Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ramblings: How I Got Here

I had a really neat conversation with a former student over email over the last couple days. She emailed me to talk about how her year had gone and catch up a bit. She talked a little about her experience in AP US History - it was a positive one, and she felt like all the writing she had to do to prep for the AP test made her a better writer.

I always wondered what I would have done if I had had to teach APUSH. The sheer amount of content you have to plow through, so little room for choice for students over learning things they are interested in: teaching a class within a box like that would have been a challenge, for sure. I’m not sure what I would have done.

But back to the story. I was glad to hear that my former student enjoyed the class. It made me reflect a little bit on my time in APUSH. My APUSH teacher was an incredible man. First and foremost, his class was the second really good history class I had in a row. (Unfortunately, this was my grade 11 and 12 years…) Had I not had those two great experiences in history class, I doubt I would have taken a couple history classes in early college, fallen in love with the subject, and subsequently ended up teaching it.

Second, we kept in touch for a while after I graduated from high school and college. After a couple years in the Peace Corps and a couple of years doing environmental ed, I knew education was for me but I needed to my teacher certification. As I sat down to have lunch with him, we talked about my plan to get my certification and masters. I told him where I was applying. I mentioned I was on the fence about Stanford’s teacher prep program: how would someone with a 3.3 GPA in undergrad get into Stanford? Seemed like a waste of time. In short, he channeled my current favorite writer Shea Serrano and said, “Shoot your shot.” He talked me into applying to Stanford - what was the worst thing that could happen? Well, I got in and spent an amazing decade in the Bay Area because of it.

But the third reflection I had was an interesting one. As I was emailing my student, I recounted why I loved APUSH and this teacher’s strengths: great sense of humor, incredible content knowledge, and

(wait for it)


"Curtis Lecture Hall" by Theonlysilentbob from wikimedia
he was a brilliant lecturer. I remember reading ahead in our textbook to prep for his lectures. I wanted to know the outline of the content of the lecture so I could catch all the little nuggets and salacious information he always peppered his lectures with.

I fell in love with history, thanks in part to a brilliant APUSH teacher. Who lectured. Lectured really well. I don’t really know what any of that means; I do know I wasn’t the only person that really enjoyed his class. It was an interesting realization though: as someone who pushed to have his class as student-centered as possible, it was definitely an interesting memory to have float up to the surface. But without this brilliant teacher - whose class I read ahead in the textbook for to prep for his lectures - none of this (being a history teacher) may have happened.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

How Edcamp Changed My Career

Edcamp logo from Wikimedia
by the Edcamp Foundation
** Full disclosure: I serve on the Edcamp Foundation board. I don’t come at this without bias. However, I strongly believe what I am writing is true regardless of this bias. Now, to the story :)

In late July, 2011 Diane Main told me, “Hey. There’s a thing going on in the East Bay in early August. You should totally go.” Being new to the edtech world - and trusting Diane’s opinion - I signed up to attend the first edcampSFBay.

I remember it being a great day. I remember great conversations. I remember great energy. I remember seeing people I looked up to on Twitter there - a lot of them. I have no idea what sessions I attended. Or even if I said anything at those sessions. But at the end of the day, I filled out the evaluation form and checked the “I’m willing to help organize next year’s edcampSFBay” box.

Fast forward a year: the second edcampSFBay was at my school. Where I taught! I was nervously excited. We set up everything the night before. Signs. Session board area. Wifi information.

Then came Saturday morning. And naturally there was no wifi when we got to school. In upgrading a cable somewhere in the IT maze on Friday night, something had fried. It was unclear when wifi was coming back. I was crestfallen - how was edcamp going to run without wifi? How embarrassing!!

You know where this is going: people had a great day. Talking. Engaging in conversations. Sharing hard problems. Did we tweet much? Nope. Was the edcamp a success? Yup.

But this isn’t a story about a near-miss disaster. It’s a story about validation. See, when you help throw a party - and it is successful - you get excited. You feel brave. Ready to take risks. Your realm of the possible expands from that confidence - things that seemed hard or far-fetched before all of a sudden seem attainable. And my realm of the possible expanded because of organizing edcamp.

When it came time to rethink my classroom, I was ready to take big swings not little steps: I was CONFIDENT. When there were other edcamps in California, I hopped on a plane and flew to LA - or Orange County, or Palm Springs - and attended. #caedchat was born at edcampLA! When a couple friends started talking about running an online edcamp, I was all in and edcampHome happened. (Three times, in fact.)

The confidence from helping organize an edcamp transferred to my classroom, to my students.  The confidence I gained from helping to organize an edcamp helped me rethink my classroom: my role in that classroom, my students’ role in the classroom - things happened there because I believed in myself. I was confident - confident enough to take a risk.

That confidence came from helping to organize edcamp. From helping throw a party - or an edcamp :) - that people came to, and wifi or not had a good time. That confidence has meant and continues to mean the world to me.

Hopefully that confidence meant something to a bunch of students that passed through my classroom as well.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What You Look For Matters

As I apply for jobs for the first time in a decade, some interesting thoughts swirl through my head. Having spent almost a decade at my last job, searching for a school that wants to add me is a different feeling. As I think about myself and what I bring to a job, the way I look at who I am and what I can add to whatever school I end up at matters.

I’m a new educator in a new system: going from a place and education system I knew well - California - to a new education system in British Columbia. Not just a new state, but a new country! On top of that, British Columbia has just instituted a new set of education standards, further complicating the transition. That’s a big hurdle for someone to overlook when they’re looking to hire me.


I could look at the things I was able to do in my almost decade at Hillsdale. What I did in my classroom. What my students did in my classroom. Committees I was a part of. Professional development opportunities I helped organize and facilitate.

It’s a very different way of looking at yourself: what can you do, what do you know versus what can’t you do, what don’t you know? That deficit model - looking at weaknesses - can be really toxic. If I spend too much time thinking about what I don’t know, about what I can’t do, I get doubtful. I’m a risk - someone needs to overlook that big gap in knowledge that I have to hire me. But if I look at what I can do, what I do know, what is transferable between contexts, it feels very different.

I’ll own it: I’ve looked at other educators and focused on what they can’t do in the past. I don’t feel good saying that, but it is true. By doing that, I’ve missed strengths people have. Things they can teach me. The amazing things their kids are doing in their classrooms. Thankfully, I’ve had to eat some humble pie in those areas, as my perceptions of what people can’t do has been impacted by what I’ve seen them actually DO. The outlook - what could this educator do better - was wrong. Should we work on weaknesses? Sure. But focusing on weaknesses and ignoring strengths - as I have done about myself in my job search - is toxic.

How many times have I focused on weaknesses with students? How often did they feel like their areas for growth were being hammered on and their strengths ignored? That’s not a question I can answer, but it something I can take forward: look for strengths in students. Look for what fellow educators are great at. Focus on building on those things people do well, not on things people could get better at.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Chris Wejr’s TED talk on strengths-based education at the end of this post. Chris is brilliant, and his talk is everything you’d hope it would be.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Stay Out There

Long before I was a history teacher with a blog (that I even posted to sometimes), I was a history major. In order to graduate with a history degree, I had to write a thesis. My work for my thesis focused on the Vietnam War protests, specifically in Madison, WI where I grew up. My thesis looked at the impact of the bombing of the Army Math Research Center (AMRC) in Madison in  early 1970 on the anti-war movement.

As I was out for a walk this past week, I started thinking about my thesis. Particularly, I was thinking about the widespread protest that characterized the 1960s, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War protests, and the number of people in the streets today protesting all manner of acts by President Agent Orange (thanks Busta Rhymes for that moniker).

It is always imperfect to draw comparisons across historical eras. However…

As the protests around the Vietnam War drew on, protesters became frustrated: their huge numbers and vocal dissent seemed to be doing nothing. The Vietnam War expanded into Cambodia and Laos while protests were widespread. President Nixon even said that he knew nothing about a quarter million person march in Washington DC because he was too busy watching football.

This frustration manifested itself in more aggressive and confrontational tactics by protesters. Whether it was the sporadic violence of the Weathercells or an enormous bombing like the explosion at the Army Math Research Center, protesters were upping the ante in their level of confrontation with the government. The AMRC bombing ended up killing a researcher, ruining the research of many, and crippling the anti-war movement in Madison and beyond as the public rejected the violence of the movement.

I am not here to cast judgment about whether protests that cross the line from nonviolent to violent are just. Others have written about this, and made me think deeply about systems of oppression and who is requesting protesters only exercise their rights nonviolently and in ways that aren’t inconvenient to the dominant groups in society.

My point is, though, that had protesters in the late 1960s knew the impact they were having, they would have been heartened. Nixon, despite his public lack of concern about the protesters, received multiple updates per day about protests. He made sure the FBI was using COINTELPRO to target anti-war groups. Protesters had an impact: the devastation that the Vietnam War had on American soldiers and families - to say nothing of the Vietnamese people - was muted by the protesters speaking their truth to the people in power. They just didn’t know that.

So stay active. Keep marching. Keep calling. The fight will be long. There will be losses - Sessions, DeVos, etc have already shown this. But the 2018 elections will be here soon. Keep the pressure on. Your actions have impacts on policy makers, whether they want to admit it or not.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Some Takeaways From #edcampsummitSD

I was lucky enough to attend my first Edcamp Leadership Summit this past weekend down in San Diego. It was a great weekend - get a bunch of edcamp peeps together and of course we'll have fun! Plus, sun and weather in the 60s and 70s was a welcome break from high 30s and rain in the Vancouver area :)

I learned a lot this weekend. In no particular order:
Meeting Eric Cross - an amazing science teacher in San Diego - and hearing him talk about how he structured the units in his middle school science class made me want to be a student in his class. It also made me want to talk to a bunch of different teachers about unit design cross-curricularly. We've got a lot we could learn from each other.
From a session on school climate
Hearing Jen Roberts talk about how her work teaching preservice teachers pushes her pedagogy was interesting. Jen talked about how working with these teachers keeps her trying new things she steals from them in her own class was a benefit that I hadn't thought about.
In a session about how to get a more diverse set of educational stakeholders at edcamps, Dena Glynn had some cool ideas about having student presentations during edcamps. In addition to showing off the host school and district it would bring more parents in as well - to see their kids present. Hopefully this would allow those parents to stay and participate in the edcamp. Really good idea, and we need more parent voices at edcamps!
I only overlapped briefly as a moderator of #caedchat with Kriscia Cabral and I had never gotten a chance to meet her. Her positivity and excitement throughout the weekend were amazing, and a great reminder that if you're excited about what you're doing that enthusiasm rubs off on the people around you.
Improv in the classroom? Need to start doing some learning here. Anthony Veneziale led a two hour improv session for attendees that was excellent: high energy, fun, and backed by the brain science showing the importance of improv. Anthony recommended Impro by Keith Johnstone as a good read with crossovers to improv in the classroom. Definitely adding that to my To Read list on Goodreads!
Scott Bedley shared how he is using sound prompts to get his class writing. Not photo prompts, which I had heard about, but sound clips he records while out living his life. These sound prompts force his elementary student to imagine then describe the scene that sound conjures for them. Super rad!