I've been lately embedded with a 4th grade math class, observing and looking for opportunities to integrate technology into daily instruction as this school makes plans to be 1:1 next year.
Today, a true teachable moment presented itself. As students collaborated in the number corner, discussing the concept of time, one kiddo piped up, "What does a.m. & p.m. mean?"
Pausing, the teacher asked, "What do you think it means? Does anyone have a guess?"
"Does it mean 'after midnight' and 'pre-midnight?" another student offered. (Not a bad guess, right?)
At that point the teacher encouraged the kids to look it up when they got home and to share the answer with the class the following day for a bonus buck. There was content to cover, after all, and only so much time to cover it.
I kept my mouth shut. It wasn't my place to jump in and say, "Let's figure it out now!" I was a guest, after all. Still, I knew we were missing a valuable opportunity to model learning in the moment--instead of putting it off until later. I'd bet a paycheck that none of those kids were going to go home and search for the answer. The moment was gone.
Or was it?
I know what a.m. and p.m. mean, and so does my high school senior--who's in his fourth year of Latin. (By choice. I swear.) I didn't want to lose the moment, so I immediately texted my son:
This isn't the first time I've dragged my kids into teaching others. When he was in sixth grade, I coerced Tyler to create an instructional ShowMe to demonstrate to teachers how the app works. My younger son, Robbie, and some of his buddies were "gently guided" into making a collaborative learning website in 7th grade so that I could share with teachers that students could create their own learning materials. And just last month, Tyler co-presented with me at a local edtech conference--and not only wound up leading the session, but stealing the show, too.
I don't bring kids into teaching because I can't teach. I bring them into teaching to prove a point: in the digital age, learners are teachers and teachers are learners. Knowledge acquisition is fluid.
So, knowing that a question left unanswered and unexplored is a lost learning opportunity, and hindered by the fact that Tyler's AP Physics class was more important than my need for him to Facetime the 4th graders, that afternoon we devised an alternative solution and created a short video to share with the kiddos the next day.
And here it is:
Not necessarily professional, and not necessarily polished...but definitely real. And, as it turns out, our audience of fourth-graders enjoyed the heck out of it...and I'll bet a paycheck they'll remember the meanings behind ante meridian and post meridian for a long time to come.
This generation of learners craves digital interaction: they're Facetiming, Snapchatting, Instagramming, Tweeting, and devouring YouTube videos. Why? Not because they're passive recipients, but because they seek to connect in exciting, engaging, and authentic ways.
Let's try to recognize and take advantage of more opportunities for learning to happen in real-time--outside of both our carefully-arranged lesson plans and the four walls of our classrooms.
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with a group of middle school and high school teachers as they address what 1:1 will look like for their district. The driving question of this particular roundtable/workshop was “Why Do We Have to Change the Way We Do Things?” It’s often how I like to start when trying to change hearts and minds--by getting to the reasons that initiate the change in the first place. For me, that starts with trying to understand Generation Z.
I posted the following question to those assembled: “In one word, how would you describe #GenZ?” Here are some of those responses:
As these results appeared on the screen in front of us, lots of laughs and a few smirks followed. I asked my audience why these answers may (or may not) have amused them:
They’re always staring at screens. I used to go out all day and play until it was dark.
They’re always taking selfies and posting them; they’re so self-obsessed.
They think they’re so tech-savvy, but they really don’t know how to use technology.
Totally soft. They wouldn’t be able to change a tire if they got stuck on the side of the road.
Pretty negative, right? I had hoped that the person who labeled GenZ as “teachable” would have spoken up, but (s)he didn't, so I’ll take on that task.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of GenZ. Like an oversized-foam-finger-fan of them.
I love their boldness, their creativity, their intuitive ability to interface with devices placed in front of them, their willingness to connect and interact, their total lack of reluctant self-consciousness. This is a generation who creates their own YouTube channels, who uploads their original music to SoundCloud, who publishes their own ebooks to Amazon Kindle.
They are fearless in their belief that the world is accessible to them. And I admire it.
I think that’s why we as educators are so reluctant (or so resistant) to embrace Generation Z’s “different-ness.” I think we’re the ones with the fear; maybe we’re a teeny bit afraid of them. Perhaps they represent to us what was once a distant future but what is now clearly a very present, well...present. Generation Z doesn't necessarily need us to teach them anymore--at least not in the traditional way. They can find answers without us. They can learn things without us. They can create things without us.
Do we fear our irrelevance? Or do we fear our loss of total control?
If we fear the former, don’t panic. We just need to modify our role. If we fear the latter, well, Buttercup, we’re gonna have to get over that in a major way.
If we’re ready to modify our role, then let’s create teacher-bordered classrooms where the kiddos are allowed to discover learning instead of having it handed to them. If we’re gonna get over it, we’re going to have to get uncomfortable with not completely understanding technology and learning it together with our students.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Generation Z is historically unlike other. In a word, that’s amazeballs. But are they really so different? My generation (Generation X) triggered our parents with MTV and Walkmans. (Wasn’t that in itself a form of self-involvement and distraction?)
My advice? Embrace the revolution. Let the selfie generation see themselves in their learning.
Note: This is the first in a series of posts about lesson makeovers. These are opportunities I've had to transform traditional instructional practices to make learning more engaging and meaningful in a 1:1 classroom environment.
I'm a sucker for makeover shows: home makeovers, fashion makeovers, beauty makeovers, whatever. It's the transformation that mesmerizes me--the gift of the makeup artist to alter one's appearance, the talent of the designer to reimagine a space, the genius of a fashionista to envision the future.
Hey, we all could use an update.
The same is true of our instruction: a little change now and then is a good idea. (You know, maybe trade in that blue eye shadow for something a little more this decade. And really, how much longer are you going to hang on to that Forenza sweater?)
Recently, I've been working with a group of teachers who've asked me to remodel their "clunkers"--or as I like to call them--the educational equivalent of MC Hammer pants. (Side note: my pal Amy Roediger calls this "remaking the worst lesson" and a terrific place to start when it comes to educational technology transformations.)
So with that said, here's this month's makeover: a 4th grade subject and predicate worksheet.
Before: Wearisome Worksheet
This standard cut-and-paste worksheet from Teachers Pay Teachers doesn't do much in the way of helping fourth graders show what they know. In fact, it's a DOK Level 1 activity in that students are simply asked to arrange subjects and predicates without even having to understand what they are, as evidenced by the fact that simply knowing a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period would enable you to complete this having zero knowledge of such. And did I mention it involves cutting and pasting--UGH.
After: Radical Reshaping
This former worksheet remade via a Google Drawing can be pushed out via Google Classroom with the following directions:
Sure, it still has the arranging task to it, but notice that all punctuation has been removed. This compels students to distinguish (DOK 2), to revise (DOK 3), and to create (DOK 4). Furthermore, they're practicing necessary technology skills which so many of our kiddos need to have mastered. More importantly, students are really, truly showing what they know.
So, let's leave the cutting to our bangs, okay? (Or maybe not. Go see a professional for that.)
image courtesy of FemaleMag
Have you seen the new Google Pixel 2 commercial? Before you read any further, take a look:
What’s your first impression? Mine is That’s brilliant. But it’s not just the commercial that’s brilliant, it’s the message.:
A question mark changes everything.
As the Google design team makes abundantly clear in this ad, statements are limiting, and placing a period at the end of a sentence indicates finality. No more ideas. No more moving forward. The end. Game over. ‘Nuff said.
But what if?
As we Google fans know (and as the company itself affirms), Google is a company “built on questions.” And as more schools go Google (70+ million G Suite for Education global users), we need to change our mark of punctuation:
We are learning.
We are learning?
Think about our CCSS “I Can” statements--the ones prominently displayed in every classroom to indicate content learned by students. Here’s one for high school biology:
I can use a model to illustrate the role of cellular division (mitosis) and differentiation in producing and maintaining complex organisms. (LS1-4)
How do we know they can?
Well, traditionally, a teacher will prepare slides about mitosis, give lecture notes about mitosis, copy study guides and worksheets about mitosis, assign homework and reading about mitosis, and then finally administer a unit test about mitosis.
No more ideas. No more moving forward. The end. Game over. ‘Nuff said.
(By the way, notice the verbs I used above to describe the traditional learning process: prepare, give, copy, assign, administer. While these aren’t passive verbs--and this former high school English teacher should know!--they certainly designate passivity when it comes to learning. And notice that all the “work” is being done by the teacher. The students will watch the slides, copy the notes, complete the study guides and worksheets, do the homework and reading, and take the test. Check out the verbs I used in that last sentence. See a pattern? Those verbs make a point, and the point is this: If whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning, then we’re doing it wrong.)
A question mark changes everything.
What if we changed that period at the end of a traditional "I Can" statement into a question mark?
I can use a model to illustrate the role of cellular division (mitosis) and differentiation in producing and maintaining complex organisms?
Imagine projecting that question to a class and simply saying, Can you? Imagine allowing them to pursue their own learning, to show, to demonstrate, to create. What if we said, “Figure out a way to show how you can master that standard, whether it’s a screencast, a song, an infographic, a story, an animated Google Slides deck, a carefully-curated assemblage, a playlist...a whatever you can imagine! I’ll be here to guide you, to coach you, to encourage you, to direct you, but I will not do the work for you.” Imagine stepping to the side and allowing them to be active participants and owners of their learning.
I can learn.
I can learn?
Statements finalize possibilities. Questions open them up.
Still not convinced? Think about this for a minute: Google didn’t create the latest in innovative smart phone technology by making statements. Google did it by asking questions.
So why aren’t we?
A question mark changes everything.
Note: To learn more about asking questions to inspire learning, check out inquiry-based learning.
I’m giving you fair warning, buttercup: this is not going to be a warm and fuzzy post. So if you’re a sensitive soul, now’s the time to turn back.
I’ve been sitting on a draft of this post for six months now, hesitating to go public for fear of offending anyone. The content that follows--to borrow from the latest in adolescent vernacular--may ”trigger” you. Or it may inspire you. Maybe it will provoke you to stop following me. Or maybe (hopefully!) it will encourage you to think. Here goes...
Last week, I was working with a teacher during her planning period, brainstorming ways to integrate a specific instructional technology tool into her curriculum. As we collaborated, her veteran partner walked in, took one look at us, and responded, “Oh, no. No more technology for me! Absolutely not.” She promptly turned on her heel and exited.
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon reaction to my presence in a classroom or a school. While I’m often welcomed with open arms, I’m equally as often treated like Frankenstein’s monster in the village.
I’ve tried to not take it personally. In my best Stuart Smalley voice, I’ve self-talked and mentally declared my worthiness to myself when I sense a reluctant adopter’s discomfort with my presence and with what I represent to her--which is change.
However, like Frankenstein’s monster, I believe I am (or at least my role is) frequently misunderstood. So please allow me this opportunity to clarify: Teachers, I was not put on this earth (or in this job) to torture you, but to instead make learning more engaging and productive for your students.
And promise you: This is not about you. And it’s not about me, either. It’s really, really about the kiddos. My misson is to act as a translator and tour guide into the digital domain--a world in which our students already exist. And a world in which they’d be really, really thrilled to have us join.
So when you get angry at me, or snub me, or tell me things like the following, I tend to take it, well, personally:
I take it personally on behalf of our students. I'm not working against you. I hope to work with you. We’re on the same team. Just like you, I strive to challenge students, to push them, and to inspire them.
Imagine how you might react if students said the following to you:
Listen, I get it. Change is scary. But it’s inevitable. Everything evolves. It’s that simple: every industry, every profession, every thing changes.
When an educator summarily rejects the notion that technology is a necessary part of educating our students, when an educator absolutely refuses to improve his or her own understanding of it, and when educators treat as the enemy the people whose job it is to assist them in making the shift, I have to say--and it pains me to do so--then you’re making it about you.
Again, I’m so very sorry if this post makes anyone uncomfortable. But maybe discomfort isn’t such a bad thing, because it’s only when we step outside our comfort zone that true change occurs. As author and speaker Brene Brown so sagely advises us, “You can choose courage or you can choose comfort, but you cannot choose both.” Of course it’s comfortable to stick with what we know and to do things the way we’ve always done them; however, it’s also incredibly courageous to venture into the unknown.
Yet, in spite of it all, I’m very grateful I get to do the work I do. Because even on my bad days, even when the villagers have chased me into the depths of the forest, I have to remind myself:
It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about them.
Dewey quote from Twitter
This post is inspired by Alice Keeler’s May 1, 2017, keynote speech at the #ITIP2017 Ohio Google Summit: “In The Future, Cars Drive Themselves”
I saved this image about a year ago. Don’t know why, didn’t know if I was going to use it, wasn’t sure how I was going to use it, but I knew that while it specifically speaks to the revolutionary work done by both Steve Jobs and by Apple, it generally speaks to the evolutionary work we need to be doing in education.
If you follow me or my blog, you know I’ll evangelize until I’m hoarse (or until someone throat punches me just to shut me up) about the shift that needs to occur from depositing knowledge into our learners’ heads to allowing them to acquire knowledge for themselves.
We’re still asking questions that can be answered with a simple Google search. We’re still feeding factoids that can be found online. We’re still assessing kiddos based on their ability to memorize those factoids.
“We need to teach,” says Google guru Alice Keeler, “like Google exists.”
We need students to create. Not to memorize.
(By the way, do you know that the synonym for “memorize” is “recollect?” Re-collect. As in collect again.)
Why are we asking students to memorize the dates of the Norman Invasion? Is that learning? We’re fooling ourselves if we think our searchable questions are original. Don’t believe me? Well, Buttercup, check out this video about PhotoMath, an app that uses your students’ smartphone camera to snap a pic of a mathematical equation worksheet--and then solves the problem and gives them the answer. If we want answers that aren’t searchable, we need to design questions that preclude that.
So, instead of treating Google like a red-headed stepchild, banning search bars from our classrooms, let’s make friends with it. Let’s keep the end-user in mind when designing instruction. I don’t care how afraid we are of the technology, we have to remember for whom we work--and that’s the kiddos.
If Google’s in the process of design self-driving cars, how about we design self-driving learners? If we hire a personal trainers, we don’t expect them to do the work for us (though I wish they did!). So why do we do the work--vocabulary lists, study guides, packaged lecture notes--for the students?
Are we teaching the future?
Or are we teaching the past?
“It's Hard When You're Young:” What the Chainsmokers Taught Me About Teaching (and Reaching) Generation Z
I attended my first rave last night. Well, as much of a rave as a 49 year-old mother is willing to attend (and endure). It was a Chainsmokers concert that my teenage son graciously allowed me to accompany him to here in Cleveland. (And by “accompany him” I mean he “let me pay for the tickets" and "let me drive him there and back.”) Nevertheless, we had a blast: he bounced and sang along, and I bounced and sang along, too--a Gen Xer sticking out among the Generation Z crowd like a...well, like a mom at a Chainsmokers concert.
But being who I am, I also observed. I couldn’t help it. It’s what I do.
The Facebook Generation vs. The Snapchat Generation
The profound age difference between me and everyone else first hit when I started taking videos and photos with my phone. My intention was to upload them to my go-to social media outlet--which for us Gen Xers is Facebook. And then I noticed that everyone else around me was uploading to their go-to social media outlet--which is Snapchat. I should mention here that I have a Snapchat account; it’s infrequently used, but I have one. My sons have been (im)patiently teaching me how to use it. (I taught them how to tie their shoes. It’s the least they can do to return the favor.)
I’ll admit it: I really, sincerely admire and adore post-Millennials, a.k.a. the Internet Generation, a.k.a. Generation Z. While others may complain about their short attention spans, their self-involvement, their digital media obsession, there are those of us who are intrigued by them, who celebrate them, who believe they will change the world. This past October, I was invited to deliver a keynote at NEOTIE about today’s learners entitled “TBH...It’s Time to Meet Learners Where They Are,” a talk designed to help educators understand how this group--digital since diapers--requires us to transform the way we teach if we hope to keep connecting with them. It was my favorite of any of my presentations, mostly because I loved what I learned about this oft-maligned group.
Due to my admiration of this generation and because they’ve taught this old dog more than a few new tricks, I started emulating those around me at the concert by uploading videos and pics to share later on Facebook, but I also started Snapchatting my Chainsmokers story.
That was my first A-ha! moment: It was so much easier and so much quicker to share what I was experiencing in the moment instead of collecting media to share later in a post that featured what had already happened. Sort of like live-Tweeting, but better. (By the way, it’s no coincidence that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have also added their own stories or memories feature to their platforms. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.)
This living-in-the-moment attitude and not being burdened down with “stuff” is indicative of a generation of kids who, like it or not, are globally-connected, socially aware, and have influenced and developed their own media language mostly consisting of visuals and acronyms, and who have resolved to do things differently.
Okay, enough adulation. I don’t want to lose those of you who still need some convincing about these kiddos. Suffice it to say, my foray into Snapchat got me thinking about other A-ha! moments: How can we reach today’s learners?
EMBRACE THE (R)EVOLUTION
The Chainsmokers are both revolutionary and evolutionary. They’re an EDM-pop crossover DJ duo who rose to fame by first making remixes of independent bands and then by collaborating with recording artists to write their own original songs. I mean, they’re not even true musicians, as historically defined, really. They’re DJs. (I couldn’t believe I was going to spend good money watching two dudes spin records, as I explained to my son months ago.) However, the DJ duo, Alex Pall and Drew Taggert, started experimenting in 2015, writing their own songs, and then--eventually--singing them. They’re now playing instruments, and have added a drummer and a classical pianist to the mix. As educators, we need to get on board with that same mentality: we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them just for the sake of continuity or because we’re afraid to try something new. We need to get out from behind the record player and try to spin something new.
STOP SAVING & START LIVING
Snapchat stories only last 24 hours--that’s it. I wondered, Why wouldn’t you want to post these memories to, say, Facebook, so that you could have them forever? (Neither one of my sons have a Facebook account. They laugh at me when I suggest it to them: Ummm…yeah. Like I want a “Mom-book” account.) Just so you know, you can save photos and videos in Snapchat to your camera roll, but to this generation, it’s important to live in the moment--to experience the next thing instead of holding on to the past. As educators, the lesson we can learn from this is that we should learn to live in the moment, too. Toss out those file cabinets we’ve hoarded of outdated study guides and tried-and-true lesson plans. Get rid of all the posters, anchor charts, and other hanging crap on our walls and bulletin boards. Strip it down. Get current. Keep it simple. Surf the ‘Net for videos, photos, articles, and memes that speak to today--not to five or ten or fifteen years ago.
WE'VE GOT TO MIX IT UP
The Chainsmokers’ setlist from last night featured their singles, but it also pulled in a whole bunch of yummy goodness from other tracks by the Killers, Panic! at the Disco, the Notorious B.I.G., and one of my personal faves--Coldplay. That’s what DJs do: they mix it up. They don’t just spin one record; they spin an amalgam of them. How many of us still own LPs? My vinyl has been donated or sold. As educators, let's think more and think often about pulling from other content areas and genres to teach: Grab a video from Vevo as a conversation-starter; open up Spotify and create a playlist of songs relevant to the subject matter (or even better--let the kids do it!); let them respond to a class question in Twitter. Stop playing just that one single like a broken record. (Pun intended.)
LET THEM TAKE A #SELFIE
OMG, the selfies. Tons of them, everywhere last night. The Chainsmokers gained initial fame with their 2014 hit #SELFIE--a sardonic yet hilarious look at the selfie phenomenon--but it speaks to a generation of students who need to see themselves. Why they do it isn’t important. Maybe we should instead ask, How can we as educators get students to see themselves in their learning? Most learning is teacher-directed and teacher-assigned. What if we instead provided for more choice and voice in assignments? What types of things would they create? What if we allowed them to pursue and/or construct their learning paths? Of course, we still need to teach the standards, but do we need to do so in such a rigidly-structured manner: lectures, quizzes, and tests? What if we asked our students: How would you like to show what you know?
ACT LIKE A DJ
Okay, so with all this talk of changing it up, I’d like to address the fact that without DJs--the music would come to a screeching halt. [Insert record scratch sound effect here.] Teachers: you’re the DJ. Keep the beat going. You still have to curate the songs and the song clips. They still need us. We are still important. But could we maybe change the song every once in awhile?
CHAMPION CREATIVITY OVER CONSUMPTION
The Chainsmokers didn’t wait around hoping to be discovered by a music industry executive. They made their music and uploaded it to SoundCloud, an open music and audio platform that allows our globally-connected post-Millennials to discover breakthrough artists and to connect with them. From there, the audience grew. The Chainsmokers created their own content, published it, and shared it. In contrast, we often tend to assign one task with a very rigid and specific set of directions based on the notes and lectures we have fed to our students. Do you have any idea how many of your students have published their own work to YouTube or SoundCloud already? Allow opportunities for them to do so in the classroom. What about a video essay (vessay) instead of an essay? What about letting them write a song that exemplifies the tone or mood of an historical era?
LET THE BEAT DROP
I once read something somewhere (I think it was a blog post by George Couros) that asked Would you want to be a student in your own classroom? In other words, are we having fun? Are we engaged? Are we active? When the “beat drops” in a song by the Chainsmokers and other EDM groups, it signals a pause before a major shift in beat or tempo--usually something big and loud and crazy and fun. Like this. Do we let the beat drop in our classrooms? Do we provide some spectacle, something big, something to let our students know that the best is yet to come? Are our hooks “hooky” enough? Learning should be fun. Lectures make it not so much. Dave Burgess is onto something.
WE'VE GOT TO REMIX IT, TOO
Last night, the Chainsmokers’ played their hit “It Won’t Kill Ya” in two (or was it three?) different versions, or what are commonly called remixes. A remix is a different interpretation of a musical recording. The result is something that has hints of the original, but may have a completely different meaning. I immediately connected with the Notorious B.I.G. version of the song; my son (who by the way, loves remixes; he’s on SoundCloud all the time looking for remixes of his favorite songs) preferred the trap remix of the original. Not all remixes are for everyone, however. But to reach an audience equally, we have to consider that not every audience member is equal. And that’s why differentiation is so utterly important. We can’t have a one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to instruction and learning. Regardless of how we feel about differentiation in education, we have to take the end game (the learner) into account. How are we providing different avenues for learning?
CONNECT & COLLABORATE
Take a look at the Chainsmokers’ songs. While Alex has taken on some singing responsibilities, a number of their songs feature contributing vocals from other artists such as Emily Warren, Halsey, Daya, and Chris Martin from Coldplay, to name a few. Indicative of the generation who loves them, the Chainsmokers aren’t shy in reaching out to connect with others they don’t know. For example, the story goes that the duo, hearing through the grapevine that Coldplay was a fan of their music, simply reached out to them about the possibility of working together. That’s it. We need to reach across the hallway, across the building, across the campus of our schools and districts to collaborate with other teachers instead of teaching within the isolated four walls of our classrooms. Hell, we need to reach out across the globe, using Twitter, Skype, and Google Hangouts to connect with experts, authors, congressional representatives, and scientists. Let’s show our students that their reach should exceed their grasp and that collaborating leads to creation.
IT'S OKAY TO SOMETIMES INTRODUCE THEM TO THE OLDIES BUT THE GOODIES
While before the concert, much of the Chainsmokers’ music was unknown to me--except for what I heard on the car radio--it was comforting to hear the inclusion of music with which I was familiar. Last night’s setlist included snippets of, as I mentioned, the Killers, Panic! at the Disco, The Verve, and Biggie himself. On the drive home, I was provided the opportunity, then, to introduce those artists to my son. Our students don’t know everything, and while they may have access to everything via the Internet, they still need guides to help them figure out what’s important. What we know is still important.
We have a lot to learn from the Generation Z crowd--if we’re listening to them. Oh, by the way...the title of this post? It’s a Chainsmokers song. (Here’s my Spotify playlist of the setlist.) And while my Snapchat story has expired since last night, be sure to follow me for new ones. I’m still true to my GenX roots, though, and that’s why you’ll find my pictures on Facebook, too. I’m happy to embrace both worlds. 😀
Go drop your mic!
I overheard the following exchange between two junior-high students yesterday. (I wasn’t actively eavesdropping; simply trying to navigate the hallway between classes..sort of like a salmon swimming upstream.)
Student #1: Dude, I heard we have a sub for English.
Student #2: Awesome. That means we’ll have no work to do.
At that point, I was able to jump my salmon run for the upper river, but the students’ terse yet thought-provoking conversation got me thinking: what is it about a sub situation that prods kiddos to equate a substitute teacher with a free-for-all? There’s still a task to be addressed, work to be completed, and an outcome to be achieved. It’s not like it’s a study hall or a three-ring circus or an ecstasy-infused rave, right? (Okay, I know the kids think it will be, but the amount of work on a teacher’s part that goes into prepping for a substitute is almost more work than taking the personal or professional day. Simply recalling that time I had jury duty causes me to break out into a cold sweat as I write this.)
As I tend to do, I started to overthink it. Was the comment by Student #2 a passing, not-so-serious one? Or did it speak to something greater and more problematic with the whole notion of substitution?
In algebraic terms, substitution refers to simply putting numbers where the letters are. For example, What is x + x/5 when x = 15? If we substitute x for 15 in the equation, we arrive at the following: 15 + 15/3 = 15 + 5 = 20.
The final equation looks different, but it’s essentially the same thing--just dressed in a different costume. (Like a substitute teacher.)
If you’re lactose intolerant, you can opt for rice milk or soy milk as a substitute for dairy. The act of substitution here takes the place of another. In this instance, however--as those of us lucky to not be lactose intolerant know--no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise, there’s really no substitute for from-the-cow milk, no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise. I’m not denigrating the lactose-intolerant; I myself am peanut intolerant, and no amount of chocolate-covered, roasted edamame is going to be as salty and satisfying as a Snickers bar--or so I discovered the one time I ingested one. (And by the way, it was so worth it.)
As I also tend to do, I’ve now wandered off my intended path and into the woods (or out of my stream and into a tributary, if I’m still going with the salmon metaphor). Anyway, my point here is that no matter how PC or self-delusional we choose to be, let’s face it: a substitute (whether it’s a teacher, algebra, soy, or roasted edamame) is never really quite as good as the real thing.
Which brings me to the S in SAMR...
If you’re unfamiliar with the acronym, I’m guessing you’ve probably spent the last five years or so trapped under a house (and in that case, you’ve got more pressing concerns than an acronym), or that it’s been on your radar and you haven’t gotten around to exploring it just yet. If that’s the case then, and before you read any further, I strongly encourage you to watch this quick and painless overview of SAMR.
Here’s the thing, though. I see a lot of us stepping onto that first rung of the ladder--the S (or substitution) level--patting ourselves on the back, and setting up camp there. In other words, we take what was once a paper worksheet and transfer it into a Google Doc. Or we exchange Google Forms for our paper quizzes. Or (and I swear I’ve seen this) we use Google Classroom to post our recycled Word Docs from last-year-at-the-same-time’s weekly homework.
There’s nothing wrong with taking that first step on the ladder. But when we stay there, either afraid to or unable to or unwilling to climb higher, then we’ve created an old classroom in a new way.
The psychiatric definition of substitution is the "turning from an obstructed form of behavior to a different and often more primitive expression of the same tendency" [emphasis mine]. Here, the "obstructed form of behavior" is the paper version; the "same tendency" is the idea that making something digital makes it new.
While we may create digital tasks to replace the paper ones, we’re still doing old things. We’re doing them differently, sure, but we’re not doing them in a challenging or engaging manner. A digital worksheet is still just a worksheet.
We need to modify and redefine our tasks instead of substituting them, and we can do that by heeding the call of 21st-century learning: strive for creativity and collaboration. Let’s take a book report, for example. Instead of typing it into a Google Doc (substitution) and having students use Easy Bib or a thesaurus add-on in conjunction with it (augmentation), encourage them to work collaboratively in Google Slides to create a literary walk (modification). Even better: allow them to use a video tool of their choice to create a book trailer (redefinition).
Substitution is a poor imitation of the original. (And just to be clear: I’m not book-ending this post by saying substitute teachers are a poor imitation. I’ve known some pretty amazing substitute teachers, as I’m sure you have.) When it comes to digital task design, however, we need to dump the substitute, because--and I quote--there’s really “no work to do.”
Most substitute teachers, though, aspire to something more--to have their own classrooms. And that’s how we should view the S in SAMR: it’s a good place to start; but let’s not get stuck there.
Let’s aspire to something greater.
No One Needs to Teach You (Or...What I Learned About Professional Development From My Vacuum Cleaner)
It all started with my vacuum cleaner and its lack of suction.
I stood there, dumbfounded and helpless, considering my options: Beg my handyman neighbor for help? Pack up the damn thing and drop it at the repair shop? Swing by Wal-Mart and purchase a new one? How much was this going to cost me? And what would befall my crumb-ridden carpet in the meantime?
My 16 year-old, passing by on his umpteenth visit to the refrigerator that afternoon, and spying me confounded, motionless, and fully absorbed in my interior monologue, simply inquired, “Why don’t you YouTube it?”
Out of the mouths of teenagers…
And so I YouTubed it.
In under an hour, I’d dismantled the rotor, cleaned the brush roller, checked the hose and intake, un-hooked and re-hooked the electrical connection doo-hickey, and assembled everything all pretty and brand new(ish). I plugged her back in and...it worked! It really, really worked! (Oh, the sweet sound of a million bits of detritus being sucked up!)
I did it.
All by myself and without the help of a repairman, a salesperson, or a customer service rep. (Okay, yeah, I had Debbie, the YouTuber, but still.) The point is that I--someone who must have grabbed a catnap when God handed out mechanical acumen--managed to single-handedly repair a household appliance.
I did it.
Is there any single phrase more fraught with promise and potential and triumph?
I did it.
Holy cow, did I feel empowered, informed, educated! What could I do next?
I did it.
Wait a minute…I’ve heard that phrase before. Where had I heard that phrase before?
I'd heard it in the classroom. From students.
But not just from any students. Students who were allowed to (or encouraged to or maybe even forced to) figure it out for themselves. And when they did--when they embraced their power of self-discovery--they owned it.
I don’t need to elaborate upon the metaphor here. I think if you’ve read this far, you get the point: let’s stop feeding information to our students and let’s enjoy them figuring it out for themselves. The age of knowledge-depositing is sooooooo over; the age of knowledge acquisition is thriving. And it looks like it might do so for a very long time to come.
This take-learning-into-your-own-hands thing doesn’t apply only to students, by the way. I hear the following lament from educators with such frequency during my training and professional development sessions that I’m ready to drink bleach: “No one taught this to me before!” (You think I’m kidding about the bleach.)
Guess what, buttercup? No one needs to teach you anything. In fact, if you’re sitting around waiting to be taught, then you’ve defeated the whole purpose of learning.
Learning (in this case, professional development) should be something we seek out for ourselves and not something that’s done to us. We can’t inspire a generation of students while simultaneously waiting around for someone to appear and drop their knowledge bombs on us.
My sons didn’t require professional development to learn how to play Minecraft or Pokemon Go. They didn’t wait around for someone to teach it to them. They figured it out for themselves. That's what this generation does--and we should do it, too.
Want to learn how the Google Forms quiz version works? Get in there and play with it. Want to use HyperDocs in the classroom? YouTube it. Don’t know how all these new online formative assessment tools work? Then, sunshine, it’s time to visit the online help section. Or simply Google it.
Be inspired by our students. Be inspired by those who inspire them in turn. (Like Casey Neistat, for example, whose life exemplifies the I-did-it-without-anyone-teaching-me mentality and has almost seven million YouTube followers to prove it.)
Go teach yourself something today.
Gotta run now. Time to tackle my dryer vent.
I was reading a blog post last week by Richard Byrne entitled “The Things I Wish Every Teacher Knew About Technology.” (I'm presuming it's inspired by the super popular #IWishMyTeacherKnew, which is powerful read, in case you're interested.)
But I digress. Back to Byrne's post--which stuck with me for a few days--because the thing I most encounter in my job is complete and abject fear of technology: both the fear of failing with it and the fear of succeeding with it. (Ironic, no?)
I totally get the paralyzing fear of failing thing: What if this doesn’t work? What if I look like a fool in front of my students?
My answer is always, What if you do? What's the absolute worst that could happen?
I’ve addressed the subject of failure pretty regularly on this site, so I won’t belabor the point except to say this: The only failing is in ceasing to try. To quote Michael Jordan, “I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Now, the fear of success thing had me puzzled for a while, until I was enlightened by a former superintendent whose advice I seek out on a regular basis. Fear of succeeding, he explained, means that you have to keep “upping your game;” that as soon as you master something, you’ll be expected to keep improving and to keep mastering, and then the expectations just keep getting greater and greater, until we overwhelm ourselves with, Well, if this works how long before the next thing comes along that I have to learn? When will it end?
My response? Why would we want learning to end?
We should always remember that our goal as educators is to create lifelong learners. Let’s model what that looks like by failing and succeeding. And isn’t that a totally awesome-sauce life lesson for our students?
There's nothing to be afraid of. I pinky swear.
Digital Learning Coach in Cleveland, Ohio, sharing innovative technology ideas.