Check Yourself

I recently had an opportunity to listen to Mr. Kevin Brookhouser’s speak on the 20time Project at the Toronto GAFE Summit. His message: teachers who offer choice can meet learning goals while creating powerful experiences that lead to increased motivation, creativity and divergent critical thinking. Simple yet very profound. I wrote the following thoughts while on my plane ride home.

My teaching career started when I was in high school during a job shadowing experience.  A real-world learning experience inspired me as opposed to memorizing facts and figures in my core subjects…who knew!  Imagine 16-year-old me, I liked music, I was pretty good at it, the music rooms were my second home. When I had the opportunity to mentor someone, it just seemed natural to shadow my band director.  I had my “lightbulb” a-ha moment when I was presented with an opportunity to teach a rhythm lesson to 10-year-old budding percussionist. I helped her through grasping a concept and when she got it, I got it…I want to teach. 

Little did I know, that moment would lead me down a very interesting path in education.  It has been a path that has engrossed me, a path that is unfinished, a path that if you squint hard enough drops off to…where?  

Prior to seeing clarity with the scary (yet awesome) realization that our 21st century educational thoroughfare is being built as we travel it, I taught instrumental music in a very rural and high-poverty school for almost a decade.  I loved it, was good at it, and kids usually liked coming to my class.  Naïve-me thought their engagement in my class was a reflection on my teaching – ha!  I eventually figured out they liked coming to the band room for the same reasons I liked it when I was in high school – they enjoy music, they like playing an instrument, and my classroom felt safe.  One could argue that none of those reasons are because of me.  This is where my mother’s voice pipes up and says, “Now Meredith, they feel safe and secure in your room because you fostered that. They love music because you have inspired them. Etc., etc., etc.” Ok Mom, I’ll take a tiny bit of it but it really comes down to the fact that they felt empowered in my classroom. 

Learners felt safe – check.
Learners felt supported – check.
Learners were given autonomy – check.
Learners were given an authentic audience – check.
Learners were passionate and interested in the content – check.
Learners saw a potential future with the work they completed – check. 

Here’s the kicker – my learners chose to be in my class.  That’s huge. It wasn’t until I was out of the classroom teaching teachers, facilitating professional learning, presenting to all content area educators that I realized most educators don’t get to experience the luxury of being an elective teacher and how absolute key that was to my (accidental) classroom success. 

Now and probably for the rest of my time on this earth, I will encourage all educators (and leaders!) to pattern after or emulate an elective class by giving student voice, choice, and ownership on their learning while also providing some authentic audience and networking outside of the classroom walls.  Technology obviously provides an accessible avenue to achieve this work.

I’ll sign off by asking one simple question: Do you want to take your class?

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364 Days Ago

“You need to start blogging.” These wise words, casually mentioned to me last summer, helped kickstart my documentation of an amazing year that has been filled with gains, losses, surprises and most of all – pushed me to reflect on my work (something I am finding is absolutely imperative to the learning process). Thank you Scott for mentioning it nonchalantly last year at ISTE on our walk to the MLTS screening. Thank you Tim for reading my drafts and providing very helpful feedback (you are so smart).  And thank you subscribers for reading my two cents every so often.

On June 26th, 2015 I bought msmeredithallen.org, subscribed to WordPress (a program I have spent countless hours you-tubing tutorials and learning more code I care to admit) and started my blogging adventure.  Originally I thought my blogging would be for others (naive thought – I know!) but blogging turned into something beautiful for me.  It is now a meditative exercise (although, like most exercise regimens, my consistency and discipline could be improved;-). I highly recommend this exercise and would encourage all educators to have students blogging about what is happening in the classroom, their process throughout a project, their reading journal, whatever – expand outside the spiral notebook or Friday Folder. As a mother of two elementary kids, please. Please digitize more – less paper in my house would be fantastic and I would love to share my children’s gains, losses, surprises, etc. with family and friends electronically.

One lesson learned fairly quickly – if you want people to read what you write, you need to promote your posts. The avenue in which I promoted depended on who my intended audience was.  I am sure the social media promenade will eventually change to some other awesome program(s) but for now I use Facebook for more personal posts and Twitter for professional posts. And then there are the posts that have never left draft form…and never will.  They are equally important (albeit one might argue more important) but not to be shared publicly. What I am getting at: I could do whatever I wanted in whatever way I needed. It is the beauty of creating original works. I own my writing….it only took 33 years to figure that out. Ouch.

364 days ago I started something that should have been encouraged, cultivated and fostered 10,585 days ago. One might argue that the technology was not available for teachers and students 10,585 days ago.  Ok, I will give them that but lack of technological opportunity does not apply to the here and now.

Ready? Set? Blog.

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“Saved the Day”

I put this title in quotations because 6 people think I saved their day from 4,057 miles away….Instead, I did what any high school (maybe even middle school) student could, would, and should do if given the access and reason.

Back story: Meet my parents – Robin and Steve.  My mom is a retired English teacher and my dad is a farmer that will never retire. In 2011 they went on their first international trip to the UK.  That was the first of many.  My role has been their travel agent, something I quite enjoy.  I get to surf the Internet for cool B&B’s, make reservations, map out pretty and practical routes and then live vicariously through them via their agenda and Facebook posts.  They just returned from their 5th trip, (this time going with 4 friends) which I had the pleasure of planning.

Break to: SUPERMAN JUMPS OUT OF THE PHONE BOOTH!!!  Or, rather, Meredith answers a panicked FaceTime call over the noon hour.

Robin: “Meredith, we have a problem. This B&B only has one room available for tomorrow night, we need three!” (First thought, uh-oh I messed up…mom assured me not, their mixup, blah, blah….second thought, maps.google.com).
Me: “Hang on mom, we’ll get it figured out – no worries.”
Robin: “Steve, look how cute she is when she’s concentrating.” (Remember, this was FaceTime, I was on a mission and these are my parents)
Me: “Mother. ” You get the idea of how the rest of the conversation might have went between a daughter and her parents…

Fast-forward 15 minutes: I had done a quick online search of the area they were traveling, found the desired route for their next booked B&B (taking into consideration the roads my dad felt comfortable driving on), split the difference of mileage (based on how much drive time they wanted to get done the next day), clicked my favorite “Hotels Nearby” button, cross-referenced that list with tripadvisor.com (over 320 million user reviews of anything travel related-seriously, check it out), found two possible B&B contenders, viewed their respective websites, read reviews, made a decision, called the winner (using my computer I’ll have you know) and made the reservation with a very nice English-accented woman named Vanessa, whom the traveling party met the next day and adored!

Did  I remember the date of the signing of Magna Carta?  No. (June 19, 1215)
Did I remember the name of the current Prime Minister? No. (David Cameron)
Did I do a crazy algebraic equation to get my mileage? Nope.

What I did do was:

  • Apply critical reading and thinking strategies.
  • Determine importance of information and its relevance to essential questions.
  • Separate information and ideas into component parts.
  • Make inferences, identify trends, and interpret data.
  • Separate information and ideas into component parts.
  • Exercise flexibility in information seeking and collaborated with peers.

In shorter terms, I analyzed, evaluated, interpreted, and inferred. All wonderful, great skills we want our bright, 21st century learners to be practicing and applying. I used what resources I had to solve a problem, a real problem. It wasn’t rocket science and it wasn’t fancy-dancy Academia stuff but those 15 minutes of clicking and surfing “saved the day” for 6 people on vacation. It put their minds at ease and I played a role with that, which makes me feel good.  

I want students to feel good about the work they are doing in schools. Are they helping someone or something? Are they solving a a real problem? What work are they doing in school to be part of a solution? What are you doing to be part of a solution?

 

 

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The Art of APEX

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to visit an extremely forward thinking school in the Des Moines area, Waukee APEX (Aspiring Professional Experience). After circling the downtown block with the correct address several times, I finally committed to parking… “Really? This is the school?” There was no school signage, business people were going in and out, and there wasn’t a student in sight (at least, upon first assumption). My world was about to be rocked. Inside was, indeed, a business. Most of the people I saw were employees but mixed in were junior and senior students from the Waukee school district, dressed and definitely acting the part of an employee.  Their “classroom” is housed the business space of DLR Group and without prior knowledge, one would think of these young individuals as paid employees doing regular work.  They was 17 students, an instructor and a buzz of activity. This particular course was Designing Communication Solutions which is within the APEX Business, Technology & Communications Strand (other strands can be found here). Throughout the semester, these students are paired with businesses to complete requested projects and work for a few hours every afternoon instead of attending conventional, bell-to-bell classes.  I would normally put air quotes around work but I can’t, they are doing real, actual work for real, actual businesses.  They have clients to consult and deadlines to meet. Sounds familiar – like my job – but they are high school students. LOVE!

Through inquiry-based learning and authentic experiences, students build skills in key areas: productivity/accountability, complex communication, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and flexibility/adaptability. They are featured below (graphic art/design credit: Brandon Vacco, APEX Student).Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 12.33.09 PM

As a mother, educator, community member and regular ‘ol human being – I want this opportunity for ALL kids. Rural or urban. Small or large district. Financially stable or financially struggling. How do we make this happen? If you are a parent, ask your child’s teacher what real-world applications are happening in your their classroom. Volunteer your business or expertise if you see a fit.  If you are an educator, keep doing awesome things but #makeitbetter – there is always room for improvement. If you see an opportunity to work outside the 4 walls of your classroom, take it! Only good can come from students seeing the relevance and real-world application of the work they are doing in their classroom. And if you are removed from the local educational institution for whatever reason (kids have graduated, etc.) – get back in there, attend a school board meeting, ask questions, offer your services, listen, volunteer, be active! It takes a village.

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Girls Who Code

Computers are not going away, therefore, computer programming jobs are not going away. Currently there are 586,982 open computing jobs nationwide. These jobs are growing at two times the national average. 57% of all bachelor’s degrees are earned by women. Narrow the field to computer science and only 12% of those degrees are awarded to women. We need to even that playing field.

Senior VP at Google, Susan Wojcicki is quoted saying, “Learning to code makes kids feel empowered, creative, and confident. If we want our young women to retain these traits into adulthood, a great option is to expose them to computer programming in their youth.” YES! Agreed on all accounts.

How? As a mother of 4 and 7-year-old daughters, Anna and Elsa gets them every time. As an educator, I might use someone like Karlie Kloss (model and entrepreneur) and Made with Code to spark some interest. As an instructional technology consultant, I would suggest finding an avenue such as an after/before school coding club for girls similar to what Barrington High.

Whatever route you find the most appropriate for your situation, remember “Learning to code is useful no matter what your career ambitions are.” (Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post). It teaches you how to think. It’s hard to argue that that’s not a necessary job requirement!

 

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Win at BIG

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to tour an amazing school. Yesterday, I met some incredibly talented kids doing unbelievable work. Yesterday, I saw the future. Today, and this day forward, I will share their story in hopes we can move in this direction as an educational system. Iowa BIG knocks down the traditional walls of school and follows this mantra: Let your passions drive you to do something great and be open to building authentic relationships and teams. -Dr. Trace Pickering, Co-Creator & Associate Superintendent.

Iowa Big in Cedar Rapids, was started in 2012 as somewhat of an unorthodox experiment. Three years later and octupled in size, it is bursting with student success that needs to be shared. Something is working very, very well in this fully competency-based model. Below is a breakdown of the differences between the BIG model and traditional or “regular” school:

The Iowa BIG Model: The Current K12 Model:
-Content is delivered on demand as a project requires.

-Students are measured individually against the Iowa CORE, Common CORE, and NGSS.

-21st century and employability skills are embedded in every student’s experience.

-Curriculum comes from business, nonprofit, and government agencies in the form of projects, problems and initiatives.

-Responds directly to needs in the economy by embedding students in the economy.

-Personalized educational experience to honor student goals.

-Focus on service and entrepreneurialism.

-Subjects are integrated as they appear in the adult world – content is contextualized for deeper learning.

-Learning centers on fundamental tenet of core subjects like economics and computer programing.

-Designed to prepare citizens for the information-age world.

-Focuses on delivery of specific content.

-Curriculum is often standardized and legitimized by historical use.

-Content is delivered on a pre-determined schedule.

-Focuses majority of efforts on preparing students for college.

-Subjects are separated from one another for ease of scheduling and management.

-Students are clustered by age and ability level for efficiency purposes.

-Designed to prepare citizens for an industrial-age world. 

Who doesn’t want the Iowa BIG column for our children?! Is what they do in Cedar Rapids the perfect solution for all schools and should our educational system do a complete overhaul? No and the leaders at BIG would agree. Should we start the discussion and movement towards a VERSION of this model in our schools? YES! It will look very different in rural communities and that’s okay, it should. Cookie-cutter is not what the BIG idea is. If we keep our focus on offering students an opportunity to follow their passions and interests, integrate the community to use the student’s learning in context to the real world, and integrate subjects just like they are used and referenced in the real world it will be a win:win for everyone, especially our students.

 

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