What Jimmy Taught Me

The Lesson

This past August I was able to finally connect, in person, with Jimmy Casas.  We had connected via Twitter, but I had missed a few opportunities to meet him.  Not only did I meet him, but we spent a few hours at a DQ along with Travis Lape (@travislape).  Actually, they had to kick us out because they were trying to close for the night.  We discussed technology, connecting with passionate educators and school topics, of course.  When I asked if it is hard for his school to have him gone on speaking engagements, he kept using this phrase – “Build Capacity”.  I could hear his words, but my mind was struggling with the practical look of the phrase.

The “A-ha” Moment

Our school district had an unfortunate event of a school shooting last week.  Locally, the news covered it extensively.  Nationally, it received some press, but not headline news.  In my opinion I believe that was because the shooter failed to take lives.  I won’t spend time discussing the events of Wednesday.  You can check the local news agencies if you want to learn more (www.keloland.com, http://www.ksfy.com, http://www.kdlt.com).

During this crisis I was at a conference.  As the details came to me about the events at our high school, I knew our middle school would be involved in connecting parents and students.  We prepare for crisis events, but can never prepare for all things.  When the day was complete and after communicating with my staff, they completed the tasks marvelously.  Then, the epiphany: staff had capacity built to deal with this crisis.  Now the discussion with Jimmy was very clear.  Whether an administrator or teacher, our work has to function and operate without us at times.  Many will argue it should most of the time.  What are a few keys to this?  Organization and communication of objectives.  Procedures need to be practiced…repeatedly.

What about your classroom?

My thoughts now extend to individual teachers and their work in classrooms.  Could your classroom produce results without you?  I think several discussions emerge from this thought, but a good starting point is teacher vs. student ownership in the learning process.  How much instructional control do you exhibit in your realm?  Do students sit and listen or do they lead the direction of instruction?

I do believe there are times when teachers need to provide direct instruction, but too often we fail to release the reigns of the classroom. Whether you have a period, block or modular schedule, we need to initiate the student ownership within our discussion, activities and/or questioning.

How do you build capacity in your classroom and instruction or your building?

  1. Let Go: If you have problems releasing control, building capacity will be difficult.  Administratively, you need to trust capable people to lead processes and initiatives.  In the classroom you have to assess the level of student ownership.  One way to do this is to view the amount students control the discussions and questions.
  2. Be flexible: Kids have good ideas, too.  Use them as a resource.
  3. Build on student interest and discussion: The heart of every lesson includes student interest and learning.  When moments of discussion and inquiry emerge, we need to facilitate, not drive, the process.  In our building we have an emphasis of allowing risks.  This has allowed us to take their interests and find ways to incorporate them into the curriculum.  One example includes drones  Students love to explore, create and tinker.  They love drones, but we want them to see the connection to learning, not just fly them down the hallway.  Currently we are working with a school in Bergen, Norway to have our math classes use them with content.

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4. Student Voice and Choice: How often do you allow students to provide a voice in your school or classroom?  In our building students have voice in school climate, technology and initiatives.  Our classrooms have made it possible for students to choose a direction in their instruction, whether by providing options for completion or allowing them to generate ideas to display mastery.

Keep asking these questions: Can you leave your classroom with someone else and it functions w/out you there?  How often do I trust the people around me to be experts and learn together?

Genius Hour Twist

Here’s to the creative group that embraces Genius Hour and Passion Projects.  The transparency of this group on Twitter is phenomenal.  Our Genius Hour Twist is “Under the Influence” of several key people: Joy Kirr @joykirr and Don Wettrick @donwettrick.  Joy runs her GH in her classroom, allowing for 20% of her week to be spent on these projects.  Don Wettrick has written a book called Pure Genius.  It details his work with his innovation class and discusses the value of fostering an environment of creativity.

After doing several Google Hangouts with Joy in the late summer and fall of 2014, I approached a teacher, Mr. Dick (@techducation), to see if he wanted to take on the task.  This led to what I call the ‘singular model’, GH projects completed by a single teacher in a single discipline or grade level.  In other words, they are completing this project alone.  In our building of 340 students we had four teachers leading a singular model by the end of first semester.  When reflecting on the experience with students, they were burnt out on the multiple projects.

This experience led me to visualize a grade level sharing a GH project.  When speaking with Don, he thought it was a great idea, and neither of us had heard of this being done.  But it is only a thought if you don’t have a group a teachers willing to take a risk.   To move this from thought to reality, I approached our 8th grade team members about my vision – have every 8th grade student complete a GH project by sharing it across disciplines.

Carla Diede (@carladiede), Team Leader, ran with this idea and produced a GH folder of documents that were used for the project (partial screenshot below).

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The goal: begin second semester with an 8th grade kickoff/brainstorming event.  After that event a content area would own GH each week, or give 20% of their class time to promote projects (i.e., ELA week one, Science week two…).  The students will have 14 weeks to complete their projects with some selected to do TED Talks.

By creating an adjusted schedule for classes in 8th grade, a two hour block was created at the end of the day for GH.  First, teachers had their advisory students and discussed the purpose.  They also viewed a TED Talk by Scott McLeod (@mcleod) looking at the creativity of some projects.  Next, teachers brought all the students to the Commons, an area large enough to involve 123 students.

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In the Commons several teachers introduced the activity to the students.  Staff wanted to help students with the idea process, so they created categories to foster topics (i.e., Science/Health, Community Service, Technology, Art/Music/Literature, Construction/Design, and School Improvement).  Students had five, little post-it notes that needed an idea on it.  Those notes could then be placed in one of the categories on larger pieces of paper with a category as a heading.


Students then rotated in groups viewing each category and the generated ideas.  They then would have their idea approved by peers and teachers.  We facilitated this process with Google sites; it will also serve as our tracking system for progress.  Travis Lape assisted in refining this process.


When a decision of a project was completed, students could then begin researching.  Each teacher was assigned a category, so students had a staff member with some expertise available to assist.

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When comfortable with student progress, the teachers walked students down to their advisories to wrap-up the day.

As a reflection tool, I asked Don Wettrick via Google Hangouts to listen to the team discussion with our 8th grade teachers.  They reviewed the activity, sought ideas to better the process and viewed the path forward.  Don had some great input as he listened to the conversation.



Over the next 14 weeks, students will refine their projects or change projects after doing feasibility studies.

Reflecting on this project, I am so excited to have a group of teachers that own a venture like this.  Whether they are GH promoters or along for a ride, the students are going to see a consistent front from our 8th grade team.  It is also a joy to see the excitement in the teachers while creating this project.  I believe more each day that we should be in the business of unleashing student creativity.  What do businesses really need in today’s world?  Creative, flexible thinkers who are not afraid to risk failure.  GH fits this perfectly, and South teachers are beginning to embrace this as well.  Similar to Don, we are transparent with our ideas.  We would love to connect with you regarding this GH Twist.

Thoughts on Personalized Learning

Our high school in Harrisburg, SD, under the direction of Dr. Kevin Lein, has embarked on a journey of customized learning for our students the past two years.  Most schools approach this from the elementary level and move up.  Dr. Lein has decided to start at the top and work down.  His concept of using a modular schedule came from visits with Omaha Westside in Nebraska and several school in Maine.  Maine also influenced his drive for a customized learning model with the assistance of our state technology group, TIE.

My view of this model of education has been influenced by several people and entities.  First, I wholeheartedly agree with Eric Sheninger’s push to move away from the Industrialization model of education.  This is outdated and does not fit all the students that enter our building.  They are digital learners, moving at differing paces in their educational life.  Second, Dr. Lein’s passion to drive a customized model for students has been relentless.  The forward thinking approach fostered by him is contagious.  Third, South Middle School has created a relationship with Pioneer Ridge Middle School (PRMS) in Chaska, MN.  Their Personalized Learning Coach, Mary Perrine, has developed a foundation for personalized learning for her school.  Our staff has made three visits to view their Adventures program, and it has been rewarding every visit.  To hear their students describe their learning is amazing.  They speak about assessments, choice, and owning their learning.  Listening to their mature answers, you are amazed that these are sixth graders being interviewed.

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PRMS began with a small group of teachers willing to take a risk on a paradigm shift.  Mary Perrine has led an organized charge beginning with staff professional development.  Students begin their day by scheduling their Adventures classes, which include ELA, Science and Social Studies.  Even though they are in the early stages of personalized learning, Mary and her staff have set a solid foundation for growth into this model.


Our move at South MS from a culture of learned helplessness to student accountability will include a form of personalized learning.  One of the great attributes we can give students is to develop them into responsible learners.  At this time we have a few teachers who are changing their instruction to reflect a seminar/workshop/personal flex model similar to PRMS.  Mrs. Diede provides her Math students choice in a traditional 43 minute period.  Students are at their own pace, but she still provides a seminar for instruction if requested (picture 1).  Other students have the opportunity to complete work or pace ahead.

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As mentioned earlier, a strong foundation and plan is needed for this type of change – Transformational Change.  In a recent article on the topic of transformational change was discussed from the perspective of the business world.  It suggests that transformational change requires a “portfolio of initiatives, which are interdependent or intersecting.”  The article continues with this fabulous comment, “More importantly, the overall goal of transformation is not just to execute a defined change — but to reinvent the organization and discover a new or revised business model based on a vision for the future.”  How does this correlate to personalized learning?  The better question is how doesn’t it fit the immense change in our educational culture and history of delivering instruction to students?  Aligning initiatives that work together for a common end, reinventing the system, discovery of new models, and a vision for who this will affect.  In our world the ‘who’ are our students.  If we truly believe that personalized learning will benefit our students, then throw your effort and passion to this change.  Because change is not easy for our stakeholders, you have to withstand the kickbacks/arguments against it and believe in the value for our students.

I would love to hear your stories of personalized learning and read any resources you might share.  Transformational change begins with one but needs passionate colleagues for sustainability.  Here’s a toast to Risk – Love It!

Ashkenas, Ron. “We Still Don’t Know the Difference Between Change and Transformation.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2015. <http://linkis.com/hbr.org/2015/01/NRQJU>.

Sustaining a BYOD Initiative

It is interesting how I get simple thrills from elements of education.  In February of 2014 we piloted a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative, which has been successful.  The thrill – seeing the variety of devices that students use in our classroom instruction!  It would be nice to have every student equipped with an MacBook Air, but there is something special about seeing students use a device that fits their personality.  In our case we did not have the funding for a school-sponsored 1-1 initiative at the middle school level.  This led to the exploration of BYOD plans.


Positive results for our staff and students include achieving a 1-1 environment, students ability to research immediately, students feel more organized, students don’t lose paper copies diminishing late work, students and staff believe learning is enhanced, productivity increased and several others.

Items that we continue to address are teacher professional development, finding ways that iPads and Google can play well together, finding more ideas to get beyond the “$1000 pencil” mentality, and efficient ways to track learning gains.

If you want to produce a solid BYOD initiative, research several different existing policies.  More BYOD deaths are caused by the lack of a solid policy foundation.  The other key component is your infrastructure and can it handle the increased traffic on access points and bandwidth.  Communicating with stakeholders is another key component.  We help three meetings after school hours.  If they did not show to the meetings, we found them at Parent Teacher Conferences and had discussions about BYOD.  You also need to prepare for the maintenance questions involving hardware and software.  We made sure students and parents understood that teachers are not responsible for troubleshooting student devices.

Moving forward, we have seen some great collaborative projects emerge (see pictures below).  One goal for staff development is incorporating the SAMR model with our staff.  They will be working to achieve Modification and Redefinition by the end of quarter 3.  Check out my Google site for articles on SAMR.

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Every Beginning has an Influence

Even a beginning has an influence.  As a matter of fact, I am Under the Influence of many creative-thinking people on social media.  After attending an in-depth session with George Couros, @gcouros, in December, time has to be made to put down thoughts regarding learning.  I want this blog to be a resource of ideas, but also a place where questions are asked leading to more student voice/choice and changing how we instruct this generation.

I want education to be transformed from its current state.  Gone are the days of sterile learning environments, such as standard row seating with uncompromising furniture.  Four of us from our school were able to view the changing landscape for classroom furniture at Target Corp.  Lisa McGinnis contacted our Technology Integrationist (@travislape) while we were in Minneapolis in December.  The tour was a refreshing look at learning spaces.  The possibilities for student collaboration envisioned during this tour was limitless.  Students would have the opportunity to be in a flexible learning environment.  

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For this school  year I am impressing four main points to staff at South Middle School.  First, I want a concerted effort to increase student voice and choice in the classroom.  Second, we are pushing all staff to have a social media/technology presence for their classroom and our school.  This is indicative of the positive school culture we are building.  Some call it Branding, some refer to it as school climate or culture.  We also are pushing to incorporate more technology into our lessons, which coincides with our BYOD initiative.  Third, staff are moving students toward more collaboration or mashing of ideas and inviting creativity in student work.  The final point involves risk.  I love risk-taking.  I want risks to be embraced by staff and students at our school. Risks lead to deeper learning, because failure has to be confronted and reflected upon.  But risk is not a comfortable realm for most people, so we need to lead by example.  What risk are you taking today?