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.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

After One Year; Reflections on High School BYOD

Last year at this time, our district was in the planning and preparation stages for high school BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).  My blog post last summer (The Road to High School BYOD) outlines the transition. The last sentence of the blog describes our mindset:

“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, reflections on our high school BYOD transition.”

At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, the Grand Forks Herald ran a story on the transition to BYOD in our high schools (Teaching with tech: Teachers, students warm up to devices in the classroom)

In February, I provided a “Technology Update” to the Grand Forks Public Schools Educational Enhancement Team (E.E.T.).  Membership on the team includes superintendent, assistant superintendent, curriculum, technology, and CTE directors, some building principals and teachers, parents, university representatives, and students.  One of the primary purposes of the E.E.T. committee is to gather feedback from our students.  After a brief technology update, I was most interested in hearing the high school students' perspectives of BYOD with the following prompts:.

  1. What have been the positive aspects of BYOD?
  2. What are BYOD issues that need to be addressed?
  3. Has BYOD impacted your learning?

Here are some of the student replies:

“I think it has allowed the teachers to being more open to us having our devices out and ready to go so we can actually use it for learning.”

“Teachers have opened their minds to students having their own devices. It makes it a lot easier. I love bringing my own laptop to school and using that.”

“Impromptu learning is happening more, instead of reserving the Chromebook cart or the lab, you can access your phones or laptop, it is very convenient.”

“Educate yourself.  That’s the whole goal right? If you are sitting in class and the teacher brings up a topic and you want to learn more about it, you can take out your phone and find out more. You can learn what you need to learn.  Your device is right there to access, it’s not a battle to get carts.”
“You can access your textbooks online.”
“I think BYOD teaches discipline too. With that accessibility  I could sit on my laptop and the teacher doesn’t know if I am online shopping or if I am actually taking notes  That’s going to be available in college too.  Are you going to listen to the lecture or go online shopping?”

“Our Economics teacher uses online textbook or has it as an option, you can highlight in it, zoom in, you can listen to it, so if you are doing something else, you can listen to your textbook reading.”

“Obviously it has impacted learning  Teachers that you’d never think would embrace BYOD, have taken the leap. BYOD has helped, the carts are alway available and some of the students will have access and some will not, but do something that gets students involved with their phone.”

“Teachers are trying, even if they don’t know exactly what they are doing, they are trying to keep up with the kids.  They are putting forth the effort.”

I appreciated the students’ excellent insights into the first year of the BYOD. While students recognized the teachers’ efforts in incorporating more technology into learning, more work is needed to fully realize the transition from technology viewed as something extra to an ubiquitous tool for learning.  Technology by itself does not increase student achievement, which means the need for ongoing professional learning opportunities for teachers is underscored with the emphasis placed on learning first. In a recent blog post (Why Pedagogy First, Tech Second Stance is Key to the Future), Eric Sheninger emphasizes the “learning first” point:

“Everything we do in education should be built around learning. Thus, if the ultimate goal is to improve student outcomes then the role of any mobile device initiative should be to support or enhance learning.”
“There must be more of a concerted focus on learning outcomes, construction of new knowledge leading to authentic application, and the development/enhancement of essential skills (creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, digital citizenship, entrepreneurship, media literacy, technological proficiency, communication, collaboration)” (Eric Sheninger).

With students and learning at the forefront, we will strive to ensure ubiquitous access to learning tools (i.e. technology) and equip teachers with the necessary professional learning to design engaging and relevant learning opportunities for their students.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Relentless Restlessness

Since the end to the school year, I participated in a book study on The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.  (Thank you to Carla Haaven for organizing!)  The book study group met in person several times and responded to questions via Google Classroom.  Great conversations were sparked and additional questions were provoked through our book study.

I am truly amazed these educators took time out of their summer vacation to continue to learn.  Those who participated epitomize what it means to have an innovator’s mindset; “the belief that the abilities, intelligence, and talents are developed so that they lead to the creation of new and better ideas” (George Couros).  It is not surprising since these educators also share many things in common:
  • have student-centered, project-based, and innovative classrooms
  • are connected educators who willingly learn through reading and Twitter
  • participate in #gfedchat, other Twitter chats, book studies, and Edcamps
  • are risk-takers who learn from their failures

In The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros quotes Pixar Director Brad Bird: “organizations that spread and sustain excellence are infused with a ‘relentless restlessness’ - that often uncomfortable urge for constant innovation, driven by the nagging feeling that things are never quite good enough.”

When I was a classroom teacher, my self-imposed rule was “if I ever have time to read the newspaper during my prep time or before or after school, I needed to revisit my quest to improve student learning opportunities and engagement.”  As a classroom teacher and now, I subscribe to a “relentless restlessness” in my continued quest for better for the students we serve.

I am fortunate to learn from and with so many other "relentless restlessness" educators with an innovator’s mindset and I look forward to continuing conversation on the book, The Innovator's Mindset.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Reflections on my “Shadow a Student Challenge”

I recently participated in the “Shadow a Student Challenge” by attending the classes of a student for one day.  Empathy was my purpose for this day as I looked beyond my assumptions and put myself in the shoes of our most important clients, our students.  I reminded myself to be curious, suspend judgment, and just observe.  At the end of the day, my goal was to have gained a better perspective of our students’ learning experience.

I am always cautious about making overgeneralizations.  One class on one particular day is not always representative of an entire semester or yearlong experience.  Similarly, one day does not always represent the overall learning experience of students in our schools or district.  That said, I can only share my experience for one day.

Let’s start with what is going well in the school I observed.  The students were polite and respectful in a very safe environment.  It was obvious students were interested in doing well academically.  Also, the teachers have good connections and share a mutual respect with their students.

I then thought about my observation experience in context of a recent blog post titledNatural Versus Unnatural Learning by Jackie Gerstein which describes the disconnect of how students learn naturally versus how students often learn in public schools.  Below are 4 of the points the author makes on “school” which were reinforced in my observation.

Sit in uncomfortable desks and chairs, and expected to pay attention for long periods of time.
Other than a few exceptions, students in the classes I observed sat for the entire day.  Here is one of my observation notes during the day: “Lot’s of sitting on hard plastic chairs and in uncomfortable desks.  There are few opportunities for students to get up and move other than between classes."

Be quiet, interacting with peers occurs only periodically and only with permission from the teacher.
Other than a lab class and a group project in another class, student voices were mostly absent.  During the day, I observed: “Students don’t appear to be engaged in some classes.  Teachers asking students questions to encourage discussion, gage understanding, or solicit deeper level understanding were often missing.  For the most part, one-word answers, one student responding, and limited expectations of all students to think about and produce an answer was the norm.  Students talking about learning during a group project took place in one class.  Most student accountability to the content seems to take place on summative quizzes and tests.”

Learn and understand isolated content and topics often without a real world context and in a very linear manner.
Real world connections were mostly surface-level with the exception for one class.  In this class, the group project was designed for students to learn the content in context of real world applications.  Additionally, the same group project was the only time throughout the day in which students were allowed to use technology (BYOD or Chromebook) as a tool to explore personalized inquiry in relation to the content.

Not connect and learn with others outside of the classroom population.
I did not observe students connecting with other students and experts outside the classroom.

I firmly believe there is always room for “better,” so after my day of shadowing a student I reflected on specific ways the learning experience could be improved for students.  Recognizing there is always a time and place for all instructional practices, there are also opportunities to consider and grow.  The following is my “MORE OF” recommendation list:

      Project Based Learning
      Student Collaboration
      Student Voice and Choice in Learning
      Authentic and Real-World Connections to the Curriculum
      BYOD and Chromebooks to Research, Connect, and Create
      Formative Assessments to Ensure All Students are Learning
      Student Movement
      Flexible Seating - Tables

My goal in participating in the ‘Shadow a Student Challenge” was to have gained a better perspective of our students’ learning experience.  Yes, I achieved my goal.  It was a long day for me sitting and soaking up the information presented.  I thought back to my days as a student and wondered how much has really changed since the 1980’s.

As an overarching theme from the day, I wondered how school could become more learner-centered.  I honestly don’t think it would take that much to change classrooms from “school” to places of “learning.”  What if we asked our students how they learn best and made adjustments accordingly?  What if we took some time to reflect on what we truly believe about how students learn?  What if we reflected on the “school” and “learning” list below by George Couros and started by moving just one of our current “school” practices to “learning?”  I know our students would appreciate our effort.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Breakout EDU "The Best Thing Ever"

Back in December, Janet O'Hara (Red River Valley Education Cooperative Coordinator) dropped off 6 Breakout EDU boxes for our district to use.  Previously, I had heard of breakout rooms and Breakout EDU boxes, but never personally experienced or observed.  I was truly amazed when I observed a class of 5th grade students trying Breakout EDU for the first time.

What is Breakout EDU?
Breakout EDU creates ultra-engaging learning games for people of all ages. Games (Breakouts) teach teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, and troubleshooting by presenting participants with challenges that ignite their natural drive to problem-solve. Speciality K-12 Breakouts can be used to teach core academic subjects including math, science, history, language arts and have embedded standards that apply problem solving strategies within a real world OR collaborative context.

With the purchase of a Breakout kit, you’re able to play countless Breakouts. Each kit comes with a collection of locks, hidden contraptions, timers, keys, and other “diversion hardware” that can be used to play the Breakout challenges available from the store.  Currently, all the games in the game directory are free!

During my first time observing Breakout EDU in a classroom, Kari Melland (Curriculum Technology Partner) provided the introduction to Leslye Thiery's 5th grade class at Discovery Elementary.  While the students listened to the brief set of directions, they could hardly contain their excitement as the locked box became the focus.  And...the timer starts...NOW!  How often do we see students eagerly dive into a learning and problem-solving opportunity.  There was a buzz in the room as the students scurried around trying to make sense of the clues.  I enjoyed watching the group dynamics in action as some led the class down "wrong" paths, while some quietly figured out the "right" path.  Even with the energy and excitement of an entire class trying to figure out the clues, there were no disengaged and uninterested students.

Finally, the "Great Candy Caper" problem was solved as the students happily ate their Kit Kats. Kari and Leslye took some time to listen to the students about what they liked and what suggestions they would have to make it even better for the next time or other groups.  Here are some direct quotes:
"Best thing ever."
"We all had good ideas."
"Working together."
The first thing I noticed was the fact it had nothing to do with the extrinsic reward (Kit Kat), but rather the intrinsic rewards as listed by the students.  I observed a high-level of critical thinking, problem solving, cooperation, listening, and team work.  During the discussion, a student asked, "could we create a game for other students to try to solve?"  This comment was followed by many thoughts about how this could be done.  In education, it really does not get any better than students asking for opportunities to take critical thinking, problem solving, and deeper learning to a new level!  I can't wait to see what the students create.

To the skeptics and nay-sayers, this is not just a "game" for students to play, but an opportunity for deeper learning in all curriculum areas.  When students are empowered to create, their learning and curiosity soar to new levels.  I think it is a safe bet that more Breakout EDU boxes will need to be purchased/built/assembled in the very near future.

For additional information, follow @BreakoutEDU and co-founders James Sanders (@jamestsanders) and Mark Hammons (@mhammons) on Twitter.  Also, check out Maria Galanis's (@MariaGalanis) blog post "Breakout EDU - You Had Me at Breakout!" ( and the related infographic shown below created by Sylvia Duckworth (@sylviaduckworth).