts in the room?
  • What if  we don’t have enough ideas?
  • How do we ensure that everyone is where they are supposed to be?
  • Vote with your feet…ummm…what if teachers just leave?

I wish there were only four concerns, but the point…they said let’s do it, we did, and people liked it!  There was nervousness from teachers on the day of the event, but generally the above concerns did not come to fruition. We had more than enough ideas to fill forty-five session slots and administrators just trusted that teachers would be where they were supposed to be! Surveying the participants after the event allowed them to share the good and bad of the event, but what we found overall is that people liked the format. The response to the very last question (graphic below) almost brought a tear to my eye! The survey “required” some type of response on the positives and negatives, but in the end, teachers would do it again! I cannot tell you the number of teachers who have emailed and stopped me in the hallways to say that they were pleasantly surprised because they were not looking forward to it, but in the end enjoyed it. More specifically, a P.E. teacher stopped me and said that normal inservice topics don’t seem to apply to them, but the Edcamp style was different. Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 11.00.36 AM

Another example of creating meaningful learning experiences involves conducting a Mystery Hangout for an elementary building in my district. The building principal (@kate_wyman ) asked me to conduct one with her staff. This principal is very open to new, innovative ideas and she wanted her staff to experience it. After finding a willing and experienced Mystery Hangout school (thanks to@MindySouthin Farmington, Missouri, we conducted one at the March faculty meeting. The teachers seemed to enjoy it at the time, but the best part was the video message I received the next day from a 6th grade teacher (@theresescifres ) and class who had just set one up. That teacher went to school, put out a call on the Google+ Community (Connected Classroom Workshop) that I had suggested, and set one up the day after that faculty meeting! The principal also sent me an email saying that one other teacher had scheduled one, and two other teachers were interested. Again, that almost brings a tear to my eye.

Specifically, these two experiences make me see the power of creating meaningful experiences rather than just telling teachers about them. I can honestly say that too often time constraints have caused me to rely on just telling teachers about the innovative “stuff” that they can be doing rather than actually creating those opportunities that allow them to experience the possibilities. My next goal is to create an experience that proves the power of connecting on social media. If I can get teachers and administrators to experience the benefits of Twitter or Voxer (my new favorite…look me up @dsturm823), I think they will find that they do like it and that those experiences can lead to richer classroom experiences for their students or staff.

Don Sturm

Lessons from a motorcyclist!

 

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Tail of the Dragon- Tennessee/North Carolina
When given the option of going from Point A to Point B, a true motorcycle enthusiast will always pick the route that has the curviest roads. We might be able to get to Point B faster by taking the straight road (sometimes we ride 200 miles to go 60), but it isn’t as exciting and memorable as those roads that are scenic and challenging. You gain a greater skill set and appreciation for life when you take these curvy roads!

What if this was the philosophy that dominated the field of education? Many teachers feel that the best way to get information across to students is the linear model…the straight road. The kids will still learn this way, but it isn’t as exciting as learning the random and non-linear way. Learning in this way can be challenging and messy, but what you learn sticks with you longer. The curvy road way of learning is just a more exciting and eye-opening experience. Honestly, I think it is higher quality of learning.

We deserve to give kids the most exciting and memorable education that we can..let’s start taking the curvy roads and not the straight ones!

 

Ever get stuck on an escalator?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA If you have never seen this video, it is worth watching!

Do you know any educators who are stuck on their own escalator? Are you stuck? While this image and video might make us laugh, there are those in education (and to be fair every profession) who are literally stuck in what they do. They are the ones who wait for someone else to set an agenda and make forward progress. They wait for “official” PD opportunities, avoid social media, etc. The sad part is that this has an impact on kids!

How do we help people who are stuck? How do we get them to take ownership for their own learning and not wait for someone to train them on a new teaching strategy? We could throw up our hands and say that there will always be educators like this, but what about those students in the classroom? Don’t all students deserve a rich classroom experience?

Schools can start by creating a culture where self motivated PD is not only encouraged but expected! The big question…What is the best way to foster this culture? I would love your thoughts!

Don Sturm