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

It Takes Time

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As I talk and work with those in positions to influence others, I am struck by the concern expressed that the change they are promoting isn’t happening fast enough. I get it…I have felt that way many times in the past. Honestly, I feel that way on a weekly basis. I think it is human nature to want to see the fruits of our labor as quickly as possible; however, it is also important for those wanting change to keep in mind that it does take time!

One way of looking at the issue of impact is to consider the simple graphic above. I am a space race fanatic and often think about those mathematicians and engineers in mission control during the lunar missions. If the mathematical calculations were off by one degree we would have missed the moon. One degree doesn’t seem like much but it is a big deal when amplified over 250,000 miles. A more relatable example of this would be if you have ever done a home improvement project. A “minor” eighth of an inch mistake at the beginning of a project will end twenty foot later as a giant mistake that might not be easily fixed.  What if we think about educational change in this way but with a positive spin? It may not seem like the ideas and suggestions you are promoting are having an instant impact but consider what your school/classroom might look like after some period time has passed. That change you promoted gets implemented in a few classrooms, those students move to the next classroom, more teachers are indirectly impacted, those teachers decide to make a change and,  before you know it, real change has happened.

There is some educational change that is much needed right now. I am not suggesting that we throw our hands up and wait for time to pass for each and every change, but it is also wise to remember the idea of change growing exponentially. A few strategic, small changes now might start the ball rolling for real, lasting, and necessary change to our educational system in the future.

 

There’s an Emoji/GIF for That!

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If you have been in the classroom any length of time you have probably noticed that this generation of young people is very visual. They like memes, YouTube, Instagram, emojis, and GIFs. I think it is important for educators to make learning not only relevant but fun. One way to do that is to let students bring those visuals that they enjoy so much into the classroom. I know that some of you might be turned off by this suggestion and make comments about how students won’t be using their emoji or GIF skills on standardized tests or in their future employment. Let me start by saying that I am not suggesting that teachers stop requiring writing, only that we try to incorporate the 🌎 of our students into the classroom.

There is a skill involved with trying to find the right visual to match an emotion; it isn’t a thoughtless act. Ask students to add pick an emoji (or series of them) that best matches their reaction to something and you might be surprised at the level of thinking that goes on. Add the concept of #BookSnaps (Two of my many #BookSnaps are below) that involves students taking a picture of a page from a book they are reading and creating a visual representation of how that passage/page makes them feel and you can get awesome products that require just as much thought, if not more, than you would get from a piece of writing. Speaking from experience, #BookSnaps have made me read differently. I can look back at #BookSnaps I have created and memories will come flooding back about what I was thinking at the time I created the image. Take a look at @TaraMartin and #BookSnaps on Twitter for more information and examples.

I am a self-admitted GIF fanatic. Ask my wife…I have carried on many conversations without so much as a typed word. You might roll your eyes, but I will tell you it would have been faster to type than it was to search for the right GIF to match the emotion I was feeling. Teach students to search Google for animated images (GIF) as a way to get across emotions that characters or historical figures might have felt. If you have ever used a Google Form (click here) as a daily check in to see how students are feeling or their reaction to something, try adding GIFs instead of words to get them to thinking differently about their thoughts. You might even get a little laugh to lighten things up

Do you Bitmoji? If not, give it a try. These personalized images can be added to emails to express all types of feelings and emotions. Not every email has to be formal! Adding your Bitmoji in your comments in a Google Doc will make your thoughts pop and not be just another comment. Creating Bitmojis for children under 13 is problematic, but older students might already have their own. Using a service like @Buncee could allow students to make their own lookalike character to use in other ways.

One important result of incorporating emojis and GIFs might be how your students view you as a person. Hopefully students will see that you are willing to dabble in their world to try to make connections to your content.

Don Sturm

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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It is all about taking risks!

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The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.

Mark Zuckerberg

I think we hear the mantra “take risks” all the time in the field of education, but the nature of our schools makes it difficult to go too far out on a limb. Personally, I think this is one of the issues holding schools back from getting better! There are always those who are working against teachers and educators taking risks because it will upset the way that things have always been done.

Having this risk taking characteristic is something that I have prided myself on from the time I started my teaching career in 1991. Obviously, the degree of risk taking varies from year to year, but I have always held the belief that you have to step out of your comfort zone to truly grow. Moving from the classroom to technology integration specialist has given me the opportunity to encourage others to take risks. So much of my current position involves getting educators to try new ways of doing things, which instantly takes them out out of their comfort zone. It takes a nuanced approach on my end because not all teachers and administrators are as comfortable as I am with taking risks. My style is to try to get teachers to think about what they want from their students in the classroom, which many times involves expecting students to step out of their comfort zone. If they expect this from students they should be more open to risk taking in their classroom/school. My philosophy is that no one should expect something of another person that they would not expect of themselves.

The fear and trepidation that comes from risk taking is what makes it such a valuable experience. If the risk results in a successful outcome, the confidence gained from that experience is invaluable! Conversely, if the risk doesn’t turn out successful, that experience also provides a teachable moment. We have to start looking at risk taking as a win-win situation. Risk requires a growth mindset toward the idea of failure. Failure should be a learning experience, not an excuse to quit innovating. If we expect our students to be resilient and learn from failure, we have to be prepared to do the same thing!

Don Sturm

 

Why I Do What I Do!

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Officially, my job title is technology integration specialist. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? I help people integrate technology into their teaching! My job is a little messier than the title suggests. A typical day may include any one or many of the following:



  • answering emails from teachers, students, and parents.
  • purchasing and pushing out apps to 2000+ devices.
  • locating lost iPads.
  • explaining the benefits of using ____ app or service.
  • troubleshooting problems with iPads.
  • defending the use of technology in the classroom.
  • attending meetings about technology.
  • visiting other schools to look at their technology.
  • working on Smart Boards, Macs, and PCs.
  • helping to manage the web filter and Google Admin. console.
  • visiting classrooms.
  • recording tutorial videos.
  • updating Google Classrooms to share information with teachers and students.
  • planning professional development activities, both online and inperson.
  • talking to sales reps.


I don’t list all of these to have people feel sorry for me, only to show that there is no real consistency to what I do everyday. There is not one of those jobs on the list that I hate doing, but there are those that I prefer more than others. I should mention at this point that I truly love my job. Sure there are times that I feel (frustrated, stressed, overworked, under-appreciated), but hey…that’s what it means to be involved in education!

Though to be completely honest, I want my position to focus more on discussions of how to best teach kids and less on most of the jobs listed above. If those discussions involve technology…great, but right now the focus seems to be more on the technology and less on the pedagogy behind it. As a result, those who are uncomfortable with technology see me as someone who wants to add something to their already full plate. Some of this is my fault, some of it is the fault of teachers and administrators, and some of it is no one’s fault. Schools are messy places filled with people who are pressed for time! Thankfully, there are those teachers and administrators in my district who I can count on to recharge my batteries when I need it. These are the people with whom I can always count on having a good discussion about growth mindset, Makerspaces, Breakout EDU, Twitter, etc. I’ll share two recent examples that exemplify why I do what I do everyday!

One of the hardest parts of leaving the classroom was leaving a co-teaching situation that I had been a part of for twelve years. Courtney (@CAEddleman) and I had MANY conversations about how to best teach kids, not just how fast we could move through content. It seemed that we were never satisfied with how we were doing things. Moving to this new position meant that I wasn’t going to be able to have those day to day conversations. A couple of months ago, after having read a couple of books about standards based grading, I asked her if she would be interested in trying this approach with her 12th grade expository writing class. We sat down and talked through what this change might look like and, in the end, she decided to give it a try this semester. She also became excited about the idea of Breakout EDU and has worked on incorporating this into her classroom as well as helping me present it to the faculty as a whole. Courtney has created a classroom environment where students are experiencing their teacher being excited to try new things!  Making big changes in how she teaches content seems to have renewed her excitement for teaching and in doing what is best for kids. To hear her say, “I can’t wait to see what the kids do with this” is why I do what I do everyday!

The other example relates to the conversations with the junior high principal Lee Hoffman (@HoffmanLee) about the possibility of a Makerspace and/or STEM lab in his school. These conversations, which have also included visits to other schools, have generated a lot of discussion about pedagogy that have been deep and focused on what is best for kids. Should the 7th grade experience be more “scripted” than the 8th grade? What modules do we want/need to include? How much should it focus on future career possibilities? What kind of teacher is needed for this type of experience? Discussions like these get me geeked up and excited about the possibilities! To see this principal talk about how awesome this type of change is going to be is why I do what I do everyday!

These are not the only two examples of conversations that I have had with teachers and administrators, but they don’t happen as often as I would like. From here on out, my goal is to make these types of discussions the rule rather than the exception. I am not naive enough to think that all of those aspects of my job listed above will disappear, but we have to create opportunities for deeper pedagogical discussions among teachers, administrators, students, and parents. This is how we will make schools better. This is why I decided to leave the classroom after 23 years. This is why I do what I do.

Don Sturm

Don’t be a Goob!

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What’s a goob? We all probably know at least one! You might even have another name for them. They are the negative ones who can and do ruin the possibility of something good just by their comments and reactions. They are the elephant in the room. If you aren’t a goob, you might get trapped in their web of negativity. You start to become goob like! If you are a goob, please stop because you are ruining it for others. Hmmm…the more I think about it, there probably aren’t many goobs reading this blog post 🙂

I write this post with the thought that we can’t just ignore this elephant in the room. Change is needed in schools and we can’t afford to let a small group (hopefully) of people distract us from sharing and implementing these necessary improvements. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not talking about the teachers or administrators who have legitimate disagreements with specific improvements. We need a variety of research based opinions on our quest for a better education system! Goobs are those who will fight anything that is different just simply because…not because of any research.

It is uncomfortable to face the goob and, as a result, many times we just simply try to ignore them. I want to suggest a different approach. Why not talk about the goob, not as an individual, but as a group? What if we acknowledge the elephant in the room? The best outcome would see the goob change and be an open and a willing participant in the improvement process.  The worst case scenario would be that they do not change their minds and start to grumble to themselves, but at least they won’t poison the proverbial watering hole! What if school districts used a hashtag like #dontbeagoob as a way of putting them on notice that we won’t allow the goobs to bring others down? Planning a different kind of professional development activity? Use this new hashtag along with the “legitimate” ones to silence the goobs. Would this acknowledgment of the elephant in the room help to change the culture of a school? I don’t know, but I am willing to try it and see what happens.

Don Sturm