#Five4Five: The Third Round

#Five4Five: The Third Round

This past week, I undertook my third #Five4Five Challenge. The #Five4Five Challenge is an initiative created by educator and author Michael Matera who encourages others to commit to doing one new-to-you (often creative) endeavor each day for five straight days.

Weeks ago, in my first #Five4Five, I created video content each day for a week that required a new-to-me element in its production, and that particular #Five4Five round had me experimenting with creating welding videos, helping 6th-graders produce instructional video content, and combining a collection of gifs into a video as a demonstration model for elementary PE classes.

My second #Five4Five pushed me into the world of vlogging, and I created a 5+ minute vlog each day over the course of that week – all of them focusing in on explaining my role as a Personalized Learning Collaborator in our district. That experience forced me to navigate the subtle nuances of vlogging as a form of expression, it encouraged me to reflect and consider how to tell my own story. Since that time, I have continued to hone my vlogging skills with a weekly recap of my week that I create and share on my YouTube channel.

And so over the course of this past week, I committed to a new #Five4Five, but this time I wanted to create something for someone else. For this #Five4Five, I decided to invest in making an anonymous, random act of kindness each day for five days. This challenge stretched my creativity in that it is surprisingly difficult to find ways to do something nice for others without them knowing that you made the gesture. That said, my chief interest in this undertaking was to use the #Five4Five to have a positive influence on others, and while I should be clear that I’m not sure that I had any impact at all (there’s that anonymity thing again lol), I’d like to think that those acts made someone’s day a little brighter and shifted someone’s perception to see the world slightly more kind. In the interest of remaining silent about these gestures, I’m not going to detail what I did, but to close, I will share one example of just how simple this can be. On Thursday morning, I made two stacks of six quarters each, wrapped those respective stacks in painter’s tape, wrote “It’s your lucky day, enjoy a free soda!” on a strip of the painter’s tape that I placed over the top of the stack, and then as I went to different schools that day, I used the strip on top to tape the stack of quarters to the staff soda machine. It was fun, simple, and hopefully a nice surprise for whoever found them.

I have truly appreciated committing to these #Five4Five opportunities for a variety of reasons. As Michael has said to me several times, creativity is like a muscle, and you need to use it to keep it strong. As life settles into adulthood, there’s a complacency that can come as a result of investing in routines, and it’s vital that we continue to commit to personal growth, particularly growth that fosters in you a new skill. I like to think of those skills as tools in your personal toolkit that can spark innovation and productivity across old and new contexts as you are then able to apply that skill in any relevant area thereafter. But as is the case with all things, the commitment to developing these skills takes a certain level of intentionality, and the #Five4Five Challenge encourages that. Lastly, I have also greatly appreciated the conversations, encouragement, and sense of community that has started to develop amongst those of us who have taken on (and continue to take on) this challenge. Accountability partners provide a mutual benefit for one another as both people strive to complete a challenging task, and once completed, those same people are the best to celebrate that accomplishment with because they have first-hand knowledge of the struggle and the effort that went into achieving it. So to close, thank you to all the #Five4Five -ers pushing yourselves and others to learn, grow, and share. Let’s keep it going! If you have not yet done your own #Five4Five, what better time to start than this week. Set a goal, get creative, and join in the fun.

Cater the Process of Learning to a Learner’s Preferences

Cater the Process of Learning to a Learner’s Preferences

In education circles and across the edu-Twitter-verse, there is a concentrated effort among practitioners to offer learners a variety of choices in their classroom experience. The choices afforded learners often include things like selecting one assignment to do from a menu of assignment options or the freedom to choose the modality through which they demonstrate mastery of a concept. Others present choice in course content, which can look like choice novel units or an extensive list of resources as supplemental texts for learners to engage in as an a la carte format. Even the recent push for flexible learning spaces has, at its core, the vision to empower learners to make a seating choice. And so to only further that conversation and goal, let’s explore how learners can have choice in how they engage in the process of learning.

So, here’s a few ideas.

The Premise of This Post

Learners have learning preferences, and instructional time should be allocated to presenting learners with a variety of strategies (choices) to support (and optimize) their own learning process across in the following tasks…


Do you teach students how to take notes? Fill-in-the-blank notes make great resources for the learner to reference later, but it does not ask them to be active listeners capable of sifting out pertinent information from a lecture or presentation. So with the goal of fostering that particular skill, ask students to take notes and equip them with several strategies as choices for how they do that.

  • Standard Choice Options (Paper):
  • Tech-Forward Choice Options:
    • All of the above method options can be done digitally on a laptop, iPad, or phone. Make suggestions to learners about which programs or apps they might record those notes in, like Evernote, Google Docs, or Notability.
    • In a presentation with slides, teaching learners to take pictures of noteworthy (pun intended) information is also a note-taking method, especially when those photos can be quickly integrated into any written digital notes being recored.


Do you give learners choices in how they choose to annotate a text? If sticky notes and marginalia are your go-to annotation jam, here are a few other options for learners to explore and hopefully find to be engaging ways to interact with a text.


Two Questions: 1. When learners work in groups, are students permitted time to hold a discussion and record their groups’ thoughts/vision(s) prior to the beginning of the task they’ve been assigned? 2. Are students equipped with multiple avenues (choices) to support the continuation of collaborative dialogue outside of class time about their work/efforts? If the answer to either of these is no, here are a few tools that make group work more of a ongoing, collaborative effort.

  • Project Collaboration: Consider assigning each learner in a group with a role for how they will initially contribute to the dialogue prior to the process of the collaboration (and/or with the ongoing task management of the group’s progress and in-class productivity thereafter). These roles might include a team leader, a recorder, potentially someone to create an agenda, potentially someone to create and manage the product – the document or slide deck being created, someone to summarize the dialogue and outline the next steps, etc. To fulfill these specific role responsibilities, encourage learners to begin to keep records from their team meetings by utilizing programs like…
  • Collaborative Learning: DISCLAIMER: The suggestions below are not supported by Westside Community Schools (or most districts) for learners to access as a school requirement. However, for secondary learners interested in collaborating outside of class time, the following programs/apps/social media sites would provide an online space for students to communicate and collaborate with one another outside of the school day. AGAIN, these are not recommended avenues for educators to require learners to use for collaboration. But, it is likely that any tech savvy teen is already using one (or several) of the following sites/apps already for social purposes, so the informal suggestion to use one of these sites/apps for academic good might cause learners to start to use these resources for academic purposes as well.
    • Google Hangouts Video chat that allows for multiple users to communicate simultaneously.
    • FaceTime Video chat that allows two users to communicate simultaneously.
    • Voxer App Social media walkie-talkie app that allows users to leave audio messages for one another – or text messages, images, videos, etc. as well.
    • HouseParty App I’ve never used this app, but I’ve had several students say that they have used its video group chat feature to collaborate on schoolwork outside of the school day.


An Exploration of Risk

An Exploration of Risk

In my current role as a personalized learning collaborator, I have been a part of numerous conversations with educators about personalized learning. From those conversations, I have observed a great deal about the creative process and about how different that process is for each educator as they design a new lesson, unit, or procedure.

For example, in my role hosting the Westside Personalized podcast, I will oftentimes close out the pod by asking the guest to offer some advice to those starting out with personalization. Given that opportunity, the guests usually comment one of two ways. Some advocate for starting small, taking calculated risks, and growing their personalized practices over time. Others passionately urge educators to jump in, to try more than they may even be comfortable with at first, noting that there is a certain energy to this trial by fire approach.

Now, over time, as these contrasting responses continued to show up, I found myself increasingly intrigued by the idea of evaluating, or at least further exploring, the concept of risk. Initially, that intrigue led me to try and tease out some elusive commonality that might unify (what I felt were) these otherwise conflicting approaches to risk. I was searching for a moral or a lesson about it; something beyond just, Risk looks like different things to different people, which sounds nice but just isn’t true. For some people, taking a risk is aiming for your ideal and either attaining it or, if not, finding yourself amongst the proverbial stars. For others, even if the ideal is presented to them, they will venture only a certain distance from the norm, from what they know and are able to control. *Note: Just to be clear, that is what I’m using as my measurement here to differentiate big risks from more modest risks, deviation from the norm.

After four days of exploring my thoughts, writing and rewriting this blog, I feel that the best way to be concise with conveying my reflections is to bullet out those insights…

  • All Risks Produce a Beneficial Change: When educators set out to revamp a learning experience in a way that deviates from what they have always done, they consistently select a lesson, unit, or procedure that they know can be better. In these instances, the teacher also tends to have at least an inclination as to what it would look like to address the issue. So the formula is simple, effort plus intentionality equals a positive and significant step in the evolution of the individual’s instructional practices. Fact. QED.
  • All Risks Alter Perspective from Lessons Learned: Regardless of the size of the risk, there will be pitfalls and shortcomings that should drive the reflective practitioner to revise the practice and make improvements in the future. This potential for failing forward sets the stage for beneficial changes that turn the immediate negative into a long-term positive.

Okay…so what’s the point of this blog post? Risks are good? Cool. Got it Andrew. This isn’t a novel idea.

True. But it’s important to first acknowledge the value of any and all risks, that should not be diminished. That said, if dramatic change is the ultimate goal, how do we think about risk in a way that encourages others to risk…more…

  • Big Risk-Takers Are Made, Not Born, That Way: Perhaps it’s not about people being, by nature, a big risk-taker or more calculated with their risks. It’s possible that big risk-takers long ago took much smaller risks, and their willingness to try new things was cultivated over a longer period of time through a wealth of experiences. A subtopic of this conversation worth considering is the role that work ethic and follow-through have on limiting the realization of a risk undertaken.
  • Quantifying Risk Is a Matter of Perspective: I know I joked about the idea of risk meaning different things to different people wasn’t a novel idea. My contention here is not to look at the individual’s perspective on the size of the risk itself but to instead focus on their attitude about the venture and its potential outcome. To undertake great things is to hold an optimism, a hope in your heart that despite the odds and the potential negative outcomes, the struggle to bring your ideals into reality is not only possible, it’s essential. It’s energizing. What you are willing to risk says a great deal about your outlook on life.
  • Culture Has a Significant Influence on Risk: If I feel supported in a risk, I am more willing to attempt it because I’m not as afraid of failure. Additionally, in a risk-friendly culture, individuals are more likely to find others who are willing to either support them in their risk and/or take on the same venture with the individual, easing the burden and responsibility of having to take that risk alone. These reflections are simple enough but worth noting here.
  • Be Transparent with Others About the Risks You Are Taking: Trying something new? Take time in class to explain your rationale and outline your plan with your learners. When the goals and expectations of any new practice are clear, students will inevitably pick up the slack in any facets lacking complete clarity or execution typical of a first attempt. In the same way, communicating your ideas with trusted colleagues and administrators is not a bad idea for receiving input before the undertaking and feedback afterward.

So, to sum it all up – Don’t be quick to overvalue larger risks. All risks are worth the effort as they produce immediate benefits along with helpful insights for the future. Develop a culture of risk-taking in your school and/or classroom, which requires you to be explicit in your communication with others about the risk(s) you intend to take. That culture, once established will make risk-taking a routine that will help both educators and learners alike develop a risk-history that allows the individual to evolve into someone who is willing to venture a significant distance from the norm. And finally – and above all – understand that the greatest factor in your ability to attempt and obtain great things is your outlook, which is a combination of your optimism, your capacity for hope, and the degree of your work ethic.


Personalized Learning Training: Year One

Personalized Learning Training: Year One

On Tuesday of this week, we held our last personalized learning teacher training of the year. To date, we have had an opportunity to spend a full school day sharing ideas with (and learning from) nearly 200 educators across our district. These training sessions, groups of no more than 22 teachers at a time, have afforded our district the space to hold conversations about the personalization of learning in a way that is both clear and consistent.

That clarity and consistency are byproducts of two key components…

  1. Our vision to identify personalized elements as both entry points for teachers and also as look-fors for observers.PL.jpg
  2. Our experience with personalization has produced enough solid examples of personalized practices that we now have the ability to share our own stories, our lessons learned (successes and failures), in a way that has supported our new-to-personalization educators with incites that have lead to positive experiences with their own individual launch.

Our trainings provided more than just time to hold these conversations. They were an investment for us as collaborators towards building positive, working relationships with our educators, and those relationships then carried over into our follow-up support during our individual teacher collaborations.

Throughout the year, our goal for these days was expressed through this quote…

Shift Thinking.jpg

…and we as collaborators held to this goal of shifting thinking around the aforementioned elements, which in turn led to educators creating their own vision and goals for professional development. This created a form of personalized, teacher-driven PD that was inspiring to be around and support as we tried to be a sounding board (and at times a bit of a tech Swiss Army Knife lol) to help bring their goals to fruition – with a personalized aspect to each.

Looking back, it’s remarkable to think about the number of positive interactions, ideas shared, and initiatives launched as a result of these training days. Every day this year it has been a joy to serve our educators in support of this common vision, and in the past month in particular, it has been powerful to watch these practices take off in classrooms across the district. We are making significant progress towards improving student learning!

In closing, I am certainly grateful to be a part of a district that values innovation and hires educators who are willing to do whatever is necessary to support each and every learner with the quality educational experience that they need. We have standards and expectations, but we also have the flexibility to be professional practitioners who can implement practices that are best for the unique learners that we serve. How special is that! We’ve grown so much in a year, and I am ecstatic about the potential our collective work has moving forward as we continue to build up our teachers over the summer, into the next school year, and beyond.


Note: To hear some of those amazing stories and to pick up some of practical, application examples of personalization in the classroom, check out the Westside Personalized podcast on iTunes. 


Deal or No Deal Review Game Template

Deal or No Deal Review Game Template

This past weekend, a friend of mine and I went to Dave and Buster’s for an afternoon of fun playing a variety of arcade games. One of the games there took me back to a review game I created in my second year of teaching. Honestly, I’d almost forgotten about it entirely; it was a game was based on the TV show Deal or No Deal.

So, this will be a brief blog post, but with the end of the year approaching, I thought sharing this resource might be useful to someone. That said, if you’re tired of playing Jeopardy, but are looking for a teacher-led review game with similar knowledge level questioning, this is a terrific game to play. The class competes as separate teams, but they are all mutually invested in each other’s success because the group ultimately makes a deal that determines the reward/prize for the collective whole. Because everyone has a stake in the game with every question, this review always generated a considerable amount of student engagement. It’s so suspenseful!

For more on the details of the gameplay, I’ve included slides within the template that have the directions and rules on it. All you would need to do is delete those slides, enter your own questions and answers, and I would recommend adding in music and even video content to really make the game feel realistic (I did when I originally used this template, but I had to delete some of those pieces because they were not mine to share).

If you decide to download this template and/or use it, I would appreciate your feedback in the comments below. Thank you! I hope you and your class enjoy playing Deal or No Deal.

Download the Deal or No Deal Template Here

Learner Voice vs. Voice and Choice

Learner Voice vs. Voice and Choice


When an educational idea gains momentum and morphs into a buzzword, it can become misrepresented through its use and reuse across a variety of contexts. Take gamification for example. While there is a clear distinction between gamification and game-based learning, when gamification became a buzzword it was at times misinterpreted as the term for any educational gaming experience. That said, I believe there is a similar level of ambiguity (moreso than a misrepresentation) about what it means to design learning experiences for voice.

To further the point, let’s continue to draw comparisons to gamification. Gamification is an awesome educational practice, game-based learning is also a phenomenal educational practice, and some learning experiences expertly weave both together to leverage the benefits of each. But all that said, these two educational goals are still distinctly different and noting those differences can be extremely helpful to educators as they focus their efforts on intentionally incorporating one or the other – or a mixture of the two – in their own classroom practices.

And so with that same goal of clarity to drive intentionality, let’s take a moment to delineate the components that play into the general label of voice.

Empowering Learner Voice

In one sense, voice can be thought of as the act of empowering learners with an avenue for sharing their voice (ideas, writing, projects, questions, etc.) with an authentic (and often larger) audience. When using voice in this context, learners might create blogs, market their own ideas to local businesses, publish their writing, or even interview an expert or other professional. And so to be clear, let’s call this learner voice.

Voice and Choice

Alternatively, when voice is referenced in the voice and choice phrasing, it can take on a different connotation in the context of its pairing with choice. Voice AND choice. In these instances, voice is learner feedback that can evolve into academic self-advocacy as the student becomes the co-designer of the learning experience.

Personally, I believe that the phrasing should be choice and voice, but I’m already in the weeds enough here with my semantics, so I’ll just state that and move along. But it is worth noting that there is a certain reciprocity between voice and choice, and that reciprocity is something we explore at length during our personalized learning training. For the sake of this blog, I’ll spare you the details and just give you the short version: When a positive classroom climate is in place, educators can begin to offer choices to learners across a variety of instructional practices. Learners will then begin to select choices from the options made available to them by their teacher – this is identified as a Stage 1 Personalized Learning Environment.  A learner initiates their voice by making a choice, and as they explore that choice, the feedback that the individual (and all individuals) offer the educator should be listened to, honored, and at times pressed into to learn more about how to better cater the experience to the learner in the future (see voice in action video). As the educator considers all of the constructive comments from the collective students’ voices and as a result implements changes to the learning experience, the positive classroom climate will further improve as students realize that they have a voice in the learning process. This will kick-start the cycle again, now with improved personalized practices, with learners who are more perceptive of their own learning preferences, and with students who possess a greater sense of agency who will speak up because they have an experience now that proves that their voice matters.


Be About the Business of Planting Trees

Be About the Business of Planting Trees

Ahh…finally – Spring Break. Though I must admit, I had not expected it to arrive with three inches of snow.

But that aside, this morning as I sit here with my coffee in the quiet of a house that will be anything but quiet when my children wake up, I am appreciative of the opportunity to reflect. And this morning, I am especially grateful to be back in my hometown of Gillespie, Illinois. It is small-town living here in Gillespie, population 3,600. Yet despite its modest size, the people of this place make it as significant as any place I’ve ever lived. Gillespie has always been a place with a rich sense of community, and that community is unified in its support of our local school district.

Looking back on my own experience in that school system, I am always thankful for the string of exceptional English teachers I was fortunate enough to have had growing up, each one playing a prominent role towards helping me develop a skill set that would later steer me into my current profession. My gratitude to those educators who shaped my future is immense, and two nights ago when I ran into one of my former English teachers at a local restaurant, I felt a reverence for her that I feel has only grown over time as I myself have grown as an educator, as a person, and most notably as a father.

I say all of this to point out that the significance of what it means to dedicate your life to serving others cannot be overstated or fully understood by any individual, and though my words here feel trite at best, I must implore everyone – especially educators – to seize the opportunities you have each day to have a positive and significant impact on the young people in your community. It is a responsibility we all share.

That said, the why behind that commitment to seizing those opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others needs to be clear to the individual making that commitment.

This topic was brought up this past fall in a day-long training I attended where the presenter asked attendees to take time to write down and then share with a partner the legacy we want to leave when our time in education is over. Surveying the room, most educators constructed legacy statements that could have begun with this simple sentence starter, “I hope that people remember me for/as…” And while such goals are admirable and can serve to motivate many, I personally have never bought into the idea of legacy. Why? Well, my grandfather was a phenomenal educator and a hall of fame high school football coach – and I watched him retire, and you know what, afterward the world continued on, just as it always had. His name wasn’t added to a building or a field, and honestly, it didn’t need to be.

Now if that sounds harsh, hear me out; I’m not trying to downplay the impact my grandfather had in his career. However, it is, as so many things are, a matter or perspective – perspective on our purpose, perspective on the why. Instead of serving others with the goal of being remembered, serve with the goal that students remember the lessons you’ve imparted and as a result are more equip thereafter to change the world for the better. Instead of living to create a legacy that points back to you, live to point others towards the pursuit of more than they themselves ever even dreamed possible. And as you do this, know that you may not ever be fully aware of – or recognized for – the impact you have had. Be okay with that. And never doubt the value of the positive influence you have already had and continue to have, even if doesn’t feel like it at the present moment. I am reminded of this anytime I am in Gillespie, especially when I run into my former teachers, and in those moments, the following quote comes to mind. It’s one I’ve adopted as a bit of a personal mantra…


And as you go about the business of planting trees, imagine the collective impact your contribution and our collective contribution can have towards changing the world for the better.