New Layout, New Title, Refined Focus


I've iterated on this blog a lot over the years. I started by focusing on chemistry, and then switched over to teaching and learning in general. Layouts changed, content evolved, and it's time for one more shift for (what I hope) is the last time.

I've grown a lot as a teacher. I've gone from being staunchly opposed or advocating for certain ideas, fighting tooth and nail over ideology and finer points of what happens in the classroom. I've learned that language is important, and that healthy debate can help advance practice.

I've also learned that fighting over minor differences in opinion can stagnate growth and entrench ideas before they're fully realized for the sake of sticking to your guns. I've wrestled with the idea of having a "thing" to platform myself on and how to use that to leverage opportunities and discussions. Rather than dive down the holes of what practice is "best," I've decided to step back.

I'm interested in teaching and learning. I'm interested in technology. I want to explore how technology can intersect with teaching and learning in powerful ways.

I'm going to be working to tweak the layout and usability of the new site, but I want to point out that all of the old content is still here. So, links aren't broken and posts aren't missing. I'm looking for ideas, debate, and growth.

If you're a reader, thanks for reading.

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Straddling the Line


"Walk the line" could work, too, but I'm no Johnny Cash.

I moved to TechSmith nearly a year ago from teaching. All I ever wanted to do since starting college was teach. I never changed my major, and I never held a job (except for summer work) prior to jumping into my own classroom in 2009. I also managed to work in public, private, and charter schools since I began teaching. I've added to my license as well as added to my interests. Last winter was the first time I seriously considered, and subsequently acted on, leaving the classroom.

When I left, I had a real identity crisis. What was my focus? How do I identify myself? To be honest, my first instinct is still to say, "Hi, I'm Brian, and I'm a teacher." That's how I feel, but it's strange to not have that be the truth anymore.

It's something I think about a lot today. Most of my friends are teachers. All of my contextual references for how to handle certain situations come from teaching. Nearly all of my favorite stories to tell about "work" come from teaching. I understand that most of my professional life was in the classroom, so the number of references are to be expected, but those memories feel more crisp...more alive.

I feel like I can't talk to some people the way I used to. I'm someone else now, on the other side of the glass, looking in. I relish stories of students doing great things, of teachers having major wins and major fails. I feel the pain in the struggle and I feel awkward when I realize I don't have to think about the politics anymore. But I also feel like a cop out when that happens, so I make sure to stay informed.

I feel the shift when I say, "I used to be in the classroom." Is it a loss of respect? Of appreciation? I'm not sure. Probably not. But it's still there.

I also get looks from the other end...looks from teachers who wish they were in my position. Longing for something...release? Relief? Just a chance to get out while they still have their sanity? Those unsettle me the most.

Switching gears is really, really hard. I don't feel like I've escaped the inescapable system. I also don't feel like I've given up on public education. In fact, I feel stronger about it now than I ever have before. But, and this might get me in trouble, being on the other side of the line, I see how much mistrust there is when it comes to education. I don't know what else to call it. I'm also guilty of the same judgements.

How many lines do we all straddle? Who's burden is it to manage the dissonance? Can (should?) we favor one side over the other?

I think I'm learning that the value in relationships come from our experiences walking our lines. Playing the teacher on one side, and the parent/professional/author/athlete/astronaut/whatever on the other three or four sides. Life isn't black and white, so how can out self-identifications be?

I know that before I left, I was a teacher. My lines have become irreversibly intertwined, but that isn't a detriment. I'm thankful for my time in the classroom. I'm thankful for my time (so far) at TechSmith. I'm looking forward to getting even more tangled up every day.


More Faith


I did a webinar yesterday afternoon with Marc Siegel, Deb Wolf, and Ramsey Musallam on the various ways Flipped Learning can be incorporated into a science classroom. We spoke about changing mindsets, thinking about mastery learning and standards based grading, and using video tools in class along with other ideas and tips.

Ramsey spoke near the end of the broadcast about using inquiry learning in his Explore-Flip-Apply method. I asked him, "Ramsey, how do you train your kids to work well in an inquiry environment? I'm not sure mine could handle that from day one in the semester, so what do you do?"

Ramsey came back by saying, "Actually, I drop them right in from day one. I don't really train them in anything at all. Kids have an innate curiosity that we have to tap into in order to fully engage them in the content." (Or something along those lines.)

Now, let me preface this by saying I've heard Ramsey say this over and over as I've gotten to know him. But, I never really put any faith in my students.

I decided to take it to heart. Today, I had an entire lab planned out with procedures, data tables, and follow-up questions. I knew what my kids would do, and they would fill in the blanks and then move on. I decided to scrap the entire lab and go with one statement:

Photo is mine.

Photo is mine.

I have a sample. It has water attached to it. I need to know how much water it contains.

The only question I asked them for this lab is: "What percent of my sample is water?"

I didn't have enough faith in my classes. I didn't really trust them to do anything like this. I was proven wrong this morning. For you science folks, our average error from the first two classes is two percent. Two. My students have encouraged me, and from what I've observed, they've felt proud of their work. They were so excited to hear how close they had come. I haven't seen energy like this in a while.

I'd lost sight of the excitement that should come from science...from discovery. I'd lost sight of the process because I'd focused too much on the end result. I can talk about the process, but I need to have them go through the process.

My students can now explain how to find the mass percentage of part of a compound. They can do it better than if I had stood up or recorded a video and taught them. Tomorrow, we'll involve mols somehow and see what happens.

Hopefully, my students will begin to feel more trusted and more empowered in the process.


Let’s Forget EdTech in 2013


I want to propose something crazy: I think we talk too much about education technology. I'm guilty of it, and it's been weighing on me over Christmas break. Maybe I'm projecting some of my concerns out there, but let me explain a little bit.

2012 seemed like an edtech explosion to me. Every week, I would hear about some new tool that lets teachers and students do this or that, which is great. But all of the focus was on how the tool will revolutionize or change your teaching. The problem I have with this is that too many people are falling into the trap of trying to teach to the tool, rather than using the tool to teach.

There is a major distinction that needs to be made: pedagogy must be the focus of any teacher improvement plan. What is our philosophy of teaching and learning? How do we approach instruction and assessment? What content is important? How will we work with students to support learning? Then, at the point where we are supporting learning, when the ground work has been laid, we can begin to look into technology. I am saying this as a confessed non-practicer (at least consistently) of the workflow.

I've fallen into the trap of seeing something awesome and trying to squeeze it into the class for the sake of using it. There is no lower connection for me, so meaningful use doesn't translate to the classroom space.

What I'm hoping to see (and participate in) are blog posts and articles that walk readers through the process of choosing a tool. What goals are you trying to accomplish? How does that tie into your learning process in the big picture? How are students supported? How is your process supported? How did that tool meet or not meet those goals?

We've got the resources and we've got the product reviews. It's time to start putting them to better work together.


Growing Pains


This is a repost of an article I wrote for Brett Clark's 12 Days of Dreaming series.

f you have kids, know people with kids, or work with kids, you know that they will face some painful days as they grow. First comes teething, which I’ve heard is a nightmare. Then, the awkward pubic years when bones are stretching faster than the brain’s balance centers can keep up. Years pass, our joints begin to ache when the weather changes, and we can’t heal up from injuries as fast or as completely as we used to.

The business of growing is difficult.

But, through all the pain, we learn a valuable lesson: pain and growth have to come together to be meaningful.

I don’t know many cyclists that learned to ride a bike the first time their parent let go of the seat. A scraped knee from falling off of a bike helps us learn that balancing is much easier when we’re moving forward. As we move through the pain of growth, we come to expect better things when it’s over.

Schools are a prime example of pain and growth. Students, you have stories about working through very difficult classes. Teachers, what about the student that tested you every day of class? Administrators, you can tell us about the first year teachers that have come through your building.

Pain is an indicator of growth.

Education is in a painful place right now. Schools and governments are polarized against one another over education. We are being blamed for many social problems, and there isn’t much trust in the state or federal leadership. Teachers are fearful for their jobs and the role testing will (or won’t) play in how we are evaluated.

Within the frustrations and the stress, though, we have an opportunity to implement better schools.

It is our responsibility to model growth to our students. Brainstorm with your colleagues on how to implement changes. Work with student advisory groups to solve problems. Encourage someone more frequently than you complain about a particular circumstance.

The attitude shift begins with recognizing that if there is no pain, there is no growth..

Don’t be soured by painful situations. Recognize the opportunity for growth and focus on the goal rather than the immediate. There is no silver bullet for any single problem. But, we can turn a lot of silver BB’s into a comprehensive solution.

Let us know in the comments what growing pains you’re having and what you’ve learned as you’ve worked through them.

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