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.


  1. The irony of your title was not lost on me...Given your story, we could finish that saying with, "...the more they keep changing!" One of the frustrations that I hear teachers vocalize the most is the constant stream of permutation that seems to materialized out of nowhere, causing us to churn like hamsters on a wheel, while not actually managing to accomplish much at all. The beauty of what you do is that you remove the wheel! What I mean is, things (especially technology and educational reform) seem to constantly be moving forward (often at a staggering pace), and you help us make connections to people, resources, and ideas that help with efficacy in the classroom! I can’t wait to read more from this blog - thank you for the beautiful connection between my classroom, smart thinking, and personal reflection!

    1. Thank you Valerie. You flatter me, please keep it up. The title was a tough one for me to finally choose, and I appreciate your the possible extension from the ellipses. So true, change is always there, so how do we keep up? To your point on connections, I really think that is the key. Just as we want to personalize the learning of our students, so too should we be personalizing the learning for adults. How better to do that than to empower educators to make choices as to what needs to be learned and how to learn it rather than having some outside force come down to tell them?


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