A Homecoming, Sort Of

South Shore E-Learning Logo

At the closing session of the South Shore E-Learning Conference in Hammond I bumped into one of my tech coaches from my current school. She led a contingent from our building, but I never had a chance to say hi until the last 20 minutes of the second day of the conference. I told her, “I’m not ignoring you. But these are the days every summer when I get to hang with my Hammond friends.”

Sometimes, you need to be around your people. It’s good for the soul.


It’s Year Four of the conference, part of the Indiana Department of Education’s Summer of E-Learning series. (Prior year reflections: 2016, 2017, 2018)

And after this trash fire of a year, I needed this one like a starving man needs a cheeseburger. Honestly I was hoping we might be able to lift each other up. It’s been a rough year in the HMD. Three closings and attrition due to retirement didn’t come close to accounting for all of the 150 teaching positions that needed to be cut. RIF decisions were made based on evaluation scores. To the cynic, every single teacher in the district was at the mercy of their administrator. I overheard one teacher say “I hope National Board Certification counts for something”.

I mean, Jesus. Literally heartbreaking.

But here they were, giving up two days of their summer to learn and improve. Admittedly, there are enticements. The lunches are awesome. The organizing committee keeps outdoing itself for the social. And for the fourth straight year the keynotes were top-shelf. Plus, this:

The team couldn’t set up the venue until after the Morton High School graduation ceremony had been completed. So there they were, starting at 10 pm (a mere 9 hours before breakfast would be served) getting everything ready to go.

My dad worked 40 years at Inland Steel. I can dig that level of work ethic.


I took a different approach to documenting my learning this time around. I can’t remember which of my people suggested it first, but somebody pointed out that instead of tweeting our thoughts from each session (limited reach, 280-character max), maybe we would all get more benefit if we could find a way to share our session notes with each other. We bounced around ideas like a shared Google Doc, then Chevin Stone suggested making a Google Form that we could share far and wide so all of our group could submit notes to one central source. Perfect!

Like 36 seconds later she had the form put together and we started to dish out the link. I’m super-excited to see what everyone learned. I still tweeted a bit from each session but I took notes like I was taking notes for friends and I think that is going to pay off in the long run.

So, about those sessions: there are always decisions to make. Good sessions going head-to-head. But in the end I pulled the trigger on a couple that I think are going to benefit my students in the long run: Ken Shelton‘s Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy, and former Hammond High student Angelica Rodriguez returning to her hometown to speak on Being A Latina In Tech.

I’ll always remember that session for the way three of the attendees started networking and sharing resources for their students to support what Ms. Rodriguez had described as ways to open up pathways for current students. I wish I would have written some of them down in my notes, but I was too busy just listening. That’s always what I’ve appreciated about the South Shore Conference. It’s an opportunity for teachers to share and be heard. The big-name keynotes are awesome and inspiring, but I love when classroom-teacher firepower is on full display.


I’ll be pretty honest. Most years the “theme” for my reflection on #SSeLearn develops organically. I know what I’m going to write before I pull out of the parking lot in Hessville. This year tho (totally on-brand for 2018-2019) the ideas were just floating around unformed in my head. All the way down the Borman I was trying to get a grip on what I had learned. This post has mostly been stream-of-consciousness until I figured it out.

What tipped me off was waking up this morning with an inordinately large number of Twitter notifications on my phone. When I see that I always briefly think “Oh crap, what did I do?” (I’ll always be that kid who gets nervous when he gets called to the principal’s office).

So I took a look. And most of those notifications were my Hammond friends giving each other props for their presentations and wishing each other well for the summer. And my purpose for being at the conference this year became crystal clear. I was meant to learn about and see other people’s struggles, and how they battled to overcome obstacles. And supported each other.

Students who were told by college professors they would “never become engineers”. Students who were told by guidance counselors that the advanced courses they were trying to enroll in “weren’t for students like you”. Students who were told their meticulously researched paper including multiple primary sources did not align with the assignment because it didn’t match what was in the textbook. Men who would wear the uniform of the armed forces of the United States of America in battle, who could never rise above a certain rank because of the color of their skin, who would come back home to face discrimination and racism.  Teachers who knew their school was going to close at the end of the year or knew they were out of a job on June 4 and still went to work every day kicking ass and taking names for their students, right up until the very last bell.

And still, here they are.

That tweet up there with my goals? Check and check. It was good to be home. I saw some old friends.

And I learned.

 

 

 

Flipped Learning

INDOE eLearning Definition
Connecting learners to one another and supporting new learning models for schools. It’s what the Indiana Department of Education’s Department of e-Learning does. Let’s Go…

Just finished up my second Summer of eLearning conference since school wrapped up. This week it was with somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 teachers and administrators thinking around those stated purposes of the IDOE’s Department of e-Learning at #eVillageNWI at Washington Township High School outside Valparaiso.  It was my first time attending this conference that is right in my backyard.

Both days broke sunny and warm. They are really big fans of #StrawberryWater there.

Also, dancing.

In other words, they work hard, they play hard, and they stay hydrated. That’s a good combination for June.


I presented on curating e-Learning day activities. Several local districts are already using eDays to make up snow days, and my district will join them next school year. While popular, it seems no one has quite got it right, everyone is trying to get better, and there are a lot of moving parts. This sounds like a good topic for a lot of smart teachers from different districts to talk about. Especially if it leads to more conversation later, back in their building, with their people.

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Via GIPHY

One of my in-class catchphrases is “there’s a lot of firepower in this room from the neck up.” Truth. There’s really no point in me being the only one in the room talking and thinking on this subject, so I designed the preso so that the attendees would have ample time to group up and hash things out with each other. Then use the last few minutes for sharing out.

It was a diverse group, classroom teachers and administrators from across subjects and grade levels. So although my experience is at the secondary level (math, specifically), the attendees quickly dialed in on their experiences and their students’ needs.

It was awesome.

I had back-to-back presentations the last two sessions of the day. Now, adults are not that different than kids, especially when it’s close to quitting time. What I saw on Thursday at 2:30 was… notable.

When we debriefed at the end of my last session, the awesomeness came spilling out. And it kept going. It was time to head to the closing session (door prizes!) and they were still sharing thoughts.

I learned so much in that 15 minutes, and caught as much as I could in a quick twitter thread when I got home.

  1. Practice ahead of time seems like the critical factor, above all else, for the overall success of e-Learning Days.

We spend so much time building routines in our classrooms, then a snow day turns into a wildcard. What if we practiced eDays until they became routine? Logging in to sites, checking Canvas for directions, submitting work online, contacting teachers thru email or a Google Hangout. For teachers, recording a video with instructions, walking students thru the steps for the expectations for the day. The teachers I listened to told the group they thought that was super-important, to the point where one teacher said she makes every Monday a mock eDay in her classroom.

 

2.  Accommodations for students with IEPs require a lot of our time and attention before rollout.

As one teacher pointed out, you can’t just modify an online assignment the “traditional” way. If students skip questions, those questions will be marked wrong in a Canvas quiz or Flubaroo-graded Google Form or on MyMathLab. Plus, with the option to scramble questions, question numbers won’t correspond for every student. We need to make accommodations for extra time, when time was already a major concern.

 

3.  If we’re going to ask students to use a website or app at home, we better have introduced it in class beforehand.

A survey of students in my building indicated about 40% of students “sometimes” or “most times” needed help using an app or website that had been part of an assignment in class. The teachers in my sessions were adamant that dropping a new tool on students at home was a recipe for student frustration, meaning the eDay work would not get done. Goes back to building routines, and lesson #1 above.

 

4. Anything that makes the students’ job at home easier will pay big dividends.

One teacher said that when she sets up her Canvas page for her elementary-aged kids on eDays, she makes a colorful, graphic “flow chart” with links to each assignment (you can talk amongst yourselves if this qualifies as a “hyperdoc”, but let’s not quibble over small details. It’s clever, and effective.) My high school students will have to navigate their Canvas dashboard to find all their assignments, but maybe I could provide them a template they could use to collect all their assignments, then prioritize them on a checklist.

 

5. Sometimes it’s OK to leave a session with more questions than answers, especially if that leads to a fruitful conversation back in their building, with their planning group.

I was hopeful that would be the outcome of the sessions. I told them up front that I don’t have all the answers, that if they were expecting me to walk off the mountaintop with all the eDay secrets etched on stone tablets, that they were in the wrong room. That was super-empowering. So much sharing and so much learning happened in the small group discussions in the last third of the session time, that I know everybody has at least one big thing they can take back to their building and say hey, here’s something we need to consider doing with eDays this year. As always, 30 brains are better than one. I know the tech coaches and central office admins have been rolling around all the issues surrounding e-Learning days in my district when they roll out next year. I’m hopeful they’ll take into consideration what my groups shared out as well.

 

       6. I’m sure some of my attendees were wondering what’s with all the dancing at this conference.

Since I chaperoned a trip to the Motown Museum this April, we kicked things off (after lunch and all, got to get moving before we get learning) with the Temptations Walk. This photo was after the fact, but we had 35 teachers and administrators dancing in a classroom.


 

All these considerations are in addition to the things we talked about during the presentation such as appropriate length of time for assignments, and what types of assignments will work well on an eDay, or how to adjust for our students who have wifi issues or who have to take care of other family members on a day off of school.

There’s obviously work to do here, at an individual level, and as grade-level, building or district groups.

But if I have one everlasting takeaway from eVillage, it’s that I learned. Not just in the sessions I attended. I expected that. After all, there were some outstanding presenters over the two days. I agonized over choices during the same time period on both days. But the bigger story is how much I learned from the teachers and administrators who attended my sessions. I knew they were smart, committed learners. Hell, they willingly spent two beautiful June days inside at an e-learning conference. But it reinforced for me the value of a student-centered classroom.

The teacher became the student. I’d call that “flipped learning” in the best possible sense.

And my eVillageNWI people: Thanks. I’ll see you all again next June. Keep the strawberry water on tap, huh?

 

One-Man Book Club: Teach Like A Pirate

“Are we ready to start full speed?” Dave Burgess keynoting Day One of the South Shore e-Learning conference in Hammond, IN, June 6, 2018.

Yeah, I know. 2012 was a long time ago. Doing a One-Man Book Club post on Teach Like A Pirate is like live-tweeting an episode of The Office I’m watching on Netflix. But it’s what I’m reading right now and the thoughts are spilling out of my head onto my screen, and for many of my colleagues at the South Shore e-Learning Conference it was their first exposure to this loud, crazy SoCal guy. I wanted to watch the show through their prism, and the experience stirred up some memories.

Dave Burgess keynoted a conference I presented at last week. Leading up to the two-day event I went to the library and got his book. Even though I’d seen him outline his TLAP philosophy with Matt Miller on the 2016 Virtual Summit, I was pretty psyched to get the In-Person experience. I still wanted to read the words in black and white.

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Image via Goodreads.

(Burgess runs at like 7000 rpm. My laid-back Vegas kids used to tell me I talked too fast. If they were in a room trying to listen to the Teach Like A Pirate keynote their heads would have exploded. Having read the book was like having built-in subtitles for the presentation. 10/10 would recommend.)


 

I just finished my 15th year of teaching. I was a pretty by-the-book guy at the beginning. Things have changed since those early years, thanks in part to a lot of reading, a lot of connecting, a lot of trial-and-error. And error. And error. Let’s just say I’ve been trying to get better for a while. Reading Teach Like A Pirate, my mind snapped. I recalled a long-ago online conversation I had with Matt Vaudrey, co-author of Classroom Chef.

If you’ve read the book or seen the TLAP preso, you know what started my reverie. The Six Words.

TLAP 2

“It’s Easy For You. You’re Creative.”

TLAP 3

I remember struggling with classes that weren’t buying what I was selling. I remember spending prep time and after-school time searching for activities and lessons that would get my students’ attention. I remember being amazed at what my fellow math teachers were rolling out to their students. Everything I found online was brilliant and clever and creative. I remember thinking, “there’s no way I could come up with stuff like that on my own.” I remember falling flat on my face many a time.

But I remember having success just often enough to keep trying. Which is good, because as one of my favorite UNLV professors used to say, teaching is like being a performer. And you have to nail 900 shows a year.

All these years down the line I should point out, she never told us how tough the audience would be for those 900 shows. Or that they’d be able to tune us out with a tiny little computer they’d all carry in their pockets.

As Burgess says: “Would your kids be there if they didn’t have to be? Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets to?” I felt like I had to work harder than anyone else because before I could teach my kids anything, I needed to make them want to show up for my class. I used to tell them, “someday I’ll be that old, bitter teacher who hands out a worksheet then goes to read the paper with my feet up on my desk. But today ain’t gonna be that day.”


 

 

 

I’m not a pirate. Not a good one, anyway. But I’m down with Lesson Design. Which, it turns out, once you get past the bandanna and earring, and the grilling analogies, is what “Teaching Like A Pirate” is all about. Intentional lesson design, every time.

I’ve got a certificate on my classroom wall from ETS. It’s a Certificate of Excellence for my score on the Math Praxis exam. Me and a couple of my UNLV classmates studied hard for that test. The semester of student teaching we met three times a week after school at a coffeeshop/bookstore near where we all taught in Vegas to work through problems from the study guide. But the State of Nevada also requires a passing score on the Pedagogy test for licensing. Ugh. That one is not as easy. My idea of lesson planning as a pre-service teacher was limited to:

  1. Check the section in the textbook
  2. Select example problems
  3. Select guided practice problems
  4. Select homework problems
  5. Rinse, repeat

That’s all. And on the Praxis or in the classroom, it wasn’t good enough.

I eventually stumbled across Dan Meyer and the greater MTBoS and started to get an idea of teaching with the end in mind. It’s a concept that Bill Hanlon of the Southern Nevada RPDP introduced to us. It was a unit design tactic he called BAM, but it applied equally to lesson design. Later on I was exposed to Desmos, and then Hyperdocs. All tools for designing lessons from the ground up, thinking deeply about what questions to ask, what I wanted my students to ponder, what tools and resources they would need.

I’ve claimed as a class motto for years, “You want better answers? Ask better questions.” Turns out I have common ground with Burgess there too.

TLAP 4

Then Burgess goes on to include a section with literally hundreds of questions a teacher can ask when planning a lesson, questions that can spark creativity and create hooks to student engagement. Pretty much everyone I know can take two or three or six of these questions and create something incredible in their classroom. Without a single trip to Goodwill.


 

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It turns out that once you get past the pirate persona there is a seriously good teacher who is passionate about not just punching a clock, but in creating learning experiences for his students. And Teach Like A Pirate makes clear that there is no secret sauce, except for a willingness to take chances, to accept failure as part of learning, and to recognize that nothing great comes easy.

TLAP 1

I don’t know about greatness. I’m still trying, still learning. I doubt I’ll ever have a “guest speaker”. But we sing and dance a lot in my classes, get up and move around. Use visual hooks. Stick crazy memes and GIFs in my slide deck. Try new things. Shift on the fly when it’s called for.

Maybe I’m not such a bad pirate after all.

Leyahs Card

 

We Belong

You don’t belong.

Sports teams use it as motivation. (“Nobody believed in us!”)

It’s been fodder for a million Hollywood movies, from Karate Kid (“Love your car, Mrs. LaRusso!”) to Kung Fu Panda.

If you’ve been around the teaching game for a while, you’ve been told: our kids crave connections. They need relationships. No learning can happen until you connect with your kids. They need to know they belong.

I can relate.


 

Image result for Da Region 219 nwi tattoos
Image via nwi.com (source)

Up here in the Region, we’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. To the point where we fight over which parts of this area qualify to carry the title “Region”.

We’re not Chicago, even though we border the City of Chicago, in the County of Cook, in the State of Illinois.

And we’re definitely not “Indiana“. Best way to prove you’re not “Region” is to wear a “Colts” anything.

So, we don’t belong.

(We wear that like a badge of honor, by the way.)


Indiana Summer of eLearning

For the last 6 years the Indiana Department of Education has put on a series of conferences during June and July known as the “Summer of e-Learning“. My former district, the largest district in Northwest Indiana, and the 11th largest in the state, started thinking it should be able to host one of the 22 conferences last year.

The state had a plan. I’ll paraphrase: You guys are a pretty big district (13,860 students in 2016). Host a conference just for your district. Get your feet wet. Find your keynoters and presenters. Get a facility. Then check back with us. Let us know.

So they did.

After 370 attendees, nationally-recognized speakers, presenters from within the SCH and beyond descended upon Hammond the Monday after school let out, well, what could the IDOE say?

Fast-forward to the Summer of 2017: We’re in the Big Leagues. (And yeah, I know… “we”? I work in a different district now. Teaching in Hammond is the family business. Old habits are hard to break. Sue me.)

Buddy Berry & Christine Pinto keynoted. Almost 600 teachers and administrators registered.

Everybody got something they can use RIGHTNOW.

Alisha Foor and her team put on a whale of a show. Crushed it behind the scenes during 12 months of planning, and knocked it out of the park during two days of awesome learning and sharing experiences.

Yeah. We belong.


 

When I taught in Vegas, my Midwestern-ness stuck out like, well, a flashing neon sign. (“Mr. Dull, why do you wear a sweatshirt and shorts?”) When I taught in the HMD, maybe I was “from there”, but I lived out with the cows and the corn. Now in an exurban district, where everybody’s “from here”, even though I live in the city, I’m still kind of an outsider. I found that out when people here weren’t heartbroken over the Stracks bankruptcy. (Seriously, like I had a tear in my eye when I lined up for lunch today and saw a big tray of Stracks chicken on the table.)

So maybe I don’t belong either.


 

I’ve been stalking hanging out online with a group of math teachers that call themselves the MTBoS (Math-Twitter-Blog-o-sphere). I steal all their best teaching ideas, follow them on twitter and at their blogs, and just in general fanboy a tiny bit too much.

But what can I say, they changed my outlook and strategy on teaching, and probably saved my career.

(No really, that was my presentation title at South Shore e-Learn).

But really, they’ve got superior firepower from the neck up. Way out of my league. I can use their stuff, but I could never make their stuff.

I don’t belong.

But this morning, with a donut balanced on my travel mug/water bottle, and my laptop, well, on my lap, settling for in for the keynote, I open twitter and see this in my mentions:

Shah MTBoS Tweet

(I had posted this in a twitter chat I occasionally hang out in, in response to a question. The #MTBoS hashtag gave it a signal boost).

And, squee.

Here’s the blog page, with about a million other presos linked there. But for reals, for about 20 seconds there, Sam Shah made me feel like a million bucks. Like…

I belonged.


 

If you’ve never seen Christine Pinto, she looks like she’s about 12. Weighs 80 pounds soaking wet. She doesn’t have a commanding stage presence. But she is a lowkey powerhouse. If you listen… oh boy. You’ll learn. One of her main points in her preso is:

And guys, that’s the takeaway from today. We belong. Our kids belong. And it’s our job to give them an opportunity to prove it. In Hammond, they walk their talk. Two of the most powerful sessions I attended were led by students. Buddy Berry’s freshman daughter knocked ’em dead with “A Techy Teens Tools For Teachers”.

But my last session of the conference… oh man:

A 3rd-grader taught about 30 of us how to use Animoto to make book trailers. Had a Google Classroom and a slide deck and everything. Yeah.

She belongs.

I belong.

All of us, on a Tuesday and Wednesday of summer break, when we should have all been laying on a beach somewhere, instead, the Island Of Misfit Toys, we’re all inside an urban high school, learning, together, getting better, for our kids. Kids we won’t see, probably, for like 8 more weeks. Doesn’t matter.

We belong.