Should We “Blow Up” the System?

I spent the weekend co-facilitating a workshop on PBL (I am in training in this model). I found the situation to be extraordinary. This was a group of people who will be starting a PBL / STEM school next fall in a large, urban setting. So the workshop was scheduled on the weekend because they all have other jobs currently.

The crazy part that I did not know ahead of time was that the participants had never met before and did not know each other. So they showed up on the weekend and jumped into a workshop with strangers who are going to be their future colleagues. I can not exaggerate how great this group of educators was. They bonded and started collaborating the first day. They dreamed big and had great ideas. They were not a bunch of recent college graduates either. Many of them were seasoned educators.

Barbara is a sweet educator who loves to encourage others and has 29 years of experience. She said that she has been waiting her whole life to be a part of a school like this. I truly was blown away by the passion for kids and learning in this group.

The principal of this new school has been dreaming of starting his own school for years and has spent over two years doing the hard background work for this one to be born. He told me that he was an administrator in the “system” and that it was too difficult to change. He was obstructed by other people all of the time. To him, the only way that he could create the right learning environment for kids without resistant adults interfering was to start a new school from scratch and hiring teachers who wanted to be a part of it.

So while they are not re-creating everything about education they are starting new. And I do think that there is something powerful about that. Every school and district has a culture. Changing culture is very, very hard.

When you create a new school you get to create your culture from a clean slate. It is not totally clean because it will be based on the experience of the staff, but it will be unique and different than where they came from. For example the Founding Fathers got to create a new government after the United States won independence from England. I would argue that they created an innovative, new system of government, but it was not created in a vacuum. It was based on their experience with British government and the ideals that they saw in Ancient Greece and Rome. The Founding Fathers then fused these ideas together to create a system that was definitely new in the world.

I don’t want to say that this is the only way to change schools, but it sure seems faster and more powerful than incremental change from within.

I teach in a similar situation as my school started four years ago in the PBL model and every staff member was hired because they wanted to be a part of it. This quote from Urban Teacher resonates with me:


I would add that it also takes administration that trusts teachers and treats them as professionals.

So the issue that I really want to weigh in on is the question of whether or not we need to blow up schools and start over?

Why a MakerSpace?

Last summer at a rented house in Evert, Michigan some #michED folks had an “Unplugg’d” weekend. We talked about how to help make the MACUL conference more of a place for people to interact, connect, and reflect rather than just sit and listen to presentations. The idea of a makerspace was thrown out as an inviting way to get people to connect and reflect. Kit Hard, Jeff Bush, and I decided to make it happen.

After months of Google Hangout sessions, a trial run at NovaNow, and the addition of Ben Rimes to our wolfpack it came to fruition last Friday. With the help of many volunteers (huge shoutout to our #michED friends) including both teachers and students, we hosted the MACUL MakerSpace. We felt like it was a huge success as attendees spent time “playing,” creating, designing, and connecting.

My friend Dan Spencer summarized it best:

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 5.18.45 PM

I would like to share one story that exemplifies what happened in the space. My friend Rachelle met Aron, a Hebrew teacher, as he visited the MakerSpace. She explained to him about QR Codes so he could access our resources. Aron started playing with Wikkistix and making Hebrew letters on foam board.20150320_103537

I talked to Aron and he explained that he was going to have students who struggled with Hebrew make these letters and then take pictures of them. Then he is going to post them digitally along with a recording of himself pronouncing the letters correctly. He was so excited by the combination of the tactile making with digital curation to help students. Aron ended up staying in the Maker Space all afternoon and kept plugging away until he finished the whole alphabet!

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 5.22.18 PM

Aron was so excited and so passionate about learning while doing! Aron definitely will bring back an exciting change to his students. At the same time Aron was able to process and reflect on his time at MACUL. He also connected with Rachelle and I. We are glad to have met Aron and look forward to learning with him in the future! Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that this would be a result of creating a MakerSpace. It is a great example of how people can creatively explore and learn when given the space and opportunity.

See this post for more about #MACUL15-maker Space including time lapse videos, a reflection by @BillVanLooTeach on making our sign, and the Storify of Tweets.

#MACUL15 MakerSpace

A couple of #MACUL-maker Space time lapse videos, a reflection video, and Storify of tweets:


A reflection video by @BillVanLooTeach

See also Why a MakerSpace for a reflection on its creation and the story of one participant.

Storify of #MACUL15-maker Tweets

Innovate, But Don’t Worship

This post is in response to John’s thoughts on innovation.

I think the real issue with innovation is that it is worshipped by many in edtech land. It is treated as always positive and progress. When someone calls a person, tool, or teaching method “innovative” it is always treated as a compliment and by many, one of the ultimate compliments.


In reality innovations happen all the time and sometimes are positive and sometimes are not. Bill Veeck was one of the most innovative people in the history of baseball. He is the one who started all of the “sideshow” entertainment between innings. He made the exploding scoreboard at Comisky Park. He tried things to make baseball more exciting for fans.

He also had the WhiteSox wear these hideous shorts, wanted to use orange baseballs, and famously had a little person bat in a game. So not every innovation is great or sticks.

In my opinion the huge push for progressive education in reaction to “traditional” schools has pushed the pendulum to worship of innovation. I would argue that it sometimes goes too far. Sometimes the best methods are old like apprenticeships for example.

So on the one hand I want to argue for a balance of tradition and innovation. On the other hand I think we need to seriously ask ourselves about the progression of things. Yes, the Astrodome was a cutting edge innovation that turned out to be an awful stadium. But would we have Camdem Yards without the experimenting with stadiums?

Yes, Lazer Discs were dumb, but would we have gotten CD’s without them? I have always found Google Glass to be silly, but is it the first step in wearable technology that will become ubiquitous?

So while I don’t think that we should worship innovation in schools, I also don’t think that we should wait for everything to be “proven” educationally to try it. We need some educators to push the envelope of what could be, using tools in new ways. But I would probably wait to make a district wide application of innovation until I saw great pedagogical use of the innovative thing in pilot programs.

My “PLN”

Don’t hear PLN used so much any more. I remember the fun arguments about it but anyway most of the key people that I learn with now have a F2F component to our relationship. That is one of my favorite things about the #MichED community is that I get to physically meet and hang out with them a few times a year. It makes the relationships and growing together stronger.

But my main source of support and growth comes from my colleagues who I can discuss education nuances with daily. So I want to give a shout out to two of them who push my thinking but also could push yours too because they blog.


The first is Trevor Muir who I have referenced in other posts because he is an excellent public speaker. He writes at Shift Paradigm (er) (ing). Trevor’s strength is in caring and relating to students. He gets to know them as humans and connects and grows them as people. He also teaches social studies so we share content interests. The style of his writing is stories (like this one for example) so if you want to be inspired subscribe to his blog. No really you should right now!


by Makenzie Hutchings

by Makenzie Hutchings

The second in Nate Langel who sent me a tweet to a post he wrote last night. So apparently he started a blog a few weeks ago and neglected to tell me! His blog is Quantum Enlanglement. Nate is an energetic science teacher who likes to push kids to passionate learning. He is not afraid to question the thing that we call school and to ask whether or not what we are doing is actually about learning. He will challenge what you think about how school should be. Go subscribe now!

As much as I enjoy my online relationships, these are two of my daily colleagues who push my thinking all of the time. I am excited that they can push yours too! And don’t just read their current post. Go back and read it all. It’s worth your time.

Trivia Crack-Education Version

trivia-crackAt NovaNow last weekend I was part of an interesting discussion on assessment. Someone brought up the fact that she did not know what was going to be on the standardized state tests. A friend of mine in the room was very surprised that any teachers did not know what was on the tests (I believe because it was her primary job to make sure that teachers in her district were prepared for them).

I raised my hand and said that I had no idea what was on the state test. I think that I surprised my friend. I teach American History. The truth is that I do know that there are 40 multiple choice questions covering three years of social studies: World, American, Government, and Economics. So there are roughly 15 questions on my entire year of class.

The larger truth is that I just don’t care about the tests. In our class we look at the over arching themes of history: growth of democracy, especially for women and the Civil Rights Movement; America’s role in the world through the various wars and foreign policy; economic trends including the Great Depression, the prosperous fifties, stagflation, and current trends. We look at how America has grown as a country and how it has stayed the same. We look at all of these things and compare them to current events and policies.

But the state tests, ah the tests. They are like Trivia Crack. I swear that they were written by some history professors who ask the students about some minuscule fact or date. I feel like they are trying to trick students and make sure that I “cover” everything and don’t miss any details. The emphasis is on trivial facts of history that can easily be looked up in a million places.

I prefer to teach students how to think critically, see an event from multiple viewpoints, use the past to evaluate current trends and decisions, and to see the overarching trends of how America got to be what it is today. Those ideas are hard to turn into Trivia Crack questions. Until the state tests assess those kinds of things I just can’t worry about them. I refuse to sacrifice time spent challenging my kids to consider history deeply to force them to memorize facts.

Don’t get me wrong I love to play Trivia Crack and am pretty good at it. History is my best category with 82% correct. But I would hate to have myself evaluated by that score. Trivia is fun, but it is not what a history class should be about. History is meant to be studied in context to teach about our values and progress (or lack of it).

I guess what it comes down to is we can stress out about how our students will do on the tests and adjust our methods to things that we know are not beneficial to kids or we can teach kids the right way and chose not to worry about them. I have made my choice how about you?


Critiquing Uptown Funk Teacher

So this video by a teacher and school in the New Tech Network went viral this week. I can’t help but make some criticisms. Where is the content in this? How does this relate to the Common Core Standards? What are students learning? How is this preparing kids for college and careers? How is this activity helping students on their test scores?

Actually I realize that it is a theatre teacher and he is doing his job here (although shouldn’t we cut arts and humanities classes and spend more time propping up math and ELA skills).

So why, if this does not meet all of the things that teachers are constantly being told we must do has this video gone viral?

Because this video is about connecting with students, sharing passions with students, being weird with students, and having fun. It is about relationships with kids. The only videos about standards and testing that would go viral would be people critiquing them.

I guarantee that Scott Pankey’s students love him and I would gladly have my children in his class. So I say congrats to him and A. Maceo Smith New Tech High for showing the world what learning really can and should be!

Teaching as Influence

Disclaimer: This is my path. As I talk about old dreams and how they no longer matter to me, I am not critiquing the people who choose these paths, but rather hoping people see less glamorous roles as important too.

Photo Credit: Reese Chance Photos via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Reese Chance Photos via Compfight cc

I had an interesting conversation this week on Twitter with Josh Stumpenhorst, Michael Doyle, and some others on the topic of whether or not you need to leave the classroom to have a great amount of influence. It brought to mind my focus in my teaching career right now.

I used to be a middle school technology teacher and all I wanted was to get out of the classroom and become an ed tech coach. I really wanted to teach teachers how to integrate technology in their classrooms. Instead I ended up at my current, amazing PBL school teaching social studies and math. I also get the opportunity to lead workshops on PBL. What I know now is that I want to stay in the classroom.

There are many types of influence for educators from social media to presenting at conferences around the country and world. I used to think that I wanted to be the one traveling around giving keynotes. I used to think that bigger was better and I wanted to be a leader in changing education in this country from a stage.

circles.001Now I see influence differently. I see it as concentric circles. For me it all starts at the center where my heart and soul is: in my classroom. My number one priority is to create great learning opportunities for my students in my class. They are the ones that I have the greatest influence on. I especially want them to learn to think critically from multiple viewpoints, dissect bias in sources, and have a sense of empathy. I make this happen through PBL that is student-centered with tons of student voice.

From projects that my students do in my class, influence ripples out to the rest of the circles. I have a strong voice in my school to encourage other teachers to use PBL effectively. Our projects lead to community connections that influence both parents and partners by showing them that school can be done in a better way. I share my projects with the local media helping shape a positive story of education locally. I have had student teachers to influence the next generation of teachers in student centered, inquiry learning.

The next circle is social media. I blog and tweet to share what my students are doing. I participate in amazing communities such as #miched and #sschat. This leads to sharing my students’ work at conferences. I have never been a keynote but I have had many, many amazing conversations with educators over the years where we have learned together. The collective power of a group such as #miched is leading to other opportunities. Many #miched participants including some of my colleagues from school are currently meeting regularly with the Michigan Department of Education. Influence is moving to the political level and I don’t have to be in the room to be a part of it. I am part of the community.

My next circle is PBL workshops. I lead three day workshops on how to transform your teaching to student-centered PBL. This is my favorite PD ever because rather than leaving inspired by a passionate keynote and some fun new web tools, I am able to shift teachers’ pedagogy. That is what really matters to me. I know that every time I lead a workshop that I can permanently shift teacher practice. It also means that I stay in the classroom so that my workshops are based on proven concepts that I am doing. It again goes back to the center circle as I inspire teachers with the great things my students are doing.

My final circle is national. I do care about the federal education policy in this country. I am not connected in any way to political leaders, but I am in a school that is part of the New Tech Network. Through the size of this group of PBL schools, their leadership is able to act as a publicist for my students’ work and a lobbyist for student centered education. They have the connections that I will never have. My students give them the stories to tell about how education could be better.

In summary, I influence my kids, first and foremost. By allowing them freedom to do meaningful work in PBL, my students give me stories to tell to broader audiences: parents, colleagues, community, media, and politicians. First I influence locally, but then it spreads way beyond our schools’ walls.

If I am advocating for anything, it is for more teachers to stay in the classroom. We need good administrators, ed tech leaders, and conference presenters, but sometimes I feel like position becomes more important than real influence. I believe that teachers can be powerful influencers because they should have the best stories because they work with kids everyday.

That being said my challenge for you is how are you an influence? My circles are very intentional, not accidents. I can not pursue every opportunity that comes along. I choose the paths that are meaningful to me. I think everyone should have their own, unique set of circles and like ripples in a pond we will all collide.


We lost a student this summer. He was tragically shot from the back seat while driving his car. The shooter claims that it was an accident and the one other passenger supports his story. Friends and family don’t believe it and the truth will probably never be known.

This happened just days before Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson. It has been heavy on my heart this year, but felt too personal to blog about. This holiday season has really hit me with how many of my students and their families are suffering, rather than celebrating.

It would have been his 18th birthday last week. We had a moment of silence and shared some good memories of him. Many of his friends have really struggled this year to deal with his death. I teach them in a senior math class. There have been days when they break down and can’t work at all. At first I got frustrated by how often that it started occurring. Then I realized that the students needed help. We got them some counseling and they are starting to deal with it in a healthy way.

I haven’t really been able to help these students much. But I am there for them, listen to them, and show up to everything that they do to remember him. I care and they notice. They asked me to help make a memorial (out of concrete, of course) for him at the school. They are afraid that he will be forgotten. We won’t let that happen.

There are many other stories from many other students who are hurting this year. I can’t fix them, but I care and love them.


I am not actually this old. From Seattle Municipal Archives

I am not actually this old. From Seattle Municipal Archives 

I played “varsity” basketball at my small, Christian school. I was a starter in 6th grade, not because I was any good, but because our team was awful and have of us were 6th graders. I loved basketball and it was my life at the time. Thirty years later I don’t remember hardly anything about it except the following two stories.

We played other small, Christian schools but most were larger than us. Two schools that we played was all juniors and seniors that were good at basketball. It was literally men against boys. The first one beat us 104-11. Yup, 104-11. Of all of the athletic things that I have participated in my life that is the only score that I can remember. They also called the radio station and had it reported. They ran up the score on a bunch of middle school kids and never let up. We were humiliated. I was humiliated. I hated that school.

The other school was probably better than the first and also beat us easily. I don’t remember the final score. What I do remember is them letting me drive into the lane and telling me, “You’re open. Shoot it!” They didn’t block my shot even though they easily could have. They were kind. I respected that school.

I know Maya Angelou’s quote has become cliche, but it is still true:

At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.

How will your students remember the year that they spend with you?