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.
I’ve attended every SXSWedu since the beginning. As it’s located in Austin, it’s a great opportunity to learn and share with leaders from around the world right in my backyard. This year, we are sending quite a bit of staff to stretch their thinking and grow as professionals. As usual, Ron Reed and the crew at SXSWedu put together a dynamite line-up that doesn’t disappoint. One thing I created to help guide staff is create a “manifesto” of sorts for those that are either going for the first time or are just needing help not being overwhelmed by all the great sessions in their lineup.
If you are a first-time or veteran SXSW-er, hopefully some of these tips will help you as you make your way towards Austin next week.
If you are with a group, create a Slack channel
Attending a large conference with a group can be engaging but you also can run into serious FOMO (Fear of missing out) on sessions you don’t attend. I invited all of our staff attending to our own district Slack channel. Slack is a great way to share resources and communicate in a group format that won’t crowd your inbox during an event like this. I consider it kind of like a group text on steroids. We will still encourage staff to follow along at the #SXSWedu hashtag, but using a private group Slack can be powerful when reflecting and sharing after the event is over.
Parking can be tricky…and Uber is gone
The days of free parking in downtown Austin are over (unless you are comfortable walking a long distance). That said, most of the parking around downtown is reasonably priced ($10-$15 bucks), but I’d encourage you to car pool if possible. Here’s a map of downtown parking for some ideas of where to find parking. Also, as Uber and Lyft pulled out of Austin since the last SXSWedu, you’ll want to use an alternate ride-share company like Fare or Ride Austin to get around down town. If that doesn’t work, there are always a bunch of pedi-cabs!
Registration is located on the Northeast corner of the convention center (Exhibit hall 5). You should have been sent a badge via email from email@example.com that has your Quickcode to scan when you get there. You can also link your account with the social.sxswedu.com account to upload your picture ahead of time if you don’t want them to take it when you get there.
You can pick up your badge starting at 4 PM on Sunday (advisable if you want to avoid longer lines on Monday).
Lunch places are always changing year to year so check Yelp for some good options. Prices do vary and “rush hour” is generally between 11:30-1:00. Some newer places downtown include Cafe Blue and one of the BEST pizza food trailers down Rainey street behind Craft Pride called Via313 (Detroit-style pizza). One of my favorite burger joints continues to be Casino El Camino on 6th street. Of course, if you are looking for BBQ and don’t want to wait too long in line at IronWorks, I’d highly recommend LaBarbecue (order the rib, it’s pricey, but worth EVERY penny!).
SXSWedu has several events that happen in the evening. There are multiple movie screenings happening throughout the week. One of note is a screening of the movie “Hidden Figures” on Monday from 7-9pm at the Stateside Theater (with a Q&A panel with @RafranzDavis and others to follow). Another event that I am personally involved in is the CatchOn Launch Party on Tuesday at 7:30pm-11pm at Cedar Street Courtyard. It’s a start-up company I’ve been advising on and we have all sorts of fun stuff planned for that evening including a little live band karaoke! Your SXSWedu badge will get you into all of these events.
SXSWedu doesn’t follow traditional conference schedules (1 hour sessions repeating throughout). There are variety of sessions from 15-minute talks, to Think tanks, to meet-ups, to Future 20s, to longer workshops. Be sure to create a log-in before arriving and ‘star’ the sessions you are interested in but also note the start and end times as many overlap. Also, note that with the exception of keynotes, most of the sessions Monday through Wednesday run from 11am-6pm and on Thursday they are from 9:30am-2pm with a closing party to follow. (you can sleep in!)
Sessions that intrigue me
I’m super pumped to see Tim Ferriss keynote on Wednesday at 9:30am. I’ve been a fan of his podcast and books for the last couple of years and I’m excited to hear what he has to say about learning and mastery. Sessions that focus on design thinking, student empowerment, and artificial intelligence tend to draw my interest this year. I’m also all-in on the Breakout EDU concept and I’m excited to see good friend and super-engaging speaker Adam Bellow at this year’s event. This year, not only am I attending, but I’m also moderating an interactive panel called “#AppOverkill: Going Beyond the Buzzwords”. I’m excited to hear from the panel of experts we have assembled and we are also going to be doing some different activities to engage audience in the conversation. Come be a part of the conversation and fun at Tuesday at 11am!
Takeaways and Reflections
Attending an event like this can be incredibly rewarding and energizing to those of us in education. However, it’s important that those that attend also bring back and share their learning with others on campus.
Here is a list of questions to keep in the back of your mind as you attend sessions and look for things to bring back. (Thanks to Lisa Johnson @TechChef4U for curating this!)
- What are the top sessions/topics that you liked?
- What are the top sessions/topics that you would like to take back to your campus to impact change?
- What are the top sessions/topics that challenged your beliefs?
- Who was someone you connected with that impacted you?
- Who are the top people that engaged you?
- What are the top resources you found most impactful?
- What are the top pieces of research or studies you feel are most impactful for our students and/or teachers?
- How will I share my new discoveries from this event with my staff?
While there are many other questions you are thinking about than the ones above, keeping these in the back of your mind while attending SXSWedu allows you time to reflect when it’s all over and also think about ways to share your new discoveries with others when you return.
Every year I embark on an expedition to either look brilliant or embarrass myself. (Let’s be honest, that’s more like every day in my life) Since 2013 I’ve set out to make a series of predictions, mostly in the Ed Tech world, that are bold. Now, let’s look at the definition of “bold” below before we get started.
While all of these certainly can be applied, I’m going to focus on the final definition and say that some of these predictions stretch the usual limits of conventional thought or action. Last year for example, I predicted that schools would start to implement self-driving buses. As crazy as this may sound, about a month after the prediction, a company in Perth, Australia, began to pilot the self-driving bus in their community. It’s only a matter of time before schools use them right?
You get the idea. Some of these are crazy, others actually just make sense, and some I just wish would happen. So, with that in mind and stressing that this is a “no judgement” zone, let’s proceed:
A Dual-Language school will open with coding as the second language
The immersive dual-language movement has been going on for decades. Why not treat coding as a foreign language? If we really believe that we are preparing kids for a global society, then why not teach them a language many of them will find useful later in life? This does not mean that learning an actual foreign language is any less important, it’s just that we should probably start to value coding and programming on that same level in schools. One sign that this would become a reality would be if a school district actually gave a language credit to those learning to program and code. Talk about taking “hour of code” to the next level!
The POTUS will use SnapChat to give the State of the Union
I’m not even touching the political side of this, but instead, let’s focus on the medium to which our future president will use to communicate the State of the Union with the masses. I get the feeling that Twitter will not be enough for him in the future. I mean, either they’ll have to change their limit of 140 characters (not likely) or he’ll choose a different way of communicating. Enter SnapChat! What a great way to make a bold statement and then have it disappear (sort of) just a few seconds later. Does this sound all that crazy considering where we are today with social media, politics and the recent election?
The Learning “Movement” will take center stage at this year’s iPadpalooza
Every year, iPadpalooza tries to center our attention around a certain theme. Last year we let the “Learning be with us” via a Star Wars-focused theme centered around looking into the future. This year, we take the PokemonGo phenomenon and flip it on its head with our “Learning on the GO” theme. I mean, what good is it to have all of these mobile devices in schools when kids are forced to sit in desks in rows learning the same traditional content the same traditional way? During this year’s event, there will be a whole lotta shakin’ going on with sessions centered around the theme and even a new type of session called a “Walk n’ Talk” where attendees will actually walk around the campus with a presenter sharing an idea. You’ll want to have a good pair of walking shoes before you join us this summer!
Someone will invent a PokemonGO type app for education
Speaking of PokemonGO, it’s only a matter of time before someone invents an app that has some of the same addictive…er…engaging pieces of the widely popular Niantic app. I know there already is a PokemonEdu Facebook group and Twitter hashtag centered around using the characters from the app in an edu setting, but I’m talking something bigger here.
Imagine it. As a teacher, you have access to a platform that allows you to upload little learning nuggets into a platform. Students then actually get up and physically leave the classroom to discover these learning nuggets. Working in teams, they put the nuggets together and get certain badges for completing certain challenges. There could even be time limits, based on the class schedule, so you don’t just have kids wandering the halls all day. It’s like taking the APPmazing Race to a whole other level….hmmmmm….
Data actually gets sexy
I’m always reading stuff about “Big Data” and hearing about some fancy things happening with the IBM Watson project, but in truth, I find data to be extremely boring in its traditional, spreadsheet-focused format. I equate it to going and getting a physical. You don’t want to do it, but you need to if you really want to improve your health. Let’s face it, unless you are an accountant or testing coordinator, you’d rather find something else to do with your time rather than pouring over hundreds of color-coded graphs.
But this year, I think that will change. Now, I’m cheating a little bit here as I’ve been privy to a new program (called CatchOn) that actually puts usage data in a simple, clean, fantasy-football-like format. Gone are the days of me logging into different programs to look up usage statistics and figure out the ROI of a particular program. In this not-so-distant future, we’ll actually be able to see everything that’s being used on a district or school level right on our phone and then adjust accordingly. As someone who delivers professional learning in my district, being able to see this data instantly and beautifully would be powerful in steering what we need to help train teachers on or what we need to get rid of. Now that would be sexy (and save us money)!
Mixed Reality makes it’s way into the mainstream classroom
For the past couple of years, there have been several one-off ideas of using some sort of mixed reality in the classroom. Maybe it’s virtual through programs like Google Expeditions or Nearpod VR, or maybe it’s augmented like using the Aurasma app to see hidden things (something I attempted to do with my book series). Either way, mixing realities can provide a powerful way to engage students into certain content areas and up until now, it’s largely been seen as a niche or fun side activity. As witnessed by this recent Kickstarter called the ZapBox, it’s not too hard to see a future where the holograms actually do pop up on the desk so you can interact with them. Now, if only they can invent a way to create virtual versions of those paper footballs that I used to flick across the classroom.
Piggy backing on the VR concept and expanding into pop culture, I see hollywood grabbing onto the VR the concept and expanding it to the viewer. Now, as someone attending a VR-enhanced movie, you put on the VR goggles, much like you do now with 3D glasses, and are instantly in the middle of the movie. You look around at all the characters around you and actually sit in the middle of the room where the action is taking place. Imagine sitting in a car from Fast and Furious 15 as it launches out of a plane and lands on a boat! Or imagine sitting in the living room during Halloween Part 13 and instead of yelling at the screen for the actor to turn around, you can actually turn around as the killer approaches? Doing it in a movie theater gives everyone the same shared experience and you could even make movies more “Choose your own adventure-like” where half the audience goes down one hallway and the rest go down the other. Sound crazy or genius? I’m not sure where I fall on this yet, but hope it happens.
The Classroom becomes “Smart” with Frank
With devices like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa really taking off in the consumer market, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched that we would soon see an educational version of these tools. I think it should be called something like “Frank”. Frank would be like a fact-checking teacher’s assistant that all the students could also use. “Frank, when was the battle of 1812?” or “What is Bohr’s law?” or maybe “What is my teacher’s favorite treat?” All of these could be useful in saving time in the classroom and help dive into even deeper learning and higher Bloom’s level thinking. However, I imagine it might also come with a lot of new classroom management issues. But hey, for every challenge comes an opportunity, right Frank?
I finally publish my first children’s book…and this time I mean it!
Yes, I know this was on last year’s predictions, but I sort of had that whole Mobile Learning Mindset book series to finish first. With that series finally complete, I’m ready to embark on a new journey. I’ve got a lot of good ideas for a tech-centered children’s book that will definitely be some sort of mixed reality book too. It might even come with it’s own pair of VR goggles attached on the back. Like a virtual pop-up book of sorts. Now, if only I can find a publisher willing to take a risk….
There you have it. A few bold and bolder predictions that may happen this year. What do you think? What do you predict? Add your comments below and maybe together, we can make the future a better place for learning too!
Happy New Year!
I was approached a couple of weeks ago by the good folks over at ISTE to create a commercial for my book series Mobile Learning Mindset. My only perimeters were that it had to have a holiday theme and I had to shoot, edit, and publish it completely on my own with no budget. Back in the stone ages, I used to teach a “young film makers” class with students and have always enjoyed the iPadpalooza Youth Film Festival, but I rarely ever got to make a video on my own.
So, knowing that I had no budget and no actors, I decided to recruit my own children to shamelessly plug my book series. If you know me, you’ll know that I did this totally tongue-in-cheek because I’m not a fan of self-promotion. (some of you are thinking…”yeah, right”)
However, I truly love the film making process. From storyboarding the script, to preparing the room, the lights, the props and getting the kids in make-up and costume. It was a fun event for the whole family and made me realize that I live with a bunch of divas. My youngest, actually refused to say her line so I had to bribe her with chocolate and get my wife to shoot the seen with her. In the end, I like the result and the girls are already asking when we’ll make the next one. (stay tuned for a “Shamwow-like” infomercial coming when the last two books are published)
I hope you enjoy the outcome and the little glimpse into the lives of my family members who have to put up with me on a daily basis: