Birds at an #EdTech Conference

One thing you certainly can’t say about #TeamJXN (Made up of Kellie DeLosSantos, Alaina Sharp and Ann Smart) is that they aren’t outside-the-box thinkers.

“Outside-the-box” is certainly well on it’s way to cliche status these days, but despite that, it still has a perfectly functional and relevant meaning. And at an EdTech conference, where so much of what we are learning about is touted as “outside-the-box”, what does it actually take to live up to that?


It takes raptors at lunch.

Simple Leadership Advice

I’m going to attempt to model this my internalization of a bit of advice that I received recently.

Leadership is about trust. You want your people to trust you?

Speak plainly and keep your word.

By speak plainly, I mean say what you mean in a way that designed to be heard and fully-processed by those who hear it. Trust corrodes when those you are leading feel the need to constantly read between the lines of your statements.

By keep your word, I mean if you commit to doing something, then do it.

The advice I received was from Mark Wilson, but his was directed at goal-setting. Goals should be simple and easily understood. He didn’t mean that they should be low-level goals. But they should be able to be stated simply.

All of our students will be safe in our school.

All of our freshman will successfully complete all of their classes.

All of our new students will get a complete orientation to our school community before they attend a single class.

These are not-simple goals, but they are stated simply. That makes them easier to follow. Easier to implement. Easier to assess.

And it also makes it easier to keep your word. Here’s what I said I would do. Did I do it?

Well, if your goals sound more like this…

“To support the ever-dynamic pressures of a 21st century global economy, we will consistently find new and innovative learning experiences to blend with classical best practices to provide the highest-quality academic pathways for our diverse learners to produce successful work- and college-ready graduates.”

… then it becomes quite a challenge to evaluate whether or not you did what you said you do. This goal is not necessarily more complicated than “All of our freshman will successfully complete all of their classes”, but it is much less likely to become the unifying slogan around which we focus our energy. And isn’t that the point of stating the goal?


To close, all of this talk about speaking plainly has me thinking of this delightful scene from Shrek the Third



The Transfigurative Work of Schools


Photo credit: Deviant Art artist Jeixnox – used under Creative Commons


I know that not everyone places as much stock in the teachings of The Bible as I do. I also know that there are some risks with teachers interpreting their role as classroom leader as overly similar to the role Jesus played in his time on earth. All of that being said, I was recently moved to reflect on how the role of our Lord as teacher could provide some lessons to us as we engage the work of educating young people.

This reflection needs a story.

I had a student some years back who struggled his way through geometry… twice. The first time it didn’t work (for a variety of different reasons). He was a pleasant boy. Fully engaged in the social aspects of class. He was a willing partner or group mate, didn’t mind talking in front of the class and practically ALWAYS listened to the words I was saying. He came to me first as a 10th grader and a struggling math learner. His skill set wasn’t strong. His perseverance also wasn’t strong. He had scraped by in math classes before he made it to geometry. Geometry seemed to be where he hit his limit.

As his struggles mounted, he began to disengage. The absences started to become more frequent. Then he got sick. I spoke to his mom. We made a plan. He eventually got better and started coming back to school, but the plan didn’t stick. By June, he had mastered barely half of the learning targets for Geometry and it became clear that I couldn’t recommend him for credit. He understood. His mom understood. I never liked having to do that.

And, due to the limitations of our system, he ended up back with me, right back where we started the next fall. This time he, as a junior, was a bit more out of his element. His other friends had advanced to the next course. And a fresh batch of last year’s freshman (now sophomores) mixed with this year’s freshman were now surrounding him. He parked into the back corner. Sat by himself. Would rock back in his chair. Still paying attention to every word I said.

As was my custom with all of the students who I have to see a second time, I like to go back and talk to him. See, I misspoke earlier. We weren’t exactly right back where we started. In addition to the half-ish of learning targets he’d once mastered, he and I knew each other. I knew his mother. I remembered him telling me what his summer was going to look like. I followed up on that. He knew I had young kids. He followed up on that. It wasn’t like last fall. It was different.

So, he sat in the back. We agreed that the absences were the primary problem last year. That my goal was, for as much as I enjoyed having him around, to never have him in my class again. And in order for that to happen, he needed to be in school. He committed to that and to his credit, he kept his word. He came to school a lot more, missing a few days here or there. There weren’t too many gimmicks or cheesy incentive programs. (although, he became one of the guys I could really count on. There is a benefit to having a kid who doesn’t mind being tardy to his next class. When the bell sneaks up on you and you need someone to help rearrange desks and clean up construction paper scraps, a guy like him was handy to have around. Don’t worry. I wrote him late passes to keep him out of trouble.)

But he continued to sit in the back and keep to himself. Eventually, that changed some. I paired him up for think-pair-shares with some fairly safe partners. And he kept learning geometry. A “C” here, a “B-” there, a “D+” somewhere else. Most of the time he was passing. Sometimes he wasn’t. Some quizzes or tests he needed to try twice, but he did. Sometimes he couldn’t stay after school, so he’d go in the hallway to do it. No big deal really. I was just happy he was coming to school.

Then, in late May, I was able to show him that he was mathematically in the clear. He had learned enough geometry to pass and could prove it to anyone who asked. We high-fived and I called his mom to make sure she knew. She was excited. He shrugged it off. Mostly, it seemed he wanted to verify that this meant that he didn’t have to study for the final (as was his custom). I rolled my eyes at him and told him that he should see it as a chance to show off how different this year was to last (as was my custom).

In reality, it was a compromise. He tried a few problems. The ones that were easy for him. Left the harder ones blank. But, on the last problem of the test, he wrote something that I’ll never forget.

“It’s been a great two years. Thank you for not giving up on me.”

He put it at the very end. Last question after about a dozen that he’d skipped. He knew that I’d look at every single question. (I told you. He listened to everything I said. After two years, he probably knew me as a teacher better than I knew myself. He probably could have written my evaluation more accurately than me.)

I didn’t expect that. What if I told you that a kid would fail geometry, have the same teacher the second year, just barely pass, and would THANK the teacher at the end? I didn’t get many thanks from those students. Heck, I didn’t get many thanks from students who had great experiences in my classes.

But it helped me to realize something. Teaching isn’t about accepting students as they are and leaving them be. It’s about accepting the reality of where a kid is and helping them become more and better versions of themselves. Perhaps our job is to help transfigure our students.

Eastern Christianity commemorates the feast of the Transfiguration of the Christ in late summer. You can read about it if you’re unfamiliar. It’s in Matthew, chapter 17. In a nutshell, Christ takes His three closest disciples up to the top of a desolate mountain and begins to radiate a light brighter than any of them had ever seen. Moses and Elijah appear also. He did this for a variety of reasons, but the most important reason was that this light wasn’t new. It wasn’t something that Christ had only recently found, acquired, or learned. This was something that was always inside of Him, it was always a part of Him. He needed His disciples to understand that. They needed a full understanding of the reality of their situation. One commentary considers it “a foreshadowing of His future glory.”

When the disciples came down, their resolve was set. They had (quite literally) seen the top of the mountain and knew that their goal was to get back there again. They’d seen the glory of Him whom they were following and knew that if He was willing to share it, they were willing to work to receive it.

As I was reflecting on the story of the transfiguration as I read it today, I noticed some connections to the way that teachers relate to the students in their classrooms.

Each of these children has “a future glory” built into them. There’s a potential that is always there. It’s a part of them, built into the very fabric of their humanness. Our job is to give them a chance to see a foreshadowing of that future glory. To give them a view of the potential they have. To help them to see that it exists and is worth fighting for, worth working for, worth sacrificing for, worth struggling for.

It would have been easier for me leave that boy to his struggles, move him on (either by flimsily passing him or casting him off to another teacher). It would have been easier for him to simply quit the second year as he did the first year. The struggles build up. There were times he wasn’t passing, even in the second year. At those moments, he needed to decide why year two was going to be different than year one. Not me. Him. He needed to know.

And while I didn’t know it at the time, he knew it was different because there was an adult who, as he put it, wasn’t giving up on him. Who believed not in what he was, but in what he could become. Who was able to foreshadow his future glory. Quite literally, there was a portion of that student who was transfigured during geometry class. And I didn’t know it was happening. The day-to-day becomes ordinary and the students are numerous enough that you don’t recognize what is happening moment-by-moment. But when he had a moment to reflect, he recognized what had happened. And I’m glad he did because now, I do, too.

That’s our role. We are in a human development industry. There is an often-unspoken understanding that development means that at the beginning, people aren’t what they should be. And they need guides to become fully developed. Many of our students don’t come to our rooms as their best selves. They’ve become convinced of things that aren’t true. They’ve drawn conclusions from experiences that are interpreted through blurry lenses. As a result, they are confused. They look to the world around them and they often don’t find help. Many of the modern social messages are contradictory and confusing. 140-character answers are plentiful, but real help often takes much more time. The messages from the media don’t help. What helps are caring adults who, as my student put it, won’t give up on them.

That’s where our job begins. We get these young people and we need to take them up the mountain. Show them why their future selves are worth struggling, fighting, and sacrificing for. We need to foreshadow their future glory. Because in so doing, we accept that our task is no less than to transfigure these students a little bit at a time.

Reflections on #mindshare16

After the first day of MACUL’s Leadership Mindshare, Mark Smith (@smithstem) and I reflected on the somewhat unique structure that was on display. “As they started unpacking their idea, I told them, ‘We’re not going to have another conference. We just don’t need another conference,” Mark told me. He didn’t explicitly describe what he was trying to avoid, but whatever it was, it worked.

The goals of the event were to bring experienced leaders together with novice and aspiring educational leaders and then make the open sharing of ideas, effective networking, problem-solving, and inspirational story-telling a built-in part of the experience. The designers of the two-day event predicted quite accurately that these were the things that folks would not need to be coerced into doing. These are things we attendees did with great enthusiasm.

There were some keynote-ish presentations from Mark Wilson (@markwilsonGA), Dr. Brad Gustafson (@GustafsonBrad), and Amber Teamann (@8amber8).

And between those short presentations, the presenters mingled among the breakout conversations, which were designed to revolve around the themes of the presentations.

The balance was a powerful piece. We’ve long since realized that PD’s where we sit and listen for extended periods of time, but at the same time, there was a limit on the productivity of the smaller 6-7 person breakout discussions. There was time when we needed to come back together and hear some stories and advice, laugh and think.

The structures were varied…

… and full use was made of the beautiful room we were in.


And in so doing, not only were we discussing in ways that were unusually high-engagement considering the standards of most educator PD, but we also saw some excellent strategies modeled — an important understanding for school leaders who have the stereotype of boring staff meetings.

Here’s a small version of Socratic circles I got to be a part of.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up, but in the end, there were many take- aways for me.

The value of influencing despite authority. My role currently includes ZERO authority, but many, many opportunities for influence. The goal is to be able to influence people toward powerful student-centered teaching and when growth is needed, I don’t have the ability to mandate anything like a traditional building leader would. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no opportunity. Do I believe in my ideas enough to sell them to people who could just as easily tell me to flake off?

We need to innovate the right way. Given the constant flow of new ideas, new structures, new devices and apps, there is a certain value to being able to reassess the experiences our students have in our schools. But innovation is an investment. And thereby a sacrifice. You sacrifice a known quantity for an unknown. You invest time and resources in hopes that there’s an improvement toward a greater goal. That makes it a risk. And you can’t simply rack up losses in the name of innovation. Innovation needs to be strategic, controlled, and focused on areas that serve to improve the school community.

Everywhere you are, someone’s been there before and been successful. Find them and learn from them. Everywhere you’ve been, someone’s there right now and could use someone to learn from. Let them find you.

In the end, I suspect there were a lot of folks whose feelings could be summed up pretty well in 140 characters or less.


Zooming In, Zooming Out: On Education Research (and Religion)


U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Chris Desmond. (RELEASED)

Feedback. Various researchers have stated that effective feedback should be of the “what’s next?” variety. Good feedback helps people see “what’s next?”

But what if the feedback is corrective? Is the revision of the previous attempt implicitly the “what’s next”? What if it wasn’t implicit? What if the teacher explicitly told the student to revise? Then does it become better feedback? What if the feedback isn’t directly related to the content, but instead the organization of their work? Does that reduce the quality of the feedback since the correction is toward a non-content goal?

What if? What about that? How about this?

These have been the conversations in which I’ve found myself several times over the last few weeks. My mind has been racing. Not only to understand the intense scrutiny with which we are examining teacher moves, but also to convince myself that these types of conversations are valuable.

Lines of questioning like I mentioned above are like zooming really far in on a certain single aspect of teaching and for a moment exploring it in isolation. Treating it like it is the only factor that matters in order to understand that one thing completely. As though, for a moment, all that mattered was good feedback. Or formative assessment. Or opportunities to respond.

The fact is that these different aspect of teaching and learning don’t exist in isolation. That’s one of the unrelenting truths of the classroom. Opportunities to respond and feedback depend on the quality of the classroom management. Good feedback depends, at least partly, on effective working relationships with students. And good formative assessment is quite dependent on the skill of assessment writing.

So, does the essential interconnectedness of these different elements of good instruction mean that we shouldn’t separate them out and examine each one? Well, not so fast. It’s true that lines of questioning like that can go on for a long time and in the end, we’ve created some pretty well-defined boundaries around things like feedback, or formative assessment, or opportunities to respond. But, I think we need to suspend our disbelief for a moment to understand that these types of conversations ARE important.

I repeat: These conversations are important to have and I believe more practitioners should be having them. There are a variety of terms that we use as educators that are common AND really poorly defined. Feedback is an excellent example, but also terms like “mastery”, “high standards”, even words like “compassion” get used with widely different understandings and thus widely different corresponding behaviors.

But these are words that have meanings and corresponding behaviors that will improve students’ lives and school experiences when done properly (and will have limited effects when done poorly.) There isn’t always an A-for-effort when it comes to teacher moves. “I tried to give good feedback” is noble, but “I gave good feedback” is more effective for student learning. And switching from the former to the latter will require locking down what effective feedback is and what it is not. This is true for any number of teacher moves from instruction to assessment to classroom management to communication.

But we can’t stay zoomed in. I credit a colleague for saying, “Education research is about constantly zooming in and then zooming out. Getting narrow and then widening your view. You work to create definitions, then you zoom out to see those definitions in context.”

This discussion isn’t entirely different from the back-and-forth required to become effective practioners of most religions. Most of the religions that I am even surface-level familiar with have this same back-and-forth between the experiential, spiritual, the perhaps undefinable side with the clinical, dogmatic and well-defined side.

For example, some religions practice fasting from food and drink for different times of the year. Further, some fast from meat and dairy on the ground that for a given time, they shouldn’t eat “animal products.”

What about eggs? Eggs aren’t meat or dairy, but they are clearly an animal product.

What about fish? Depends on how you define “meat.”

What about honey? Are bees animals? Is honey a “product” of that animal?

What about soy milk? It’s not an animal product, but it’s feels kinda like cheating. Is the goal to make do without milk? Or simply to not consume the animal product?

And when should do children start this? Should infants suspend nursing during the fasts because it’s milk? Or are infants exempt? If infants are exempt, what about their mothers who are needing to keep their diet somewhat consistent to stay well-nourished to feed their infants? When would the religious leaders guide the parents to start having the children begin fasting?

See? It all gets very clinical quite quickly. By asking such questions, we’ve allowed ourselves to zoom all the way into the nitty gritty details about this one aspect of the spiritual experience. And quite frankly, that’s okay as long as we remember that the  clinical exists to enable us to serve the bigger picture better. The point of fasting (at least as far as I’ve understood it) is to be able to pray better. That’s what we see when we zoom back out.

And being willing to help practitioners dig through the nitty-gritty can be a way to honor the sincerity of their devotion. They want to do the very best job they can and they have questions. That’s okay. It’s okay if they want to zoom in and examine the different elements of the work they are trying to do. We should encourage them to do that inasmuch as it is providing effective supports to their efforts toward the bigger-picture goals.

And this brings us back to the classroom. Classroom teachers should be encouraged to zoom in on the finer details of their work, too. The zooming in provides definitions and supports techniques. The zooming out provides context. Zooming in is where the fine-tuning occurs. Zooming out is where we learn how those updated practices look amidst the sea of other factors. Do we really have time? What will that activity look like the way my desks are configured? When will I be able to provide feedback to the second and third step of the project for each group?

It takes both. Neither is good enough on their own. They aren’t enemies, but rather they complement one another. And when we gain an appreciation of the place, value, and role of the zoom-in and the zoom-out, then we can start to use them both to make our work better and better.

Latest Updates to My Geometry Course

My geometry course… funny. It isn’t really my geometry course anymore. Little by little it’s becoming more of a curated set of links that make me wish I still had a classroom. That’s what community will do for you and the innovative math community more than takes care of people. I’ve noticed some excellent learning experiences that my geometry course has been missing. So, I’m adding them. All three are Desmos activities.

Parallelograms in the Coordinate Plane by Jared – This one asks some very interesting questions and has a nice format in which to do it. Due to the algebraic nature of proving this parallel, parallelograms are a nice target for a Desmos activity.

Transformation Polygraph by Julia Finneyfrock (@jfinneyfrock) – Seriously. Check this activity out and then daydream about all the outstanding vocabulary the students would be forced to use while competing with each other.

Working with Dilations by Mr. Rothe – This one is particularly handy because my unit on dilations and scale factor wasn’t my favorite. This is a very robust activity (36 slides), so time might become an issue, but depending on how you run it, I feel like there’s a ton of value embedded in the different learning activities.

If you give any of these a try, please let me know how they go.


Seeing through the eyes of 5th and 6th graders

The assignment was simple enough. Take a photo that reflects energy changing from one form to another. It could be a photo that you find funny or interesting. Or it could be something that you’re curious about or have questions about. That part was up to them. The “why” behind the photo was their business.

Here’s a few of the highlights. Enjoy. It’s not very often you get to see physics through the eyes of 10-12-year-olds.


Which one is your favorite?