Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

Inspired to Ditch Activities and Design Experiences

Dr. Nathan Lang, an Ed Leader and Innovator, shared this graphic on his Twitter (@NALANG1) the the other day. In four words, it simplifies much of what we are working to achieve through Design Thinking in my school district.

When I was in school, I completed a lot of projects. I created clothing worn by a Native American tribe; I recreated a topographical map of California with salt dough; and I built a California Mission with sugar cubes. Most of us have similar memories from our school days. However, none of these projects truly prepared me for the challenges of life. Yes, I learned to work nicely with others, and clean up after myself. I even learned that, if I procrastinated long enough, my mom would work on my projects after I went to sleep. But the piece that was missing was that these projects were just projects. They were defined for me by my teacher, and were meant to teach a specific content standard. What each of these projects was missing was the creation of an experience.

In Design Thinking, we want students to learn how to solve problems and truly make a difference in their community. We want them to develop empathy for others, and then use that empathy to see the world through a different lens. We want students to grapple with solutions that aren’t black and white, wrong or right. Mostly, we want students to experience the world, and then make that world a better place…for themselves, their peers, their community, and hopefully, the world.

This is the work of Design Thinking in classrooms. To design experiences that ignite student genius and empower them to change the world. Without it, they’re just projects.

Teacher Ed Tech Ambassadors: Keep the Focus on Students

Last month there was quite a lively conversation about an article titled “Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teacher, Raising Ethics Issues.” A lot of educators were upset about the seeming “attack” on teachers this article contained, as it seemed to question the reason teachers become ed tech brand ambassadors.

It’s important for teachers to have access to the tools they need to teach well, and sometimes these ambassador programs provide that. Over my educational career, I have been branded by a few ed tech companies. For example, I was a Microsoft Innovative Educator and a Tech4Learning Innovative Educator. Both titles were earned based on evidence of higher level learning taking place with those tools in the classroom. I didn’t have to keep using their tool to maintain my title, or prove that I was using the tool for a certain percentage of my day.
However, I was also a titled educator for another ed tech company, and in order to maintain my title and digital badge, I had to continue showing use of the tool through blogs and posts to their website. After a year, I elected to delete the digital badge from my signature and instead focus on what I knew to be the best for my students and the learning experiences they required. Their requirement of unfaltering brand loyalty was a red flag. Even though they sent me a tshirt, then a sweatshirt, and a coffee mug, and an Amazon gift card, none of those perks provided better learning for my students. And when the brand requires X amount of lessons or use over a period of time, that puts the product over the needs of students.
I taught in one of the first nationally-recognized 1:1 programs and there were many days when I felt the best tool was one that didn’t require a battery. We were an English class. We needed to read, and discuss, and think, and process. But I got a lot of flak for that from the program director… a lot! Because the program and the publicity and the money being brought in to the district was more important than my understanding of student needs… that’s a slippery slope. And one that we, as educators, need to keep in mind when we agree to become a brand ambassador.
Love thy neighbor as yourself. – Mark 12:31
I woke up today to horrible news on my iPhone. Over 500 injured, and over 50 killed in the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
It’s unfathomable that this happened. And it’s unfathomable that it has happened before. And that it will happen again.
I wish I had words of wisdom about how to change the culture of our society. But all I can say is, hug your babies. Tell your students that you care about them…and truly mean it. Look at a homeless person as a human, and not as a dreg. Call your mom and tell her you’re grateful for doing her best in raising you. Whatever you do, exude love.
Photo Source: Flickr, Eric E Castro 

I learned the other day that ending a text message with a period can be interpreted as insincere. Such a simple, innocuous dot now carries more hidden messages than it was ever intended to convey. Likewise, the messages we think we’re sending in our classrooms may not be the messages received by students. Consider these… Time WILL pass, will YOU? Does this imply a nurturing, supportive environment that believes ALL students deserve every opportunity to be successful? I’m not so sure.

Students not paying attention in class? Lock up devices. Does this show trust? Relationship building? I wonder if the teacher’s device is locked up during meetings as well. Or how about this sign I saw in a classroom:  “Work hard in silence. Let success be your noise.” A companion sign read, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” Does this mean we don’t value collaboration? Team work? I wonder how Edison and Einstein would have fared had they been forced to work in silence. When I attended Project Zero at Harvard University, I went through an exercise called Parts – Purposes – Complexities.  

The simplified steps are: Choose an object or system and ask:

  • What are its parts? What are its various pieces or components?
  • What are its purposes? What are the purposes for each of these parts?
  • What are its complexities? How is it complicated in its parts and purposes, the relationship between the two, or in other ways?

This helps us (and students) slow down and make careful, detailed observations. This is done by looking beyond the obvious features of an object or system to stimulate curiosity and raise questions. When we did this at Project Zero, we were asked to list EVERY SINGLE ITEM in our classroom, and then to question its purpose and its complexity. So many a-ha moments happened from this activity as people really started to question each and every object, and why it was there. They began to see the messages, the periods at the end of the sentences.

So as you look around your classroom, ask yourself, what messages are you sending? What punctuation is on those messages?

School Days Til Summer

Write about your summer vacation.

How many of you wrote on that topic, or something very similar, when you were in school? How many of you wrote about it many, many times? Honestly, I can’t remember a first day of school that did not include a summer vacation activity.

Now take a moment and ask yourself, what does this focus on summer vacation say about the culture of learning at your school, or in your classroom? More specifically:

How does this make students feel who don’t have awesome summer stories to share? What about those who depend on school for basic safety and needs like the free lunch program?

Where is the joy of learning if everyone is counting down to leave school?

Mark Church, co-author of Making Learning Visible, presented at Harvard’s Project Zero four questions we must consider when looking at the learning transcript. These questions are critical if we are to empower all students to reach their genius potential.
As Ron Ritchhart, author of Creating Cultures of Thinking and Making Learning Visible explains, students grow into the intellectual life around them (Project Zero break-out session). If the intellectual life is reduced to a “how many days until summer?”mentality, then is it any surprise teachers need to remind students that they release the students, and not the bell?
Let’s flip the transcript… I suggest Lakeshore Learning create a sign that says “X Days of Awesome Learning Have Taken Place This Year.” Let’s show students that we value them, we value learning, and we value the time we get to spend with them igniting their genius.

Unless you live under a rock, you probably heard about the solar eclipse that happened today.  Across the country people were standing outside with their ISO-certified glasses, or their pinhole cameras, or just looking at the shadows poking through the trees. Strangers became friendly outside office buildings as they showed off their homemade tools and warned each other about the dangers of staring at the sun. Children held their paper glasses tightly to their face, while gleefully pointing at the event as it unfolded in the sky.

And yet, there were also plenty of students kept inside today. Many schools, fearful of becoming schools for the blind, kept students locked behind the safety of their classroom walls, resorting to NASA live feeds to simulate the experience.

I’m not sure why, in public education, there is this fear of providing students with experiences. I spent the past ten years of my career promoting digital citizenship as an important curriculum component for all students. However, it seems a bit bizarre to teach digital citizenship without giving students an opportunity to practice being good digital citizens. We give the students the rules, like not talking to strangers and protecting personal identity. We warn them about college recruiters watching their every move. We tell them that the footprint is FOREVER … all while blocking every social media channel in existence. At the end of the course, we congratulate the students for being good digital citizens, even though they have not shown us any application of their good citizen skills beyond completing a worksheet, or drawing a poster of the rules. It’s like teaching a semester class on football, and then awarding a student as MVP without the class ever playing the game.

Today was an awesome day for students to BE scientists, to LIVE science. And every day is an awesome day for students to be good digital citizens. We just need to give them the chance. We need to pop these bubbles we place students in so they can experience the “real world” we keep talking about. The world that is happening right outside our walls.

Creating Wonderspaces

On Sunday, my daughter and I attended the Wonderspaces exhibit in San Diego. It is described on their website as “a pop-up museum of extraordinary experiences.” Each of these experiences was given their own space in which to reside so that each piece could speak its own voice, without the presence of the others.

As we explored the 16 unique experiences, Jordan and I experienced a range of emotional reactions to the art. In some, we were completely awestruck. In others, we were perplexed. At others, raw with emotions. And in some, we felt playful. “The Last Word,” consisting of hundreds of pieces of rolled up paper, allowed participants to leave their “last word” to someone… a way to “recapture what was never uttered” (website).  This opportunity to peer into the soul of others silenced my mind, and opened my heart to the emotional plight of others. Contrary to that silence, “On a Human Scale” invites the participant to play the piano surrounded by video screens of human faces. However, this is no ordinary piano. In lieu of strings creating sounds, each key is connected to a human voice… truly, no matter what you play, the result is beautiful.

Sir Ken Robinson stated that “If you want to shift culture, it’s two things: its habit and its habitats – the habits of mind, and the physical environment in which people operate” (2010). Each of these exhibits was setting out to shift the culture, through both mind and environment. Which makes me ask the question, why aren’t schools creating wonderspaces? Ron Ritchhart, in Creating Cultures of Thinking, explains:

So what do we value in our classrooms? Judging by the rows of desks I still see in many schools across the nation, we value individual, quiet, one-directional transfer of knowledge. If learning is a creative and imaginative process, like we say it is, then isn’t it our moral imperative to bulldoze the industrial era culture and bring in wonderspaces? What would that look like for you? Your students? Dream big and share your ideas below.

“When we’re sort of infused with either enthusiasm or awe or fondness or whatever, it changes and alters our perception of things. It changes what we see. It changes what we remember.” 
– Rob Legato, movie effects creator from his Ted Talk “The Art of Creating Awe

School Board meeting introduction
Being introduced to the School Board
Last week I started a new job. No longer in Educational or Information Technology, I am now the Executive Director of Innovation and Design for a K-6 school district. Leaving my former position, and district, was not a decision that I took lightly. And yet, it was an easy decision to make. Why? Because this new district is in pursuit of awe… of wow… of creating wonder and joy for students. It was evident in their five year plan published on their website. It was evident in the weekly videos produced showcasing students engaged in learning. It was evident in the questions they asked me during the interview process. It was evident in every conversation I had with employees, colleagues around the county, and community members. And it was even evident in the description for the job being offered.
So often, in education, we get bogged down in the bureaucracy crap… test scores, union contracts, budget cuts, uninvolved parents… and heaped on that are the jargon of the day crap, like “teach with fidelity” and “21st century skills” and “1:1.” We lose sight of the fact that we do all this for those doe-eyed precious hearts smiling at us from their desks. We forget to bring the awe into what we do.
Awe can’t be found in any of those items I listed. It’s not found in a standards-based report card or in a data team meeting. It’s found when we play, when we dream, when we listen, and when we lead with our hearts. That’s what I have found in this new role. The opportunity to listen to my heart, and provide for students the opportunities they deserve, they desire, and they expect from us. 
I’m excited for this new journey. And excited to bring life back to this blog to share my awe journey. 

I get so many daily emails with tech digests that I hardly ever go through them all. But today, my last day of work before Spring Break, I had a little extra time on my hands so I thought I’d read through all my “junk” email. And hidden at the bottom of one of my emails was this gem of a quote:

I would like to politely disagree. I don’t think technology has ever promised to do anything. It’s just a tool. People may have promised that these tools will revolutionize education, but people tend to make a lot of promises that aren’t filled.

People are the only fix to the problems in education. People who are willing to have tough conversations about the sad state of affairs many (but not all!) of our classrooms are in today. People who are willing to acknowledge that we are teaching to a new generation of students that live in a world we don’t quite understand. People who are willing to embrace change as the only constant, and adapt to its ever growing demands. People who love children, and learning, and education.

Technology never promised to do these things. It can’t. But it can be a great tool to help the people that are putting in the work to make education great.

Urgency is often a gift. It can create both clarity and action. – Mark Miller

When I started my teaching career, my dad would scoff about Teacher Professional Growth Days. I remember him saying, “I don’t see cars in the parking lot… it’s just another day off for teachers.” Well Dad, today we had 300 teachers packed in at one school engaging in some of the most meaningful professional growth I have seen during my 16 years as an educator.

Starting our day was a call to action from the superintendent. After years of stagnant test scores, he emphasized that it is time to face our current reality. Students aren’t succeeding academically. What work must be done to turn this around?

Five instructional systems were discussed: Coherent First Teaching, Intervention, Positive Behavior Support, Assessments, and Teacher Collaboration. These gears, when in sync, can create monumental shifts in the learning experience of students. So how do we get there? Through professional learning, principal leadership, and district leadership.

After our call to action, teachers were placed in collaborative teams, K-8, to look at the mathematical and NGSS science and engineering practices and really dig in to understanding them. It wasn’t about what lesson are we teaching tomorrow, but about how we engage students in deeper thinking, deeper questioning, and deeper problem solving. In every room, the conversations were powerful, engaging, and with the student in mind.

Something special is happening here today. I think one day down the road, when the gears are well oiled and working smoothly together, we’ll look back and see this day as the day the shift happened. The day we embraced our gift of urgency and responded to the call to action.

In his blog post, “What Makes a Master Teacher?” George Couros lists what makes a master teacher. Are there any qualities you would add? Or remove? Which one resonates the most with you?

For me, I tried to ensure I got to know students on a personal level. Having taught middle school English Language Arts, it wasn’t uncommon to have 150-175 students walk through my door every day. It was critical that they not see themselves as just another warm body in a seat, but rather as an important contributing member to the class. 
I’ll admit that I did better with some students than others. But I think that, overall, the effort paid off. By knowing my students, I was able to tailor curriculum to meet both their needs and their interests. For example, one year I had a student who had a poor assignment completion rate. He hated essay writing (and really, who doesn’t?). But when I learned he wanted to be a rap artist, I let him write some of his literary responses as a rap instead of an essay. Lo and behold, he had a lot to say, and it was good, too! One year we studied the Zoot Suit Riots because the large percentage of African- American students in my class expressed an interest in it after hearing the song on the radio. 
I by no means would consider myself a “Master Teacher” and wonder if any teacher ever feels they have truly reached master status. I look back now, after having been out of the classroom for a few years, and see so many missed opportunities to do even more, but I’m proud of the work I did to connect with students.

100 Starts with 1

A while back, I read an article in Good, “A magazine for the global citizen” about a #100StartsWith1 project. The idea is to promote positive change that betters society. It’s an idea I circle back to today because I just spent three days at CUE Rock Star Admin being inspired by the passion, innovation, and creativity of school and district leaders in attendance.

Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that make the biggest impact. 

For example, dancing and singing during morning drop off, as this vice principal in Arkansas does every day. 

Maybe my #100Startswith1 project will be a return to blogging. Don’t get me wrong… I don’t believe my blogging will better society. But perhaps the time for me to reflect, and the ability to hold conversations with others about the current state of education, will spark a change that will lead to a better society.

It’s worth a shot.