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.


Digital Discussions & Collaboration

Digital Discussions & Collaboration

During an early personalized learning unit last year, I was intrigued by the idea of finding new ways to provide students with choice and autonomy when it came to choice-novel discussions. Those conversations had previously been student-led, so to extend our practices, my goal for choice with discussions focused on promoting students taking that conversation out of the classroom, holding an academic, Socratic conversation anywhere, anytime, through any medium (so long as I could still grade it).

To some, that might sound crazy, but to me, isn’t that the ultimate goal?!?!

At that time, our course was already in the habit of holding what we still call graded discussions, and those conversations, typically of six students or less per group, are held simultaneously in the classroom for a set period of time, say 20-minutes. Each group records the audio from their conversation, and that audio file is then sent to the teacher who uses it to assess/grade each participant’s contributions to the discussion.

Okay so for context, in my prior experiences with personalized learning, I had begun to provide learners with, let’s say, six assignments at a time to complete, and they would progress through those six pieces in an order and at a pace that was unique to them. This meant discussions could be held at any point in time, but again, always in the classroom. This time around, I told students they could hold their discussion outside of the classroom so long as I received something from them to evaluate for grades.

Well at first, students simply used this opportunity to hold audio conversations either during open class periods or before or after school. That was until one student asked if their group could hold their conversation at a coffee shop during the evening. I told her that so long as the parents knew about it and also knew that this was their choice versus completing it in class, I had no problem with that idea. The next day, she came to class with invitations she had made, inviting her group to the coffee shop for their discussion.


Suddenly, learning had become a social event – something to look forward to attending. To me, that was a major win!

By the end of the next unit, other students began to get more creative and seek out additional avenues for holding discussions on their own time. One group submitted a transcript of a Today’sMeet conversation they had conducted online. Another group, lamenting that they couldn’t meet up at a coffee shop in the evenings because they couldn’t yet drive themselves, decided to create personal Google accounts in order to hold a Google Hangout conversation that they recorded and then turned in to me. They told me that they loved being able to have their conversation remotely from the comforts of their own homes.

And even better, I’ve heard from several of them since, and that experience sparked an interest in not just holding discussions but also finding ways to leverage technology to allow them to effectively collaborate outside of the school day as well.

Once again, student-led choice empowered learners to take ownership of their learning, which led to intrinsic motivation and topic exploration in a way that felt less like work and more like a team effort to learn and improve.

Flash forward to this year, that experience led me to include a Digital Discussions & Collaboration station in the tech session portion of our district’s day-long, personalized learning training. However, despite my passion for the topic, I’m sad to say that it is one of the least frequented stations in the set. And yet, I would argue that its content might be the most important for supporting learners as they progress into Stage 2 and 3 personalized environments. So to defend that opinion of mine, here are my top three reasons why educators should add digital discussion and collaboration tools to their teaching repertoire.

  • Learning is often social: Familiar with Vygotsky’s Social Learning Theory (1962)? While I’m not here to push 60-year-old theory, the premise is still valid in a large number of scenarios – learning almost always happens through dialogue and collaborative efforts. Today, we have an abundance of social media avenues, programs, and apps that can create on-demand opportunities for social learning, but those areas are grossly underutilized in our classroom practices. Educators across the globe have leveraged things like Twitter, Snapchat, and Voxer to learn from one another through a digital and social learning space – shoot, it’s likely how you arrived at this blog. We need to be more intentional about guiding our learners towards utilizing these digital learning spaces as opportunities to learn from one another, through both constructive and reflective academic conversations.
  • Millenials prefer to learn from their peers: 80% Gen Z learners reported that they prefer peer-to-peer learning and collaborative study sessions, with 60% pointing to its being an invaluable opportunity to share ideas and perspectives. Enough said.
  • Digital collaboration empowers learners to utilize tech during the process of learning: So in education, tech is largely incorporated in one of four capacities – one, for assessment and data; two, for learners to develop a digital media product to demonstrate understanding; three, for delivery of instructional content; and four, for efficiently managing the workflow for resources. Now, all of those are essential and significant tech benefits – my goal here is not to create a hierarchy – but I don’t believe that any of those tech pieces are as integral a part of the process of learning as platforms that students can take ownership of for the purpose of collaboration and discussion.

Valuing those tenets, our training promotes the following apps and programs for our Digital Discussions & Collaboration station. And just to fully support our educators, we even include a rubric (a personal fav of mine) for grading academic discussions. Here are the handouts we share with our educators.



I hope this post if nothing else got you thinking about encouraging your learners to find tech to use in this way. Learning to take part in digital discussions and collaborations are an essential skill for our students in their future.

Create an App-Style Google Slide Deck #AppSlides

Create an App-Style Google Slide Deck #AppSlides

The creative side of my brain has absolutely loved the design opportunities that have come along with my new role as a personalized learning collaborator. It’s challenging, rewarding, and fun to essentially meet with teachers and ask, “Where do you see your classroom practices going next?” and then finding ways to bring those goals and dreams to fruition.

One such creative endeavor was so fun I wanted to share it here for anyone, like us at the time, who is interested in personalized practices (and choice) at the elementary level. This initiative began during a collaboration with Rockbrook educators Jan Kyle and Elizabeth Raphael, and I built this piece with the guidance and support of Oakdale educator Alli Pontious. Below are the personalization challenges we were looking to address when we started. We asked ourselves, how do we create something…

  1. Built to Be Self-Guided: Students in our elementary buildings have an hour of literacy time each day that is used for supporting students across a variety of learning levels, but realistically teachers can only focus on one of these groups at a time.  So one goal for this piece was to design some self-guided instruction and self-paced assignments to support and challenge students when their teacher is meeting with another group.
  2. Built for Choice: Our personalization model is driven by student choice, so we hoped to build something that would give student choice across three fronts: choice in the topic of the content for each assignment, choice in the order of completing assignments, and also choice in the pace of instruction and assignment completion.
  3. With a Learner-Friendly Workflow: The above goals all sound great, but they pose a number of problems. Chiefly among those issues, how do you provide 25 options to second-graders without them getting overwhelmed or lost in the choices you provide? While Google Classroom could house all 25, learners at this level would likely struggle to effectively navigate that many options. At the time we felt we needed something more intuitive, user-friendly, and capable of relaying instructional video content directly on the assignment itself. Not to mention, we needed a simple way to share this out to our students.

Tech Disclaimer: Now, we are a 1:1 district whose elementary learners use Apple iPads, so as I was listening to these design goals and challenges, I kept thinking that I wanted there to be an app to make all these things happen. But unless I designed one, there was no program I knew of that could accomplish what we wanted to do.

Solution: I love designing PowerPoint slides. Yeah, nerdy I know. And in the past, I have leveraged hyperlinks in slide decks to mimic an app workflow. So I decided to merge that feature with the concept of a choice chart, which resulted in the presentation below. In that Google Slides presentation, I created a grid (indicators columns & topic rows: complete one in each column) where each choice is presented on an image that is easily identified/read (utilizes initials and colors). Those images are then hyperlinked to slides later in the presentation, and when those slides are being viewed on a touch-screen device, the result is an app-like workflow that primary students can navigate (I tried it with my first grader). Each slide gives simple instructions for that assignment, provides embedded or linked instructional video content when necessary, supports students with brainstorming suggestions specific to the topic they selected, and utilizes images as a simplified link to the Google Form assessments that are also topic specific. Three of the columns are self-grading, and if used over a duration of several class periods, students have the flexibility to select the order of assignments and (to some degree) the duration of time they choose to allocate to each.

So, enough talk about the idea. Take a few minutes to explore it yourself!

Click Here for the Google Slides App Deck for 2nd Grade ELA Time.

Your comments and feedback are encouraged.

Challenge Accepted: #Five4Five (Days 3-5)

Well, if you missed my post over days one and two, I would suggest backtracking to that blog for the premise behind my approach to the #Five4Five Challenge and my first two examples. Below are the daily, new-to-me video endeavors/projects I created or co-created over the course of these three days. My hope in sharing these pieces is that others might find an idea or an approach they can take away and apply to their own classroom practices.

Monday, February 5th: White Hot Flames and Workout Frames

Today actually afforded me the chance to work on two new-to-me experiences, one in our high school welding course and the other in the high school’s Strength and Conditioning 3 course.

  • Part #1 (Welding): Our high school welding teacher, John Bombac, and I have been planning the creation of 45, one minute-or-less videos that detail the subtle procedures for setting up a weld or that demonstrate the physical technique of the weld itself. That last part is especially challenging given the sensitivity of the camera to the welding flame and the need to drastically drop the camera’s exposure enough to capture the fine details of the weld. Some of our early efforts ended up in nothing but a white halo or ball of light at the point of the weld. But on this date, we figured it all out and recorded a pretty detailed look at the OA welding technique. One down, 44 more videos to go lol.
  • Part #2 (Strength and Conditioning 3): Previously, one of our elementary school PE teachers had expressed an interest in differentiating his lesson activities by ability level (and at times creating choices for any given activity set). Through the use of gifs and timers, he had hoped to develop a timed presentation or movie that would facilitate these choices or differentiated options on a screen for his students. This idea had come from an observation he had once done at our high school, so to better understand what he was hoping to accomplish, I spent time in Strength and Conditioning 3 on Monday.
  • What I learned was that they use a program called Rack Performance as a way to organize and facilitate large groups of athletes progressing through a timed workout. This program accounts for warm-ups, equipment setup time, rest, and also the time allocated to complete each activity; it is also capable of facilitating both individual and/or small group team workouts.
  • Today’s video: First, I created six sample gifs (that are NOT for elementary use – just as an example) using the Giphy website. I added three of those gifs to one PowerPoint slide along with a 30-second timer. I repeated the process for a second slide, and then set both slides to auto-advance in 30 seconds time. After adding an opening and a closing slide, I ran the PowerPoint while my Quicktime screencast was recording. That screencast video I’ve shared below, and I hope to replicate this process with actual elementary PE indicators for a unit. Conversely, I’m also tinkering with adding gifs to the Rack Performance system in place at the high school to add visuals to their program.


Tuesday, February 6th: 2nd-Grade Video Production

The set of organizational videos that the 6th graders created (*see my day one post) will be used as instructional content for a 2nd-grade choice board that we are currently developing. However, the 6th grader indicators do not include Description, which is one of the writing structures taught in 2nd grade. So before the choice board can launch, we need a Description video. Thankfully, Oakdale 2nd grade teacher and PBS Digital Innovator Alli Pontious offered the opportunity to develop the Description video with one of her students.

By this date, this student and I had met once for 45 minutes, and she had nearly finished writing the entirety of the script in one sitting. It was seriously impressive. So today, we met to finalize the script and film the instructional portion of the video. Now it’s not easy being on camera and reading from a script. Your mind has to balance the processing of what you are reading and your verbal fluency all while you simultaneously manage your own facial/physical posture. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, especially someone in second grade! So my new-to-me experience for today was filming a video with a second-grade student, though honestly, she was a pro. Here are a few snippets from her video that I’m pieced together to share in this blog. There’s still editing to be done, but you’ll see just how phenomenal she was with creating this piece.


Wednesday, February 7th: “Maycomb Madness” Onboarding Video Production

Recently, I met with high school English 2 teacher Holly Currie who wanted help gamifying her upcoming To Kill a Mockingbird unit. Her goal was to theme the unit around the NCAA men’s basketball tournament that would be taking place at the same time (and is always on the minds of students during the time this unit is delivered – so why fight it right?!?!). The nuances of the game are intricate so I won’t be spending time detailing what that experience will look like – she and I will chat about it in an upcoming podcast, but on this day I developed a fun onboarding video that will kick start that unit in her classroom.

The video itself features basketball player highlight clips, and periodically (when the shot is clear and slow enough for this step), we took images of the TKAM movie characters – cropped around each character’s head – and superimposed those heads over the heads of the basketball players in the clips. To do this, I learned that all you have to do is lay a cropped image over a video in iMovie. Then you select the Picture-in-Picture feature to bring the cropped image into the frame over the video itself. From there, you can resize the image and reposition it wherever you like. So after I added those faces and a little music, we had a unique, onboarding mashup that we can use as the trailer to Holly’s “Maycomb Madness” game. (Sorry, I can’t share the video as the faces are not mine to share)

To anyone still reading, thank you for following me on my #Five4Five journey. I hope one of my experiences sparked an idea. Please know that I’m always happy to collaborate if you want to chat. Special thanks to all the terrific Westside teachers and students who I had a chance to work with during these five days. I love the boundaries you all are pushing with video production to support learning in our district. And last but not least, thank you Michael Matera for starting this challenge and leading the charge for others to complete a #Five4Five. This year I’ve really tried to make it a goal to create more content (given how much media I consume), so I would encourage anyone and everyone to take on this challenge for the personal growth in it — try new things, reflect on those new processes, and then don’t be afraid to share your ideas with others.


Challenge Accepted: #Five4Five (Days 1-2)

Well Michael Matera, after three days of following your #Five4Five Challenge last week, I decided to start my own #Five4Five attempt on Thursday, Friday and finish Monday-Wednesday just in time for my weekly Thursday blog post. I’m not sure if that cheapens the challenge as it more of a 5 for 7 that way, but I’ve never been one for following rules and conventions anyway so… : )

Okay, now with that said, my goal was to create a video something each day for the five days and share those pieces as a part of a two-part blog post. The challenge aspect here, apart from the 5 for 5 quantity, was to try and create pieces that had some new-to-me element of the process itself or in the end product.

So Michael, thanks for the inspiration; here’s how my week went…

Thursday, February 1st – Thinglink Application

On Thursday, I finalized my entry for a tech-challenge contest that will select six winners and pay for their trip to #ISTE2018 in full. This contest asked entrants to create a tech — something — that in 2 minutes or less details how you use tech in supporting students, why you would like to go to ISTE, and how you intend to take what you learn and share it with others.

In the classroom, I always encourage my students to “zig when everyone else zags” when there is an opportunity to make a product/project your own. So in that same spirit, I sat down and thought about what the most common product would likely look like…

  1. Most people will likely create a video. It’s the best medium for getting the most out of the 2-minute timeframe.
  2. Most people will be sharing a straightforward explanation of their best 1-3 tech-forward stories.

So my thought process was, how do I NOT do those things (or at least do them differently)?

So I began to brainstorm from a place of — What would it look like if I created a video series that provided choices to the judges to allow them to watch what tech endeavors they are most interested in versus the one or two that I would pick? I mean, after all, my job title is personalized learning collaborator right?!? Choice is our thing. Plus, if I provide those choices as a part of a visual, it would give me the chance to show the breadth of the things I have created or co-created with educators (beyond the 1-3 examples the time constraint might permit).

Cool with that part of the overall idea, I committed to creating an image that I could then upload to Thinglink. I’ve recently started using infographics dropped into Thinglink as an easy way to present learners with info and a set of videos in a visually appealing, easy-to-access format. Idea -check. A way of facilitating these video options -check. But I still needed to get away from that “here are my best bites” approach.

After giving my brain some time to storm, I committed to the idea of taking my schedule from the previous week and sharing a 30 second or less summary about the tech influence on each meeting/collaboration on that schedule. I felt this approach had a certain authenticity to it, a fidelity to the day-to-day use of tech that the 1-3 best bites could not provide. Unique approach -check.

So, 20 videos, one new image, and a Thinglink later, here’s what I came up with for the contest and for day one of this #Five4Five challenge.

 *Can’t See the Videos? Here’s the Link: http://www.thinglink.com/scene/1015738324414889985

Friday, February 2nd – Instructional Videos by 6th-Graders

I’ve been making instructional videos for four years now, though they’ve only been bearable to stomach for about the last three years lol. In all that time, though I’ve helped other teachers produce video content, I’ve never had students tackle the challenge of creating instructional videos themselves. So when 6th-grade teacher Becca Kratky came to me with the idea of having her students who tested out of an organizational patterns unit create videos over that content, I was excited to see what they could/would produce.

So, I met with four of her 6th-grades for three class sessions to work on developing their scripts for the videos they had decided to create. The students worked hard, wrote their own ideas and dialogue for the piece, and I tried to reduce my role to that of a guide/support to make the end product truly theirs. After the scripts were finished, we spent two class periods shooting the content for the four videos, and then I offered to do the final edits for them (given that we had only been allocated five class sessions to finish this project).

On this date, I worked on and finalized Emon’s video on Cause and Effect. I’m happy to share his work here and to again remind you that he wrote out the dialogue for the entire video, the skit included. Before the end of the school day, I shared this video (in person) with the group of four students and their teachers. It was a terrific way to end the week, and to end my second day of my #Five4Five on (co-)creating a video something I’ve never (co-)created before.


Click Here to access Part #2 of my #Five4Five experience.

A Lesson on Lawn Care & Life

A Lesson on Lawn Care & Life

Entering into my third year of teaching, I bought my first home, a newly-built townhome that was so close to the school I could see my driveway from my classroom window. I loved my time in that house and always took great pride in caring for that home. That care even extended to the small 20×10 foot patch of grass that I owned behind my house. So the following summer as temperatures rose and the climate became dry, I made it a part of my daily routine to step outside each morning, turn on the outside hose, and water my little plot of grass for 15 minutes.

Days passed. Weeks passed. June passed. And in July, a nearby neighbor asked if I would check on his pets while he was out of town on vacation. I was happy to help, and so one morning, after watering my yard, I walked out the back of my property to his house to care for his animals. Afterwards, making my way back home, I saw my yard from a new perspective, and being the nerdy English-brain that I am, the metaphor in that moment was both clear and profound.

Lawn 1

That fall, in all of my classes – and honestly, in every course I taught thereafter – I managed to carve out five minutes to share this story and the following insight…

Isn’t it amazing, the transformation that can take place, when you are intentional about giving 15-minutes of your day to tend to the things you are responsible for? Just 15-minutes can breathe life into something, to help it to thrive, when it would otherwise die without that effort.


So what do you need to water in your life? Isn’t it worth 15 minutes of your time?

…Two years ago, I came across this quote, and it fit my story. Just yesterday morning, my Facebook Memories add-on brought the quote back for me to revisit, which ultimately inspired this blog post. So, I’ll keep things simple, and leave you with this parting idea.




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.