Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Framing Innovation

It happens at nearly every conference I attend.

"Oh, I recognize you! It's the glasses."

The thick black cat's eyes have framed my perspective for the last seven years. Sometimes the opposite will happen. If I am not wearing my glasses, students and even friends have walked right by me without a spark of recognition. These frames have become my brand, if you will. It is how people come to recognize and remember me, at least initially. But a conversation at last night's TED Summit dinner has me looking at my lenses through a new perspective.

Amanda Palmer, who happens to be here in Banff for the TED Summit, writes in her book about how her perspective was changed by shaving her eyebrows, a look that has become part of her signature style:
"I found to my delight, that it had the unintended side effect of causing people to look me in the eye. When you have creatively painted eyebrows, people will assume you're approachable and affable, and talk to you."
This has also been true of my black cat's eye frames dotted with silver stars in the corners. I have been stopped on the street and questioned in the checkout line. They are a ready made conversation starter. And as I am not the best at small talk or even introducing myself to strangers, my glasses help me connect immediately. There was the barista who had to know where I got my frames because they reminded her of a picture of her mother, which was a reason I was drawn to them as well. My mother wore a similar pair in her high school graduation photo. The mother who stopped me to share her love of the singer Lisa Loeb (again, me too). My frames are a way to form immediate connections, to share stories, and move beyond simply getting to know someone by asking what they do for a living. These frames introduce me before I even open my mouth to speak.

And last night at dinner, TED fellow Tunji Lardner helped me think through my lenses from a new perspective.

Over our first course, Mr. Lardner asked about the role of the new TED Innovative Educators within the larger TED community. I described the innovation projects that each of us would spend the next year working on. He asked about how we, those of us sitting around him, framed the idea of innovation. What is innovation? The conversation evolved to discusseing how elements of design and innovation are dependent upon a particular cultural lense. Innovation, real innovation, must then both acknowledge that frame and move beyond it. Our culture frames design, frames innovation. What then is innovation at a global level?
Photo by TED Innovative Education YauJau Ku

So now I'm thinking about how my glasses might also serve as a reminder. The fat black frame is always present in my periphery, serving as a reminder for me to check my perspective. I am always aware of the frame through which I interact with the world. My glasses tangibly remind me that I have a particular perspective and perhaps if I want to think outside that frame, I might need to remove my glasses.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Not Just A Matter of Luck

It is our first full day at the TED Summit in Banff. Our group of 30 TED Innovative Educators (TIEs) from around the world is pitching our innovation plans. Mine has to do with mentoring passion. In preparing my pitch, I am reminded of a conversation a number of years back.

The year I first started teaching high school English, we piled into a friend's Honda and drove south to Williamsburg, Virginia, to spend Thanksgiving break with a group of friends from our college years. We spent all morning, afternoon, and into the wee hours of the morning cooking, eating, laughing, playing Boogle, and chatting. Sometime after three in the morning, one of my close friends turned to me and declared me lucky. "You've always known what you wanted to do with your life." And then she popped a question that many of my high school students have also grappled with:
"How do your figure out your passion?"
I didn't always know that I wanted to be a teacher. As a child, I remember declaring that I wanted to be an astronomer, namely because being an astronaut sounded scary and none of first grade peers seemed to know that an astronomer was. I thought it sounded cool. Secretly, I wanted to be a mermaid. But all the while, whether astronomer, mermaid, author, or teacher, I was writing. When I look back at what brought me joy as a child and what continues to bring me joy, it often involves writing. My passion for encouraging emerging writers to share their voice with real readers developed out of my own love for writing.

Luckily, I had teachers along the way that encouraged my writing. Tucked away somewhere in a trunk in my parent's basement is my very first book - The Amazing Talking Dog -  which I wrote as a fourth grader as part of the Young Author's initiative. In eighth grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Zeinstra, had us bring in notebooks which we wrote in every single day. We scribbled down lines from favorite poems which we found in her collection of anthologies lining the windowsills. We crafted stories that incorporated the hijinks of our peers as main plot points, taking joy in reading them aloud. We wrote every day. As a high school senior, my AP English teacher asked if he might submit a poem I wrote for an assignment to a regional writing competition. Before submitting it, we met after school to talk about the tone of one particular word I had used in the piece. Mr. Dik and I discussed how a single word can alter the feel of a text, but ultimately, he left the decision about whether I changed the work in my hands. Weeks later he took me into the city along with a couple of other classmates when the winners were announced. My name wasn't classed, but it didn't matter. I was lucky. It was this experience - playing with words, crafting lines, working with writers - where I was lucky to discover what I wanted to spend my life doing.

My good friend and so many of my students have not been as lucky, especially when what has brought them joy does not easily fit into one of the content-area silos of our current education system. What happens to the student who wants to design toys? What content-area does that fall under? Will that student be encouraged in our current system? What happens to the passion that does not easily fit into the curriculum of our algebra classes or biology or American literature?

We are educating students out of their stories. We are educating people out of passion.

That Thanksgiving conversation has haunted me, namely because I found my friend's question so difficult to answer:
"How do you figure out your passion?"
She wanted something more tangible, something she could do. Was there a class that I took in college that helped me discover a career path I am passionate about? Was there a book she could read? In my current classroom, I hear echoes of this same question. Is there a website I could look at? A test I might take to understand what my passion might be?

We have taught students how to look up the answers, but we have given them the questions. We have fed them questions that have right answers. My students, many of them, lack the confidence to struggle with the unknown, lack the practice of coming up with their own big questions.

I teach high school English in the third poorest county in my state. Our high school of about 900 students sits squarely in the middle of Michigan farm country. Over the course of this past year, I have had students struggle with food insecurity, homelessness, depression and suicide, broken homes, and broken hearts. Our teachers are fighting to raise our graduation rate and prepare our students for what lies outside the walls of our school. Unfortunately, our effectiveness is measured in how well our students pass the state tests. And so to prepare students for these tests and to take the college entrance exams, many of the writing experiences that my students have had in school have been in the form of timed essays written to a single prompt. As many of my students will be first generation college students, early exposure to the type of writing tasks that they will encounter on the SAT and ACT and AP test is helpful. To an extent. However, this cannot be the only type of writing we ask of students. Such high-stakes testing situations will not make up a majority of the writing experiences that my students will have over the course of their lifetimes. And yet, this is the type of writing they are most often asked to craft whilde in school. By the time I meet students as sophomores, juniors, and seniors, they are frustrated writers, frustrated by a lack of choice, lack of purpose, lack of writing that has relavence to their lived experiences.  They no longer see the purpose of writing yet another essay. Far too many papers have been returned with red circles and hash marks and a letter that looms large at the top of the page. Sure it is for a grade, but what does that mean? What has that taught someone about the purpose of writing?

I want my students to graduate high school as connectors, collaborators, and creators. If we don't facilitate more opportunities for students to do this inside the classroom, how can we expect them to be curious and critical learners outside of the classroom. As teachers, we need to facilitate possibility, potential, and passion. How can we help students not only discover their passion but pursue it as well? It shouldn't simply be a matter of luck.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A New Kind of Resume

Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in the ThingLink Summer Challenge for Educators.  As part of our initial challenge, we were asked to use the ThingLink platform to create a digital portfolio. I linked my many professional learning networks and digital platforms to a a static image.  But I've been thinking lately about the importance of video, of movement and photography. In our weekly video conversations with fellow TED-Ed Innovative Educators (TIEs), we've been reflecting on how video has changed the face of learning in the last few years.  How, where, and when students are learning has substantially changed in the last decade.

So, why shouldn't resumes change? For teachers interested in the intersections of blended learning, video opens up a number of opportunities to share what we, too, have learned.  In particular, platforms like ThingLink (or Touchcast, EdPuzzle, TED Lessons) offer opportunities to make videos interactive.

And so here it is: my interactive resume. I made this using Adobe Spark, WeVideo, and ThingLink.  I'd love to see what others are doing to create interactive teaching resumes. Share yours!

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