Tuesday, December 31, 2019


Last fall I was enjoying a beautiful fall day with my friends Adam and Michael and discussing Michael's recent #OneMonthGoals personal challenge. For the month of October he challenged himself to eat vegetarian and was considering a minimalist challenge for November. This intrigued me. The way it would work is that on the first day one item is given away/thrown away/donated. On the second day, two items need to go, on the third day three items are gone and it continues until day 30 when 30 items need to be eliminated. On my drive home, I thought more about this and decided I'd present it to my husband, Brian. I wouldn't say our house is cluttered but it was definitely time to clean some closets and cabinets.

Brian was 100% on board and we set up a few ground rules as we set out to eliminate 465 items from our house:

1) We allowed ourselves to work ahead. So, if on a weekend we wanted to get rid of 100 items we checked off multiple days. This was helpful because weekdays can get busy and I knew we wouldn't be successful if we set out to clean a closet at 9:00 at night.
2)  There was a large bag of clothing that I had been carrying around in my trunk for weeks and I wasn't going to unpack it to see how many items were being given away. Instead, we'd allow bags to be weighed and count that. If I remember correctly, the bag was 8 pounds so we counted that for Nov. 8. The weighing option came in handy when throwing away pens, pencils, markers and all the other random items or pieces of paper that were in a junk drawer. It seemed like a more honest way of doing things.
3) We didn't need to purge together. We could work independently and log it on the calendar that was on the refrigerator.

The first half of the month was pretty easy and as it turned out the last half of the month wasn't bad either. In fact, we were so successful that we are planning on doing this challenge again in April because we didn't even touch the garage and I'm sure there's plenty to be discarded in there.

For the month of January, our family has decided to do a challenge together. We're calling it the Try Something New challenge. Everyday, someone in our family needs to try something new. Sometimes we'll do it as a family, sometimes it might be just one person. We've already picked two recipes to try this week, borrowed a game we've never played and created a long list of ideas to draw from all month.

I think it's going to be a great month!

Saturday, November 16, 2019

How Do Personalized Learning and Student Liberation Intersect?

A few days ago, this tweet came up in my notifications. 
At first I was stunned that I even got tagged (because look at the other names that got tagged) and then I started to ponder the question. One of the most important pieces of personalized learning for me is that we need to know our learners. There isn't one right way to get to know your learners - it could be through Learner Profiles, Passion Pages, on going reflections, conversations...the list goes on. Knowing our learners goes beyond what they are interested in and includes how they WANT to learn. It's that last point that is tricky sometimes because not every student can articulate how they want to learn.

Developing learner agency is a critical piece for me when we talk about personalized learning. As a high school Special Ed teacher, we talk a lot about self-advocacy as a critical skill for post-secondary success. But what happens when learners don't even know what they need to advocate for? That's why student agency is so important. As teachers, we need to provide opportunities for students to learn what works for them in a classroom and then reflect on what works and what doesn't. Many students struggle with the metacognitive skill of reflection so it's an important one to practice. I've really come to love the reflection prompts from Tony Vincent and have started using these regularly.

Back to the question posed in the tweet; How do personalized learning and student liberation intersect?  Assuming that I'm interpreting the question correctly, Paul is asking if complete student freedom in their education is personalized learning. I don't think so. Personalized learning for me means that my learners understand how they learn best and are given opportunities to practice concepts in that way. Personalized learning for me means that learners have opportunities to design their own assessment options to meet their needs but also have opportunities to challenge themselves. Personalized learning means that there is a continuous cycle of feedback from the teacher to the student but also the student to the teacher. Teachers use that feedback to drive instruction and make future decisions about instruction. Teachers are still driving the curriculum but there is voice and choice within the context of the class.

So Paul, did I answer the question?

Monday, September 23, 2019

"Innovate Inside the Box" Book Study, Week 1: Building Learner Agency and Defining Success

This year, my position changed. From my perspective, it’s been for the better. As a result of the change, I have been given the opportunity to pursue interests that I haven’t felt I was able to in the past because there just wasn’t time. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with this change. I started to make a mental list of all the things professionally I’ve struggled with over the last five years and defined some goals for myself. One of them is to actually blog. I’ve had plenty of false starts over the years mainly because at the end of the day I was tired. I had nothing left to give to the profession and had to put all my energy into my family and relationship with others. I’m not finding myself stretched as thin as I was before and can now focus on reading more, writing more and seeking out/accepting more speaking opportunities. For the first time in awhile, I’m excited about working on me as a professional. It’s time to do something amazing.

While participating in an online book study may not be one person’s definition of amazing, it’s something I never allowed myself to do in the past. So, it’s pretty amazing to me. The, “Innovate Inside the Box” book study came at a great time. Not only am I reading and not thinking about 100 other things I felt I should be doing, I am also finding the encouragement to blog. It’s a double win.

About midway through Chapter 2 of, “Innovate Inside the Box,” I came across this passage:

If we really want students to guide their own path and lead happy and healthy lives, this will require us to define success differently. Rather than approach students with a deficit mentality, we must look for and build on their unique strengths and talents and help them acquire the skills, knowledge, and mindsets they need to see themselves as full of possibility.

This passage resonated with me for two reasons. The first being that I work really hard in my own practice to develop learner agency. Students need to understand who they are learners so they can forge their own path to lead happy and healthy lives. Schools need to embrace the learners’ strengths and foster growth rather than trying to remediate a deficit. Now, being a Special Ed teacher I feel as though every IEP I write goes against this belief. There are somethings I can’t change and paperwork is one of them. However, how IEP meetings are run and the atmosphere created is entirely within my control. I recently wrote a blog post for Make Learning Personal that addresses this very issue. This post outlines my process of using Learner Profiles to develop learner agency and how I use them in student led IEP meetings. This is how I get students involved in their own planning and goal setting.

The second reason this passage resonated with me is success looks different for all students. Here is a brief summary of two students who have very different definitions of success.

I have a student who has recently returned from a five month residential stay in a mental health facility. Not only are mental health issues a concern the student also has an intellectual disability, autism, reactive attachment disorder and trauma. She’s also a student who loves dogs, documentaries, socializing, cooking and learning about other places. Right now, success for her will be learning how to form trusting relationships with people (especially adults) and learning how to self-regulate her emotions/behavior. That skill is far more important to her future than any reading comprehension strategy or math process I can teach her right now. Her success is going to be difficult, if not impossible to grade. 

I have a former student who played drums and planned on being in a band after high school. I never felt that school embraced his interests. When writing his post secondary plan I felt pressured from other team members to focus on a Plan B since Plan A was to, quite literally, play drums in a heavy metal band. This guy did not go to college as his Plan B stated and the school prepared him for. Instead, he has traveled to Europe and all over the United States in several different bands, performed at large music festivals when drummers were needed and has served as a studio drummer for recording acts. Not a single follow up survey on graduates that was done identified him as a success. If you want to check him out on Twitter or Instagram @mitchondrums.

Success looks different for every individual and as teachers we need to know our learners and help nurture their strengths. Classroom practices, like using Learner Profiles, passion projects, 20% time, and choice opportunities for practice and assessment options are all ways teachers can help students build agency AND help them define what success looks like for them.