Expanding Your PLN: Quarantine Edition

There is no doubt that these last three weeks have been difficult on everyone for a million different reasons.  One of the reasons I’ve struggled is because I miss all the relationships and positive interactions with staff and students.  It brings me joy to high-five students, answer their (sometimes) silly questions, and make positive phone calls home.  I’m also missing the ability to walk into classrooms and look, listen, and learn. The opportunity to enter a classroom and watch as students participate in the experience of learning is beyond amazing!  Lastly, I’m missing the conversations; conversations in the hallway, in my office, on the playground, or in the classroom. I’m missing the chance to talk with passionate educators, in-person, and discuss the ways that we can make the educational experience better for our students.  Quarantine is no place for an extroverted, relationship-focused educator!  

Fortunately, over the years, I’ve built up a strong professional learning network (pln) that I’ve been able to rely on over the course of the last three weeks for ideas, conversations, and inspiration.  In fact, when I first started teaching, I was thrust into a network of teachers that spanned the country. During the summer before my first year as a teacher, I spent time learning and practicing with hundreds soon-to-be teachers from all over the country at Teach For America’s Summer Institute.  I worked closely with corps members who would later teach in Atlanta, Miami, New Mexico, and other regional locations. In addition to those teachers, there were almost 200 new TFA corps members in Houston (where I was working). Throughout the school year we met for monthly, one-day conferences to learn, grow, and share ideas together – it was inspiring and set the tone for how I understood collaboration to look in education.

I’ll spare you the details of how I continued to grow my professional learning network but suffice it to say, TFA set a precedent for me and I valued the experience of collaborating with so many people that I was determined to find a way to re-create this situation while traveling the world.  This all comes back to today, three weeks into a “Safer at Home” order, and a time where collaborating in-person is not only difficult, but against the recommendations of our government. I couldn’t be more thankful to have a strong Twitter-based PLN to rely on for inspiration, motivation, and support.  Whether directly or indirectly, I’ve been able to turn to my PLN to provide me with what I’ve been missing in terms of connections throughout this quarantine.  

I’ve alluded to my affinity for Twitter in the past but today I want to encourage you to take the leap and give Edu-Twitter a try.  See, if you’re not familiar with Twitter it can be VERY intimidating. I get it; it’s kind of like going to see the Smithsonian Institute – there’s so much to see that you don’t know where to begin, it gets exhausting, you get tired, and you move on.  So think of Edu-Twitter as the education-focused “wing” of Twitter. Sure, there’s a lot of other stuff to see on Twitter (A LOT) but I’m offering to give you a personalized tour of the good stuff! Check out this infographic that shows Seven Degrees of Connectedness and think about where you fall.  If you’re not yet at Stage 1 then I’d like to strongly urge you to come and begin the journey of getting connected.  If you’re already connected but want to join the conversation you’re absolutely invited as well!

If you’re open to the idea of giving Edu-Twitter a try, let me know. I’d be more than happy to get on Google Meets or Zoom with you and walk you through the process of setting up an account, finding some good people to follow, and show you the basics of how to proceed. (Even better, if there was a group of people interested, we could make it a regular collaborative time!)  Imagine all of the wonderful ideas and inspirations you’ve been able to gain just from collaborating with your KTEC colleagues, now multiple that as many times as you’d like (2x, 5x, 10x, 100x…) As I shared last week, we’re in the midst of the largest social-experiment EVER – what will you learn during this time?

 

Ready to Adapt: Learnability

Last week I wrote about the “New Normal” that we’re currently experiencing and the “New Normal 2.0” that’s coming down the road. As we live through the New Normal we are witnessing the largest alternative-work experiment in the history of humankind, one that started in China more than two months ago. Every day, people are adapting and learning more and more about how to do their jobs in an online environment. This ability to adapt is going to be crucial as we enter the New Normal 2.0.

As educators, we may return to a very familiar setting as we get back to our classrooms and students come streaming in to find their seats, pencils, and paper.  That, however, doesn’t mean that we won’t have the opportunity to adapt and apply all that we’ve learned during this great distance-learning experiment.  We’re entering into an unprecedented time.  It will require flexibility, adaptability, and learnability.  Are you ready?  Find out your Learnability Quotient here. (If you’re curious you can see my results here.)

Joining both the distance-learning and work-from-home experiments at the same time we are going to get to see both sides of the coin up close and personal.  I don’t need to offer you any challenges this week, you’re going to find plenty of your own as you engage in this new normal. Embrace the change, be comfortable with uncomfortable, work together with your team, and ask for help when you need it (we all will).  Finally, be ready to learn and think about how you can carry that learning forward into the New Normal 2.0.

Enjoy the ride team, it’s going to be wild!!  

 

Living in a New Normal

As I begin to write this, I sit here in my newly created (out of necessity) home office space.  I’m looking out over a ghost town. Our apartment in downtown Milwaukee looks out over the city, a view that is normally filled with people and cars bustling about.  Now, however, we’re living in a new normal. As I sit here looking out, pondering that new normal, I can see the stop lights change from red to green with no cars passing.  In fact, the only thing moving are the birds flying in and out of view, occasionally landing on the building across the street from me for a rest. This city of 600,000+ people has almost completely shut down, and after just four or five days like this it’s beginning to feel like a new normal.

Amy, my wife, and I have been going for walks once or twice each day and the scene on the ground isn’t much different.  We see the occasional runner braving the cold temperatures, a few people walking their dogs, and one or two people carrying grocery bags full of supplies.  One of our favorite routes takes us down to Water Street, along blocks and blocks of normally packed bars and restaurants. For the first few days of this new normal, those were all shuttered and silent.  Yesterday, however, we noticed signs promoting curbside pickup and delivery service at almost every establishment with the ability to serve food. Curbside pick-up from a bar is the new normal. Empty pubs are the new normal.  Quiet streets are the new normal.  

All of this change in such a short amount of time can be scary.  We, as humans, don’t typically like change. It is different, which is terrifying for some.  A new normal means a lot of change, all at once! Perhaps the craziest thing about all of this change, and the new normal we are all facing, is that we’re going to face a lot more change again soon.  When this ends, when school begins again, when business reopen, and when the streets are back to bustling in cities across the Country, “normal” will be new again. There’s no way that we can shut down essentially the whole world for weeks (months?) and then just go back to everything being the same as it was before. No, a new normal 2.0 will be following this current “new normal” very soon!  

So what do we do with that knowledge?  It can be intimidating. Change is typically difficult for us humans and this much change, this fast, is bound to be a very big challenge for all.  I’m trying to look at all of this change as an opportunity, a lot of opportunities! Personally, even before the Coronavirus shutdown, I was facing a lot of change in my life.  I’m trying to use this opportunity as a time to reflect, learn, and prepare for the next stages of my journey both personally and professionally. Amy and I have been able to create baby registries, think of names for boys, and day dream about being a family of three.  We’ve both spent time pondering the future of education in a world where digital learning has been thrust to the foreground and where we may fit into that picture. Neither of us know what the future “normal” will hold but we are taking this opportunity to learn, grow, and increase our professional flexibility in order to be ready for the future version(s) of normal.  

Educationally we’ve entered a period where we have the opportunity to step back and think about our priorities as educators.  It’s time to really think about how students learn and consider what other possibilities exist for student learning. Many of us have been in education a long time and we’ve come to hold very strong opinions about student learning, teaching, and education in general; now is the perfect time to step back and question those beliefs – are there other ways?  As I’ve watched schools and districts all over the world transition (overnight in some places) to distance learning, a few things have become apparent:

  1. Everyone needs time to understand the transition.  Students, teachers, and parents all need time and patience with this transition.  We’re building the plane as we fly it and there is no play book for any of this. Go slowly, baby steps!
  2. New learning is hard, very hard, in the early days.  In fact, most every recommendation I’ve seen suggests that we shouldn’t expect students to learn anything new for at least a couple weeks (treat it like the beginning of the school year).  Reviewing and refreshing past standards will help students, teachers, and parents establish routines and learn new tools.
  3. Homes are not school.  Over the last few months I’ve watched as schools have tried to match their distance learning to their face-to-face learning.  Some schools attempted to create an equal ratio (1 hour of face-to-face : 1 hour distance learning)…this failed, badly. Some have tried a 1:2 ratio but, by now, most of the successful distance programs I’ve seen are operating under the belief that 1 hour of face-to-face time at school is equal to about 4 hours of distance learning time.  This means that for every 8 hour school day, one could fairly expect about 2 hours of distance learning.  
  4. Parents are not teachers (well, most of them).  Parents can’t be expected to teach their students at home.  This, in part, leads to the time constraints above. The other piece here is that many parents are still working, either at their jobs or from home, and don’t have time to be the teacher.
  5. Not all homes are created equal.  This is big and it is a real challenge for us.  Those students with the resources and support are going to be okay, those without such benefits may very likely struggle in this environment.  We need to think about these students, both now and when we return to face-to-face schooling.

I could go on and on, after all this is the new normal and a lot has changed.  

Take this time as an opportunity.  Last week I suggested ways to stay on track and capture the moment to get some things checked off your to-do lists, keep doing those things!  However, take some time to reflect on education, your place within the system, and how it may evolve as we move forward into a new normal and again into a new normal 2.0.  Lastly, remember that as we transition from old normal to new normal it is completely normal (in any version of “normal”) to be scared, intimidated, and even apprehensive. Look for the opportunities and the silver linings, let these guide you through the change and always, always seek help if you feel like you are struggling!

Staying on Track in Uncertain Times

We are living in some very uncertain times right now, like nothing any of us have ever experienced.  Covid-19 has become the most discussed topic anywhere; every table in every restaurant, in every classroom of every school, around the coffee pot in every office and on every news network, website or podcast.  Even the sports world, a place where many people go for an escape has completely shut down. The NBA, NHL, MLB, PGA and NCAA have all completely suspended action, not to mention all the overseas leagues and events. And now school is closed for the next three weeks. So what do we do now? 

Let me start by saying, I don’t have all the answers…sorry!  However, I’ve got some ideas about what we can be doing during this and other times of uncertainty.  I’ve been watching the Covid-19 outbreak closely. As you may know, I lived in China for four years and Italy for three years.  I still have many friends who live and work in those places and I’ve been in touch with many of them over the last two months. Based on some of the conversations I’ve had with them, as well as what I’ve learned through my own research, I’d like to share some thoughts.  Please keep in mind, I’m not a medical professional so I’m not going to go too deep into any medical measures…these are just my thoughts!

We don’t know what is going to happen in the coming weeks.  Everything may continue on as usual or not, it is a time of uncertainty.  If we end up in a situation where our lives are thrown into complete turmoil, it’s easy to get off track.  

Here are 10 things I’ve learned by watching, listening and talking with friends and former colleagues that may help you to stay on track:

  1. Stock up, but you probably don’t need to panic:  The run on toilet paper started months ago with a rumor in China.  The rumor was that they were going to stop manufacturing TP in favor of making more masks, it was a rumor and didn’t happen.  People in China who panicked and bought tons of TP are starting to see it mold over and cause other problems…plus, how much TP do you need?!  Similarly, consider how many cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer or other important items you purchase. Buy what you need for you and your family; if other people don’t have these supplies then we won’t be able to slow the spread of any disease.  We all need supplies…don’t be greedy!  
  2. Create routine:  We thrive on routines.  Keep waking up at a normal(ish) time.  Set yourself a to-do list that includes chores, required professional duties, ways to relax and other things you want to achieve.  If you have kids, this is even more important for them…routine, routine, routine!
  3. Exercise:  Find a way to build exercise into your routine.  Go outside for a walk or find a yoga routine on youtube and do it in your living room.  Pretty much everything I’ve seen recommends avoiding the gym, you never know who touched those weights, machines or exercise mats before you got there…sorry!  
  4. Focus on what you can control:  There’s lots of uncertainty which can easily lead to fear.  Try to keep the majority of your focus and energy on those things that you can control.  Ensure that you and your family are doing everything you can to stay safe and healthy, both physically and mentally.  
  5. Mindfulness:  Speaking of mental health, take this opportunity to explore some mindfulness apps.  One of the most common things I’ve heard from those who’ve been at this for a while is that being home for so long is very difficult mentally.  Many schools are recommending daily mindfulness for students and I’m recommending it for you! I tried Headspace a few years ago (I wrote about it too) and really liked it, the app has changed a bit since I first tried it but you can still explore for free before deciding if you’d like to purchase.  There are also lots of other free options out there!
  6. Be creative and active:  It’s almost time to get those gardens started for the year, maybe start by potting some plants.  While you’re at it, grab some paint and decorate the pots too! Also, there are lots of painting tutorials online, get yourself some blank canvases and cheap paints and let the creativity flow.  If painting isn’t your thing, look to Pinterest for inspiration!! Once the craziness dies down in the grocery stores you should still be able to find most everything you need to try a new recipe or two.  Search online for “easy dinner recipes” or “top recipes of 2019”…maybe you’ll find your new favorite dish.
  7. Do the things you’ve been putting off:  Have you done your taxes? Maybe you’re like me and you have a pile of clothes that need some buttons sewed on or stitching fixed.  Perhaps it’s time to pack away your winter clothes and get the summer gear ready. Find some tasks that need to get done anyway and check them off your list…my wife and I have already made a “Covid-19 To-Do List”.
  8. Read and listen wisely:  There is a lot of “information” floating around in the “news” and on social media.  Take care to carefully consider the source when you’re collecting information. I’ve relied heavily on NPR lately as I trust their reporting but I never rely on just one source.  
  9. Find ways to stay connected to others:  Facetime is a great tool and talking on the phone is a lost art, don’t be afraid to revive it.  Going for a walk in the park with your healthy friend/sibling/children would be a great way to connect and get out of the house.  Be smart about who and where you’re socializing but don’t completely cut yourself off from the world. 
  10. Find fun away from the screen:  Look for ways to have fun that don’t involve that evil blue light.  I’d be insane to think people aren’t going to binge a few shows during this time but there are other things too.  Read the books you have in your house before you buy new ones on your Kindle, then donate them once you’ve finished.  Dust off those old board games and decks of cards instead of playing those games on your phone. Play Spoons with your kids, draw on the sidewalk with chalk or try some origami.    

No one knows what to expect for the next few weeks, let alone beyond that.  Take this time as an opportunity but also make sure that you’re doing what you need to take care of yourself.  If you or someone you know is struggling, then please reach out and find support. The number one thing I’ve heard from my friends and former colleagues who are going through this experience is that it is hard.  I don’t want to be a fear monger but I think it is important that we are informed. Hopefully, as a community and as a Country, we are able to move past Covid-19 quickly and safely but there’s no reason we shouldn’t start with our eyes open.

I hope these ideas give you a starting point as you ponder the next three weeks and beyond.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at any point, for anything!

A Team Built for March Madness

It’s finally March, by far my favorite month of the year…it’s March Madness!!  For those of you who aren’t sure about what that means, it’s the end of the college basketball season and tournament time!  As the season finishes there are league tournaments and then the NCAA Tournament to determine the National Champion. For basketball fans it doesn’t get any better than this, the unpredictability of the tournaments creates a sense of ‘madness’ and hence the name…it’s awesome!  What does that have to do with education though??

Over the weekend I watched as my Wisconsin Badgers won a share of the Big Ten Championship and after a season of so much adversity I was very surprised by their resolve.  However, the more I think about it the more I realize that I shouldn’t have been surprised. This program has shown this sort of resolve and determination before, just a few years ago in fact.  Back in 2015 the Badgers played in the championship game (they lost unfortunately) and lost a lot of players to graduation and leaving to play in the NBA. The next season started off poorly, they lost to teams they had no business losing to and looked bad.  Then, out of the blue, right in the middle of the season their legendary coach, Bo Ryan, decided to retire. He left a team that was already struggling to his long-time assistant coach, Greg Gard, and said ‘good luck’. It was a recipe for disaster in almost everyone’s eyes.

Except there was one person in particular who believed that success was still possible…the new head coach.  The team that started out by losing most of its early games, won 11 of their last 12 regular season games and finished tied for third in the Big Ten…simply amazing!  So how did they do it?

It all started with their new coach, Greg Gard.  He went back to basics, he literally went back to the foundation.  Stories came out about how Coach Gard brought bricks into the locker room.  Each player took one and wrote a word or phrase about what they could do to help the team.  Words like “selfless”, “heart”, and “leader” were shared. These bricks were then placed in the locker room, a sign of the foundation that this team would stand on for their renewed effort for the season ahead.  The idea was that you can’t build anything with just one brick and if you try to build with missing pieces then your results won’t stand. Basketball is a team game and the brick foundation is as true an analogy as any…no one can do it alone, we all need to work together.

There’s an African proverb that we’ve all heard, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  I think the brick foundation analogy works well with that African proverb. Together we can achieve our goals, as a grade level team, as a campus, and as a school…team work is the key to achieving our biggest goals. 

We have an amazing team here at KTEC.  The amount of experience, knowledge, and energy that we’ve pulled together to guide our students toward success is absolutely astonishing.  Every student at this school can benefit from the collective effort of the amazing faculty and staff. To ensure this success we need to come together to form an indestructible team.  

I know many of you work closely with your grade level teams and other colleagues, we have another opportunity this Friday.  It’s a busy and stressful time of year for all of us. Take care of yourself, find your balance, and ensure that your teammates are cared for as well.  Success for the remainder of the year lies in us coming together as the dynamic and talented team that we are. It’s never too late to stop and reevaluate the foundation…what word would you write on your brick?

Me and My BHAG

I started my career as a teacher in Houston, Texas where I had been placed after being accepted into Teach For America.  I didn’t know much about teaching and would learn A LOT during the six week, high intensity Summer Institute. We were on campus at an elementary school for 10 hours a day either taking professional development classes, writing lesson plans, or teaching summer school classes.  It was probably the most intense six weeks of my life. I’m sure that most everything I learned about teaching during Summer Institute has been forgotten but one thing has always held strong in my memory, the BHAG.  

The BHAG, or Big, Hairy, Ambitious Goal, was the cornerstone of my efforts as a Teach For America corps member.  TFA corps members are usually placed into schools where students operating below grade-level standards are the norm.  In fact, in my first class I had just over 10% (6/58) of my students who were on or above grade-level at the beginning of the school year.  So when I sat down to set my goals for the year, I had to think Big, Hairy and Ambitious! I’d assume that most people would have been happy to have all of their students achieve one year of growth, especially as a first year teacher.  However, I knew that wasn’t going to cut it. If I settled for one year of growth then I would only be sending 10% of my students to 7th grade prepared for success, I had to shoot higher.  

One year of growth is great but it should be the absolute minimum that we are willing to accept, for ALL of our students.  When we’re considering a class of students who are going to be with us for an entire school year, we can’t look at them and say, “I hope to have 80% of them achieve one year of growth.”  If we are okay with that, then the other thing we are saying is, “I’m okay if 20% of my students fall behind this year.” When I was facing a reality that 90% of my students were already operating below grade-level standards, I had to be aggressive and think big.  My BHAG for my first year as a teacher was that my students would grow, on average, two grade levels in reading during their 6th grade year. Guess what, probably to no one’s surprise, my students and I didn’t meet that goal. In my first year, my students grew by an average of 1.56 (I’ll never forget that number) grade levels, and I was crushed.  

It took me most of the summer to get over the fact that I hadn’t met my goal. Fortunately, I had a wonderful Teach For America mentor who coached me regularly.  At our beginning of the year meeting heading into my second year she celebrated me and showed me the real reason why we set BHAGs. See, while my class didn’t average two grade levels of growth in Reading they did, collectively, become a lot more prepared for 7th grade.  Almost 75% of my students were leaving 6th grade on level, up from just over 10% at the beginning of the year. We had made significant progress toward closing the gap in reading for these children. The Big, Hairy, Ambitious Goal I had set helped us shoot for the stars, we may not have reached the stars but we landed on the moon!  

Goals are meant to motivate us and give us a target that we can shoot for every day.  Setting a BHAG ensures that we’re always going to have a target in front of us. In fact, there’s a very interesting Hidden Brain podcast episode that explains how goals that we don’t quite achieve are actually just as, and maybe more, motivating as goals we do achieve.  So, it should be no surprise that the next school year I was right back at it, setting the same BHAG…and missing again (1.83 years growth).  I never did achieve that BHAG, I always fell somewhere between my first and second year results, but I strived for it every year that I taught.  It drove my practice as an educator and gave me purpose when my motivation was lacking. I was fortunate to learn early that not meeting goals was okay as long as the goals I was setting were Big, Hairy, and Ambitious!  

What are your BHAGs for your students?

 

Inspired by the Girl Scouts: Leaving a Place Better Than You Found It

Girl Scout cookies arrived last week and I’ve never seen such a mix of emotions from people.  I’ve heard, “this is my favorite time of year, it’s better than Christmas!” On the other hand, I’ve heard things like, “ugh, I’ve got 300 boxes of Girl Scout cookies in my garage right now and can’t even get the car in there, this is the worst time of year!”  Personally, I like the latter group because they’re the ones who show up with boxes of cookies to share every time you see them!!  

All this thinking about the Girl Scouts reminded me of something I learned from a former student a few years back.  She was telling me about the badges she was trying to earn and she was explaining the “Girl Scout Way” badge, if I recall she was in the Brownies at the time.  The part that made me the happiest was when she explained to me that one of the requirements for this badge was to demonstrate a mastery of the understanding that “Girl Scouts leave a place better than they found it.”  

I couldn’t have been more excited when she explained this to me; it has long been a value of mine that I’ve tried to model and foster in all of my school communities over the years.  It’s quite a simple thing to do really. If you’re walking in the park/hallway/your neighborhood (anywhere really) and you see some trash, pick it up. If you borrow someone’s classroom, you put the chairs back the way you found them and tidy up.  If your friend loans you their car for the day, you fill it up with gas and maybe even get it washed. This value is all about demonstrating concern for the greater good of the community. If we can just do a little bit to help make something better, and we all commit to that, then the world will be a much better place in general.

My examples above were all physical examples, things you can do to improve places or items.  However, this value of “leave a place better than you found it” holds true to emotional or intellectual spaces as well.  Are people at the party better off after you’ve been there? Did you add value to the conversations, make people laugh, or offer a good piece of advice to a friend?  What about at school? Did you contribute positively to your collaborative team meeting? Were you able to help a colleague today or pay a compliment to someone who usually goes unrecognized?  The concept of leaving a place better than you found it takes many forms, if the whole world would just follow this model we’d all be a lot better off!

Last week I talked about the power of kindness, I guess this is a specific extension of that concept.  The Girls Scouts inspired me this week. I’ve been inspired to eat a lot of cookies (I like the peanut butter sandwiches the best!)  I’ve also been inspired to renew my focus on leaving a place better than I find it, as well as spreading the message.  

I’d like to encourage you to share this message with your students, encourage them to embrace this value, and then let them see you modeling it too!