What If Education Worked Like IKEA?  

What if education worked like IKEA?  

Every time I go to IKEA, no matter which country I’ve done it in, I start with the knowledge that there will be a soft serve ice cream cone waiting for me at the finish line.  That’s what gets me through.  IKEA is insane, it is overwhelming, and there is way too much stuff for me to buy.  No matter what I’ve needed for a house or apartment I’ve been able to find it there.  Whether in Italy, China, Indonesia, or Oak Creek, I know that I’m getting a consistent product with lots of options for personalization.  

On the surface IKEA seems like a giant, one-size fits all operation.  However, it’s much more than that.  Yes, the basics are consistent and rather generically styled so as to fit many different tastes.  Yet there are options to add-on, change colors, supplement, and combine products to make them your own.  So, what if education worked like IKEA?

What if we were able to start with the same basic goals and objectives for each student?  We could even start with the same general learning materials for everyone.  Then we could supplement, add-on, change contexts, or combine objectives to create a personalized learning environment that suited the needs of all learners.  But wait, don’t we do that already?  Kind of…

IKEA is consistent, the same general lines of furniture, flatware, and bed sheets that I got there 15 years ago in Italy can still be found on their showroom floors (don’t get lost!)  They don’t change their entire line every couple of years.  Additions happen, some things get phased out, but the best products have staying power and they form the backbone of IKEA’s success.  So, what do we do then as we face an overhaul of curriculum materials for so many of the content areas we teach?  

This is where the other part of IKEA’s success comes into play.  IKEA has the same general store layout, products, and even food items all across the world.  However, things at each location get done in different ways to meet the needs of the local customers.  In Italy, carts required a 2 Euro deposit so they got returned (they had a HUGE parking structure).  In China, there were dozens of small delivery trucks on hand to hire like a taxi at the end of your shopping experience (most people don’t own cars), and in Indonesia (a majority muslim country) the hotdogs at the concession stand were replaced with chicken dogs.  The experience of entering IKEA is largely the same but the user experience is shifted just enough to meet the needs of the individual store’s patrons.  

With such large grade level teams at Gifford, you can create a similar experience for your grade levels and students.  Working together you can share the work of planning, creating, and implementing on a large scale.  Then, as you look at the particular needs of your classroom, you can slightly alter the experience of implementation to meet the needs of all learners as well as your personal style as a teacher.  As a large school with such tremendous professional knowledge, the opportunity to work with the other members of your team to create a better overall experience for your students is a real gift.  Don’t let it slip away!  

Moving Upstream

About a year ago I read a book called Upstream: The quest to solve problems before they happen by Dan Heath (2020), Heath is well known for some of his other books co-authored with his brother, Made to Stick and Switch.  The book opens with an adaptation of a parable often credited to Irving Zola, which goes like this:

You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river.  Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water – a child is drowning.  Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help.  You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well.  Then another struggling child drifts into sight…and another…and another.  The two of you can barely keep up.  Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand.  Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.” (p. 1)

Downstream efforts get a lot of attention.  They’re where the heroes make the news.  On a day to day level, downstream efforts are the obvious things that need attention.  They’re the squeaky wheels that need the oil.  In school, RtI and other interventions are some of our biggest downstream efforts.  

What if, in schools, we were able to move upstream and help prevent the need for interventions downstream?  How would that look?  

Currently we’re working to compile as much data as we can in preparation for next school year.  The data we have to work with is different from what we’ve had to work with in the past but we’ve got a lot of valuable information.  While we can’t do away with our downstream interventions just yet, how can we begin to look upstream using the data that we collect at the same time as we work to support those students who need interventions in the present?  

Reaction is easy, it’s much less ambiguous.  When we’re working downstream, we’re reacting to a problem that is presenting itself at the moment, a challenging position to be in.  Upstream, however, is a different kind of challenge.  It requires thinking about a problem and its antecedents.  It requires diagnosing a system that is breaking down and working to prevent the resulting problems, or at the very least reducing the impact those problems have on a population.  

It’s important to remember that downstream work is still important, we can’t do away with the interventions and let those kids keep just floating down the river.  However, we need to make sure that we don’t get stuck in a perpetual loop of downstream work like the two life-savers from the story above found themselves in, we’ll burn out!  What Heath advocates for, and I agree with, is to make sure that we aren’t so focused on downstream work that we forget about looking upstream for the root of the problems.  

So, as it comes time to dig into data, think about what that data is telling us about our upstream needs and not just about the work that we need to do downstream.  What do we need to do to slow the flow of kids floating down the river in the first place?  

Collective Teacher Efficacy

A friend of mine recently shared a podcast with me that I’ve been listening to for the last couple weeks called myPD Unplugged.  They are brief (30-40 minute) conversations between educators in the Long Beach Unified School District with occasional guests included.  I’ve tried listening to a number of educational podcasts over the years and often find them too boring, too long, or poorly made. I skipped ahead to season two but I’ve found this podcast to be coherent, helpful, and the conversation to be well coordinated. (I also listen to podcasts at 1.5x speed so it’s even shorter!) 

Anyway, I wanted to share this resource because I particularly liked a few of the episodes related to Collective Teacher Efficacy. As the factor related to student achievement ranked the highest on John Hattie’s 2018 meta-analysis of 252 factors, it is something that deserves a lot of attention in schools. In episodes, 2.1 and 2.2 along with later episodes 3.5 and 3.8, the hosts discuss the definition of true collective teacher efficacy, compare it to self-efficacy, and dig into strategies to make it come to life in a learning community. 

As we move forward as a school, focused on student learning, it would be borderline unethical for us to overlook collective teacher efficacy.  When we think about the work that we do as teaching teams, the conversations had in these podcast episodes are very similar to the conversations each team should be having. Collective Teacher Efficacy doesn’t just happen by chance, and while it can begin with strong social relationships it depends on a specific, dedicated focus on student data and intentional efforts to improve teaching practices. 

The next time you’re out for a walk with the dog or on a short road trip, give myPD Unplugged a chance, specifically try episodes 2.1 and 2.2. 

Control the Controllables

Mid-day on Friday I received some of the most shocking and saddening news I’ve received in a long time.  I found out that one of the professors from my PhD program, who has become very close over the past two years, died unexpectedly the day prior.  I had just had class with him the weekend before and have been diligently working to complete all of my assignments for his class.  It was absolutely out of the blue and I’m still in a mild state of shock.

As I’ve reflected on just what an amazing human he was and how thankful I am to have met him and been able to learn from him these last two years, I’ve really thought a lot about the way that things can change so suddenly for anyone at any time.

Life is short and it can be extremely challenging at times.  However, my professor’s sudden passing is a stark reminder that there is nothing promised to us.  We have to make the most of every moment and cherish every second.  There are a lot of things in life that can distract us from doing that, it’s important to remember that we can only control so much in this world.  

If this past year has taught us anything it should be that we can only control the controllables.  There are going to be things that are out of our control, things as big as a pandemic and as small as the internet going out in the middle of binge-watching a show on Netflix.  We have to take a step back and not allow these things to cause stress or be distractions in our life, or to our pursuit of a life well-lived.  

Instinctively, I want to dwell on the loss of my professor.  He was truly one of the best educators I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my life, both as a student and as a professional.  His loss is terrible for many people and he will be fondly remembered by all who knew him.  However, while I can hold his memory dear, I have no way to change what has happened.  I can, however, control how I respond.  I will kiss Clayton and my wife an extra time before I leave the house, I will coordinate with my cohort to honor him in a way that is appropriate, and I will continue to infuse humor into my work and my life as my professor would’ve wanted (he researched and wrote frequently about the power of humor).   

There are a lot of things in our lives that we can control, we should focus on those.  When we face a situation that is out of our control we shouldn’t dwell on the situation but rather on how we respond to it.   We can’t control events but we can control our response to those events.

I’m trying to follow my own advice.  I’m refocusing my energies on family and friends.  I’ve revisited my personal and professional goals and aligned them such that I don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.  I won’t dwell on the passing of my professor but rather I’ll allow the memories and lessons he provided me to be the inspiration for my future achievements.  

What can you control?  Focus your energy there and appreciate every moment for its greatness!

Please click here to learn more about Dr. Peter Jonas.

Pandemic-Driven Innovations

Every year around this time I write about my belief that it is the perfect time of year to try some new strategies, tools, or classroom arrangements.  You can test them for a short while and see what you want to use for the start of next school year.  Spring is a wonderful testing ground for new ideas because you know your students, your systems are up and running, and taking a risk is a little easier.  While I’d still encourage you to try some new things, I realize that this year is unlike any other in that you probably (hopefully!) won’t be put in the same context again in the future.  

That being said, Spring is still a great time to reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t.  This year, it’s a great chance to think about what you can take from this crazy time and how you can apply it in the future.  While things have been very challenging and have forced us to operate in a completely different way than we’re used to, this year has also forced us to learn new skills and think outside the box for a lot of what we do with kids.  So, instead of trying more new things this Spring, I’d like to encourage you to think about what new things you’ve done this year that you could continue using in the future (either in their current form or in an altered form).  

I recently read an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education that shares some of the “pandemic-driven innovations” that educators plan to continue using in the future.  It’s an interesting read and shares details and stories about how teachers and professors plan to use some of the tools they’ve been forced to adopt in the pandemic once we return to our new normal.  Despite being an article geared toward higher education, some of the ideas will certainly translate well to our context.  Ideas like, taking time to make connections, offering online tutoring or student support services, online guest speakers, and flexibility with due dates and grading, are all things discussed in detail in this article.

When you think about the “pandemic-driven innovations” that you’ve been forced to use/develop over the last year, what sticks out as something you’d like to continue using in the future?  I’d love to hear your thoughts about this and will ask specifically for your feedback in the future.  Please take some time to not only think about this but begin (continue) having this conversation with your team.

True Resilience is Different

I’ve been a collector of quotes for a long time and a few of my friends share good ones with me because they know I appreciate them.  Over the holiday a friend shared a quote with me that really hit home and has been on my mind for the last few days so I thought I’d share it with you.  The quote comes from a book called Unbound by Steph Jagger. It is a memoir that I’ve yet to read but if this quote is any hint as to her writing then I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy the book too.

“Strength isn’t necessarily defined as our ability to get up when we’re knocked down. Nor is resilience found in our ability to continue getting up – over and over again.  That’s just sheer willpower; that’s called being stubborn as ****.  True resilience is different. True resilience is found in our ability to get up, to create space for a message we may not want to hear, to listen like we’ve never listened before, and then act on that message – even if that means changing the way we’ve been hurtling down our path in life for decades.”

The part of this quote that speaks to me the most is Jagger’s definition of true resilience.  The idea of creating space for a message we may not want to hear is very challenging for most people but it can be truly transformative when we do it.  Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to hearing something that may be tough to swallow takes confidence and courage.  To be truly resilient we need to not only get back up, but we have to be willing to hear feedback about what caused us to be knocked down in the first place.    

Similarly, the act of listening is challenging to many people as well.  It is not a natural skill for most people and it is something that takes practice, conscious practice.  We should all aim to, as Jagger puts it, “listen like we’ve never listened before” on a regular basis.  I don’t think that what she’s suggesting is something that you can do constantly, it is something that takes an extra, conscious effort.  Listening is a skill to practice and continue improving through time, without that skill you can never complete the process of becoming truly resilient.

The final piece of Jagger’s definition can’t be achieved without the first two pieces, being open to feedback and being able to listen well enough to hear it.  Jagger’s definition of true resilience concludes with being able to act on the message you received in the first two steps.  That action, however, may not be very easy.  She acknowledges this in the final part of that quote; sometimes the things we need to change are things that are very deeply rooted in who we are…change on that level is darn near impossible for most people.

Regardless of how difficult change may be for anyone, if they’re open to hearing challenging feedback and if they can truly listen like they’ve never listened before, then I believe that anyone  has it in them to pursue the necessary changes they may identify within themself after completing those first two steps.  

You’re all strong.  You all have a tremendous amount of willpower and the ability to continue to get back up.  Are you already or what would it take for you to be, as Steph Jagger defines it, truly resilient?

Which Blob Are You?

With Spring Break on the horizon it’s a great time to stop and check-in with yourself.  Take a few moments to step back and think about where you are and what you need/want during your time away next week.  One of my favorite tools for doing a self-check is the Blob Tree.  Taking the time to reflect and explain why you are identifying with a particular Blob is where the true check-in happens.  From there, you can begin to think about what you need or want to either stay locked in on that Blob or to begin feeling like a different Blob.  

I love this tool because there are no black or white answers.  No matter which Blob you identify with the most, you need to explain (to yourself) why you are identifying with that Blob.  There are no right or wrong answers either, this is merely a tool for checking-in with yourself at the present moment.  

At about this time last year I hung one of these in our apartment.  Amy and I used it often, to pause and check-in with ourselves and each other.  Being cooped up in a one bedroom apartment, both working from home, pregnant, and in the middle of a pandemic, we moved from one Blob to the next quite frequently.  We used this graphic as a reminder that it was okay to do so.  The Blob Tree represented all of the mental space we were allowed to occupy and the Blobs and their numbers gave us a common vocabulary for communicating, even in the hardest of times.  

You may find this tool silly but I think you may also find it very useful.  As a tool for working with students I find the Blob Tree to be very handy. No matter the age, students will find a Blob that they identify with.  It could very easily be used as a way to check-in with your students in the morning, at the end of the day, or any time in between.  For many, they will identify with multiple Blobs at once.  That’s okay too.  Sometimes we are feeling a range of emotions and limiting ourselves to one Blob feels constrictive, multiple Blobs are allowed 🙂   In either case, as a teacher, you may find it helpful to know which Blobs your students are identifying with at any given time!  

Take a few minutes to check out the Blob Tree.  Which Blob(s) do you identify with today?  What do you need/want to either stay with this Blob or move to another?  Imagine the different ways this tool might be useful for you, your students, or both.  

Don’t Forget the Positive

Last week I had a TED Talk shared with me.  I’d seen it before but, like most TED Talks, watching it again was a really good reminder about something that is important to me.  Alison Ledgerwood shares some of her research that highlights the importance of positive thinking and goes on to share a low effort, high leverage tip for increasing our positive thinking.  

I think that no matter who you are or how positive you tend to be, this video is worth the time (10 minutes) to watch.  Understanding how our brains work when it comes to positive versus negative thinking is incredibly important.  I’m inspired to focus on the positive parts of my day just as she suggests.  

Amy and I are going to work to incorporate time to ask each other about the positives in our day instead of the old standby, “how was your day?”  The person who shared this video with me is one of my mentors and also one of my best friends.  Every time I’ve shared the dinner table with him and his family we’ve gone around the table and shared the best part of our day with each other.  I never realized it at the time but that practice is precisely the sort of thing that Alison Ledgerwood would suggest.  Whether you choose to watch the video or not, give that idea a try with your family, you’ll see the beauty immediately and I’d wager you’ll keep doing it 🙂

The Margins

This weekend I saw a tweet from a former colleague from my time in Ecuador.  He’s now teaching via a virtual program, which means he doesn’t get to work with students face to face at all.  He mentioned that what he misses the most is “the margins” and it got me thinking; that’s exactly where all of the best parts of being an educator happen, in the margins.

“The margins” may look different at each grade level or in each classroom but I see them as the less structured times, the times when there isn’t a formal lesson happening, and when the kids may not realize they’re actually still learning.  What they’re learning may not be written down in the state standards or formalized in a curriculum but it’s the stuff that will endure.  They’re watching and listening, they’re following the lead of their role models (probably you!), and they’re learning more about themselves than they’ll ever realize.  The margins are a beautiful place filled with quick notes about life’s lessons and the seeds of relationships that will continue to grow.

This phrase, “the margins”, is new to me and I love it.  It’s the space, I’ve realized, where most of my interactions with students take place as an administrator.  Whether at lunch time or recess, before or after school, in the hallways during passing time or while lined up for the bathroom, the margins are where I have a prime chance to build relationships with students.  The margins, just like the margins on an essay, are the blank space around the academic day; the perfect place for informal learning and extra opportunities.  

I’ve never really sat down and thought about my time in the margins before.  As I reflect on the concept of “the margins” I realize that they have been something very important to me ever since my first year as a teacher.  As a teacher I would eat lunch with my students frequently, I’d play basketball or soccer at recess, and I’d walk students home to carry their tuba or meet their families.  I did all of these things because I wanted to get to know my students and build relationships with them, building relationships has always been a priority for me but I never realized how much of that work was done in the margins until now.

My margins have changed over the years but how I spend my time there hasn’t.  

Where are your margins? How do you spend your time in the margins?

Living Through History

Last week we made history!  Welcoming students back to the building last Monday was perhaps the best day of my career.  It was exciting and it was hectic, it was energizing and it was exhausting.  Many of you told me about your first day jitters and I was right there with you, but in the end the energy our students brought to the building was incredible and it helped us all overcome that nervousness!!  

As we head into week two, we welcome back our 7th grade students and prepare for parent-teacher conferences.  Before we jump ahead to this week though, I think it’s the perfect time to step back and take a breath.  What we just did last week was incredible.  We welcomed almost 1000 students back to the building for the first time in over a year, think about that for a second…it’s wild!  

I want to encourage you to stop and just think about last week.  Think about all of the happiness and positivity that our students brought back to the building with them.  I watched kindergarteners skip down the hallway and listened as sixth graders laughed with friends they hadn’t seen in person in almost a year.  I watched light bulbs go on over kids’ heads as they learned new concepts in Math and listened as students used evidence to defend their argument in Social Studies.  I watched as a finger patiently followed along with the text during a read aloud and I gave our more air-high-fives than I can count.  And while I’ve seen and done all of these things countless times before (except the “air” part of the high-fives), each moment like this was extra special this past week…it was, easily, the best “first week” ever!!

So, before week two begins, take a moment to step back, breath, and appreciate all of the history we just made.  Focus on those moments that you couldn’t get in the remote setting and appreciate them for a few minutes.  (If you’re a 7th or 8th grade teacher, take notice of all those special moments as they happen for the first time over the coming weeks!!) 

Then, once you’re done reflecting on those special moments, congratulate yourself.  You did it.  It was your hard work, perseverance, and dedication to your students that made all of those moments special.  Your efforts made the return to in-person learning possible and exciting.  Your dedication to your students and the relationships that you built remotely are what made last week such an overwhelming success for the whole community!!  Thank you and congratulations!!!