Counting Sheep at #ELC2017BKK

I’ve got a super comfortable bed in a beautiful hotel room, no one to steal the sheets, and amazing blackout curtains.  Yet, I’ve been up counting sheep because I haven’t been able to sleep for the last few nights while here in Bangkok.  What gives?

It’s this conference.  The ideas.  The conversations.  The opportunities to share stories.  

My mind is racing…revved up and ready to go.

From the word ‘go’ this has been an opportunity to challenge beliefs and encourage thought.  Starting with the three challenges laid down by Peter Dalglish (Climate Change, Nuclear Proliferation, and Epidemic Viruses) was a super impactful way to get the conference started off with a bang!  Things haven’t slowed down one bit since that first morning.  

So what’s been keeping me awake these past few nights?  Well, here are just a few of the provocations that have been racing through my mind:

  1. How do I define learning?
  2. What is my school doing to create ‘nimble learners’ and educate for the unknown?
  3. What needs to be done to ensure that all children are safe at my campus?  (Shout out to @chris_akin for sharing all the work he’s done with Child Protection.)
  4. What ‘clarity’ am I creating out of the ‘confusion’ as a leader in my school?
  5. How can we adapt the programs/courses/pathways in our school to better meet the interests of our students while maintaining (and perhaps even increasing) a rigorous curriculum?

Beyond those five BIG questions lie hundreds smaller, but no less important, thoughts.  The trouble though, is that we’re all here for four or five days to challenge our thinking and have our minds opened to new possibilities, but what are we going to do about it?  When we get back to school on Monday the reality will strike.  School didn’t stop while we were away, things piled up that will require our attention, and it will be exhausting getting ‘back on track’.  So, when will there be time or energy enough to implement anything we learned during #ELC2017BKK?

The answer has to be, ‘I’ll make the time.’  If we’re being educationally responsible leaders, then there is just no way that we can go back to our schools and let all of these great ideas and strategies fall by the side of the road.  So, whether it means cutting something or reprioritizing your schedule, you have to make time and find a way to lead change at your school.  You don’t have to do it ALL, or even most of it.  Coming here and learning, like we’ve all been so fortunate to do, means that you now have the moral imperative to address important things in your school, all with the goal of improving student learning!  

So what questions have been keeping you awake these past few nights?

What are you going to do about them?

ISTE Standards 3 and 4: A Deep Dive into Knowledge Creators and Innovative Designers

We’ve been spending time every couple weeks working with the Admin Team, led by the Tech Department, to explore and dig deeply into the ISTE Standards for Students.  It’s been a wonderful way for us to stop and think about the student experience at AC, especially as it relates to their engagement with the digital world.  The last time we met we dove deep into Standards three and four, exploring how it might look for students to be meeting these standards here at Academia Cotopaxi.  After taking some time to reflect on this conversation and look around school for ways that our students are meeting these standards, it has become very clear that we are already on the right track.

Becoming a “Knowledge Constructor” is the main idea of Standard number three.  The exact language of this standard is, “Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.”  It struck me as I digested that standard a little more that this is exactly what I do when I write my usual blog posts.  I curate resources on whatever topic may have caught my fancy for the week, I then produce a creative artifact (my blog post) which creates a meaningful learning experience for me (and hopefully for anyone who reads my post!)  Cool, I’m a Knowledge Constructor!  Then I got to thinking about our students, is this happening in our school and, if so, where and with what frequency?  So I went looking…I wanted to find examples of our students as “Knowledge Constructors” in different contexts, here is what I found:


We are helping our students become “Knowledge Constructors” all over school, in many different contexts.  From Humanities, to Math, to Science class and beyond, we are offering our students the chance to curate resources and construct their own knowledge as part of the learning process.

We’re also doing it ourselves as educators…How do you Steep your tea?

My overall impression is that our students have the opportunities educationally to be “knowledge constructors” in a lot more contexts than I had imagined.  Design Technology class, sure, that’s an obvious one.  Even the Humanities classes seems obvious.  However, it’s happening in Math, Science, Art…seemingly everywhere!

Next, we came to Standard number four, “Innovative Designer,” Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.  I was confronted with a harsh reality:  I don’t know the whole “design process” off the top of my head…I know it exists, I’ve worked with it before, and I’ve seen it maneuvered by students over the years but I still haven’t internalized it.  Now, to be fair, when you Google “Design Process” there are a few different versions of the design process.  However, this is the most common version and the one I am familiar with from my past experiences.

By Aflafla1 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I think the “deployment” arrow should really loop back around to the “Initial Planning” arrow, as it is truly a never ending cycle starting with an “alpha” version, moving to a “beta” and then on and on into production and versions 2.0 etc.

Anyway, the “Innovative Designer” standard was harder to chew on than its “Knowledge Constructor” counterpart.  Looking at our school for Innovative Designers was fun but a little frustrating at the same time:

^ There should’ve been a picture with that one…Tweet fail 😦

So, why was it frustrating to find examples of ISTE standard number four?  Well, I was frustrated because I couldn’t find examples in a diverse range of classrooms like I could with Standard number three.  Design Tech, Humanities, and Science…these are all obvious to me.  Now, to be fair, what I did find in those areas was exciting…Rube Goldberg Machines, Stop Motion, Bridge Challenge, Speech Competitions all in the same week….awesome!

BUT…where are the “Innovative Designers” when it comes to the other classes?  The same students are enrolled in Math, Spanish, Music, PE, and other classes…where is the Innovative Design in those classes?  (Again, in fairness, I didn’t do an exhaustive search and it was brief.)  It’s quite easy to imagine students writing their own compositions in Music class instead of always playing someone else’s stuff.  Similarly in PE…creating their own games or exercise routines.  Art, I can only imagine that I just didn’t catch the right day…they’re always creating their own stuff, but how ‘innovative’ is it and does it solve a problem?  The opportunity is there and we certainly have students capable of being ‘innovative’…they just need the chance!

Lastly, about standard four, is the part I see as most crucial – following the design process.  This is something that our teachers are going to need to learn and practice.  I would wager that the majority, if not all, of our teachers have little to no experience with the design process and what it means to lead students through that cycle.  It’s not easy and takes some practice for sure.  However, the rewards are HUGE and totally worth the effort…I believe that our teachers will see that and completely buy in!

At the end of this reflection process it’s become clear to me that we’re on the right track, our teachers and students are working toward the ISTE standards three and four whether they know it or not.  We’re much closer with number three, Knowledge Constructor, than we are with standard four, Innovative Designer.  The difference isn’t a lack of desire on our teachers or students part but, in all likelihood, a lack of information…we need to help move them further along toward understanding of this standard.

For me this was a great experience, full of eye-opening classroom visits and wonderful conversations with kids about their designs!  So much fun!!!


Book Review: Rigor in Your Schools: A Toolkit for Leaders

My second book review will be published in the near future.  Here is a sneak peak of my review of Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders.  Other book reviews can be seen here.

Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders

Ronald Williamson and Barbara R. Blackburn

Routledge, 2013

Reviewed by Bret Olson

There aren’t many schools in the world who aren’t looking to improve and grow.  Often times the focus of school growth is centered around the idea of creating a more rigorous academic environment for student learning.  Every school leader aims to increase the learning capacity of their students but the question is, how?

Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders is the third book in a series on rigor by Williamson and Blackburn.  Having focused on strategies for teachers in their first book and school leaders in their second, this author duo heard the cry from school leaders for more tools and examples to draw from.  The result is Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders, which acts as a step by step guide to increasing rigor in your school.

Creating a Vision

Every school has a mission and vision, they are at the heart of what we do as educational institutions.  Williamson and Blackburn believe strongly that in order to create change toward a culture of rigor you must start with a vision.  Walking you through the steps (as they do with every aspect of this process) of creating a personal vision starts you on a journey of exploration and self-reflection that will guide your understanding of how rigor can be built within your personal context.  Rigor doesn’t happen overnight, nor does change.  Understanding the change process and the time it takes to be successful is crucial to successfully creating a more rigorous environment; Williamson and Blackburn provide a strong explanation of how to create this plan.

Tools, Tools, and More Tools

Williamson and Blackburn clearly set out to provide strategies and resources for school leaders to use as they work to implement change toward rigor.  The description of this book as a “toolkit” couldn’t be more accurate.  You can’t go more than two or three pages without being given another example of a useful tool.  Without a doubt, if you’re looking for specific and useful strategies and resources for creating a culture of rigor in your school then look no further than Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders.  

Change Takes Time

These authors are very clear to share throughout this book that change doesn’t happen quickly.  When reading this book, if you’re expecting a “quick fix” solution you’ll most likely be frustrated or overwhelmed.  Williamson and Blackburn never purport to have a magic spell for creating a more rigorous school.  However, if you’re willing and able to dedicate the time and effort necessary to achieve a long-term goal then this book can lead the way.  Working chapter by chapter, the authors walk the reader through the entire change process and what is required along the way.  In addition, the strategies and tools provided will allow you to focus on the task at hand without spending time to invent your own resources.  Reading this book won’t provide you “the answer” but rather it will provide you a roadmap for success; it’s your responsibility to apply the lessons and tools provided to reach your goal of a more rigorous academic climate.

A Rigorous Route to Rigor  

Many books provide theories, philosophies, and mandates for change but do little to provide the necessary help for achieving success.  Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders comes ready made for those who desire change but need assistance in developing and implementing a plan for something so important as increasing rigor in a school.  With myriad resources and tools to guide school leaders toward a more rigorous school, there is something here for everyone looking to make a change.  Whether you aim to follow through with a long term plan or you’re looking for simple tools for a shorter term target, Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders provides school leaders with a wealth of knowledge and resources.

Bret is an Associate Principal at Academia Cotopaxi, a school for children of international families living in Quito, Ecuador.  Previously, Bret worked as a Vice Principal in Shanghai, China and taught elementary in Milan, Italy.  Bret was a Teach For America corps member in Houston, Texas prior to moving overseas.  Bret earned his B.A at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and M. Ed. at Lehigh University, studying Educational Leadership.  Bret shares his educational thoughts via his professional website and on Twitter @The1sWhoDo.

My EdCamp Leadership Experience

Five out of my last six summers have been spent either in Bethlehem, PA at Lehigh University or in Miami at the PTC.  However, having already completed my goals at those fine institutions I figured that this summer I’d focus on spending time with family and friends instead of racing from one spot to the next.  That being said, and as I mentioned in my last 2 Cents post, I still had professional learning plans for the summer.

I’m about half way through The Multiplier Effect and the #admin2b Twitter Chats have been excellent, even though I missed a couple due to travel.  More to come on that when I’ve finished the book.

Similarly, I’m rolling along nicely on Insights:  How Expert Principals Make Difficult Decisions which I’m reviewing this summer for

Today, I want to reflect on the amazing experience I had yesterday at the edCamp Leadership unconference in Chicago.  This was my first unconference and it far exceeded my already high expectations!  For those who’ve never been…basically when you show up there is no schedule, this gets set during the first half hour or so as people bring ideas forth (or share on a Google Doc) and offer up different topics.  For the most part these are discussion sessions instead of teaching or “sage on the stage” style presentations.

The edCamp Leadership idea has been around for a while but this was the first year that it was coordinated on such a grand scale.  There were 17 sites around the country involved on the same date, at the same time.  #edcampldr was on fire all day long as people shared all the amazing learning that was happening at their specific sites.  I attended in Chicago where we were hosted by the amazing crew at East Leyden High School, huge shout out to them!

At each session there was something new for me, from personalized learning to, standards based grading, to Google Hangouts, even the session about “Getting Started in a New District” was interesting as I’m preparing to move into my new school, Academia Cotopaxi in Quito, Ecuador.  The insights and perspectives that were shared throughout the day were eye-opening for me in many ways.  As someone who’s been working in international schools more than US schools throughout my career I don’t always identify with the struggles that US based educators present.  However, during EdCamp Leadership the conversations weren’t about state laws, unions, or political mumbo jumbo; every discussion I heard was focused on being a better educator for the benefit of the students.  It didn’t matter if someone was working in a school in Illinois, Wisconsin, China, or Mars…it was all about the kids, anyone could follow these conversations.

Along with all the wonderful professional learning that was happening throughout the day I was excited to meet some of the amazing educators who I’ve been following on Twitter for the last couple years.  Having been in China and struggling to access the internet at times, let alone social media, many of these outstanding educators have been my source of professional information, whether they knew it or not.  It was inspiring to meet so many wonderful educators, it was truly an all-star lineup of educational leaders from the midwest region!

Finally, and perhaps the biggest take away for me, was the amazing connections that all of these educational leaders had already established…many without ever meeting face to face!  Lots of these people were clearly friends prior to this unconference but it was shocking to learn that so many of them had, so far, only met via Twitter, Voxer, or some other form of social media.  These educators, who previously may have functioned in isolation at their respective schools had found friends, mentors, and resources without leaving the comfort of their homes or schools.  The collegial atmosphere and laughter at lunch time and throughout the day was inspiring beyond words, awesome stuff.

EdCamp Leadership was my first edcamp but it most definitely won’t be my last!!  I look forward to maintaining the connections I made yesterday and as I continue to learn from these amazing educators.  If you’ve ever thought about attending an edcamp then stop hesitating and get moving…have a look here for edcamps coming up near you.