Yes, Relationships Matter

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I'm in some grad classes right now and in one, we were assigned to discuss, "Does building relationships with students really matter?"

Prior to the discussion, we watched Rita Pierson's TED talk and read two articles: The Post on differences between white and black poverty and a piece from on white poverty in America. (Both links are to annotated copies of the articles.)

My unedited response to the discussion thread is below.

I must admit, I've started and restarted this post several times this week.

Of course building relationships matters. If we neglect to build relationships, we are missing a fundamental aspect of teaching and learning. Regardless of culture, our species is reliant on relationships with other members. We are predisposed to bond with other people from birth through death. Teachers are in the unique position of spending more time with students than anyone besides their parents, which leads to relationships in some capacity.

Fostering positive relationships will help lead to emotional and mental stability that students, especially students of poverty, are often lacking. We get into dangerous territory when relationships become the only support mechanism for the poor instead of improved services and social programs. In the Post article, the plan to open affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods is only hindered by the free market and social biases. There is nothing stopping housing developers from lowering rent other than their own bottom lines. Poverty can be combated with solid public education, but to really change the landscape of American poverty, we need larger social change.

The support offered by teachers is critical, but so is support from school counselors and social workers. Since those services are underfunded (or nonexistent in some schools) teachers are left to figure it out on their own. Recently, the 'grit' narrative has taken hold, which is can lead to less obvious, yet counterproductive, results. Jensen (2016) and Kidd (2013) note that most poor families work more than their wealthier counterparts, so teachers encouraging students to get through their issues with perseverance and a belief that they can do better with harder work perpetuate the misconception that the poor are lazy. Students already working hard will be reluctant to form genuine relationships because grit places the blame back on the student, not by recognizing root causes.

Building positive relationships takes more than goodwill and a focus on mindset. Seeing students as people with real needs and real challenges is critical. Recognizing that our life circumstances do not reflect many of our students' builds empathy and allows bonds to form.

Featured image is December, 2009 flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license


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I wrote this as a post to a discussion forum for grad school. It seemed fitting to post on the blog as well. It’s a response to a children’s story called ‘The Rag Coat’, in which a poor girl’s coat made of rags tells stories about everyone around her.

I’m not really a journaler; I do blog regularly, but it usually isn’t about life stuff. But, I always have a notebook with me. It’s a habit I picked up from student teaching, mainly for doing quick reflections on lessons I taught or observations of my host teacher. She really helped me establish a habit of reflection that started with pen and paper. Every year since then, I usually go through a full notebook.

A stack of notebooks on a table

They’ve become unofficial journals; memories elucidated by lesson plan ideas, to-do lists, and trip packing lists. I can pinpoint the spot in a notebook from 2013 when we moved back to the United States from South Korea. I’m reminded about recommendation letters I wrote for students who are now out of college (and some with kids of their own!)

There’s the notebook where the writing switches abruptly from a large project brainstorm to HR managers after I lost a job unexpectedly.

There’s a notebook with baby nursery lists as we got ready for each of our daughters.

Writing things down - even little things - has become my norm. It helps me connect with teachers, who see me as the “tech guy,” when they wonder why I still have paper and pen on hand. It bridges gaps caused by fear and apprehension of change.

I’m looking forward to finishing this year’s notes.

Featured image is History flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Rebooting My Coaching

I planned, and ran, a really unsuccessful series of PD for a group of teachers this year. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wise enough to accept the non-success until we’d reached almost a breaking point in the group.

The idea was to focus on instructional methods with, or without, technology. The problem was that it wasn’t what the teachers needed (or wanted) and I was too stubborn to look past my own biases and fix the course.

Instruction makes the difference in schools. Teaching a poor lesson with an iPad in your hand is just as bad as teaching a poor lesson without an iPad. With most tech rollouts, all of the focus is on the technology PD and little time or thought is given to how to build lessons and experiences which seamlessly incorporate the available tech. So, this PD focused on watching one another teach. If the lesson had tech in it, great. Let’s look at what worked and then try to incorporate those principles in our own practice. If it didn’t have tech, still great! What worked? What skills did the teacher show that can be incorporated into our practice?

I didn’t clarify the difference. The PD was labelled (partially my fault, but not completely) as “technology PD.” Week after week, I came in talking about teaching and they expected technology tips and tricks.

Making it worse, I heard indirectly that these workshops were going poorly and that most people dreaded the sessions. I knew they were tough - I was pushing boundaries and comfort zones. What I didn’t know was that people felt confused and frustrated. I had no idea the group felt that way because no one told me - not on feedback surveys each month and not in person when I asked.

We’re so afraid of hurting one another’s feelings about teaching that we don’t talk about what’s really happening. That has to change.

Featured image old jumper cables inside an old barn, frisco, texas flickr photo by coltera shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Glaringly “For-Profit”

Audrey Watters shared a Bloomberg article this morning on Silicon Valley-based AltSchool which is closing locations to focus on “strategy” and a “path to growth and finances.” It’s a glaring admission that Silicon Valley money and “vision” have nothing to do with bettering education for students.

Interestingly, the last paragraph of the article highlights what we already know about improving schools, almost as an afterthought:

Although the company touts the magic of its technology, two parents said their children benefited more from the extensive attention of talented teachers and small class sizes.

Original article

Pig surrounded by the notes of British pounds flickr photo by Petr Sejba shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Outsourcing, EdTech, and 1986

Outsourcing education doesn’t look like robots taking over our classes. It happens when we willingly turn over the tasks of teaching to machines without thinking through implications or repercussions thoroughly.

Computers are really good at a lot of things. Media companies are also really good at a lot of things. When the two really teamed up in the late 90’s/early 2000’s with the Internet becoming more consumer focused, there was a big shift in the way the Western world – in particular Americans – interacted with media. The move from producer to consumer started in the 50’s with television becoming more ubiquitous and speed-of-light imagery took over our visual world. Information was available instantly through the telephone, captured on film and broadcast to us in the comfort of our homes.

These films ultimately made their way into the classroom and mixed media instruction, the precursor to “edutainment,” became an expectation. With the computer revolution of the 1980’s and the shift of entertainment into all areas of life (political and social, in particular) education was soon to follow suit with educational films and games that focused on the entertainment aspect and not so much on the educational component. The teacher was starting to be outsourced because content should be now, decontextualized, and consumable in a comfortable amount of time.

The growth of EdTech in the late 2000’s has pushed this boundary even further. Teachers are no longer consumers – they’re “ambassadors,” focused on serving students with some perks on the side. Content can – and should – be outsourced because information is available in all of our pockets. Why should I, the teacher, be focused so much on the curriculum when I need to focus on the experience my students have?

Neil Postman paints the early days of edtech in Amusing Ourselves to Death. It’s stark, reading this book 21 years after its original publication. Postman devotes an entire chapter to the trend of entertainment-as-king in education and his predictions ring true.

Yes, teachers are undervalued, scapegoated, undersupported and treated poorly all around today. Our classes are large, our schools and policies can be suffocating. We lack resources, time, and frankly, pay, to accomplish impossible tasks set before us. Yet we show up every morning to continue the work. (I won’t raise teaching to the realm of nobility because that comes with it’s own set of problems.)

Outsourcing is subtle and often overlooked. We want lessons to be memorable. We want to provide the best experience possible for our students. There is nothing wrong with that goal. The problems come when the means to achieve the goal sink to places which ultimately continue the cycle of devaluation of the profession.

Highlighted recently, the frequency of product “ambassador” programs which throw perks to teachers in exchange for recommendations (and even students as guinea pigs) has grown exponentially. Companies promising to revolutionize learning are taking advantage of a cultural bias against teachers and feel like they’re providing a service.

We’d be well suited to remember that if software is free, you, and by extension, your students, are the product. The freemium model is dead and to stay open, these companies need customers. Arguing that providing a few, all-star, typically already privileged teachers with resources in exchange for “some feedback on a product” is an attempt to hide what is really happening – willing participants in corporate strategy and market gains. Why focus on perks? If the value a teacher ambassador brings is so great, pay them for their insight and time.

From Amusing Ourselves…

…We delude ourselves if we believe that most everything a teacher normally does can be replicated efficiently by a micro-computer. Perhaps some things can, but there is always the question, What is lost in the translation? The answer may even be: everything that was significant about education.

Outsourcing ourselves in the name of efficiency or engagement sells short the role of teacher. Focusing on the authentic “as-is” nature of learning is always a better option that the more efficient, computerize, compromised classroom. Recognizing that edtech companies and teachers have different goals is also important. Companies exist and function to make money. Period.

Teachers exist and function to make better people in the world.

Postman called this out in 1986. No one listened. 21 years later, are we ready to listen?

This post was written immediately after finished Amusing Ourselves to Death. I highly recommend picking up a copy to read.

Featured image is Improving Kids flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Digital Teaching and Learning is Great (Until It’s Not)

The nuances of digital teaching and learning are often lost on Twitter and off-the-cuff blogs. Posts long enough to explore some of the finer points of teaching and learning today are often skipped over as being “too academic” or “too heady.” Nope, those posts aren’t written for teachers “in the trenches.”

I’ve moved fully into a coaching position with my district. One of my primary goals in this role is to help teachers digest and process what it means to teach effectively, equitably, and responsibly in a digital world.

We cannot separate ourselves completely from bits and bytes. The Internet has gone from being encased in phone lines to flowing in, around, and through us all day, every day. The Internet used to be hard to use. Now, it’s an expectation that it’s just there. The change in availability and usability means the user base increases exponentially while understanding of the mechanisms for use decrease.

With the explosion of online “learning media,” it seems that teaching can be boiled down to engaging videos and the right entrepreneurial mindset. The personal branding narrative of edu-Twitter and edtech in general is a byproduct of the deconstruction and dissolution of structured debate and discussion about solid pedagogical practices.

Intentionality in Instruction

Popular posts in the edu-blogosphere inevitably come back to teachers leaving the “sage on the stage” role to become a “guide on the side.” The sentiment rolls off the tongue and it makes us feel good about making connections with students. But, it lacks the nuance necessary to have any kind of significant conversation about the differences between didactic instruction and active learning.

We have set up a false narrative. I do not have to remove myself as an expert in teaching and learning in order to make connections with students or allow them to explore their interests. The guide-as-greater narrative attempts to make the case that we are partners in learning, but not without the devaluation of a profession as a whole. As a result, schools are throwing students into virtual credit programs led by a single teacher at a dashboard and equivocating it with an in-person experience down the hall.

Sherry Turkle calls this out in Reclaiming Conversation in a chapter focused on changes in education practices which have shifted as a result of prolific digital resources. She doesn’t go so far as to say that Internet-ready tools are destroying a generation but she does call for specific behaviors to change on the part of developers and users alike.

Her most poignant observation was calling out the difference between the natural, as-is instructional setting with the digital, as-if representation. When students are working in the same space – conversing and collaborating with one another, they are experiencing community and content in a real way. “The message is the medium,” as they say, and when we connect teaching and learning with very human interactions, the content gains new relevance.

As a teacher, it’s still your responsibility to construct a learning environment where context lends relevance to the content, whether it’s through constructionist work or through direct instruction. Without intentional preparation and implementation, digital or tangible, instruction suffers.

Finding the Proper Place

Andy Crouch offers insight on technology being in its proper place in his book, The Tech Wise Family. He opens with a story about blitzkrieg cleaning when his children were young. Anything out after 10 minutes was either donated or trashed. (He tells a story about dangling favorite toys over the donation bin to speed things along.) The point being that a house is out of order when things are not in their proper place.

In the classroom, we make proper place decisions about everything, it seems, except for technology. Since we have it, the edu-Twitter cultural push is to use it all the time. Need to do an assessment? There’s an app for that. Want to encourage collaboration? Use this website. Ditch your books for Google because “they’re out of date the minute they’re printed anyway.” The suggestions for technology uses for teachers starting out on this path are wholesale and without nuance and it’s hurting educators across the world.

Technology is not taught in its proper place, and that is a problem. Just like intentional instruction, technology use has to be hyper-intentional. We’re seeing this right now as we move into year one of a distributed iPad rollout in our district. The iPad (or Chromebook or Surface tablet or Linux machine) can be a powerful tool for learning but only when it is in its proper place. Students need to be taught to use the hardware as an instructional aid. Teachers need to be taught how to design units and lessons which intentionally place technology in spots where it can be used for powerful purposes. It requires a cultural shift for all parties.

For teachers, it is much more than taking a plunge into paperless classrooms, making sure they’re a part of every Twitter chat they can get in on, and starting a blog. It’s important to remember that we are training future adults – we have to keep the long game in mind. Using some gimmicks now to keep students “engaged” for the day is robbing them of a life skill which can help them function as adults. Some growth may come through chats and blogging (my own growth included those things) but not without recognizing that they aren’t required for change to happen. Instead of making flat recommendations about what people should do, we need to be approaching these conversations from our personal perspectives, telling stories of what worked – and, more importantly, what didn’t work – as we grew.

Reading and Writing for Nuance

Another component of my work is staying on top of what teachers in the district are reading and talking about. I noticed our central library had a number of copies of Ditch That Textbook by Matt Miller. I grabbed a copy so I would be able to carry on a conversation with people who have read it.

If there is a book that exemplifies a lack of nuance, it was Ditch. Much of the book can be boiled down to:

– Join Twitter.

– Use Google Apps [G Suite] religiously

– Talk about how awesome you are now that you’re on Twitter and G Suite.

Each chapter up until Section 4 – page 197 – read like a blog post pushing a thin implementation of tech for poor reasons. For example, much of the first section talked about the power of being paperless without really diving into instructional effectiveness. As I read I tried to highlight simple suggestions written as if they were the best solution to a particular problem in the margins. My intent is to go back through and try to identify instructional situations where those suggestions are relevant to give context to teachers looking for help in school.

The difference in tone between books that were all taking on the same topic is stark. Segmentation in a market (education is a market, after all, and edtech is a particularly lucrative submarket) and these books speak to their particular audience. After three months, I’m focusing on ways to bring teachers from the realm of edtech sex appeal into technology-rich instruction with fidelity to nuanced practice.

Making the Transition

I realize that some of the judgements I’m making are not fair at face value. I’m also very aware that changing practice takes a long time, especially if you’re searching for methods to change on your own without support. But, I’m not convinced that the path most teachers follow through the edtech regions is the best, or only, one.

The discrepancy between these books is stark. I don’t disagree that the more exciting changes come from trying apps and tools because they show off well. Changes in philosophy are harder to show in a Tweet and even harder to process and make essential in our day to day goings on. As a coach, it would be a disservice to not push teachers for the philosophical shift in everything I do, even through the lens of using a particular tool more effectively.

This is the spot when I would offer a handful of poignant, but not heady, methods for making the shift.

I don’t have any.

This is an intensely personal process. It requires reflection and relationships. The goal for teachers, in any case, is the same: improve teaching using resources intentionally.

Edtech preaches a wholesale shift away from the tangible in favor of the digital. Deniers push back with a deep-seeded reluctance to discuss new ideas or methods. I’m convinced that proselytizing either approach, while good for personal branding and making a name for yourself, is ineffective in the long run. Reading with a critical eye, looking for statements in absolutes and ultimatums, and thinking beyond short-term gains make the difference.

Featured image is abstract green flickr photo by dr.larsbergmann shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Adding a Bullet Journal to my Work

I took most of the summer off from writing, but now that school is getting back into swing, it’s time to start thinking out loud again.

Back in May, I wrote about using a new to-do system to stay on top of my work.

Then, Robert Talbert tweeted. Again.

I did a Google search for “bullet journal” and I was down the rabbit hole. After a lot of reading and clicking, I agree with Robert’s initial assessment: most posts are about making your notebook look just right instead of working just right.

I’ve been playing with the bullet journal (you’ll see it called a bujo on most sites…I refuse to use that term) idea for a couple months and I now have a system that works really well for me.

One complaint about the journal is that it cannot possibly hold all the tasks that need to get done day to day, quickly becoming laden with redundancy and non-helpful pages. To mitigate, I use my digital todo list to manage the small tasks (which is actually one of the lessons in Getting Things Done) as a part of the larger project. The todo list helped me with the parts, the bullet journal helped me get the big picture under control.

I wanted something functional, which meant I needed something small. I had some old Field Notes notebooks lying around, which fit perfectly in my back pocket. Bingo.

Each book turns out to be just right for a month’s worth of work. So, each one is labeled with the current month out the front cover. It also provides a nice doodle space during meetings.

Field Notes flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Inside, I break up the first few pages into the month’s calendar and large project logging. After the index, I keep a couple pages for books I read that month, beers I drink, and blog posts to write. There may or may not be a correlation between the number of items on each list at the end of each month. Research is ongoing.

Task and activity logs flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Books, beer, blog flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

My week setup is new to my workflow. Taking a spread and breaking it down into day to day helped me get my mind in order. Large project milestones and appointments tend to take up this space. I’ll take the project milestones and add them to my todo.txt file for completion as I move through the week.

Typical week layout flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The thing I do like about the bullet journal system is that you always have blank pages later in the book. I don’t have to cram everything in between pre-printed week layouts. It’s flexible and it works well for me, especially because my role is expanding this year, with lots of moving parts on a number of projects.

Other pages flickr photo by bennettscience shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I’m in my third full month of the combination bullet journal/todo.txt list and I haven’t dropped many balls yet, which is good. I feel more prepared day to day, laying out obligations and needs on paper and then adjusting small tasks to make sure those get done.

No frills, no tweeting my immaculate page layouts, no discussion over what type of pen I use. Just a good, efficient, simple system to get stuff done.

2017 End of Year Notes

In what’s become a half-tradition, some unfiltered thoughts as I finish another school year.

– Splitting time between teaching and instructional coaching is really, really difficult. It’s hard to pour into both equally. Next year, I’m going to be coaching 100% of the time.

– I still need to work on alternative assessment and measurement methods. Using Canvas has helped me implement SBG more effectively this year, but I still need to make improvements, especially giving feedback.

– I tend to close in on myself when working with other teachers. I need to focus on opening up and encouraging reflective dialog about effective instructional strategies.

– As I work with curriculum development and implementation teams, I need to bone up on my frameworks.

– I’m not teaching a class next year, which feels very strange…again.

There is a ton of change happening in the district and the implementation of the growth plan is wide open. My team continues to set high goals to make sure we’re constantly pushing the bar. It takes a lot of energy and effort, but the growth this year has been astronomical. Maintaining momentum and implementing new support structures in the fall is the big challenge ahead.

Featured image is Unpopular Opinions, a flickr photo by DarlingJack shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Using Someone Else’s Videos in Your Class

In November 2015, an independent model showed YouTube received around 500 hours of video content uploaded every minute. There are 1440 minutes in a day, meaning there was roughly 720,000 hours of video every day.

That’s a lot of videos.

Granted, many are of cats, kids, and Barbie Jeep Racing, so it’s not necessarily quality content uploading, but there is a lot of great video available for flipping if you’re not quite ready to make your own yet.

Where to start?

Before looking at how to choose videos, let’s define the goals of using video as an instructional tool (not method) in the first place. Don’t ask yourself, “How do I get rid of lecture?” because it’s too narrow a focus. The intent of using video should be to create space for students to explore ideas with the support of a teacher. Ramsey Musallam says it well: “Good teaching, regardless of discipline, should always limit passive transfer of knowledge in class, and promote learning environments built on the tenants of inquiry, collaboration and critical thinking.”

Flipping can help accomplish the goals of increasing student interaction with material and using existing videos is an easy way to start that process. When it comes to choosing videos to use with students, I focus on three main things:

  1. What value does a video bring?

  2. How well is the idea presented?

  3. How will the video expand on what is happening in class?

Using videos should supplement, not replace your work in the classroom. Your students have a relationship with you, not a video personality. It is important that you frame using outside content as a supporting factor in the interactive and collaborative work happening in the classroom. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing student trust because it appears that you’re taking the easy way out.

What value does a video bring?

There are situations when a video can help you immediately reclaim some time. Algorithmic processes – solving a problem, correcting grammatical mistakes, putting together a timeline of events – are great starting points. They’re usually short and to the point and they become a self-help library for students. When you’re in the middle of a larger activity, these can be a “first line of defense” when students ask procedural questions. At the same time, you can pay attention to which videos you’re referring to the most and address those in class as a whole.

The value here is that you’re not bogged down answering the same, small question over and over. You’re also not obligated to stop the entire activity. You’ll be teaching students self-reliance by curating helpful instructional videos to get the habit started. Eventually, students will go off and find their own help when they need it.

From another angle, resources are limited. I can’t always provide concrete examples in the classroom. Using videos to bring in those topics and examples is a great way to bridge the gap.

How well is it presented?

Presentation isn’t everything, but it’s important. As you’re vetting content, pay attention to the content, obviously, but also make sure it isn’t mind-numbing to watch. Audio is very important in this case. A video that is clear as crystal but sounds like a drive-through is just as bad as a video you can’t see. Don’t pick the first result in the search, either. Take some time to find a video that fits your need and won’t cause more confusion for you later.

How will it expand on what is happening in class?

Remember, you are the teacher and you set the tone of the course with your students. Any video you choose – instructional or exploratory – should fit in with your day to day work. Be explicit and specific about why you’re assigning a particular video to help students see the big picture. Without making connections for the students, you run the risk of looking lazy and the videos become another assignment, not a helpful tool.

Additionally, if you can’t make a solid connection to the learning process, perhaps a video isn’t the best means. It’s a good self-check to make sure you’re proving engaging and meaningful assignments at all levels of the learning cycle.

Big picture

Online video is here to stay. The amount of content available is staggering both in scale and in potential to positively impact learning behaviors. In the end, starting with existing video can help lay a foundation for using video as a learning tool. The major time commitment on your end is starting to curate those materials. Most video sites have playlists that you can create and customize, so start saving videos you like to build out that library.

You may find, though, that you can’t find one that really hits the issue you’re having. Don’t be afraid to make your own. I’ll repeat: you have the relationship with your students. Making a short video is easier than ever and you can find a number of tutorials online to help you get started.

Focus on enhancing the class time. Use the questions above to guide your thinking as you look for materials. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some of my favorites:

Channel Description
:———————: :——————————————–:
Smarter Every Day Mainly physics, some biology and chemistry
Veritasium All sciences, culture of science and inquiry
Bozeman Science Biology, chemistry, nature of science
It’s Okay to be Smart PBS Digital Studios, all content

The featured image is titled Audience Full Movie, a flickr photo by Emily Barney shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Desmos in Science

I’ve wanted to try the Desmos activity builder for a long time, so I finally did. We were finishing up the nervous system, so I grabbed a graph of an action potential and went for it. Here’s a live student link if you want to give it a try.

I set up a few slides with an image of an action potential superimposed on a graph. I then asked students to identify different regions on the graph using the activity input tools.

The really powerful moment came when I revealed their work superimposed on the question. individually, it was easy to see in the dashboard that most people had the right shape.

Superimposed, we could really dive into the differences between the sketches.

At the AP level, we focused on the scales and how it lines up with the chemical concentration in the cells. I’m also glad I had this question first because it immediately helped me target students who were struggling more than others.

From there, I used the same graph but superimposed a horizontal line and asked students to mark the rest state voltage as well as the threshold voltage. Again, the superimposed image gave students a lot to think about.

As a lesson, I’m happy with how it went. Students were able to self-assess and gain insight from seeing multiple, simultaneous responses. I’m thinking hard about how to break the content barrier and get teachers to look at it’s utility for feedback and metacognition.

As a teacher, what could I have done better? What would you have done differently? Can you help me get a true graph of the action potential (ahemplease?).

(Both screenshots are mine, names are anonymized).