Too Heavy

In the past several weeks and months I have been reading a great many blogs and articles about the state of education and where we need to move. I further discussed this at great length with a number of educators at ISTE last week. The question I have is, “are we overcomplicating the matter?” There is a great number of “experts” spouting pedagogy, theory and even some philosophy to try to explain how education should be done in our schools. I kept thinking that it was all a bit heavy and maybe a bit to over thought. For me, I have four relatively basic beliefs about education that everything seems to come back to.

Relationships Rule

At the end of the day it will not matter how much content we cram into our student’s head but rather how we relate to them as people. Yes, content is important, but relationships will always trump it. Teachers that are able to have a positive relationships built on trust, honesty, and mutual respect will always have a greater chance of helping a kid succeed. Student learning will not take place in a classroom where there is fear, mistrust, or a power struggle.

Always remember that the kids in your class are human beings first and students second. If we remember this and address the human relationships first, we will always have more success with the student relationships second. In order to do this, we need to know our students beyond the relatively short amount of time we see then daily. We need to invest time to create personal connections and know them beyond what their homework and test scores tells us. Taking a personal and genuine interest in a kid is never a bad investment and is often the difference maker in some kid’s lives.

In addition to our relationships with our students, those we have with parents and other teachers are crucial as well. We are all in this together and we need each other to maximize a student’s ability to learn and be successful. Parents play a key role in child development and as teachers we need to foster a positive relationship built on those same principles of trust, honesty, and mutual respect.

Stop the Arms Race

Due to many political and economic reasons I either don’t understand or don’t agree with, we are pitting our teachers and schools against each other. Schools are not allowed to share their work with others and student’s work is being kept under lock and key. We are afraid to share the good work we are doing for fear that someone else might copy us. If we are doing good work, wouldn’t we want all kids to be doing it? Should we not be proud of our work and want others to be able to learn and grow from it?

One of the greatest things about my involvement in social media is the connections I have made. Through these connections I have been exposed to great teaching and examples of student learning all over the world. It is through this sharing that the learning experiences in my classes have been greatly improved. Beyond the teachers, we need to find ways for our students to stop competing for grades and awards and instead work collaboratively to create enriched learning experiences. We are better together.

When we Standardize we Bastardize

Yes, I am obviously referring to the standardized testing but more than that as well. Standardize testing’s evils have been written about in such great length that I will not go into any more details. However, testing is not the only thing we attempt to standardize in our schools. We do the same thing with teaching practice. In many schools we look to find “best practice” and then standardize it. When we do this, we are standardizing something that cannot and should not be standardized; people.  As long as humans are individuals and inherently different, teaching and learning practice can and should not be standard.

This also goes with resources and technology. We are trying to blanket cover classrooms with the same tools and resources. This is not the way to go. While I may like a particular resource, it will not work for everyone. Instead or standardizing these resources, let’s make innovation and creativity standard. Give me a tool box full of tools, some guidance, and let me run with it. Let each teacher decide what is best for them and their student’s learning. If we are truly the professionals we claim to be, then we should be more than capable of doing such work. Give us the destination but stop giving turn by turn directions.

Student Learning Above All

This should seem like an obvious piece of the education puzzle but not always the case. We often get caught up in board policies, new technology tools, or political jargon that we forget why we are doing all this. Stop writing policies that limit teacher’s ability to teach effectively. Stop being wowed by the latest gadgets and gizmos without thinking if it will actually help a student learn. Stop making decisions from up on high without ever setting a foot in a classroom to see who your decisions are impacting. Bottom line, if you can’t clearly articulate how your actions directly help student learning, please stop.

Although it must be said that student learning is not always indicated in a test score or a final grade. Some of the greatest learning that takes place in a class is human learning. This is when a student grows and develops as a human being. I put far more weight is the human learning grade than any test about Ancient History or Math Facts.

Many people will disagree and claim that education is not that simple and maybe they are right. However, when I talk to teachers in classrooms doing the actual work with kids, it always comes back to these four things; create positive relationships, start sharing, stop standardizing, and put student learning above all else. 

ISTE Flash Mob

Here is the unofficially official ISTE Flash Mob video from this past week’s conference held in the front lobby of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. A huge thank you goes out to all that participated in this fun event. Special notice to Tim Gwynn and Michelle Baldwin for organizing it and jumping through a series of hoops to make it happen. Thanks to Ellie Gibbard from the Pennsylvania Convention Center for her support as well. In addition, thanks to John Jacobson of Double Dream Hands for his support and choreography and Cory Plough for some of the video footage. Also, thank you to Kristina Peters for being in the front row with Michelle and leading the crew!

Now many people tweeted about the ridiculousness of such an event taking place at the conference. They could not understand why anyone would be interested in such a venture and tweeted and spoke out about it. It’s funny because I remember hearing similar negativity when I took on the Lip Dub at my school this past spring. Some people just don’t get it. They don’t get why people would want to work together to do something fun. They don’t get the feeling of being part of something spontaneous and did I mention fun. They don’t get the sense of community and companionship that is the root of what makes us human. They don’t get that we will remember that moment with fondness for years to come. The don’t get that we share these moments and they are what binds us together and allows us to work together on a deeper and more meaningful level.

I encourage any of my readers to do a Lip Dub or a Flash Mob with your staff or your students. I guarantee it will be a memorable occasion and bring you all together with a deeper sense of community…and it will be fun!

The Super School

During ISTE I was out at one of the various evening events and I struck up a conversation with Principal Dave Meister. While talking we were discussing some of the good things going on in the world of education and specifically all of the great teachers. Many of those teachers were in attendance at ISTE this past week. We wondered aloud that it would be nice if we could get all these amazing educators and get them together in one school. It would be like a super school. I even said that a co-worker and I had often joked that if we ever fell into a large pile of money we would start up our own school founded in the very principles we believe about teaching and learning. We would hire the best and brightest educators and create the super school. Image if all these educators could be consolidated in one school. How amazing of a place would that be to work? How amazing would that place be to attend as a student?

As I reflected on this concept of consolidating educational “talent” in one place, I wonder if that might actually be a bad idea. In sports, fans love a good game. We love seeing overtime playoff hockey and extra inning baseball. We don’t like to see blowouts on a regular basis nor do we like seeing teams dominate a sport year in and year out. As soon as a streak is started or a dynasty created, we want to see it end and restore balance. While I am a Cubs fan, I would hate to see the Cubs win every game by ten runs and win the World Series every year. Well…I would like them to win at least one of those… The point is, talent is spread around professional sports to balance the game and provide us the entertainment that they are designed to provide. By spreading out the “good” players you bring other players up on teams and spread the wealth. Those elite athletes can help bring up the level of play of teammates and provide leadership that can help a team succeed.

When it comes to schools it is not that different. If all the good teachers leave to go to the super school then what happens to those left behind? Who is left to support and lead those struggling and new educators? How can they learn to be better teachers if there are no models? What happens to kids in those schools? Rather than create the super school, why not turn our own schools into super schools? There are some amazing teachers and administrators that I had the true pleasure of meeting at ISTE this past week. While I would love to work with any one of them, I like the idea of knowing they are out doing good work in other places. The key for me is that these people may not physically work in my building and yet their presence is felt in my work on a daily basis. Through our connections we are able to work together and are already creating a super school that transcends social, political and physical barriers.

Make your own school the super school. Start with making your own classroom better and bring others on board with you. If you don’t know how, ask. There are plenty of brilliant people willing to help. The super school exists and anyone that connects and is trying to make things better for their own students is a part of it.



That is my number one takeaway from ISTE 2011. For the first time I was able to meet people in person that I had previously met and worked with online. I have interacted with countless educators from all parts of the globe and this ISTE was the first time for me to meet a large number of these people face to face. This experience of meeting these people and connecting with them has taught me three valuable lessons that I plan on bringing into my classroom in the fall.

1. Face to Face is important

While I think the connections we make online are great to have and nurture, it does not replace face to face. Simply shaking a hand and sharing a drink with someone makes a strong connection or solidifies an existing one. As I had lunch on the last day a member of my PLN came up and asked, “can I friend you on Facebook now?” That really sums it up. What started out as professional connections through social media have turned into genuine friendships. While making friends is not necessarily the goal of this conference or of a PLN, it has huge benefits. I am confident these new friends will continue to support me and I will return the favor. Within my classroom I will continue to push technology but always keep that face to face connection as a cornerstone in my class. I will remember to tell my kids to put the laptops down and talk with each other. Relationships are the most important part of powerful learning.

2. We are better together

I have always been a firm believer in the power of groups. We are truly better together as learners. The best conversations I had this week were in small groups at all hours of the day and night. Strength in numbers is a powerful thing. Through our conversations with other educators we gain a new ideas and perspectives. That is not to say we always agree, because we don’t. However, it is in those moments of disagreement that we push our thinking and grow the most. Within my class I will continue to foster the group dynamic and allow kids to work together to push their learning in new and different directions.  

3. Play Nice

This one might sound a bit juvenile, but I am serious. There are people online in various forums that are not nice. Now, that is not to say we all need to be best friends but a certain level of professionalism and respect needs to be in place. Just because someone doesn’t agree with us, does not give us the right to berate, condemn, or put others down. We are all learners on a journey with different arrival times. I hope to continue to create an environment where my students support each other and respect each person’s spot on that journey.

ISTE 2011 was truly a great experience and many people I met far exceeded my expectations. I am looking forward to more connections like this and continued learning with my professional learning network on and off line. 

ISTE Unplugged 2011

I just finished presenting at ISTE Unplugged at the ISTE conference in Philadelphia. As promised, here is the prezi and don't hesitate to shoot me any questions!