Flex Space 2.0: The Next Conversation


In my third year of teaching, I returned from winter break to find that each of my four sections of English 12 had significantly swelled in numbers. Supposedly, there had been an oversight on the part of our school counselors regarding our students with special needs population and that issue – coupled with an abnormally high rate of students dropping down at semester from AP English 12 to our course – left me with class numbers of 29, 30, 31, and 32 students in the smallest classroom in the building, a room with only 28 desks.


Over that winter break, I had spent considerable time on a total redesign of our third quarter unit. The redesign had come about as a result of what I’ll simply diagnose as a senioritis outbreak that seemed to set in annually around week two of our Brit-Lit unit on the topic of poverty. The unit redesign  I would later come to acknowledge as my first iteration with a personalized learning model as I focused on offering students significant control over the pace at which they progressed through the novel and assignments. I had started the semester with the fiery-excitement any educator experiences when trying something new for the very first time, but the news of my new class sizes had stamped out that optimism. Our learning space just couldn’t facilitate flexible grouping of students across a variety of stations without me assigning students a place to be.

So, discouraged and frustrated, I did what most teachers do in moments like these… I looked for a place to vent.  I paid our media center specialist, Robin Schrack, a visit in the library, and she and I had what I feel today was a very fortuitous conversation in retrospect.

Me: “Robin, I’ve got this idea for a new approach to how we do things in English 12 for the third quarter, but there’s no way I’ve got the space for it. I’ve got students sitting on the floor in every section, it’s the smallest room in the building and –”

Robin: “Well why don’t you just hold your class in here?”


So later that day, after looking over my schedule for the quarter, I returned to our library and… checked-out… the library.

That was the spring semester of 2010.

Flash Forward Eight Years Later: For four years, I held class in that media center for 1-2 quarters per year, even when I switched to teaching English 10. Then, when I moved to Omaha and began working at Westside, I had acquired a sensibility about space that aided me in finding new ways to facilitate this model of instruction in an ordinary classroom using your average, standard-issue desks. Over the past four years, you could say that my desk configurations have served as a visible representation of my eccentricity lol. I have zero doubt that the teachers with whom I share that classroom space would attest to that – I’m looking at you Sarah Schoenrock (@sesrock1979). But today, I struggle to imagine lesson planning without giving thought to how the manipulation of the furniture and learning spaces could be shifted to optimally facilitate the task(s) at hand.

In my current role as a personalized learning coordinator in our district, I’m lucky to routinely have the opportunity to completely nerd-out about flexible spaces in a 90-minute session focused on the thought process behind pairing personalized practices with the ideal room configuration to make it all happen. That session is one of my favorite parts of our day-long training on personalized learning, and while there is a great deal of content we cover together, here are a few of the central tenents we discuss as Flex Space 2.0: The Next Conversation in building your learning space…

  1. You don’t need a grant to create a flexible learning space. Nice furniture would be nice. No question. Does a classroom with high-tops, low-tops, beanbag chairs, etc. help create a positive classroom climate and also promote student engagement by empowering the learner with choice? Most educators would answer with an adamant, Yes. Could you take on a design-on-a-dime venture to add a few new pieces? Absolutely. But for those without a budget, for those without the DIY skills to create your own furniture (me), or for those… with… some other hang up, know that flexible learning spaces can still be created using the traditional desks or tables in your classroom. How? Just approach it with the mindset of trying to provide students with choice in where they sit and be deliberate in teaching them how to use their freedom of choice to make sound academic decisions. Where you sit, who you sit with, and understanding that you can and likely should move to different areas of the room depending upon what type of assignment you are working on should all play into each individual student’s thought process as they use the space flexibly.
  2. Flexible seating should lead to each student discovering their own set of optimal conditions for being productive. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a video reflection from my former student, Josh, who – after four weeks in a flexible seating model – refined his understanding of his optimal work environment. Initially, he chose to sit with a group of his friends, then one friend, then he found it productive to sit in isolation when completing individual work.

    Now let me be clear, I am not promoting that students completely isolate themselves and talk to absolutely no one in class. No unit I design is ever without face-to-face student collaboration. However, for some learners, there are tasks that are best completed on their own in an environment free of distractions. And while this concept is hardly a revelation to adults/educators, it was to Josh. You see, Josh did not perceive his relocation to that isolated space as some sort of academic banishment to a deserted island where he was sentenced to work, facing a wall, until he complied. Instead, Josh chose his seat and learning space – and chose poorly. When I asked him how his productivity had been, the answer was obvious to both of us, and he was given the option to choose where to relocate. Over a long enough timeline, Josh arrived at the understanding that he articulated in the video. Since that time, Josh has informally admitted to me that he now asks to reposition his seat in other classes to make this space available when he wants to be productive on an individual task. Therein lies one of the great opportunities flexible seating provides our learners.

  3. Your room redesign will require scaffolding to acclimate students to their new seating/learning space options. Be transparent with your students about the philosophy behind this shift. Explain to them what options are available and come up with a process by which to introduce them to each space. For example, the flexible seating guru Kayla Delzer has recommended giving students the opportunity to sit in every seat or space for an adequate amount of time to give them an experience to justify the eventual choice they make as their ideal seating option (Kayla’s blog). In my own classroom, students like Josh chose between working in a group, as a pair, as an individual, or in a floor spot. For a third example, check out this Westside Personalized podcast with Prairie Lane Elementary teacher Richard Christie as he shares how he numbered off areas in his 6th-grade classroom, assigned action verbs to accompany the desirable actions to occur in those spaces (an idea from learning space guru Dr. Bob Dillon), and Mr. Christie then posted those verbs on signs in each area to clearly define station expectations and ease his ability to manage behaviors in those expectations.

Having developed this facet of my own instructional mindset and classroom practices, I can’t imagine conducting a lesson without addressing this design step. It’s become essential for me. So whether this blog post finds you casually in search of new ideas or desperate and in need of a class redesign, making your learning space flexible is unquestionably a matter of necessity – so please, be excited at the opportunity to be inventive.

My #oneword for 2018: Appreciation

I love New Years Resolutions. When I commit to one, I am tenacious about trying to keep it.

In 2015, I made my workout resolution a SMART goal, and I’m proud to say that I completed it – I fulfilled that resolution from January 1 through December 31st. Woot.

In 2016, I made recommitted to the previous year’s workout resolution but made it even more challenging this time, and around mid-October, I was so far ahead that I got bored with it (though I did complete it). Woot. Woot. And I started thinking ahead.

As I looked to 2017 (in November of 2016), I came across the One Word Resolution idea for the first time (I believe through Bethany Hill’s #JoyfulLeaders hashtag -@bethhill2829) and loved the concept behind it. So, I gave myself some time to reflect, and fortuitously came across the following quote…


What a powerful idea.

Now, I am and have always been a person who is appreciative of the many blessings in my life, but I had never thought of the term Gratitude as anything more than just an after-the-fact thankfulness. This quote, however, suggests much more. Holden’s contention here is that gratitude is a mindset, a present consciousness that you are attuned to your gratitude in the now. The idea struck me so profoundly that I knew I had found my One Word.

Though I had identified my word for 2017, something still troubled me about it. I felt at the time that I needed to define my One Word to identify how I intended to interpret that word as a life philosophy. Now, I get it – you might be saying, Well doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole idea of selecting one single word? Maybe. But just as my previous resolutions had benefitted from being written as SMART goals, I felt (and still believe) that defining that one word, in your own words, adds clarity and purpose to an otherwise vague idea.

So my 2017 one word was Gratitude and my definition was…


The picture I chose for this quote was taken on a hammock under the Santa Monica Pier. It’s a photo that represented a moment of peace in 2016 I had been quite grateful for at the time, so I created this image and made it the desktop on my computer to encourage me to revisit it often.

Triple Woot.

I actually loved the idea so much that I decided to make creating a One Word Resolution the icebreaker activity to start off the spring semester for all my classes. Each student selected a word, defined the word, and then used Snapchat or Adobe Spark Post to create an image or video that contained their own One Word Resolution along with a simple sentence definition of the word. I collected this assignment using Seesaw, and then took some of the best examples and made them into a video using Animoto. Here’s what we all came up with…

So, 2017 got off to a start I was grateful for (*smirk) and that one word kept me grounded and focused on the positives in life despite the many personal hardships I faced in 2017. By year’s end, I felt I had improved at being grateful in the present, so I began considering my next step for 2018.

Alright. So, all this backstory and context has led me to select the word Appreciation for 2018. In 2017, I became a much more in-the-moment grateful person, and what I found was that my gratitude was often ignited or inspired by (or with) someone else. From simple moments playing with my children to times gathered around a table in conversation with friends enjoying good food & drink to moments with my students or athletes or colleagues that epitomized the reason I chose this profession, I found myself profoundly grateful for time spent with others. But ya know what, while being grateful in the moment is a reward in and of itself, my passion in 2018 is to make that gratitude something I openly share.

So I have a new desktop image now…


I can’t wait to spread as much positivity as I can in 2018 and share with others just how much I appreciate them during those moments I am so grateful to experience.

So let me just say to anyone still reading, THANK YOU for taking the time to share in my story. I would encourage you to take time this year to tell the people in your life just how much they mean to you.

Best wishes for a happy 2018!

Create Better Instructional Videos in 2018

Three years ago, at roughly this same point in the school year, the spring semester was just getting underway, and I had that half-nervous, half-excited I’m-trying-new-things-in-class buzz with me as the new year began. Over break, I had committed a tremendous amount of time to launching my second fully-personalized learning unit for our English 9 Honors course at Westside High School. The final unit of the fall semester had been my first, unit-long personalization effort, and it had gone exceptionally well with regards to both student performance and achieving the myriad of other classroom and learner benefits personalized learning has to offer.

That said, there is certainly always room for improvement, and I had noticed during the previous unit that the video content I had provided as an instructional resource had been underutilized and/or just not used at all. It was simply a collection of the best videos I could find on YouTube about each subject, and some of those video pieces were adequate at best. So, I committed to doing some research on how to make my own video content with the goal of making it more engaging. That research lead me to a study that had concluded that viewers are more engaged in a piece of media if they know the person or people in the video.

Well, I thought, challenge accepted.

So, I checked out a camera from our high school’s media center and got to work. I can’t even tell you how many hours I spent over that break couped up in a small side room in the library or at a 24-hour coffee shop so early in the morning that I was the only patron there, but I was creating my first set of instructional videos and I knew that the instruction was going to directly align with how I taught that content in class. It was invigorating to be able to be creative, and I learned a lot during that time.

Okay, so flash forward, it’s time to implement! The unit launches, I’m dare-I-say giddy to get it underway. Students start off quiet, slowly easing into this new-for-them way of experiencing school. And they stay quiet. And after about a week, students start to voice their opinions and reflections on their personalized experience, and well, let’s just say that they weren’t all glowing!

*Watch the Full Video Podcast Episode Here

Despite my best attempts to improve the quality of my video content, it turns out that students don’t enjoy watching a shoulders-up shot of me talking into a camera for 20+ minutes.

Weird. I can’t imagine why?

So, beaten but not defeated, I knew that this was a worthwhile endeavor and skill to develop; I just needed an opportunity to learn more than I already knew. And in my experience anytime I’ve needed help, I’ve found other educators to be my best resources, which led me to turn to our WHS journalism advisor in charge of video and TV, Matt Rasgorshek (Raz).

Raz, a nationally renown advisor, agreed to let me survey his Intro to Video course on the days that he was giving direct instruction and also on postmortem days (whole-group video critique days). After a semester of sacrificing lunches and the occasional portion of plan time, I had a new perspective and changed my entire approach to video content creation.

The new principles I had learned were simple, but I had never considered them before, and I thought it might help others if I share a few of them in this post. Here’s what I would say are My Top Five Takeaways from that time with Raz that I would recommend any new-to-video educator consider.

  1. Instructional Videos Should Be 5-Minutes or Less: This can be a challenge at times, and occasionally I break my own rule here, but brevity is key. For longer concepts, make a two or even three-part series of videos that break the concept down into 5-minute chunks if necessary.
  2. Write Out a Script of What You Intend to Say: This will help your videos to be concise and also ensure that you cover everything you wanted to share/teach.
  3. Have a Personality: I like to say that it’s important for students to see that their teacher is “wired right” meaning that the teacher laughs when something is funny, is upset or disappointed when it’s warranted, and that students see us as real people and not just a puppet that hangs on the back of the door to room 135 at night until I’m reanimated the next day. Video is a great medium for infusing humor, personal examples, and fun into your teaching persona, so don’t be afraid to intentionally show those sides of your personality. *When you write your script, write use an informal voice/tone.
  4. Good Sound Trumps Good Video Quality: If you’re creating new content on a limited budget, record the video with your phone or device and instead invest in a good microphone. I use a Blue Snowball Microphone often, and I also like using the Shure MVL Omnidirectional Lavalier Microphone. Both are under $100.
  5. Be Okay with Being Just Okay: If you’re anything like me, I wanted to be Spielberg my first time out. It’s obvious that developing any skill is an art that evolves over time, so don’t be an ultra-perfectionist and be too hard on yourself with the first few pieces you produce. Enjoy the journey, and be okay with where you are along the road. Your students will love you just for trying!

Well, that brings this blog to a close, but I’ll leave you with a few examples of my earlier video pieces as a reference. Below is a link to an image I uploaded to a site called Thinglink. I wanted to house multiple videos all on one, student-friendly page for easy access, and Thinglink is great for that. If you’re looking for a few instructional video examples to get you started, feel free to check out the videos by first opening the link then clicking on the dots in the image. And good luck in 2018 with your instructional videos!


*For more great stories of classroom-tested personalized practices and reflections, subscribe to The Westside Personalized Podcast on iTunes

Personalized Learning Element #4: Data Driven Decision Making

Utilizing data to drive personalized learning practices is critical to student success. What is key in personalized learning is to share this data with students so that they are able to make intelligent decisions within the freedom and flexibility unique to this style of instruction. Let’s face it, students aren’t always able to accurately judge what they know and determine the ideal conditions in which they learn best. This video looks at how standards-based data along with learning style assessments (that become learner profiles) can empower students to optimize their experience in the personalized setting.

Personalized Learning Element #2: Voice and Choice

Another facet of our districtwide personalized learning initiative is to empower students with voice and choice in their learning experience. What I have found over time is that because these attributes are so inconsistently offered to students in a classroom setting, often students must first be extended choices before they will then begin to provide the teacher with feedback. Positive teacher-student relationships then lead to authentic and constructive student voice that is vital to the evolution of best personalized practices in a classroom.