Tuesday, July 29, 2014

My First PLN - Sending Gratitude


Tomorrow my son and I leave for our yearly trek to Lake Almanor, CA.  For my son Skyler it is a non-stop play fest with seven of his best buddies, they ride bikes, scooters, play in the lake, build sand castles, run, jump, laugh, repeat...  For me, I get to meet with my first PLN - 5 friends/teachers (now moms) who once worked together (over 11 year ago) in a small northern California school district.  We carpooled together, student taught together, attended conferences together, attended or were in each others weddings, got pregnant together, lost pregnancies together, went through divorces together, have always been there for each other.  Now, we make sure that once a year we get ourselves and our children together.

Because we are passionate educators we do spend a lot of time talking shop, we need to catch up on each others "school year" and then share resources, reflect on our practices, discuss our various school situations and problem solve together.  It is a face to face professional learning network.  We know that when we are together and pouring out our educator souls, it is possible that we get the "bullshit" card thrown out for a reality check and we embrace and welcome that.  Although we only see each other once a year, it is like we see each other frequently and we are transported back to the time when we all worked, taught, and learned together.  I am privileged to spend a week of my year with these incredible educators, moms, and women.

So, with our impending gathering, I have been thinking of an interesting pondering... what are the key educational resources and/or innovations I HAVE TO share with my girlies?  It is a daunting question (and I would love input on this!)  So, I began thinking, if I were giving them a short list of resources what would I share?







Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cooperation vs. Collaboration Is There a Difference?

Venspired.com
I chose this picture for this post (thank you Krissy Venosdale for your incredible poster stream) because it has the word Collaboration. I also like that the message is to share and I take that as sharing your Talents, Passions, Creativity and Innovations as an educator freely. This past week I attended a Gifted Learner Conference (coincidentally, Krissy is a gifted learner expert) and we discussed the differences between Collaboration and Cooperation. Interestingly, I had not pondered the unique differences between these two words.


Please bear with me as I publicly work through my understanding (or lack there of).

Collaboration (Based on Dr. Sandra Kaplan's definition):
  • Collaboration is based on the strengths or talents of individual group members
  • Each member has a unique skill, talent, strength, or expertise he or she brings to the problem or session
  • Participation can be passive or active and participants may be generalists or specialists depending on the situation and the needed talent or expertise
  • Team members are chosen thoughtfully based on their needed contribution to the group
  • An example would be a district textbook adoption committee which is a group of carefully chosen educators with specific skills and expertise (you want to be picky about who you choose so that you have a mix of talents and/or expertise)
  • You are solving a problem or building or creating or designing
District and/or School Site Talent Teams (I don't have a better name right now):
  • I see these groups as collaborative in nature because they are formed to solve problems, design, build, create - in other words: be the innovators of the district
  • We have a District Instructional Leadership Team (DILT) in which members are carefully picked for their strengths and expertise.  This team is expected to create, innovate and share with others.  These folks are the visionary educators of the district
A pre-requisite for any "Talent Team" whether it be a group of students, teachers, or administrators is finding the individual strengths and talents of each individual.  This takes time and effort and is absolutely necessary if you want creativity and innovation to drive change in your classroom, school or district.

Cooperation (based on what I was taught from the Cooperative Learning Gurus - The Johnson Brothers:
  • Cooperation is based on "inter-dependency" all group members must count on or depend on every other group member for success
  • Each member has a defined job and the jobs are periodically rotated so that each person experiences each job
  • The jobs are practiced and understood by all students (adult or child)
  • Job assignments are not related to the strengths of the individual group members.
  • An example would be a grade level or department team made up of a group of teachers at a site or district level coming together to meet and discuss student learning (the group members are pre-determined by what grade level and subject matter they teach)
  • You are completing a needed task or assignment
Professional Learning Communities - PLC Mondays - (PLC's that meet weekly in grade level or department groups):
  • I see these groups as Cooperative in nature.  They are getting together to create common assessments, collect and discuss data based on student performance on the assessments, and plan instruction and intervention based on the collected data.  Because of the time frame (one hour each week) 
    • Inter-dependency and specific jobs will allow for optimal use of time
    • Each member contributes equally based on his/her assigned job
    • Jobs are switched so that group members experience each job
    • A specific agenda with guiding questions is followed so that group members come prepared and ready to discuss their students' performance or to contribute to the formation of common assessments
    • Because of the time constraints, the groups must be focused on how students are performing in their classes and who to provide interventions or extensions to when differentiating the curricula
    • PLC time is short and must be productive
As I stated earlier, this post is a result of unleashing the contents of my brain as I reflect on new learning and perspectives on Collaboration and Cooperation.  This reflection will lead to more ponderings as I battle and struggle to make sense of this.  

One connection I have made is to Google and Google Teacher Academy.  I have a friend who works at Google as a software designer.  The biggest frustration my friend had when starting work for Google was that after each project was completed the groups would be changed.  As a computer nerd who struggled with new group dynamics, this was a frustrating part of working for Google.  However, as I see it, Google constantly creates "Talent Teams" which emphasize individual strengths and expertise leading to superior products.  Google Teacher Academy participants are chosen the same way.  They are looking for a "Talent Team" of educators with a mix of strengths and expertise to build the strongest cohort possible.  So, those of us who are not chosen do not "fit" with the team YET...  



Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Last Day of School That Wasn't

 by Krissy Venosdale

One of my favorite things about being an educator is building relationships and connections with students, parents, other teachers and leadership.  The end of a school year always brings a shower of mixed emotions:

I am elated that I get to spend time with my family, relaxing, reading, writing and renewing my love of education all at a slower pace than during the school year.  I'm invigorated by the professional learning I will do by reading, collaborating with others on twitter and Google +, and by attending one or two focused learning opportunities - this year it will be #cuerockstar Las Vegas Teacher Camp.  These are the all about me relationships and connections I look forward to.

In contrast, as I spend the last couple of weeks with my students, I experience a whole different set of emotions.  I often catch myself looking out at my students and thinking about how far the class has come growing together as learners and collaborators.  I think about each student and see his/her individual growth, struggles, successes and year long transformation into a stronger learner and thinker.  My heart smiles as I scan the room re-living the moments we shared and watching as they complete end of the year explorations.  At the same time there is a feeling of sadness at the thought that I won't get to see their faces everyday as they enter my classroom and I struggle thinking about letting them go.  I wonder how I will ever build connections with the next group of students coming in a couple of months at the same time I am excited about the prospect of new classes.  Then internal fight inside my brain takes me from tears to laughter with just a thought.  Finally there is always the nagging feelings of emptiness as I say my final goodbyes for the summer.  I call the entire rush of emotions "The End of the Year Magic"

Many of you experience similar emotions at the end of a school year, or the end of a sports season.   Finishing up my first year as a curriculum coordinator brought me to the end of a school year at a loss for what I was feeling.  There was no classroom(s) of kiddos to experience the  "The End of the Year Magic" with.  It is a similar feeling to celebrating a holiday or the birthday of a loved one who is no longer with us for the first time (ironic that I am writing this on Father's Day, my first one with my Dad as an angel).  I was surrounded by a global sense of emptiness and wondering of how do I get the "The End of the Year Magic" emotions back in my new position at the district office.

Those thoughts bring me back to the picture and quote from above, it is all about the connections and relationships that you build and so here are my goals for next year:


  • Continue to build connections and relationships with teachers, administrators and learning support staff
  • Work with administrators to become instructional leaders for their sites and not just building managers
  • Look for teachers' strengths by getting into classrooms as often as possible (instructional rounds using Google Forms to make notes)
  • Build capacity in all teachers by emphasizing their strengths and providing support in their areas of struggle
  • Create a district resource of "experts" (I'll probably call it something less intimidating) so that teachers have colleagues they can ask for help or support.
  • Provide the foundation and supports for the teachers to grow as lead learners (it's not about me!)
  • Implement a #geniushour for teachers who want to learn and collaborate and share new knowledge
I will continue to work on this list, but the main thing is to do for the teachers what I did for my students when I was in the classroom - make it so they do not "need" me.  Then at the end of each year, I will look back on the teachers in the district with the same emotions and feelings I felt for my students for the 23 years I was in the classroom.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Google Teacher Academy Mountain View - The Gift of a Near Win

A couple of weeks ago I found this TED Talk by Sarah Lewis on Twitter: Embrace the Near Win.  As I reflect on my second Google Teacher Academy (GTA) rejection, this talk resonates with me.  Here are some quotes:

"Success is a moment of time..."
"The pursuit of mastery is the reaching not the arriving..."
"The near win shows you how little you know..."
"What, right now, do we plan to do to address that mountain in our sites..."
"We thrive not when we have done it all, but when we have more to do..."
"Coming close to what you thought you wanted can help you attain more than you thought you could..."

What do these quotes have to do with my failure or "Near Win"?  They are motivating me to work to improve and become the educator who is chosen for GTA.  Here is my plan for improvement:
  • As I watched the video submissions of other applicants, I realized how much my video sucked.  I was so stuck with the process of making the video that who I am as an educator did not shine through.  BIG MISTAKE!  I tried to follow David Theriault's advice about creating a winning short video:  CLICK HERE (thanks for sharing David!), I was frozen with fear.  Instead of being myself and letting that come out by telling a story, I did the opposite and made it forgettable.  So, I will make sure my video tells a story and that who I am as a person and educator shines through.
  • Even though I have been using Google Apps for the past 5 years, I still have much to learn about infusing GAFE tools.  So, I will become a Google Educator by July 2014 and a Google Education Trainer by October 2014.
I have to say that the past and present "Chosen Ones" are impressive and truly innovative educators.  It seems like each round gets more competitive and the bar gets raised just a bit higher.  It is truly inspiring to know that all of the recent applicants (successful and not so much) are making a huge difference in their classrooms/schools/districts and they impact student/adult learning and motivation.  I will continue learning with/from them on Twitter and Google+. 

I look forward to the process of completing my next application for GTA Austin.  I will be like astronaut Jose Hernandez from Stockton California.  He applied to the astronaut program 12 times before getting accepted.  Hopefully it won't take me that long!? 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Building Balloon Cars - Ambiguity and Cognitive Dissonance

NOTE: These beginning paragraphs are the "Background" to the what and why I do this activity with my students, you can skip to the lesson link below if you are short on time and want a fun and challenging activity to do with your students the last weeks of school.

 from: Krissy Venosdale: Venspired.com                                                                     
Way back in the summer of 1995, I attended a summer institute on integrating technology into the classroom.  I received a computer with a dedicated phone line for internet access, a stipend, and two weeks of STEM (not called that back then) activities.  There was a cohort of 25 Idaho teachers who would build what we now call a professional learning network.  The expectation was that we would use our computer and dedicated phone line to collaborate and stick together as a group since we taught in different areas of the state.  One of our first activities (and the only one I remember) was experimenting with rubber band cars leading to the building of balloon cars.  It took the entire first week to test the cars, collect data, make observations, and then transfer what we learned to build our own balloon powered car.  Of course we were working in collaborative teams and using the computers to organize data, graph data, and make notes (much more clunky than using Google Docs/Drive).

The University of Idaho science professors who were leading our group used ambiguity to force us out of our comfort zones.  There were no guidelines, just guiding questions.  When they introduced the rubber band cars they handed them out, dumped a pile of rubber bands on each table and we sat in silence for a few minutes thinking and waiting to be told what to do.  As the seconds ticked away, our looks became more perplexed as we continued to wait for instructions.  Finally the professors broke the silence and said "Get to work".  "What are we supposed to do?" one brave student asked.  They answered with two simple and profound words, "Be scientists!"  They gave us the ultimate statement of ambiguity to send us on our thinking way long before #geniushour and #20%time existed.  After continuing to sit with dumbfounded looks on our faces, (we were all very obedient science teachers/students who wait for instructions and procedures) the professors realized they needed to gently nudge us forward.

They began by asking us a question, "What is a scientist and what do scientists do?"  Make a list in your groups, you have 2 minutes to brainstorm.  For the first time that morning the room was a buzz with chatter.  After the brainstorm session, we shared and made a collective list to help us remember our role as active, thinking, tinkering, and information seeking scientists.  The next guiding question the professors asked was, "What are you going to do with the rubber band cars in front of you?"  Again they sent our groups into a brainstorm session and the room was once again a buzz.  We shared with the whole group after 2 minutes and wrote the collective list on the board.  The professors asked one last question, "How many of you have enough information to get started?" All of our hands went up and we spent the rest of the day and the next two days "playing" with rubber band cars in the halls of the science building.  At the end of the three days, we had rubber band car races down the halls.  We used the data and knowledge we gained from tinkering and experimenting with them to find the combination of tweaks that resulted in the fastest car and the farthest car.

Day four began with the professors dumping piles of materials down in front of us and challenging us to use only those materials to build a balloon powered car that would be the fastest and/or the farthest.  We experimented for a day and at the end of day 5 we had balloon car races in the halls of the science building.  The ambiguity and cognitive dissonance was at times extremely frustrating, but it lead to a strong commitment to the process and a willingness to persevere and get it figured out.  And, way back then, we could not Google It.

So, the next school year in my middle school science classes in Twin Falls, Idaho, we played with the rubber band cars and then built balloon cars.  And from that time, the project became a yearly staple in my classroom.  Before I share the lesson plan, I want to share some interesting observations I have noted as my classes have completed the exploration over the years:

  • High achieving students struggle with this process because of the ambiguity - they don't do "play and figure it out" well
  • You will be surprised and inspired by what your students create.
  • Be prepared to provide questions to guide struggling groups so that they do not give up
  • Remind everyone that this learning experience is about the process and that there is no failure 
  • Figure out ways to give the students hints without telling them what to do
Here is a very basic outline of the lesson and supplies you will need: 

I will be going into third grade classrooms this week to have them build balloon cars and I will add pictures here.  You can use the links and information below to have your students explore NASA's Balloon Car Challenge.  I would do this part with middle school students.

  • Pick 8 of the cars, write their name, distance and time.  Then calculate the rate of each one (SPEED).

Have a great end of your school year!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Building a District Innovation Team





This quote is something I work to aspire to as a classroom teacher with my students, as an instructional leader sharing and presenting with other educators, and most recently as a curriculum coordinator.

A few weeks ago the topics for #satchatwc were Creativity and Innovation.  As usual the discussion inspired me to think about how I can facilitate creativity and innovation in my school district.  This year has been a transition year for me from the classroom to a coordinator position.  As I have worked to define and figure out my new role, connections to my life as a classroom teacher have started to help in my transition.  As a classroom teacher I worked to empower my students to take control of their learning.  Now instead of directly impacting students, I need to empower the administration, teachers, and anyone else directly linked to students and instruction to do the same.  Just like in a classroom, I do not get to hand pick the adults who work in our schools and district.  In the classroom I worked hard to empower all students whatever their background or experience and now I need to do the same with the adult learners I work with by meeting them where they are to begin movement however fast or slow.

One of my projects for next year will be to leverage the instructional experts that already exist in our schools.  The following is a "rough draft" of an idea to foster creativity and innovation in my school district.

My goal is to create a district "Innovation Team" to empower teachers to become leaders, share their expertise, their learning process and inspire them to lead and support their colleagues.  Next year we will be expanding our use of Google Apps for Education (GAFE) into our K-5 elementary schools.  So our Innovation Team will be focused on GAFE and other instructional technology tools.  Keeping the quote from Lao Tsu in mind I want to use a model that I am familiar and comfortable with.  I want to build a Professional Learning Network based on the National Writing Project summer institute model.

  • Begin by sharing a best practice or sample lesson (model the instruction)
  • Discuss/debrief the lesson see how it can fit into each teachers practice
  • Take it to your classroom and try it out and document the results to share with the team
  • Read, watch videos, reflect, collaborate, struggle, invent, design, and question as a team
  • Encourage members to choose a #20% or #geniushour topic within our team to become an expert
The goal is to build capacity and confidence within the team so we can leverage their expertise and use it to provide models of professional development within the district.  At the beginning I may need to facilitate with ideas, documents, resources for discussion, but the true strength is that the team will take over and guide the direction.  I will sit back, ask questions and provide needed materials and they will do it themselves. This will enable a variety of practices to be established such as:
  • #edcamp staff meetings or staff development days
  • Professional development planned and lead by Innovation Team members
  • Instructional rounds where teachers go and observe each other and discuss
  • Administrator/leadership team participates in this process as coaches rather than evaluators
Again, these are the beginning thoughts and draft ideas.  We are starting from scratch with Google Apps for Education and I want to start small with a team that is willing and able to explore and learn and then share with their colleagues in a supportive way.

I'll take any suggestions, ideas and input you have to share.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What Happens to the Thinkers and Tinkerers?

My favorite chat on twitter right now is #satchatwc which is a bunch of educators who gather at 7:30 am pacific time to chat about education.  This morning's topic was about telling our stories and the stories of our students, and others in our organization.  The thing that I have greatly appreciated about #satchatwc is that it gets me thinking, reflecting, scheming and plotting.  The rich conversation and sharing of resources and ideas sticks with me throughout the weekend as I contemplate my place in the education world and how I can affect change in my organization.  Synchronicity often keeps me company throughout the weekend as I proceed through my mundane activities and find interesting connections to the morning's conversation.  Here is the story that slammed me in the face as my son and I took a morning stroll shortly after #satchatwc ended.

We live in the Sierra Nevada foothills above Sacramento and below Truckee/Tahoe, so a stroll for me is my daily workout with lots of hills to get my heart rate up.  For Skyler a stroll is a chance to look for bugs, scat (various animal droppings), plants, and a connection to nature and time with Mom.  Today on our walk, I had many brick in the head moments that made me pause as a parent and as an educator.  I will try to share the conveyance of many different events that culminated on our 30 minute walk.

What happened on the walk...
As I headed outside with my Google Glass on, Tater was jumping on/from rocks waiting for our Saturday stroll.  I had just set up an app that would track our walk and provide us with important data on our "workout".  We began our walk and I had glass on to record the logistics of the walk.  As we traipsed down the driveway, I could tell that Tater wanted to try them out so I swiped down to get to the home screen and handed them over to Tater.  He gently put them on and started the usual conversation one has with glass... "Okay Glass"... We stood and I coached him to speak slowly, pause between statements and after many head bobs, tapping, swipes, and yelling a picture was finally taken.   We continued to walk slowly and Tater continued to tinker with the new tool.  He was slightly frustrated but continued to try.  I was giving him input and advice because I wanted to speed the pace of our walk and to "help" him.  15 minutes and 100 yards later, Tater was yelling, "okay STUPID Glass" over and over and I knew we needed a do over.  We stopped and I turned on screencast from glass to my phone so I could see what Tater was seeing and we went through the process of taking a picture and recording a video calmly together.  He handed glass back to me and we went on our merry way.

What my brain did as a result... (and the connection to thinkers and tinkerers)
I started thinking about Tater's impatience with glass

  • My son has learned in his short 3 years of school that if you can't do something quickly - read, math facts, worksheets, etc... then it is not worth learning or doing.  
  • He is a thinker/tinkerer and needs more time to learn, create, and do.  Unfortunately for him, his strengths have not been valued in his classes at school.   
  • Movement is integral to his learning and understanding as he works to make sense of what is going on around him. 
  • Unfortunately he is shutting down in school and losing interest and perseverance because being thoughtful makes you look stupid.
  • As a result, he gives up at the drop of a hat and expresses anger and frustration.  At home we spend a lot of time pausing, calming down and re-starting embracing the process rather than the product.
  • As a middle school math teacher I saw this behavior everyday in my classes when I asked my students to problem solve, explain, write, and be thoughtful - huge resistance that took many months to break down.
As a curriculum coordinator, I need to find ways to help our teachers value the thinkers and tinkerers and support them as they re-imagine their classrooms by creating "Innovation Teams" (another blog post).  I am so thankful for my PLN who shares ways they are changing the students learn and I will be calling on you for your ideas and support!

My thoughts on being a Glass Explorer
I became an explorer not because I am a gadget lover but because I am infatuated with all things Google.  I normally do not spend exorbitant amounts of money for things especially as an educator, but I knew I had a month to "tinker" and then I could return them.  At first I thought I would definitely return them but I have changed my mind and here is why:

  •  The Glass Explorer program is about thinking and tinkering with a new technology tool to make it better and usable for the general public.  
  • It is a process that takes time which goes against what most technology consumers want - they want something that will make their life easier, more organized, efficient (plug in your own adjective) and they want it NOW
  • Glass explorers are taking their time and tinkering, reflecting, sharing, creating, building and innovating and sharing some more and it is invigorating to be a part of that energy.
So I will be keeping my Glass not to be cool or a first adopter, but to learn from and about a new technology and how it will become a tool for me and my school district.