What I'm Writing

What I’m Writing: May 2018

Reflection: The Space to Write

I stayed at a cabin this weekend with my family for a relative’s college graduation, a quiet place along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. There was no wireless available. Cellular reception was spotty at best. While my younger family members fled in the evening for a more connected location, I was happy as a clam with my current status.

I’ve come to regard the lack of access to the Internet as a gift to my efforts as a writer. Getting any of the previously mentioned pieces completed has enough barriers to begin with; adding a wireless connection compounds these challenges. Allowing my mind the space to read, to reflect, and to do nothing other than to just be is a welcomed respite.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t writing. I was, either in my head or in a notebook I’ve been using as a journal. Much of this writing was prompted by The Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice by Jordan Rosenfeld. This is a resource I am rereading. Rosenfeld shares advice and strategies for sustaining our practice. The following quote is one of my favorites on this topic of space and time:

Your writing practice is a changeable, fluid creature. It ebbs and flows, squeezes down to the size of a pea, and then expands to fill multiple universes. A writing practice is ongoing as long as you always keep a part of yourself invested in it, give it just enough water to stay alive during difficult times, and tend it into hearty fruition at the best of times. (47)

The time I gave to myself has proven fruitful: I drafted the initial post for an upcoming collaborative book study on my blog.


Writing today is almost a paradox: we need to carve out the time and space away from the Internet to craft prose that will be well-received with an audience largely online. This is a unique issue that I enjoy exploring and will continue to revisit in the future.

What I'm Thinking

Having a Social Media Presence = Being an Active Citizen

I know about the negatives regarding social media, the detriments of being “always on”. We are distracted; we sometimes prioritize our online connections over our physical ones; we become accustomed to responding to our messages and other habit-building notifications. I don’t disagree with the sentiments…in theory. Yet social media and online interactions are where so many of our conversations now take place. To not be online gives us freedom from distraction. But when we are never on, we are absent from the larger discussion about our community and our society.

Thinking locally, our small town has an active Facebook page. People post for many reasons. Lost cat? Post the pic. Event coming up next week? Let us know the date. If someone has something to sell or donate, it is likely someone will respond with interest or, at the very least, tag another person who might be interested. Being present on social media with intentional communities such as my town’s Facebook page seems to have little downside. I might feel more connected to locals because we have more opportunities to connect, period.

Going global, the flood of information on Facebook, Instagram, and especially Twitter can be overwhelming. (Sorry Snapchat; I have yet to figure you out, and by the time I do, the kids will have moved on to the next social media.) These outlets do provide tools to stem the flow of the posts, retweets, and updates. For example, I use Twitter lists to control the feed of information around specific topics. My favorite list right now is Reliable Media Sources, a list I have built containing over 250 news outlets, journalists, and credible individuals who post links and thoughts that I can count on for accuracy.

My philosophy right now in being connected is I need to have one foot in the physical world and the other in the digital. I’ll still read the Sunday paper, but I will augment that print experience with my curated online connections. The importance of meeting people face-to-face has not diminished in my mind…yet who might I have not met had I not been active on Twitter or Facebook? Being a member of a community has been redefined. Being connected is a much more complex endeavor. It is not enough to exist only in one world or the other. The best approach for citizenship in the modern world is an integrated one.


What I'm Feeling

There is no such thing as an “Education Company”

Colleagues sent me a link to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) webpage. The next convention is in Chicago, not far from where I live. “It’s not going to get any closer to us!” remarked one person.

The web banner promoting the next ISTE convention proclaimed the following statistics:

16,000 Educators

550 Education Companies

Endless Learning


There is no such thing as an education company. It is a contradiction in terms. Companies are focused on making money. Yes, some might have collective values in which they are committed to student learning and prioritize people in their actions. But their bottom line is making money. Not necessarily a bad thing, but there is a clear distinction. Education is/should be about guiding learners to help them realize their passions and potential.

There are technology companies, publishing companies, textbook companies, professional development companies, even educational product companies. In full disclosure, I partner with a number of these types of organizations. But there is no such as thing as an education company. Let’s do our best to remind ourselves of this fact as we decide what resources will best serve our students today and in the future.


What I'm Thinking

Draft: A Guide for Self-Directed Learners

During a recent instructional technology workshop related to self-directed learning, a few teachers asked for a guide for students.

At first, I was hesitant. “If we are telling students how to direct their own learning, are we defeating the purpose? Have we not taught them well enough how to create time and space for learning, break goals into small steps, seek out feedback, and publish good work for an authentic audience?” These four tenets – environment, clarity, feedback, audience – were described in my eBook. They didn’t disagree, but still…

Here is a draft of a simple guide for self-directed learners. I post this template here for feedback. Is this something you could use in your classroom? Does it set out to accomplish what is intended (to guide students to become self-directed learners)? What is missing or redundant? I appreciate your feedback!

Guide for Self-Directed Learners

1. What do you want to learn?

2. What do you believe you already know about this topic or skill?

3. What questions do you have about this topic or skill?

4. What do you hope to gain from this learning experience? What will you produce?

5. What do you need in order to be successful?

  • Time
  • Resources
  • Access
  • Mentor

6. Break down your inquiry project into clear steps that serve as smaller goals toward the bigger project. For each step, make time to get feedback about your progress:

  • Step 1:
    • Check in:    Teacher        Peer          Self
  • Step 2:
    • Check in:    Teacher        Peer          Self
  • Step 3:
    • Check in:    Teacher        Peer          Self
  • Step 4:
    • Check in:    Teacher        Peer          Self

7. How frequently do you need to work on this project to be successful, i.e. three times a week, 30 minutes each time? Make a schedule for your project.

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8. How will you know that your work is ready to be shared?

9. How will you share your work? Who will be your audience?

10. What might you want to learn next?


Exploring Classroom Innovations at the AWSA/WASDA Summit for Data-Informed Leadership in Green Bay

Data is a four letter word, literally and sometimes metaphorically in education. Educators need data to drive instruction and making informed decisions about student learning. When students have information about their own learning progress, they know themselves better as learners. Yet when data does not serve an important purpose, it can also monopolize our time that is better spent teaching and learning.

I was grateful for the opportunity to speak about the challenges and promises of this topic at the Wisconsin Summit for Data-Informed Leadership this week in Green Bay. This event, co-facilitate by WASDA and AWSA, gave administrators and teachers the opportunity to develop a better understanding of data in the context of schools today.

Beyond the Gold Star: Strategies for Nurturing Self-Directed Learners

This first session guided participants to explore innovative classroom approaches that gave students more autonomy in their learning. Data in this context wasn’t necessarily a number or letter; video, audio, and images can also serve to inform teaching and learning.

Educators tried to create a story using an unknown digital tool with little direction. This activity gave participants, especially school leaders, an opportunity to experience the anxiety that teachers and students might feel working with technology. Some of our tensions are healthy, as we sometimes don’t challenge ourselves enough.

Attendees were directed to a simple Google Site with several pages devoted to innovative approaches for classroom instruction: http://bit.ly/classroominnovations. Right now it is pretty bare bones; I hope to add more ideas and resources to it as time goes by.

Digital Student Portfolios in Action

This session was much more technology-focused, around one approach to facilitating qualitative assessment. Our goal was to “rethink our plates” instead of trying to add one more thing to our busy days.

Participants had a lot of time to explore different digital portfolio tools, as well as new ways for students to represent their learning. This group already had a strong understanding that data was not limited to quantitative information. They offered smart questions and creative ideas for making their classrooms more student-centered.

Having studied and experimented with digital portfolios for students for almost five years, it was probably the most comfortable I have felt presenting on informational technology. It was a good way to prepare for my presentation on the same topic at the ASCD Convention in Anaheim on March 26.

I will be facilitating a number of workshops this summer on these two topics at CESA 3 and CESA 4. If interested in learning more about classroom innovations that work, as well as having time to effectively integrate technology into the curriculum. please reach out!

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Theory and Practice



Unlearning is more difficult than learning something new, and one of our most important challenges is to let go of existing structures in order to build more effective ones. – Alan November, from his book Who Owns the Learning? Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age (Solution Tree, 2012)

Hybrid Classes Outlearn Traditional Classes by Dian Scaffhauser (T|H|E Journal, December 18, 2014)

Schaffhauser summarizes a 2013-2014 study on the impact of blended learning for over 8,000 Pennsylvannia students. Over 90% of schools that implemented hybrid classes saw “higher academic performance on standardized tests compared to traditional classrooms”. The organization that facilitated implementation and conducted the study, Hybrid Learning Institute, defines blended learning through six characteristics:

  • The use of a blended classroom system;
  • Students rotate among different learning stations;
  • Instruction is delivered in small groups;
  • Students take frequent digital assessments;
  • Educators use student information to differentiate instruction; and
  • The personalized learning is considered “cost-effective.”

What Else Should KIPP Be Doing With Blended Learning? by Michael B. Horn (Forbes, November 20, 2014)

The co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools highlights this well-known charter school network’s attempts at blended learning. He applauds the organization’s focus on “addressing their core problems with sustaining models of blended learning”, such as students rotating among learning stations.

Horn also encourages KIPP leaders to explore disruptive models. This is increasingly important for students who have no access to essential learning courses, referred to as “nonconsumption opportunities”. An example would be inner city schools that cannot hire highly qualified math and science teachers. Online courses would be one solution.

Blended Learning for Early Learners by Mary Evans, Jennifer Hawkins, and Patrice McCrary (Principal, November/December 2014)

“Imagine a classroom so engaging that students thought they were playing all day – and learning science, social studies, math, and language in the process.” The authors, a principal and two preschool teachers respectively, offer this promise for personalized learning. Through their work in an elementary school in Kentucky, they have found that this method of instruction successfully “integrates online activities with traditional face-to-face classroom instruction”.

They highlight several benefits that blended learning can provide for students: a lower student/teacher ratio (due to rotations), targeted instruction using real time assessments, and an opportunity to “prepare students for complex, technology-enhanced instruction”. For schools to get started, Evans, Hawkins, and McCrary suggest leaders recruit interested teachers, provide adequate training and resources, and connect building experts with teachers new to this concept.

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Teacher as Trickster: Navigating Boundaries into Blended Transformational Spaces by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm (Voices from the Middle, December 2014)

Dr. Wilhelm, Professor of English Education at Boise State University, draws on mythology to compare rule-breakers found in this genre (“tricksters”) with today’s teachers using blended learning. They develop an environment “that uses a variety of tools – digital, artistic, problem-solving, etc. – for the purpose of solving new problems, creating new conversation turns, composing new knowledge artifacts, and of seeing and beginning to inhabit, at least tentatively, new possible worlds beyond those that are current actualized.”

This combination of in-person and virtual learning can create what is referred to as “a third space”, defined as “places that are neither traditionally school nor home, but places of unprecedented possibility”. It is in this combination that students are better able to make connections with others, and to pursue their inquiries to develop products and new understandings. “In this process, students create new ways of seeing and being.”

What Students Do (And Don’t Do) In Khan Academy by Dan Meyer (dy/dan, December 4, 2014)

Dan Meyer, a mathematics teacher, studied the online tutorial system Khan Academy for his dissertation. He set out to answer two questions: What are students asked to do? and What do students produce? After completing 88 practice sets, Meyer found that the majority of math problems in Khan Academy expect students to produce a single answer via multiple choice. He concluded that Khan is not closely aligned with the type of mathematical thinking that students are expected to display, such as making an argument to support a solution to a complex problem.

Related, I highly recommend viewing Dan Meyer’s TED Talk about mathematics instruction. It has been viewed almost two million times.

Putting it into practice…

The beginning image documents the staff retreat my school took part in last fall. We congregated at an enclosed park shelter with two education consultants, who led us to explore why we went into teaching and to help us reflect on our professional lives. Afterward, both the consultants and some of the staff expressed interest in continuing to discuss the ideas from our time together, based on the book The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer.

Because time to physically meet is difficult during the school year, we set up a Google+ Community to discuss the book as we read it. We share our thinking for each chapter from the comfort of our own homes, when time allows. This has been welcomed, especially when the temperatures drop below zero here in Central Wisconsin. We answer important questions, write about our experiences, and positively acknowledge each others’ responses.

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It wasn’t until I read Jeff Wilhelm’s article that I realized that we were engaged in a deep form of blended learning. Once we have finished The Courage to Teach, we will come back to the park and shelter on the first day of spring. We have created our own “third space”, balancing online and in-person experiences to create something possibly greater than either setting could provide alone.

I compare this set up to what some of the previous articles prescribe for how blended learning should function in today’s schools. What’s missing? I asked myself. Then it came to me: Connectedness. This is not the same as being connected, such as an online course. It is a concept that Parker Palmer defines as the ability of teachers to “weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (65).

Not there isn’t a need for skill and knowledge development through a more formal blended learning environment. Dan Meyer acknowledges this, in spite of his findings. But if lab rotations and real time assessments are all that blended learning can be, then we have failed to use these digital tools to their fullest capacity. As Alan November would ask, Who owns the learning? Certainly not the students.

I believe that for education to fully realize technology’s potential in schools, we have to create these third spaces of learning for students and for ourselves. It may not happen all the time. This type of learning is not as easy to assess. More preparation may be required on the part of the teacher. But if we can develop a sense of connectedness from these rich and blended experiences, wouldn’t it be worth it?