Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Letting Our Children “Fly”

The planning and preparation started like our many other trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Northern Minnesota; pouring through maps to find an entry point and route, securing a permit, pulling out the gear, picking up groceries, packing the packs, and loading the canoes on the trailer.  The crew eagerly anticipated the upcoming trip.  After the final checks and good byes, it was time to head east on Highway 2.  It was that moment with mixed emotions as I watched the crew leave with the canoes in tow.  I would not be making this trip to the BWCAW with my son Derek.  With 17 trips under his belt, all with me, he was now the group leader and ready to experience canoe country without his Dad.
As the crew left, my thoughts began to wonder if he was ready to take on this challenge.  As a way to rationalize that he was ready, I did some comparing.  My first trip was with my uncle and cousins in 1986 to Hog Creek and Perent Lake.  After just 2 trips and at the age of 18, my friend Doug and I took a trip to Clearwater, Johnson Falls, and Mountain Lake prior to starting college in the fall of 1987.  I have made a trip every year since.  Derek, on the other hand, is now 21 and has been on 17 trips.  I reassured myself that he was ready, but would he make all the correct decisions?
In all of my trips, our group mantra has always been; “It’s all part of the experience.”  As those who have traveled into canoe country know, “the experience” can be both positive and negative.  The positive and unforgettable experiences keep us coming back to Canoe Country, while the adversity we sometimes experience are those we vividly remember and come with some valuable lessons.  Hopefully Derek remembered all those “lessons learned.”
Overtaking my worrying was a walk down memory lane as I reflected back on our experiences together.  In 1998 after Derek turned 4, I convinced Taunya that our son was ready for his first trip to the BWCAW.  My journal entry for Derek’s first trip captures the moment:
In the summer of 1986, before my senior year of high school, my Uncle George Schleicher asked me if I would like to go to the Boundary Waters because they needed a 4th person.  My first impression was that this place was something special and I promised myself to come back every year.  I was also excited to introduce others such as family and friends to this special place.  
The more I went the more I couldn’t wait to share it with my own children.  When you were born in February of 1994, I was already planning and looking forward to our first trip to the Boundary Waters.  I said, “as soon as Derek is potty trained, he’ll be ready to go.”  This year (1998) the opportunity was finally here and I found some other interested family and friends (Mark, Derek, Clint, Eric, Paul) that wanted to be a part of your first BWCA experience.  
I started organizing and planning about 3 weeks prior to our trip.  I felt (and always have) that the key to a successful trip is careful planning and organization.  I was reluctant to tell you that we were going right away because I didn’t think you would understand where we were going, what the Boundary Waters was, and you would always get over anxious anytime we would go somewhere.  You would count down “sleeps” as a measuring stick to count the days.  Finally, it was getting closer and I wanted you to be a part of the preparation of the trip, so I told you where we were going and who we were going with.  You were really excited and immediately asked, “Dad, how many sleeps until we go?”  It was 10 at that point.  You did a great job of counting backwards every day.  We went grocery shopping together for the food and also spent time together setting out the equipment and checking it out.  You asked many questions and I explained what everything was used for.
Zero sleeps and it’s time to go.  We said goodbye to Mommy and Ben.  We stopped at a gas station in Grand Rapids for gas and an ice cream treat.  You told the cashier; “You know what, we’re going to the Boundary Waters and I’m going to catch a big fish.”
As I read through the journal for Derek’s first trip, I was glad that I captured the moments in writing as he certainly would not have remembered the trip nor would I continue to remember the details.
Derek’s second trip in 1999 took place over the July 4th weekend (enter at Island River, Isabella River, Quadga Lake, Bald Eagle Lake, exit at Snake River).  Our experiences from this trip would be forever remembered.  
We’re off to the Boundary Waters for your second trip...As we approached the final portage before our destination, Bald Eagle Lake, Doug and Clint decide to try to run the rapids.  We portaged our stuff to the end and waited for their appearance.  A few of us made a second trip on the portage and still no sign.  Finally, they emerged with the badly dented up and punctured canoe.  They made a poor decision to run the rapids and were very lucky not to be injured seriously.
Sigurd Olson best described this scene; “...as long as there are young men with the light of adventure in their eyes and a touch of wildness in their souls, rapids will be run.”
In the morning on July 4th, we fished a little bit but then the sky started to look a little threatening.  We picked up the camp and prepared ourselves for some rain.  Later in the morning, a loud roar could be heard followed by some intense winds so we all headed into our tents.  After about 15-30 minutes, the strong winds decreased and it rained for a couple of hours.  After the rain stopped, we went fishing.  We talked to another group that was camped on Bald Eagle and they said that they had many trees in their campsite get blown over, so we were pretty lucky.  (Only later would we fully realize the damage that the storm did).
The adventure didn’t end there.  We still had to get home.
After double portaging over and around the many blown down trees, we arrived at our car and met another group who said we were not going anywhere as the trees blocked the road.  We then heard chainsaws and found the forest service clearing the road so we helped out.  After loading up and heading out, an oncoming vehicle stopped me.  The driver warned me to be aware of a creek, which was washing out the road.  I made it through, but unfortunately Doug, Derek, and Tyler got stuck in the washed out road and needed a tow truck to pull out the vehicle.
Since 1999, there have been many other memorable experiences during our annual trip to the BWCAW.  Some of these experiences include the long portage, border route trail, Johnson Falls, jumping off rocks into the water, trips in October, and trips with Derek’s brother, cousins, uncles and grandpa.  

In 2012, just our immediate family took our first trip together.  We secured 2 permits for the same entry point so Derek and Ben could take a side trip on their own.  After a couple of days, Derek and Ben set off for 2 nights.  I was more sad than worried, knowing that that my sons no longer needed their Dad.  The boys learned a great deal about being on their own while Taunya and I were just a couple of lakes away.  This trip also prepared me for my own transition of letting go.

Looking back, my initial goal was to ensure my sons had a positive experience in the BWCAW so they would want to return again and again.  Mission accomplished.  In doing so, I did most everything while they played, fished, and explored.  Over the past several trips, I started asking more questions (i.e. What do you think?) and turning over some of the duties.  I knew that I was not going to be on their canoe trips indefinitely, so they needed to learn things on their own.  As I turned over the duties, I had them assist me, then had them “do” with my guidance, and finally complete tasks on their own to figure things out.  A few examples include, setting up tent, starting a fire, hanging the food pack, portaging, filleting a fish, and reading a map.
 Through the gradual release of my “teaching” vs. their “learning,” I noticed that even after everything I had thought I taught them some mistakes were still made.  Only when Derek and Ben were allowed to do a task on their own instead of me showing and telling, did they complete the tasks more efficiently and accurately.  Mostly through their struggles, were they really allowed to learn.  I enjoyed watching the learning process take place through collaboration, critical thinking, failure, and redos.

It was challenging for me to watch Derek and Ben struggle through certain things when I knew the correct answer or a better way to do something.  For example, I watched them put up the tent incorrectly.  They worked their way through some of the obstacles, and then would ask me for assistance.  I would respond with a question such as, “what do you think” or “have you thought of?”  Another example was map reading and finding portages.  Let’s put it this way, we added some distance to our paddles as they read the map to find the portages.  I usually knew where the portages were, but I allowed them to figure it out after they were not able to find it the first time.  I believe I would have done my sons a disservice if I had not let them think through problems.  After all...

“Learning is their journey. Let them navigate. Push them to explore. Watch them discover. Encourage their questions. Allow them to struggle. Support their thinking. Let them fly.” Krissy Venosdale

In addition to wilderness skills, I also tried to model and impress on my sons other intangibles such as the respect of this special place many fought so hard to protect.  We always practiced “leave no trace,” left our campsites better than we found them, and left a small pile of prepared wood by the fire grate.  They hopefully learned that the key to a successful trip is planning and preparedness.  Finally, we always were mindful that help is a long way away, so we were careful, safe, and made good decisions.
So, it seemed fitting for Derek to choose Hog Creek and Perent Lake for his first trip with his friends.  After a few days, Derek and his friends returned from a fun trip.  They were eager to share stories from their adventure.  Listening to their stories, I smiled to myself and knew my question about Derek’s readiness and ability to lead others into the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness was answered.  To see four 21 year olds willing to venture into the wilderness, without Wi-Fi, and enjoy their time in the BWCAW was truly rewarding.
Letting our children fly also means letting our children pursue their passions.  When I was a child I loved being outdoors and camping.  After my first trip to the BWCAW in 1986, canoe country became my passion with a promise to myself to return each year.  I wanted to learn everything I could about the BWCAW, so in the pre-Internet days, I went to the library to find books and periodicals.
The BWCAW continues to be one of my passions.  I am grateful to have shared so many trips with my sons with many wonderful memories.  I made it clear they did not have to have the same interests as me and should never feel obligated to go on trips, but they always wanted to go.
Letting our children fly does not only pertain to the BWCAW, but life in general.  Share your passions with your children, allow them to pursue their own interests, and then be patient to observe their learning process in action.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Thoughts on Engaged Learning with Twitter Edchats

During the 2013-2014 school year, we launched #gfedchat for Grand Forks Public Schools educators and anyone else interested in chatting about educational topics.  I look forward to #gfedchat every week.  I have “met” and connected with more teachers across our district than I ever had in my career as an educator.  Our Monday night chats are lively, engaging and are a source of inspiration for me each week. (Thank you #gfedchat participants, you are all amazing!)  Similar to the numerous other chats, the format is a Q1, Q2 containing the questions followed by A1, A2 with the participants' answers.  Now, after 2 years of #gfedchat and personally participating in other chats, I started to think about the relevance of Twitter chats.

I appreciate almost everything about Twitter edchats.  There is a mutual passion and willingness to learn among educators participating in the edchats.  I have made numerous connections to other educators through Twitter chats, watched ideas shared and connections made through mutual collaboration, and participated in book studies led by authors.  Anytime, anywhere learning has made a tremendous impact on my professional growth.

On the other hand, some Twitter edchats feel like a rapid-fire event in which speed-typing the answers to the questions and trying to keep up become more of a frustration than a learning opportunity.  It often feels as if providing good answers becomes the priority over actually reading others’ responses, asking good questions, and having side-bar conversations.  Sometimes, the best learning takes place in those side conversations.  I appreciated the question George Couros recently posed to #satchatoc (What impact do you think Twitter chats have on student learning?)

Many indicated Twitter chat participants often provide shallow answers and chats become echo chambers, while others jumped at the chance to highlight the merits in Twitter edchats:

At times, Twitter edchats are contrary to what we know leads to deeper learning and engaged learners.  In Tom Whitby’s recent post, Twitter Chats for Learning, Easy vs. Hard, he posed some great questions about edchats:
  • Where was the thought?
  • Where was the pushback?
  • Where was the following of a progression of thought?
  • Most importantly where was the learning?

Is it good classroom practice for the teacher (moderator) to ask the questions and the students (participants) to just provide answers without any meaningful dialog?  Are we creating a learning environment for our students (participants) to be fully engaged in deeper learning?  

Here are my thoughts on how we can improve upon our own #gfedchat this school year.  

  1. We should remind and encourage our #gfedchat participants to be engaged learners. Recently, I provided a brief introduction at our middle and high school professional learning event and made the connection between students as learners and teachers as learners:

  1. Change the format once an awhile like #ndedchat did recently. The open format provided an excellent chat.
  1. Consider fewer scheduled questions in an hour on a particular topic to encourage side-bar conversations, allow ideas to percolate, and hopefully move ideas into action.
  2. Invite students to moderate.
  3. Encourage lurkers to JUMP IN
  4. I would love to hear other ideas to add to this list for improving #gfedchat and edchats in general.

Tom Whitby (Twitter Chats for Learning, Easy vs. Hard) highlights why participating in edchats matter:

“Although my personal preference is for the unscripted chat, there is no right way or wrong way of doing this. For some the only way they might be involved in any chat might be through the scripted chat. For many others the organic conversation that springs from the unscripted chat is the way they learn best. We are fortunate that any chats are now available to us as connected educators using social media for continuing professional development. Chats give transparency to education. We talk about our individual experiences on topics common to all. Chats are also a sounding board. Even more, they are a treasure trove for collegial sources, people who can help each other professionally. Participate in chats for all these reasons and to maintain relevance in a rapidly changing world.”

I am eagerly looking forward to another season of #gfedchat which begins again on Monday, September 21st at 8:30 pm.  Let it always be about STUDENT LEARNING.  All are welcome!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Lessons Learned from Our Dog Bailey

Just less a year ago, our dog Bailey was very sick.  We took her to the University of Minnesota for some further testing that determined the lymes disease Bailey had since she was a puppy needed to be treated again, along with addressing her kidney and heart issues. After almost a year of medications, special diet and a few more vet visits, Bailey was mostly doing fine until recently, she showed signs of some issues again.  She obviously masked those issues quite well, because on Saturday evening Bailey laid down in the grass, could not move, and was barely breathing.  We took her to the animal emergency clinic and determined Bailey was suffering from a large splenic tumor impacting many of her internal organs.  Because of the progression of the tumor and impact on vital organs, the decision to put Bailey down was virtually made for us.  After saying our goodbyes, her suffering was over and she went to sleep.  But, our sadness and emptiness was just beginning.  On the lonely drive home in the middle of the night, I reflected on Bailey’s impact on me, our family, and others.  She taught and reminded us of some very valuable lessons over the past 8 years.

  1. Be Caring - Bailey was extremely perceptive of the feelings of those around her and she had an insightful way of trying to make things better with a look in your eyes to say “it's going to be OK.”
  2. Exercise - Bailey loved to go for walks or runs.  Her excitement when she knew a walk or run was about to happen was priceless.  Because of Bailey’s love of the outdoors, our family logged numerous miles with her while improving our health at the same time.
  3. Play - While I regretfully didn’t fully subscribe to this mantra because as we know, there are always work and home responsibilities that just need to get done.  I am thankful of Bailey’s continual reminder that work can wait and the importance of play.  
  4. Be Joyful - After a challenging or long day at school or work, Bailey reminded us to leave those frustrations behind.  Our day was always made better with her greeting us at the door and saying “I am so happy to see you” with an enthusiastic tail wag (smile).
  5. Patience - While maybe not a trait of all dogs, Bailey was extremely patient and often put the needs of others ahead of her own needs.  She would usually wait by a door until someone let her out and wait to be let back in.  She sat by her water and food dish to let us know she was thirsty or hungry and would lay quietly by the foot of our bed until we woke up.
  6. Saying I'm Sorry - Bailey wasn’t perfect, so there were some times when she made mistakes.  Without even saying anything, she would sense our disappointment and say sorry by putting her tail between legs and head down.  She had a way of reminding us not to dwell on those mistakes, but rather forgive and move on.
  7. The Gift of Time - Bailey was the happiest when our family, or anyone for that matter, was spending time with her.  I would have loved to have some more time with Bailey and now wished that I would have spent even more time with her.  While time is a limited resource, we should be cognizant of how we prioritize our time and find time to spend it with friends, family, loved ones, and yes, even our pets.  Having no regrets is the lesson here.
  8. Unconditional Love - Somewhat related to time, our busy schedules sometimes moved Bailey down on the priority list.  She never took exception or was mad, but rather was always happy to see us when we entered the house.  What a great lesson.  No matter what, Bailey demonstrated her love for us everyday and we, in turn, loved her as a family member and best friend as well.

And, the list of lessons could go on.  The memories of Bailey will last a lifetime.  I know I am a better person for Bailey being in my life.  The best tribute we can give Bailey is to remember and live the life lessons she spent 8 years modeling and teaching us.  Thank you for being a wonderful teacher Bailey.  Rest easy sweet girl.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

For the Love of Learning at Edcamp Grand Forks

With a limited number of days of summer break left for most educators, about 80 educators chose to attend Edcamp Grand Forks on August 6th for the love of learning.

About a year ago, Grand Forks Public Schools Curriculum Technology Partners discussed the possibility of holding an Edcamp.  August 6th was set as the date and plans were in motion.
August 6th - Edcamp Day!
There was definitely a buzz in the commons at Community High School as the educators enjoyed breakfast and visited.  

I provided some brief opening remarks as a way to set the tone for the day. Edcamps are designed to learn from each other.
I also highlighted a recent blog post by Pernille Ripp (As We Start Another School Year) with the thought: “A single decision made by a teacher can change a child’s path forever.” So I posed the question for the educators to ponder, "Is attending Edcamp Grand Forks one of those decisions?" I then provided an overview of what to expect from an Edcamp experience and explained the “rules."
  • Built on principles of connected and participatory learning, Edcamp strives to bring teachers together to talk about the things that matter most to them: their interests, passions, and questions.
  • Teachers who attend Edcamp can choose to lead sessions on those things that matter, with an expectation that the people in the room will work together to build understanding by sharing their own knowledge and questions.
  • “Go where you grow.” (i.e. “law of 2 feet”)
Carla Haaven made a few opening remarks and we were off and running to create the session board based on the interests of the attendees. Check out the SESSION BOARD to view the session topics and session resources and notes.

Throughout the day, there was a noticeable "buzz" of collaboration and learning at Community High School.  

At the end of Edcamp Grand Forks, the attendees completed a survey. I’ll let the comments from the participants speak for themselves:

  • All of the sessions were useful. I cannot believe how much I learned, especially the applications I can use in my classroom.
  • Learning alongside colleagues from a variety of disciplines, schools, etc.
  • It was a great 1st experience at Edcamp and am glad I got to partake in it.
  • The highlight was being able to collaborate with a team of teachers from my school about things we chose to learn about! Yay!
  • Connecting with other teachers and sharing ideas.
  • Really enjoyed connecting with and learning from other educators. We are a great resource and need opportunities like this more often.
  • I love how we decided what we wanted to learn and everything was very laid back.
  • I like the choice involved in learning options.
  • I love watching people learn new things! It is great to be surrounded by same minded people who are positive learners!
  • The buzz in the room of teachers excited to learn was great!!
  • Meeting educators from around the region!
  • This edcamp was very organized and it look everyones unique ideas so we could share with each other to make our classrooms different. I feel this has been very beneficial versus our PD days.
  • Please do this again next August before school starts so I can take this again! I will be spreading the word!
  • Collaborating and networking with other districts.
  • I liked the style of learning. It was not intense or shoved down your throat. It was comfortable and enjoyable.
  • Everyone that is here today, is here because they want to be here. I am impressed by the turnout!
  • I loved hearing teachers from another town talk about how jealous they are that we get to do things like this!!!! We are so fortunate and more people need to get involved.
  • Interacting with people from all over who have different ideas.
  • Met a UND professor and GF Schools parent who asked if he could come and talk to my class about STEM.
  • I just liked the whole day. Very informative.
  • This was my first and I LOVED it!
  • More time (maybe over a period of a couple days)
  • Several throughout the year...nice format.
  • Love the format and appreciate everyone sharing and asking questions.
  • It was more and better than I could have imagined.
  • It was great! I wish I could have attended more sessions!

At the conclusion of the event, I talked with several educators who indicated the need to incorporate Edcamp into some of our professional development/learning time.  It highlights the fact that TEACHERS want choice based on their interest because it will lead to a higher level of engagement and learning.  Hmmm, let me try that sentence again by changing one word; It highlights the fact that STUDENTS want choice based on their interest because it will lead to a higher level of engagement and learning.  We are all learners, so the question is, how can the Edcamp format be incorporated into future school and district level professional development/learning as many suggested in the survey and through conversations?

As I reflected on Edcamp Grand Forks, I reminded myself; “No one was required to attend, but they still came to learn.”  My colleagues in education continue to inspire me by their willingness to learn and strive to be better for their students. Thank you to everyone involved in the planning and organization to make Edcamp Grand Forks an awesome learning opportunity.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Road to High School BYOD

Soon after I made the transition from high school associate principal to director of technology in the Fall of 2012, my quest to learn and understand how students learn best through the use of technology devices became my most important priority.  At that time, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) was beginning to gain some traction in K-12 schools with mixed results and opinions; some good and some not so good. Nonetheless, it was still worthy of discussion and was added as a “Study Recommendation” item in the 2013-2016 Grand Forks Public Schools (GFPS) Technology Plan:

Study Recommendation #5 – Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)
Grand Forks Public Schools should study the potential impact of students having the opportunity to bring their own device/laptop computer.
The recommended study would develop a systematic plan for students to bring a digital device from home and access the district network for academic purposes.  A BYOD pilot study will take place in a summer school English class in the summer of 2013.

GFPS students in grades 5-8 now have 1:1 access to netbooks or Chromebooks, but in the Fall of 2014, the budget did not allow for the 1:1 initiative to continue for students into 9th grade.  Instead, carts of Chromebooks were added to the high schools dedicated to 9th grade students in the core curriculum areas as a way to provide additional access to devices.

When the GFPS High School Technology Committee first met in the Fall of 2014, we reviewed the 2013-2016 GFPS Technology Plan.  Committee discussion focused on and kept coming back to increase device access for our high school students and BYOD.  After significant study, the plan was presented to district administrators, high school principals, school board technology committee, and the school board.  After answering the questions and responding to the concerns, support was in place to move forward.  A BYOD Steering Committee was established and we started preparations for an August 2015 implementation.  The key areas of our work and discussions included:
  • Expanding the BYOD Summer School Pilot to all classrooms
  • Equity - Several hundred Chromebooks will be deployed for students to access as supplemental devices.
  • Communication with Teachers
  • Communication with the Community (see the Grand Forks Herald article on BYOD)
  • Student Expectations (summer school students are currently involved)
  • Network Infrastructure (additional access points)
  • Teacher Professional Development (planning has been and continues to take place)
  • List Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

As our summer school BYOD pilot is taking place and preparations continue, it was interesting to read the recently released NMC Horizon Report 2015 K-12 Edition.  The report contained affirmation of the GFPS BYOD initiative as it listed BYOD as an important development in education technology.  The expert panel agreed that BYOD is very likely to drive technology planning and decision-making over the next five years with an expected widespread adoption in one year or less. (See pages 36 and 37 in the Horizon Report)

As we transition to BYOD in our high schools, there will be some themes that will be important to remember:
  1. It’s about student learning, not the device. 
  2. Professional Learning - Our Curriculum Technology Partners are poised to provide just in time and ongoing professional learning opportunities for our teachers geared towards pedagogy in a technology rich environment.
  3. Student Expectations - We will provide our students with the expectations of BYOD and embed digital citizenship reminders, while at the same time, establish an environment of trust.
  4. While we are focused on planning for the best BYOD scenario, we understand that there will be things to learn along the way.  Being mindful that we are always in “beta” will keep us focused on continual improvement.
  5. We need to stay focused on ‘what’s the best that could happen’ [with BYOD and student learning], rather than ‘what’s the worst that could happen.’
  6. “Technology will never replace great teachers, but technology in the hands of great teachers can be transformational.” (@gcouros)

There will be much to learn and work to do during this upcoming school year with BYOD in our high schools.  We do not and will not pretend to have BYOD all figured out, but I will share, through this blog, ongoing reflections on our high school BYOD transition.