Thursday, October 20, 2016

#BLinAction Means Balance

In a face-to-face environment, Blended Learning in Action doesn’t mean students are on devices in every classroom throughout the day. In fact, effective #BLinAction takes into consideration a number of factors to establish the right balance of offline and online learning. These include student age, student readiness, the level of access to technology outside school, and of course, the learning objective. Students benefit from teachers modeling the right balance of technology usage and the opportunity to practice that balance while in school.
Here is a snapshot how this looked as I walked around our school the other day for a period of 30 minutes:
In English, Fifth Grade students were focused and quiet in a Station Rotation lesson. At one station, a small group worked on vocabulary and grammar via their digital curriculum resource: Word Voyage; at a nearby station, a student worked on a Google presentation on a history topic of their choice; at the third station, students worked on essays in their composition notebooks; at the teacher station, students workshopped their essays in G-Suite with their teacher.

7th Grade History
In History, Seventh Grade students were working in Whole-Group Rotation (see our chapter on this modern spin on “Lab Rotation”). used offline and online resources to work on a study guide for their upcoming quiz on the development of feudalism in Western Europe. They worked independently on this before departing for their field trip to the Museum of Finance. The mood was focused, engaged, and anticipatory.

In Fifth Grade science, the room was abuzz with creativity and student choice. Students were selecting from a range of materials to create their parachute designs. Some were building from cups and pipe-cleaners while others were cutting big sheets of plastic. The Smartboard was lit up with information on the task and inspiration for designs. Students were using their Chromebooks to access resources to help them in their design project. Students had control over the time they used to watch videos and read for learning and what resources they selected. Their teacher was circulating the room checking in with smiles and encouraging comments, directing them to resources as needed.

In Fourth Grade, students were transitioning from a Whole-Group Rotation in which they worked on grammar and vocabulary development. When I entered, they were finishing a period of whole group digital learning via digital curriculum. They then were instructed to return their devices to their charging carts and began a hands-on data collection and estimation math lesson. As students entered their estimations, the teacher used a tool for data aggregation to bring the data narrative into focus for class interpretation.

I popped into other classes during this observation window. In some, there were students on their devices, whether iPads in the younger grades or Chromebooks in the older grades. But in many other classrooms, what I saw was students reading with each other on the rug, building with their hands, sketching with their pencils, discussing topics with their peers, practicing their cursive writing on whiteboards. Just as there is no one-size-fits-all model, there is no one-size-fits-all balance. However, in our school, this is exactly what we want to see: a balance of genuinely connected face-to-face interactions blended with personalized and choice-based digital learning. How does balance look in your school? Share your ideas using #BLinAction and join the Blended Learning in Action book chat!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Leading With Vulnerability

Practicing Trusting Each Other
“Vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” ~ Brene Brown
As a new leader earlier in my career, I thought strength meant having confidence, intelligence, and of course, the right answer at the right moment. In fact, as an achiever, I felt this was the winning combination to life in general. Of course, both life and leadership quickly humbled me into recognizing the enormous opportunity in failing forward and in adding comfort with ambiguity to my leadership and life toolkit. So I did, and for a long time, I operated fearlessly and comfortably with a comfortable level of ambiguity.
And then this year, my whole world became unhinged. January 2016 found me starting the year on my own after my nearly 20-year marriage ended. March brought an miraculously early diagnosis of kidney cancer. April was a quick study in nephrology and kidney surgery to take place in early May. The week of the surgery, my team and I found out from a news leak that our beloved school would be closing and another school would be taking over our space after next year. That is, if we were able to rally enough community support to remain open for the planned 2016-17 school year, and that is, if I was willing to take the Head position and lead the K-8 school in this final operating year.
As life has taught me to do in so many circumstances, I said yes to all of these life surprises. And that is how I found myself this summer pondering the following questions (among so many others not listed):
  • What does leading mean in this circumstance? What should my role be?
  • How will I care for my team and our community through the pain of losing something we have built together?
  • How will I build a deep enough reservoir of positive energy so that I can pull from it even when I am feeling vulnerable and worried about the future?
  • Where are the unique opportunities here, for my team, the community, and for me?
  • How can we bring our best and honor what we have built together while letting it go? How can we ensure it lives beyond its current form?
  • Where is strength to be found amidst disappointment and vulnerability?
I entered this year with all these questions on my mind with very few points of clarity. I had only come to recognize the following:
  • It would be a morale mountain we’re climbing, so infusing positivity and joy into the journey would be essential.
  • Those who signed up for this experience would have remarkable qualities, and we would learn from each other. I needed to listen and be present.
  • My life circumstances meant I was already leading from vulnerability, but I wanted to lead with it. To do so, I would need to lead with honesty, willing to say, I’m here with you and I don’t know either and sometimes I’m also scared. But it’s going to be a great journey, and I am so grateful we get to share it.
We are enough into the year to have had these assumptions confirmed. I have also augmented my understanding of leadership in this situation by learning from those around me. To that list, I have added the following:
  • When you lead with honesty and vulnerability, what people see is courage and strength, not weakness. They also lead with this, and because there is nothing to lose in this exchange, what emerges is collective courage.
  • Creativity is heightened in this situation because of a few conditions: a) The people who signed up for this are comfortable with ambiguity and change, and are therefore typically creative. b) We are all in the act of reimagining or life and dreaming of the narrative beyond this year, so we are in a creative zone. Being a leader in this moment means getting out of the way for creative ideas to rise and blossom.
  • The scariest thing has happened, so very little is left to get in the way. What remains is a unique opportunity to leverage the collective courage and creativity to take take risks that may seem too scary under normal operating conditions. This has led to bolder choices in our teaching and learning models, and greater willingness to have complex conversations about hard topics such as race and privilege.
  • Staying united is what matters through this year. We’ve shifted focus from nurturing program growth to nurturing relationships as we know we’ll need to rely on the strength of these relationships later in the year when fatigue or fear or sorrow set in.   

We are all facing a real loss together - teachers, parents, and children. It is hard. Happy faces at Curriculum Night last week evoked a mix of celebration and sadness. The loss means something different to each of us, but what has been remarkable is to witness the unique strengths of each person on our amazingly courageous- innovative-vulnerable team emerge. For today, I am just appreciative of this gift and for the collective strength I can draw upon in moments of vulnerability. I’ve come to recognize that is the reservoir.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

It's Here! Blended Learning in Action: A Practical Guide Toward Sustainable Change

I am excited to announce the release of the book Blended Learning in Action: A Practical Guide Toward Sustainable Change, a work I coauthored with two incredible educators Catlin Tucker and Jason Green. This book was born out of a school transformation project which brought me, Catlin, and Jason together. We quickly realized the shared synergy and passion we had for thoughtful, mission-driven, and practical blended learning implementation. We also learned so much from each other as we each brought a different perspective to the conversations and experiences we shared. So, we decided to write a book together! In Blended Learning in Action: A Practical Guide Toward Sustainable Change, we've combined our voices along with many teacher and student voices from various schools to bring a multidimensional and practical perspective to the topic of blended learning.

The book is available for purchase via Corwin, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble in both paperback and digital download. We invite readers to join the conversation via Twitter using the hashtag #blinaction and to connect with us our website

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Driver’s Ed: 7 Ways to Empower Students as Drivers

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In a blended learning environment, students are “in the driver’s seat” for at least part of their learning experience. The more personalized the learning environment is, the greater the proportion of driving time is for students. In order for students to succeed in as drivers, there are certain road rules and navigation tools we need to provide them. Here’s a list of 7 key driver’s ed learning objectives to develop responsible student driver habits.
  1. Establish the Roadmap: Take time to explain to students where all the important destinations are within the digital learning landscape. At the beginning of the process, these should be just a few sites which can provide practice for students to make productive learning choices in their journeys. Students benefit from having a clear understanding of where they can go and what paths are off limits during class time. Since students have a multitude of sites they can justify as “educational gaming” sites (often validly!) it would be helpful to generate a list together and identify those which have value for now and even perhaps those which could be allowed later.
  2. Make an Ethics Compass: Since the digital learning landscape is so vast, students will inevitably encounter decision points where they see something and have to act upon it in the most responsible, ethical way possible. While it is impossible to do a use case for every single situation, teachers can role play a handful of scenarios around the following “What if” topics to get a compass established on distinguishing right/wrong and productive/destructive in the digital world. These could include: negative interactions, inappropriate material, unauthorized sites, privacy concerns, or encounters that feel unsafe. This exercise will yield a sort of compass to help students navigate through challenging situations.
  3. Set the Speed Limits: Students sometimes have a tendency to rush through digital practice or tasks to get to the next point, or they spend disproportionate amounts of time meandering through certain sites or tasks. When introducing a new type of learning experience or digital space, students should have an approximate speed zone for how quickly they should expect to pace through that. This metric should be flexible and allow for variation in times on task as self-pacing is a hallmark of personalized learning. Thus, it should be more of a range. To help students flow through these different pacing zones, teachers can use cues like timers to switch between tasks.  
  4. Roadside Assistance: Students should have a clear understanding of how to ask for help when needed. This could be through chat, a digital backchannel like Today’s Meet, or through a visible cue in a face-to-face environment. When many students are learning at a different pace within the personalized classroom, there will be many times when more than one learner needs help. This assistance can range from debugging tech glitches to getting over a comprehension block. Teachers can help ensure they are available for the latter, where their expertise is needed the most, by creating a system for getting tech desk style help from peers. Just as there are classroom helpers for other tasks, students can learn to take on the role of help desk when needed and be available for minor issues during a digital learning rotation. This could also work for academic assistance, empowering subject area peer experts within the class.
  5. Quiet the Distractions: Teachers can help students understand which tasks require singular focus (like writing or assessment) and which benefit from multitasking (like project work which requires a flow between talking with others, researching, and working). Creating a list of digital tasks and how they should “look, feel, and sound” in both the face-to-face and digital space is helpful to limiting distractions. Students can also be prompted to make their “distraction minion” list of sites they find very tempting and which pull them off task. They could even use a tool like Self-Control to enter them and block them for the academic day. Teachers can also monitor on-task behavior through a tool like GoGuardian which allows teachers to view and take control back from all student devices at once to regulate the flow of activity in a blended setting.
  6. Traffic Signals: What is the red-light cue? What is the green-light cue? These are helpful signals to establish in a blended environment so that students know when to close or open their devices, and when to put full focus on the screen or on the teacher. In a rotation environment, where activity is flowing between stations or face-to-face and digital learning as a whole-group, these cues help to regulate the transitions smoothly.
  7. Be Kind and Avoid Road Rage: One of the most important rules of the road is the same whether navigating online or be a good citizen. Just as students can become frustrated with each other offline, so too can this happen in shared spaces where they may accidentally (or intentionally) erase each other’s work or take an idea from someone. Taking time to establish the right way to interact with each other online AND how to resolve conflicts (often by doing so offline in a face-to-face setting) is essential to helping students become responsible drivers of their own learning.

There are several factors to consider when planning for classroom management in a blended learning environment. Some of these, like those discussed by iSafe in “In the Classroom -- Managing the Digital Classroom”, are teacher-facing responsibilities to empower the teacher as the best conductor of personalized learning. But we also need to inform students of their responsibilities so that they may make the best decisions on the road, where they will be traveling to a different destination at a different speed than others around them. There is value in assessing student aptitude in each of the above areas before handing them the keys. In this manner, teachers can help students ace their driving test and hit the road to success with confidence.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Personal Story and Call to Help a Young Girl

Earlier this year, I met a young girl who would save my life. Now, I am sharing the story in hopes of finding someone to help her. 

I met Thalya when I was exploring becoming a living kidney donor for her. I had received an email from Joe’s school asking for help in finding a Type-O living donor for a young student with late stage kidney disease. I get and dismiss so many emails from them, I’m not sure why I opened this one, but I distinctly recall sitting on my mom’s couch in Florida for the holiday break and telling her, “I think I’m going to look into this.” Over the following weeks, I spoke with several people, from those on the donor team to other living donors. But most importantly, I got to know Thalya’s mom Chantal, who always reminded me that I was not obligated to follow through on donation in any way and that the interest in donation was amazing in itself. She was a wealth of knowledge and a pillar of motherly strength, joy and optimism. 

We became friends via calls and emails. When I got to meet Thalya and Chantal in person, Thalya shared openly about her experiences in managing her nutritional plan through dialysis, how she has continued her learning as a high school student outside the school setting, and how she and her mom successfully advocated for music therapy for outpatients, for her and for other children who now benefit from it. We realized we had mutual friends, another amazing mother and daughter combo. I sensed a lifetime of connection in this short meeting and felt sure it was fate I had been led to Thalya. I had no doubt that this experience was meant to be.

When I went through the extensive evaluation process a few weeks later, one of the scans revealed a tumor in my kidney. Since it was in an early stage, it would likely have gone undiscovered for years had I not gone through this process. April was a quick study in nephrology, kidney surgery, and treatment for a phantom disease I didn’t even know I had, and by mid May, it was out and I was declared a survivor though I never had to battle. Now it has moved into the past of my life, a blessing of discovery marked only by a few new scars. 

I’ve experienced a lot of emotions through this process. There were moments of fear in the beginning, greatly outshined by optimism and immense gratitude. But a very hard thing to deal with has been the sorrow and disappointment in recognizing I could not help Thalya. Our lives were certainly linked together in fate, but it wasn’t in the hopeful way we had both imagined.  

The past few months have made me recognize the power of an instant decision. In the impulsive click of the “Reply” button, I altered a life, even if not the one I thought I would change. Sometimes you meet someone so remarkable it seems unfair every person in the world cannot know and meet them. This is true of Thalya. I feel a debt to Thalya for her strength, for being a kidney soul sister, and for saving my life. My hope is that in sharing this story, I can lead others to explore living donation. It would be wonderful to help find a match for Thalya so that the strength of her body can measure up to her courage, grit, and loving presence. If you are interested or know of anyone who might be, please share the message for us, and email for more information.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Building Teacher Capacity Through Low-Hanging Fruit

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As schools open again, we often usher in new practices along with our returning student masses. Perhaps this year finds your school going blended in a new way. If that is the case, there is a good chance August faculty trainings included a heavy dose of training to jumpstart classroom practices and spark the imagination of teachers in implementing digital learning. But as we have seen and research supports, dousing teachers with a fire hose of information in August is insufficient to produce impactful and sustainable change.

In Blended Learning inAction, we discuss the importance of building teacher capacity through systems of ongoing faculty training and support. One way to do this is to look for early opportunities of success, the low-hanging fruit we can use to plant seeds of more systematic growth. Such bounty can be found along the following branches:

Teacher Trailblazers
Who is lighting it up in the class? How can you help reflect that light and spread it? Within every school, there are teachers pushing the edge of innovation. However, they often innovate in silos within a more traditional culture. These teachers are typically connected educators engaging in Twitter chats and idea sharecropping within robust PLNs outside the school, but they remain relatively unknown in this light within their own school communities. Sending a quick survey via Survey Monkey or Google Forms can gauge excitement and proficiency levels around the targeted practices. School leaders can use this data to identify and empower teacher trailblazers to try out new practices and share them with others within the school.

Digital Curriculum Salves
Where is the pain-point in instructional prep? What tool can relieve this pain?
Blended learning involves not just technology integration but the ability for students to learn and demonstrate learning via a digital curriculum tool. These tools are adaptive substitutes for teacher instruction and paper-based resources like textbooks and workbooks. Digital curriculum can reduce prep for teachers stressed to differentiate instruction for various skill levels. Low-hanging fruit can be found in leveraging digital learning to this end. By posing these questions to teachers, school leaders can not only engage teachers in the process but can also help teachers relieve specific pain-points via a digital tool.

Model-to-Model Alignment
What do your classes look like now? Which blended model looks most similar?
The instructional flow of a class can be among the most difficult to change. Teachers and students accustomed to certain class choreography can easily become confused and frustrated in a new sequence. To avoid stepping on toes, it’s helpful to select a model of blended learning closest to the existing practice. The ultimate goal may be a different model, but the low-hanging fruit lies in the incremental.

Project-Based Learning
What existing projects are highlights and points of teacher pride? What are the opportunities to make those connected, collaborative, and more innovative through digital tools?
We as teachers become attached to favorite projects more than anything else in our curriculum. Many projects already tap into creativity and collaboration within the class group; however, it is possible to find opportunities to make them connected beyond the classroom via online discussions, perhaps even with peers from another class or school or country. Further, there is opportunity to create more authentic audience and purpose via digital tools.

Early success found via low-hanging fruit provides opportunity for community celebration and recognition of success at a critical point in the change initiative. This momentum fuels teacher confidence and community sharing, leading to augmented teacher capacity as schools progress through early stages of a blended learning implementation. Share where you have found low-hanging fruit in your classrooms via #blinaction!

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Power (and Responsibility) of Human Connection

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As a blended learning specialist, I spend significant time thinking and talking about technology, and within this process, reframing the role of the teacher from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”. But in my approach to blended learning in action, the teacher remains core to the experience. This is because the power of human connection cannot be replaced by gamified, adaptive software interaction. I am reminded of this again and again when I hear from my former students who have pursued life paths funded by emotional currency exchanged years ago between a passionate teacher and their younger selves.

This morning I was reminded of the power of this emotional currency through a creativity exercise. I’m working through Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way to bring my creative energies to a peak, and today’s learning prompted me to uncover “creativity monsters” in my past, individuals who (perhaps inadvertently) caused creativity scars. Of the three I thought of, two were teachers, and one I remembered vividly from early elementary – Mr. Jones, my music teacher. As I thought about Mr. Jones, I thought about my younger self and her interactions with him. I recalled identifying as a singer when I was little; I loved music and envisioned myself frequently being chosen to sing the National Anthem in class. There was a talented girl who always sang it, Katie, and when Katie sang it, the sound was so otherworldly to me. But Katie was in the choir, so I thought if I joined and learned, I could sound like her. I remember the day I auditioned, nervous and standing alongside Mr. Jones’s traveling keyboard. It was bad; I didn’t make the choir. I failed a subsequent test in music on memorizing one of the scales, something that led to my only report card F of my academic career. From second grade on, I never sang aloud whether in school or in life. I declared myself a “bad singer” who “lacked a musical bone in her body”.

Five years ago, I had a highly contrasting experience in a music class as I had the wonderful opportunity to have a lesson from a former Grandview colleague, Michael Yanette, who offered to teach me how to sing the new school song. He had taken the beautiful poetic creed and put it to music that year, one of the numerous ways he had woven love of music through every inch of Grandview’s fabric. Shortly after his arrival, students could be heard singing all the time in and out of classes; seniors who had hated or been indifferent to music class were lining up to join the musical; the Grandview halls were “alive with the sound of music”. Mr. Yanette was magic. I entered his classroom full of nerves. It took a while for him to get me to sing beyond a whisper, but within the hour I was singing and laughing alongside him, full of joy. I told him it was my first music lesson since I could opt out in sixth grade. More importantly, it was the first positive music lesson of my life. I hugged him and left in joyful, grateful tears.

In contemplating these contrasting experiences this morning, I thought of so many other powerful moments of human connection I experienced firsthand as a student, later created as a teacher, and after witnessed as a leader. In the span of seconds, we as educators have the power to ignite curiosity and channel it into creative magic…or we have the power to leave a creativity scar. This is true in every discipline where the greatest measure of student learning can be seen in creative problem solving and authentic application of skills learned.

It is also possible to build this human connection through technology that brings teachers and students closer together and contributes to a deeper, multifaceted understanding of the student. I’ve experienced such a moment when I was teaching a composition class from New York to students in Florida, and a “normally silent” student opened up via chat about her writer’s block, a conversation that led to her sharing some creativity scarring she had experienced, and the eventual a release of her block. It was “constructive feedback” of mine that had contributed to her block, but through a more constructive sharing, it was emotional currency that had empowered her to move it.

A device is not a teacher, and while it is essential we power-up our classrooms with digital connectivity, that action alone is not the mechanism for student empowerment. This remains in the hearts and minds of teachers who passionately seek out the innate seeds of student curiosity, lovingly cultivate them, and creatively direct them to the light of growth. Thus, as we design ways to connect more classes, we must do diligence in designing ways to support teachers in this change. In this manner, we can avoid leaving scars that block their practices and instead spark their creativity so that they may continually uphold the critical responsibility of human connection contained within each momentary student-teacher interaction.