Month: May 2017

How to Avoid Being Napolean Bonaparte

How to Avoid Being Napolean Bonaparte

I’ve long held a suspicion that there is a difference between an administrator and a leader, but now I know it is the truth. My current school has suffered through major changes several times since I’ve been here and now it looks to restructure again with its expanded campus. Needless to say, this has provided a lot of fodder for me to consider what is my role at the school and made me reflect on what is the distinction between someone who sees themselves as a someone who “ticks off the boxes”, my definition of an administrator,  or someone who is in fact in command of the school, my definition of a leader. As I see, you can’t lead people who don’t want to follow you, but you still can be an administrator who manages things lovelessly.

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And the difference between the two is what are the values of the person in charge: completing paperwork or developing trust. Whether or not someone at the top is an administrator or is a leader, they influence the culture of a school, but the outcomes of their decisions permeate all areas of school life. The perspectives they hold about education plays a major part in how school policies and procedures are shaped and implemented.

Some of the fault in exercising power comes from the fact that the higher you climb in a hierarchical structure (which most schools ascribe to), the more you are the target of criticism and complaints. How you handle being the target of these remarks and gossip makes a huge difference. You have to ask yourself: Do I want to be liked or do I want to be trusted. The nuances in this perspective cannot be underscored enough. To put simply, if you think of your title like winning a popularity contest then you will always be defending your title. If you think of your title as earning a vote of confidence, then you continue to work toward maintaining and developing the strengths of your organization.  When you are in a “title”, there is hubris and then there is humility that becomes the norms of a school.  You get to decide which will define your use of power.  Douglas MacArthur said it best:

A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.

As I wrap up my school year and prepare to move to another school, I will store away the memories of these experiences. Although I will not be in a leadership title next year, I have come to understand that “words without actions” are meaningless, so I feel strongly that titles without real leadership qualities are void of any value. I am a bit disenchanted with any grabs at power at the moment because I have witnesseleadershipd first hand at how detrimental it can be when people thirst to be given power or maintain control over others. I have come to feel relief in taking some time to redefine what I am and how I can best serve my new school community and the field of education at large. Alas, that will be my new focus–out beyond the 4 walls of my school–and look to how I might contribute to making a difference, not just in the International Baccalaureate, but in the larger conversation that is taking place in education: What really matters for our learners as we look to the future?

What about you? What are your thoughts about school leadership? What perspectives am I missing?

Season 1, Episode 1 of The Educator’s Companion to Professional Development: Unlock Your Genius through PLPs (Show Notes)

Season 1, Episode 1 of The Educator’s Companion to Professional Development: Unlock Your Genius through PLPs (Show Notes)

I know that a lot of people enjoying reading and skimming through podcast show notes to get a gist of the highlights of the episode. This podcast was originally recorded back in May 2017. To listen to the podcast, please go here.

Before we start diving into all the great resources, I really want to share with you a structure to unlock your potential, that I call a professional learning plan. I know. It’s not very sexy sounding, but it is a practical framework that you can use as a map for your learning journey.
Today’s Focus hinges on 2 questions: Why you need to create a personalized plan for your professional development? And what is the framework so you can get the most out of your learning?

Why you need to create a personalized learning plan?

Unfortunately, for many teachers today, professional development is viewed more as an exercise in compliance rather than an opportunity to improve their practice.
Research has shown that the way in which schools and districts deliver professional learning is highly fragmented and characterized by big disconnects between decision-makers and teachers.
I was surprised and disappointed to find that research suggested that only 29 percent of teachers are highly satisfied with current professional development offerings. With a 1/3 of all teachers stating that they do not believe that professional development is helping them prepare for the changing nature of the profession, including the use of technology and digital learning tools, analyzing student data to differentiate instruction, and implementing the curriculum.
 So, although a variety of professional development formats such as professional learning communities and coaching is becoming mainstream, there is an extraordinary amount of that still feel like they aren’t growing themselves, and becoming more effective in their classrooms. Perhaps this is because they have limited if any choice. Fewer than one in three teachers actually have a voice in their professional development.  Yet, what we do know is that those teachers with more choice are more likely to engage seriously in professional learning and improve their craft.
I can absolutely relate to the struggle of making professional development meaningful in schools. As a curriculum coordinator, I was involved in the planning of professional development for my school. We look at data, we do surveys, we have PD committees, we have PLCs, we have collaborative planning meetings. We try to tick all the boxes but the truth is that it is really difficult to move students forward without addressing the specific needs of a teacher; so we often make generalizations when it comes to professional development decisions. We talk a lot about differentiation for students, but rarely for teachers. But the research now shows that increasing the use of self-guided online resources combined with the individual teacher’s innate desire to focus on a professional goal, improves the quality of learning in the classroom.
Teachers who are learners, shift from mediocrity to expert status when they are motivated towards a professional goal that is meaningful and timely for their growth in an area of specific interest. And passionate teachers, create classrooms of excellence.
It is preciously why I have made this podcast and preciously why I want to help you to create a personalized professional learning plan because you can go from good to great in no time whatsoever if you have a framework that supports your growth. So this professional learning plan is has been created from a mash-up and combines the ideas of Google, the methods of Tim Ferris and Josh Kaufman, as well as stealing from the playbook of the personal learning plans that we use for our students.

What is a personalized learning plan?

Now I’d like to share with you the 6-step process to create your plan, and 4 tips to help you be successful in executing it. So let’s begin.
Step 1: Start with the end in mind by creating a goal.
You have to have a destination in mind when you embark upon a learning journey. So think about what worries you about your learners or what excites you in education, then create a goal around that. Be careful not to make it something outrageous but it needs to be something that is challenging–to throw out some teacher speak for you, it needs to be in your zone of proximal learning, right?
The Goal: To be Smart on Unsmart?–that is the question!
Yes, you may wonder how you should approach goal setting.  At this point, I’m going to leave this up to you. You’re an adult and you know you. Some of you may cringe at the idea of making a goal S. M. A. R. T.–specific, measurable, achievable, relevant/realistic, and time-bound. Yet others of you really need that in order to flesh out your goal. What I am suggesting is to use a framework that will inspire you and keep you glued to this interest so that it becomes sustainable.  Your goal needs to you light you up and get you excited for this journey ahead. Use positive language that is focused on what you want, not what you don’t want. You can start with a challenge that you currently plaguing you.
I can give you a personal example. I had a student who I was concerned about that had some very anti-social tendencies. And I really wanted to find a way to develop empathy in this student without it being a lesson in social skills because that approach really wasn’t working since this student had a touch of oppositional defiance. So I decided that I was going to another approach such as design thinking as my way to developing perspective-taking in students, particularly this student.
So my goal became: I use design thinking in at least 1 unit this year, in order to develop perspective over a product and cultivate empathy in a context that is rigorous and fun.
There you go. Hopefully, my personal example helps you to consider how you might create a goal statement that captures what success might look like. The point here is to turn any challenge or interest that you have into a statement that you resonate with and places the attention on your purpose for learning.
When you crafted something that makes you feel anticipation and delight, boom–that’s your goal. Do that.
Step 2: Audit your Knowledge
They say that what you measure you can improve upon. We know that all good learning in our classroom begins with a pre-assessment. So then the next logical step is to do an audit of what we know about this topic. I’ve created a workbook that goes with this plan which you can access on my website and I have a couple of exercises in there to help you determine your level of competence in an area. But let me give you one tool right now to help you start thinking. I think this one comes right out of the personalized learning plan playbook that is used with students.
Current Status:  When you begin, you simply rate yourself on a level of 1 to 10. 1 being little to no knowledge on the topic to 10 being a trainer or expert in it. Where would you put your level of proficiency and why did you rate yourself there? For my example, I rated myself as a 3 because I have done some research but not much and had attempted to use the design process with some success in a previous unit of inquiry.
I think it’s important, to be honest with where you are at and to remember, just because you may score low in the beginning of this journey, doesn’t mean you will be there at the end. In fact, I suggest that you do status updates along the way and mark your progress towards your goal. I assure you that monitoring your growth will be an affirming check-in that will help you develop momentum.
How will you know that you have acquired a level of mastery in this area unless you are keeping track of it?
When you know that you are making gains, it can be very motivating. This helps to inspire you to keep up your commitment and perhaps even increase the intensity of it. You will be ever so grateful and pleased that you did because it develops greater confidence in your ability to make small steps forward towards awesomeness.
Step 3: Write questions you want to be answered
So now that you have done this audit, what needs to be learned starts to emerge. You should start writing down all the burning questions you have about your topic of interest.
Going back to my personal example, some the questions I asked were…
Can I really teach design thinking to little kids?-How can it be modified? What might design thinking look like in the Early Years?   How might empathy be developed in this process? What exercises or approaches to I need to take in order to develop empathy in a creative context? Based upon my last experience, what part of the design process do I need to understand better to make it more successful? Can design thinking create learner agency?-What other ways might students be empowered in the process?
Once you have formulated a list of questions, you must rank the ones that you want to pursue first. Which leads me to the next step.
Step 4: Build a Learning Ladder
This is the step in which you take your big goal and deconstruct it, breaking it into pieces of the knowledge you need to attain and the skills you will need to develop in this process. Look at your questions-What are the main skills and concepts that you have to master? Brainstorm the ideas and get into the nitty-gritty of what needs exploring. Have you ever heard of Pareto’s Law–the 80/20 Principle? This is when you try to figure out the main 20% of activities or tools that produce 80% of the results that you want.  Focus on those power punches and commit your effort to them.
Where do you think is the most important place to start with those key skills–that becomes the first rung on your ladder for your transformation. Then what do you think is the next logical step, and the next. The point of this exercise is to start charting your trajectory and is really important so that you don’t get overwhelmed in the process of learning. You can always revise this later, but it is really important to make a sketch of your learning process. This is one of the keys to making this personalized and meaningful for you.
Step 5: Resources Needed Who Can Help/What can help?
In the upcoming segments, I will share with you some free resources and training that you can use to help you in your learning.  Depending on the quality of the content, you may only want 1-3  true resources. If you scatter yourself too thin, then it’ will be hard to focus. But it is useful to have a bookmarking site to pin things to when you come across ideas later. Just don’t get sucked into the world of Pinterest, Pocket, and Diggo and not actually do the reading and deep dive into your resources.
People can be exceptionally helpful. If there are experts in your area of interest, then find out what methods or ideas created their knowledge.
  1. Is there someone in your school or district who has expertise and knowledge in this area? Can you invite them out and pick their brain?
  2. Look on Twitter–are there experts you can follow who might be posting great articles or ideas that would benefit you? Follow them!! What are chats? Are there any Tweet Ups you can do? That might be another way to engage and learn from others.
  3. Facebook Groups are there any groups that are examining these topics. Join these groups.
Another word of caution when it comes to social media, be sure you put time limits on yourself. If you want to spend 10 minutes a day checking into those groups or folks you are following, that’s fine. But make sure you manage your time wisely. Personally, I set a timer or do it when I know I only have a few minutes to spend so that way it keeps me from falling into a black hole and losing so much of my day to getting sucked into conversations or posts.
Step 6: Schedule Your Learning Time
This is huge. In order for you to go from 0 to 100, then you have got to make managing your time seriously. There was a great TedTalk and book written by Josh Kaufman that debunked the myth of the 10, 000 hours rule that was perpetuated by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  Instead, it only takes about 20 hours of focused time devoted to the pursuit of an interest before you gain competency in it. If you think about, 20 hours is really not all that much time, but the quality of your attention during that time that is extremely important. You need to have undivided attention to it. If you spend 1 hour a day for 5 weeks, you are going to see progress. Consider this your “Genius Hour”, in which you explore your interest without any sort of pressure to produce or create something.
So then What days are you going to do this? And from what times? Put it on your calendar. Micheal Hyatt is a productivity expert and he says that what gets scheduled, gets done. So true, if you put it in your Outlook or Google Calendar and set up reminders, to make sure that you sure that you have time set aside to work on your plan.
4 Tips in Executing Your Plan:
  1. Write down the theme of those learning timesRemember your calendar, well get it out because you need to flush out some details–what will be your focus? What do you wish to accomplish in those slots? You can make this as general or as specific. I used to be more general, but now I am very specific. For example, when I want to do research, then I have a content curation day, and I further divide that up into social media, blogs/websites and books. If it’s a social media day, then I am on FB and Twitter looking specifically at what’s being posted with certain hashtags or the ideas being posted in groups. I’m just reading. I may like or heart something, but I am not commenting on stuff. That’s not my purpose. On blog/website days, I only read that online content. Online PD days, I only go through a workshop or course that I am focused on. I try to be really specific and focused because I find it is super helpful in getting the most amount of knowledge in the shortest amount of time. Other days you might want to theme as planning days, in which you are working your new found knowledge into your unit or weekly plans. I’ll speak more to planning later, but the idea is to have a theme to help you become intentional with your time.
  2. Pick your place: I haven’t spoken about the importance of privacy because it seems self-evident that you are going to need some “alone time” to do your research and reading. I hope you have considered how important it is to be undistracted during these times. Make sure you have a special place that you can work unfettered for an hour. Sitting on the couch, while your family watches Game of Thrones is not going to be your “place”. You need to find a place that offers a pure unadulterated block of time in which no other things are happening other than your learning.
  3. Gather the resources: Have everything you need ready to go when you set down to learn. If you are doing your learning online, close down all the other tabs, like email or social media, on your browser and make sure your notifications are off. Just have those web pages open and ready to go so when you open your computer, it’s go-time!
  4. Reflect once a week on your learning: do a status update. You don’t have to do it at the same time as your learning time.
For example, I usually spend a part of Sunday doing planning time.  If you were to look at my schedule, you would see that I themed the day Planning.  I block off a couple of hours on Sunday and plan out my schedule for the week. At first, I do this planning with my husband on household things. It’s the time we plan our menu and make the grocery list. My husband and I go over our weekly expenses and budget. And talk about what needs to be done that week regarding our household–is there anything that needs to be fixed or paid or any special events that are going on at school? We have these conversations so we can then decide who is doing what and put it on our personal schedules. Then my husband and I go our separate ways to work on our personal planning for the week. Not only is this is the time I work on lesson plans, but I plan out MY learning as well. And this begins with reflection. So I look at my goal and ask myself where am I with this?  What are my next steps? And from there, I determine what I need to work on next to move me forward in achieving success on this goal.
As you know, my verb is to Empower, and I hope all this information was helpful and is getting you excited for your learning possibilities. In order to cut down on time, I intend to post a personal learning workbook that you can access and download from my website:  so please sign up for my blog and I can send it to you.
2 Questions Worth Asking To Determine Your Professional Fantasy?

2 Questions Worth Asking To Determine Your Professional Fantasy?

Have you ever been asked by an administrator a question like Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Well, a close colleague and school leader posed a different flavor of the question to me: What is your professional fantasy? I was absolutely startled by the question and fumbled through my answer, mostly because of the word fantasy- something that is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as:

a pleasant situation that you enjoy thinking about but is unlikely to happen.

So now that I have had a few days to really process this question, and it got me really thinking 2 things:

  1. What ridiculous thing would I like to do in education?
  2. And does it have to be “unlikely to happen”?


Before I go into a state of mind wandering,  let me provide the current context of most educational systems around the world:

In the past, we heard about the “digital divide” between those who had access to technology and those who didn’t. We are now seeing a new divide emerge–a Creative Chasm between those who actively create…Our current model of schooling amplifies this Creative Chasm. From the bell schedule to the grading system to the lesson planning and pedagogy, our students inhabit factory-style schools. Phrases like  “content delivery” and “delivering a lesson” treat education as a commodity to be collected and then used in the future. This model might have worked in developing compliant factory workers. So here are now, well into the twenty-first century. The factories are gone … Yet, this industrial model remains.

Excerpt taken from LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer

So how do I, as an educator who has been raised and trained in a factory-model system of education lead students into the future whose workplace values has shifted? This is highly personal–will I cling to the past or participate in the future? Well, this is where my fantasy begins, as  I cannot stand by and stagnate in my practice and continue to leave technology to the “kids”.

To answer my first question (What ridiculous thing would I like to do in education?), I’d like to be involved in a revolution in education–in which paradigms are shattered and we rip into the sacred cows of education. What sacred cows do I speak of? Mainly, that, as an educator, I am the knower of all things and I hoard that knowledge wisely and dispense it in time through a scope and sequence or a curriculum map.

Some of you might have gasped aloud–if that responsibility of our profession was downsized or completely eliminated, then what? Well, don’t be silly. The universe abhors a vacuum, something innovative and necessary would undoubtedly emerge to replace it. I daresay it already is. Read The Future of Professions  or gain insight through this video:


In my former career as a scientific researcher, I used to experiment on animals. I have sometimes joked that my students are like my “lab rats” with whom I manipulate and observe the results of my prodding (aka, “the black box of best practices”). But now I have come to see them, not as “animals” that I “experiment” with, but as fellow researchers. They are right along siding me, poking at reality and questioning its very nature. That’s the paradigm I wish to infuse in our educational systems: Students are Teachers; students can recognize what is worth knowing and develop effective ways in which these ideas can be transferred and shared.

I  understand that many of our students grow up immersed in a consumer culture and then attend schools where they consume rather than create knowledge. In my professional fantasy, I enlist an army of educators who plot and scheme an offensive to drive out students’ resignation and apathy towards their learning. Instead, these students join us and become generals themselves, crippling this very infrastructure of this archaic industrial age model.

Truthfully I believe that this revolution is presently underway and this army is already amassing with innovative and passionate educators. Educators like you.  And so I have to wonder if this is really a fantasy at all? Maybe through this blog and other ways and means, I can connect and engage with fellow concerned and diligent educators who do not wish to stand by and allow the old to become new again; but instead will we engage and empower our students, who may very well rewrite our job descriptions and redesign the frameworks and goals of our institutions.

Say you will join me!


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Season 1, Episode 0: Why I Created The Educator’s Companion to PD (Show Notes)

Season 1, Episode 0: Why I Created The Educator’s Companion to PD (Show Notes)

I know that a lot of people enjoying reading and skimming through podcast show notes to get a gist of the highlights of the episode. This podcast was originally recorded back in May 2017. To listen to the podcast, please go here.

Charles Dickens’ quote from A Tale of Two Cities speaks to the industrial revolution, in which so many of our school systems were designed around. As we transition from this era, the growing pains are real and messy.
When you think about this quote-Do you think about your challenges in your classroom, at your school, in your professional development? We’ve seemed to be a rollercoaster in education, which sometimes is thrilling and at other times is scary. There are all these complicated issues and feelings that arise when we talk about teaching our digital natives and finding professional development to match these needs can be really challenging.  This is the context that drove me to create this podcast.
One of my favorite and most fascinating people to me is the inventor and architect, Richard Buckminster Fuller, who suggested that humans are not nouns but verbs. When I first heard that idea and pondered the depth of what he was saying, it got me wondering what my verb is.   As someone who has taught for over 17 years in over 6 countries from America, Europe, South America, theMiddle East and in Asia, I’ve seen and experienced a lot in classrooms K-12.  And what I have come to understand is that my verb is to EMPOWER. I’ve experienced the “best of PD” and the “the worst of PD”, and recognizing this, I felt compelled to share the resources that I have compiled over the years in this show. Because knowledge is power, I feel inspired to equip you with an arsenal of means to support and encourage your growth and learning.
So I made this show for educators, who…
  •  want to accelerate their growth through purposeful and personalized PD
  • are instructional and technical coaches that are looking for some new resources to help improve and guide their practice.
  • are curriculum coordinators and subject matter leaders who wish to develop greater depth of understanding of tools and innovation for their schools’ programs.
  • for school leaders who are looking for ways to develop a growth mindset, not just in themselves, but in the schools that they impact.
What are its length and frequency?
  • This is podcast is meant to provide a quick and dirty overview of online professional resources. I know that your time is precious so I don’t want to blabber on. I provide the benefits, the drawbacks, and tips for success in using a professional development (PD) resource.
  • There’s a ton of free PD resources out there if you go looking. I have a list of 20 of them right now and it continues to grow. So I intend to do a bulk posting of episodes for your summer deep dive and come back in the fall to continue posting more great resources on this podcast.
I believe that I am not alone in my the desire to make a difference and be effective in your practice. That you are like me and crave that sort of impact in your school. So, with that in mind, my goal is to expose you to novel ways to develop your practice through free or inexpensive online professional opportunities, books that are worth reading and other material that is timely and personalized for your growth.  In the first series of podcasts, I will show you how to make a personalized learning plan and how to execute it.  I will also share some professional development that is top notch and free.
So, with that in mind, I hope you will join me on this journey, as your world opens up to the possibilities of what can be your classroom of learning for you.
10 Reasons Why I Can’t Wait to Teach 1st Grade Next Year

10 Reasons Why I Can’t Wait to Teach 1st Grade Next Year

My school year is winding down–4 more weeks left of school! (but not that I’m counting) And instead of thinking about all the great adventures we will have this summer, all I can think about is how much fun I am going to have to teach 1st grade next year. Teacher Nerd ALERT!next year After bobbing back and forth between the Early Years and 4th grade for the last couple years, I will be happy to settle in 1st grade for a while, where you get the best of the Early Years mindset (unfettered creativity and imagination) and yet starting to gain confidence and competence in Literacy and Numeracy skills, making it possible to go deep with developing their knowledge and thinking skills. Plus their minds aren’t as sullied with “can’ts” as the older grades are, making them so wonderfully teachable. Oh, the joy of learning!-for both me and them.

Here are the 10 things that are keeping me up at night that I am so dang excited to do with 1st graders:

  1. Meditation: Cultivating calm in one’s mind should be a skill taught early in life. If I was being honest, I have been a bit chicken to really make it a part of my classroom routine in a serious way. But I really intend to push myself and introduce mindfulness and meditation in a more intentional way. I think 6-7 years old can manage a brief moment of calm.   
  2. Book Snaps: Although I am not sure about introducing SnapChat to little ones, how I do love this idea by Tara Martin, in which kids take a “snap” of the book they are reading and post the questions, ideas, and quotes from the book as annotations. I think the excitement of posting these “book snaps” are a unique way to cultivate an interest in close reading when you share them in a public forum. Love of close reading–oh yeah, let’s do that!
  3. Podcasting: I dabbled with podcasting before but for the last couple months, I have taken a serious interest in it and have been working on my a personal podcast for a while. Audio content is a whole other art form so this project has really made me think a lot about creativity, word choice, and voice (literally). Which is preciously why I want to do with little kids, and I was inspired by an idea that the music teacher shared with me about read alouds. So I’m hoping to do read alouds of books and their writing and publish it to an authentic audience, all the while nailing fluency in the process.
  4. Blogging: The online world is where most of my digital natives will be probably making their greatest impact as they grow into adults. I’ve always admired the philosophy of the Writer’s Workshop as it develops the mindset of a writer. What could be more authentic and meaningful as a blog, as they articulate their ideas online?
  5. SeeSaw: I have been dying to seriously mess around with digital portfolios. Currently, we use Class Dojo, which is focused more on classroom management, but SeeSaw has oh so much more going on and has a lot more opportunity for engagement and interaction.
  6. Math Workshop: Did I mention that I like the workshop model? Ah, yes, and it works for math too! Workshop + Talk Moves + Math Tools = a deeper exploration of number concepts.
  7. Math as Art: Okay, I’m a math geek, but through a series of serendipitous events, I’ve come to see art as an integral way to show the “beauty” of math. I don’t consider myself arty, at all, but I’m super interested in how we can represent math (and science) in artistic ways.
  8. Number Talks: This is probably one of my favorite things, ever, in developing mathematical mindsets, in which students get to explore a myriad of perspectives as they look at solving a problem.  So, it creates a bank of strategies for mental math and develops mathematical fluency.  If you don’t know about it, check out the video below.

9. Design Thinking: Have you ever found that you thought you knew something but then as you start really working through it and researching it, you realize how absolutely ignorant you are. Well, design thinking has done that to me, and I want to use it more often in my classroom, not as a one-off in a STEM-like unit, but I think it can be superimposed into so many aspects of learning, even writing. I want to launch it early in my class and use it often, whether we are going through the design process or doing design sprints.

10. Writer’s Workshop: Although I am not a die-hard Lucy Calkins fan, I so do love this approach to writing because it creates “authors” with writing that is worth sharing and publishing. They get to study good writing, practice these devices, go through the writing process and get peer feedback. I think it cultivates a practice of deep reading of a text and cultivates a positive mindset about writing, dare I say a buzz about their writing. I want to remix this model a bit, with the use of technology and design-based learning through. So I reckon that this experiment will be the fodder for blogs later.

If you are a 1st-grade teacher, I’m wondering what you really love challenging your students with. What am I missing? What have you done that you think is the bee’s knees? I’d love some insight!!

Nevertheless, it is fun to sit upon the precipice of something and feel the exhilaration of possibility.

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3 Things Teachers Have to Know About Using Design Thinking In The Classroom

3 Things Teachers Have to Know About Using Design Thinking In The Classroom

Design in all around us. From our coffee mugs to our shoes to tissue paper, those things were all once thoughts inside someone’s head whose ideas escaped the confines of their brains and were put into form. Most importantly, those ideas were meant to solve a problem, either a physical problem or a problem related to a system, like as in transportation. For example,  in this Ted Talk with Elon Musk, he surprises you with his antidote to car congestion for commuters in Los Angeles. I thought it was going to be flying cars (Musk is the owner of Tesla, an electric car manufacturer) but it was creating tunnels that essentially launch you to your destination.

This is merely one of many examples of how someone can approach everyday challenges with a creative solution to them. This, in essence, is what design is and I believe it should be an integral part of how we approach our curriculum.The power of design thinking is the perspective in which we seek these creative solutions. It is a way of unlocking our imagination in an effort to produce viable options to things that trouble individuals.

So what makes up the components of design? What is design thinking in a nutshell?

  1. It is a process

I’ve seen all sorts of versions of design cycles, and I think teachers and schools have to think about how they are gong to use it in the learning, while not getting caught up with the language. The point is that it is a process that students can walk through easily when looking at examining an issue or challenge.

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For example, in my current Sharing the Planet unit (Central idea: We grow and use plants in many ways), students are going to design gardens that address the needs of a user–butterflies/bees or humans –so I am not going to use the MYP Design Cycle with them. They are 3-5 years olds after all!

2. It is a way of learning.

It is a way of inquiring and researching a topic that connects so many subject areas. As an PYP educator, it definitely is transdisciplanary, because one never knows when one discipline ends and the next begins, with Math, Science, Language, Art all happening simultaneously. But I what I love most about design-based learning is that it helps students to redefine what is failure so that they can appreciate that failing often leads to sooner success–taking the lessons of those failures and applying them is the learning!

3. It focuses on a user in mind.

They say art is creating something that satisfies the need of the artist, while design is creating something to satisfy the needs of others. Big challenges and their simple solutions often go through cycles of iteration as they look through the eyes of the user. This requires empathy and it is a skill that is really critical today as we start to consider the perspective and needs of others.

Image from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

I think this is the biggest distinction between project-based learning (PBL), and the hallmark of creating something that matters to someone. You really have to dig deep into understanding the nuances of each user, which is obvious in the examples above, right? In my current unit, I outlined the process in this design thinking post and I’ve had to shift from looking at creating a “product”–a garden–and have the kids consider what is important to the “user”, which in this case are the butterflies and humans. When we went to the farm, we had to discuss how and why the farmers created raised beds, which was got the children thinking about this subtlety and how it might be applied to the garden they want to create.

As I work through design-based learning approach in my own classroom, I can tell you that the depth of thinking definitely changes when you combine the experience of gaining knowledge + skills + perspective.

Now that you know more about design-thinking, perhaps you might give it a shot in your class–how could you flip your “project” into a design challenge?




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Why Design Thinking is the Secret Ingredient to Student Agency

Why Design Thinking is the Secret Ingredient to Student Agency

Not that long ago, the International Baccalaureate (IB) issued a reflective “cheat sheet” of how schools can examine learner agency in the Primary Years Programme (PYP). Some of the key indicators include exploring the frequency and depth that learners are…

  • Actively engaged in various stages of learning, including thinking about, planning, modifying and creating 
  • Actively involved in discussion, questioning and by being self-directed in their creating (as opposed to passive receiving)
  • Apply their understanding of concepts through the construction of their projects/play
  • Make connections to the real world by taking past experiences into their play worlds
  • Have an active voice and stake in the classroom/community
  • Face challenges and are given the freedom to independently overcome these or fail through trial and error or experimentation
  • Are risk-takers
  • Express their theories of the world and these are honored in the environment
  • Reflect on their actions and self-regulate.

When I superimposed this framework over my classroom, I scrutinized my own practices and the culture in my classroom. Who was doing the leading in the classroom? Was I giving them freedom to learn and the space to lead?

These were the questions that played in the “background music” of my mind as I went into the planning of our last unit for the year. I know that this time of year can be a convenient time to take things easy and maintain the status quo of the established routines of the classroom, but I decided that I wanted to squeeze more out of the year by introducing design thinking into our classroom. I felt that this would be the secret ingredient to learner agency as design thinking organically gives them choice and voice, provided that I do not micromanage their learning.

My current unit is from the theme, Sharing the Planet whose central idea is: We grow and use plants in many ways. The central idea is accessible and easy for the 3-5 years old grasp and the lines of inquiry are straightforward: Growth of a plant (change); ways that plant parts are used in human life (connection); care of plants (responsibility). I’m still mid-unit, but I can share the process so far.

From there, I introduced the design thinking process, which I’ve obviously had to simplify for the Early Years. I stole ideas from American STEM schools like the  Benjamin Banneker School as a model for my class. To begin with, I wanted the students to choose what they wanted to grow. When we began the unit, I asked parents to go out shopping or bring in plant seeds that the students personally chose. (If I had chosen the seeds, I would normally have picked beans or radishes–something that is very easy to grow and would sprout quickly.) Of course, that’s not what the kids picked. They brought in a variety of flowers and vegetables such as broccoli and bak choy. In this small change to my “normal”, I had already shifted the dynamic significantly to cultivate greater agency, enthusiasm, and depth of the inquiry–it all started with the seeds.

design and scienceThe design-thinking process language I am using is:

  1. Understand
  2. Focus
  3. Imagine
  4. Prototype
  5. Try

Understand: What do we need to know about plants? And who are the “users” of plants? (the “we” in our central idea)

FullSizeRender 86

These were the first series of questions that the students wondered about and began our jumping off point for our project: To design a garden for an end user.  In the beginning, the students weren’t really thinking about a “user”, but through daily questioning prompts in our morning meetings and investigating what lived inside the homes provided by plants, sIMG_4623tudents began to grasp the concept of the relationship between plants and animals. I decided to also create some compost with the students so that they may appreciate the symbiosis of plants with one another and how humans can support the growth of plants by turning our rubbish into food. We used food scraps from the school kitchen like egg shells and banana peels and blended it into our dirt. We then used this enriched soil to plant our seeds in recycled toilet paper tubes, which would later transplant into the gardens we created.




Focus: How is the care of our specific plant different from each other and what considerations will we need when building our gardens? 

At this point,  2 groups had emerged: the vegetables and the flowers, and the students decided that the end users would be different. 1 group was going to focus on people (vegetables) and the other group wanted to focus on butterflies (flowers). If we were successful, then the end users would appreciate our gardens by eating the vegetables and getting nectar from the flowers.


Before we could build the gardens, we had to consider the needs of those plants–no plants meant no happy end users! So the students had to research the basic requirements of their particular plant and this was definitely guided as we Googled and perused through books. Not a great deal of independence here, but the understandings of this greatly influenced the ideas of their garden design’s first renderings.

Imagine: Where might we put this garden and what would the structure of this garden look like?

So now we began to examine different types of gardens. We visited the wetlands park to and will go to a working farm. The students have made their first sketches of their gardens. What really surprised me was the thoughtful considerations the students made. They absolutely thought about the level of sunshine that the plants would need, and they put those details into those drawings. For example,  the “pink flower” group wants to make a heart-shaped garden near a tree, but not under a tree. While the “purple flower” group wants to be near the vegetables because that garden needs to be in a sunny area.

FullSizeRender 87 We will have a morning meeting to think about their designs and come up with questions for the farmers. (Going back to the “understand and focus” part of the process) After the farm visit this week, the students will review their designs to see if they feel they are on the right track.

Next week, they will create models of their designs out of cardboard and have the students put these prototypes in the area of our school where they think the plants will grow best. That will be the “try” part of the process before they actually go and build the real model and officially plant the plants. I will have to update their progress on this project later, as I reckon they will make changes in their designs

But I can say that so much of this unit’s inquiry has been given over to the students, as design thinking has allowed this project to be more personalized and focused on what they think is important. It’s sort of an odd feeling, especially as an early childhood teacher, to move out of their way and just be the “helper” in fulfilling their imaginings. I look forward to posting the end results later in a future blog post.

To be continued….

And I am curious how other teachers or schools have used design thinking to shift into a more student-centered culture and approach to the learner. What am I missing? What ideas might you have to extend my approach?



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Central Ideas: The Good, The Bad and The Messy. How the Primary Years Program Can Rethink and Define Them

Central Ideas: The Good, The Bad and The Messy. How the Primary Years Program Can Rethink and Define Them

The Primary Years Program is a challenging curriculum. As you work in this framework, it forces you to put all of your educational values under the microscope and really analyze what you truly believe about how children learn best.  Often the ideas sound good on paper but can really be a struggle in practice, especially depending upon the constraints their school puts upon them with math and literacy programs. As a coordinator who works with new-to-IB staff, getting them to “drink the Kool-Aid” isn’t always an easy sell, especially at first because all the jargon overwhelms them. But I think that the first step to convincing new PYP teachers that this is the best approach to learning out there is the central idea. Well written central capture students interest and make for powerful inquiries.

So how do you know if your central ideas are “bad”?  Here’s the main clue: Your teachers say “huh, what does this mean?” when they look at it.  I’ll share an example to clarify:

Natural materials are used to inspire and express ideas. (How We Express Ourselves)

This is bad for all sorts of reasons–it’s ambiguous yet narrow focus on “natural materials” and the words “inspire” and “express” seem to be subjective in this context. These are two things that jump out at you. But what did you say after reading this? Let me guess:  “huh, what does this mean?”    Yep, that’s the hallmark of a failed attempt at a central idea.

What about messy? Well, I love this handy-dandy guide to developing a central idea that I’m pretty sure ever PYP school references at some point in their review of their Programme of Inquiry (POI). It’s well-intentioned and tries to be thorough, but when you put pen to paper, you can really get some gobbly-gook.  This part, below, is what causes some major mumbo-jumbo in our fabrication of central ideas:

How do I know if I have written a good Central Idea?

 Did you include two or more concepts in your statement?

 Have you used an active, present-tense verb?

 Did you avoid using proper and personal nouns?

 Did you avoid the use of to be (is, are) and have verbs?

 Did you write a complete sentence

You couple this with the advice in the Developing a Transdisciplanary Programme of Inquiry, and you can really have some creative wordsmithing. I say this all respectfully, especially since the PYP is undergoing a big review at the moment, but put yourself in the shoes of a new IB educator.

developing a transdisciplanr
From the publication: Developing a Transdisciplanary Programme of Inquiry

It takes a sharp eye to see the delineation between the 2 versions and you got to remember that this is a central idea for a 1st grader/Primary 1 student–words like organization, endeavor, and enterprise take a week (at least) to unpack before you get to those 4 lines of inquiry. You can totally appreciate why new IB teachers are absolutely overwhelmed with the notion of writing or revising a central idea. Furthermore, you can understand why a candidate school would just copy a sample POI that is either posted on the Online Curriculum Centre or on another IB school’s website.  Just the other day I was having a coffee with a candidate’s school appointed PYP coordinator. At first, I didn’t quite understand her intention- her school’s POI looked fine, decent central ideas- but after an hour I came to understand that what she actually wanted me to help her with writing lesson plans for her teachers. Her teachers needed help with lesson planning because they personally hadn’t gone through the process, they had no skin in the game and definitely no understanding of what it means to do an “inquiry into…..

But this goes back to the point I was making–a good central idea should generate more possibilities. If a teacher can’t look at a central idea and come up with a place to start, then the inquiry is going to get messy.  Just look at that central idea above: People create organizations that solve problems and support human endeavor. They will probably just fumble around for at least a week instead of hitting the ground running doing a bonafide inquiry because they can’t get past those words. The words–the ones that the summative task is supposed to be built around–is a major stumbling block, especially for a 1st-grade teacher. Let’s be honest, right?If the central idea is messy than it typically demands that we put a stake in the ground at some point and say, “ok kids, this is where you need to go with your inquiry–it’s nearly summative time!” I know IB understands these challenges, which is why it is painfully taking a knife to the PYP and rethinking how we can approach central ideas.

Let me give you another example from a 2nd-grade unit at our school:

The population of a community can determine the structure of its organizations within it.

When we wrote that central idea under How We Organize Ourselves theme, we followed the handy-dandy aforementioned guide. I’ve highlighted the concepts that we pulled out the IB Social Studies Scope and Sequence. The purpose of this unit was to help students start gaining an understanding of government and economics that was lacking in some of the future P4 and P5 units. The summative task is to have the students form a “city council” and create a community with a given population, using a budget to provide for its goods and services. So that was the intention of this wordy central idea. This year, when a new 2nd-grade teacher came in and looked and looked at this unit, her response to the central idea indicated that it was messy. In our last meeting, we discussed how well the kids, who LOVED this unit, understood the central idea. She said that she spent more time focusing on the lines of inquiry because of the wording of the central idea, but that ultimately yes they understood the relationship between population and community design. The fact that she circumvented the Central Idea is definitely a symptom of a messy central idea. So we thought about ditching all those big words and simplifying the central idea to reflect a more kid-accessible central idea:

People design communities to fit the needs of its population.  

(I think we have transformed it into a “good” central idea–or at least a better iteration.)

So, a perfect central idea isn’t so wordy and nebulous that you can’t find a place to start, nor creates an exhausting level of teacher content delivery or misguided student research. What do I mean about this? Look at this:

Signs and Symbols can be used to communicate messages through different media.

Screams transdisciplinary right?–Instantly specialists want to jump in and connect with the ideas of signs and symbols, and it’s an easy link with literacy, social studies, technology, and math. Not to mention that it’s got friendlier language so we can dive right into the inquiry. And assessment organically emerges, with the kids being able to contribute to what a summative task might look like. It’s interesting, it’s engaging and student action is prominent.

So let me summarize my definition of a “good” central idea:

  • Transdisciplinarity ( I don’t know if that’s a word, but it is now!) can happen organically.
  • It is easily understood by the teacher so they know how to start the inquiry.
  • The students can access its language.
  • A clear summative task naturally arises and students can provide input into how it can be assessed.
  • It connects students to concepts that will be needed in future units of inquiry.

Now, perhaps you share my opinion about central ideas or you may want to lambaste me. This is a hotly contested area between educators. Fair enough. But as a coordinator, I make a good stab at being knowledgeable and reflective, however, the only thing that I am certain of is my experience as an educator with this framework.  Perhaps your experience matches mine or maybe you think I’m speaking blasphemy–fantastic! Let’s debate! I’d love to hear your definitions–what are the attributes of a “good” central idea?

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If You’re Not Struggling and Embarrassed, then You’re Not Teaching Digital Natives.

If You’re Not Struggling and Embarrassed, then You’re Not Teaching Digital Natives.

Back in 2006, my 4th-grade colleague, Mr. Glenn patiently tutored me in using wikis and blogs. I gave it a whirl with my students but I really wasn’t very competent in my tech know-how to pull it off. Honestly, it took me YEARS before I’d get back on the horse again. Perhaps you can relate-As a teacher, you always feel like you are racing against the clock, trying to get all the standards taught and using tech just seemed so frivolous, so you forgo its use. I definitely suffered from technophobia as my awkward attempts caused more frustration than bore fruit. However, I didn’t stay marooned on this island for too long, as seeing my daughter engage with technology really compelled me to take a closer look at its use in learning. This blog actually is the outcome of this realization and it has evolved from an exploration and curiosity to my digital professional portfolio to being a reflective tool of my educational interests and practices.

I remember early in my teaching career a well-intentioned high school administrator told me that a “good teacher” can teach anything. I felt like a really terrible teacher for a long while, thinking that I was somehow grossly incompetent because I couldn’t successfully coach volleyball (never played it competitively) or teach Spanish (I studied French). It took me changing schools to see what ridiculous advice this was. But c’mon– Like who can teach cross-stitch or linear algebra without any previous knowledge or training?  Well, let’s just call bulls@#$t on that! And that is why this “good teacher” is a student rather than trying to wing it with a textbook. You cannot teach what you don’t have any experience in, let alone knowledge of.

So, later when I went back to 4th grade I realized that I had been digging up dinosaur bones for too long and avoiding technology. Yes, I could app smash and flip my lessons, but I really wasn’t moving my students from being “consumers” idare to teachnto “creators”, which is what I now define as the purpose of using technology in our classrooms. Plus, I really wanted to move them to the highest use of technology–Connection!-sharing their ideas and finding others in their “tribe” in the digital landscape. How could I possibly teach kids about stuff that I wasn’t actively doing myself? If I was going to get these kids prepared for their future, I had to be a 21st-century learner right along with them. I couldn’t possibly blindly ask them to create something unless I could somehow mentor them. That’s exactly when I started to get serious about blogging.

You see blogging is about one of the most humiliating things you can do, other than getting really smashed at a party and stripping down to your undies. Your ideas and thinking are “naked” and it has the potential to be seen by tons of people. You can sound like an idiot and these online ramblings leave a digital footprint. So, not only can your current boss and colleagues see what kind of fool you are, but your future boss and co-workers can too. But I have to do it because I want to teach to the future and not to the past. The expectations of my students to be creators are going to be higher since being “googleable” is a prerequisite for their job search. There’s no way I can teach them about digital citizenship and managing their online life if all I ever do is post an occasional Facebook update and never become a contributor to the World Wide Web myself. Seriously, how could I actually help them navigate these waters?

Now I’m teaching myself about podcasting. It’s not hard, but it ain’t easy. In case you were thinking about it, there’s all this stuff that you need to know about creating quality sound, editing tracks, uploading it onto feeds and publishing it. Plus you need to have graphic art for your podcast and I have to design a logo and description for it.  Geez! I haven’t used GarageBand in years and it is a heck of a lot more complicated than I remember. I’m harassing our music teacher to tutor me in making audio tracks and how licensing works in the recording world. There’s a lot about copyright that I don’t know about. And writing a script is not the same as writing blog posts, let me tell you. (As an avid podcast listener, it’s annoying to hear aimless talking. My time is precious, so if the podcast is a bunch of blah-blah-blah, then why bother?-right?!) I worked on my podcast this weekend and I sound like such a boob. But it’s my first step. I have to remind myself that everything is hard at first but eventually it gets easier and more fun. However, I’m hopeful that I can take this experience into the classroom. I really want to have my students create podcasts for kids. I think that would be so fun.

So, what about you?–are you rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty with all this digital awesomeness or are you hiding behind your whiteboard and 3-ring binder? (No offense, but I see you.) I don’t think our children can afford to have Luddite teachers. Our world needs more courageous and tech-curious educators to not only help prepare them for their future but to help them create the future that they will live in.


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Judy Imamudeen

Judy Imamudeen

Developing learners as leaders is my joy! As a highly qualified International Baccaluearate (IB) teacher and educational leader, I am committed and passionate about executing its framework and empowering students in creating a future world that works for everyone.

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