Doing Things Differently

It’s been eight years since I was a classroom teacher. I left because I saw an opportunity to impact teaching and learning on a larger stage by helping educators integrate technology. Over the past eight years I’ve had the opportunity to connect with and learn from educators in the US, Canada, Mexico, London, Egypt, Australia and South Africa. To say “things have changed” since I left the classroom doesn’t even begin to explain the paradigm shift occurring in education. I often think about what I would do if I were back in the classroom (as a middle school social studies teacher). How would I take what I’ve learned to make a more meaningful, engaging, innovative, creative, relevant and FUN learning environment.

Here are some initial thoughts on doing things differently. (I have a feeling I will be coming back to this post to modify my thoughts as I continue to learn.)

1. “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited.” ~Plutarch

As a new teacher I felt it was my job to know everything within my subject area. If the students asked a question I didn’t know the answer to I felt like a failure. Before Google, when access to information was limited, memorizing large amounts of information seemed important and necessary for success. But in a world where our students are constantly connected, what’s the point in memorizing something that can be found in a matter of seconds? If I were back in the classroom, I would spend much more time exciting students about what lessons we can learn from our past in an effort to spark their natural curiosity. I would start with “why” to ensure they understood that the information they are learning in my classroom has relevance and meaning in their lives. (See Diana Laufenberg’s World of 100 as a great “why” example.) I would foster a learning culture where the wisdom of the room is valued and leveraged. Instead of focusing on teaching, I would focus on facilitating learning.

2. “In the 100 years since we really got serious about education as a universally good idea, we’ve managed to take the 15 years of children’s lives that should be the most carefree, inquisitive, and memorable and fill them with a motley collection of stress and a neurotic fear of failure.” ~ A.A. Gill

If your k-12 experience was anything like mine, most of the valuable things you learned were outside of the 4 walls of the classroom (I could write a book about the life lessons I learned about friendship, collaboration, dedication, creativity, ethics and critical thinking by participating in sports, planning the Jr-Sr prom, hanging out with my friends and serving on the student council). When it came to school, I often struggled to understand WHY I had to memorize so much crap. I suffered from severe test anxiety and practically gave myself ulcers worrying about not having the “right” answer if I was called upon in class. To this day I still struggle with my confidence to share information for fear of failure.

If I were back in the classroom, I would spend more time creating a safe learning environment. One where students are encouraged to ask questions, challenge perspectives, try new things, learn from their failures/mistakes and embrace change. I would focus on creating a joyful learning space where students are encouraged to play with knowledge and information.

3. “If you let students share their work with the world they want it to be good. If you are the only one to see it they want it to be good enough.” ~ Rushton Hurley

If we want to prepare students for the real world then school SHOULD LET STUDENTS DO REAL WORK. If the only people seeing their finished projects are teachers and parents, what’s the purpose? If I were back in the classroom I would focus on developing projects that allow students to solve real world problems and share their solutions with the community. Real, authentic learning can be difficult to assess, but with the help of modern technology it is easy to document. My students would leave my class with a digital portfolio that shows what they have learned AND what they have done with that knowledge as a result. After all, it’s not about what they have learned, it’s about how they are able to use that information in new situations that’s important. I would find local community members to speak to my classroom, Skype with a professor from another country and “hangout” (using Google + Hangout) with a member of congress. I would collaborate with educators to identify new and innovative ways to share my students work with the world. I strongly believe if you challenge students to do real work that matters they will blow you away with what they create. (Check out the “Black Cloud” experiment created in collaboration by an English teacher and Berkley to help students in LA learn about air pollution and climate change).

4. “Test scores tell us little, if anything, about our children’s preparedness for future success in a fast-changing world”. ~Will Richardson

If I were to ask you to describe in 1-2 words what you want most for your children when it comes to their formal education experience, what would you say? Think about that for a second.

I’ve asked this question a few times in presentations I’ve given over the past several months. Some of the answers I hear most often are:

-Self-directed learner


-Love of Learning


-Collaboration skills

-Communication skills

Now, if I were to ask you to describe in 1-2 words what schools teach, what would you say? Again, I’ve asked this question a few times and the answers I hear most often are:

-Memorize information

-Don’t question authority

-Teach to the test

-Don’t fail

Clearly there is a disconnect between what we want for our children and what school provides (for most students). It’s time to broaden our definition of success. If I were back in the classroom, I would focus on developing skills that are difficult to assess (collaboration, innovation, communication, creativity, etc.) and provide opportunities for students to receive feedback from me, their peers, their family and their community. I believe if we focus on what’s important, the other stuff (knowledge of what’s on the test) will occur naturally. Emotion plays a large role in the learning process and it’s important that we develop the whole child. Exercise, nutrition and emotional intelligence are crucial if we want students to think critically and expand their cognitive capacity. I would take more “brain breaks”, get to know them better and let them know they matter.

5. “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  ~Alvin Toffler
We live in a world of constant change. I don’t think I ever mastered Windows XP or Vista (granted I can’t remember the last time I used a PC) and now Microsoft is introducing Windows 8. In less than a year Apple came out with a new version of the iPad and updated the iOS software. If we want our students to be master learners, as educators we must be master learners. We should model for students what it looks like and feels like to be a lifelong learner. Gone are the days where the only professional development we have is what’s required to keep our teaching license current.
If I were back in the classroom, I would take more time to reflect each day. I would not only ask my students what they learned, I would ask myself what I have learned. I would continue to expand my professional learning network and surround myself with passionate educators EVERY DAY. It’s amazing how much you can learn from joining learning communities, checking Twitter and catching up on Google Reader. I would share what I’m learning with my students and celebrate breakthrough moments with them.
Sometimes I miss being in the classroom and wonder if I would be the teacher I think I could be if I stepped back into those shoes. For now, I’m going to remind myself that my full-time job allows me to connect some of the most incredible educators from around the country to their most valuable resource….one another. I couldn’t ask for a better mission to be a part of.

Pulling Into Traffic

I do it every day without even thinking about it. Living in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago with an office on Michigan Avenue, traffic is a part of my everyday life. It greets me with a slow smile, teasing me as it opens up around a corner just so I can see the break lights ahead. (I hate you, I-90.)

Your traffic experience may be a bit different than mine. A traffic jam in your world might mean more than one car at a 4-way stop. That’s how it was for me growing up in small town Iowa. Regardless of our geographic location, we all experience traffic.

I’m in the second week of my Digital Storytelling grad school class. My instructor happens to live near me so we took the opportunity to meet for coffee this past week. As we were talking about the upcoming project I explained to him how anxious I was about trying to learn iMovie. I just wanted to someone to sit with me and teach me all the in’s and out’s of the software. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to create the caliber of digital stories I expected of myself because of my lack of knowledge. He looked at me, smiled politely and said:

“Do you remember the first time you pulled into traffic in driver’s ed? Remember how nervous you were, and how hard you had to focus on what you were doing? When was the last time you even thought about pulling into traffic?”

There are a million ways he could have told me that I needed to learn the software on my own. That this was an important part of the learning process. But he didn’t. He told a story. A story that took me right back to the summer after 8th grade when my heart was beating out of my chest as I pulled into traffic with my instructor Mr. Kruckenberg sitting quietly in the passenger seat. He was there to help me if I needed it, but he knew the importance of learning by doing.

I’m certain it would have been easier for someone to sit with me and show me the mechanics of creating a Digital Story using iMovie. But then I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pat myself on the back for creating this all on my own. It’s exciting to see what we can accomplish when we put anxiety aside and focus.

The following video was created for my grad school class as an introductory video. The purpose was to introduce myself, where I live and what I do. Not too shabby for an iMovie newbie! I hope you enjoy.