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No One Needs to Teach You (Or...What I Learned From My Vacuum Cleaner About Professional Development)
It all started with my vacuum cleaner and its lack of suction.
I stood there, dumbfounded and helpless, considering my options: Beg my handyman neighbor for help? Pack up the damn thing and drop it at the repair shop? Swing by Wal-Mart and purchase a new one? How much was this going to cost me? And what would befall my crumb-ridden carpet in the meantime?
My 16 year-old, passing by on his umpteenth visit to the refrigerator that afternoon, and spying me confounded, motionless, and fully absorbed in my interior monologue, simply inquired, “Why don’t you YouTube it?”
Out of the mouths of teenagers…
And so I YouTubed it.
In under an hour, I’d dismantled the rotor, cleaned the brush roller, checked the hose and intake, un-hooked and re-hooked the electrical connection doo-hickey, and assembled everything all pretty and brand new(ish). I plugged her back in and...it worked! It really, really worked! (Oh, the sweet sound of a million bits of detritus being sucked up!)
I did it.
All by myself and without the help of a repairman, a salesperson, or a customer service rep. (Okay, yeah, I had Debbie, the YouTuber, but still.) The point is that I--someone who must have grabbed a catnap when God handed out mechanical acumen--managed to single-handedly repair a household appliance.
I did it.
Is there any single phrase more fraught with promise and potential and triumph?
I did it.
Holy cow, did I feel empowered, informed, educated! What could I do next?
I did it.
Wait a minute…I’ve heard that phrase before. Where had I heard that phrase before?
I'd heard it in the classroom. From students.
But not just from any students. Students who were allowed to (or encouraged to or maybe even forced to) figure it out for themselves. And when they did--when they embraced their power of self-discovery--they owned it.
I don’t need to elaborate upon the metaphor here. I think if you’ve read this far, you get the point: let’s stop feeding information to our students and let’s enjoy them figuring it out for themselves. The age of knowledge-depositing is sooooooo over; the age of knowledge acquisition is thriving. And it looks like it might do so for a very long time to come.
This take-learning-into-your-own-hands thing doesn’t apply only to students, by the way. I hear the following lament from educators with such frequency during my training and professional development sessions that I’m ready to drink bleach: “No one taught this to me before!” (You think I’m kidding about the bleach.)
Guess what, buttercup? No one needs to teach you anything. In fact, if you’re sitting around waiting to be taught, then you’ve defeated the whole purpose of learning.
Learning (in this case, professional development) should be something we seek out for ourselves and not something that’s done to us. We can’t inspire a generation of students while simultaneously waiting around for someone to appear and drop their knowledge bombs on us.
My sons didn’t require professional development to learn how to play Minecraft or Pokemon Go. They didn’t wait around for someone to teach it to them. They figured it out for themselves. That's what this generation does--and we should do it, too.
Want to learn how the Google Forms quiz version works? Get in there and play with it. Want to use HyperDocs in the classroom? YouTube it. Don’t know how all these new online formative assessment tools work? Then, sunshine, it’s time to visit the online help section. Or simply Google it.
Be inspired by our students. Be inspired by those who inspire them in turn. (Like Casey Neistat, for example, whose life exemplifies the I-did-it-without-anyone-teaching-me mentality and has almost seven million YouTube followers to prove it.)
Go teach yourself something today.
Gotta run now. Time to tackle my dryer vent.
I was reading a blog post last week by Richard Byrne entitled “The Things I Wish Every Teacher Knew About Technology.” (I'm presuming it's inspired by the super popular #IWishMyTeacherKnew, which is powerful read, in case you're interested.)
But I digress. Back to Byrne's post--which stuck with me for a few days--because the thing I most encounter in my job is complete and abject fear of technology: both the fear of failing with it and the fear of succeeding with it. (Ironic, no?)
I totally get the paralyzing fear of failing thing: What if this doesn’t work? What if I look like a fool in front of my students?
My answer is always, What if you do? What's the absolute worst that could happen?
I’ve addressed the subject of failure pretty regularly on this site, so I won’t belabor the point except to say this: The only failing is in ceasing to try. To quote Michael Jordan, “I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Now, the fear of success thing had me puzzled for a while, until I was enlightened by a former superintendent whose advice I seek out on a regular basis. Fear of succeeding, he explained, means that you have to keep “upping your game;” that as soon as you master something, you’ll be expected to keep improving and to keep mastering, and then the expectations just keep getting greater and greater, until we overwhelm ourselves with, Well, if this works how long before the next thing comes along that I have to learn? When will it end?
My response? Why would we want learning to end?
We should always remember that our goal as educators is to create lifelong learners. Let’s model what that looks like by failing and succeeding. And isn’t that a totally awesome-sauce life lesson for our students?
There's nothing to be afraid of. I pinky swear.
Last week, Mrs. H asked me to help her devise a plan to teach Google Drive, Docs, Slides, and Drawings to her sixth grade class.
And I started doing just that.
And then I slowed my roll.
And then my slow roll screeched to a halt.
Because sometimes I have to remind myself--even though I preach it like it’s my job and I’m getting paid for it (Oh, wait...I am!)--that I have to get the heck out of the way when it comes to learning.
Because when it comes to teaching, there’s a very delicate balance among leading, following, and getting out of the way:
Direct instruction (or “leading”) is the most predominant method of instructional delivery, and it occasionally has its place in the classroom; but it should be limited. Very limited. Like no more than a ten to fifteen minutes kind of limited.
Since my own classroom epiphany in 2008, I've tended to favor the “What Can the Kids Teach Me?” method of pedagogy (or what I like to call “following”). If 90% of what we retain is what we teach, then we should be encouraging our students to find their own answers by doing and teaching themselves.
source: Heine Ventures
Now, with regard to the above-mentioned scenario regarding Mrs. H's request, I opted to be the guide on the side--or what I call the teacher-bordered classroom (aka, “get out of the way”). What does this look like, exactly? It’s a combination of acting like a border collie while letting the sheep sometimes run amok. Actually, it’s more professional than that. Ever hear of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development? It’s where learning occurs just beyond the level of what students can do independently. Sort of a “lead-them-to-water-and-then-let-them drink” mentality.
What this involves is not telling...but asking. Not asking recall questions, but thought-provoking ones. Questions that demand exploration and investigation. Questions without easy answers. Questions that lead to creation.
And that’s when I came up with the idea of what I call the “Explore - Do” model. (Okay, okay...it’s not exactly a trademark-able name, but it does the job.) Instead of teaching Mrs. H’s kiddos, I opted to let them play in the digital sandbox and teach themselves.
In this glorious day and age of collaboration and social media, I tweeted out my idea, hoping others could use it in their classrooms. My buddy Jake Miller got me thinking:
We have to get out of their way sometimes and allow them to think for themselves.
Maybe it makes me smart or maybe it makes me lazy.
Either way, I believe it works out best in the end for them.
If you’ve heard the expression “Bye, Felicia!” ad nauseum recently, you can thank the 20-year anniversary of rapper/actor Ice Cube’s comedy flick “Friday” for its revival. If you’re not familiar, click here to understand its popularity. (Warning: The video clip is NSFW. Funny, yes, but definitely NSFW.) Anyway, I’m appropriating the phrase here because it’s succinctly and incredibly apt in describing the way I’ve revamped my own approach to professional development in 2016.
As they currently exist, professional development sessions can best be described as “sit and get” assemblies that fail to produce long-lasting and robust change. Professional development needs to be better. It needs to be more about development. And it certainly needs to be more professional. If we’re making demands on educators to transform the way we deliver instruction (i.e., collaboration, differentiation, and problem-based learning), then shouldn’t we also be transforming the way we help educators learn?
So, I’ve resolved to get better, not bitter. Here’s the thing, though: resolutions--like yoga poses--aren’t my specialty. In fact, I’m actually pretty awful at both. Don’t get me wrong: I’m great at intending to do them, but it’s the actual execution of them where I fall painfully short. However, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been “beta-testing” my PD resolutions (the whole putting-my-money-where-my-mouth-is-thing) to welcome reception over the last year.. So with that said, here’s hoping my 2016 test balloon results in 2017 productive results. And that’s why I’m saying sayonara to the following outdated PD practices:
1. Being the Expert. Personally, I don't like to make my workshops about me. (Which will certainly come as a surprise to anyone who knows me!) Yes, I like to provide useful websites and some kick-start ideas for incorporating them into your teaching. But, no, I don't particularly care to lecture at teachers. And frankly, I grow weary of the sound of my northeast Ohio nasal twang. (As do others.) Once I decided to stop talking and start listening, though, I realized that I was often standing in front of a room full of other professionals with their own experiences from whom I could learn, too!
The Result: My PD sessions are now (mostly) collaborative sessions where I encourage full participation, sharing, and even sometimes handing over the reins to audience members who have something to teach the rest of us. (That’s my favorite part!)
How It Works: I open all of my PD sessions with the following disclaimer slide: “We are a collaborative group of learners; there are no absolute experts in this room. Like our students, we learn best by doing...and learning is a process.” This sets the tone that I’m not the sage and my audience isn’t the empty vessel. It also takes the pressure off of me to feel like I have to know everything. In addition, I always have a collaborative Google Doc going where participants are encouraged to add their ideas, successes, questions for others, and other educational technology tools.
2. One Size Fits All. One of the things that always plagued me in the past was trying to keep everyone learning and creating at the same pace. It was frustrating for my reluctant adopters and tedious for my whiz kids. And then it hit me: “Duh! How come I’m not differentiating learning for my particular learners???” Now, when I present, I try keep it short and sweet and hand over the remainder of my allotted time to the teachers, allowing them to pursue their own learning at their own pace. I offer up a leveled challenge so that all learners--regardless of where they fall on the technology adoption spectrum--still leave having created something applicable to their own classroom and students.
The Result: The whiz kids speed ahead sans boredom, the collaborators work together and assist each other via peer learning, and I get to devote my full attention to the baby steps group, who self-profess to learning best when guided.
How It Works: Since my presentations have built-in “do” time after “learn” time, I always create a learning challenge or task to apply what we’ve covered. Using polling software (my current favorite is Mentimeter), I ask participants to self-assess their learning style based on the following choices: 1) I’m a lone wolf. I learn best by exploring on my own; 2) Buddy system: I don’t go into the water without a partner; and 3) Baby Steps: Please hold my hand and walk me through this! We then break into respective groups and get to work! Everyone leaves happy and creatively satisfied.
3. Breezing In & Out. The one-and-done approach to professional development is done like dinner. Gone with the wind. Over. In an attempt to be more collaborative, and especially in this age of social media, learning should continue beyond the four walls of the classroom--and beyond the four walls of the seminar room. Keep the conversation going with your audience by connecting with them after all is said and done.
The Result: Everyone gets heard, everyone is validated, and no one feels alone. And you’ve created your own little virtual PLC!
How It Works: I always create a session evaluation Google form to be completed at the conclusion of my sessions, and I also ask for email addresses so that I can inform participants of the latest and greatest updates to our topic at hand. I’m currently exploring the idea of Google Communities to keep the learning going, too. Sometimes, I’ll create a Remind group for the same purpose, but I definitely need to improve my upkeep skills with that one. (Another resolution?) In addition, don’t forget to invite your audience to follow you on social media as well.
And there you have it: help transform pedagogy by transforming professional development. I definitely think these are resolutions (or intentions or goals or whatever the heck you want to call them) that I can actually keep. In the spirit of practicing what I preach, please feel free to reach out to me with your best PD tactics. In return, I promise to work on my yoga poses. Namaste, peeps!
I've been a visual learner my whole life.
As a student, my hand-scribed notes were always accompanied by graphic organizers, and my index card flashcards were accompanied by some type of hand-drawn visual cue. (For example, in order to remember what word "libertatis" meant for a Latin exam, I sketched a picture of the Statue of Liberty next to the word...because "libertatis" means "freedom.")
All that sketching and visualizing? It turns out I was ahead of my time.
Presently, infographics have taken center stage, as you may have noticed. It's because the less-words-and-more-images approach has been scientifically proven to increase information retention. According to Mary Jo Madda in her article entitled "Why Your Students Forgot Everything on Your PowerPoint Slides," our kiddos are in cognitive overload with our bullet-laden PowerPoint slides and the redundancy effect of us reading aloud from them.
Image courtesy of MemeGenerator
Imagine trying to pour water into an already-full glass. Now you have a clear image of what cognitive overload is all about.
Data visualization is totally legit. Just ask David McCandless, who takes mind-numbing data and transforms it into beautiful and simple graphics because, as he so accurately puts it, good design is the best way to navigate information glut. His TED talk on the subject absolutely and firmly convinced me to drink the infographic Kool-Aid. For those of you who think that infographics dumb-down our kids or spoon-feed them information, watch this 17-minute talk. As McCandless demonstrates, identifying and evaluating the hidden patterns in data visualization is higher-level thinking at its best.
Still not convinced? Then you really need to check out this infographic about why infographics are so essential. (An infographic about infographics? How totally meta!)
In any event, I'm practicing what I preach. The other day, this very helpful post from Eric Curts' blog Control Alt Achieve came my way: "26 YouTube Shortcuts Everyone Should Know." I wanted to share it with the teachers in my district, but I knew if I forwarded it, it would get stuck in the vast virtual wasteland of inboxes, or worse yet, it would get printed and forever lost in the shuffle of the perpetual paper piles. I wanted to condense it, because while it was incredible relevant and useful--it was just still too wordy for me.
That's when I busted out my favorite graphic design tool, Canva, and its spawn, Canva Infographic Maker. Like it promises, Canva does indeed make design simple for everyone. If you're new to Canva, I HIGHLY recommend pouring yourself a glass of wine and giving over an hour of your life to Canva Design School's tutorials. Seriously. Otherwise, you'll just be re-creating your crappy PowerPoints in a new platform.
Okay, enough talk. How about a little show? Here's what I made in under an hour, using Eric's content:
While I know I'm not going to light the graphic design industry on fire, I'm still pretty proud of myself.
So what do you think? Ready to give it a try yourself? How about transforming one of your current PowerPoint presentations and comparing the before and after versions? You'll be amazed at what you can create. And your students will be grateful that you've saved their brains from overload.
NOTE: The full version of this post appeared in the April 2016 issue of NEOtie e-Zine.
There are currently over 200 self-help organizations (from Alcoholics Anonymous to Overeaters Anonymous to Clutterers Anonymous) that employ the renowned and respected twelve-step guiding principles that assist members in overcoming those particular behaviors that stand in the way of personal growth and progress. In short, the execution of these steps serve as an instructional guide for a comprehensive transformation.
Of course, I don’t dare to presume to possess either the salience or the eminence of the founders of the original twelve-step program, but as the majority of my gig as an instructional coach involves supporting the gradual integration of technology into the curriculum, it occurred to me that a structured and guided approach was already being implemented by some teachers with whom I work. It also occurred to me that an audience of teachers most likely want to hear tried-and-true advice from real-time educators. And hence this blog post was born.
When it comes to educational technology and 21st-century learners, it seems that we allow the fear of technology--or the fear of failing--to impede our own progress. While we’ve all been reluctant adopters at one point or another, we can’t let our fear of failing get in the way of our students’ path to success. Perhaps the best way to transform trepidatious teachers is to furnish a set of guidelines--our own twelve steps.
The following teachers in my district (Wendy, Mary, and myself!) have taken steps to introduce technology into their curriculum--sometimes fearfully and sometimes confidently--and what they hope to share are their personal experiences and own collaborative twelve steps to success. Because like any solid twelve-step program, it’s the shared stories that help us persevere and eventually triumph.
Q: Do you remember the first time you tried a new tech tool with which you weren’t familiar?
Q: What’s your approach for introducing a new educational technology tool?
Q: What’s your philosophy: educational technology tool or purpose first?
Q: Can you share a recent story of technology integration in the classroom?
Q: What advice would you contribute to a 12-Step Program for EdTech Anonymous?
first image via SelfStorage
As my spring break winds down, I consider the fact that we've only got nine more weeks until the end of another school year--and that everything I'd hoped to accomplish in the previous 27 weeks somehow didn't get done. (Isn't that always the case?)
It also gets me thinking about what I've observed and learned this year and how it will shape our district goals for the upcoming school year. For example, one of our schools drained its paper budget halfway through the year, which had more than a few teachers worried about how they'd manage to provide lesson materials for their students. Which begs the question, "What needs to change? And if we're experiencing these issues, aren't other districts as well?"
Change is tough; and it's usually based in fear--the fear of the unknown, the fear of failure, the fear of leaving our comfort zone. But fear prevents us from moving forward, and moving forward is what we need to constantly do in education. Of course, change is scary. And uncertain. And yes, risky.
So teachers, don those Ray-Bans, crank up the Bob Seger, strip down to your tighty-whities, and take these risks in your classroom:
1. Attempt to Move More Content Online
Before you hit the copy machine to make another 30 copies of a worksheet, ask yourself, "Is there a way to do this online?" Make the move to digital content: post to your website, use tools like Wizer and Edulastic for worksheets and formatives, seek out online textbooks and Open Education Resources, direct students to create digital alternatives to research papers. Stop swimming in a sea of paper!
2. Let Your Students Teach Sometimes
Let go of the reigns once in a while. If 90% of what we learn is what we teach, then shouldn't our current model be flipped? Your students are already engaged in collaborative groups and jigsaw activities, so take it a step further: let them create mini-lessons. They'll be more invested in their learning!
3. Give Flipping a Try
Students today grew up with and presently maintain constant Internet access: YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and a myriad of other digital resources. They're used to online content, so give it to them. Besides that, it makes sense to open up classroom time to working with students instead of sending them home to try out newly-learned (and often-not-yet-understood) concepts.
4. Transform Your Learning Space
Sitting in rows of desks is an archaic concept, and certainly not aligned with post-school workspaces--which are often designed for creativity and collaboration. Physical spaces are central to creating a new paradigm for learning. Change up your seating configurations, create purposeful zones, bring in mood lighting. Get some great ideas here.
5. Embrace Social Media
(See #3 above for justification.) Don't mistake social media for socializing. Besides, reaching out to students beyond the four walls of the classroom creates genuine connections and extends learning. Frankly, you can't be considered a 21st-century educator if you're not willing to adopt 21st-century technologies. Your students will be grateful for it!
Education is evolution. And it's worth the risk.
image via Flickr
So, check this out: my first video podcast!
About a month ago, the high school principal asked me to deliver a ten-minute PD session to the staff, but I had a conflict on that same date. Instead of bailing, I decided to try out an idea that I've been toying with--the idea of delivering PD to be consumed anytime, anywhere: in your car, on a jog, while cooking dinner. But it had to be something that could be implemented immediately, without a ton of prep time.
And thus, "5-Minute PD with Ms. D" was born. Take a look and a listen, and PLEASE let me know what you think!
One tweet. That's how it all started.
And I knew I'd never teach the same way again.
When Mrs. G. asked me to teach my book trailer unit to her sixth graders, I jumped at the chance, but with a caveat: I wasn't going to teach it the same way I had in the past. And I literally meant that: I wasn't going to teach it, but I would very happily guide, encourage, and coach it.
(Thank goodness for forward-thinking teachers like Mrs. G. She didn't once flinch, frown, or freak out, but instead encouraged my request to simply try differently.)
A few months before this, I'd read an online post by Chris Friend about the importance of letting students take the lead in their learning:
A class discussion where the teacher pre-determines the outcome is just a lecture in disguise, dressed up to feel student-centered while still being instructor-directed. When a class involves discussion, we owe it to our students to not know what’s going to happen, lest we start dictating what we want them to think.
While Friend's comments are specific to classroom discussions, they certainly apply to the larger picture of learning in the 21st century, and I'd been waiting for the right moment (and a willing teacher) to embrace the philosophy of student-centered and "teacher-bordered" learning. Nylen's post in my Twitter feed came at the exact same time I proposed my plan of hanging on the sidelines instead of calling the plays. (There are no coincidences.)
I project Nylen's Tweet to the students. They read it, then look to me to explain it to them. I smile at them. They look to Mrs. G. to explain away the crazy lady smiling at them. Mrs. G. smiles at them. They smile back nervously, scanning the room for hidden cameras. This has to be a joke, right?
I finally break the awkward science by asking, "Is this true? Do you need Mrs. G. and me? What if we don't tell you what to do? What if we just let you find the answers for yourself?" They look, admittedly, a little afraid. And why shouldn't they? Everything to this point in their academic career has been mostly teacher-directed.
"How many of you play Minecraft?" I continue. Half the hands shoot up.
"Cool," I remark. "So, which one of your teachers taught you how to play it?"
And that's the moment it clicks for everybody.
Now they're smiling at me.
The work begins. The project is outlined, tutorial videos and useful links are posted to Edmodo for reference, but no lectures are given. "Ask 3 Before Me, " we say. "Troubleshoot. Use the help section in iMovie. Google your questions. Try, mess up, try again." They're a little frustrated, for sure, but here's the thing: I tell them that I really don't know iMovie all that well. (A lie, but Mrs. G. and I want them to go cold turkey on their teacher dependence.)
"Wait...WHAT?" a student indignantly cries. "Then why are you teaching us this?"
"But I'm not teaching it to you," I tease. "Remember?"
At the beginning of class, I find myself falling into to the comfortable and involuntarily role of lecturing. (Habits are hard to break.) Ashley interrupts, "Hey, Ms. D. . .can we get started please? We can figure it out."
I literally laugh out loud. And keep a list of what I overhear students asking each other and commenting upon during the next hour.
DAYS FOUR, FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, AND EIGHT
I've never managed less and accomplished more as a teacher. It's weird, in a way, not dashing all over the lab putting out individual fires.
And here's what happens, as a result of my letting go: Some students naturally take on coaching roles with each other; some become experts at specific things (transitions, adding sound effects); some even become critics of each others' book trailers, giving very constructive advice (you know, the kind a teacher might offer).
I don't feel like they don't need me, because of course they still do, and of course I still help.
But. . .
They've learned to rely on themselves and on each other. As a parent and as an instructional coach, that's always my end goal. And yet, it never was when I was a full-time teacher. My students and I had developed a co-dependent relationship where they looked to me for all the answers and I happily supplied them.
When we finish the project (and before we start planning our film festival!) I project Nylen's tweet again. "Do you agree?" I ask. "Did this experiment work? Did Mrs. G. and I give you answers or did you find them for yourselves? And are you a better learner because of it?"
Logan raises his hand, and in that brief moment I experience a fleeting panic, hoping he won't prove me wrong. I notice I'm holding my breath.
"So when do we get to 'support' you learning how to play Minecraft?" he asks with a self-satisfied laugh.
I breathe and laugh, too. "Whenever you're ready. As long as you don't teach me."