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…

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…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.

The Personalized Learning Soundboard

The Personalized Learning Soundboard

There is a great deal of research and work in the area of personalized learning that point to a scaffolded progression from a teacher-centric classroom to a learner-centric classroom. Here’s a few excellent examples if you’re interested…

Now, I love how these continuums help us to evaluate our own classroom practices to determine to what extent we are personalizing the learning experience for/with our learners. Educators, for good reason, struggle sometimes to identify the difference between differentiation and personalization, and I believe that these resources make that distinction very clear (Stage one of a personalized environment is very much a stage of differentiation).

That said, I wanted to blog about this topic to caution educators NOT to view the stages of personalized learning through a holistic Good (Stage 1), Better (Stage 2), Best (Stage 3) lens. I’ll backtrack a little here for clarification: Yes, a learner-centric learning environment is the ultimate goal in any personalized model, but I have yet to see, and don’t expect to ever witness, a classroom that I would say is unequivocally a stage three learning environment in each and every facet of the period or day. So, don’t be too hard on yourself educator. Stage three is not some zen-like experience at which your entire class can collectively one day arrive. Not to speak for them, but I don’t believe that’s what the brilliant innovators above are calling for either. Stage three is a clearly-defined aspiration – not a destination.

If this is not made clear to educators, my fear is that our progress will come to a halt.

I’ve heard educators who I’ve worked with express concern that their classroom isn’t a personalized stage three, Montessori-esque environment, and then they abandon the practice of personalization all together, frustrated, believing that this movement is idealistic and unattainable in practice.

Let’s Talk About Our Current Reality: Given that stage three asks the learner to take a great deal of ownership and initiative in the learning process, the scaffolding necessary to develop a classroom where all learners are equipped with the level of agency required to carry out their learning autonomously is a process that takes place over a duration of time that is likely longer than any one teacher has the time to influence. In other words, it takes a while for students to unlearn how they have been taught to see their role in the learning process, and it takes time to support/teach them to arrive at a true understanding of themselves and the learning preferences they have to optimize their class time and experience. That process can take a full semester, a year, or a set of years, so we need make our personalized practices systemic in order to develop that kind of learner.

So how do you systematize personalized learning when your educators are as unique in their individual teaching styles as your learners are unique in their learning preferences? (Not to mention accounting for the unique nuances of the various subjects and their course content)

You view each individual facet of your classroom practices as being on its own personalization stage or continuum.

Example: In an English class, the pace of instruction, the pace of reading, the pacing for assignments, the content learners read, the prompts learners address, the pre-writing strategies they use, the editing process, the way in which they demonstrate mastery of a concept, how they annotate, who they sit with, where they sit, how they allocate class time to accomplish a variety of tasks, how they engage and learn new concepts (you get the idea) — are all facets of the class that can be personalized, each being evaluated on a scale from teacher-centric to learner-centric.

Therefore, in one way or another, nearly all educators are currently personalizing learning in their classroom. That said, our vision for scaling up personalization needs to include frequency: both in the sense of consistency in any one of the aforementioned facets but also in the sense of extending opportunities for learner control across more of the facets noted.

Finally, (hoping that my point has been consistent throughout this post) while the expansion of personalized practices is the goal, do not be too hard on yourself in your pursuit of achieving manifest destiny with personalization. Truly, some experiences should not be personalized (yeah, I said it). For example, roughly one month ago, I observed a welding class and afterward, the teacher asked if he should differentiate his instruction to personalize that facet of his course. I’m sure he was surprised by my response when I remarked, Are you kidding me? Absolutely not. There’s no substitute or alternative needed to replace you firing up a welding torch to 300 degrees – live and in-person!

So instead, as you personalize, think of the facets of your class as a soundboard. You’re a professional educator – take confidence in your ability to dial those facets up according to the individual learner’s needs, preferences, and past experiences; according to your own teaching style and sensibility; according to your school system’s constructs, limitations, and goals. And while you may never push the entire panel to full volume, be intentional about dialing things up for and with your learners.

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How to Personalize Instructional Delivery

How to Personalize Instructional Delivery

Traditionally, educators lecture. That’s what we do, or at least, that’s a part of it. Leadership, in any profession, calls for moments in time where a leader must stand in front of the group to speak and either rally everyone to action, challenge their thinking, or to simply deliver information that is for the functional and productive benefit of the whole.

That said, in college, I frequently joked with my peers as we would enter class, I wonder if today’s lecture will be on the ineffectiveness of lecturing. But despite those comments, when I had my own classroom, I still spent time each day at the front.

With personalized learning, I often hear educators talk about getting away from direct instruction entirely, which to be candid was once a goal of mine as well. At the time I thought, With the right resources, I can probably eliminate lectures altogether. So I created video, audio, and written options to facilitate instruction in place of a lecture – and I told students I was available for questions and dialogue about the instructional content if necessary.

I thought I had it all covered until…

Wait, you’re telling me you prefer to be lectured to?!?!

Student voice matters, and Hailey wasn’t the only one expressing an interest in bringing lectures back. And so it was at that time that I revisited this idea from Jim Collins.

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That’s when and how I realized I was going to need to leverage what I’ve come to call Live Events AND the set of additional instructional supports (audio, video, and written resources) to meet learners through the medium that they learn best.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, That sounds great, but it also sounds like a lot of work. Who’s got that kind of time? Well, it’s not quite as time-consuming as you might think. Here are a few steps to follow in order to efficiently create variety in instructional mediums.

Step #1: Write a Script – To begin with, type out word-for-word the entirety of the information you would like to convey in the lesson. Note: This is the longest step. Typically, if you type a page and a half to two pages, single-spaced, and break it into paragraphs, that equates to approximately five minutes of media content. You do not want to create media that is longer than five minutes, so if you need more time, chunk the information into several smaller pieces of media of five minutes or less. Suggestion: Try to keep your tone and word choice fairly informal, but certainly still academic.

Step#2: Make a Video – Whether your preference is to screen-record your progression through a slide deck, to use Explain Everything, or to stand in front of a camera, it’s advisable to read from the script as you create your video instruction. This will accomplish two things: 1. It builds fidelity across the variety of mediums being offered. 2. It will help you to be brief and efficient with the duration of the video pieces you produce. So, film using the script, make whatever edits are necessary, and you’re done with step 2.

Step#3: Create the Audio File – As you edit the video, consider what visual aspects are lost if the audio for that video were to be the only option. If you need to add additional audio to account for information lost in the video to audio translation, do so. However, in most instances, simply ripping the audio out of the video will be enough to make the file for this piece (change the Save As option to mp3 is sometimes another way to accomplish this).

Step #4: Turn the Script into a Reading – If your scripts look anything like mine, they are a jumbled, unformatted mess that only I can navigate as I record the instructional video. So for this step, format the script by giving it a title, a few relevant images, and by breaking it down into short paragraphs focused on one idea per paragraph.

Wow, that was easy. Video, audio, written content — complete.

Final Step: Live Event Delivery – Now it’s time to do what you’ve likely always done, deliver a lecture in class. That said, here are a few things that will be different as you teach with these other instructional pieces as alternative modes and/or supplemental supports.

  • Having developed the aforementioned pieces prior to your lecture, you will feel confident and thoroughly prepared as you present given the depths of your prep experience. Writing out the content and process to support student understanding of it – along with reading it aloud – leads to sound instructional practices in this moment.
  • Call the lecture a “Live Event” to change the negative stigma typically associated with lectures.
  • If the Live Events are voluntary and optional by learning preference only, you will not believe the dynamic culture shift that occurs when learners choose to stand up and walk to you to listen to you speak. The focus and energy of the Live Event groups are powerful.
  • Consider taking time to teach this group a variety of ways to take notes during a lecture. From digital to handwritten, from traditional bulleted notes to sketchnoting, there are a myriad of choice options available in this facet of the learning process. Seize this opportunity to equip learners with methods to successfully maximize learning in this format.

There’s enough to get you started. Good luck with differentiating your instruction to tailor your instructional content delivery to the individual’s learning preference.