My Journey to Control My Brain

Me: Time to go to sleep.

Brain: Did I make Sue mad today? I have so much to do tomorrow. How will I get it all done? Did I close the garage door? Chickens. I hope my flight 3 months from now isn’t canceled. I need to mow the lawn. What podcast will I listen to tomorrow? Horses. Eggs. I need to make an appointment to get my tires rotated. 

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Does this sound familiar? 

I am writing this blog post to share with you my journey to train my brain to do what I want it to do when I want it to do it. I have always been intrigued by how the brain works, but until recently, I hadn’t been too concerned with taming it. Now I am fixated on it!

I have practiced mindfulness for a few years. Mindfulness, for me, was an at-the-moment experience. I would set aside 10-15 minutes to use my Calm subscription (I am one of the lucky educators who got a lifetime subscription for free) and work to set my mind at ease. I see now that I wasn’t practicing mindfulness outside of the sessions. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a part of my day-to-day life. 

Enter Erin Kiger , a member of one of my online PLNs who thought I would be interested in a new product that Swivl was working on called Skilled Space. I jumped in fully, started using the platform, and regularly connected with Sara Candela, who was working on the project for Swivl. Little did I know that this connection would change how I looked at my brain. I am always promoting making active connections using social media, and this was the perfect storm. My relationship with Sara led to my connection with the project manager Arlen Bitsky and the founder of Swivl, Brian Lamb. Long story short, Skilled Space evolved into something bigger, Focusable, and I am hooked. Simply put, these three individuals have changed my life. 

As they state on their website, “Focusable leverages neuroscience to transform learning and work into more enjoyable and productive experiences.” My experience over the last year with beta testing the product has helped me start to take more control over my ability to focus and control my brain. Focusable, combined with my experience of mindfulness, has better allowed me to recognize when my attention is being highjacked and bring myself back to the present. Manageable goals and the opportunity to reflect during the process is genuinely changing the way my brain functions.  

Sara also started hosting book studies for books like Peak Mind by Amishi Jha and Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to help further the idea of how the brain works and how we can better understand our minds. I have since added other brain-based books to my reading list. My latest read is Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. All this discussion and reading have helped me make critical changes in my life. It is still a work in progress, but here are some changes I have made or am working to make.

  • Mindlessly scrolling through social media- I still use it but am more conscious of when and for long I am doing it. I am considering removing social media apps from my phone. 
  • Giving myself time to let my brain run wild- I realized that I am pumping stuff into my ears all the time…driving to work, sitting at my desk, working out, etc. My current goal, work out without headphones every other time. My brain needs time to process everything I am putting in it. This blog post started on a 3-mile headphoneless walk.
  • Continue to meditate- I am currently on a 26-day streak. The streak is less important than the skills I am learning. I find myself employing the skills in the guided sessions to the outside world. I focus on my breathing many times throughout the day.
  • To be happy, I need challenges- I now look at relaxation differently than I used to. I have started to think about productive leisure time and am exploring new “hobbies” that provide my brain with a challenge. Your brain needs stimulation and challenge to grow. 
  • Sharing these ideas with others- I am not keeping this all to myself. I have shared Focusable with a friend at work, El Higus, and she has become passionate about it. We plan to talk to district-level leaders about using Focusable with staff and students. 

I am sure this list will get longer as I continue exploring more brain science. For now, I love the idea that I can change my brain for the better. As the folks at Focusbale say, “You are focusable.” 

Don Sturm

Complex Problems Require Complex Solutions

I have become fixated on the phrase, “complex problems require complex solutions.” It has become my mantra. Many in our society have difficulty recognizing that the world is not a simple system. In turn, this binary thinking and looking for simple answers create our current dysfunctional state of being. 

For those who do not know me, I used to be this type of thinker. Why are people poor? To me, it was apparent, they didn’t work hard, or they were lazy. I realize now that my whole worldview was one of simple right or wrong. My thinking changed about a decade ago for reasons that require much more elaboration than I have space for in this blog post. I now focus my thoughts on trying to figure out all of the complexities of a given problem. I could stop there and say, “thanks for reading,” but it was a conversation with a friend and colleague that has me refining my view of this idea of needing complex solutions. 

I work with Jaclyn Hoskins (@JaclynSmith21), and many of our interactions take place through Voxer. She is a reflective educator, and she makes me think. People who make me think cause me to reflect on my own beliefs and attitudes. We all need these people in our lives. Last week, we discussed a recent education Facebook post. Jaclyn commented that the problem with the phrase (complex problems require complex solutions) is that it might make some people feel that there are issues that are too hard to solve and, in the end, might make people throw their hands up and surrender. I started to wonder if I was doing more harm than good by focusing on this mantra. 

I continue to wholeheartedly believe that problems are complex, and they do require complex solutions, but here is my new thinking. We need to make the complexities visible by breaking them apart before seeking solutions. Offered solutions need to be broken down into manageable tasks to make changes that will positively impact the big problem. 

How can we do this? For starters, we have to have some common agreement as to the nature of the problem. This requires that we talk with others about how they see the problem. We can’t be quick to jump to solutions until we understand the true nature and the impact of the problem. My matra assumes that everyone understands that issues are complex, which is a big assumption to make. Jacyln was getting me to rethink the emphasis that I was placing on the solution rather than the problem. Once you have an “agreement” on the issue, people can devise solutions that focus on the unique complexities. These individual solutions would then work in tandem to solve the overall big problem. Several smaller solutions seem much more manageable than one big complex solution. The goal is to solve that difficult problem, not overwhelm people into thinking that they can’t do anything about it because it is too complicated to grasp. 

The million-dollar question is how we get people to see the problem as complex. The current division of our society makes this recognition of complexity difficult. Still, we have to continue engaging and encouraging people to dig deeper into the problems we are facing. Arrived at solutions will not be successful unless we truly know the nature of the problem. The best way to recognize this complexity is to get out of your bubble. Identifying and acknowledging complexity requires us to see the world from a variety of perspectives. I fight against this parochialism by following a variety of educators on Twitter and reading as much as possible.

This blog post was hard to write, and I am still not sure that I clearly outlined my thinking, but it has helped me solidify my new focus of understanding the complexity of the problem before coming up with solutions. Maybe my new mantra needs to be, “Effective solutions are only possible by understanding the complexity of problems.”

Don Sturm

Let’s Connect!

Voxer- @dsturm823

Have you read the terms of use??

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There is nothing better than walking into my local grocery store, or better yet, an Apple Store and getting the “Welcome Don” greeting on my phone. I get the newest specials and deals right as I walk in the door. I think most realize that this type of personalization comes with a price…a lack of privacy. As an adult, I have consciously decided to allow certain stores and apps to track my movements so I can get this personalized service. Privacy is a different monster all together for the students in our schools. There are both state and federal regulations that govern when we can provide and how we use student data. As a technology integration specialist, I work with both the technology and curriculum departments. I love having a foot in both because I can be that bridge between the back end of the tech side and what teachers need to do their jobs. One of my roles is to help monitor all of the privacy policies for the numerous apps that are requested and eventually pushed out to all of the 3,000+ student iPads.

When I first started in this role, I had to dig into the Terms of Service as well as the privacy policies for each app developer. It was overwhelming! I would try to catch all the nuances of the various policies, but we eventually decided to go with a company that would do the details work. We chose Education Framework. This company does a wonderful job, but I find myself not actually reading the privacy policies anymore because someone else does. As I work to complete my ISTE Certification, one of the assignments is to explore the policies of some of the apps that we use. 

My district uses Buncee, Seesaw, Flipgrid, and Edpuzzle quite heavily. What did I find as I explored the user agreements and privacy policies? It was not surprising that all four of these services take privacy and data sharing seriously. All four of them are signatories of the Student Privacy Pledge (the pledge). In a nutshell, the signers of the pledge agree not to collect student information beyond what is needed for the service to work. They also agree to not sell or disclose information to outside sources for the purpose of advertising. Those of us entrusted to judge educational services should be happy to see the companies with whom we work willing to sign this type of commitment. The Internet Keep Safe Coalition (iKeepSafe) is another certification that checks for compliance to state and federal regulations. My research shows that Buncee and Edpuzzle have that certification. After this research, I am confident that these products are keeping student data safe and private.

Teachers sometimes ask for access to services that are not set up to deal with educational institutions. I want to make it clear…I am not saying these are bad companies, they just don’t have the focus on education. One of those products is Bitmoji. Who doesn’t love to be able to share their likeness in the form of these cartoon-type characters? Their user agreement clearly states that the service should not be used by children 13 years of age…period. In addition, my district does not allow access to it at school for those older than 13 because the privacy policy states that information is shared with several entities, many of whom aren’t specified. Adults can decide to create an account with Bitmoji, but students can’t, nor should they, be allowed to create accounts that could potentially provide personal data to other entities. A parent might allow it, but the school can’t be a part of that agreement because of the risk of the violation of student privacy laws.

So what’s the point of all of this. Mostly it is awareness. If you are an educator who has had an app/service denied that you would like to use with your students, there might be a good reason for that denial. On the other hand, before submitting an app/service for approval, do some homework on the privacy and terms of service policies. If you find that they have signed the Student Privacy Pledge and/or are certified by iKeepSafe, include that in your request. 

#OneWord2020

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2020 makes the 3rd year that I have taken part in the #OneWord movement. I have found that condensing my goals for the year into one specific word is a great way to self-reflect on where I have been and where I want to go. It is one word…no mantra or goal statement to remember. It is a more natural way to always keep my word on my mind. I continue to come up with a guiding word because it has worked! 2018 my word was CREATE and create I did. 2019 was DISSONANCE. My whole goal with PD was to get people thinking about what they believed versus how they ran their classrooms.

My #OneWord2020 is EMPOWER. In my position as a technology integration specialist, it is easy to get into a rut of putting out fires related to tech problems. I will continue to do that, but my goal is to also be sure to work closely with teachers and administrators to make them feel like they can start to make empowered instructional decisions. The issue with starting a conversation with the other party having a problem that has to be solved is that there is a problem that has to be solved! Usually, that problem has to be solved pretty quickly so that a lesson or unit can run smoothly. Many times, I solved the problem, and the other party is grateful beyond belief. It is a good feeling, but it doesn’t do much to empower the person with whom I was working. In fact, sometimes the other person feels deflated because of the feeling that they couldn’t solve the problem.

Empowerment is a feeling that comes from a place where you feel confident to try new things. I don’t think I have been a force of empowerment for many of the teachers with whom I work. The feeling of relief and/or gratefulness are not the same as empowerment. The empowered educator feels confident in trying new things and asks for someone to offer feedback and suggestions. Don’t get me wrong, I do have that relationship with some teachers, but my goal is for that number to grow. The “trick” will be to not only be there to help solve the problem but to follow up regularly about how things went. These follow up meetings are where the best learning takes place because I can help walk them through some self-reflection about the lesson. The more we self-reflect, the more that we can feel empowered to make tweaks and improvements to what we are doing.

Here’s to a great 2020!

 

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Thanks to Heather Lippert for this reminder of my #OneWord2020! #4OCFpln 

 

The Domino Effect

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I know that I can be persistent. Some might even call me annoying. My goal over the last five years as a Technology Integration Specialist has been to get educators out of their bubble by making contact with educators outside of the city/state/region where they teach. While some educators took me up on my offer to help them connect, most of the times my pushing was met with quite a bit of resistance.

“I don’t have time for it.”

“How do I know the people I make contact with are good teachers?”

“Social media is stupid.”

“What I have been doing has worked so far.”

Thankfully, I have continued to be persistent/annoying because this year has been different. More teachers and administrators in my district have been taking to Twitter and Voxer to get outside of their bubble. I beam with pride (sort of like a proud poppa) when I see these new interactions on a variety of social media platforms. Consider these examples…

  • The 7th-grade math teacher who wants to flip his classroom began Voxing with the author of Tech with Heart, Stacey Roshan (@buddyxo) about her nine years of experience with flipping her math classes. There are no other “experts” on flipping a math classroom in my district, so Stacey has provided reflective, just-in-time answers to his questions. I sense his increased confidence level with every interaction.
  • The 3rd-grade teacher, Kelley Friedrich (@KelleyFriedric1), who wants to change up what and how she does things is getting involved in Twitter and making connections in order to learn more about topics like #geniushour. Kelley also wondered if there was a better way than charts and points to handle discipline in the classroom. I helped her make connections with Elizabeth Merce (@EMercedLearning), founder of #DitchtheClips, to discuss her experiences and expertise in social-emotional learning (#SEL) with early primary students. These conversations have taken place on Twitter and Voxer.
  • The high school social studies teacher, Jaclyn Smith (@JaclynSmith21), who wants to rework her classes to better meet the needs of her students is jumping into Twitter and Voxer to make connections with others who are on the same journey. I have had more contact with her on Voxer and Twitter this summer than I was able to have most of the last school year! That goes to show you that social media can connect people who aren’t all that far apart.
  • The elementary administrator, Michelle Peterson (@mbpeterson719), who was on Twitter but didn’t do much with it (she didn’t even have a profile picture) is now becoming an active contributor. She has also jumped into Voxer to have discussions with Jacyln Smith about the recent Strobel Summit sessions (@strobeled, #StrobelSummit). Imagine that…a high school teacher and elementary administrator having a discussion about teaching and learning!
  • The high school counselor( now elementary principal), Stephanie Brown (@brownfamoffive), who has gone from an inactive to active Twitter contributor also made the leap to Voxer. She is now an actively contributing member of the #4OCFpln on Voxer. This group has been a game-changer for me professionally! She jumped right into the new platform and is not only active in that group but brings her #SEL and trauma-informed instruction expertise to the group members. She even joined forces with two other #4OCFpln members (@jchandlerteach and @jmartinez727) to offer a Voxer book study on The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog.
  • The kindergarten teacher, Haley Veldhuizen (@HaleyVeldhuizen) who is new to Twitter but is jumping in with both feet! She has used this new medium to share her learning as well as finding resources for incorporating Seesaw (@Seesaw) into her classroom next school year. I can only imagine how she will use Twitter to share out about her class next school year!

Social media may have its faults, but it can and is used for good. If you are reading this and don’t consider yourself very connected, find something for which you are passionate and connect with others who share that same passion. If you are a connected educator, reach out to others (be persistent/annoying) and help them experience the power that connecting with others through social media can have on your classroom, students, and you as a professional. This is the domino effect…you push others, they get involved, and they push others to do the same. The end result is the positive impact that all of these professional connections will have on students!

Don Sturm

@sturmdon on Twitter

@dsturm823 on Voxer

I Like…

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My #OneWord2019 is dissonance. That word is especially important to me because I think we all could do more to delve deeper into what we believe and whether those beliefs transfer into our actions. The act of self-reflection is vital to becoming a better educator. Let’s take a look for a moment at a simple and often used statement…”I like.”

I like pizza.

I like to vacation in Hawaii.

I like dogs.

I like…

You get the point. However, let’s think about what that phrase means when used in our classrooms and schools.

I like the feel of the paper in a real book.

I like to use a pencil/pen and paper.

I like a classroom that is quiet and organized.

Here is where I may make some educators uncomfortable (maybe even angry). When educators make these types of statements, they are really verbalizing their likes, not the likes of their students. There is nothing wrong with stating your likes and how you learn best, but the danger is when your preferences are mistaken to be the preferences of others.

I think what is important is to give learners, no matter their age, some variety in how learning can take place. Let them find their preferences through a variety of activities and experiences. I am someone who reads almost exclusively on an electronic device. For me, it is much easier to have reading material always at my fingertips. I don’t need to have access to a pen or highlighter with which to mark essential passages and ideas. Often overlooked is the fact that I don’t carry a purse; there is no place to carry a book and pen! I can read at night without the awkwardness of finding the right lighting. I read more than ever because of the ease at which I can access the printed word. When I have mentioned my preference to teachers, many respond by saying that they could never do that and that kids need to touch and feel the pages. I have no problem with the personal preference they express; my issue is with assuming that kids have that same preference and need to handle paper to make reading a meaningful task.

My challenge to you is simple. Try to be more aware of how your personal preferences impact your classroom. Give students the ability to experiment with different modalities. Let them find out what they are comfortable with and will help them learn best. Try to resist forcing your way of learning onto them.

Don Sturm