As I approached the my new school, I had some serious apprehension. Why did mom make me transfer to Zed Middle School? None of my friends were here and the stories about this school were unreal. Scary stories. Stories I really don’t want to believe.
There were rumors of vampires living in the attic and strange creatures living in the basement. Stories about detention being one of those spike-enclosed coffins where you couldn’t move without fear of losing a limb. As I walked into the front doors a loud creeeeeeak echoed down the dusty and cobweb-filled hallways. Were the stories true? Or were they worse?
The front office secretary was a witch. I’m not sure if this was because today was October 31st or if she was an actual witch, but after speaking with her, I supposed it was the latter.
“Where’s your transfer slip?!?” she screeched.
“YOUR TRANSFER SLIP!” she bellowed.
“Oh, you mean this?” and I handed her the slip of paper that had come with me from Viva Middle School, along with my tattered backpack and my Ghostbusters trapper keeper.
“Go down the hall. Room 666. You are late for Mr. Stein’s class. And he HATES it when kids are late.”
I approached my first class and looked for room 666. Frank N. Stein had been a teacher at this school for what must have seemed like hundreds of years. His style of teaching was a mash up of body parts and trendy instructional approaches of years past. Think Madeline “Vampire” Hunter-style with some SAMR (Scary Anthrax Mummified Ruins) model thrown in for good measure.
“Come in. So nice of you to join us.” Mr. Stein grunted.
My teeth were starting to chatter as I made my way towards my seat where my first of a series of horrors would begin. Unlike the nice flexible furniture at Viva Middle, the desks in these schools were akin to all-in-one torture devices. A metal arm bar dug into my ribs as I sat on the hard, flat chair. My back began to ache but I dare not move.
“I wonder what it looks like to collaborate with other students?” I asked myself inside my head. The truth is, there was no collaboration in this class. In fact, I’m not sure exactly sure there was even learning taking place in this class. I looked around at my classmates to see if there was any hope of friendship or salvation in this hostile environment.
That’s when I noticed it.
Something was off.
All the kids had their heads down, noses buried in their textbooks. I looked at the kid to my left. He had blood coming out of his ears.
“Um, excuse me,” I whispered, “you have blood coming out of your ears.”
“GRrrrraaaaachhh!” he moaned back.
His eyes seemed to have a cloudy haze over them and brownish-drool began to drop from his mouth. I looked around the room frantically for help. All the students seemed to be in a dazed stupor as they looked at their Fearson textbooks. Mr. Stein continued to speak to the class in what seemed like some sort of spell or chant. I leaned forward and tapped on the shoulder of the student in front of me. She turned to reveal greenish, torn skin and black teeth.
“Arrrrrrraaaach” she growled as her head turned and red eyes looked me up and down like a piece of meat.
What is this place? Where am I?
The next class wasn’t much better. In fact, it was worse. The teacher was some sort of banshee. You couldn’t see her face through her stringy black hair and she walked almost like in fast-forward at times. Jumping around the room from desk to desk. In her hands, she clutched a piece of paper with lots of little dots on it.
Oh no. I had heard rumors of these. The scrolls of the dead. They were called Scaretrons. Little bewitched pieces of paper that you have to fill out with blood and slowly suck away your soul.
It was at that moment that I realized where I was.
Zed was a school for the undead.
Torture-device desks in rows.
Scary, unapproachable staff.
And the soul-sucking high stakes assessments filled out via Scaretron.
This was not a place to learn. This was a place where brains go to die.
- An off-site location
- Some sort of team-building activity
- Some time dedicated to goal-setting
While I am , I have never attempted to host a retreat. Sure, we’ve gathered at my house for happy hour or gone out to lunch together, but generally, these are social gatherings (which are necessary from time to time). We’ve also done quite a bit of revamping of our meeting structure to make it more retreat-like (more on that later), but still not technically a retreat. With the pressure mounting on what would be our first ever retreat, I felt that we needed a mixture of the following:
- Appreciating our differences
- Problem-solving in collaborative teams
- Opening up avenues of communication between the team
- Identifying passion projects
Adding those elements into the previous anatomy of a retreat, I had a mission. And since I do my best thinking with others, I brought in a couple of team members, Tim Yenca (@mryenca) and Jennifer Flood (@floodedu) to help build some of the structures of the retreat.
Team-Building Activity #1 – Guess Who
- What is your greatest fear?
- What app do you love?
- What was your childhood nickname?
- Where is your dream place to visit?
Using this information, I printed out cards that read “FEAR” or “PLACE TO VISIT” with their answers on the back. We used this to play a pictionary-meets-charades version of the Guess Who? game. Splitting the group into two teams, each team member took turns either acting or drawing out the answer on the back of the card. The team had 1-minute to guess the answer and if they got it right, they got bonus points for identifying the correct Ed Tech who said the particular item. While there were a lot of cherished moments during this activity, one of my faves was rookie Ed Tech Chris Hanson (@tejashanson) doing a flip to demonstrate the app FlipGrid in charade form.
Goal-setting (Individual & Team)
This team is composed of visionary thinkers and ideators with a wide variety of expertise. While it’s important that we create and share some common team goals, I wanted to use some time during the retreat for the team to reflect on individual goals as well. I set up this next portion to help the team answer the following questions:
- What is something that you want to learn this year?
- What are goals for your campus?
- How do you know when you are achieving these goals successfully?
- What is your BHAG or Passion Project for the future? (could be more than a year out)
We then gathered in teams (elementary and secondary) to discuss our individual goals and using district goals to guide the creation of one or two team goals for us this year. I think that third question above is one that I often struggle with. I love creating goals and ideas, but going back and checking on their success (or failure) is often a missed step. I’m hoping these goals guide each of us individually and as a team, and that at next year’s retreat, we can check in and see how successful we were in accomplishing them.
VIP Tour & VR Room Experience
Creating Avenues for Collaboration
Going on an Adventure!
Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies. For decades, these subjects have been the staple of the modern American educational system. The creative arts and physical education have also been played somewhat of a secondary role in that system. While all of these subject areas play a role in the development of our youth, they are based on career needs of the mid-20th century. According to this Pew Research study on Changes in the American Workplace, there has been an exponential demand on the social and analytical skills.
However, in our schools, we still teach the same “four core” areas and then fill in the rest with other subjects ranging from World Languages to Robotics. What’s interesting is, those original core 4 were considered the staple in preparing students for a 1950’s factory model work force. In this Sir Ken Robinson animated video, he talks about how our schools are designed for the assembly line. One only needs to look at the following graphic of companies that no longer exist to see that the American economy has shifted rapidly since the early 1970’s.
Compare the above with the graphic below which shows companies that didn’t exist in the early 1970’s that are now on Forbes top 200 list.
While there are some mainstays in terms of travel, service and retail companies, there is a huge growth in technology based companies. Now taking these new companies into account, let’s focus on the skills they desire for their future employee and see where schools stack up. This graphic by Tracy Clark (@tracyclark08) has been one that I’ve shared for many years. It’s sort of a “Soft Skills Bingo” chart of things that employers in those Fortune 500 companies look for when hiring.
I don’t see any of the “core four” subjects listed on that chart. While you could definitely argue that communication plays a role in language arts and critical thinking plays a role in math and science, I start to wonder why we are trying to “fit” these soft skills into our 1950’s core?
What would a modern core curriculum look like? And probably even more importantly, how would we transition from the current curriculum to a more updated model?
Let’s break apart both of these questions so I can attempt an answer.
Future Ready Curriculum –
If we were starting the American school system from scratch today, knowing what skills our students will need, we could change the subjects and not base them on what big-time publishers want us to focus on with our students. Building on some of the great work from FutureReady.org, the ISTE NETS for Students and keeping in mind those most desired future job skills from above, I would propose the development of the following 7 courses for every student:
Collaborative Outreach – A way for students to both serve the communities around them, but also work in teams, plan projects, and practice empathy.
Entrepreneurialism – Thinking “outside-the-box” but in a class form. Many of the ideas from this class could work hand-in-hand with the other courses listed here. Again, working in teams, students create solutions or products with the goal of developing the entrepreneurial spirit.
Communication & Design – Oral and written communication still play a major role in our current system, and by all accounts they will in the future. However, what about visual communication? What about making a visually pleasing presentation to pitch a product or reflect on an outreach opportunity? This course would encompass those skills.
Creative Expression – Having outlets to express yourself creatively and time for passion projects is huge in the workplaces of Google and Apple. The same should be true for schools. This course could be all about an app you are designing or a sculpture you are trying to complete (either by hand or by 3D printing).
Critical Problem-Solving – Much of the curriculum from math and science would fall into this course, although elements would be sprinkled in the other courses (like economics in the entrepreneurial course and science in the Environmental Mindfulness & Outreach courses)
Investigative Thinking – This course takes many of the research skills taught in social studies and applies it with a twist. How can looking back and investigating history help predict future outcomes? Traditional statistics would play a role in this course too.
Environmental Mindfulness – We need to allow time for students to be outside and/or active during the traditional class day. We also need to allow time for students to reflect on what they have learned and set goals for their future. This course takes some of traditional P.E. and mixes in meditation and deeper thinking exercises as well.
Transition to the Future
Creating these courses is the easy part. The hard part would be transitioning our current core areas into the above. It will take me an entire new blog post to outline that plan for this transition, as it involves some heavy change in mindset (by both educators and community). In the meantime, here’s where I feel parts of our current courses would fit in the above new curriculum:
Mathematics – Critical Problem-Solving, Entrepreneurialism, Investigative Thinking
Language Arts – Communication & Design, Investigative Thinking, Creative Expression
Science – Critical Problem-Solving, Environmental Mindfulness, Collaborative Outreach
Social Studies – Investigative Thinking, Communication & Design, Collaborative Outreach
World Languages – Collaborative Outreach, Communication & Design
Fine and Performing Arts – Creative Expression
Physical Education – Environmental Mindfulness
Career and Technology – Entrepreneurialism, Collaborative Outreach, Creative Expression, Communication & Design
If we really want to prepare kids for what’s next, whether that be in a high-tech career or the service industry, we need to transition our curriculum into areas that will help them be more successful in a highly automated future. I feel like the new core curriculum I am proposing does that while at the same time folding in some of the ‘classic’ curriculum models of our educational fore-fathers.
What did I miss? Chime in on the comments below.
Listen carefully! We are a group of individuals that represent a large faction of educators. While we respect the way you have run the training methods of your organization in the past, it is time for a change. As such, we are holding your teachers’ learning hostage. Their learning is safe and unharmed at this time, however, if you would like to release their learning, you must meet our list of demands when it comes to how you provide training for adults. Failure to meet these demands will result in the wide-spread lack of professional growth and lack of improvement in pedagogical practice by your staff.
It doesn’t hurt to spend a little energy and effort promoting professional learning and getting teachers excited for it. Come up with a theme and make it feel like an exclusive “members-only” type event. While some of them may come because they “have to”, it helps start the training off with excitement and energy. One example would be to send out a video or graphic that highlights the training in a fun way. Here’s one that takes a “Point Break” theme to make learning about High Quality Assessments just a tad more exciting:
Building on the buzz and excitement from your promotion, take some time to create an atmosphere for your training event. This can be as simple as having some appropriately-themed music to adding some simple decorations around the tables. When someone walks into your room, they should be excited about being there, not dreading it. Know that many educators are entering your room with the expectation that this will just be another 6 hours of “sit n’ get”, which is why it’s important to create that exciting first impression when they walk in. Have fun activity for them that involves more than just making a name card like “tweet what your first job ever was” or “find a picture of what super hero best represents you”. This will give you as the trainer an opportunity to connect with the attendees as well as give you some material that you can use later.
Research shows that hunger affects the brain and cognitive development. While we know funding is always tight and food is the first thing to get cut, this is a list of demands. If you want your staff to learn, make sure they are not hungry. This doesn’t mean you have to provide a 5-course meal, it can be as simple as a basket of chocolate or some protein-heavy snack mix. Having protein in your diet not only creates better avenues for neurotransmitters to help with learning and retention, it increases happiness according to this study.
And this doesn’t mean have 10 minutes set aside for walking around and adding notes to those giant sticky chart papers on the walls. Take a moment and put yourself in the shoes of the attendee. Would you attend your own professional learning? “Fun” can sometimes be a negative word when it comes to learning and it shouldn’t be. Making learning fun, even for adults, will not only increase engagement in the learning, it will keep them coming back for more.
Having periods of movements or “brain breaks” throughout your training not only provide some much needed breaks from what is being input into the brain, research shows that movement facilitates brain plasticity (essentially the science of having the brain learn something new). Doing a brief improv activity or having your attendees move and stretch increases oxygen flow to the brain as well as this plasticity. A side-effect of doing a group improv activity is that it creates an environment of trust and risk-taking as well as collegiality between staff that might not normally be working along side one another.
How many times have we heard that adults shouldn’t lecture children all day? Do we think that what’s best with pedagogy wouldn’t also apply to what’s best with andragogy? Who’s doing the work and talking during professional learning? If it’s more the instructor than then the attendees, you need to rethink how you are engaging your adult learners. When outlining your day for professional learning, try and employ somewhat of a “chunk n’ chew” method to the day. Break the day up into 20-30 minute segments that involving both introduction of a new skill, but also time for attendees to try it out and discuss ideas for application.
Taking into account the demands for engagement, movement, and making things more student-led, you must create opportunities for staff to collaborate on an idea or solve a problem. Providing time for collaboration in your professional learning allows opportunities for staff to discuss best practices around a topic or share strategies around a particular pedagogical problem.
Learning new things and skills takes a lot of cognitive ability. Having a training where all you do is show a series of new tools or tricks can be overwhelming to the brain and makes it nearly impossible to internalize all of it. As mentioned in demand #6, creating “chunk n’ chew” learning opportunities throughout the training will give staff an opportunity to try out the new skill as well as plan for application. Taking time to plan for application of the skill when it is learned, has a greater chance to translate into actual practice in the classroom.
We try to differentiate for learners in our classrooms, why not do the same for staff? Every single person comes into a training session with a different set of prior skills, knowledge, and preferred learning methods. When planning your professional learning, you need to allow opportunities for both the struggling learners and the high-flyers to be successful. This can be as simple as sharing your outline for the day ahead of time on Google docs or a website so that some can go at their own pace, while others can revisit a newly learned strategy.
Our final demand is that you provide some time for staff to reflect on what they have learned. When planning the professional learning experience for your staff, make sure there is time to reflect throughout the day. This doesn’t mean just spend the last 5 minutes reflecting on something they learned that day, but rather actual pockets of time throughout the day where they can reflect in the medium of their choosing. After all, educational reformer John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
We feel our list of demands are not unreasonable. Please secure these demands prior to your next professional learning event or your teachers’ learning will suffer the consequences.
The E.B.P.L. (Educators for Better Professional Learning)
During his mini-keynote, Derrick Brown (@DAB427) claimed that we were all “just living in a Hooker’s dream.” While I’m honored by his statement, I can tell you this entire experience has far exceeded any dream I could have dreamt. I can also tell you that this dream wasn’t just mine, but a shared dream amongst teams of dedicated educators that I’ve had the pleasure of working with because of this event.
This past week at the ending of our 6th annual learning festival, I announced that it would be the last iPadpalooza main event. This decision was not made in haste and has involved countless of hours of discussion, counseling, and, in my case, even some tears. But, before we dive into what comes next, I decided to write this post as part explanation, part reflection, part appreciation, part therapy (for me), and part teaser (for what’s next).
First…a little history
In 2011, we had launched our iPad 1:1 and wanted to hold an event that would bring teachers together to share and learn from each other. Since other districts in the area were doing it, we decided we could open it up to outside educators as well. The thought of holding an “iConference” was kicked around but sounded boring and overdone. One of my amazing iVengers (Marianna Ricketson) said at a meeting in early 2012 that we should name it iPadpalooza as a way of making it sound more fun. So we bought the domain and set a date without any clue as to what we were going to actually do. (Hey, sometimes, you just have to take a risk and put it out there)
Also at that point, I added the tagline that “It’s not a conference…it’s a learning festival” to make attendees aware of what they were attending would not be a normal educational conference. So, on June 19, 2012, we partnered with TCEA to host our single-day event and even had some film students create this promotional video (below). As a fun side note, I had to reach out and chat with Norman Greenbaum to get his permission to use his song in the video. He’s a groovy dude.
The truth behind the lieFollowing a successful first year, we wanted to make the next year even bigger and expand it to two days. So I hopped on the phone with Sir Ken Robinson’s people to try and convince him that he needed to come to our learning festival. When he said he’d never heard of it, I lied. I told him that it’s a global event that is attended by 1000 educators from all over the country and the world. He and his people agreed to do the keynote, and even though in the first year we only had 400 attendees, when he showed up, so did 1000 people from all over the country and the world. So….it wasn’t necessarily a lie, it just wasn’t true…yet.
The “Learning Festival” ideology
Getting educators to attend professional learning during their off-time can be extremely tricky. While ideally, people would just come to improve their craft, there is also some pressure on those providing the learning to make sure it’s worth their time. When I was a classroom teacher, I always thought the best trainings I attended gave me some choice and allowed time to collaborate and be hands-on with activities rather than sitting in a room for several hours being talked at. When I attended conferences, I took notes of the parts I liked, and the ones I didn’t. Cramming sessions in with 5 minute breaks left no time for reflection and collaborating. Also, as I attended events like TEDx, SXSW, and even ACLFest (a music festival), the idea to create a festival atmosphere kept creeping into my head and those on my team.
The learning festival ideology is centered around the concept that learning can be fun (even for adults) and that learning should be an event…an experience if you will. From the moment you walk in until the moment you leave, you should be a part of the experience. Taking the traditional conference concept and shaking it up with live music, food trucks, t-shirts, contests, film festivals, and unique session types helps make the learning more festival-like.
It’s more than just a name
We knew when we named the event “iPadpalooza” that the name immediately excluded certain groups of educators (those without iPads). While we began the event as a way for teachers to share iPad resources, education, devices and technology integration has evolved. Indeed, our session titles in the early days were also centered around the device rather than learning. Sessions like “50 apps in 50 minutes” were popular when we began, but as the festival evolved, we noticed a stronger push to focus deeper on learning strategies with and without technology. Whatever our next iteration will be, we want to make sure that all adults (and students) have an opportunity to experience the Learning Festival-feel regardless of what device their district may have purchased.
6 years – by the numbers
Here’s a look at a few numbers of iPadpalooza over the the last 6 years:
Before Sir Ken, Tony Vincent took a chance and decided to open up our inaugural event in 2012. (I was actually the closer for that event). Without Tony, our event wouldn’t have had the initial credibility to get off the ground. I’m forever grateful to him and the work he brings to education. Other featured keynotes included Sugata Mitra, Guy Kawasaki, Adam Bellow, “iPad Magician” Simon Pierro, Cathy Hunt, Eric Whitacre, Kevin Honeycutt , Austin Kleon and Jason Silva. Also, in 2014, just to be a little different (and to make @techchef4u happy), we had the band Blue October close out our event.
Besides the above, we’ve hosted nearly a hundred “celebrities” from the education world, many of whom have been roped into doing a mini-keynote over the years. Here’s just a few names that have generously given us some of their educational expertise over the years: Tom Murray, Christian Long, David Jakes, George Couros, Kerry Gallagher, Dan Ryder, Amy Burvall, Dean Shareski (and his daughter this year!), Audrey O’Clair, Wes Fryer & Shelly Fryer, Felix & Judy Jacomino, Adam Phyall, Amy Mayer, Greg Kulowiec, Andrew Wallace, Cathy Yenca & Tim Yenca, Lisa Johnson, Greg Garner, Don Goble, Kyle Pace, Phil Hintz, Kyle Pierce, Leo Brehm, Chris Parker, Michelle Cordy, Jennie Magiera, Scott Meech, Tracy Clark, Cori Coburn, Rafranz Davis, Kathy Schrock, Monica Burns, Derrick Brown, Todd Nesloney, Jon Samuelson, Matt Gomez, Reshan Richards, Julie Willcott, Richard Wells, Rabbi Michael Cohen, Brianna Hodges, Carolyn Foote, Brett Salakas, Jona Nalder, Matt Miller, Holly Moore, Joan Gore, Janet Corder, Kacy Mitchell, Steve Dembo, Lucas Loughmiller, and Chris Coleman just to name a few. (Apologies if I left anyone off this list!) So much talent has graced the halls of Westlake High School over the years and I can honestly say you would be lucky to have any of the above as keynote speakers at your event. There were also countless other rock-star teachers that have been a part of the 509 presenters that have shared their wisdom at our events. Check out the last couple of mini-keynotathons and other featured speakers on the iPadpalooza YouTube channel .
Events around the event
One of the things that really makes our festival different is the thought, time, and energy put into events happening during and around the main event. The APPMazing Race and Youth Film Festival both kicked off in 2013. In 2014 we added the iLead Academy and in 2015 the Prepalooza Learnshops. This final year, we also added our first ever Ed Tech Poetry Slam at the Spider House in Austin (Shout-out to Lisa Johnson for the idea!) These events around the event really make it a nearly 24/7 experience in learning, connection, fun, and collaboration.
Other ‘paloozas and the Learning Festival Network
In 2014 I was approached by Kari Gerhart and Caroline Little about the possibility of bringing iPadpalooza to Minnesota. And thus, the iPadpalooza spin-off events were born. A little bonus history here, it was around this time that someone, either Caroline or possibly Reshan Richards coined the term “Godfather” for me – owing to my Sicilian background.
All told there have been over a dozen spin-off events with Minnesota, East Texas, and South Texas being the longest running. In 2016, we went international and became the first iPadpalooza in Australia. While the main event is over, we still support our spin-off events and hope many more will pop up over the years.
Speaking of spin-offs, there were several events created that were “inspired by” the spirit of iPadpalooza. Events like iEngage-Berwyn, Miami Device and others took pieces and parts of iPadpalooza to spice up their own event. In the coming years, we hope to fold these and other spin-off events, into our Learning Festival Network to support them in any way we can.
Making sponsor “thank you’s” fun
In 2014, I decided that instead of doing the traditional sponsor thank you speech at the beginning and end of the event, that I would turn it into a rap song. I also tried to set the Guinness World Record of “most synchronized light show” in history by turning off the lights and controlling everyone’s iPads with Nearpod as I sang my version of LMFAO’s “Party Rock”. While it worked, Guinness sadly failed to show to recognize the achievement.
The following year, I tried my hand at a parody of Eminem with “iPadpalooza Yourself” (sang to “Lose Yourself”) but realized that this was becoming a one-trick pony and I needed to push myself.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, a lot of my inspiration comes from talking and collaborating with others.
This year I attempted to follow it up with my version of Car pool karaoke, which was fun…but the slow jam will always be my favorite. And their ending of this year’s event with the “Ed Tech Musical Review” will go down in history as an epically funny way to look at trends in Ed Tech.
iVengers & Volunteers
These events can’t happen without dedicated staff willing to do the dirty work from running around fixing projectors to handling prima dona keynote speakers. I’ve been blessed with an amazing team here at Eanes ISD. They work their tail off year after year for this event and always with a smile on their face. Without my amazing team of Ed Techs, a.k.a. iVengers, none of this would be even remotely possible. The ideas for this event come from the collective brain power of this group, not just me. I’m excited to have them on board for what comes next….
While iPadpalooza sails off into the sunset, I can promise you there will be something else coming. We are already cooking up ideas for a prototype event next summer with our internal staff that will keep some of the same features of iPadpalooza but also open up some other thoughts and ideas. But why stop at just one event? There are also plans for a SUPER SECRET idea (my BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal) that I can promise you will be a one-of-a-kind experience.
Thank you all for being on board this voyage for learning over the past six years.
Here’s to the next dream!
I had a major problem in my last year as a first grade teacher. I had been teaching for several years and the students were so far ahead with two months to go that I had to figure out what to do with them. The year before, I decided to give them a head start on second grade curriculum thinking they would lose some during the summer break. I discovered that this was a major no-no and akin to taking a teacher’s personal parking space. Following a pretty good tongue-lashing by the second grade teachers, I was entering April with a choice, do I do it again? Or do I figure out something else to do for our final 2 months together?
One thing that always bothered me as a teacher was the curriculum. The school I was teaching at and the team I was teaching with would rarely stray from it. The Teacher’s Edition was like a Holy Bible for a newer teacher as it provided the scope, sequence and pacing of delivery of content. There was one MAJOR problem with this….it didn’t take into account the kids. I was forcing them to learn math through fake story problems involving trains moving in opposite directions and learn history of whatever the textbook or standard dictated and never any more than that.
So with almost all the first grade content covered and a couple months of school left, I decided to consult the most important people in the school about what to do with the time….the students. I asked them what they wanted to learn about for the remainder of our time together. I had hoped for maybe one or two ideas but instead I got 22 different ideas for 22 different kids. It makes sense when you think about it. They each are unique and have different passions, so why wouldn’t they come up with things they are interested in? The choices ranged from tornadoes to the actress Rachel Weisz (yes, a little boy named Sean was obsessed with her).
After gathering their list of ideas I presented them with a challenge – tie in all the core areas of curriculum – writing, science, reading, math and social studies into their passion and present a final project the represents all of these areas. While the school day was still fairly structured with centers and finishing up the final pieces of first grade curriculum, I started giving them an hour or more each day to work on their “passion project”.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this is exactly the way companies like Google work with their 20% time. It’s also the basis behind the concept of “Genius hour” in schools. Spend the majority of your time working on the “work” but then carve out pockets of time to explore your passions and inner genius. I’ve also heard it referred to as “Interest-based Learning.” Whatever you want to call it, I stumbled into it my last year of teaching and immediately had regret. Not regret for doing it, but regret for not doing it sooner.
The classroom bubbled with energy whenever the students had time to work on their projects. With only 4 computers in the room (do you remember Compaq computers?), they had limited research time and time to create. I ended up locating the one COW (Computers on Wheels) at the time which was full of a dozen pearl-white Apple iBooks (image left). I told the rest of the school that I would be the computer “farmer” in charge of the COW until the end of the year as my kids were using it heavily to wrap up their projects.
The amount of creativity energy flowing out of room 52 that year was breath-taking. During the last week of school, each of the students presented their passion project. I invited their parents in to see the final outcomes. Mary’s project on horses involved a history of horse migration to North America, an original poem on horses, and even math story problems on horses (“If two horses leave a barn at the same time heading in opposite directions…”). Every student rose to the challenge and while it was hard for some to tie in the core content areas (Rachel Weisz was particularly challenging), they each accomplished the goals on the rubric.
So how do we make the time in schools for students to follow their inner-genius or passion? Some schools create Genius Hour time one day a week or one class period a week. Others, like one of our elementary campuses, creates something called “Enrichment Clusters” (based on the work of Joseph Renzulli) where not only do the students get to explore their passions, but the teachers get to teach their passions as well. Courses range from coding to yoga to golf in these clusters where students learn and ultimately present their project at the end of a 9-week time period.
As the students in my class wrapped up their projects that year, I felt extremely rewarded for making the choice I had for our time together those final weeks.They had the time to explore their inner-genius and had rewarded me by showing their learning. Thusly, I wanted to reward them for taking on this idea with such fervor. I tried to find some sort of trinket or object for each of them associated with their project. The boy who’s passion was Harry Potter got a stuff-three headed dog named Fluffy. The girl who was passionate about surfing got a charm bracelet full of different surf boards.
Oh, and in case you are wondering what happened with the student who created the Rachel Weisz project, I decided to reach out to the actress’ handlers but didn’t get a response. I ended up asking Sean to present on the last day just in case she decided to send a note or something. On the last day of school, his reward arrived:
It’s amazing what students can accomplish if you give them some voice and some choice. As a teacher, we need to figure out how to make this time for our students. We all have an inner-genius, we just need the time to explore it.
“Don’t think outside the box. Think without a box.”
That quote by opening panelist Chris Budzynski (@chrisbudzynski) really summed up much of what was discovered and discussed at the recent School CIO summit hosted by Tech and Learning Magazine (@techlearning). These summits provide excellent opportunities to connect with other leaders across the country as well as provide resources and tools to help districts continue to lead and innovate. This post is a reflection of some of the things I discovered and a couple of wishful thoughts on things I hope we get to do in my district.
Design Tech High School Visit
Imagine if you found an abandoned warehouse, threw a bunch of tools, whiteboards, technology and high school kids in it. What do you think might happen? The “DTech” high school is just that. Students don’t have a bell schedule or a series of classes to sit through. Instead, they are working on design projects that incorporate the core content areas as well as some serious soft skills that they’ll need in their future.
“Principal” Ken Montgomery took us through a tour of his facility and their day to day schedule. I put the word principal in quotes, because he’s really part-principal, part-passion driven student advocate, and part crazy (in a good way). This school is based somewhat on the Stanford DSchool concept and has been built out of a partnership with local tech giant Oracle and their Education Foundation.
While classes were over for the day when we walked up, I noticed quite a bit of students hanging out on a Friday, not ready to leave. What does that say about the school when kids are running to the weekend? I stopped to ask one of the students what they thought about the place and concept. He replied, “I love it.” When I asked him why he said, “The people. They love it here and they care about us and our learning. It shows.”
I think that quote could be shared about any great teacher, but it was clear for this young man, the school provided him with an opportunity that he might not have received in a more traditional setting. The few students still milling about inside the building/warehouse were finishing a robotics project or studying Mandarian just….because. Next year, the students of DTech will move into a brand new innovative building on Oracle’s campus, but for me, I really loved the messy feeling of this old warehouse. The imperfections and griminess left me with the impression that this building (and program) are very much loved.
Opening Panel on Blended Learning
The following day, we were treated to an opening panel that featured 3 school leaders from very different places. Emily Garrison (@emilyagarrison) from Palo Alto Unified School District was up first. Her school district is considered a “sister” school district of Eanes ISD, so I was curious to hear her thoughts on how to make things more blended for students. Their program began with one teacher several years ago and was built on the iNACOL framework for blended learning. While there were various models presented from in-house to twilight (after hours), the program’s growth and success was largely due to the focus on mindset and strong professional learning for staff. Their mantra for the program of “Time, place, path, and pace” helps guide students towards different opportunities for learning success.
Next up was Chris Budzynski who I mentioned at the open. Chris’s district just outside of Chicago, has also purposefully grown a blended learning model where students have multiple periods a day to learn in a blended setting (usually first or last period). Additionally, with the opening of a new hospital near their high school, they partnered with the doctors in providing the first of it’s kind, high school hospital internship program. A group of students spend part of their school day shadowing and helping staff in the hospital while still taking a full course load. An incredible opportunity to any young person thinking of working for the medical industry.
The final panelist was Bryant Wong from Summit Public Schools. Summit is a blended charter that has over 100+ schools all over the country and is focused on both diversity and success after college. Their format provides a playlist of learning options for each student, creating a personalized approach to its learners. With help from Khan Academy and Facebook, they have been able to freely provide opportunities to kids that might not exist where they live. While I’m a fierce advocate for public schools, this charter seems to have its heart in the right place.
Here’s a sketchnote of their session that I did in an attempt to recall all that was shared:
Besides site visits and hearing from innovative leaders in the K-12 space, the summit also provides time throughout the day to share best practices in working group meetings. I presented some of the ways we have tried to educate both parents and students on digital citizenship. In talking with the others in the group, Common Sense Media continues to be a national leader on the subject in their freely provided content.
For the second working group on learning spaces, I got to play the role of learner. One of the main presenters was Michael Morrison (@mytakeontech) from Laguna Beach USD. He shared their “4CLE” project that focused on furniture, lighting, and color as part of a positive student learning environment. One thing that really stuck with me, besides the super cool use of Hue bulbs to change classroom color digitally, was that they used a lot of flat screen TVs in their rooms. Many of the rooms had 2 or more TVs that Michael mentioned could cost around $150 (for a 32″). An interesting idea and break from the single expensive projector at the front of the room approach that we usually take in classrooms. The TVs all connect via a hub and teachers or students can project their work on the screens.
It’s clear to me that there is a lot of good happening in education around the country despite what some news articles may say. These school leaders shared many valuable resources and research in their efforts to help each student along their own personal learning journey. For me, I want to take back the idea of really examining our school schedule and the limitations it might be having on learning for some students. I know many of our kids excel at playing the “game of school” but for some, as witnessed by early success of our WHS Incubator class, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to student learning. Giving more of our students agency in their learning needs to continue to be a focus of ours as we travel into the second iteration of our 1:1 mobile device program and flexible furniture pilots.