Beg, Borrow, Steal: 5 Ways to Amplify Your Teacher Voice on Social Media

Teachers, by trade, are beggars, borrowers, and thieves — but in the best way possible. As a former public school teacher and now an educator within a network of microschools, I know firsthand the importance of collaborating beyond my immediate network of teachers.

We beg, borrow, and steal in order to give our kids the best experience possible. 

And one of the best ways to do this is through social media, simply because exposing ourselves to a wide variety of perspectives and resources helps us to see that there are, in fact, myriad ways to teach the same thing. Are you an educator looking to break into the world of social media?  Use these five tips to help!

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 2.15.01 PM1. Twitter and Twitter Chats
I use Twitter to stay connected to other educators and to build my professional learning network, mainly through participation in Twitter Chats. Twitter Chats (#edchat and #edtechchat, among others) are generally moderated by someone prominent in the field and operate off of a variety of questions within a given theme. For instance, just a few weeks ago, I participated in one surrounding the SAMR model for technology integration. This was not only helpful to see what innovative educators are doing in order to use this framework within their classroom, but it also provided me with about 30 new educators within my digital network of collaborators. The conversations, while fast-paced and sometimes difficult to follow, saturate me with new ideas.

2. Social Media Cross-Pollination
Twitter also provides me an outlet to share on my blog. I frequently tweet out my links, and as a result, I’ve gained many new followers as well as people who’ve read and reached out to me to discuss things I’m doing in my classroom.

3. More is More
When considering how to use social media as an educator, I would say my biggest piece of advice is that “more is more.” In order to maintain a presence on social media, it takes a strong commitment, and it needs to be viewed as an integral piece of what we do everyday. It’s one of the best ways to develop professionally in a way that interest-based and self-guided.

4. Set Frequency Goals
I try to hop on Twitter daily, just to see what others are saying, and I’ve been making it a goal recently to commit to at least two Twitter Chats per month.  As a result, I’m able to read other blogs and articles, and then, of course, I’m able to update my blog as well. A lack of presence on social media or an inconsistent presence on social media removes your voice from the conversation almost immediately. Social media is dynamic and ephemeral, and if an educator does not keep up with it, they can very easily dissolve into the background of the conversation.

5. Just Do It
The hardest part is getting started. In fact, it takes a great deal of bravery to put yourself out there and demand to be heard, but if you have enough passion and conviction for what you believe and do, it’s ultimately worth it in the end!

Helping Students Find Their Words

“I’m bored,” said my student. A phrase I hear all too often.

“Oh, yeah?” I replied. “What makes it boring?”

“It’s just boring,” he continued indignantly.

“Well, if you can’t tell me what’s boring about it, I can’t help you,” I said, playing my next card.

“It’s too hard,” he replied.

“Ah, I see,” I continued, perpetuating the conversation. “What makes it so hard?”

“Paul, poems are supposed to rhyme,” he said back to me. “I can’t make this poem rhyme.”

“Oh,” I said back, “there are lots of poems that don’t rhyme!”

I brought both boys in the group to the wall, where they were able to see a couple of the examples some of my students had already completed. Their assignment was to create a poem in response to the two statues at Washington D.C.’s Holocaust Museum. The first statue was intended to resemble an upside-down black house, while the other was intended to resemble the rebirth after the Holocaust. Of course, my students did not know this. I had withheld the context from them in an effort to keep their minds open. It wasn’t until later in the week that I shared the original intention of the sculpture with them.

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“See? Poems don’t need to rhyme,” I said to them, referring to the three student-created mentor texts already posted in the room. “These poems are awesome, and they don’t rhyme at all!”

I led them back to their sheet of paper and began to facilitate their poetry writing. They still seemed like they were at a standstill. Their creative juices were not flowing. I stopped, and I wondered about the root of the problem. These were both two very intelligent young boys. Where was the creative block?

And then I remembered. Sometimes, a student’s blockage isn’t necessarily there because they don’t know what to do: instead, a student’s blockage comes because they don’t know how to communicate it.

Because they can’t find the words.

In fact, the difference between a student’s ability to identify and define words versus recall them is quite different. These skills, while complementary, are entirely different. One requires observation and connection, while the other requires long-term memory, articulation, and eloquence. And truth be told, a lot of kids aren’t ready for that.

“Let’s try this,” I said, pulling out some post-it notes and a magic marker. “What do you see when you look at the images?”

“Black,” the first student said.

“Great,” I replied, writing down black on a Post-it note. “What else?”

“Unbalanced,” the other added.

“Awesome, I can see why you think that,” I said, writing down unbalanced on a Post-it note.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 12.33.42 PMIt wasn’t long before we had a whole slough of Post-it notes placed in a pile on the paper. By doing this, I had scaffolded the instruction just enough to help them conquer the obstacle of word recall. I didn’t give them the words; I simply gave them a way to get the words out.

“Now, what I want you to do,” I continued, “is arrange these words in a way that makes sense to you. Feel free to add some words if you need to.”

When they were done, they had a piece of poetry that truly represented what they were capable of. Check it out:

“Freedom and Limits”

Black unbalanced crazy sculpture of lines
Limits of infinite freedom… forever
House of happiness
Good times.

House will never move. It will stay there.
People will be happy when they enter.
They will keep their memories of it
People will always feel good when they
See those sculptures.

This would not have been possible had I not given them the tools to get their thoughts out. All too often we accept “I can’t do it” as either failure or giving up, when in reality, it’s just a matter of identifying the blockage and helping our students find their path to the goal.

It’s a matter of helping them find their words… and helping them find themselves in the process.


Pixels, Points, and Drops in the Bucket

I love to travel.  I find that, when I don’t find the time to do so, that my focus loses breadth and my perspective grows narrow.  I become one-track minded, and I forget how much is truly out there for us to learn.

I had the pleasure of visiting Washington D.C. this past weekend for the National Board Teaching and Learning Conference.  As a first-year Board Certified teacher, it was nothing but inspiring to see what the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has done for the profession, and I could not think of a more fitting place than Washington D.C. to have teachers gather to discuss the importance of our profession and its trajectory over the course of the next decade, not only because of the historical and political significance of D.C., but also because of the capitol’s commitment to learning through its incredible museums.

In my spare time, of course, I took advantage of these, most of which are free.  I was able to visit several museums within the Smithsonian Institution, including the Natural History, American History, Air and Space, Hirshhorn, and American Art museums.  But my favorite was, by far, the Holocaust Museum.

IMG_4755World War II has always been a fascination of mine, specifically the Holocaust, not only because of the mere shock factor that seems to accompany that historical factor, but also because the idea that an entire group of people could stand by, watch, and in some cases actively support their neighbors being punished and imprisoned for mere aspects of their identities is absolutely astounding to me.  I walked through the eerily quiet museum, coveting the artifacts, reflecting on their purpose in the world, and their purposes in my life.

While walking and exploring, I found that in every shard of wood, every piece of rubble, every shoe, and every piece of paper covered in drawings and ink, I saw people who once lived; I saw humans.  I saw people who had hopes, dreams, aspirations, and as a result, I saw people who had their own stories. I remembered the importance of telling our own stories, and I recounted the times when I felt like a mere name on the wall — a face with an unimportant, irrelevant, or untimely story — which made it all the more important to me to actually see and hear these stories.  And it reminded me that, while our individual stories may feel somewhat insignificant, our individual stories help to build the collective, making each one of us just as important as the next, even if it only changes the collective story in the slightest.

IMG_4754This collective story — the story that we all help to tell — is the image that is created from millions of pixellated stories; it’s the summation of the pink, green, and blue dots of a pointillist painting; it’s the gradient of individually refracted rays of light in the air that fade from yellow to black at sunset.  In each of these instances, even though it’s nearly impossible to find the points where the colors change, we know the change is happening.  We know because we can see the bigger picture, but that’s not always possible when we see ourselves as the pixel.

While each one of these stories is merely a drop in the bucket, each one of these drops help to build the collective story — the story of which we are all a part, and the story that protects us as humans.  And my job — the best job in the world — is to help children learn as many parts of that story as possible.

Above all else, this weekend reminded me that, as teachers, it is essential for us to be learners as well. It is essential for us to go through the vulnerable experience of admitting that we don’t always know — that we don’t always have the answer.  Going through this process helps us to empathize with our students once again, and it helps us to see that the learning process is experiential, serendipitous, and, of course, endless.

It helps us remember that there will always be more stories in the world to hear. And it’s our job to help our students hear them.

Where Will Girls Be in the Classroom in 30 Years?

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with one of my girls in my second year teaching. We were sitting on the carpet, discussing our stories.  Every student was required to write a story that had a lesson they wanted their readers to learn.

“Well, the princess starts off the story, and she’s really not pretty,” my student said to me.

“Ok, so it sounds like you have a problem in your story,” I replied skeptically, trying not to judge.

“Yep!” she continued.

“So how does she solve her problem?” I queried.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 7.53.32 PM“Well, she becomes beautiful and then the prince falls in love with her,” she finished, smiling up at me.

I was stopped dead in my tracks, unsure of what to say.  Time to intervene.

“Interesting,” I replied.  “Are you trying to teach readers that you need to be pretty to fall in love? As a reader, that’s the message that I get from your story.”

And now she was stopped dead in her tracks.

I could tell I made her stop and think twice about what she was writing.  In all fairness, she was young, and in her experience, these were the kinds of stories she was exposed to: the ones where the ugly duckling can get the prince finally after he notices that she is, in fact, “beautiful.”  Frequently enough, it’s not because her sparkling personality that shines; instead, it’s because a superficial change in her appearance miraculously makes it so the prince can see the “real” girl.

As a man, you probably think I have no business writing about this, and you might be right; but for a second, I ask that you remove this bias and allow me to empathize — empathize with the struggles that women have undergone to develop and maintain something that resembles equality, and in turn, empathize with all marginalized populations out there, for if we allow the marginalization of one population, we allow for the marginalization of them all. As a gay man, I’ve personally felt the effects of of this marginalization, and a result, I can understand — firsthand — the bias that clouds our judgment and the formative experiences that make us who we are.

I wish I could say this instance — the story of the ugly girl who suddenly became pretty — was the last time something like this has happened, but I’m constantly met with little girls, wanting to be princesses, wanting the fairy tale, and even hoping that some day a boy will get down on his knee, ask her to marry him, and sweep her off her feet.

My response, you ask, when they say these things to me?

“I sure hope that happens to me someday, too,” I reply, knowing just the response I’ll elicit.

“But Paul,” they always seem to reply, “you’re the boy.”

“So?” I always respond.

“Well, the boy is supposed to ask the girl,” they’ll always retort.

So I’ll always counter with, “What if I told you that women were supposed to stay home and do all of the laundry? What if I told you that women were supposed to listen to everything their husbands say?”

And the response is always the same — a big, emphatic “NO!”

In a way, I find it to be utterly contradictory: in an age where women’s rights are publicly preached, why is it assumed that the man has all of the power in this decision? Why is this idea of marriage proposal always so revolutionary to them? Why is the thought of the woman controlling the situation and asking a man for his hand in marriage so preposterous?   And why, in an age where we celebrate women’s rights, do we still need to remind girls that they have the power to choose?

But then, it always dawns upon me — the harsh reality — that many girls are still feeling the residual effects of a society that marginalizes women, placing them beneath men.  Regardless of the fact that modern culture is beginning to teach children both explicitly and implicitly that women do not need to listen to men, this message, in and of itself, doesn’t erase the underlying implicit message: that women need men to validate and take care of them.  And to think, many of them have no idea that they’re learning this.

10526105_10202757522716355_7183490389624559806_nThey simply accept it as truth.

But our best shot is in the classroom.  Our best shot at turning these perceived truths into myths and fixing this problem is not by judging, but by allowing a safe space where children can be questioned about these misconceptions and alter them all on their own. Perhaps if we do this, we will slowly, but surely, help girls to change, not only their own perceptions, but also the perception that society so willingly forces upon them, so that thirty years from now, these conversations are a thing of the past, up only for comparative discussion in history class.

But I still can’t help but wonder what if, thirty years from now, they are still so innocently the victims of marginalization — in the same and in other ways. At that time, will they realize the power they hold? Or will they continue to willingly rescind their power only for the sake of a romantic proposal, a diamond ring, and a so-called happy ending?

I’m certain I don’t have the answer, but I’m certain that I’m going to try and do something about it.

Can Personalization Go Too Far?

It used to be a dream — to have the ability to personalize my classroom. But over the past six months, that dream has become a reality, and now, through working at AltSchool, I am able to do just that: personalize learning for every child.

But my definition of personalization has changed, and I’ve decided there’s a point when personalization goes too far.

It’s an incredible experiment we’ve piloted here in the Silicon Valley, one that I think truly could change the landscape of the classroom, should we get the chance. But for me, it’s not necessarily the technological platform (while integral to the implementation of a personalized classroom) that has taught me the most about personalized learning; instead, it’s managing a class of learners who have a personalized education that has enriched my understanding of what it means to personalize.

What does it mean to personalize?

When I talk about personalization, I generally tell others that, in order to personalize, an educator must think of this concept in terms of three components: content, process, and product. In order to personalize anything, it’s important to take these three into account in order to appeal to student interest, accommodate for learning preferences, and of course, to help our children show what they know in a way that truly makes them shine. But where do we draw the line? When does personalization become too much?

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 7.22.47 AMWhen personalization becomes too much, and when we over personalize the classroom, we become hyper-focused on he microscopic. Think of it like viewing the world through, well, a microscope or a pair of binoculars. When we can only see what’s up close, we have no context, no big picture, no insight into how each tiny part plays into the big picture.  The same holds true for the classroom: when we hyper-focus our attention to personalization to the point where everyone is working in silos, they become isolated from one another, and we remove, what I’m beginning to realize, is the fourth way to personalize learning.

And that is personalizing the context of learning.

I think when I originally started, I ignored this piece a bit too much. I made the assumption that personalization meant giving all students activities that aligned with their personal academic and social-emotional needs, ignoring their needs in the context of and in relation to the group as a whole. But this piece is just as important — if not more so — than the others.  So what is the best way to personalize context of learning for kids? How do we find a happy medium between overpersonalized instruction and one-size-fits-all instruction?

Structure your planning, preparation, and instruction.  Without having a firm understanding of objectives, possibilities for assessment, and anticipated methods should inquiries and misconceptions arise (because they will), it’s very difficult to personalize.  Having this structure in place for you, the educator, will keep you on track, meanwhile allowing the students to veer off in a way that works for them.  They can make the experience their own, while you can reside in the comfort that comes from a well-structured and well-planned lesson that allows for student agency. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 7.23.11 AMLeverage whole-group experiences. While we oftentimes assume that personalization cannot be found in the context of a group setting, oftentimes our students are getting just what they need in these groups. They’re watching peers model positive behaviors like risk-taking and participating in shared inquiries, allowing students to eventually do both of these things by themselves. A word of caution, though: in order for these to be effective, these whole-group lessons need to be provocation- and inquiry-based with a open-ended answers. This context will allow you as the educator to appeal to a broad median of ability and interest levels within your classroom, meanwhile allowing children to personalize their own experience by accessing the content through their own process.

Capitalize on small-group lessons.  Small group lessons provide the same benefits that a whole-group lesson does — peer modeling, shared inquiry, and personalization of process, meanwhile allowing for even more student agency in terms of process and product.  Small-group time allows us greater opportunities to toggle between one-on-one instruction and group instruction, supporting short, directed feedback loops, meanwhile still nurturing the delicate social intricacies of learning.

It goes without saying that whole-child learning requires an understanding of each child as an individual. But this component of personalization, context, is frequently overlooked.  We cannot truly see what truly makes our children individuals unless we see them in the context of the classroom — unless we see how they fit in as small puzzle pieces, combined together to create the big picture. When we over-personalize, we neglect collaboration, communication, and how they contribute to the whole picture. Instead, what I’ve learned this year is the importance helping kids see themselves in that context — their successes, their struggles, and their relationships —

So they can find ways to truly make the bigger picture beautiful.

Meeting in the Middle

Teaching is a game of gaps.  When students enter our classrooms, there is almost immediately a gap: a divide between teacher and student, and a canyon between the known and the unknown. As teachers, it is our job to bridge this gap, but the good news is this:

It’s not as big as you might think.

I recently began a literature unit on signs and stories, and with this endeavor, I’ve welcomed in a brand new bunch of gaps, divides, and canyons — each of which has been excitingly challenging to navigate.  I’ve been lucky enough to partner with an incredible teacher and art historian, and she’s helped to bring in a series of images, intended to help us distinguish between an artist’s technique and the meaning which he or she is trying to communicate.  This has been a wonderful segue way into how authors do a similar thing, only with text.

But actually teaching reading an teaching them to encounter text is hard, because bridging the gap between what students actually want to read and what they actually need to know how to read can be especially problematic.  Kids have to be motivated to read in order to actually get something out of it, and that motivation cannot be forced.  It has to be authentic, it has to be intrinsic, and it has to be nurtured carefully.  This is why emergent curriculum is so important: if the curriculum comes from the minds of the students, then it is much more likely that there will be buy-in.

Garden of Abdul GasaziIt’s much more likely that they’ll care.

So last week, as a part of this unit on signs and stories, I read The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, a picture book by Chris Van Allsburg about a boy, Alan, who loses a dog named Fritz in a man’s garden.  Alan ends up finding the dog with the man, named Mr. Gasazi.  Unfortunately for Alan, Fritz the dog is turned into a duck which then flies away with his hat.  He trudges back to his neighbor’ s house, for he was dogsitting little Fritz, only to find that the dog made it’s way back.  His neighbor confides in him that it was all a trick, but Van Allsburg’s images suggest otherwise, leaving students to wonder whether Fritz was actually turned into a duck or not.

I originally chose this book in an effort to draw special attention to Van Allsburg’s images. He designs them so precisely to accompany the text he’s written.  The story was a provocation, in a sense, intended to spark their interest in stories and to begin to bridge the gap between the known and unknown, especially in regard to author’s technique and topic.

I finished the book, ending on the final page where Alan finds his hat on the front lawn — the same hat with which the duck flew away — suggesting that the dog was, in fact, turned into a duck. As a result, my students erupted in conversation, positing whether or not it was a trick after all.

“I like this author!” said one of my students, smiling.

“Do you?” I replied.

“Yea!” he continued. “I like how he ended the story. I like how we don’t know.”

And from there I had an entry point into the following week’s lessons.  Sure, I had already planned some other stories, but luckily, due to the fact that I plan according to learning objectives, and not according to the text itself, my plans were rather easily changed. This week, as a result of this conversation, I began a book study on Chris Van Allsburg intended to examine his techniques in the context of various topics, and not to worry, I was sure to include the student who had voiced his excitement to read more of Van Allsburg’s works.

Bridging the Gap

The process of bridging the gap between teacher and student, between the known and the unknown: it’s almost like building a suspension bridge. To strike this delicate balance between purely emergent curriculum and purely teacher-directed instruction, it’s important to meet in the middle.  A suspension bridge is built in this way, where the construction starts with a large gap between two separate entities, two separate shores.  Some posts are put up in the middle, and with these structures in place, construction begins from both sides.  Eventually, the two sides meet in the middle, creating a firm structure through which the two opposing shores — formerly two distant bodies — are now connected into one continuous road where thoughts can easily transport back and forth.


And a similar process is true for teaching, as well. True teaching is neither entirely emergent nor entirely prescriptive.  It doesn’t only begin from one side or the other.  Entirely emergent curriculum balances dangerously on a pathless existence, while purely prescriptive curriculum suffocates and hardens learning into a rigid process.  Instead, true teaching — and true learning — is dependent on the relationship between teacher and student. It requires that both the teacher and the student listen to each other, and that this mode of communication goes both ways. It emphasizes the importance of connection, of empathy, and of engagement in a collaborative process.

A process where you can meet in the middle and bridge the gap.  Together.

Framing Learning through Macro- and Micro-cycles

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A visual model of how these relate, inspired by the National Board Architecture for Accomplished Teaching.

Learning is cyclical, and I think you’d have a hard time finding anyone who would argue with that.  But it’s the overlaying cyclicality that makes what educators do every day so tricky.  You see, while learning is cyclical, the cycles tend to overlap upon one other both on a broad and granular scale; either that or the cycles tend to move so quickly from one cycle to the next that it’s really difficult to keep track of where different students are in the cycle, especially when you’ve got a whole bunch of them — all with different needs.

But these cycles can be simplified — and not for the purpose of simplifying the learning process, but instead, these cycles can be simplified for the purpose giving teachers a triangulated framework in which to ground their planning, preparation, and instruction.  Take these two examples, for instance.  Within each of these, you’ll notice all three pieces of this framework:

Macro: Katy is planning an interdisciplinary unit on cell biology.

Over the course of 6 weeks, Katy wants students to identify the parts of a cell and explain how they work together over time.  She also wants her students to be able to identify the main idea of a text (RI.4.2) and explain scientific concepts (RI.4.3) specifically through access to nonfiction text.  In order to determine the success of her students, she will create a series of formative assessments that determine the knowledge her students have ascertained over the course of a few weeks, specifically asking students to identify cell parts and explain their function.  She will also create decontextualized reading assessments that ask her students to identify the main idea of a text, giving them multiple tries over the course of the six weeks.  She will use the assessments to help guide future instruction and instructional groupings.  She will also create guided reading groups based on the results of the assessments.  For the science content, she will use a mixture of videos, informational text, and modeling to help students see how the parts of a cell work together.

Micro: Katy is planning a lesson as a part of her interdisciplinary unit on cell biology.

The objective for her lesson is two-fold: (1) Students will be able to identify the main idea of a 1-2 paragraph text using text features and non-fiction strategies; (2) Students will be able to identify the cell membrane and explain its function.  In order to teach this, Katy has planned an interactive activity.  She will engage students with membrane provocations using plastic bags and water, videos that discuss the importance of the cell membrane, and pictures of cells whose membranes are in tact and broken to help students infer the importance of the membrane.  In guided reading, Katy has been focusing on main idea, specifically in the context of cells, so in order to both assess students’ understanding of cell membranes and main idea, she will create a formative assessment for her cell membrane lesson that requires her students to read a short text about cell membranes (1-2 paragraphs), identify the main idea (RI.4.2), and explain the function of the cell membrane after reading the text (RI.4.3).  She will then use this information to determine how to support students in subsequent lessons.


Our brainstorm for Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction.

Note that in both of these examples, there are three elements: curriculum, assessment, and instruction.  And due to the fact that all of these three elements are present, both the macro-cycles and micro-cycles involved in the planning process are aligned to each other: the macro-levels of curriculum, assessment, and instruction align well with the proportionally smaller micro-levels, creating a well-balanced and supportive learning experience for students.

Also note that, within this loose curricular framework, that there is plenty of room for student choice, for students to ask questions, and for the educator to take the lesson or lesson sequence where she sees fit.  This is, by no means, a rigid lesson plan; instead, it is a strong framework that allows for a triangulation of the three most important components of planning and preparation in the classroom: curriculum, assessment, and instruction.