Sunday, November 6, 2016

Precision of Language

Since late last fall, a simple two-syllable word has taken over my life. Like a trending hashtag, this word has appeared more in my writings, discussions, and trainings than other words that have long been the foundation of my working vocabulary. Like all good words, this seven letter word came with multiple connotations and denotations that prompted me and my colleagues to constantly define what it means to us as an organization. As well as I thought that I understood the definition of the word “blended”, my district’s experiences preparing teachers and administrators for implementation of this deceptively simple and common word has added multiple layers of meaning to my now complex personal definition of this word.

Winning a Raise Your Hand Texas grant to transform learning has become much more than just a district and department initiative; it has evolved into a complete and sometimes jarring shift in thinking and practice. Birdville ISD was chosen along with four other innovative and diverse schools/districts across the state of Texas in April 2016 as part of a Raising Blended Learners program. Our official definition of “blended” is taken from our blended learning bible, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools by Heather Staker and Michael Horn. Founded in the work of the Christensen Institute, Staker and Horn use the following definition: “...blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns:
  1. at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;
  2. at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;
  3. and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.”

As a former secondary English teacher, words and authors’ choices speak to me. This three-part definition is specific and descriptive while also including nudges towards innovation in its word choice. If you look closely at the definition above and pull out only the adjectives, those extra words that author’s painstakingly choose to pinpoint their exact meanings, you get these words: formal, education, online, student, supervised, brick-and-mortar, learning, integrated. These adjectives alone create a basic picture of blended learning. The looser general definition of “blended” that most educators think of consists of a basic “blend” of technology and traditional teaching. Because of this, the “online learning” words in the Christensen Institute definition are often what teachers and administrators focus on, and though technology is an essential tool to unlock the possibilities of blended learning, it is not the most important part of this disruptive innovation.

As we have prepared, trained, and observed our blended learning teachers these first few months of our blended learning implementation, I have come to think that though the definition provided by Staker and Horn is specific on paper, the definition of “blended” is still sometimes muddy in reality. The connotations associated with the word “blended” are getting in the way of the true purpose and goal of this mindshift: personalized learning. One who blends would be described a “blender,” a word that evokes images of a loud smoothie maker chopping different components to bits and then whirring them forcibly together to create a new, tasty mixture. This image is not remotely close to what blended learning is in truth. So, in the interest of clarity, I humbly offer a different word to replace “blended” that I believe better captures the essence and spirit of what my district and others in the state are trying to do for students: tailored.  

Tailored learning. One who tailors learning would be called a “tailor.” A tailor brings to mind an image of a person with a tape measure who can work magic to create clothing that is perfect for any body type. This tailor listens to the customer and finds out fabric preferences, deadlines, style, and purpose needed for the clothing before getting to work to create the garments that the customer needs and wants. These garments are being made by a true craftsman to be just right for each customer. This personalized design process is at the heart of the goal of blended learning, and though I doubt our teachers want another word or another definition right now, I want to help all of our teachers become the learning tailors that all of our students need to achieve and become future-ready. Our current educational system of “ready-to-wear” clothing that is made in huge quantities for general sizes is not “fitting” a growing number of students as seen by the increasing EOC re-tester numbers in our district. Tailored learning is a solution that, like clothes tailoring, takes more time, effort, and intentionality than factory-made clothing or one-size-fits-all lesson design, but the rewards and benefits of personalized learning make it an imperative for teachers and curriculum designers in our district as we strive to prepare students that reflect our new district Portrait of a Graduate.

Works Cited
      Horn, M. B., & Staker, H. (2014). Blended: Using disruptive innovation to improve schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand.
     Christensen Institute - Improving the world through disruptive innovation. (n.d.). Retrieved November 06, 2016, from 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

All in a Week's Work

           As I work on a few sessions for the upcoming Campus Technology Specialist Academy in Austin, I was thinking about the nature of this position and how much variety there is in this job.
For example, two weeks ago, my week started like this: Monday started off with a quick video project at one of my high schools as I helped with a flipped professional development for the staff. I then helped students log into their Google accounts in a lab for a Spanish activity and tweeted out some shots of another class doing work in front of the library green screen. Tuesday found me at the monthly Principals meeting delivering sessions for the innovative leaders of our district based around the ISTE Standards for Administrators and highlighting the flipped learning work of the principals. I then taught a session on Canvas basics for the CTE teachers at the alternative school before heading to another high school on my way home to deliver some "loaner" iPads for the ASL teacher to video her sign language students for assessment. Today found me at a middle school, co-teaching for the first three class periods to help an ELA teacher and her 6th graders set up student blogs. A quick walk through the building helped me spotlight a Social Studies teacher on the district spotlight blog before I started locating and soliciting LEGO storykits from librarians and our LEGO rep for a Resource writing teacher.
           Every week brings new opportunities, new projects, and new learning, and I am struck by how diverse my work is as a digital learning specialist. I know that everyone in similar positions must juggle all of the different aspects of learning and teaching that come with this job, but I am sometimes amazed at the variety of work that I have the opportunity to do in a week. Designing, modeling, training, co-teaching, advocating, and researching all fall in the scope of my work and I love being a teacher, a learner, and a supporter. Because of the nature of this work, there is always more work to do, more things to learn, and more trainings to develop which is perfect for a Type A life-long learner. Time management skills and a growth mindset are essential to find balance and keep perspective when supporting hundreds of educators on different campuses. And, a strong and supportive district team is crucial to provide the structure, resources, and vision needed to be successful. So, as I prepare my sessions for others who understand the challenges and the rewards of this career, I hope I can provide opportunities for all of us to learn from each other.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Blended Learning Shifts

              Birdville ISD won the Raising Blended Learners grant last year from Raise Your Hand Texas. Since the announcement in April, our district and my department have been working around the clock to lay the foundations for a transformation in learning that better meets (and identifies) the needs of our students. Long discussions about research, multiple book studies, several observations, countless e-mail exchanges, and hours of behind-the-scenes work have brought us to this point, almost one 6-weeks into our implementation. Epiphanies are occurring in PLCs and in classrooms as these master teachers experiment and push themselves towards a more personalized learning model for their students. I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to observe and provide feedback to these pioneering teachers. Today, I have three teachers to go visit and though this was at first very outside my personal comfort zone, I now eagerly anticipate what I will see and be able to share with the teachers from an interested second-party perspective. Seeing the benefits of blended learning in all its different facets in the different classrooms gives me a broader picture of the importance and need for this shift in our district.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Full Circle: A Year Full of Change

Birdville ISD Digital Learning Team 2015-16
 As I have been working on my sessions for the Texas ASCD ignite Conference, my thoughts have been returning to a year ago when I attended this conference. The ignite Conference was my very first educational technology conference, and it was also when I accepted a new position as a digital learning specialist. I actually took the call from the woman in HR between sessions at the Irving Convention Center. My new duty days and my new salary were explained to me as I tried to contain my excitement outside one of the junior ballrooms. 
     I spent the three days of the conference with my new team of digital learning specialists and the executive director. I attended my first Kasey Bell session, and I soaked up all of the learning at the sessions from the dazed perspective of an absolute novice to the scene of edtech. I left the conference with many great ideas, but I also left with the sickening realization of how much I did not know about the world of edtech. Thankfully, I had a full month to start "cramming" for my new position by following the edtech greats on Twitter and through blogs. 
      My year was whirlwind of change and growth for me, personally and professionally. My two teenagers kept me busy with new schools, a broken arm, constant rehearsals/shows, and practices/games. We sold a house; bought a new house, and moved twice...before Christmas. At work, I quickly acclimated to my campus assignments, two middle and two high schools. I prepared trainings for campuses and district conferences. I presented at the service center and at TXGoo, and I attended my very first TCEA Convention in February. I worked with my district's grant team to win a Raising Blended Learners grant from Raise Your Hand Texas, and I have been helping prepare teachers for blended learning in our district.
      Now, a full year later, I am preparing to present three sessions at the conference where I started it all. So much has happened since I sat in the seats at this conference that it almost seems like it has been much longer than one year. The year of experience has brought me the confidence I lacked when I left the conference last year, though the feeling of "I-still-have-so-much-to-learn" lingers and is possibly what I have come to love so much about the world of digital learning. So as I prepare my three sessions, I am thrilled that they are all on one day, so that I have two full uninterrupted days to learn from others again. As much as things change, some things stay the same.

Friday, May 20, 2016

It's a Small World After All: Functional Social Media

The evolution of social media as seen through the lens of an educator can be charted by the trends of student use. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, GroupMe, and SnapChat all have found traction over the years with the developmentally social teen set. Navigating and understanding the purposes and possibilities of different social media tools is crucial to administrators and educators today, not only to understand and connect with students, but also to connect with community, families, and other educators around the world.
As I communicate and share within my school district, I utilize different social media tools for different purposes. Twitter is my professional learning network, PLN. It is a place where I can search for great ideas through my follows and also connect with others in Twitter chats. I also use Twitter as a spotlight tool for my teachers and campuses. It is a quick way to give "shout-outs" and to bring attention to the great work that is going on in BISD classrooms.
Facebook is my personal life social media tool. My grandmother in northwest Missouri is on Facebook as are all my far-flung cousins. I post weekly photos of my children and try to keep family informed. When I started my position, I began to get FB friend requests from the teachers on the campuses I was assigned. I have to admit that I was a little surprised by this, just because I have compartmentalized my social media use and Facebook really is not something I use professionally at all. But then I thought about how not accepting the requests could affect the relationships that I was trying to build with the four different campuses. Would it hurt their feelings if I didn't accept? Since I only have one day a week with these people, getting to know them personally was a challenge. I decided that accepting the requests and connecting with all of these teachers on a personal level would actually help me get to know them faster than I would ever be able to do without Facebook.
As I head into the final days of my first school year as a digital learning specialist, I am very grateful that I decided to let these new friends into my personal life through the window of Facebook. I enjoy the baby gender reveals, the graduation photos, the recipes, and the which-puppy-should-I-get posts from all of my new Facebook friends. I can "like" posts and also have a little more insight into the personalities and lives of these people that I have the great fortune to serve. It has helped me get past the "district outsider" role and into a more "campus-based" role, which is essential to get teachers to not only understand how I can support them but also to trust me. It also provides conversation starters when I do get to meet with them face to face. "Wow, that was some awful hail damage!" or "Your daughter's prom dress was lovely."
So, as the digital nature of my position would suggest, I have learned how to embrace social media this year for different purposes that support the work I do with teachers and campuses. The benefits of immediate connection with followers and/or friends helps me communicate, collaborate, and celebrate in ways that are not possible in face to face interactions. Social media has helped me reach and connect with more teachers than I can physically meet with being split among four different campuses. These connections, more often than not, show common ground, common friends, and common experiences that make me realize that it really is "a small world after all."

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Global Connections in 140 Characters

Last week, I traveled to Houston for the annual Abydos Learning Conference and while I was waiting for the first session to start, I checked my email on my phone. I was surprised to find an email from a reporter with the New York Times waiting in my in-box. The reporter had seen a tweet from me about a learning game, and she wanted to interview me for an upcoming article.

Obviously, I understand that every time I tweet a short spotlight or comment about a teacher or student in my district that anyone can see it, but I suppose I still also assume that the vast majority of my Twitter "audience" are people who know me personally. The power of Twitter is that you can communicate, connect, and collaborate with anyone and everyone who is interested about a specific topic. This really hit home when my simple tweet about an 8th grade math teacher in Haltom City, Texas caught the eye of a reporter in New York City.

I did the phone interview standing outside the session at the conference, connecting with a complete stranger about my observations and experiences with online learning games. We talked for over twenty minutes about different aspects of a specific game platform and how students engage with the game. When I finished the call, I returned to my session and found myself marveling a little about how easily two strangers with a similar interest were able to connect and discuss something.

This is the power of Twitter. It is not just about connecting with those people who "follow" you, but it is also about connecting with people you have never met. The magnitude of being able to connect and gain insight with that diverse and far-flung an audience is pretty thrilling. I am acutely aware that my intentions and motives for tweeting are very different than my fifteen year old daughter's, and I need to better share these with my Twitter-reluctant colleagues. Twitter for educators is not as much about social media as it is about audience reaching, and all teachers share a connection with other teachers, even those they have never met. So, as I gained a new person to follow on Twitter, I also gained a deeper understanding about the power and reach of Twitter.

Now, I just need to work on better quotes for any future interviews. To read the published article, click here.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Andragogy? No, it's not Pedagogy for Androids

Andragogy is a specialized word that describes a concept that has become increasingly important to my success as a trainer of teachers. Malcolm Knowles researched and published much about the topic of adult learning (click here to go to resources) and I am focusing on incorporating his findings into my face-to-face training sessions for teachers, as well as my on-line course offerings. Adragogy seems pretty common sense at first glance, but transitioning from being a teacher of children to a teacher of adults does take some intentional redesign and thought about instructional delivery. Making myself remember and attend to the different needs of my older learners is crucial as I try to design sessions that are relevant, productive, and enjoyable. Whether I am sitting down one-to-one with a teacher or running a large rotation station activity for a staff of over a hundred, I want my attendees to value the experience.

As I constantly try to keep up the latest in educational technology, I find myself in the adult learner role almost as much as I am in the trainer role which provides me with many opportunities to observe and analyze effective best-practices of adult learning from that perspective. The biggest revelation for me is that best-practices for adult learners are not "one-size-fits-all." What I mean is that the best practices address the learning needs of the majority of adults, but there will always be outliers who need intuitive trainers who can be flexible and make instructional changes on the go in response to the individual needs of the audience.

So, as I embrace and implement Knowles' understandings about adult learners, I also humbly offer my own observations about the trainers themselves from my experiences.

But, if I was to single out one essential trait in effective trainers, it would have to be humility. Student learners don't necessarily need this trait from their teachers, but adult learners definitely require this. Adults are more receptive to trainers who are humble and helpful because adult learners absolutely will not tolerate even a hint of condescension from a trainer. I have seen how quickly the attitude and personality of a trainer can "turn" the adult participants "off." Adult learners demand autonomy with their teachers; they want trainers who are experts but who don't rub their upper hand in knowledge in the trainees' faces. "Know-it-all" personalities do not make effective trainers, no matter how much knowledge and experience they possess on a topic.

As I review attendee evaluations from my sessions and identify things I can improve for future trainings, I revisit the principles of andragogy and try to exemplify the traits of trainers I respect and have learned from. Acquiring a new pedagogical skill set is my personal professional development goal as I fine-tune how I deliver professional development for others.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

TCEA Connections!

I traveled to Austin this past week with my team to attend the amazing TCEA convention. The week was filled with great sessions presented by edtech greats from Texas and beyond. This was my first visit to this convention, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the learning. While I was down there, I submitted blog posts to TCEA describing the convention experience from my "newbie" perspective and these three were published.

And, my last post is below.

Networking at TCEA: Connected Educators Connecting Face-to-Face

As a new digital learning specialist coming straight out of the classroom, I have had to adjust my perspective to a more global view from my previous teacher tunnel vision. Focusing on my students and their success was my job, but my new job necessitates me thinking about all classrooms and all students. To change my thinking to serve all students, I had to learn a lot and I had to learn it fast. The only way to do this was to get "connected." Thankfully, there are countless amazing edtech leaders in our state who generously share with newcomers like myself.

This year's TCEA convention has a "Connected" theme, and I have made an effort to make face-to-face connections with the tech leaders who have been supporting and encouraging me through Twitter and blogs as I have been learning how to best serve my district as a digital learning specialist. 
A summary of my TCEA convention "connections" so far:
  • I met and chatted with Tracy Clark before her session in the ESL Academy. She discussed universal design and asked me how I use it in my district. (She also agreed to take a selfie with me so that I could "prove" the encounter to my team later.)
  • I spotted Kasey Bell giving directions to an attendee. I also got a picture of her giving a presentation on the bottom floor that I tweeted out to my group since my group loves her bottomless Google resources.
  • I even got brave enough to submit blog posts to TCEA to share my experiences with others and connect with my new peers. (I created my first blog this summer in response to a Kasey Bell teacher-blog challenge when she graciously re-tweeted my post and encouraged me, on Twitter, to keep posting.)
  • Yesterday, I attended a Diane Benner session to re-connect with an experienced TCEA presenter that I met for the first time at the TCEA Campus Technology Specialist Academy in November.
  • In an attempt to foster "connected" educators, I helped facilitate a "connected" educator Twitter chat that my team and other attendees participated in face-to-face in the Hyatt lobby with a guest host from another district. My teachers back home, on Twitter, were able to connect with us and other edtech lovers and truly exemplify "connected educators." 
  • And, this morning, I enjoyed the CAMP Sig breakfast where campus technology specialists from around the state got together, chatted, shared, and connected. I was able to meet other technology specialists from other districts and talk about mutual concerns over coffee.
 Making this type of effort to reach out to others in the field is just not something that I made time for as much as I should have when I was still in the classroom. I would not be able to do my job as effectively without the connections I have made with other connected educators and technology specialists. So, aside from the learning in the sessions here at the TCEA convention, I am also gaining so much from the connections I am making with edtech leaders and specialists from Texas and beyond. 
For me as a newcomer to the wonderful world of edtech, the theme of this convention resonates on many levels. I am now even more dedicated to going back to my district (campuses and teachers) and promoting these connections to the larger educational community to ultimately serve our students better as we leverage the experience and knowledge of others around the state. Only then can we start making the changes to education and how schools are instructing future-ready students.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Power of Spotlights

A little recognition goes a long way. The power of recognizing the efforts of others creates a culture of acceptance and celebration that can make growth and change possible. I was reminded of this when my seventh grade son, normally not very chatty about his school day, excitedly told us about the highlight of his day: a coach asked him what his name was. (Remember 7th grade? Boys start school athletics, and coaches, especially in Texas, carry a lot of weight in the minds of the impressionable, identity-searching teens they work with.) Max is a straight A student in all accelerated classes. He participated in the school Spelling Bee last week, and the school Geography Bee this week. He would not discuss those events with us, but the experience of being spoken to by a coach was re-told at least three times in my hearing this week.

Why was this simple act so memorable and significant to my son?

The middle-school teacher in me appreciates the importance of male-role models and how much influence they have on teen boys, but I really think the basis of his excitement was actually something much simpler. He has been in small private schools up until now, and he was well-liked and known by all the teachers and students. In his new school, a very large public middle school in Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, Max has been learning to navigate a much-less personalized learning model. It is not in his nature to call attention to himself, but when the track coach noticed Max's fast time on a 200 running drill and then asked him what his name was, Max (thankfully) played it cool and just answered, "Max," but in his re-telling of the event, he giggled and repeated over and over, "he asked me what my name was!"
It makes sense that he would be excited to be noticed in a sea of hundreds of other boys. It was the first time he has felt "noticed" at this school, and this simple recognition has made a normally stoic kid almost giddy.

In my new role as a digital learning specialist, I consider it one of the key parts of my job to spotlight and recognize teachers whenever I can. In the hectic atmosphere of high-stakes testing and increased accountability, administrators don't have the time to spotlight the many deserving teachers on their campuses, so I make it a priority. Finding something positive to mention, to write about on our district spotlight blog, to tweet out, or to include in my campus newsletter is making a difference on the campuses I work at. Teachers are finding me in the halls and asking me to come by their rooms to "check out this thing we are doing." Academic coaches are emailing me to brag about what they are seeing in rooms. And, principals are asking me to send along the photos I am getting in rooms of all the great learning opportunities that teachers are designing. Spotlighting and recognizing the efforts of every one I can does take time, but I believe that the effects of these simple positive recognitions is contributing to a changing district culture that embraces innovation, collaboration, and celebration.

With the new semester, our department debuted a new spotlight Twitter slow-chat on Fridays. Teachers and staff all over the district are encouraged to share out the amazing things that are happening with the hashtag, #BISDShines. The last few weeks, I have enjoyed wrapping up my work-week with a search of this hashtag before I go to bed on Friday nights. The feed is filled with many of my teachers spotlighting each other, themselves, and their students with this hashtag. Simple recognition is increasing the communication and positive sharing among teachers, and I love this.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Obligatory New Year's Resolutions Post

           My New Year's celebrations were a whirlwind as I returned to town from a trip to New England on New Year's Eve and basically spent New Year's recuperating from my travels. As I recuperated (ie. slept all day,) I did manage to do the obligatory self-reflections and resolution-making that New Year's traditions require. So, for what they're worth, here are my personal resolutions for transparency's sake.


1. Read more. During my trip north, I was able to read three novels and I realized how much I miss reading. Making and devoting time to read books, for pleasure or for work, is going to be a top priority for me this year.
2. Cook more. Our family moved during the last months of the year and fast-food became our norm out of necessity. Our new house has a nice, open kitchen and I'm dedicated to cooking more healthy options in this new space.
3. Learn more. With this new job, I am learning so much every day. I am preparing my admissions packet for an on-line Masters program at Texas A&M in Educational Technology. I think that doing the coursework as I am new to this position will help me apply what I am learning on my campuses.
4. Travel more. This new position comes with more duty days and a shorter summer, but I want to make more short trips with my kids this year. We have a London/Paris trip planned for July that will be amazing, but I want to get my children out of town on three-day weekends throughout the year.
5. Pause more. I tend to throw myself into projects at work and at home, and I know that I need to take time to relax more. I need to give myself time to just "chill out" with my kids and take little breaks from all my on-going projects to go to movies and play games more.

I will try to revisit and focus on these resolutions throughout the year. Hopefully, they will last longer than my previous resolutions. Whatever your resolutions are, I hope that they bring you "more" happiness and health in the new year.