Challenging myself to get out of the way – Edublogs Club Wk 6

Prompt: Write a post about challenging situations.

  • Share your biggest teaching challenge and explain how you overcame it.


I love being a teacher. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. If I may be so bold, I am pretty good at my job.

But I didn’t spring forth fully formed.

Some teachers knew they wanted to become a teacher when they were in like…fifth grade. That’s cool, but that wasn’t my path. I was good at school. History and English were my favorite subjects. I liked stories and I liked to read. But teaching wasn’t for me. I even said at the time that I don’t know what to do with History or English other than become a teacher…and that’s crazy talk. Mostly it was about self-confidence, or lack of I suppose. Let’s just say that standing in front of a group of people to talk wasn’t in my skill set at the time.

Anyway, flash forward a bit and now I’m ready. Let’s do this. I shall teach.

Getting my teaching degree was fun. I liked to learn. I liked History. So far so good.

Student teaching was…an important professional development experience. It was fine. I learned from great and not-so-great mentoring teachers. The most important thing I discovered is that I am a Middle School teacher. It was a bit of a shock. Nobody sets a life goal to be a Middle School teacher. Other people look at you with a mixture of pity and grudging admiration when you tell them it’s what you do. But it’s true. I love teaching Middle School, and this is totally where I belong.

Anyway, I survived student teaching and in the Fall of 2006 I entered the exciting world of day subbing. Within a few months I was very privileged to get a contracted permanent substitute position in my home district. It was a great gig. I got to know the students and the other teachers. I didn’t have any lesson planning or grading. Easy street. I did that for about a year and a half. Along the way I got certified in Middle School Math. That proved to be extremely advantageous.

A brand new position opened up in my school – gifted coordinator (i.e., GIEP case manager). The only degree requirement was Middle School Math, so I threw my hat in the ring and got the job. Great! My responsibilities were to teach one section of Geometry, handle the administrative duties for the GIEP compliance, and most important of all, make sure we didn’t get sued. Once my principal saw that I was good to go running the GIEP meetings with parents, I was on my own. The paperwork was a pain, but not a big deal once I got familiar with the process. Teaching Geometry worked ONLY because I had a class of just four students the first year (later on I would expand to two full sections of Geometry and Algebra).

But I was also supposed to “do something” to enrich the lives of our best and brightest students, and this is where I hit the wall. When do I meet with them? What do I do when I have them? This isn’t graded so why do they care? In fact, I’m probably taking them out of a study hall where they would otherwise be doing “real” work so this is actually kind of annoying for them. Also, I don’t actually know what I’m doing. And they know it. They’re being polite and all…but I can see it in their eyes.

The absolute best thing that ever happened to me in my career is that my boss didn’t look over my shoulder too much that first year. I had room to breathe and make mistakes.

I experimented meeting in big groups and small groups. Maybe we should work on study skills? How about some sort of enrichment-y research project? (That one was the worst – it basically involved me getting a lot of books out of the library and then being completely caught off guard when the students did not express immediate interest in reading them). Games? Actually, games worked…sort of. At least they pretended to play the board games and stuff while actually just talking and hanging out. It was a start. But it was a charade and everyone knew it.

I wanted to do big things. These were all high-potential, and in many cases high-achieving students. I basically didn’t have to worry about discipline. I had some leeway with the schedule. Most importantly, I had almost complete latitude as to my curricular goals for the program. But I had to do something soon. I was benefiting from an attitude of benign neglect from my building principal, but sooner or later I would be called to account for exactly what I was doing with all of my unstructured time.

I started to get irritable and sarcastic with the students. Once or twice the situation got tense and stand-offish. Looking back, I can’t blame them. I was flailing about with no clear goals, or even worse, constantly shifting goals.

Then one day about mid-year “it” happened. It was at the end of the day. The students had just left. Whatever I had planned for the day hadn’t worked out at all. I was so stressed out and didn’t know what to do to change things. However, the one thing I knew for sure was that everything would be OK if I just sat under my desk for a bit. Even better, a colleague came in and found me like that. It was totally not the most humbling experience of my teaching career. True story.


A historical reenactment of me hiding from my own bad teaching.


That was probably the turning point emotionally. One of those times you have to just pick yourself up and go back to work the next day. But it didn’t solve the actual problem. I mean c’mon, all I did was hide under my desk for awhile.

It should be no great surprise that my inspiration and solution came from the students themselves.

One day, one my Geometry students (also on my GIEP caseload) told me about a coding project he was working on. Just for fun and because he was interested in computers.




Kids have diverse interests outside of the classroom.

Kids work hard on things they love without needing an extrinsic motivation.

Maybe I should do something with that?


Yeah… paradigm shifts always seem obvious when you are on the other side.


Anyway, that was the beginning of the beginning.

I began to learn how to get out of the way.

Over time I set up a pretty cool framework for project-based independent study with my GIEP students. Students had freedom to select their topics but had to develop a goal and plan. They did some great stuff: shooting and editing movies, building models, creative writing, self improvement plans. You name it.

I learned how to become a facilitator and teach supporting skills. Project planning. Time management. Tracking progress. Reflection. Repeat.

It isn’t always easy. I like to be in the way. I like to be the font of knowledge. Me me me.

Getting out of the way doesn’t mean that I don’t make critically important decisions in terms of content and instruction. It takes a LOT of planning in advance to get out of the way.

Getting out of the way is NOT about efficiency. Students need a lot of time in class to work on skills and process deep content. I need to be comfortable not knowing the answer to all of their questions. I need to be comfortable with situations that do not have one clear “right” answer. I need to be flexible and willing to make big adjustments on the fly. Sometimes I need to ask the students to bear with me as I think out loud through a new procedure.

Getting out of the way means that I need to ask for help (totally my favorite thing…). I need to let other teachers see me teach and tell me what worked and what didn’t work. I need to collaborate with, and be inspired by other great teachers like @historycomics  @CHitch94 @ziegeran @paulbogush @hiphughes @joetabhistory @TomRichey and many more.

. . .

I no longer have the freedom of those early years. I teach in a “regular” classroom now. But there are still plenty of opportunities to get out of the way. Here are some that have worked for me.

Give them a menu of options to complete a HW assignment. Ask them to do illustrations instead of writing a summary. Make a choose your own adventure activity. Include kinesthetic group activities. Facilitate quick focused small group “turn and talk” discussions on a near daily basis. Provide a choice of questions for the essay test. Play a game. Build empathy for a big problem. Have them create their own guiding questions for a unit of instruction. Ask them to reflect on their learning experiences. Ask them to give ME improvement feedback.


HW menu


Sample student illustrations


Choose your own adventure


Sample timeline activities


Essay choices


Board games




Fantasy league


It’s not just about engagement, although that is a HUGE piece. Commit to getting out of the way and you will see visible results. Over time, students become stronger and more confident learners. They get better at writing, and researching, and generating their own questions, and dealing with ambiguity. Asking students to make a LOT of small low-risk decisions helps them to do better with the BIG decisions. Teach a person to fish and such.


Best of all – it’s now been almost 10 years since the last time I felt compelled to hide from the world under my desk.



Thanks for reading – leave a comment!

Do you have a “sitting under a desk questioning your life decisions moment?” How do you get out of the way of your student’s learning? What’s your favorite lesson, activity or project to teach/facilitate? 

Leadership – Edublogs Club Wk 3

Ah ah ah ah staying alive staying alive. So this weekly blogging club actually expects you to blog every week, eh?

I’m going to cheat a bit and do a couple of posts at the same time to catch up.


Prompt: Write a post that discusses leadership, peer coaching, and/or effecting change.

I am grateful that the prompt also included sentence starters or I probably would have skipped this one.


Leaders don’t…

…change a system (rule, procedure, etc.) without understanding why it was put in place.

I am probably guilty of this quite a bit. I enjoy tinkering with systems and building new things. Whenever I am part of a new group I am the nerd that wants to write the bylaws. Seriously. In a lot of ways it is a strength to see and understand how different parts fit together. The main challenge when working with system in need of repair or update is to accept the system as it is and figure out how to achieve workable and sustainable change without just burning down the house and building a new one. Sometimes that is what is required, but usually not.




…assume that the organization chart represents the actual power centers and influence of an institution.

I still remember the first time I learned about the four frame model while in graduate school. #mindblow.

  1. Structural (Factory or machine) – rules, goals, policies
  2. Human resource (family) – needs, skills, relationships
  3. Political (jungle) – power, conflict
  4. Symbolic (cathedral) – culture, ceremony, heroes, sacred cows


Check this out for good PD reading:


Leaders always…

…ask questions and listen to responses.

…are willing to be wrong and admit to it.

…are willing to be right and criticized for it.

…communicates vision, goals and timelines.

…identify and build relationships with all stakeholders.

…know when to be democratic and when to dictate.

All of these attributes are incredibly important, but I think this last one is the “special sauce” that can really impact the effectiveness of a leader. Basically…being a good people manager. Most leaders that I have worked under are strong with one style but very weak with the other. It’s challenging because as individuals we are more naturally proficient and comfortable with one style – so switching gears takes practice and effort.

  • Too democratic (death by a thousand cuts) = s.l.o.w. decision making (e.g., focus groups, polls, ad hoc committees, etc.), everything gets bogged down in committee, multiple meetings about the same topic when no consensus decision is possible, can REALLY suffer when faced with a persistent vocal minority opinion
  • Too dictatorial (fast lane to resentment) = people feel like their voice, and their values, are not being heard and considered, decisions are made too quickly (no time to process the change)


Effecting change…

…is hard.

…takes time.

…starts small.

…is disruptive even if it is “good”.

…only happens if you get buy-in from your stakeholders.


To me, the disruptive element of change is perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect. Best case scenario – everyone is on board with the need for change, the vision for the future, the steps and timeline to enact the change, sufficient resources (including time) are available and provided as needed without any fight or fuss, and implementation proceeds smoothly without an unexpected problems. Even under those fantasyland conditions, change is still stressful and a lot of work. And of course, we live in the real world where some, many or all items on that list are missing or imperfectly addressed.

Basically, stress is stressful, no matter the cause.



Thanks for stopping by, please comment with a link to your blog!

What is your go-to or most influential leadership book, movie, quote, etc? What was one of  your leadership “aha” moments?

Prompts for reading, speaking, and thinking

I have spent a lot of time over the past few years experimenting with different prompts to help aid discussion, writing and higher-level thinking. What I have found to be the most interesting/challenging aspect is the close relationship between those three modes.

  • Students need frequent dedicated time in the classroom to practice speaking and writing at the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to help them develop a habit of insightful and reflective thinking.
  • Speaking and writing are strongly interrelated. The prompts below can easily be used for either mode of communication. However, students need dedicated time to practice both. Reflective writing does not automatically transfer to deep and meaningful conversation…and vice versa.
  • My experience has been that verbal discussion is the hardest of the three modes to facilitate, even when students are writing and thinking at a high level. It is particularly challenging to get students to truly listen and respond to each other, rather than just wait in line to share their own thoughts. Authentic student-centered discussion that does not bottleneck through me is the gold standard. I have only had it happen a few times in as many years…but it is wonderful when it does happen.


Learning Log Prompts – These prompts are intended for students to summarize the daily lesson as an exit ticket. My experience is that students need at least five minutes to answer two prompts, so I generally do not have time to do this activity every day. However, even two or three times a week can generate great results. I have students maintain their learning logs in a seperate journal that stays in the classroom. It is especially useful to give students time once a month or quarter to look back over their journals and reflect on what they’ve learned, or any patterns they see.

Learning Log Prompts


Pick a Strategy – This is my favorite way to introduce the idea of talking to the text. Students particularly like the opportunity to draw and share illustrations.

Pick a Strategy


Text Annotation Prompts – This past year I had my first attempt at close reading, and I wish that I would have had this list of prompts for that activity!

Text Annotation

Modified from: ‏@KyleneBeers When to annotate a text


Conversation Prompts – I have used similar prompts in the past to facilitate written dialogue on Edmodo, but I have not yet used them formally in verbal discussions. That is definitely a goal for next year though.

Conversation Stems

Modified from: ‏Teach Thought – 26 Sentence Stems for Higher-Level Conversation in the Classroom

Comments and feedback welcome!

Filter, Connector or Advocate?

In his book “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online”, Howard Rheingold suggests that our participatory power on the Internet can manifest in three key ways: filter, connector, and advocate. Furthermore, these three roles are roughly hierarchical, one cannot effectively be an advocate without being and effective filter and connector.

So, where am I? And what is my ideal role?

I don’t think that the three roles can be considered in a vacuum, as they are strongly interrelated in terms of the user skills and motivations.

For example, web 2.0 capabilities only make sense to me if, at the heart of it all, I am advocating a certain point of view. The desire to become a more effective teacher by incorporating digital tools into my instructional practice is certainly not unique to me, but it is still a specialized niche within the field of education. Not everyone is aware of it, or agrees with it, so by definition my support and interest makes me an advocate. This core issue is the filter, no pun intended, through which I am currently exploring the Web.

However, I cannot be a particularly effective advocate without the ability to filter the static and connect to other people. In simplistic terms, I need to find the good stuff, refute the bad stuff, and let other people know. This of course can take many many forms, and I anticipate that it will be a life-long endeavor (if I choose it) to refine and improve my processes.

Right now I am firmly in the “filter” stage. To me this means that I am exploring the different options that are available to gather, curate, and share digital information. As I have gotten better, and more comfortable, with interacting the online community, I am quickly realizing that an essential part of the filtering process is simply picking which tools I want to use. Each goal of filtering (gathering, curating, sharing) can be accomplished in some fashion by a variety of available applications, and most can accommodate all three goals in some capacity. I must balance open-mindedness to a better solution with the need to strengthen and develop my proficiency with a particular tool. At this point, I think that I have settled on a cocktail of Twitter, RSS, Blogger, Scoopit, and Edmodo to meet my current filtering needs. Based on my work the past few weeks, I feel confident in my ability to apply the basic functionality of these tools toward connecting and advocating.

What’s next?

I think that need to continue to use and refine my filters. For example, I think it would be helpful to develop a strategic plan for how I use my tools to gather, curate and share. I have gone through honeymoon phases with each, and now need to figure out how I want to use them as a coherent whole. Part of the plan should include frequency of use, both in terms of minimum AND maximum usage. For example, say that I want to check Twitter everyday, but I don’t want to spend more than 10 minutes TOTAL per day on Twitter. Same with my other tools. The power and seduction with the Internet is the essentially infinite connections (hence the name…). If I don’t have a plan, attention according to Rheingold, then it will be all too easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole.

Once I have a good practice of filtering, I need to use my filtering abilities to find people with whom I want to connect. Of course, I have made some connections already, but they have been haphazard at best. Building trust relationships requires time, whether online or in “real life”. A PLN is not built from a few tweets and random comment on someone’s blog. The really cool thing is that ANY of my filtering tools can be the launch-point to build a network. Some of this will happen organically, but I am pretty sure that I will need some sort of plan to really maximize my participation in this area. For example, pick my favorite 2-3 blogs and comment on them regularly.

Advocacy…I don’t want to worry to much about that at the moment. I think the most important thing that I can do to contribute to that role is to maintain a focus in how I use my tools. For example, create separate accounts to differentiate causal social and professional development activities. As I increase my footprint and my sharing networks, I will automatically become a greater advocate for my interests. Probably the most valuable advocacy function that I can provide is help others link into the network of movers-and-shakers in the field.

The Hammer or the Curious Mind?

Disclaimer: This post is my reflective response to Bryan Wehrli’s article “Technology as a Fence and a Bridge”.


Ok, ok, so at least two of these videos are staged events to prove a point. But, even if these professors are not rampantly destroying the personal property of their students, I think that the message that they are sending is still troubling.

Let’s see…

  • Never let your attention stray from the teacher.
  • You cannot be trusted to use technology appropriately.
  • Your concerns and affairs outside of the classroom not allowed in here.
  • Tech devices have no place in the classroom unless the teacher introduces them.


And don’t forget that videos are taking place in COLLEGE CLASSROOMS with ADULT LEARNERS (Yes…18 year olds are in fact adults.). Even if these represent isolated incidents, policies, and attitudes at institutions of higher learning, they are in fact quite representative of the current climate in K-12 public schools. It’s bad people, and teachers are not trusted with the technology anymore than the students. No cell phones, restrictive Internet firewalls and usage policies, teachers encouraged, or directed, to refrain from using social media even for personal interactions outside of work, “technology classes” that only teach keyboarding and outdated project presentation methods, insufficient technology support or professional development for hardware or software application

The paradigm is shifting, and the change does not originate from the schools. And that’s a scary thought for teachers, myself included. Because what is my role in this new world that neither my formal education nor my ongoing professional development have prepared me for?

Well, do I want to “reach out with a hammer or a curious mind” (Wehrli, 2009)? Do I draw a line in the sand and say thou shalt not pass…or else? Or do I recognize my new and powerful role as a facilitator, modeler, and collaborator?

It has occurred to me that there is a bit of a negative feedback loop in place, one in which I too have unconsciously participated.

In the absence of specific class assignments, students will generally default to using computers for social interaction, gaming, etc. –>

As a teacher I am mad, because the students are wasting valuable technology on useless purposes. –>

I don’t trust students to make good decisions using technology. –>

I don’t develop assignments or activities around technology. –>

In the absence of specific class assignments, students will generally default to using computers for social interaction, gaming, etc.

I think that there are two key, and related, assumptions in this cycle that must be recognized and addressed before it can be transformed.

  1. As a digital immigrant, I incorrectly believe that my students, as digital natives, automatically know how to use the Internet and social media for any desired application, including education purposes.
  1. My students mistakenly assume that the primary power of the Internet is in distraction or casual social interaction.


In other words, the kids don’t know any better, and the adults are too intimidated to inform them.

I don’t know the latest cool game, I don’t communicate primarily by chat, and I am never going to be as comfortable using digital technology as my students.

But so what?

  • I can teach you how to perform a proper search function.
  • I can teach you how to filter out the useful information from the static.
  • I can show you how applications can be used to gather, organize, process and share information.


I am still a teacher. I have the skills and training to find the answers if I don’t have them. My skills are still relevant IF I don’t spend valuable and limited resources trying to hold back the ocean.

The tide is coming in. Swim or die folks.

Reference: Wehrli, B. (2009). Technology as a Fence and a Bridge. Horace, 25(1).

Mental Models

As I have been exploring the use of technology to create more effective classroom environments, I have noticed a stark dichotomy in my teaching experience. One the one hand, I have facilitated dozens of independent study projects my gifted enrichment students. These projects were heavily dependent on using technology to gather, organize, and present data. On the other hand, I generally taught Algebra and Geometry with almost no use of digital technology.  We did  a lot of hands on projects with manipulates, measurement tools, etc., but the laptops stayed safely in the cart during math. 

So basically, I am comfortable with using technology to teach a process (project planning, research, organization, etc.), but I don’t instinctively use it to teach content.

Why is that?

The thing is, I am a pretty good teacher. I structure my planning to allow for a lot of exploration activities and real world applications. I am steadily increasing the amount of structured reflective activities that I use for myself and my students. I always assume that I can improve the lesson, or dig deeper, or make assessment more authentic and meaningful. I believe very strongly that students can and should self-select topics of interest to explore at a rigorous level. My entire enrichment program is predicated on that model, and it is commonly accepted as a best practice for working with gifted and high ability students.

And with all that, I am still operating from the framework of traditional instructional models. Teacher. Students. Textbook. Classroom. Even if I am really good within that model, and I can envision spending the rest of my career getting better and more innovative, there are still inherent limits. I am still driving the car, even if I know when to speed up and slow down and go the scenic route, everything has to filter through me.

I am the one that is in the way…but I am still the one that has to lead to way too.

I need to change my mental model. But along the way, I will need to address the mental models of my students, my parents, my administration. Not everyone is going to think it is a good idea (even the students).  Why rock the boat if everyone is “getting A’s?”  That is not an irrelevant question, and each stakeholder group wants a slightly different version of the same answer…because it is worth it to provide a meaningful and appropriately challenging education.

I think this also demonstrates to me the need for a strong professional learning community. I need to see, concretely and in detail, how others are implementing similar ideas, how well it is working, and how people are responding. The more that I explore the digital options that are available, and the vibrant community of teachers that are using them in the classrooms
(including math!), the more I am forced to accept the fact digital applications are the means to the end for both myself and my students.

Twitter Ninja

 I am a believer folks. #twitterisamazing

This is definitely the breakthrough that I have been looking for to expand my professional network.

Plus, based on my “expert” knowledge garnered from a measly few hours of tooling around with Twitter, I had several really engaging conversations in two different grad classes tonight.

Lessons learned:

1. Just go for it. If you don’t understand it, Google it.

2. A lot of people feel the same way I do about this stuff…interested…but don’t know where to start.