To my children’s teachers…

If you’re looking for permission to experiment, to innovate, to take chances while my sons are in your classroom, here you go:

Permission to Cannonball

Who: my sons’ current and future teachers

What: Take risks. Ditch the curriculum if it isn’t working. Ditch the whole model if it isn’t working. Try new things. Push back when my kids complain that they don’t know what to do or how to do it and can’t figure it out. Encourage them. Know that by modeling innovation and being transparent about it, you are showing them exactly what they need as learners.

Where: in your classroom. Or outside, in the community, via the Web, or any other place that might inspire learning.

When: NOW, please!

Why: My kids need you. I know you’re nervous. I know there are standards. I know there are curriculum maps and lesson plans and a grade book. I know you worry what will happen next year when my kids land in that traditional teacher’s classroom and they haven’t learned all the parts of speech or the details of the fall of Rome or truly understood what the mitochondria does. I’m okay with that, because instead you are lighting their fire. You are igniting their passion for learning. If they want to go to school because you are doing amazing things and they are thirsty for more, you are doing exactly what I am giving you permission to do now.

Photo cred: Gleb Lukomets

How: I have ideas and would be happy to discuss them if you would like, but I trust in you. If you take this permission seriously, it indicates your readiness and willingness to jump in. Feel free to reach out if you need direction.

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I give you this permission slip now, in the middle of the school year, in an attempt to encourage you to take risks and to pave the road for future innovators. The due date? NOW. TODAY.

I, Lori Lisai, give my children’s teachers permission to cannonball. They may take risks and try new things in order to inspire my children to new learning.
 

Signed, Lori Lisai

Thank you to the teachers who inspired this post for their willingness to take risks and to verbalize their nervousness in doing so. I applaud your vulnerability and your willingness to bust through boundaries regardless.

5 ways to reset the energy in your classroom

It’s Monday morning.  Students are tired.  A quick glance around the room reveals half-full mega Dunkin’s, Monsters almost gone, and groggy teens. 

When my co-teacher and I talked about this lesson on Friday, we envisioned chart paper and brainstorming, our full group digging into standards and reflecting.

But now it’s Monday morning. A full weekend has lapsed, and I’m late to class due to other early-morning issues I had to address. So when I walk in expecting class to be engaged in meaningful reflection and discussion, I’m dismayed to find my co-teacher standing at the front of the room talking.  And talking.  And talking.  

I can see his message is failing to translate.  There are too many words for Monday morning.  Our students’ energy is so low, and yet it’s this elephant in the room that everyone is actively ignoring. How might we defeat this?

5 ways to reset the energy:

  1. Call it out. Embrace your inner Richard Simmons (where is he, anyway?) and kick that low energy to the curb with a quick brain break or simple yoga warm-up.
  2. Get them talking. It’s Monday. We just wakin’ up. Let’s talk about our weekend, our morning, our breakfast…just something to warm up those talking and thinking muscles so we can then start to think about the content.
  3. Switch gears with some media. Make a playlist of video clips to have on file for occasions such as these–short clips of genius that will help ease them into the right frame of mind (or just simply hit the reset button).
  4. Take a lap. Get outside and do a “walk-n-talk” guided by a question you (or your students) pose. Students pair up and discuss that question on their walk. It might be something content-related or it might not; make the call based on your students.
  5. Brain dump. Give students 5-7 minutes to write (or doodle, or whatever they create with a pencil and paper) about whatever they want to write about. Provide the open space to share afterward, which may lead to some lively conversation.

We eventually recovered, but we didn’t employ any of these strategies. (Failure is the best teacher?) Teaching is such a human-centered profession and so very personal, but sometimes we ignore that fact and soldier on in an effort to stick to our plans. Believe me, it’s worth the 10-15 minute investment to start with students who are ready to learn…and you might just be building relationships along the way. Let’s remember this as we return from December break!

photo cred Zachary Nelson: Unsplash

What are some ways you reset the energy in your classroom? Please share!

What’s in a name? That which we call personalized learning…

doesn’t smell so sweet.  I battled a serious case of heartburn reading this recent NPR article by Anya Kamenetz parsing out the different definitions of “personalized learning.”   Take a look:

“In fact, in speaking about [personalized learning] with more than a dozen educators, technologists, innovation experts and researchers, I’ve developed a theory: “Personalized learning” has become a Janus-faced word, with at least two meanings in tension:

The use of software to allow each student to proceed through a pre-determined body of knowledge, most often math, at his or her own pace.

A whole new way of doing school, not necessarily focused on technology, where students set their own goals. They work both independently and together on projects that match their interests, while adults facilitate and invest in getting to know each student one-on-one, both their strengths and their challenges.

Which vision of personalization will prevail? Pace alone, or “Personalize it all”? And what proportion of the hype will be realized?”

Kamenetz, Anya, et al. “The Future Of Learning? Well, It’s Personal.” NPR, NPR, 16 Nov. 2018, http://www.npr.org/2018/11/16/657895964/the-future-of-learning-well-it-s-personal.

OH MY GAWD, LET IT BE NUMBER 2!!!

I spent last year engaged in a deep dive through an experience aptly named Learning Lab looking at this very question: what exactly is personalized learning?  With a group of incredibly talented educators, I grappled with an inquiry question around the importance of reflection in this new type of learning, attempting to refine my own definition. 

Lessons learned in stepping back: personalization in two student-centered classes (Business Start-ups & Exploring Education)

Still working on it.

Learning Lab 2.0 has launched with a new cohort looking at the same overarching theme, and diving into their own inquiries.  The range of questions is broad, but personalization in every context has a few things in common:

  • student voice and choice are paramount
  • students are partners
  • teachers act as guides, encouraging and inspiring, providing feedback and probing questions 

Part of my issue with Kamenetz’s article comes in this quote:

“At the beginning of a fad there’s a naming problem,”Rich Halverson says. He’s an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has spent the last few years traveling around the country to see personalized learning in action at public schools.

Kamenetz, Anya, et al. “The Future Of Learning? Well, It’s Personal.” NPR, NPR, 16 Nov. 2018, http://www.npr.org/2018/11/16/657895964/the-future-of-learning-well-it-s-personal.

FAD??  

Come on!  Shifting practice so students drive the learning??  That’s a fad?  You understand the heartburn.  I hope.  If not, here’s my point about the danger: we have to get on the same page about what works for students.  The first definition offered (tech-driven pace-focused learning in front of a screen) can’t be seen as a solution.  Maybe it’s a part of a much larger whole, but when people make sweeping assumptions about a model like this as a solution to what ails public education, you get this.  Instead, let’s come to terms with the fact that students deserve a nuanced definition of personalized learning that always puts them at the center.  Zmuda, Curtis, and Ullman’s definition is one I prefer: 

Personalized learning is a progressively student-driven model in which students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes.

Zmuda, A., Curtis, G., & Ullman, D. (2015). Learning personalized: The evolution of the contemporary classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

I love the idea of “progressively” student-driven, as it acknowledges that students do need some guidance; however, it suggests that students will eventually become capable of driving the ship themselves.  

If you haven’t seen Kallick and Zmuda’s Personalized Learning Sound Board yet, it’s a great metaphor for the mixing we must do as educators to find just the right balance for our students: 

Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. “Orchestrating the Move to Student-Driven Learning.” Educational Leadership, vol. 74, no. 6, Mar. 2017, pp. 53–57., doi:10.18411/a-2017-023.

Let’s acknowledge that we are professionals who understand that traditional teaching methods are not serving the needs of our students today.  However, the shift to update isn’t a simple answer but demands we consider the humans at the center of our profession.  The definition of personalized learning is as nuanced, multi-faceted and intricate as the students themselves, and that is as it should be.

Empathy & Engagement: finding light in the darkness

“She’s just…gone,” she said to me, and I felt her energy–a sadness fueled by intense empathy–and I empathized in return.  So many feelings–pride that we have teachers like her who stop into the office before 8 a.m. to check on students’ well being, sadness that we have students who surf couches and show up hungry, hesitation in my response as I tried to remain open to her tears and find words to fill the space where there were none to reassure.

Empathy is powerful.  It can lay you flat out if you let it, and it did that to me today.  There were tears, those I usually keep boxed up in a tight container, that flowed freely out the sides.  I let myself truly feel for others, and yes, it hurt.  And in our current political climate, I find myself drawn back to empathy time and again, trying to make sense of things I do not understand.

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I don’t understand why some students must find ways to ask if we might have some food to spare–using humor, usually–because they struggle to quiet rumbles of hunger.  I don’t understand why students have to live in unhealthy circumstances beyond their control at home, and then come to schools where their voices are rarely heard there either.  I don’t understand why some teachers find it so difficult to build real relationships with students.

 

In tandem with the scant hours of fall daylight, there is darkness in school.  But in this darkness, I seek the bright spots.  One to note:

we have shifted our priorities this year to make time for things that matter,

one of them being time for students to explore personal interests.  On Thursdays, students participate in a 45-minute workshop designed expressly for discovery and exploration.  Here’s what some of them had to say about the experience:

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Encouraging, right?  Vermont says we must personalize learning, and so we create a schedule in partnership with students that prioritizes time for them to explore passions.  In some instances, it becomes the highlight of their week.  It has other unintended and serendipitous consequences: students create new friendships based on common interests; they feel valued and mitigate their stress; they discover new interests that inspire them.

In short, we strengthen culture.IMG_1217

Empathy requires that you feel, and that’s scary for some (including me).  Without it though, we find ourselves in tragic situations.  I believe our schools should be places of comfort, inspiration, and belonging.  Connecting with students, personalizing the school experience, valuing their voice…they aren’t extras.  They’re the very foundation upon which we build strong schools, and it’s time we prioritize these shifts.  We live in a world where school isn’t just school anymore; it’s the therapist’s office, the doctor, the parent, the family.

Let’s embrace what empathy can teach us about becoming the teachers that students need us to be in this present moment.

 

 

Spirit animals & the power of reflection

While I would be proud to present my spirit animal as the wise owl, the shrewd wolf, or the majestic eagle, I share a far more ridiculous reality: SQUIRREL!  No, really.  It’s SQUIRREL!  It’s my inspiration junkie self finally coming to terms with the beauty of this animal in its abrupt pivots, its nimble movements over unstable terrain, its rapid adjustments and keen senses.  Squirrels are adorable bundles of explosive energy and it’s difficult to predict where they’ll go next.  I’m down with that, and it took a trip to SXSWEdu and a chance meeting of a fellow SQUIRREL! for me to identify and embrace this fact.  I understand its significance and importance in my life, and now I have an answer when someone asks that most revealing of questions as a conversation opener.

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Look at this guy…so ready to go get ’em!  Photo: Anthony Intraversato

All this erratic squirrel energy demands balance, and that prompts me to reflect on reflection.  I’ve pondered the place of reflection in the new educational landscape, and part of my struggle remains the time it takes to sufficiently reflect.  Who has time for reflection when you could be DOING something?!  Then my mind goes all John Dewey on me and I remember my wits:

“We do not learn from experience.  We learn from reflecting on experience.”

He’s looking all Uncle Sam with a pointy finger in my mind, but okay.  I believe this.  Reflection is important.  And our students do not have a firm grasp on what it means to reflect.  (Honestly, they’re more SQUIRREL! than I am.)  While co-teaching our Exploring Education class, Pat LaClair and I found ourselves mired in attempts to help students reflect.  We failed.  Often.  We started by asking thought-provoking questions.  We shared examples.  We asked what our students thought about their experiences and then we asked WHY?  Why did they feel this way?  While we eventually made some progress from relatively shallow answers to more in-depth thought, I was left with two observations:

1. reflection is absolutely imperative to deeper learning.

2. we need to vary our approach.

How might we do that?  Some moments of inspiration hit hard last week while I was in a workshop at SXSWEdu led by  Dan Ryder and Amy Burvall.  The two have created an incredible collection of activities in Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom that promise to develop metaphorical thinkers, and I believe that this is one way forward with reflection.  In a world of SQUIRREL! type thinkers, these activities are quick, fun, and genuinely compel students to reflect and think deeply.  With Legos.  And Oreos.  Check out our exercise in representing a social issue with Oreo:

That toilet?  Come on!  Brilliant.  We had two minutes and an Oreo.  Take a second (SQUIRREL time) and consider the kind of thinking one has to engage in to bring to life this simple creation.  It’s metaphorical, right?  And metacognitive.  It’s creative, and it’s deeper than even a thought-provoking question might elicit.  While I believe that written reflection is integral to learning, we need additional formative opportunities to help students move toward deeper reflection.  With short activities such as these (heavily weighted with fun), students can begin to develop the kind of mindset that deep reflection requires.

Dan and Amy: thank you for pulling together an amazing collection of “reflection recipes.”  It’s perfect for this SQUIRREL! and I know it’s going to be spot-on for those in my class…now what was that about design thinking, deeper learning, and wait, SQUIRREL!

Dan & Amy’s book can be found on Amazon.

Game design & Proficiency Assessment: LUHS students capture the adventure of the Renaissance

Are games really a viable option for assessing student learning?

The social studies department recently invited me to a meeting to deliberate this question.  Lively discussion ensued about how one might really assess learning by asking students to create a game.  Among the comments were these:

  • There is already a great game out there about trade.  Maybe we should just have them play Catan (formerly Settlers of Catan).
  • How much time is this going to take?  A test will only take part of the period.
  • I don’t know how it will look.  What do I tell students if they ask me questions about how to design a game?  I’m not sure I know how to do that.
  • And finally: we agreed to try this.  Let’s do it and see how it goes.

I understand the fear.  It is disquieting to ask students to do something that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with yourself.  But.  BUT.  Sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do, and you agree to figure it out together.  (See Innovator’s Mindset: risk taking.)  Here’s the thing: games are a second (or first?) language for our students.  They speak game fluently.  They know health; they know roles; they know many things about games you’ve never heard of.  The most important thing you need to know as teachers?

Students love games, and they can and will take your content and turn it into a game if you give them the time and some guidance.

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Trade routes & settlements: a game board in design

“I get it,” one teacher said to me when I walked into his room later that week to find groups in deep and eager conversation about their game design.  He looked at his room full of engaged–no, empowered–students, looked at me, and said, “I see what you’ve been trying to do.”  I’ve been working to help teachers take games seriously over the past couple of years, and it’s a goal often lost in the proficiency/personalized learning shuffle.  The real work has been in showing teachers that games aren’t something in addition to the changes they are making to implement Act 77; they ARE the change.  Just one piece, but one that deserves attention, because

games and game-like learning are excellent vehicles for meaningful content delivery and assessment.

Take the social studies proficiency that was the focus for this unit: P.I. 9 (Economics): I can analyze how economic globalization and the expanding use of scarce resources have contributed to conflict and cooperation within and among countries.  Perfect platform for a game, right?  Yes, Klaus Teuber already created something awesome, but let’s see what the students can do with this.  

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Classic Monopoly remade: Renaissance resources dictate a new take on an old favorite

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Candyland revamp: the Renaissance magic is in the cards

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Playtesting a take on Trivial Pursuit

While some students modeled their games after board games we know and love, some embraced their creativity and truly went rogue.  One group created a game where Heaven and Hell were the ultimate end–dictated by choices and currency exchange, often connected to churches.  (Interesting social commentary, too.)  Another group created a game based on settlements and trade routes whose success is dictated by not only the resources accrued but also by luck and happenstance.  While I reminded students of the importance of starting any good game with the ultimate learning goal, I also asked that they elect one member of their group to be the “fun police” (originated and coined beautifully by the Institute of Play).  They had a great time creating game mechanics that left players “dead” or headed back to start because of plague or other catastrophes.

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Bad eggs lead to death.  Good life lesson?

 

Sure, the games look good.  But are they good?

What are students really learning through game design?

Let’s talk about the proficiency first.  I took a stroll around the room of game designers and asked them to tell me how their game would teach players about scarcity, trade, conflict and cooperation.  Yes, there were blank stares.  But when I prodded a bit further, every student was able to explain in vivid detail how their game play addressed exactly those concepts.  Whether it was the act of trading resources of varying value, losing valuables to thievery during the New Age and gaining advantages as the culture shifted, or dictating card values based on resources, the students were able to explain how players would engage with the content.

A quick google form to garner feedback and reflection post-game creation also allowed students to reflect on the proficiency:

proficiency reflection

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Travel through the Ages: resource allotment from Renaissance to Reformation

That content holds a place in students’ overall education, but in my mind,

the true power of game creation is in the focus on transferable skills.

Here’s what two students had to say about how game design helped them practice communication skills:

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And problem solving:

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Is it worth the time commitment?

If you want students to delve into deeper learning, you have to provide the time and space for them to do so.  While you may not know how long it will take, or how it might look as things unfold, or if you’ll have the answers students seek, I implore you to

 give yourself permission for things to get messy

for there are tangible rewards on the other side.  Take the risk.  Cannonball.

 

Resources:

Institute of Play’s Game Design pack : in-depth game design guide brilliantly designed & executed

Game design handout for students : the handout used by the social studies department for this unit.  Thanks so Amanda Denison for creating it!