Our Students as Creators: My initial Thoughts

I wanna share this with you because I been thinking about it for a while now. In 2014, I began working in classrooms as a Instructional Tech Specialist, which is a bit of a misleading title, because instructional technology isn’t a thing to specialize in. Instruction is a thing to specialize in. And I’ve learned a ton. And it’s been difficult for me to make sense of all that I’ve seen and heard. But, I’m ready to try.

During this time (plus a bit before), I’ve heard and read a lot of really smart and well-researched people say a lot of things about teaching and learning. They are saying and writing some really good stuff. Among the people that I’m referring to are Kathleen Cushman, Angela Lee Duckworth, Christopher Emdin, John Hattie, Rushton Hurley,  Robert Marzano, Dan Meyer, John O’Connor, Sir Ken Robinson, Conrad Wolfram, and Gregory Yates. Some of these folks are specialized. For example, Dan Meyer once responded to a question that I asked with “I’d prefer to stick to offering my help to secondary math situations because it’s where I feel most qualified.” (paraphrased). Other folks area extremely general. John Hattie, for example, has advice to give on practically everything.

And I’ve had conversations with other educators who favor some of these educators over others. In our areas, “… because Marzano said so…” or “… because Hattie said so…” are becoming cliches and it is weakening the credibility that those two researchers have among many educators. I think that this is a critique that is best directed toward those attempting to apply the research more than the researchers themselves. (That said, I have heard some criticisms of both of these guys that are directed toward them.)

But, I see a few issues with “this researcher vs. that researcher” thinking. The primary issue that I see is that teaching and learning is really complex. Like… really, really complex. It’s hard to generalize and even once it’s generalized, it a second difficult task to execute it well. And it’s an even more difficult task to maintain excellence in that execution over an entire school year. So, while it may seem that Hattie and Sir Ken Robinson are disagreeing, it’s more likely that they are seeing different elements that are equally valid components of a complex whole.

There’s also my experience that I’m having a hard time ignoring. That I’ve seen some really effective teachers and some teachers who really struggle. And that is true of teachers of all types. I’ve seen teachers who are trying to “do STEAM” in their classrooms and their students don’t seem to be thriving. I’ve seen teachers who create the most dynamic, effective learning environments “doing STEAM”. Likewise with more traditional setups. I’ve seen teachers whose students learning at a very high level using a very traditional set up. And I’ve seen teachers who just can’t get this right.

What’s the difference? And more than that, is it a difference that can be taught? The quick-and-easy answer is “relationships.” And that does seem to be a big deal. A teacher who builds strong and productive relationships with students seem to have a leg up regardless of their teaching-and-learning style. But, here I’ll turn it over to my colleague Nate Stevenson:

I take that to mean there are still best practices that will maximize your students’ potentials. Relationships alone won’t do it. Neither, perhaps, will all the right teacher moves. There’s a marriage there. Like so many things, there’s a complementary nature between the two differences. Not one VERSUS the other, but the two coming together to make each other better.

With this in mind, I took to exploring the aforementioned educators thoughts and ideas and wanted to see if there was a way I could characterize quality education that took into account all that they were advocating for. I wondered if each of them was trying to describe a central reality from their own imperfect perspective. (And that isn’t a knock. There is only one perfect perspective, and none of those educators is God.)

That having been said, here’s my best, first try from my imperfect perspective. I requires me to classify two types of lessons. Activities and lessons where the students are primarily CONSUMERS and activities and lessons where students are primarily CREATORS. And my thought right now is that there needs to be a balance between the two. For each activity the students spend consuming new knowledge, they need an activity where they create within that content.

The researchers seems to make a handful of points quite consistently:

Teacher-student relationships need to be strong because…

  • students need to develop the ability to be pushed in a safe environment, learn to make mistakes and patiently grow rather than quit. Trust is key here.
  • students learn best in learning communities in which they feel valued and are making an active contribution.

Lessons and Learning Activities should (as often as possible) include…

  • Goals targeting both the knowledge and the actions. (What will they know AND be able to do?)
  • Effective direct instruction of new material to support the learning goals
  • flexible, yet predictable processes and procedures
  • An opportunity for the students to collaborate with each other
  • Options for demonstrations of student learning


Disclosure statement: I want to stop right here and say that if anyone has used this language before, I am haven’t read it. I’ll gladly yield the floor and give credit to those who have written on this before. Any overlap is very much unintentional.

I’m going to spend the next couple posts laying out my thoughts around this topic.

Thoughts on Reading from @roddreher

I’m currently reading How Dante Can Save Your Life by Rod Dreher, which is a super compelling read. Great story-telling and wonderful personal insights into struggles that I’ve sort of had, but in a much different way.

From an educator’s standpoint, one quote stood out completely.

Books, even works of fiction, can be do it yourself manuals for people searching for the wisdom to fix their lives. Some of the best self-help books are not shelved in the self-help section. But don’t think that reading is the same thing as doing. When thinking about action as a substitute for taking action, reading is an obstacle to getting better. Reading a recipe and learning it back-to-front is not the same thing as baking a cake. Read certainly. But make sure you take time to contemplate in stillness and prayer (if you pray) what you have read and implement it in your life. The best books offer a window into life and truth, but their lessons only become alive and true for us if we take them into our hearts and by force of will turn them into action. The key is to know when to turn off the analytical mind and when to engage the will. (From about the 3:49:00 mark of the audio book version (sorry. I don’t have the page to reference.)

I suppose this quote resonated with me because from the time I was a young professional I wanted to improve my teaching and there are many books that I’ve read about it. I know many people like me who have used a similar strategy. But I suppose that I need to be reminded that you don’t get better simply by reading. You get better by reading, taking a moment to still your mind and contemplate and pray. Then making a choice and implementing through force of will (as Dreher puts it.) “Force of will” is an important phrase here because there’s always inertia that makes it easier to keep doing what you are doing, even if you know there’s a better way.

But keep reading and keep encouraging your students to do the same. But don’t think that you are naturally improving anything simply by the act of reading. Once you’ve read, what are you going to do next?

Math Talk by Necessity: a 4-year-old’s story


My 4-year-old is chatty. And while he will occasionally talk to himself, he’d much rather talk to you. And to him nothing is more frustrating than not being understood.

So, he’s realized that he needs detail. Words like “lots” or “just a little” or “soon” are easily misunderstood. Like when Dad says, “Hang on, dinner will be ready soon.” He’d prefer to have a better understanding of whether you mean 30-seconds soon or 10-minutes soon.

The math teachers among us see this as adding units to your answer. We ask our students, “What was the final speed of the car?” We don’t expect them to say, “fast.” We’d prefer something like “54 m/s”. So would my 4-year-old. “Soon” is too loose a word.

Except, most of the typical units don’t mean anything to him because he is still developing his understanding of what “a mile” is. First, that it’s a unit of distance. Second, how far is one of those. These two things are essential to making meaning out of a statement like, “Well, the store is 6 miles from here.” Without those, statements like “This box is heavy. It’s, like, 6 miles!” are not uncommon around my house right now.

But yesterday, something new happened. Together, he and I made Alton Brown’s Hot Cocoa Mix . To go from ingredients to a drink, you have four units of measure. (cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, and ounces)

So, midway through as we were chatting about this and that… together making the distinction between teaspoons and tablespoons… why two cups of one ingredient looks so much different than two teaspoons of another… stuff like that. Then, we came to the part where we needed to scoop the mix into the mug and I handed him a “scooper” and he says, “I need two… two… of THESE, but I don’t know what it’s NAME is? Dad… what’s this one’s name?”

Did you catch that? There was a step forward in that.

He knew the number wasn’t enough. “Put two in there” is really easily misunderstood. That would be a problem. Two of what?

He also knew that it totally mattered what “name” he gave the scooper. If he called it “a cup”, he risked calling it the wrong thing. Two cups of mix makes a totally different amount of hot cocoa that two tablespoons. And both could be called “a scoop”. (Two scoops from the coffee can is different that the two scoops of raisins on the cereal box.)

Finally, he figured out that this thing had a name. That I knew it. That he needed to know it and that it wouldn’t work to make it up. If he is going to communicate this amount to others, he needed to know the ACTUAL name of this scooper. Not his preferred name.

There you have it. Math talk by necessity. Lends credence to the notion that if you put students in rich enough environments, you won’t have to mandate good math talk. They simply won’t be able to communicate effectively without it.

Now, we just have to deal with the fact that when Chef Alton says “two tablespoons”, Dad tries to measure accurately while the 4-year-old would prefer that mean “the maximum possible amount of hot cocoa mix that the tablespoon will transfer to the mug.”

Reflections from #ISTE2016

You have to be careful with expecations. I heard a Deacon say in a sermon once “expecations are just opportunites to be disappointed.” And I suspect that in instances like your first ISTE Conference, it’s best to go into expecting that you’ll have no clue what to expect. Sorry… (ISTE is the International Society for Technology in Education… they have a massive conference each year.) And when you reflect on time spent there, it’s important to compare it to it’s own goals and not my expectations. The planners didn’t know my expectations. So, it’s unfair to say, “I wanted it to be this… and it’s wasn’t.” That isn’t their job.

There are people who are really high on this conference and there are folks who were very unimpressed including Adam Rozenweig (who in the comments admitted that his rather dramatic analysis, while not entirely false, was probably sold short some of the value) and Audrey Waters (who asserts that it’s time to give up on computers in education).

As with most things, my reflections are going to be somewhere in the middle and far less dramatic.

This was my first experience with ISTE of any kind. There isn’t much talk of their standards around our parts and with our own growing #EdTech group right in our backyard (MACUL), ISTE simply doesn’t make it to the classroom level very often. So, all of these impressions that were made on me were first impressions. And, as Lemony Snicket reminds us, sometimes first impressions are hasty and made in error. Other times, they are perfectly accurate. Admittedly, I simply don’t know which at this point. And what’s more, I’m not sure it’s all that important that I figure it out.

That having been said, here are my chief takeaways from my 4 days in Denver.

Takeaway #1 – ISTE is really, really big.

And I’m not entirely convinced that the growth of the educator-attendees was the primary goal. (This is Mr. Rozenweig’s chief complaint, by the way.) The signage wasn’t great, the session schedule was awkward, the BYOD/hands-on sessions had spotty networks to work on (one session I was in had bandwidth for only about half of the attendees). The keynotes were held in an auditorium that seemed to be chosen for it’s beauty… neverminding the fact that there was only enough seats for about 2/3 of the attendees. This seems indicative of a conference that invited educators for something OTHER than reflective growth. This isn’t a knock against them. I think a goal of reflective growth is awful challenging to meet with 15,000 folks in attendance. (And we’re not even talking about money… goodness. My calculations suggest that attendee registration fees alone add up to over $7 million.) So, what was the goal?

Takeaway #2 – The goal appeared to be educator-exploration.

While there were learning sessions available, many were pre-registered hands-on regarding particular technologies, sponsored sessions (like the Google room that seemed to have a Cedar-Pointe-esque line outside of it all the time) and panel-sessions. These were largely a complement to the enormous amount of exploration that was available. The BreakoutEDU bus was a low-cost (zero dollars and about half-hour of your time) exploration of a particular type of project-based learning. The poster sessions had some pretty cool stuff to show off, many of which were applications from local schools and classrooms, some with the students onsite. The playgrounds would have been cooler if they weren’t so doggone crowded, but still allowed for some exploration of things you’ve heard of but maybe haven’t seen before (Google Cardboard, for example). Then there was the expo hall…

The Expo Hall was sort of like walking through a massive (MASSIVE) #EdTech farmers market, except instead of trading cash for produce, hanging flower baskets and homemade venison jerky, your trading in e-mail addresses, business cards, and photo-ops. Just like farmer’s markets, every last person standing at a booth is a salesman. Just like a farmer’s market, many of them are offering free samples. Just like farmer’s markets, your primary value to any of those folks is your organization’s budget. Just like a farmer’s market it is very easy to get lost, over-stimulated and exhausted, or kill about 2 hours without either A) batting an eye, or B) accomplishing anything.

And just like a farmer’s market, the people who love it best are the folks who know how to get what they need in that environment. Not everyone does. And among those who do, there are those who simply do not enjoy it. Personally, I don’t mind it. And Lego let’s you play with stuff.

It just seemed like the who goal was to give educators 4 days to explore new things, ask questions, get ideas and products pitched to them by excited people and network. It was going to be difficult to build in the reflection, team brain-storming, and problem-solving in that venue.

Takeaway #3 – Despite some of the grumblers, there were good non-sponsored, educator-led sessions.

Really. There were. Michelle McCloud and Marcy Faust out of Baton Rouge, LA did a great talk on transforming unused media center space into a “Learning Commons” by approaching the science department and offering to lend a hand. Super down-to-earth. The current status is quite excited and productive, but the process to getting there was the topic of the session. It was in this session that I relearned a really valuable lesson: Awesome things become awesome through careful and reflective step-by-step planning. Thinking of the details and being clear about the goals. Spontaneous awesome is either pure luck or not nearly as spontaneous as it seems.

Ben Wilkoff (@bhwilkoff), Jessica Raleigh (@tyrnad) and Brandon Petersen (@den_petersen) from Denver had a nice talk about ways to support the use of video in the classroom as a reflective tool for students, teachers, and coaches. Format was excellent and bringing three people helped to make the hands-on nature efficient.

James Kapptie out of Wyoming did something that no other session I had ever been in (at ANY conference… ever) did. He led us, like a band of sight-seers in a new city, through 16th Street in Downtown Denver and used that to model his learning targets which were primarily that we have to get students up and moving and the tech (in this case, augmented reality) needs to support that.

Finally, I rather enjoyed the candid panel discussion regarding improving teacher PD by Julie Keane, Liz Radzicki, and Margaret Conway out of Chicago. I’m on a team right now that kicks off a different plan with similar goals this fall, so I was very interested to hear how they did, what worked, what didn’t and they were very candid and took many questions from the group.

In the end, ISTE 2016 probably did for me what it was supposed to. I networked with some educators, I learned about some new stuff (products, services, teacher moves, etc.) and took really good notes so that if I forget anything, I’ll have something look back on. I look forward to moving forward to seeing how these experiences show their value in the weeks, and months ahead.

Mathematical Reading – Wrapping my thoughts up.

I have spent the last couple of posts discussing the value, need, and potential of considering mathematical reading an essential learning target in all math classes.

Typically, this isn’t a tough sell in the elementary world because elementary teachers are teachers of all things anyway. They teach reading, writing, science, math, (and in some cases, art, music and phys ed, too.)

Secondary folks, on the other hand, tend to exist is a more compartmentalized world. This is largely a product of the increase in sophistication and depth of the content as the public education sequences progresses toward graduation. It is simply unreasonable to expect educators to have a teachers-level knowledge base of biology, economics, civics, algebra, and literature, as would be required if freshman year structurally looked like first grade. Compartmentalization (or silos as is becoming a popular term) has downsides as well. And many of those downsides can be wrapped up in the all-too-often uttered phrase “It’s not my job.”

And in my years in education, I’ve heard “it’s not my job to teach reading” from math teachers many times. And I forgive them for saying it. Math is a world that communicates differently. Graphs, charts, symbols, equations… we do that stuff so that we don’t have to read.

And they have a point. Consider these mouthfuls:

“The sum of the squares of the legs of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse”.

“The slope of a linear function is the coefficient on the independent variable when the function is written in slope intercept form.”

There’s a reason people (both mathematicians and students, mind you) look to use notation to represent those two statements. it is quite a bit easier for a student to say “well, y = mx + b… slope is the m.” And what’s more, that statement will work effectively more often than not. So what’s the problem?

Through the lens of solving math problems on a test, there probably isn’t much of a problem. But consider reading to be an essential problem-solving skill, then there’s a risk to consistently easing the reading burden. We might be navigating our students strategically away from something they’ll need.

And while this thought process was instigated by the releases based around the redesigned SAT, I wouldn’t simply use the test as the primary motivator for updating our math classes. I would prefer to examine what message the College Board is trying to send by insisting that their materials insist on such a high degree of literacy for all subject areas, even considering that they have a reading and a writing test already.

And the message might be worth listening to. And possibly not. Remember, the very first post in this 5-part series started with the words, “This post has questions. No answers in this post. Just questions.”

Now it’s on all of you to help answer my questions and there was a lot. Ready? Go!