Monday, December 28, 2015

Why Every Teacher Should Write Like a Spider

Image Source: Pixabay
This is what it feels like.

The idea is there. It might develop because of a conversation. That conversation reminds you of a lesson you taught, a workshop you participated in, or an article you read. The idea is the fibrous web that connects all of those things together. At this point, though, the web is only in your head. You're not sure where each of the strands will be, but you know they will be there.

At this stage you have a constant nagging need to nurture it until it is fully formed. So, as the day goes on you take quick notes. Maybe they're on a notepad or on your phone. Each note is a strand of the idea web. You methodically record each note, starting to design the structure of the web.

Once you have a basic outline that connects all of the pieces, you start to write. Those notes are now subheadings, and the details on each of those big ideas become paragraphs under the subheadings. Once it is done, you sit back and look at the web. You proofread and make little adjustments here and there to ensure there are no big holes.

The Web Feeds the Spider

The mental effort it takes to come up with an idea, give it structure, and fill it in with evidence and opinion are quite different from the effort a spider puts into making a web. But, like the spider gains food from its web, writing seems to always give back. For a writer, though, it isn't about trapping insects. It's about brain food. When sharing that bit of writing with colleagues, educator friends on social media, and family, the result is feedback. Sometimes they agree and add evidence or enthusiasm to the idea. Other times they disagree and challenge the thinking. Either way, the conversations that result from the writing will feed your brain and keep you coming up with more ideas.

Spiders Are Known for Their Webs

Click here to read the EdSurge piece.
Different species of spiders create different types of webs. Really! There are orb webs, funnel webs, platform webs, and more. Similarly, writers are known for what they write.

Recently I wrote a piece for EdSurge about how educators can build their brand. The article discussed how writing, and then sharing that writing, can lead to more professional connections and opportunities. Educators who write build a reputation for their patterns of thinking and ability to express themselves through their writing.

I started my blog in 2009 to share the weekly writing I was doing as part of a graduate level cohort. Once the cohort ended, though, I found it hard to stop writing. (Remember those nagging ideas? Thankfully, they didn't go away!) My blog evolved as my career did. It became more about student-centered lessons and thoughtful use of technology in the classroom. Lucky for me, a few online EdTech publications - at first it was EdSurge and Smarter Schools Project - noticed. Now I get to write and share my ideas more broadly. It's like making that spider web ten times bigger and catching ten times as many insects. Yum! I get even more feedback from other passionate educators and professionals. Think of all that brainfood!

My teaching, learning, and writing has improved, all because I started writing about my classroom 6 years ago. Every educator can feel this energy. Start by writing like a spider.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Guest Post: Empathy as Understanding

By Dan Ryder

Empathy isn’t a just touchy-feely, get-to-know-your-neighbors, appreciate-the-rich-tapestry-of-our-community, we-are-the-better-for-truly-understanding-the-perspective-of-another exercise in character building.  When employed in classroom, empathy proves a nimble and dynamic tool for critical thinking, authentic understanding and demonstrating proficiency.  

I’ve long taught the value of diversity, tolerance and understanding of others’ points of view.  For some time I served as co-advisor for our campus Civil Rights Team, developed interactive theater experiences around social justice issues, and raised consciousness in my classroom through music and film.  But it wasn’t until I adopted design thinking -- empathy-fueled, human-centered problem solving --  as my preferred pedagogical lens that I became aware of how useful intentional empathy could be in the content areas.

What follows is something of a prototypical day in my English classroom at Mt. Blue Campus, a regional public high school nestled into the foothills of rural western Maine.  Here’s hoping this little bit of context and application inspire some ideas of your own.

Ninth Grade English:  Empathy Maps to Understand Character in Of Mice and Men

My crew of ninth graders love to build and tinker and create stuff.  LEGO bricks, Jenga blocks, miscellaneous bits and pieces from our Maker Cart -- the materials matter little to these folks.  They just want to create.  George and Lennie’s dream of homestead and the current economic climate in Maine inspired a design challenge:  How might we design a tiny house for the dreamers in Of Mice and Men?  To get us there, we would use Mary Cantwell’s DEEP design thinking process, the second phase of which calls upon the designer to empathize with the user.

Step 1.  Define Your Users/Characters

On this particular day we first had to identify our users: who are the characters for whom we are designing?  George and Lennie are the obvious users, but we also had to recognize Candy’s role in making the homestead feel more like a reality and Crooks’ offer to join them in the endeavor.

Step 2.   Identify Your Users/Characters’ Needs

Once our users and characters were defined, we had to identify their needs.  The text serves as surrogate for an interview with the dialogue providing the subject’s words, the narration, the subject’s actions and behaviors.    Using Crooks as an example -- a character chosen deliberately because he appears less frequently and provides less concrete desires about the homestead -- I quickly modeled for students how we can analyze what a character says and does to generate a simple hypothesis regarding what they may be thinking and feeling.   I explained that our words can reveal our thoughts on a subject, while our actions and body language can relate our feelings.  Often, what we say may not align what what are doing and those are the tension moments where what’s really going tends to be revealed.  

Step 3.  Unpack Our Observations

Typically, empathy maps are used by designers to unpack interviews. Again, for our purposes, the dialogue serves as “say,” and the narration serves as “do.” The dotted lines are there to emphasize the fluidity in the thinking and the interrelations between all four quadrants.

In this very quick modeling for them, using MVIFI’s organizer,I wanted the students to see that Crooks, while he may initially say he wants to be left alone, invites the others to come and sit and that this likely relates a loneliness.  This opened up a conversation about other characters who may feel loneliness, how the homestead might be able to relieve those feelings, and how all of these troubles and dreams affect the impact of the novel’s ending.
This was also a great opportunity to teach students about the power of ellipses when quoting from a text.  I didn’t want students spending all their time writing down quotes, but I did want to make sure their observations were documented.  

Humanities:  Designing Sanctuaries for Others and Speak

Despite having taught Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak for over a decade, I continue to find opportunities to explore the text in new ways.  As Grade 9 Humanities is team-taught by English and social studies teachers in the same room at the same time, we wanted a project that would explore current events, emphasize major themes of the novel, and provide an opportunity for students to create.  Earlier in the fall, one of our students’ Cardboard Challenge turned out to be a sanctuary for her classmate.   The idea of having a sanctuary is vital to protagonist Melinda Sordino’s experiences in Speak.  Right now hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people in our world are seeking refuge and safety.  Thus we challenged the students:  How might we design a sanctuary for others?  

Step 1: Define Your Users/Characters.

We provided three potential users:  another member of the class you do not know well, a refugee or asylum seeker, or a character from Speak who is not Melinda.  Two of the three would provide an opportunity to demonstrate content knowledge, the third being an opportunity to grow our classroom culture, and all would require deep intentionality.  

Step 2: Identify Your Users/Characters’ Needs.

Providing structured time to explore each of the potential user classes afforded multiple angles into the novel’s themes.  We investigated the Syrian refugee crisis and the rhetoric surrounding the current Presidential race and immigration reform, comparing and contrasting those positions to those expressed by characters in Speak.  We ran a rapid prototyping session, partnering and creating mini-sanctuaries for one another using items off our maker cart including LEGO bricks, Jenga blocks, and assorted recyclables and crafting materials.  And we explored Halse Anderson’s use of symbolism in the text and the insights it provides us into the various characters’ experiences and points of view.

Step 3: Experiment and Create Based on Users/Characters’ Needs.

One student didn’t realize her sister’s college roommate is a Somalian refugee who moved to Kenya before coming to the United States and attending college in rural Maine.  This video reveals the prototype our student developed, her process of learning about her user, and the intentions behind the design.  (And this video features a brief critique of her work.)

And some students demonstrated deeper understanding of characters in the novel, such as this student who shared her process of designing a sanctuary for Speak’s Mr. Freeman.

AP Literature & Composition:  Empathy to Inform Collaborative Problem Solving and Timed Writing

Here, I wanted to express a more utilitarian approach to empathy in the class: asking what your partners need.

As I write these words, we are wrangling with a long term design challenge in AP Lit:  How might we design effective on-demand analytical essays?  We are using the DEEP process to get us there and have used the last month for our Discovery phase.  Using Diigo’s group collaboration features, we’ve been collecting resources and information related to effective timed writing in hopes that we’ll be able to find some trends and uncover some best practices, as well as the needs of the user: those who score AP Lit essays.

But rather than just find anything and everything -- which while having some merit can also feel overwhelming -- I had has run a very quick, 20 minute “design sprint” based on the needs in the room.

Step 1: Define Your Users.
We quickly (two minutes -- use a timer, it matters) brainstormed search terms to use for our research.   This was our mini-discovery phase.

Step 2: Identify Your Users’ Needs.

Then we took the time to interview one another about how we like to consume our information.  Digestible chunks?  Long form articles?  Video?  Audio?  And we took time to discuss why we prefer our information in these ways.  It was important that no judgement was cast, that trends were identified across the room, and outliers were honored.  

Step 3:  Gather Resources to Support Your Users.

And here’s where the empathy phase played such an important role.  In identifying the trends in the room about what formats of information are most helpful and useful, our next ten minutes for searching  -- our experiment phase -- was that much more focused and more likely to generate meaningful results in our shared Diigo links.  During production phase feedback, we noted the trends across what we found -- many lists, some scorer critique, few long form articles.  

Students now need to annotate what they found and it may be that closer inspection finds these links less than purposeful.  That’s all part of the learning process though and least that revision will be guided by empathy and the meeting of a need rather than score point on a rubric.

Empathy as Relevance

This is perhaps the greatest value empathy brings to the classroom.  We so often discuss the challenge of making learning relevant -- especially in middle and high school classrooms.   Exercises like those above push the focus away from grades and into the application of knowledge to solve problems.   When we embrace empathy as an avenue for understanding, we not only foster critical knowledge of the content, but provide students vital opportunities to set aside their own biases and meet the needs of another, a skill that will serve them well no the directions our students’ lives take them.

About the Author:
Dan Ryder is an educator, improviser and design thinker from the foothills of western Maine who spends every day trying to make the world a little more interesting than he found it.  A moderator of #dtk12chat and #edchatme, follow him @wickeddecent on Twitter, Instagram, and  Medium.  Keep tabs on his efforts to walk the talk on his classroom blog at and with his co-conspirators at Wicked Decent Learning.

Instant Feedback in the Classroom

Author's Note: This article originally appeared in St. John's Prep Today. I had the privilege of working with co-authors Director of Communications Elizabeth Forbes and Digital Learning Specialist Julie Cremin to put it together. Follow St. John's Prep on Twitter @stjohnsprep.

In Alexandra Horelik’s history class, the iPads are open and students are intently reading about the first European colonists in New England and responding to questions. Look a little closer and you’ll see that as they read, Alexandra and her students are getting instant feedback about their progress.

Alexandra Horelik's laptop displays her students' answers
instantly, making it easy to adjust lessons on the go.
From grade 6 through 12, students like Alexandra’s are engaged, teachers are able to assess students’ understanding in real time, and the classroom experience becomes more personalized. All of this is happening at the Prep thanks to formative assessment, a teaching and learning technique that takes advantage of the apps, software and other educational technology being used in classrooms today.

“Our teachers know their students better because of the ways they are using formative assessment. Students like learning this way too,” says Kerry Gallagher, digital learning specialist.

Active Voice

English teacher Andrew Fondell often uses a formative assessment tool that incorporates video. He explains, “it allows me to select just about any video I can find online to use as a lesson for my students.” When his students experience this “lesson,” they are not only more engaged by the dynamic videos he chooses, they’re required to demonstrate learning when an embedded question, designed by Andrew, pops up on the screen. He says, “It only takes a few of these questions to convince my students that they need to watch and listen actively.” Using their iPads, students are able to work their way through the video and the questions at their own pace.

As his students carry out these activities, Andrew can see how they are doing with live data on his teacher screen. This is when the real magic happens. “I can get results to students when they are still pertinent to the current learning task,” he says. When he shares the data with the students, they are encouraged to ask questions and seek out extra help before the next test. Andrew has found that “students actually begin to crave formative assessments.” The evidence from the video activity shows them that they are learning.

Seize the Moment

Glenn Blakney’s favorite formative tool lets his Middle School students to solve math problems by drawing them on their iPads. “My students can open it right up in the classroom, and we can project their work live on the board for discussion. I can modify the questions on the fly, or probe their thinking in real time to correct misconceptions.”

Glenn has seen long term benefits to tracking student learning with formative assessment tools, as well. He explains, “This information can be displayed anonymously for class discussion, and it can be stored, tracked, and analyzed over time. I can feed it right back into my unit and lesson planning, adjusting my class as we go to meet my students’ needs.”

Group Dynamics

Alex Gousie '17 is ready with his iPad to answer the
questions Elizabeth Solomon incorporates into her
Latin class presentations.
In her High School Latin classes, Elizabeth Solomon uses an iPad tool that allows her to embed quick activities and questions into her slide presentations. “I embed questions within an existing presentation so that students remain engaged and participatory throughout a class which was, traditionally, much more passive for them,” she says.

And Elizabeth’s students agree. “It’s a great way to have more interactive learning,” says junior Alex Gousie. His classmate, Nat Boyce, adds, “It’s feels more like a game. It’s like the teacher and the students are all working together even though we are all on our own devices.”

Elizabeth also knows she is meeting students’ learning needs faster than ever before. “Because the questions are distributed throughout a presentation, I can recognize immediately when the class understands something and is ready to move on to the next step in the lesson. And if they don't understand, I don't overwhelm them with additional information that they are not ready for.”

Another Latin student, junior Jackson Heath, says he better understands how he and his classmates are doing. He notes, “When I enter answers, even if I’m not 100% right, at the end I get to see everyone’s answers anonymously and check the trends. It helps to see that I’m not the only one making a mistake and to see how everyone is doing.”

Immediate Insights

Nicole Prince shows her students some feedback
form an exercise they did in class.

Eighth graders Ryan Hart, Dylan Freddo, Noah Dorsey-
Sorofman, Conor O'Holleran and Kyle Watts react to their
personalized results in Ms. Prince's class.
Nicole Prince likes to make formative assessment more like a game with an app that uses colors, shapes, and exciting music to get her Middle School science students up and out of their seats. “These apps can engage and excite the entire class, and they allow me to identify and address misconceptions immediately.”

Digital tools also create the data on student understanding instantly, so now it is easier for Nicole to give her students this kind of feedback more often. “Using technology has increased the number of formative assessments that I can give without requiring me to correct more papers.”

Focus on the Big Ideas

High School history teacher Alexandra Horelik gives regular reading quizzes using an easy iPad interface. “It has helped my students focus in on the big ideas of the reading. It allows me to get immediate feedback on how well students understood the material. I can also reflect and shift my teaching in real time to meet their needs.”

She got creative with one formative app recently when teaching students to write thesis statements. Instead of having the teacher determine the best answer, students did. “Students submitted their thesis statements, and then were able to see their classmates’ work anonymously and vote on which was the strongest. All of this happened on their iPads. This again allowed me to give specific feedback to the class based on the work of the students.”

Two digital learning specialists help teachers and students make the most of the range of digital tools open to them, including those used for formative assessment. Julie Cremin and Kerry Gallagher both taught at the middle school and high school levels before coming to St. John’s. Their own experiences in the classroom give them valuable insights into how technology can support good teaching.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a lesson unfold in ways that could not have happened without the tools we have available today,” says Julie.

Monday, December 7, 2015

What I learned from my students last week

I guess they are more like reminder lessons than brand new lessons, but through my students' eyes it became clear that these values are more important than ever. As educators and learners, we are always moving, connecting, sharing, and experiencing the world around us thanks to this Renaissance of innovation, thanks to this digital age. It is important to stay grounded, even when we are feeling like we are in a whirlwind of progress. Here are the clear focused reminders from my students of the Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence Leadership Institute, which occurred in Walt Disney World last week.

We are all in this together.

As the week started, the students entered the orientation room together. They chatted amongst themselves and even partnered quickly when asked to tackle their first leadership task. I was impressed that, even though they were thrown into unfamiliar circumstances and were being directed by unfamiliar educators, they shared resources and ideas and encouragement throughout.

They were ready to tackle it together on Day 1.
The next morning, quite early, they were sleepy but excited. When I asked them to rally for the first picture of the day... they did! Of course, I was impressed. Their actions and words throughout that first day indicated deep seeded values of servant leadership. Whenever they were asked about the values leaders should have, I heard a recurring theme: "Leaders see themselves as equals with the people they lead." "Leaders lead from within."

Adult leaders would be wise to remember their humility and heed these values.

When you're hungry, eat.

I'm so so guilty of this. I started out as an educator because I was pretty good at school myself. Individuals who can stay organized, set and keep to their own time management systems, and thrive on meeting goals and deadlines tend to fit well into academic systems. As young students, we pushed ourselves during the day and rested each night to prepare for the next big day.

My students, feeding their bodies with food
from the Morocco Pavilion at Epcot last week.
Except that, in this brave new world, there is no time for rest. Communication, information, and opportunities for learning are available 24/7. When I was a kid, TV networks didn't broadcast between midnight and 5am. Now there is media from all devices available at all hours. While those of us who are hungry for knowledge can be tempted to overindulge, we have to remember to feed our souls, and our stomachs.

In Walt Disney World, it is easy to fall into a feverish pace. Everything is larger than life and there is more to fit in one week than is humanly possible. (My colleague was wearing a FitBit and we hit 25,000 steps every single day we were there.) When I felt like it was my job to push the kids a little harder and further, I noticed they were finding any opportunity to sit or grab a snack. Their bodies were asking for rest and energy. I was asking them to ignore that.

While these actions from teenagers might seem like laziness, remember that these were kids in Walt Disney World. If they were feeling this way and listening to their bodies, why shouldn't I listen? As the week went on I found myself giving them slightly longer breaks and telling them I knew they were hungry. They appreciated the honesty and were willing to hang on a little longer, even when they were exhausted, because they knew I would give them the break they needed.

When I got home from a feverish week and thought of everything I had to catch up with at home, I felt overwhelmed again. Then I remembered by students. So I slept. A lot. And now, 48 hours after returning home, I've gotten enough sleep and family time - enough food for my body and soul - to have the energy to write this post.

That important lesson is thanks to my students.

Laughter is the key to success.

They were proud of what they accomplished last week,
and that pride was well deserved.
Leaders with humor are the best leaders.
We speed walked from conference center to park, from shuttle to meeting place, and from attraction to attraction. There was a tight schedule with incredible activities planned. The students didn't want to miss anything and neither did the educators. Every time we were walking, the kids were joking.

"Look! Don't step on that!"

"What's up there?"

There was nothing there.

A silly game, but a funny one. A way for them to connect to each other and build culture, even in the busiest moments. Sure, they were being goofy. On the surface, there were no leadership or academic goals being met. But they found a way to laugh in every moment of our time together. The culture of joy they built through this seemingly silly game helped the group as a whole accomplish more together.

I have rarely found a fellow educator who does not have what is best for students at the core of what he does. At times, though, I have seen those same educators go forward with what they believe is best, but forget to ask students for input. Teachers' days are overscheduled and overtaxed. In the midst of that feverish pace, we all need to remember to listen to our students.

Remember to be in it together, remember to feed body and soul, and remember to laugh.

Author's Note: For more pictures, videos, and details of last week with these incredible student leaders, check out the #BOLT2015 Blog.