I truly did not understand at first why so many others saw a battlefield of deadly traps instead of a wonderland. And that was often my kryptonite; it's nearly impossible to work with someone when you fail to observe their needs, feelings, or perceptions.
Thus, the past five years have been a journey in educating myself in empathy and observation. And from that has developed a deeper commitment to celebrating not just my own learning, but the triumphs of my colleagues as they battle through their discomfort in the face of change, challenge, and new choices.
Lasting innovation becomes a reality when that educator in your building who fears social media finally lets her students use their phones in class to post their work on an Instagram account. Or when that stalwart "stand-and-deliver" lecturer next door finally trusts the students in her room to learn for themselves through a project-based assessment. Or when that veteran tech-opposed administrator finally uses Twitter to shout out the work of the teachers in her building. Lasting innovation is in the hands of ALL of us. And we owe it to our students to set aside our nerves and join them as learners side-by-side.
What a treat to listen to George Couros, Katie Martin, AJ Juliani, and John Spencer talk about design thinking and innovation in education during the first #IMMOOC event! Their discussion about taking risks and sharing learning hit home for me, especially their comments about fear being a main reason for risk aversion in education. No matter how innovative or enthusiastic we are, I think all of us worry about the potential consequences of stepping outside the safety zone.
I’ve certainly had my fair share of blows. One of the hardest ones happened last year, and was, ironically, related to design thinking.
I had just participated in a school-sponsored Design Challenge that was intended to help us ideate some options for a new library space. Inspired by that experience, I reframed the last unit of my high school speech class into a design challenge to give students a chance to design spaces for a new building we were in the process of developing. My students’ ideas impressed me so much that I asked our administrators to join us for their final presentations.
But here’s the part of the story that I didn’t tell in my previous post. One of the administrators who watched the final presentations called me into her office the next day. I thought she wanted to talk about about the students’ ideas—after all, she had been the one to champion the design challenge I participated in. Instead, she told me that the presentation skills demonstrated by the students did not meet her expectations of what students should be able to do at the end of a speech class. The implication was that I had failed to teach my students what they were supposed to learn.
I was left speechless (no pun intended) and crushed. She had completely missed the point of the exercise—which was not about giving a formal presentation. She passed judgement on an entire curriculum without asking a single question about it. And worse, she seemed to have completely missed the students’ ideas—I felt like I had let them down.
What did I do? Well, I certainly wallowed in anger and hurt feelings for a while. I toyed with giving up on doing anything innovative. After all, if my ideas weren’t appreciated, then why bother?
But then a friend helped me realize I had another option. I could look past what felt like an injustice and ask myself “What constructive feedback can I take from that conversation that would help me improve learning?” And as Martin put it in the #IMMOOC discussion, I could choose not to wait for permission to try again.
The next semester, I ran another revised design challenge (take 2!) in my speech class. Included was a requirement that students formally present their ideas—this time with an expectation that they demonstrate the speaking skills I knew they had learned in the class. With much trepidation, I invited administrators and faculty to join us for the presentations. My worries came to nothing. Faculty and administrative feedback to the students was positive and encouraging. The students felt heard. And I felt validated in retaining design thinking as an experience in the class.
As a coach, this experience was also invaluable. It helped me better understand the concerns that many of my colleagues feel about change and risk, and yet also encourage them to take those chances when it will help kids.
So…change is absolutely a chance to do something amazing. But I think it’s also essential to recognize that the “amazing” part may come after a few stumbles or even flat out face-plants. Innovators like Couros, Martin, Juliani, and Spencer succeed not because they are just that awesome (which they are!) but because they don’t give up. And that’s something any of us can aspire to.
George Couros, author of The Innovator's Mindset, is one of my inspirations in the world of educational philosophy. I was recently thrilled to discover that Couros has offered yet another way to engage educators in a discussion about the concepts presented in his book--the #InnovatorsMindset MOOC (or #IMMOOC for short.)
Built around a series of YouTube live presentations and Twitter conversations, this five-week opportunity to further explore ways to create a "culture of innovation in education" looks to offer fantastic professional development and connections with educators from all over. As icing on that cake, participants will be urged to blog as a way to reflect and share their ideas. Kuddos to Couros for offering such a unique opportunity for meaningful online learning!
I can't wait to participate--and I hope you will too! Check it out at http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/7070.
In January 2017, my school implemented a Digital Learning Day protocol during a three-day closure due to an unusual snow and ice storm. It was an act of quick thinking combined with a dollop of desperation and a dash of hope.
Overall, the protocol was even more successful than we could have hoped. Students and teachers used digital tools in smart, effective ways to continue the momentum of learning and review. But as snow day after snow day passed and finals week quickly approached, some students who were unhappy with grades or policies resorted to sending grouchy emails to faculty and administrators and posting snarky messages on class Schoology pages. While only a small group of students engaged in this behavior, it sparked questions from faculty directed my way.
"Who teaches email etiquette? Isn't that something students are supposed to learn in Digital Literacy?"
I was a bit taken aback, and then it got me thinking. Even though every faculty member in my school would agree that digital responsibility is an important skill for 21st century learners, not all of them actively think to incorporate the idea into their curriculum. Why?
The answer is simple. The term "digital responsibility" has become a catch phrase that many educators assume belongs only in a technology class. This is not surprising--most current educators did not grow up using technology or communicating online like our current students do. It often does not occur to them that digital etiquette and behavior could belong in a humanities or math or science class. And those educators who already feel uncomfortable with technology worry about looking incompetent in front of students.
But the reality is that online communication is an integral part of life for our young people. In 2015, PEW reported that nearly 75 percent of teens owned or had access to smartphones and 92 percent went online daily, especially to use texting and social media services. Those numbers have likely increased since then. And it's not just young people anymore--according to a January 12 PEW report, 77 percent of American adults own a smartphone, which is more than double than in 2011, and 69 percent of American adults use social media. The new norms of written communication are much shorter and less formal, and often less cognizant of audience reaction.
So does that mean we should just give up and accept those short snarky emails from students? Absolutely not. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Students need us to set expectations for good communication and smart online choices, just as we set expectations for good communication and social behavior in our classrooms. This can be as simple as having a frank class conversation at the beginning of a term about concrete strategies for good communication, such as:
--Beginning an email or post with polite address: "Dear Ms. Tormala" or "Hi friends!" or "Hello classmates."
--Asking polite questions rather than making demands.
--Using "please" and "thank you."
--Ending an email with "sincerely" or "warmly", etc.
Teachers can take this even further by having more in-depth conversations with students about audience, purpose, and tone--concepts that apply to every form of communication--and offering real examples and comparisons. And when a student inevitably makes a mistake, we can seize that meaningful opportunity to help her learn. If every teacher and administrator in a school consistently applied this strategy, I'm almost certain we would see immediate, noticeable improvement in student communication overall.
After all, as George Couros so succinctly puts it, it's up to us to help our students be digital leaders.
Denver was a blast. And this time around, I had four fabulous colleagues from St. Mary's Academy attending ISTE2016 with me. Between the five of us, we represented a wide range of content areas, experience levels, and tech-comfort, and as we discussed the highly positive learning that all of us were experiencing at the conference, a question arose.
How can we bring this amazing work home?
A daunting prospect, to say the least. We all knew it would be next to impossible to remember and/or summarize everything we learned over the five intensive days of Denver sun and fun.
So instead of trying to bring it all back, we decided to each create an artifact of some kind that answers four questions. And during our inservice week, we will engage in a speed-geeking activity where the five of us, plus two other colleagues who attended MasteryCon with me this month, will share our artifacts and offer a few inspirational highlights about what we learned.
My artifact is still in progress since I'm attempting to make it a bit more organic and visual, but here's a sneak peak at what I've got so far. Enjoy!
Who knew that upcycling could be so fun? And create an ideal opportunity for assessment of presentation skills to boot?
This semester I challenged my Speech students to design a product for an audience of their choice, which they would then pitch live at the end of the semester. But here was the catch--they had to upcycle materials from around the school to do it. (Shout out to local middle school art teacher and design expert, Beth Rogers Bundy, for the brilliant idea!)
The faculty and staff who joined us were highly impressed by the students' presentations--in fact, several of them commented that they hope the students' products actually get created.
If nothing else, this unit solidified for me the benefits of hands-on learning and design thinking for high school students. They saw the concept as relevant, and therefore spent significant effort on their products and pitches--quite the feat during the final month of the school year!
For more ideas for bringing design thinking and challenges into your classroom, check out the following resources.
Stanford Design School website
Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking in the Classroom by A.J. Juliani
Global Day of Design site
"Learning by Design: The Idea that Moved a District" by ISTE Connects
Eduotopia's resource page on Design Thinking
But the best example of shared learning in my life is my working partnership with Ellie Gilbert, a fellow teacher at SMA. We were lucky enough to begin our working relationship four years ago by teaching English 9 together while sharing a classroom—and did so at the same time our school implemented a 1:1 mobile technology program. We not only planned together, but we watched each other teach on a daily basis and marveled at the way each of us found new ways to learn with our students.
For both of us, this experience blossomed into a deep friendship and partnership that not only made teaching incredibly fun and rewarding, but catalyzed us both to become ten times better than either of us would have been alone.
This year things changed. I moved into our technology department, allowing me to spend more time on instructional tech coaching, but taking me out of English 9 and the shared classroom space. Ellie and I worried about how this would change our partnership—turns out, our worries were unfounded.
Is it different? Certainly. But the foundation we built over three years in English 9 has blossomed into a partnership of a different sort—one between an instructional tech coach and a master teacher who continue to catalyze each other’s growth.
We are better together. So why not take that into the digital world?
So I am thrilled to announce that Ellie and I have joined forces on LearnersTogether—it will continue to be a forum to reflect on learning and share the stories of others, but as usual with the pair of us, it will end up being ten times better than either of us could make happen alone.
"Finding the Right Balance in Tech Use" (Tormala), Edutopia, April 10, 2018.
"Keynote is just a slide creator...isn't it?" (Tormala) EdTechTeam, Jan 2018.
"Getting Girls into STEM: The Power of Blended (and All-Female) Instruction". (Tormala) EdSurge, March 21, 2017.
"Confronting the Abominable Snow Day". (Gilbert & Tormala) Edutopia, Feb. 2017.
"Video Interviews with iPads: The Power of Mobile Technology". (Tormala) EdTechTeam, Jan 2017.
"Discomfort, Growth, and Innovation." (Tormala) Edutopia, Oct. 2016.
"5 Epiphanies on Learning in a 1:1 iPad Classroom." (Tormala) Edutopia, July 2014.