Top 10 in 10: Reality for Michigan or Just Empty Rhetoric?

Yesterday I attended the METS Fall 2016 Rally in Jackson, MI at a wonderfully creative and innovative space created by Consumer’s Energy. It is a true example of combining new and old with collaborative and non-traditional learning spaces. Classroom design and flexible learning spaces seem to be on my mind lately as I begin providing input to our District Bond Committee in charge of purchasing new equipment, furniture, and other learning materials for our re-designed schools. While it is important to remember that simply changing “X” isn’t going to result in [insert educational buzzword here], it is equally important to begin the conversation about what learning looks like.

For myself, I often struggle to be creative or even productive in my office building cubicle. I’m constantly distracted by the ringing phone, people coming in and out, sounds of the copy machine, etc., not to mention being surrounded by concrete blocks, beige cubicle dividers, and no access to flexible seating or alternative lighting. Alternatively, when I can curl up on a beanbag, sit outside, or enjoy some natural light, I feel much more energized and engaged with my work. The same is true for our students. I always hear the comments from teachers after a long day at a conference about how tired they are – from SITTING!

One of our discussions at the Rally yesterday centered around the State Superintendent’s missive to make Michigan a Top Ten state for education in ten years. To that end, he has laid out a plan of 10 strategic goals that we as a state need to pursue and get better at if we are to thrive and improve education in this state. You can read more about the plan here.

While on its surface, these ten strategic goals sound wonderful and certainly no one is going to disagree with things like, “Develop, support, and sustain a high-quality, prepared, and collaborative workforce”. However, we spent a fair amount of time digging in to these strategic goals, and a few things struck me. There are a variety of underlying issues that must be addressed in order to truly help Michigan schools become one of the top 10 in the nation.

We discussed these strategic goals in a really innovative format. There were several tables set up; at each table was either a high school student from an area school or a young professional from the area. Each guest had a strategic goal they discussed with the others at the table. It was a unique way to discuss a variety of issues with a diverse group of people.

As I listened to one particular guest discuss the importance of strategic goal 4 – “Reduce the impact of high-risk factors, including poverty, and provide equitable resources to meet the needs of all students to ensure they have access to quality educational opportunities” – I was struck by how little of this is within the control of schools and districts. Michigan schools are funded through property taxes, but how much of those taxes are allocated for schools are decided by the state legislature on a per-pupil allotment. Resources to support families – welfare, affordable child care, access to reliable transportation, access to healthy food – have been whittled away and so many students come to schools without their basic needs being met. We have so many more responsibilities and duties as schools, but have less money than ever with which to fulfill these.

Another factor that strikes me as puzzling is the goal of creating “a prepared and quality future workforce[.]” We as teachers know that teaching students to fill in bubbles, take tests online, and memorize facts and figures aren’t what’s best for students. We also know that those types of skills are not in demand in today’s workforce. Children need to learn how to interact appropriately in a digital space, students need practice and access to engaging with others around the globe. Students should be creating and curating, not consuming and engaging in “digital worksheets.” And yet…teachers are evaluated on how well their students achieve on an assessment. We measure all students’ learning via a standardized test. We are still checking boxes instead of using a holistic approach that evaluates multiple factors of a teacher’s “effectiveness.” In fact, the state superintendent released his recommendations recently for ANOTHER new state test. For the past two years, schools have used the online M-STEP test that is administered in the spring. Districts throughout the state spent countless hours ensuring their networks were ready to handle the influx of traffic, that computers were functional. Teachers helped their students navigate the testing environment so that the test would measure what students actually know rather than how well they can take a test online. In our district, because many of our schools are 4-6, the better part of two MONTHS were engaged in testing, taking away valuable computer time because those labs were tied up with testing. Now, the superintendent wants to do away with the M-STEP, create a new, different assessment, and have it be administered in both the fall AND the spring.

We know what’s best for kids. We want students to show us what they know. We want them to be prepared to engage with and in the workforce. We want them to have access to a variety of educational opportunities. And yet, we also still seem to want them to be really good test takers. Teachers simply do not have time – or the freedom – to take risks in their classrooms when they know they are being evaluated on a state test.

It’s imperative that we as a society look at our values and our priorities. We cannot continue to cut taxes for the wealthiest 1% and lessen the amount of dollars going into social welfare problems and expect change. Schools cannot do it all. Parents cannot do it all. Even together, parents and schools, cannot do it all. Without the support, skills, training, and resources that can be provided through state and federal agencies, we risk being able to truly make Michigan a Top 10 in 10.

Global Read Aloud

Okay so I have used Twitter a lot for professional connection and learning for the past few years. And I know its power. But I’ve never really witnessed firsthand how powerful it can be! I’ve tweeted out a question and gotten a few responses. I’ve never really had an overwhelming amount of responses to something – until yesterday.

I created a Padlet (basically an interactive corkboard) about the first 5 chapters of a book called Pax. Pax is one of the books chosen for this year’s Global Read Aloud, a collaborative project designed to engage students with reading. I tweeted out the link to the Padlet, inviting people to collaborate on it. In less than 24 hours, I’ve had more than 63 students view and add to my Padlet from all over the WORLD! That’s amazing! Not to mention that it’s incredibly fun (for lack of a better term) to have people comment on your stuff. I get so excited when I have a comment on my blog to moderate; it validates me so much more than just writing for myself. While I get pleasure in sharing my words just to share and get my thoughts out, I’m much more nuanced and thoughtful when writing a blog because of the potential for other people to read it.

This is my second year participating in the Global Read Aloud, and it is such an amazing and inspiring project. I don’t know how Pernille Ripp does it, but she chooses books that are beautiful, engaging, and resonates so much with a variety of students. Last year, we read Fish in a Tree to our 4-6 Reading Class. This is a group of students who are used to feeling the like the “dumb” kids because they struggle with reading. It was such a powerful experience to see them EXCITED about reading and giving them a voice to share how they were connecting with the book.

This year, Pax is also really impacting our students. Working in an urban district, students come to us with a lot of deficits, many with unstable home lives. Peter (one of the main characters) is relatable to them in a lot of ways because he too struggles with belonging, betrayal, and all the challenges of growing up. Pax is also relatable, even though he’s a fox, because he struggles with finding his way and who he is. I cannot wait to get deeper into this book with my students.

Are you participating in the GRA? We’d love to connect with you via Skype or Google Hangout! 


What If…?

Listening to Kaleb Rashad as part of Week 3 IMMOOC I was so inspired and energized. I wish ALL administrators had his passion and energy. His message about relationships and equity really resonated with me. Early on, I recognized the importance of building relationships with my students and making connections to their worlds. As I have moved to various educational settings, this is still true, and perhaps even more so when working with adults. Some students will follow the rules and be compliant; they have learned how to play the game of school. Teachers are incredibly busy people and their time spent in professional development needs to be meaningful, targeted and full of impact.

Designing professional learning opportunities that resonate with teachers can be really hard when you’re in a system that is stuck in traditional ways of doing things. My district currently has a once a week “late start” Wednesday. Each Wednesday across the district, teachers spend 2 hours with their colleagues immersed in professional learning. While it sounds good in theory in that we aren’t asking teachers to stay after school, all teachers are present, it’s a consistent schedule, etc., in practice it is somewhat different. For starters, many of the weeks are pre-set by the district. That means that building principals – who know their staff better than anyone – don’t have as much autonomy to decide what is on the agenda. Additionally, two hours isn’t always enough time when there are myriad items on the agenda. Being the only technology integrationist in the district, it is impossible for me to be in 25 buildings at the same time. It makes it pretty difficult to provide support to more than one building a week. Of course we end up with a situation where it’s a “one-size fits all” PD instead of tailored to what teachers want, need, or are interested in.

Here’s my ideas on what innovative professional learning looks like to me:



Relationships and Connection: Bridging the Generation Gap

Sometimes it’s easy to get frustrated with the world today. Obviously there are all kinds of challenging events, heartbreaking news stories seemingly at every corner, and, in Michigan, we hear a lot about how students are disengaged and are learning in crumbling school buildings. It can be really hard to feel like there’s any good in the world sometimes.

I think it’s a natural response to compare kids of the present generation to the way things were when we were kids. And our parents and grandparents did the same thing. Often, it can feel like the generation gap is so huge. Kids feel like adults don’t understand them, and adults don’t get why kids can’t “put down their phones” or only want to text their friends. But sometimes a story comes along that reminds us of our basic need as human beings. That- at the end of the day – we all just crave feeling appreciated and connected in some way.

This video is the trailer for a project inspired by some lovely high school students in Canada who had seen the way their grandparents’ lives had been enriched by using the Internet. So, they set out to engage with other seniors in their community to help them learn about the Internet. You can read more about the project here. 

We all love stories like this. But, beyond making us feel good, it reminds me that there is so much more that connects us than divides us. Love, family, relationships – those are at the heart of who we are and what we do. Showing our students we love and care about them means much more than showing them how much we know about our curriculum. I wish so much my grandparents were alive for me to connect with. I wish we had had those opportunities to share and connect in a different way. My grandma and I used to write each other letters when I was in college and when I lived in Hawaii and couldn’t talk all that often. I saved those letters, and while I treasure so much those words – in her own writing – what would I give to hear her voice again or watch her on a YouTube video. My brother left me a voicemail that I recklessly deleted; how could I possibly have known it would be the last opportunity I’d ever have to hear his voice? 

It never hurts to be more patient and kind to one another. This story is a reminder of that.


#IMMOOC Week One – Opportunities

So, I’m super excited to be participating in this awesome MOOC with lots of amazing and brilliant folks on the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros. One of the biggest challenges for me in my role as an Instructional Technologist is letting go of some of my own ideas about what technology integration SHOULD look like, and being more open to hearing other teachers sharing what their visions are. While many of the teachers I work with are eager to utilize technology in more meaningful ways, they aren’t sure how to make that happen. At the core of any real systematic change is the ability to listen to and understand one another. Sometimes in the busyness of the day, teachers and I aren’t always speaking the same language.


Photo courtesy of George Couros:

One of the prompts for this week is: “‘Change is an opportunity to do something amazing’ How are you embracing change to spur innovation?”

So one of my big goals for this MOOC is to change the way I “do business” to generate some innovative ideas. Spend more time listening and asking questions (of both teachers AND students) and less time talking and trying to provide solutions. I feel stretched in a billion different directions and, when I walk out of a teacher’s classroom, I want to feel like I have helped him or her, so I often feel pressure to give him or her a quick answer or a solution. Rather, I want to embrace the opportunity to do something amazing by CHANGING the way I communicate. Asking questions and really thinking deeply will help me to provide more meaningful supports for the teachers I am working with.

First Day of School

Today, thousands of young scholars attended school for the first time in a couple of months. Teachers have spent lots of time decorating hallways and classrooms, perusing their class list and trying to learn student names, scouring Pinterest for engaging ice-breaker activities that students haven’t done countless times before, and students arrived in their new clothing, freshly sharpened pencils, a variety of colored pens and markers stuffed in brand new backpacks. Some students were anxious to begin their first day of formal schooling. For others, this is old hat, and they are marking time until they walk across that stage and collect their diplomas. Many parents anxiously waved goodbye to their children through misty eyes and tried to look brave.

As I traveled through some of the schools today, I was struck by how, despite the incredibly hot and humid weather, teachers, secretaries, principals, cafeteria workers, janitors, and other support staff greeted their students with smiles and hellos. Our schools are not air conditioned, friends. Here in the Mitten state we often don’t need air conditioning but for a handful of days in the fall and spring. But these buildings many of the teachers teach in are old with few windows that open, that cling to the heat, so that even early mornings don’t offer much respite. I know I have a hard time concentrating and being a pleasant member of society when I’m sweaty and feel like I can’t cool down. Not to mention working with 25 K-3 students, or saying the same “Welcome” speech 6 or 7 times to a group of eight graders and still maintaining my charming personality!

Bravo, Lansing teachers! Day one is over and I am inspired by you. We have a wonderful community of supportive, passionate, inspiring teachers here in Lansing. #LansingComeUp!

Permissions and Challenges

Something that’s been rumbling around in my brain the last couple of days after attending a training  and a recent update in privacy policy from – what responsibility do software and “web 2.0” companies have to schools and students in regard to student information and privacy?

There are literally thousands of websites and resources for students to create digital products, share their knowledge in different ways, or interact with the world at large. However, common among so many of them is the requirement of creating an account, which asks for some kind of information for students. Presumably, many of these companies keep this information to email students, market to them, sell their emails to other companies, etc. I know many websites have their privacy policies and terms of conditions labeled on their websites, but they often have a requirement for students to be 13 or older to use their sites.

Working with many K-6 teachers, it is often a big challenge to find good (free, or relatively cheap) sites, that do what teachers want, and is appropriate for younger learners. This got me thinking – what responsibilities do technology education companies have to the people they are claiming to serve?

I know this isn’t a black or white issue and there are probably a lot of things I’ve left out or haven’t fully unpacked, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts. What say you?