Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Mashup of January Wonderings

Change Management: A Realization

I had a realization of late that may already be second nature to many of you.

It sounds something like this: 

"If I were to implement blended learning properly in the classroom, then I need to start from scratch and throw out my preconceived paradigm of school."

By products of this if/then statement include:  
-The teacher is not the holder of all knowledge nor should they make all the decisions.  
- Good students are not just those who blindly follow directions without complaint. 
- A classroom can look chaotic, but students are still learning. 
- Critical thinking skills are much harder to teach than route memorization. 

 My realization made me think about the current state of my class and assess it critically. When I created a Google form and used it as a worksheet, I am basically substituting one thing for another. Time to create the form equals time I used to use to correct papers. Equal amount of time (roughly) that was shifted from after the work was done to before the students started the task. The medium was also different, but the questions and level of rigor stayed the same. 

 Baby steps I justified in my head. 

 When students use Google Presentations to create an endangered animal project, we substituted presentations for Powerpoint. Again, same list of endangered animals (plus or minus a few), note taking graphic organizer, just slightly different software.  

 Baby steps. 

 Recently the SAMR model resurfaced on my Google Plus feed. In the past, I had only heard it used in reference to iPads, but I'm slowly coming to the realization that it's can be applied to most technology usage. +Laura Mitchell  explained it well in her last post here on the edible elephant. I have lots of questions about the SAMR model. 

 - When do teachers know it's time to move up the pyramid (ex. go from Substitution to Augmentation)? 
- Do you need to show a certain level of proficiency at one level before moving to the next or can you just jump to where ever you want to be? Is that even possible? 
- Are the different levels in a chronological order where you must go from Substitution to Augmentation before you ever have hope of Modification? Is it possible for me to leapfrog from Substitution to Modification? 
- Must we always aim for the Redefinition level or can we have some activities at each level? 

Someone once told me that if I tell other people my intentions, the universe hears me and responds, so I'm hoping you can share with me some of your thoughts on this and other matters. :)

Thinking Beyond Year 1

I have always found it fascinating to read about other people's lives and progress towards goals. Autobiographies intrigue me, and I like asking colleagues and mentors, "How did you get to where you are now? Please share with me what you did". No two paths have every been the same. Reading or hearing about their ups and downs is like being given a cheat sheet of what to expect. The downside to that is that it also has me worrying about things that I can't do anything about, yet I know are coming up.  

Recently, I stumbled upon a comment that +Alex MagaƱa  made regarding long term planning. He is the innovative principal over at Grant Becon Middle School and has been gracious and generous in sharing his knowledge of blended learning. This comment was made over two months ago, so I am late, yet again, to the party. However, it was very timely to me because my school has started some long term planning of our own. 

 “Much like any start up, the excitement can carry you the first year but now I want to work with my team in planning out the next 3 years.”

 Reading Alex's comment made me pause in all that’s happening and wonder. The excitement from year one has tide us through some of the lower points. Where are we going to get our energy from for year 2 and on? How do we sustain that energy and excitement? How do we remain fully committed to blended learning if/when a better packaged "latest and greatest" idea appears front of us? 

Professional Learning Communities (Update)

We had our first official technology PD lead by teachers two weeks ago. As a presenter, it was nerve wracking. The room was packed (adults sitting at desks for fourth graders- I thought of you +Jessica Raleigh  and your kiddos on your classroom floor), loud, slightly chaotic, and we had technical difficulties. Google permissions and I are acquainted but not quite friends. Did we bite off more than we can chew?   

But….. it was loud because people were talking on topic. It was chaotic because teachers were moving around and helping each other with the technical difficulties. Most importantly, all the teachers were engaged, and all the teachers stayed on task with their conversations. Several of them made comments on the pretty flower background on the Google Form, but they humored me by filling out the technology survey and wish list. 

We have data now!! *dances jig around the room*

 More importantly, people told me afterwards that they actually found the format useful. They got something useful for themselves and left with ideas on how to use something like this in the classroom. Other teachers shared privately their desire to use more technology, but they were fearful because they will be starting from the beginning. What they needed was a lot more help than everyone else. I count this as a small victory. How do we keep building this momentum and deliver on the promise of personalized learning for teachers? Some ideas have started formulating, but we want more input. 

 Luckily for us, we're meeting with +Kevin Croghan  next week.  Just in time for us to plan our second PD. :D

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Turn and Talk on Steroids

The best professional learning I do is often in the classroom next door. It’s the pop in when I have a quick question, the sharing of ideas with a person who is pursuing the same goal as you, or the conversation that has you so side tracked you are late to pick up your class.  With a group of my peers who come with a variety of expertise and an equally pressing need to master the material. I so often find my learning is deeper and more applicable from a two sided conversation than a one sided presentation. 

Yet, that is often not the model of professional learning that is used.  I understand all to well why group professional learning needs to happen, it is cost effective and helps support a consistent message and those are all strengths that need to be recognized.

Thou I believe recently we have generated a new kind of professional learning model that takes the best of the previous two models and blends them together.  What I am talking about is interactive professional learning.  This is something we have been using in our classrooms and are now finally using for adult learning too.  “Turn and talk” on steroids.    There are many elements that make this model work best for me.  The first is the presentation material is not more than 10-15 minutes.  Then the rest of the time is spent in conversation working on whatever task is at hand. An additional piece to this puzzle has been the introduction of technology.  Things like Google docs allow for the conversation to continue long after the meeting has ended, and made note taking so much simpler.  I plan to use this model in any professional learning I plan in the future!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Adult Learning Doesn't Have to Hurt Like a Pencil in Your Eye

The image below started circling around my end of the internets a few weeks ago.   It depicts a pencil as a metaphor for the people we find in our workplace.  I saw this and immediately latched onto it.  I thought, "right on, I see all these people in my work."  Immediately, I was able to start putting people into the categories outlined in the graphic.  I was thinking, "so-and-so is totally an 'eraser', and whosey-dinkle is absolutely a 'hanger-on.'"  Then, quite suddenly, I stopped. I was ashamed.  


I felt guilty because I realized that I was passing judgement on the people in my life, all of whom have their reasons for landing in one place or another in their learning.  I also realized that, given the context and in any given point in my learning, I too have fallen into different categories outlined by the metaphor. Moreover, I had my rationales for doing so. What I started to internalize was the danger in having such a metaphor to describe the learning continuum.  It elevates individuals and attaches criticism to others, but most of all, it takes the humanity out of the process of learning and undermines the community that exists in our teaching profession.  

Of course, no metaphor is perfect.  Sometimes, they fail to fully illustrate all of the things that could be happening and all the contributing factors that may explain any given scenario.  For example, this pencil metaphor is really just a snapshot of a pencil at one point in time, but we know that pencils do not stay in the same form throughout their existence.  I would like to expand on this alternate interpretation of the metaphor, as it highlights what I see as the real issue here.  For me, it's a metaphor about labels, and maybe it could be more a model about identifying problems.   

The truth is that erasers get smaller and worn, ferrules get damaged, the wood is diminished, and the lead is inevitably dulled.  Some pencils never achieve their purpose, because they get broken and discarded.  Perhaps those are real analogies for what happens to the groups represented by each section of the pencil metaphor, or perhaps not.  Maybe the diminishing nature of the pencil is a problem in and of itself.  

I'm sure there are those who feel they are the ones being shoved into the blades of the pencil sharpener (another metaphor just waiting to happen).  Surely there are "sharp" folks and leaders that get ground down and cast off as part of the cost of production.   At the same time, the erasers are getting rubbed away as mistakes are undone.   So, this reduction in the mass (knowing that I am speaking quantity of people, not mass) of the pencil is reminiscent of the overwhelming problems in teacher retention.  

Perhaps I'm just straining the analogy, but one can never reconstruct the pencil, so the result is obtaining a new one.  Thus, the process starts again.  How is the cycle broken? To answer, I must depart from the metaphor for a moment to say that through trust and connecting educators with the best choice professional development to meet their needs, perhaps metaphors like this will only exist in memory.  
You see, an inherent flaw with the metaphor is that one cannot train a pencil.  Pencils do not have free will or the ability to make choices.  It's only a tool that is moved by some unseen hand in this picture.  No teacher would say that they are just being manipulated from the all knowing holder of the pencil and the marks we leave are just the will of the invisible hand.  Yet, there are inescapable initiatives and currents in education that guide our path as the hand does guide the pencil.   But these influences are neither here nor there, they just are.   Sometimes these influences are exactly what keeps people in the categories illustrated.  Sometimes we take the lead and charge into the solving of a problem, and sometimes we shelter in place.  Perhaps part of the the solution lies in addressing how we help educators maximize their potential.  

So, the key here is to call out what is human in this story presented by the inanimate pencil. Pencils have no free will - yet we do. The fluidity missing in the pencil metaphor is enabled through the providing of opportunities for choice, and trusting in teachers that will allow them to take risks. It's also about how we meet the needs of teachers and how we identify those needs.  Most of all, it is about the community that supports teachers.

Kelly Tenkely takes a similar perspective in her blog, Dreams of Education, where she argues that "we need a new era of professional development," suggesting school-wide PD be about building culture.  She asserts that "we aren't dealing with widgets.  We are in the business of people, and growth, and life."  She connects strong cultures with allowing space to honor individuality. You see, we are not pencils (or pencil parts).  Pencils don't have culture, nor do they acknowledge the uniqueness of each other.  Maybe the key is to focus on community and cherishing what each person can contribute. Based on our skills and interests, anyone can be the lead depending on what he or she is leading and how it aligns to that person's skills and interests.

So, what do I take from the pencil metaphor?  The reality for me is that the it is just a snapshot, and it doesn't reflect the true fluidity of adult learning, behavior and motivation (points to which Jessica Raleigh spoke so well in her blog).  It is really more of a model, and models are supposed to be used and adapted as problems are identified.  In this case, the model does sponsor some debate (and has allowed me to wax philosophic for a time) as to how to handle the problem, which may be its only purpose.

What I am leaving with here is that humans and professional learning are never static, and there is a danger in applying models like the pencil metaphor as unchanging truths.  Human nature is a funny thing, and while I may initially cling to a paradigm to start my thinking, as I dig deeper, I generally find that the snapshots never really deliver the full story.  More so, the real danger is the dismissive nature of placing labels on a person.  It generally places all of the responsibility for failure to adopt new methods on individuals and fails to force us to be accountable to each other in the ways we support our colleagues.  Most of all, I fear it generates a divisiveness that can sabotage the community it takes to be truly successful in educating children.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The More Things Change . . .

So, this is my first post for the Eating the Elephant Blog (EtEB), and I gotta say, it has been hard for me to get started.  I can't say for sure why, but I think I have had a bit of anxiety about finally dropping content into a world that already has so many great writers.  That said, I am a firm believer that I am supposed to be contributing back to the community and not just consuming information.  I hope you find my musings useful, or at least tolerable.

Our theme for the month of December (sorry, I'm a little late) was around what's different and what's the same.  For me to address all of the changes (and all of the sameness for that matter) that have happened would be impossible to do and impossible to read.  I will instead hit on highlights of change that I have seen from my perspective. To that end, I feel it is important to note that this being my first post, and my natural tendency to be verbose, will result in a substantially longer entry that what I anticipate happening in the future.  Please also note, while this post is mainly about change in 2013, it will contain a good deal of background information drawing from the past three years.


This has been a year of monumental change for me.  About a year ago, I was in the middle of winter break, planning for what to do with my 8th grade Social Studies class upon returning to school in January.  I was also prepping some of the professional development that I would be facilitating on our first day back which was a non-student contact day, and I popped by my school to run some copies for my data team.  I also remember that I picked up a new pair of high-end running shoes on New Year's Day.  Things were going to be different.

Well, in fact everything has changed.  In the summer, I took on a position working in my district Office for School Reform and Innovation as a Personalized Learning Field Manager.   Sure, there are a lot of ten-cent words in that sentence, but the reality is that I agreed to become a member of the district-level administration team.  I was no longer going to be teaching kiddos, and I was going to have to leave my awesome room, my awesome school and all of my awesome teaching partners.

So, why leave the room? Right!?


You see, for years I had been working with Blended Learning, and many of these years I did not even know it.  It wasn't until about three years ago, when I met guys like Glenn Moses and Michael Wacker that I realized there was even a name for the type of instruction I was doing.   I just thought I was working smarter and giving kiddos more opportunities to practice their learning by putting it on a website and giving them online assessments for immediate feedback.   Once I realized that there was this "Blended Learning" movement in schools, I had to learn more and I had to start sharing what I was learning.  I started creating my own PLNs around Blending by finding people online and at conferences and adding them to my twitter lists (and later, G+).  I wanted to know as many experts as I could to help me hone my craft.  I also realized that I could no longer keep taking information without giving back to the community that was helping me, so I started facilitating more professional development for my district and for other districts, I stepped up into more leadership roles at my school, and I applied to become a part-time Instructional Coach for my peers.

Flash forward to June of 2012, at my school, under the leadership of Alex Magana, we had made the decision to become a Blended Learning School.  I'll hand it to Alex, he is great at finding money for special projects, attracting talented people to work with him, and he is above all, a dreamer of what could be.  He saw the potential in the Blended Learning methodology, and he was subsequently able to get our school rolling down the path of Personalization.  Alex, and the school leadership team, took all the right steps to make it happen.  They gained support from stakeholders, planned, visioned, and did a litany of other work just to do a launch of school-wide Blended Learning in September 2012.

Implementation wasn't perfect, but it was as painless as possible.  Know that all the trials and tribulations that came are a whole other story, but I can break down the items that made the process successful into eight key areas of implementation:

  1. Common Vision for the school
  2. Needs Assessment for infrastructure
  3. Needs Assessment for talent and PD (this is both knowledge and the time)
  4. Common tools in both hardware and Learning Management System (LMS)
  5. Goal Setting around the vision
  6. Creating a climate conducive to taking risks
  7. Testing models
  8. Evaluating and iterating on learning

By June of 2013, we had the entire school working with BL, we had correlating data to support that it was working with student engagement and student success, we had a staff that was all speaking the same language, and we were collectively planning for year two of implementation.

I loved it at my school, and I was totally happy, but I also saw an opportunity to enact change at a greater level.  To put it simply, I feel that I have an obligation to serve the greater community in the best way that I can.  For years it had been through teaching the 150+ students in my classroom each year, but an opportunity came for me to serve on a much larger scale.  I felt my skill set was best suited to support as an advocate for teachers and students at the district level.  So, when the opportunity came in the form of a job posting in July 2013 for a Personalized Learning Filed Manager (PLFM), I decided to apply.

What's Changed:

I'm kind of a list guy, and I've decided that's okay.  For me, the things that have changed the most for me are around learning and connecting.  For the ease of the reader, I have outlined my thoughts by heading below.

I) My New Learning:

Upon taking the job as a PLFM, I was able to work more closely with my colleagues Christina Jean & Ben Wilkoff.  I've worked with them for a while, but they were suddenly in my world daily.  These two individuals have done more to push my thoughts about Blending and Personalization than I could have expected.  In fact, if I was going to point to the most significant changes for me, I would have to say it is that I am, for lack of a better way of saying it, smarter.  It seems funny, I know, but I was speaking with my wife just the other day, and she reminded me that I made a comment to that effect only a few weeks ago.  I had mentioned that in my new position I have been essentially forced to have rationales, to do more research, to find more resources, to make new connections and above all, to teach and collaborate with adults that are learners of a new methodology.

Christina has done a great deal in helping me to craft personal goals, to navigate district networks, formalize a process for school visioning around personalization and above all to understand what personalization really is.  Last March, Christina helped me initially put to paper the process that I went through to plan for BL by helping me create a BL Litmus test.  This is more of a legacy document around my thinking, and it is by no means prescriptive.   It is in constant iteration, and I look at it as a series of questions that I can ask myself in planning.  Beyond this, Christina also introduced me to the iZone Framework from New York.  It is a delicious way of looking at Personalization through its guiding questions and principles to create student centric schools.  Moreover, my work with Christina made me realize that Blended Learning becomes even more powerful when used in concert with more personalized methods of content delivery and demonstration of content proficiency.

As for Ben, this dude is on a whole different plane.  He is a fountain of knowledge around all things web-based.  It is not uncommon in any given day that a problem will come to a point where someone says, "let's see what Ben thinks."   He is the doyen of the internet in my district, but for me, his real value is in the way he approaches adult learning.  He is constantly trying to find ways to match professional development to people strengths, needs and interests.  From virtually to face-to-face instruction, he probably has something going one to meet the needs of adults.  Even more than that, his advocacy for teacher empowerment is inspiring.  Through his tutelage and constant support I was able to start my G+ community for Personalized Professional Development and he has helped me craft a number of other ways to connect with my lab sites.  We've even started work on applying competency based badges to PD.   I will be speaking more to these things in next month's blog post, so stay tuned.

II) My New Perspectives:

My perspectives on how we approach education have started to change.  I feel that my new insights are really better suited for a later post, so I will not dwell there right now.  Let's just say, as my role has changed so has my identity.  

III) My New Projects and New Collaborators:

Yogi Berra said something like, "you can see a lot just by looking."  I've heard it other ways, but the point is that if you just watch, you might learn something.  Observing a model is such a great way to learn how the pieces get put together.  As a teacher, I always wanted to go to others classes, and that was always an option if I wanted to cruise over to a room in my school.  My principal would even pay for guest teachers if I had a clear plan as to where I wanted to go and what my objectives were, but as many teachers know, taking a day out of the room is never as easy as just calling in.  It usually just feels gross being out of class, and let's not forget the prepping of the room and having to do all the sub planning.  Needless to say, I didn't get out of my room that much, and I was cool with that given the place I was in my career.

In my new role, I was suddenly exposed to so many new brilliant people within my district.  One of the best parts of my new role is that I get to see a lot of teachers doing what they do, and that has led to me expanding my PLC to in include so many new perspectives.  Subsequently, it has also led me to start working on several new projects.  Most of the projects revolve around adult learning, like the "Blend-tastic Bombastic Personalized PD" sessions I have been building in collaboration with our district EdTech team and the Edcamp Denver event I have been working on in my off hours.  The one that is consuming my thoughts right now is this blog.

The blog's main purpose is on our "About Us" page, and it's really about documenting, sharing and growing in collaboration with others.  We also have a list of themes to which we will be talking each month, and those can be found on our "Monthly Themes" page.  While I am anxiously anticipating writing to our goals and themes, I am truly excited by the opportunity of working with my new collaborators.

Anna, Elizabeth, Jessica and Laura are all top notch teachers with very different perspectives on what's happening in classrooms.  The roles they play in the implementation of Blending at their schools, even how their schools have chosen to implement, are all so varied that each provides a unique insight as to what it means to make such a big shift from traditional to more personalized methods of instruction.  These shifts are monumental, that is why we chose to go with the blog title, "Eating the Elephant."


To eat an elephant, one has to do it one bite at a time.  It can be done, but there are all those little pieces that must be addressed.  These are the pieces that are so often lost to the larger narrative of actually completing the task.  If this process of implementing personalized methods works, or not, the small parts would likely be generally obscured by the larger picture.  That is why I am excited to see this blog as a space where educators that have attempted such work can craft a more complete narrative of what happened, what worked and (what's more often excluded) what didn't work.   Whether what they choose to share in the blog serves as celebrations, epiphanies or cautionary tales is up to each individually, yet the common goal will always be sharing in a way that is only made possible by the magic of a blog in the interwebs.  This sharing will hopefully sponsor comments and conversations to help iterate on the process and make better, or easier, the planning for these same shifts in other schools.

Technology in an Ever Changing Classroom

 As a teacher I am still working and growing toward technology not being a replacement for the learning tools of the past but being truly an innovative tool and a natural complement to today's instruction.  I believe that this the major difference in when I started my teaching career and now.  Students are no longer producing projects simply for the teacher to give them a grade but rather for a global audience.  Their worlds will never just be their  own neighborhoods but rather a global community so the same should be true about the classroom.

A few ways I have tried to use technology in the classroom                      with iMovie  

iMovie is now free (on all devices activated after September 1st)  and I have used it in several different capacities.  One way is to have students digitally record a statement at the end of a unit to display what we have learned.  (Favorite Family memories at the end of a social studies unit on every family being special.)

Another use of this technology in the classroom is establishing a digital pen pal relationship with a 3rd grade class in Westminster, CO where the students have shared about their schools and themselves.  The video we sent to them was entirely filmed and written by the kindergarten students. 

A Final way we have used iMovie is to share our learning with a larger community.  We have done videos both whole group and in small group.  From the introduction of a rubric to a reading group book about old and new things, the students love to see themselves on the screen acting as the teacher!

There are many other apps out there that can do similar things.  The way I approach it is I think of what I want to innovate in my teaching and then I go and find an app that will do what I am looking for!  A website I often used when I was just starting out to build my knowledge of apps is  They have over 1000 apps labeled by category and price! And they are all directly linked to the app store. Which helps cut down on search time!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” 
- Kurt Vonnegut

Good teaching requires risk taking. This year, I've jumped off too many metaphorical cliffs to count... and I've taken 22 first graders with me! 

Blended and personalized learning is not about the technology, but in my case the tech was the spark that started me on the path of personalized learning. In November of 2012 I was lucky enough to receive 10 iPads for my classroom through a grant. I had used iPads in my teaching before, but never had access to that much tech at one time. It got me thinking that maybe there was a better way to "integrate" this new technology into my teaching. 

In the Spring of 2013 I took the iPad Innovations course through the Center for 21st Century Classrooms. I was so amazed at the potential that the iPads had to help me design much more authentic, transformational learning opportunities for my kids. I was introduced to the SAMR framework as a way of thinking about how/when/why I was using tech in my classroom.

SAMR framework by Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura
My lessons began to transform, incorporating more opportunities for student creation, sharing, collaboration and choice. I was excited about what I was doing, but also felt very isolated from my colleagues. It was difficult to plan as a team, since I wanted to take my lessons in different directions... some of which were far more difficult for my teammates to do in their own classrooms with far less access to technology to help accomplish goals.

Enter: Janus and the Blended Learning Grant. I'll fast forward through all of the logistics of the application process and roll out (as I'm sure I'll be writing about that in more detail later this year). The grant brought far more technology into our building than we would've been able to afford with our own budget. Every 1-5th grade classroom has at least a 2 students:1 device ratio or better. At the same time, I was lucky enough to receive a gift of a 1:1 iPad situation through a separate grant opportunity. 

Now, through the blended learning vision that our staff (including admin) shares we're able to accomplish much, much more. We're jumping off more cliffs than ever before, but we're jumping together.

So, what's the same? I'm still teaching reading, writing, math, science and social studies, and skills to first graders. What's different? Everything else.

The single best decision my team made this year was to change our daily schedule. In +Jessica Raleigh's blog she wrote about the frustration both teachers and students experience with whole group instruction, and the impossibility of reaching every student when teaching through that model. For any given lesson, a handful of kids will be confused, a handful of kids will be bored, and a handful of kids will struggle with behavior.

So, my teammates and I put our heads together and came up with a new daily schedule that included only 30 minutes of direct, whole group instruction. The rest of our day is split into blocks - reading, writing, math, science and social studies - with rotations in each. We meet with small groups throughout the entire day, meeting kids exactly where they are. When students don't meet with us, they rotate through related content area workshop model rotations with a choice of a few different tasks to complete.

Now I know the rotational model is old news for many secondary teachers, but it's pretty amazing to see it successfully implemented in a classroom full of six year olds who are just beginning to learn to read independently. I anticipated major behavioral issues because, throughout the whole day, two thirds of my class is responsible for working in pairs or independently, away from me. Without a teacher looking over their shoulders, how could they possibly stay on task for such sustained periods of time? I've learned that with the right supports, they can. My students have taken ownership of their learning to a degree I've never seen in a six year old. 

During any given rotation, students can decide if they want to work alone or with a partner, with technology or without. They can choose which task they'd like to complete and where in the room they want to work. They know what their next steps are, and they hold themselves and their peers accountable for their learning. The level of accountable talk, academic language, and peer-to-peer support is astounding. 

My role as teacher has transformed from the "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side." I am not depositing knowledge into my students little brains, but rather creating opportunities for them to experiment, play, collaborate, master, and share knowledge. My favorite student quote from this year, which I'm usually lucky enough to hear at least one a week, is "Mrs. Mitchell, what if _____?" 

  • "Mrs. Mitchell, what if we use Book Creator to make eBooks about the different types of weather we're learning about in our unit of inquiry?"
  • "Mrs. Mitchell, what if we make a movie on our iPads about our favorite book and do a retell?" 
  • "Mrs. Mitchell, what if we want to take a practice test on Spelling City to help make sure we get 100% on the real test on Friday?"
  • "Mrs. Mitchell, what if I finish early... can I work on an EduCreations lesson to teach my friend about vivid verbs?"  

These are questions I never would have heard if I'd been too afraid to jump off the cliff, or too afraid to take my students with me. It may be a slow, messy process... but we're all developing our wings together.

Then & Now: 9 Months Later

Photo from Stock.XCHNG,

Then: 9 months ago

I am one of the lucky ones in teaching: well run school, supportive principal(s) and school community, and experienced colleagues. Best of all, I have top notched students. They are enthusiastic, inquisitive, kind, and caring. Most of them don’t like to sit in their seats or be quiet most of the days, but that just keeps me on my toes. With all these key ingredients in place, one might think we have a recipe for success, but it’s been a roller coaster ride trying to implement blended/personalized learning.

Early March of 2013, the ball started rolling once my principal learned of the DPS Janus Blended Learning Initiative April, May, and June were exciting times as the school went through the grant process and were eventually notified of our acceptance as a lab site. Those of us on the pilot team couldn't wait for the beginning of the school year.

August 2013. Welcome back to school! This year, we’re going to focus on the following school - wide initiatives:  Thinking Maps, Orton-Gillingham, Blended/Personalized Learning, and Recycling/Composting in addition to district directives and everything else we normally do.

If you're a teacher, admin, or work in education in another capacity reading that list, you might already be shaking your head. Any one of those initiatives alone would have been more than enough for a year long study, but we were trying to fit in three ginormous initiatives in addition to everything else it takes to run a school. I call it, “Initiatives Overload” which leads to “Initiatives Fatigue”, a subject for a later post.

Then, we had to juggle the start of a school year with our students as well as the roll out of the grant: ordering the hardware, getting us pilot teachers the training that we needed/wanted, and supporting us as we try out new blended strategies in the classroom etc. It was one hurdle after another, for once the hardware arrived, we have to figure out delivery, labeling, changing passwords, locked out accounts, wi-fi connections, and many other unexpected pleasures. Though the experience was stressful, the people we worked with were great. We wouldn't have been able to keep moving forward without the efforts of our extremely helpful and patient secretaries as well as Jason from DOTS.

Now: 9 Months Later

As we just got all of our hardware, I can't speak too much about the classroom situation. Instead, I am going to focus on what I’ve learned during the nine month span since I was introduced to blending, knowing full well this is just the tip of the iceberg.  

Here are a few things that are different for me now:

Waiting for directions vs. Taking Charge
As teachers, we are used to being told what to do, and we follow directions (most of the time). With this blended/personalized learning initiative, even though we had written up this elaborate plan in our application, we were still waiting for the Blended Learning (BL) team to tell us what to do, when to move from one step to the next, etc. Finally, at our mid-year check in, we realized what they've been trying to tell us all along: they didn't know what blended learning was going to look like either at our respective schools. It was up to us to make it happen.

Since having that realization, it has freed me to take the steps that we see necessary to implement blended/personalized learning at my school. As the project lead, my grant work currently falls under two categories: working with the pilot teachers (9 classroom, 1 technology/STR) and planning for school wide roll out next year with all the teachers.

Teachers will Automatically Come On Board vs. We Need to Create Teacher Buy In
With several large school wide initiatives, teachers are pulled in different directions, whether it is due to their interest or grade level taught. People are too busy to invest personal time learning about new things unless they see value in it. If they can’t see how it applies to their classroom and daily practice, it’s hard to get their buy-in.

Since our "aha!" moment, one of the first things on our list is to show all the teachers in the building what we’re doing (build background knowledge) and how they can use it (provide value). Jokingly, I call it my gorilla attempt to “Googlefy” the school because our district just got “Google Apps for Education”. We have already introduced it to our 3rd – 5th grade students as one tool to blend and personalize learning. Now we want to practice what we teach by introducing the whole staff to the apps and use them to run our school wide PDs.

Our working theory is that once a teacher sees a tool, uses it, and is familiar with it, they are more comfortable using it with their students. Thus far, we have started using school wide folders to organize things in Google drive, using Google forms to collect feedback, having teachers collaborate together in Google docs. etc. Our PD coach and principal have been very supportive of this charge and have worked with us to change how we are conducting school wide PD. It’s still at the beginning stages, but the response from the staff has been positive thus far. 

Looking for Outside Help vs. Identifying In-Building Experts
Since intentionally incorporating technology in the classroom, one of our needs has been how to get the training we want while also juggling the other demands of teaching and personal/family life. Meetings after school or on Saturdays work for some, but not all, of us. Those of us, who have been able to attend, have attended many outside trainings: Digital Educator Summer Academy/Digital Educator Fall Academy, Technology in Education Conference, Blendtastic PD, online MOOCs, etc. These trainings have been extremely helpful, and teachers are coming back with new ideas to implement. Other teachers are already doing incredible things in their classroom, but no one knows about it because we're all too busy.

This leads to my next project which is to create a directory of technology expertise in the building. Teachers can go to these in-house experts to see how specific technology is being used in the classroom and turn to these teachers for help for initial implementation. Then as we need more training, we can connect those teachers to additional out of house experts.  Ideally, if we want to build the long term sustainability of this BL initiative, we need to make sure that not just one person possesses all the knowledge, so we're creating a community of internal resources. As we’re all trying to juggle full time teaching jobs, it’s not feasible to do everything ourselves either, sanity wise.

Isolated vs. Connected
For you to understand the enormity of this change, I must start off with two confessions. One, I like to work alone, and two, though I have no problem asking for help in person, I am an internet lurker who never comments or asks for help online. When I want to figure out how to do things in the classroom, I search for it, take what I need, and leave. I've never stay within particular groups or have felt the urge to contribute to online discussions because I didn't think what I had to say was important enough. 

This has slowly started to change since meeting other BL teachers in the district. Once I started meeting those brilliant minds in person that I had only previously seen online, and I saw how open and helpful they are, I felt better about participating in online communities and asking the group for help. It has opened up a whole new world for me in terms of things I learn and opportunities that I want to participate in. As blended/personalized learning is still so new and can be implemented in a variety of ways, I feel more confident embarking on this journey to the unknown with a community of like-minded people who will support me along the way (yourself included!).

My Next Steps:
Meeting all these inspiring teachers and seeing what they have done has got me itching to do more with my students. I’ve been so busy running around for school wide things that my own students haven't made much progress other than getting started on Google Drive and Khan Academy. I know we can do more together.

One of my personal goals that overlapped with my professional goal is “less collecting, more doing”. I’m notorious for collecting ideas but implementing very few as I just spend more time gathering more ideas. During the last remaining days of winter break, I am going to sit down with my curricula and hardware to do some planning with a few targeted tools. I don't have to try everything at once because less is more. 

Closing Thoughts:
A professor once shared that when we choose a solution, we are also unknowing choose all the problems that come with it. The journey towards blended personalized learning has been challenging with all the unexpected, yet rewarding in so many other ways. This is a stressful but exciting time to be in the classroom with all that we, as teachers, can do for our students. Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed by all that is going on, I just have to remind myself, “one bite at a time”.