Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Listening to our Students

In a recent Grand Forks Public Schools Educational Enhancement Team (EET) meeting, our high school student representatives were provided an opportunity to speak freely on the topic of innovative learning experiences. The students were intermixed into breakout groups with district teachers and administrators and representatives from the community and University of North Dakota.  The students provided examples and reflections on both innovative learning experiences and non-innovative experiences.  Here are some direct quotes from the students:

“Our core classes, more than not, provide less opportunities for authentic, creative, and applicable learning.”

“Learning is often not relevant”

“Memorizing facts and information for a test, that is usually quickly forgotten, is not learning.”

“Real life application is missing”

“Standards mean nothing to students”

“Teachers are stuck in their ways, not open to innovative thinking”

“We would appreciate more project-based learning”

“Too much focus is placed on tests and grades versus learning.”

“Students are more apt to learn if it is relevant and interesting.”

“We need more opportunities to be creative and solve problems.”

“Students should be allowed and equipped to ask the questions rather than the teachers asking the questions.”

“We want to find things out for ourselves instead of being fed the information.”

“We know how to play school.”

“Boredom in school is normal.”

“Students are more engaged when choice is part of our learning.”


The student quotes speak for themselves.  When the students talked about their most innovative learning experiences, they eagerly discussed all the details. Unfortunately, the student representatives attending the EET meeting only had a few exciting examples to share. While some of the quotes might be viewed as reflecting poorly on our schools and district, I think it’s safe to assume that our students’ learning experiences are relatively consistent with students across the country.  Here is a recent Gallup Poll on student engagement in grades 5-12:

Our students’ comments should not be followed up with excuses, but rather a renewed sense of opportunity to provide more engaging learning environments for our students.  Drawing on the underlying themes from the students, they desire more authentic and engaging learning experiences through choice and project-based learning. Why shouldn't our district be the one to lead the way on flattening the student engagement curve from grade 5 through 12?

The comments from our students will only be an indictment of our schools and district if we choose to ignore and keep the status quo.  Let the words of our students resonate as we strive for more innovative and engaging learning opportunities.

Friday, August 25, 2017

An Open Letter to the GFPS Technology Department Staff

An Open Letter to the GFPS Technology Department Staff:


Dear GFPS Technology Department,

As we prepare to welcome our teachers back next week and students the following week, I want to take a moment to underscore the important role you play in the success of teaching and learning, integrated with technology, in our district.  Listed below are a few key reminders.

1. Students - Number One Priority
We all have a position in the district because of the more than 7,200 GFPS students.  While technicians and curriculum technology partners serve in different capacities, our collective work as the GFPS Technology Department is ultimately about student learning, engagement, empowerment, and innovation.  Whether direct or indirect, never forget that your work creates opportunities for students to be more engaged and potentially leave school more curious than when they started.

2. Our Vision
The GFPS Technology Vision clearly answers the question, “what do we aspire to become?”  Always keep the overarching theme of the vision at the heart of your work:  The Grand Forks Public Schools believe technology is an integral component of learning and is necessary to learn effectively, live productively and participate globally in an increasingly digital world. Technology resources transform learning by allowing learners to create, publish, collaborate and communicate with others in a global environment. Technology helps learners gather and analyze information, solve problems and develop higher-level thinking skills through authentic real-world experiences.

3. Teachers - Professional Learning
While classroom teachers have the biggest direct impact on student learning, teachers need support to bring technology-based and personalized learning experiences to their students.  Due to the ever-changing landscape of technology in schools, providing professional learning opportunities for all educators and administrators will continue to be an instructional priority. Building capacity and providing pedagogical growth opportunities for educators to integrate technology with learning is extremely important.  I am confident we will always be poised to assist.

4. Customer Service
Sometimes it’s easy for us in the technology department to think of all problems as technical in nature.  In doing so, we forget that the technology is utilized for one simple reason: to impact teaching and learning. When technology breaks, it is no longer serving its purpose.  When we realize we are really supporting teaching and learning and not machines, hopefully we respond differently, deliver even better service, and feel a greater sense of satisfaction with the work we do.  You each have knowledge and skills others are reliant on, so always remember; "You are a genius and the world needs your contribution." (Angela Maiers)

In closing, know that I sincerely appreciate the amazing and challenging work you do every day.  As a team, I am confident we will continue to have a positive impact on Grand Forks Public Schools.

All the best for an amazing school year!
Joel


Saturday, December 31, 2016

#OneWord2017 - INNOVATE

As we close out 2016 and look ahead to 2017, people are making their new year’s resolutions.  Reading through my Twitter feed, many educators are embracing the “One Word” challenge by Jon Gordon (@JonGordon11 @getoneword #OneWord2017 #OneWord).  The question was also posed by my colleague Carla Haaven (@chaaven); “What will be your #oneword for 2017?”


As I pondered options for my “One Word” in  2017, I reflected back on my “One Word” for 2016:


In the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, innovation is defined as “...a way of thinking that creates something new and better.”  It fits perfectly with my own personal philosophy of “there’s always better.”  Stating my one word at the onset of 2016, provided some focus and motivation in 2016 to; 1) initiate an administrative book study on The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, 2) write a grant for 1:1 Chromebooks in grade 4 and professional learning with George Couros, 3) participate in a summer book study on The Innovator’s Mindset, 4) plan with my team a district-wide professional learning event called “Innovations in Learning” keynoted by George Couros, 5) lead and participate in #gfedchat topics on The Innovator's Mindset, 6) participate in #IMMOOC (Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course), 7) support coding/STEM opportunities for students, and 8) assist in the planning of a new and upcoming online learning opportunity for teachers called “Innovations in Learning.”


George Couros poses the challenging question; “How do we move from ‘pockets’ of innovation, to a ‘culture’ of innovation?”  While some progress has been made to address and answer this question, much more work needs to be done.  So, in the spirit of my ongoing quest for “new and better,” my #oneword for 2017 will again be INNOVATE.


After I decided on my #oneword for 2017, a strapped on my snowshoes and punched out the word INNOVATE in my backyard.



Happy New Year!  May our/your students be afforded many more innovative learning opportunities in 2017.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

All I Wanted for Christmas was an Atari

Sometime in 1980 or 1981, I asked for an Atari Game System for Christmas,  After all, EVERYONE else had one.  Beyond the expensive price tag, I specifically remember my Dad and Mom’s other rationale for not buying an Atari: “all you can do is play games.”  Their rationale didn’t sit well with me because all I wanted to do was play games.  A bit more background into my childhood of outside play, building, creating, experiential/hands-on learning, camping, and travel reinforces my parent’s concern about screen time and the sedentary nature of playing Atari.
I think it was in 1982, my Dad and Mom finally relented.  But, rather than going with the Atari, they purchased a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A home computer.  While not an Atari, I warmed up to the purchase after I learned it had game cartridge and joystick capabilities.  We hooked it up to our TV through the VHS antenna and played games.
Games such as Parsec, TI Invaders, and Tombstone City were added to our system, but in addition, a book titled Beginner’s Basic was purchased.  The book was a step-by-step hands-on approach to learning the fun and power of programming the TI BASIC language.  
Admittedly, my brother Tim and I still spent plenty of hours playing games but we also spent hours and days writing programs and code.  Some "ready-made" programs were keyed into the computer as one would read the lines of code from a book while the other would key in the entries.  We would run the programs and sometime they would work and sometimes they would not.  When the programs didn’t work, we had to figure out why. After changes were made, we would try it again. The program was then saved to a cassette tape in a portable cassette tape player/recorder.  Yes, files were saved to a cassette tape.  Needless to say, retrieving the files was not always successful.

Today, my brother and I are both in technology-related positions.  While we each took some unique paths to get to our current positions, I believe we benefitted greatly from some early coding experiences. Even more important, we were provided opportunities to learn problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

“Coding is more about the process of breaking down problems rather than coming up with complicated algorithms.” - Makinde Adeagbo

"Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer...because it teaches you how to think." - Steve Jobs

It turns out, one of the best Christmas gifts I received was NOT receiving the Atari. I appreciate my Dad and Mom sticking to their principles to give some gifts associated with play, creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking.  


What kinds of gifts are you giving for Christmas this year?  Have you considered some engaging gifts for kids associated with a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) focus? How about Ozobots, Spheros, Little Bits, Snap Circuits, Makey Makey, Lego's, etc.? Give a gift that keeps on giving long after the gift becomes unusable, forgotten about or irrelevant.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Fanning the Flames of Innovation #IMMOOC

About 4 years ago, I started following George Couros on Twitter because his Tweets and blog posts resonated with me.  I was inspired by his thoughts, so I attended George Couros’s sessions at a few conferences and read his book The Innovator’s Mindset as soon as it was released.  I encouraged others to read the book which lead to book studies with #gfedchat over the summer and district administrators in May and again this fall.  In hopes to have more inspired by The Innovator’s Mindset, it was decided to bring George Couros to our district for 2 professional learning days on September 29th and 30th.  The inspiration George provided and learning that occurred on those two days just 2 weeks ago had a positive impact. Here are a few tweets from the day:
Based on the positivity from the day and feedback, I considered the professional learning day as either a spark or fuel for the flames for most educators.  But I wondered, how do we fan the flames of innovation as a collective group?  Or, the question George Couros poses: “How do we move from pockets of innovation to a culture of innovation?”  I have asked those questions of educators over the past two weeks.  While a definitive answer is elusive, I know there is enough momentum and interest to keep the conversation going.


So far, the conversation has continued via #gfedchat on Monday, October 3rd as we reflected on our learning, but looking ahead was the primary focus.  In fact, the number of #gfedchat participants has now risen to 138.  This is an excellent forum to keep the flames of innovation going. Many more teachers have opened a professional and/or classroom Twitter account and have started blogging.  The conversation also continued this past week with a discussion at the principals meetings and The Innovator’s Mindset book study will continue at future administrative meetings.  Additionally, plans are taking shape to offer professional learning opportunities from “Innovations in Learning” sessions and some variations to #gfedchat with a focus on “Innovations in Learning.”  Hopefully, more opportunities will materialize.


This past week, George Couros shared an infographic that was shared with him and fit in perfectly with my thoughts on fanning the flames and stoking the fire of innovation. “Lighting someone else’s candle won’t make yours any less bright.”  
This quote underscores the point; we all have a role in potentially being someone else’s spark and fanning the flames of innovation.  How are you stoking the fire of innovation in yourself and others?  Go ahead, throw another log on the fire of innovation.  Better yet, throw several logs on the fire and keep the fire stoked.  Our students will be the beneficiaries of the energy and warmth that is created.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Every Educator Has To Be An Innovator #IMMOOC

The week 1 session of the Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course (#IMMOOC) on Saturday led by George Couros, Katie Martin, and Dave Burgess provided me much to ponder.  There was, however, one point by Katie Martin that stood out.  Here was my tweet:




I have 2 takeaways within this Tweet:

  1. “Most teachers are innovative, they just don’t know it.”  It’s interesting to listen to innovative teachers argue their teaching practices are not innovative.  With our upcoming “Innovations in Learning” professional development, teachers were approached to lead a breakout session, but many were reluctant because they said no one wants to listen to me or what I’m doing is not innovative. As Dave Burgess said, “Educators have a moral imperative to share.”  We cannot expect others to share if we are not willing to share ourselves.

  1. If most teachers are innovative, how about the rest?  After all,  “Every educator has to be an innovator.”  Some educators may push back on being innovative with responses; “But I’m not techie” and “I just don’t have time.”  The Innovator’s Mindset makes things clear in this area by defining innovation as “...the creation of new and better ideas” and “innovation is not about stuff, it is a way of thinking.”  The reality of every educator becoming an innovator begins with the expectation that everyone must be an innovator.  The expectation comes from the leader, who must model being innovative along with a purposeful sense of “this is how we do things around here” embedded in the culture.  Later in the book, George poses the question that most struggle with; “How do we move from pockets of innovation to a culture of innovation?”

I am looking forward to more #IMMOOC community discussions on the vision of a “culture of innovation” and providing examples, ideas, and support in which every educator is an innovator.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Another Generation of Kids Cannot Wait #IMMOOC

While many teachers carry on the tradition of the factory, compliance-based, teacher-centered model of education, other teachers are embracing a student-centered, learning by doing model of education.  What ever happened to 21st Century Learning?  We are 16 years into the push for 21st century learning, but the 4 C’s of communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration are often missing in classrooms today.


Innovation in education is crucial today because our kids cannot wait any longer for the transformation of education to fully occur. For example, my youngest son recently graduated from high school.  While we sat on our deck this summer enjoying a nice evening, he started talking about his learning experiences through high school.  He described ways in which he learned best and ways he learned and retained very little.


It was heartbreaking to hear him talk about what I call “playing school;” doing what he needed to do to get the grade and move on.  He listed learning experiences not meaningful including reading textbooks, completing worksheets, taking notes, lectures, and most teacher-centered practices.  On the other hand, he was eager to describe the details of each of his most meaningful learning experiences.  Projects with choice were the most empowering because personal connection and passion were naturally embedded. Projects motivated him to do well because he was responsible for the learning in the form of a high-quality finished product.  Certainly not the norm, authentic learning experiences connected to real-world problems also made a positive impact on my son’s educational experience.


Too often, innovation and technology become interchangeable words.  As access to devices become much more ubiquitous, pedagogy continues to change ever so slowly.  Way too slow.  Case in point, my son had access to plenty of technology, but he still wanted more choice, project-based, and student-centered learning.  In The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros provides a great reminder:

I am looking forward to participating and connecting with other educators in the #IMMOOC. Let us, as a collective group, make innovation more than just a trendy educational buzz word, but rather a movement to make education more meaningful and relevant for our students.  After all, another generation of kids cannot wait for the transformation to occur.