Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

Three school site primary teacher teams have been spending the past two months digging into agency and personalization. What is it? Why is it important? And what do I need to do to provide it for students?

Each group was tasked with presenting an overview of what they had learned, using the Zoom Panel guidelines from Making Learning Visible as a template. The basic elements of the presentation included:

  • Overarching question
  • Context to set the stage
  • Zoom In – artifacts that document the learning journey
  • Zoom Out – findings and implications for further discovery

Each group approached the concepts of agency and personalization differently, and yet, their overall learnings all centered on a theme.

Slow down.

No matter what the learning target was, each team shared a need to slow down and make sure that students understand the WHY behind the activities. The WHY being the learning target behind the activity.

Cult of Speed

Carl Honoré says that society is caught up in the “Cult of Speed” and this can certainly be seen in education. High stakes accountability has resulted in a sort of checking off of standards as the new finish line. We talk career and college readiness, but do we mean it?

When accountability becomes the focus, the WHY gets lost in the shuffle. Seth Godin, in his blog post “Accountability vs Responsibility,” sums it up perfectly.

Accountability is done to you. It’s done by the industrial system, by those that want to create blame.
Responsibility is done by you. It’s voluntary. You can take as much of it as you want.

Seth Godin, “Accountability vs Responsibility”

Accountability to Responsibility

When we switch from accountability to responsibility, students are able to exhibit agency. They learn the WHY, and this then provides the foundation for the WHAT and the HOW.

  • Why is it important that I learn this skill/content?
  • Why is this activity important to my learning journey?
  • Why is my choice in flexible seating important to the task I am working on at this moment?

Each of these questions is important. And each requires a deliberate slowing down of the content madness so that students are able to understand, connect, and take responsibility for their own unique learning experience.

“The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquility to make meaningful connections–with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds” 

― Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed


When the WHY is owned by both the student and the teacher, then the WHAT and the HOW have INTENTION. When the WHAT and the HOW have intention, great learning happens.

Last night, my district received the Innovate Award for its District Design 2022 initiative. This initiative is focused on providing an extraordinary school experience for all students. Using the Design Thinking mindset, curiosity is promoted as students seek out real world problems and formulate innovative solutions. Students connect with contemporary and historical issues, and with industry experts in their local community and around the globe to develop empathy and a greater understanding of the world.

 Students develop a sense of purpose when they have opportunities to engage in relevant and meaningful learning experiences. By creating a learning culture of innovation, curiosity, imagination, and creativity, students are empowered to ask questions, explore ideas, and take action.

These students are changing the world today. So much of schooling is focused on preparing students for this big, scary, unknown future. But the fact of the matter is, we need to be equipping students for the world that surrounds them today so that they can make an even greater impact on the future.

It’s been an honor to work alongside teachers who are willing to embrace ambiguity and join me on a journey of learning transformation. And it’s an honor for Classroom of the Future Foundation to recognize their dedication. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

By Emily Mackie, 5th grade teacher

As mentioned in my Exploring Agency and Personalization blog on December 15th, I’ve been working with teachers to to better understand the principles of agency and personalization. As these are key elements of our district’s vision and mission, it is important to be able to articulate what those principles are, how they manifest in an elementary school classroom, and what impact they have on student learning. When I asked teachers to reflect on their growth, one teacher took the time to write an eloquent response. With her permission, I am sharing it here.

I used to believe that all good teachers foster agency in their classroom. It is something that just naturally starts to happen for most kids, and something that might happen very slowly, or in a limited capacity for others. After all, the reality is that some kids just have more buy-in to their own learning than others. Our students come to us with different personalities, hopes, dreams, family values, and beliefs about their schooling. Our students come to us with a vast spectrum of experiences, fostered from within and outside of our school district. Changing or growing their pre-existing belief system is no easy task. But now I believe that supporting every student in the ways they approach their own learning is quite possibly our most important task as educators.

@MrsMackieD3 Tweet: Sharing Learning@Home with our classmates = engaged learners

After working closely with my team and the other hub participants, my thinking on student agency has really changed into a belief that supporting student growth in agency is slow and steady, and is fostered most effectively over time. When we can support students in building these habits of mind, they build a foundation for success in life that will extend beyond their school experience. Agency is grown through hard work and understanding. Building grit and academic tenacity takes focus, attention, and buy-in, from students and teachers alike. Growing agency for students is about goal setting and asking the tough questions about the WHYs of their learning experiences. Questions and considerations about learning that I have been asking my students to become aware of are: Why are you doing this? Why does it matter? Who are you doing this FOR? Is this for you, me, your parents? What you do, make, say, accomplish each day matters – for YOU. Otherwise, what is the point? Providing learning experiences and opportunities for students to grow this mindset should be the point…for all of us. Spending time, scaffolding opportunities for students to make decisions about their learning behaviors with intention is hard work. But it is important work. Helping students build an awareness about their own contributions and responsibilities toward their learning outcomes is one of the most important contributions we can make to them as lifelong learners. This is the work, the learning, the growing, that is most certainly worth doing.

Emily Mackie has been teaching elementary students for 13 years. She strives to make the classroom a student-centered space which fosters curiosity, exploration, creativity, and FUN so that all children feel safe, valued, and loved. You can find her on Twitter at @MrsMackieD3

A colleague in her Master’s program asked me to answer a few questions for a class project she is completing. My responses are below. I’d love to hear how others would answer these questions.

What are the instructional goals that we are aiming to accomplish with mobile learning?

Our goal is to provide students with access to information and resources whenever and wherever they need it. We still have a Tech Lab at each school, but the Tech Lab is for enrichment… a chance for students to learn things that a classroom teacher may not have time or expertise in, like coding. Robotics, greenscreen, etc. Then, with our mobile devices, students should be able to take what they’ve learned in the Tech Lab and apply it to classroom learning. Example: A group of 5th grade students are working together to explain to others how tides work, and what is the significance of their patterns. They weren’t told HOW to teach others. One student grabs his Chromebook and starts building out a Scratch movie… he didn’t learn that in class. Another student starts researching information. And a third boy started a Google Slide. Their self-directing their learning. They need mobile devices if this is to be successful because they shouldn’t have to wait for a scheduled time, or a device to become available, in order for learning to happen. We want technology to be ubiquitous, like binder paper and pencils. Only then can it truly become a learning mechanism and not just a consumer device.

How will the mobility of the devices in our school/district/institution improve teaching and learning?

I watched a webinar the other day on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) becoming the key to successful organizations, rep lacing IQ. Why is that? Because IQ used to be connected to WHAT you knew. Now, with technology, it’s easier to fill the holes of what we don’t know. “Google it” is the default answer to many questions asked these days. So consider, if we could reprogram school so that “Google it” becomes the norm (instead of this fearful entity that students use to “cheat”), then teachers and students could spend more time teaching and learning about the really important things, like emotional intelligence and the other soft skills, which are deemed most important to the future of jobs:

1. Complex problem solving

2. Critical thinking

3. Creativity

4. People management

5. Coordinating with others

6. Emotional intelligence (new)

7. Judgment and decision making

8. Service orientation

9. Negotiation

10. Cognitive flexibility (new)

What would you like to be able to do with mobile devices that was previously difficult or impossible?

I’d like to be able to ensure that the mobile devices in students’ hands are all equipped with 4G (5G?) internet. The equity/access gap is real, and we increase it when we give students devices but not access. We create this false sense of equitable access to resources and then say things like, “Well, they can just go to Starbucks if they need internet.” When we say this, we’re negating the full experience of the child. So before we start getting excited about OER (Open Educational Resources) and before we start pushing the “Google It” answer, we have to make sure that all our students have access.

Then, we need to make sure that all our students are equipped with the tools and resources to navigate the complexities of media literacy. I don’t think a device can provide that…yet… but it’d be great if it had an AI that could help students select reliable sources of information. There are some apps and web extensions that are heading this route, but I’ holding out hope for the Star Trek transponder that meets this need for all of us. ☺

For the next two months, I get the honor to spend time, like serious, dedicated, reflective time, with three groups of teachers as we dive deep into the concepts of personalization and agency. Our goal is to define how these terms are demonstrated in an elementary classroom: What teacher moves are present? What are our learners doing? How does personalization and agency impact their learning? Their sense of self?

One of the teacher hubs is a group of 1st grade teachers that would like to spend more time getting to know learners’ interests and concerns.

  • How can getting to know our learners help with social and behavior interactions?
  • How do we get to know each child’s culture and traditions?
  • How do we apply personal interests into core curriculum?
  • How can knowing our learner’s interests help with connecting with other students, like big buddies on campus?
  • How can we learn more about a student’s outside learning, and bring that passion into the classroom?


What I love about my role is that I am simply the facilitator of their discovery. I find resources to help them explore their ideas, and I guide them through the PDSA cycle of Plan-Do-Study-Act. I’m like the fairy godmother in Cinderella, except that the pumpkin coach I provide is ways to grow in understanding, and discover new approaches/strategies that can be applied in the classroom as part of the pursuit towards the extraordinary school experience.

Below are a few articles I am sharing with the teachers to help provide context around the topic of personalization. I’d love it if you’d share your resources as well, or even . better, ways in which you are providing personalized opportunities for all students to ignite their genius.


This article shows how personalization uses what you know about students (relationships + academics) to build experiences that meet their unique strengths and needs.

This article talks more about the partnership between teacher and parent to create a shared understanding of students, which helps to deeply understand the learner, leading to personalization that is meaningful.

And this article helps build context around personalization, differentiation, and individualization… and the process teachers tend to go through as they head towards a personalized learning environment. It may be helpful to self-identify where you see yourself in the process, and then identify an area for growth/development through the hub plan-do-study-act cycle.

When we go to conferences like this one, we load up on ideas that are going to get us to progress. We have our little tote bag – we’re going to fill it up with ideas. We hear about a new strategy…a new tech tool…we hear about all these great programs other people are doing… by the time we’re done, we are FIRED UP, we are PUMPED, we are ready to go to progress.
And then we get back to our schools…”

– Jennifer Gonzalez in her closing keynote

I’m writing this post from San Diego. Although I am glad to be home with my family and sleeping in my comfy bed, I am sad to have left #SXSWEDU.

Innovation is hard work, especially within an established institution like K-12 schooling. It can be isolating to realize that not everyone sees or believes in your vision for change.

That’s why I love SXSWEDU so much. It’s like finding the holy grail of like-minded educators. Thousands of them! It feeds my soul, refills my bucket, and gives me hope and inspiration moving forward.

So it was perfect that the final day’s keynote, by Cult of Pedagogy founder Jennifer Gonzalez, focused on the Aerodynamics of Exceptional Schools. Jennifer reminded the audience that our excitement and ideas and leaving a conference like SXSWEDU isn’t always met with open arms from eager colleagues. In fact, often it can be met with resistance or hostility. Therefore, how change is introduced is just as, if not more, important than the change itself.

Her tips were on point, and I’d encourage you to watch the entire presentation on your own. But in the meantime, here’s the Reader’s Digest version of her tips:

1. Take a breath – ask yourself – what problems does this solve? What are obstacles? Do I have proof? Can I find a guide? What is my long-term vision?
2. Find allies – (as illustrated with the infamous Dancing Guy video) – When you have a group, it helps you to clarify your vision, it helps you to deal with negativity, and it also makes your crazy ideas seem a little less crazy to other people
3. Set precise goals – different from dreams. “DO” Genius Hour is a dream. Goal is dates, specifics, etc. Backwards map the plan to reach the goal.
4. Expect bumps – build in buffer time. Ask “what can we learn?” Celebrate small successes. Come at me, bro – attitude
5. Invite – too much telling, and not enough asking. Why not a learning menu for adults like we provide to students?
6. Validate – not same as agreeing. Recognize, affirm the feelings or perspective of another person. Ignoring pushback doesn’t make it go away. 
7. Be transparent – especially about failures. Makes you more approachable, more accountable, easier to follow – blog, staff meetings, newsletter, bulletin board, video, podcast
8. Praise – Seek out the positive in those around you, praise them for it, and include their skills in your process

The final tip was to dig deep. She related the story of a Crossfit participant who always pushes himself further. He isn’t afraid to grunt, to sweat, to go all in when he’s tackling a tough challenge. She encouraged us all to be that guy.

This talk really resonated with me. I’ll be honest, I feel like the “set precise goals” is a weakness of mine. I like to dream big and build big. Details aren’t always my thing. I want to create the vision and set it loose on others to carry forward.

But dreams are weird things… think back to the last time you had a really vivid dream. You can picture it like it is still happening. And yet, when you try to explain the dream to a friend, they look at you like you’re crazy. You realize that you forgot part of the narrative, or you can ‘t quite explain the right shade of blue on the 3-headed monster chasing you through the candy store because you stole his favorite Hello Kitty band-aid box.

When goals stay in dream mode, people have a hard time being part of the narrative. They need to see it all laid out so they can find their part, read their lines, rehearse their scenes. Therefore, I need to (and will) be better at laying out all the components.

Thank you Jennifer for a fabulous end to the conference, and thank you SXSWEDU for filling my tote bag with ideas. Can’t wait for 2020!

You can read my #SXSWEDU musings by catching up on Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 or learn a ton by following the hashtag on Twitter.

…I may ramble in this post. It’s 1am. I’m tired! Have a head cold. But wanted to share my learnings…


Do I really have to go home tomorrow?

It’s going to be hard to walk away from the synergy of woke educators at this conference, but I know that I have much work to do when I return to San Diego.

Not the work of answering emails and finishing tasks (although there is plenty of that as well), but the work of amplifying the conversations and ideas that have taken place here the past few days so that words don’t just stay words, but instead become actions.

David Hogg and Dan Rathers sitting in chairs talking

David Hogg and Dan Rathers

I started today hearing the voice of the new generation, David Hogg of March For Our Lives, rethink advocacy in this new era. He shared how he had never truly understood what empathy was until he saw his 14 year old sister collapse under the weight of finding out that four of her friends died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. As.a teenage boy full of hormones, he didn’t know what to do with those emotions, but he knew he didn’t want shooting to be just another news story with no change/impact.

Advocacy is born from passion, from desire, from need. So often in education we stifle that drive or relegate to an elective, after school, or GATE program. Education says it is preparing students for the world of work, but when a teenager can say that he never felt empathy until his senior year of high school, then what have we truly prepared them for? What kind of future doesn’t require empathy?

When pressed as to what prepared Hogg, and others like him, to be advocates, he credited experience with speech and debate classes; theater, TV production, and journalism. The very nature of these programs built the skills needed for activism. Hogg learned that it is not his place to speak for others, because he has not shared their experiences. But he can certainly elevate their voices, spotlight them.

When Hogg was asked what his advocacy work had accomplished, he paused before explaining, “We’ve accomplished a little in an area where nothing is expected so we’ve accomplished a lot.” This ability to see progress, to chart a path and stick with it, and to amplify voices through empathy… this is how schools should be preparing students not for the world of work, but for the world of life. The world they’re in now.

There was also a panel of three female teenage entrepreneurs sharing their stories today, and although they weren’t activists like David Hogg, they had a voice that was being amplified through their start-up companies and non-profit organizations. But it wasn’t an easy journey to become a teen entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship is like a varsity sport, one of the women explained. “We’re working on it during ALL our spare time..thinking about it all the time. We need adult mentorship outside of the classroom to help us find our way.

But instead, many received truancy letters for taking time out of school to pursue their passion. “Attending an economic summit in Boston shouldn’t result in punishment at school!” Reminds me of conversations yesterday as to what learning is valued, and how antiquated our current learning value system is. How ironic that students are penalized for being successful outside the school walls.

Instead of punishing them, the young ladies asked for mentorship, for people to help them amplify their voice and their passions. People who would offer personal reciprocity by sharing their own struggles; helping alleviate self-doubt; and asking tough questions along the way. Sounds like they were asking for support with the soft skills, the skills that matter most.

One of the women explained, problem solving is just as important as reading and math. As entrepreneurs, they are learning how to fail and grow early. They’re using their creativity to think outside the box to create positive change for society.

And yet, these opportunities aren’t well integrated in elementary schools because the hard skills are pushed more than innovation. Only the gifted, the affluent, or the lucky get to participate. It doesn’t have to be this way. Some ideas shared were to run a pop up shop for a day as part of an entrepreneur project or to have students pick an inconvenience and design a solution.

The advice given to one of the entrepreneurs is just as applicable to all the educators in the audience: You need to take the first step before you’re even ready to take it. A small step is better than no step.

Amplifying voices should be happening all over our schools. “Libraries are like the quarterback [you never knew you had],” so why aren’t school and district leaders leveraging the power we have in our buildings? The library, in many schools, is the biggest classroom in the school. What if we reimagined the space as a systemic gateway to change?

In the 30 minute Reinvention: Designing Future Ready Libraries session, Carolyn Foote articulated that students deserve access to inviting, accessible, collaborative, flexible, tech-rich and literacy centered libraries that support academic and enriching experiences. I’d add that those spaces also support student passions. They elevate the voice of the students by providing them with the resources needed to find and nurture that voice.

#dtk12chat crew posing for a photo

#DTK12Chat Live!

Like every other day, today wasn’t just about the sessions. It was about the connections made between sessions. The best part of Wednesday at #SXSWEDU is actually the #dtk12chat that happens live from the Hilton lobby. There were so many inspiring stories shared about innovation, transformation, and creative change. More importantly, new friendships were forged, and old friends were embraced.

Dan Rathers, in the panel conversation with David Hoggs, shared the line from a Barbra Streisand song, “Hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire.” Well, I certainly plan on bringing a fire back to San Diego!

Next time I decide to stay up and blog at 1am, I hope I remember how tired I am today and force myself to go to sleep! Seriously… what was I thinking?!?

Today’s SXSWEDU experience was truly about connections. Yes, I attended some sessions, but a lot of the thought-provoking ideas came from conversations. Here’s my attempt to recap it for my readers (and for me!)

This morning’s breakfast learning was centered on personalized learning. Elliot Washor from Big Picture Schools talked a lot about how we need a broader understanding of what smart is. Students should be given credit for how they’re learning outside of school. Unfortunately, our current system has biases around what smart is, and how students should learn and understand. If students don’t fit that mold, they are not deemed successful.

Which is ironic, because school is probably the least likely place for learning to occur. It’s rigid…controlled. Time is predetermined. When to learn, what to learn, when to eat, where to sit, how to write, what to write, etc. It’s hard, virtually impossible, to have agency in that situation. And yet we expect these students to enter the work/college realm ready to make important decisions on their own.

Testing is individual, but learning is communal. Think about that – Edward Clapp from Harvard discusses the false narrative of the lone creative genius, when we know that every genius got there through connections and conversations with others. Yet we test the individual, and not just test, but test on random knowledge that we have arbitrarily assigned to a grade level.

Schools still promote a falsely constructed concept that learning is linear, which creates a huge inequitability situation (yes, I may have made up that word…) Students don’t need literacy/numeracy to have complex thoughts. They also don’t need it to develop and/or contribute to creative processes. So why do we take away the exploration courses from students who are in remedial classes…double math instead of robotics or engineering? We need to flip it around. Give those students access!!! Joe, Design 39 Principal, sums it up well. “Our school structures are human-made… if they get in the way, change it. That’s our role.”

And all that thinking was before 10am! This is why I enjoy SXSWEDU.

It was the perfect segue into the next session attended, which was The Gift of an Inclusive MakerSpace. Sam Patterson (@SamPatue) opened by reminding the audience that MakerSpace work is about teaching collaboration. It’s not about the circuits. Patrick Benfield elaborates. “If all you have is a hammer, then all the kids end up looking like nails.” Equity and personalization in education means we have to realize that we aren’t just a hammer and the students aren’t just nails. MakerSpaces are a great place to do that because it fosters the collective creative genius.

Bridging Divides Through Verbatim Performance, a 30 minute presentation by NYU Professor Joe Salvatore (@profjoesal).

Verbatim Performance is an arts-based investigation grounded in objective observation and precision. It’s not satire, but is a group of ethnodramatists/ ethnoactors who specialize in the techniques and ethics of the form. The performers are charged with ability to have empathy for the person/role they perform in order to truthfully render the performance.

Why do they do all this, you ask? Because, as actress Anna Deavere Smith explains, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” Verbatim performance disrupts preconceived notions and biases. These actors aren’t just recreating a moment in time. The gender or race roles are switched to force people to look at the moment through a different lens. Through these experiences, the audience is asked to consider what happens to perception and understanding of various moments when the gender of the speakers is flipped.

There are a few applications of verbatim performance.

Media literacy
– Objective/subjective observation
– Rhetorical devices
– Point of view

Building empathy
– breathing as another person

Analyzing & Strategizing
– Embodied analysis
– Seeing ourselves (much stronger/deeper than watching video)
– ‘Knowing” the opponent

Disrupting consumption
– “Chewing our food” (consuming media – not chewing makes us sick, puke, choke…)

So what is the role of verbatim performance in my world? I’m excited to explore how to use a simplified version as a way for students to explore empathy for each other, for characters in a book, for adults in society… Can this approach help with social-emotional learning?

But in all honesty, like I said in the intro, the power of today’s learning was in the conversations.

Breakfast conversations with Brooke (@TobiaBrooke) and Marisa (@MarisaEThompson) may have inspired Brooke to rethink the concept of learning in her classroom, but it also rekindled an idea to form a community of learners with our neighboring school districts, in which they teach.

Spending time with the MakerSpace panel after the session to discuss the deconstruction of making and how to inspire students to understand how systems work gave me ideas for new student experiences.

Talking to Professor Salvatore after his session connected me with an educator who is modifying his work for 3rd graders, and opened my mind to ideas for teachers who are working on a Humans of New York storytelling project.

Lunch with a Twitter friend I had not yet met was an amazing connection. Kami Thordarson (@kamithor) is doing amazing work on personalized learning through design and technology. Her design camp for teachers has my gears spinning like crazy! And I’m excited to explore collaboration models for professional learning concepts.

Exhibition hall connections have me thinking about a variety of topics: different furniture configurations to create happy learning spaces; how to share our learning (#ShareYourLearning) on a larger scale; and how to tell the story of our learners through projects like What We Are Made Of, which is a mosaic portrait series created to uplift student voices and explore the multi-layered experiences of youth across America.

A photo of a mosaic of an African-American woman surrounded by yellow objects that represent her background.

What We Are Made Of is a mosaic portrait series created to uplift student voices and explore the multi-layered experiences of youth across America.

David Brooks, Executive Director of the Aspen Project, kicked off SXSWEDU with a call to all educators to build a community of weavers, and not rippers. According to the program guide, Weave: The Social Fabric Project, operates with the premise that social fragmentation is the central problem of our time—isolation, alienation and division. Weave seeks to work with people that are rebuilding communities and creating social capital to spur a movement to repair the national fabric—to identify and celebrate these groups, synthesize the values that move them, and help forge a common identity.

These are some key ideas that resonated with me during Brooks’ talk:

When you’re down in the valley, you can either be broken, or broken open …

Pain that is not transformed gets transmitted.

The soul gives us moral responsibility. It yearns for social righteousness

I’ve never seen a program turn around a life. I’ve only seen relationships turn around a life.

The thing the heart desires more than anything is fusion with another.

During the panel discussion after, I felt drawn to Darius Baxter, who at 25 years old, was already co-founder and Chief Engagement Officer of GOODProjects. Darius believes that leading with love, with the heart is critical to get out there and solve problems. He said that we need to see the story of justice in every aspect of life.

Darius also discussed the need for Localism in education. He reminded us that we experience America differently based on where we live. Southern hospitality is different than New York City hustle and bustle. Urban, rural, and suburban lives are different as well. Schools need to recognize that and innovate for their own needs. Standardized approaches don’t work. Won’t ever work.

After the keynote, I attended Fact vs Fiction: Why Media Literacy Matters. In this panel talk, the focus was on why people need to be media literate in order to be considered literate in today’s society. Being an active citizen is a key of civics, and people have to understand media to fully participate as an informed citizen. Therefore, media literacy skills can and should be taught in every subject area, and should start in elementary school. Media literacy is a solution-based strategy to deal with information flow and disinformation. But just focusing on truth/false is limiting. Students need to learn the nuance of information and how we process/understand/make information.

Unfortunately, teachers need training so they understand that critical thinking isn’t the ONLY component of media literacy. Create and Act are also part, since we live in a participatory culture now.

The panel discussed how “Fake news” has become a cultural joke. Don’t like something? Just call it fake news. This is different than propaganda, which is an intentional spread of misinformation to shift beliefs and actions.

I also learned about NewsGuard, a Chrome extension to help identify “fake” websites using a rating system algorithm.

In the Unlocking Time to Fuel Student-Centered Learning session, the focus was on how the structures of time in a school impact and impede student learning.

Everything in school is time-bound:
– District/School calendar
– school bell schedule
– academic programming (master schedulule)
– staff time/responsibilities outside the classroom

Given that, is it any surprise that many students feel like they’re “doing time” instead of learning? How can educators change the mindset to not doing time, but doing learning? The shift needs to happen at all levels of school AND also in the community.

When you’re “doing time” there is no opportunity for “flow.” The traditional school bell schedule pretty much ensures that once you get started in deep learning, the bell will ring and you have to get your brain to move to a different concept/place for the next class. What adult could function well in that type of environment?

My last workshop for the day was Engaging Communities in Rethinking Schools. There were some great food for thought statements on the slides, such as:

“For many years school improvement efforts have been “done to” communities – not “done with” them. That is slowly changing.

Authentic community engagement begins with a mindset shift: listening first, then working in collaboration with parents and community stakeholders.

“It takes careful planning and purposeful action to build partnerships that involve school, family, and community.” – Joyce Epstein

Authentic engagement is not information sharing or feedback gathering, it is meaningful collaboration and shared decision-making

When engaging stakeholders authentically, conduct outreach early on and report back about how feedback was used.

Healthy Feedback Loop –
– Cultivate strong relationships (build trust)
– Seek Feedback (diverse array of stakeholders)
– Listen and Learn (analyze feedback trends and share out)
– Take Action (incorporate feedback into decision making)
– Share Back (help stakeholders understand how feedback was used

Healthy feedback loop visual

Kenya Bradshaw, VP of TNPT, said that many schools/districts place a false sense of urgency in the work we do and then say there was no time for community engagemen. She called “bullsh*t” on most of the excuses, reminding educators that we know the budget cycle and predictions way before cuts need to be made, and that most change initiatives are discussed behind closed doors long before they are brought to the stakeholders most impacted by those changes. And she cautioned that change initiatives won’t stay if you don’t engage the community – it will leave with changes in superintendent, school board, and/or other senior leadership.

Bradshaw asked, How/When are students included in processes? We do stuff TO students in education, most often without involving them in the process. When done well, authentic engagement has a positive impact on student outcomes, as shown in various research studies cited in the presentation.

Teachers posing for a groupie.

The focus on authentic engagement seemed to be the theme today at SXSWEDU, not only in sessions but in my connections with colleagues I haven’t seen since last year’s event… or others I just met today. I’m looking forward to more authentic engagement tomorrow. And seeing that it is almost 1am, I think I need to get some sleep so I’m ready for that!

Change Isn’t Glittery

Glitter GIF

When working on cultural shifts, it can be easy to get frustrated when change doesn’t come fast enough, bold enough, or loud enough. We want glitter and ticker tape parades to reassure us that we’re doing the right work. That we’re on the right path.

But that’s not how change works – especially not when it’s asking people to shift beliefs and practices they’ve held for years. It’s happening, but it’s happening at varying paces, in varying methods, and with varying results.

I was reminded of that today when I met with a few different teacher groups. Each conversation was built upon the understanding that students needed more opportunities to engage in meaningful learning that encourages agency and creative expression. Each conversation built upon teacher reflection and willingness to embrace ambiguity while trying something new.

Each conversation was evidence that cultural shifts are happening in classrooms. That change is happening.

And yet, none of these conversations included glitter. Or ticker tape parades. Go figure…

Total efficiency constrains us. We become super invested in maintaining the status quo because that is where we excel. Innovation is a threat. Change is terrifying. Being perfect at something is dangerous if it’s the only thing you… Read More

Embrace Your Inefficiency

How many times have you found yourself trying over and over again to explain a problem, only to have the other person jump to solutions without quite hearing you? Reminds me of this Sesame Street routine.

What I love about Design Thinking is that the focus on empathy requires the designer to truly listen, observe, and immerse oneself into the problem through the lens of the user, and not the lens of the designer. It requires us to hear about the issue with the fly in the soup.

This hit home for me Saturday at #DesignCamp. I attended Ellen Deutscher’s (@Lndeutsch) “Nurturing Design Thinking Mindsets through Play and Improv” session. I told her I was attending because improv gives me anxiety and I needed to step outside my comfort zone.

Ellen is a wizard at leading people through collaborative experiences that build active listening and risk taking so I knew I was in good hands. At one point, after an activity, she asked if anyone wanted to share how that experience made them feel. She said, “Be mindful of your process. If you don’t like it, why force your students?”

How can a concept so seemingly simple not actually be so? Why do we, as educators, keep forcing processes on students that would make us cringe? Timed tests, novel selection by Lexile level, five-paragraph essays…

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that education tends to search for the middle ground, the average, and solve accordingly. Instead of being mindful of what makes us unique, it’s easier to solve for the middle.

The Air Force learned the flaw in this approach when they discovered that their cockpit, designed based on average measurements of hundreds of pilots, actually fit none of their pilots, resulting in many crashes … on one particularly rough day, 17 plane crashes!

Average doesn’t work in cockpits, and it doesn’t work in education. Randy Scherer (@RandellScherer) reiterated this in his “Design for Extreme Users” session. Randy explains how extreme users (or “radical people!”) lead us to “deep insights about why our designs sort-of, kind-of work.” When we set aside the concept of average, we can make a huge difference in the lives of students.

When we set aside the concept of average, we can be mindful of our processes. We can design education not for the average, but for every user. And when we do that, then we can truly take care of the fly in the soup.