Dancing, Coding, and Changing Identities with Small Wins

You have to become the type of person you want to be, and that starts with proving your new identity to yourself. — James Clear in Atomic Habits

It was December 28, 2012, and I had just finished co-MCing a wedding reception for my cousin Rachel and her new husband, Dan.

The first dances were complete, and the dance floor was now open to everyone. The music was live, the crowd was jumping.

But I wasn’t out there grooving. Instead, I was grabbing a drink and meekly joining the group of dads and uncles standing at the back of the room.

Why wasn’t I out there dancing? I had lots of reasons.

I was single. Everyone else on the dance floor seemed to have a partner. I didn’t feel great about finding my way into the public love-fest only to dance alone.

I felt older than most. I mean, looking out at that dance floor, the median age appeared to be 25ish. I was a bald and ancient 33 years old. Obviously a poor fit for that scene.

Plus, my dancing skills were subpar at best. I had limited experience with dancing and wasn’t comfortable busting my lame-o moves in front of all those critical eyes.

I mean, the last thing I needed was to completely embarrass myself in front of witnesses. There were some cute girls in that crowd. No need to sabotage dating opportunities before they had a chance to materialize.

And so there I stood, sipping a beverage, talking to dads and uncles and observing the dance floor from a respectable distance.

Playing it safe. Avoiding the struggle.

Pushed to My First Win

Enter Hannah, my wonderful sister-in-law. She was having no part of my spectating. Across the room she came, on a mission to get me out to the dance floor.

It took a little convincing, but it worked. With Hannah’s urging — she wasn’t really asking — I followed her out to the dance floor.

Smiles greeted me as soon as I appeared, and I instantly started to relax. I threw down some simple moves, gingerly and self-consciously at first, and then slowly started ramping it up as the minutes and songs crept by.

Before long, I was in the thick of things, laughing and having the time of my life as I danced it up with family, cousins, and friends.

That’s me on the left … dancing my way to a changed identity!

A Small Win Paved the Way for a Change in Identity

In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about what it takes to change your habits. It starts, he argues, by gradually changing your identity.

In my case, a part of me wanted to be the guy who dances at weddings. But I couldn’t get there. My fears and hesitations held me back. Instead, I lived an identity of a guy who didn’t dance at weddings.

What it takes to change that identity, Clear says, is a series of small wins. It starts with one appearance on the dance floor. Then another. Then another. Over time, I would change — not what I did or how I behaved — but who I was.

And that’s what I did. It helped, of course, that in 2014 I started dating a beautiful and amazing woman who comes absolutely alive with joy on the dance floor.

Over time, I became the guy who always dances at weddings. And birthday parties. And concerts. And other random get-togethers or celebrations. I get out there.

My moves still aren’t awesome. As my sister-in-law Elaine likes to remind me, my moves are still “classic white guy.”

But I’m okay with that, because I’ve broken the barrier. With a series of small wins, I’ve changed who I am.

I’m now the guy who dances at parties.

Identity Struggles in Our Learners: I’m Not a Coder

Sometimes I see this kind of identity struggle in my students.

I see it when we spend time on coding, for example. This year, I’ve been leading my 8th graders through an introductory Khan Academy course on Javascript. The course is beautifully laid out, with video tutorials, step-by-step instructions, and lots of room for open-ended solutions.

The WHY of Coding: Building a Growth Mindset

At the outset of our coding unit, I spend a good deal of time talking about our WHY. This course is about far more than Javascript, I explain. It’s about building the habitudes and transferable life skills that students will need wherever they enter the 21st century economy.

Computational thinking is about identifying, analyzing, and implementing possible solutions. It’s about building the mental skills of confidence, persistence, tolerance for ambiguity, and the ability to deal with open-ended problems.

I’ve taught this unit for a few years now, and in my experience most students tend to embrace the challenges of the module and engage with the problems wholeheartedly.

But without fail, the struggle of identity rears its ugly head for some students after just one or two coding sessions.

“I’m not good at this, Mr. Cavey!”

“I can’t do this!”

“This sucks!”

This isn’t the majority of students, by any means. But predictably, there are one or two or three who quickly decide that coding isn’t for them.

I’m not a coder, they believe.

Sure, a part of them would like to be whiz through the module and become a Javascript expert. But the work just feels too hard. Answers and solutions aren’t coming easily. And the fears start to set in.

I might never be able to figure this out, they think. I’ll look ridiculous. And that will confirm my worst fears about who I am.

And so the choice to quit becomes increasingly attractive. If they can get away with it, these identity strugglers will try to check out completely: go off-task, surf the web, do anything but bear down and really engage with the task at hand.

Helping Our Learners Earn Small Wins

It is here that we must shine as educators. As Hannah encouraged me and urged me onto the dance floor, we must push our students into the productive struggle. Help them get some wins, however small. Show them that they are capable. Show them the power of YET.

For some learners, they’ve embraced narratives and identities of failure for so long that it takes quite a few wins to help them believe again. To help them see that a different destiny is possible.

To take them from I’m not a coder to maybe I CAN do this. Maybe I CAN solve problems. Maybe I CAN find solutions. Wait a minute … I AM a coder!

If I can help my students get there, that’s an incredible win. Because that’s a mindset shift, a change in identity. And once they’ve tasted the thrill of victory, they may never look back.

It won’t always be possible. I think we do fellow educators a disservice when we argue that we must inspire every discouraged learner and motivate every single student. Because try as we might, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. We can’t control every variable, and that doesn’t make us failures.

But we can try. We can encourage. We can model risk-taking. And we can help our learners earn those small but critical wins.

In so doing, we can restore hope. We can alter narratives. We can change identities.

Thanks, Hannah, for pushing me out to the dance floor. You helped me earn my first win on the way to a changed identity.

And for our discouraged learners, that’s my goal too. Help them get that first win.

Episode 124 – Chanel Johnson

Meet Chanel Johnson

CHANEL JOHNSON is a STEMinist, ASCD Emerging Leader, published author, K-12 Math and Science Program Specialist, instructional tech coach, and keynote presenter based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Pushing Back on Imposter Syndrome

Chanel was only 30 years old when she was hired as an instructional coach, and her age allowed feelings of imposter syndrome to creep in. It was her job to support educators across multiple campuses, and soon she could hear the doubts: why am I here? Do I really belong here?

One day, her supervisor put it to her directly: “If you didn’t belong here, you wouldn’t be here. You have to trust the knowledge that you have and believe that who you are is what brought you this far.” Chanel says she continues to remind herself of that helpful message whenever doubts and fears about her value start to reappear.

Chanel’s #GirlDad: A STEM Legacy

Chanel credits a lot of her love for STEM to her dad, an amazing father who enjoyed showing his daughter how science and STEM affected the world around them. He was a fan of sci-fi movies as well, an affection that Chanel shares today.

Chanel started her education journey with math and science programs, and she’s never looked back. STEM studies continue to thrill her because it’s a field that’s constantly changing, and it’s open to absolutely everyone.

Chanel’s brand is built around ‘STEMtastic‘ because she sees connections between STEM and everything she does, and she’s passionate about sending the message to underrepresented communities (including Black and Latina women) that they belong in STEM work. She’s quick to point out that there’s a lot more work to be done in this area.

Flipgrid Fever

Chanel is an ambassador for Flipgrid and she is always happy to boost this powerful platform. It amplifies some of the quietest voices in our classrooms, and it connects educators around the world. “I can’t stop talking about it,” she laughs.

One of her recent applications with Flipgrid was Character Book Day, which allowed her to dress up as a character, read a book to a group of students, and then share that same video with other audiences. Chanel is also excited about the possibilities that Flipgrid’s AR features afford educators: find Flipgrid QR codes on papers or posters and watch linked videos appear directly on your screen. These are powerful opportunities for living representations of learning.

Chanel’s Professional Learning

“My passion will always be instruction,” Chanel says. Her core passion is learning about new approaches and strategies that support student learning and achievement. Her PLN, particularly on Twitter, has been a phenomenal source of inspiration and learning when it comes to best practices in science and computer science education.

Chanel recently completed a 2-day training for ISTE certification, and she is so grateful for the growth she experienced during that event. She spent a lot of time focusing on the ISTE standards from the perspective of students, and it helped her think through the ways that we frame learning targets and structure activities for students.

A Personal Passion: Singing

“Everything for me is about learning in some form or fashion,” Chanel says. One activity that she’s enjoyed recently is plugging into her local church choir. It’s been a joy to build her singing abilities and share those gifts with others, and it’s really increased her love of music.

Productivity Hacks

Chanel credits her husband for sometimes pulling her plug and saying “Nope, let’s go.” Sometimes we need that guidance to take a break, especially if we have a strong drive for learning, growth, and productivity.

She also gains a lot of value from Microsoft’s To-Do app, which she uses to sync her task list across all devices. She loves the sound it makes when she completes another task, and she doesn’t hesitate to include “take a break” in her list as well.

Voices and Resources That Inspire Chanel’s Practice

Over on Twitter, Chanel recommends giving Christian Padgett @SoontobeEdD a follow. “He’s a young powerhouse in the education field – a master in Math instruction and instruction technology,” she says. Chanel also shouts out Dr. Natalie Henderson @DrNHenderson, someone she credits for teaching her to take care of herself and always explore her outer limits.

One education technology app that Chanel is excited about is called Legends of Learning, a free platform that gamifies math and science for young students. Follow Legends of Learning on Twitter @LegendLearning

Chanel’s book suggestion is Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. This book provides valuable insights on the psychology of individual and organizational change.

When she’s just looking for a fresh take on the news or some juicy gossip, Chanel tunes in to The Breakfast Club podcast, but when she’s looking for something of more substance in the world of education, she listens to The Leading Equity podcast with host Sheldon Eakins. Follow Sheldon on Twitter @SheldonEakins

Chanel doesn’t watch a ton of content on Netflix, but one show that she’s started to watch on the advice of friends is You. It’s got just the right amount of dark and intriguing to keep things interesting.

We wrap up this fun conversation and Chanel gives us the best ways to connect with her work. See below for details!

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Song Track Credits

  • Bluntedsesh4 (by Tha Silent Partner, courtesy of FreeMusicArchive.org)
  • Sunrise Drive by South London Hifi*
  • Anthem by The Grand Affair*

*courtesy of the YouTube Audio Library

Listen to Teachers on Fire on YouTube

*This page contains Amazon affiliate links.

Episode 122 – Marisa Thompson

Meet Marisa Thompson

MARISA THOMPSON is a mom, wife, HS English teacher, professional development facilitator, instructor at the University of San Diego, traveler, and a liver of life. When people ask her what she does, she sums up her multiplicity of roles by simply saying “I’m in education,” and she wouldn’t have it any other way, she says. 

Disillusioned by Education

When asked about a low moment, Marisa recalls her earliest visions of the kind of teacher she wanted to be. “So much of it came from Hollywood,” she says. But a few years in, she realized that she was not the teacher that she thought she wanted to be. By her seventh year, her disillusionment had grown to the point that she decided to leave the classroom entirely.

After a period of reflection and time away from the profession, she came across the idea of flexible seating on Pinterest. She pitched the concept to a principal, and his reaction took her by surprise.

“Great,” he said. “Go do it!” This yes was such an encouragement because it proved that her voice mattered and that her ideas could lead to transformative work. What followed was seven years of further growth and exploration.

Restoring the Joy of Reading with TQE

On July 10, 2018, Marisa published a blog post titled We’re Killing the Love of Reading, but Here’s an Easy Fix. In the post, she unpacks a method of student engagement with texts called the TQE Method: thoughts, questions and epiphanies.

When you first start trying the TQE Method in your classroom, there will be growing pains for you and the students at first, she warns. But they will go away. The more you use it, the more the practices will start to become comfortable, organic, and powerful. Your students will start to engage in the kind of rich discussions that we all remember having in university or grad school.

It’s about giving students the time, space, language, and culture to safely engage in the sharing of ideas like never before. The TQE Method is now appearing in classrooms at all levels and all subjects, and Marisa couldn’t be happier. 

When it comes to feedback for students using the TQE Method, Marisa looks for quantity simply because participation is essential. But her assessment is based primarily on two things: reading comprehension and author’s purpose. Can students analyze a choice that an author made and describe how it helps an author accomplish their objective in a text? Students who can demonstrate these skills with consistency are demonstrating mastery.

On Fire for TED Talks

Something else that is setting Marisa on fire for education is her students’ recent TED Talks. They focused on communicating effectively with audiences, exploring concepts of happiness and success, and sharing authentically. Marisa watched as her students actually put aside rehearsed notes to speak from the heart, and the results were powerful. It was a first-class example of the link between vulnerability and compelling communication. 

Projects and Pursuits

One of the things that Marisa is trying to do in her current classroom is to get away from class novels. Literary freedom works, and it’s good for kids, she says. On the other hand, shared conversations and connected experiences with texts are everything, so she’s looking at ways to combine both goals.

In her teacher support role, Marisa is focused on creating a series of 2-minute tutorials to help get teachers started with new initiatives, and at the Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education at the University of San Diego she is busy designing new courses based on real-world experiences, like Disney World

A Personal Passion Outside of Education: Travel

Marisa’s ultimate passion away from education is travel. Although she didn’t grow up in a wealthy home, she’s been traveling for as long as she can remember and has now visited at least 20 countries. She’s taken students to a number of those countries and always finds it a valuable learning experience to see other cultures and other places.

Voices and Resources That Inspire Marisa’s Practice

If you’re looking to follow someone new on Twitter, Marisa recommends @JuliaFliss. “The work that she does is soulful,” Marisa says. It’s big picture, everything-is-possible, and it’s filled with positivity and optimism. She is all about working with people and changing the world.

No edtech tool has been more helpful to Marisa this year than Pro Keys, a Google Chrome extension that allows you to build and customize your own feedback shortcuts. Marisa has used this tool to go from 160 hours to 4 hours of writing assessment completed at home this year thanks in large part to this tool.

It’s not easy for an English teacher to pick favorite books, but Marisa points to two classics in particular: East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

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Song Track Credits

  • Bluntedsesh4 (by Tha Silent Partner, courtesy of FreeMusicArchive.org)
  • Sunrise Drive by South London Hifi*
  • Anthem by The Grand Affair*

*courtesy of the YouTube Audio Library

Listen to Teachers on Fire on YouTube

*This page contains Amazon affiliate links.

Episode 120 – Dr. Christine Younghusband

120 - Dr. Christine Younghusband

Meet Dr. Christine Younghusband

CHRISTINE YOUNGHUSBAND is passionate about teaching and learning and the role of leadership in enhancing the student learning experience in K-12 and higher education. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership in 2017 from Simon Fraser University (SFU) and is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in the B.Ed. Teacher Education Program and M.Ed. Leadership Program.

Her 25-year career in education includes teaching secondary mathematics and science in BC public schools and contributing to the provincial Math curriculum redesign. Christine is a learner first, and her teaching practice is guided by her inquiry and curiosity. She “learns by doing” with a willingness to try, take risks, and try again. She values learning experientially as a reflective practitioner.

Leaving the Classroom

Christine recalls a period about ten years ago when she actually left the classroom and teaching. It was a heartwrenching decision because she loved her teaching areas, her students, and the work she had done to build positive cultures in her learning community. But personal circumstances outside of the school forced her to reconsider her core values and commitments, and so her professional journey took a new direction.

After a nice period of time that allowed her to give her young daughter lots of special attention, she made a return to education in the forms of doctoral work and a school trusteeship. She credits the trusteeship with giving her another unique perspective in education which helped her complete her dissertation, providing insights that continue to contribute to her current roles. She has since been involved in numerous curricular design committees and has contributed to countless projects, including some related to Math and indigenous education in British Columbia.

Changing Assessment Paradigms

Changes in assessment practices and policies are incremental, Christine says pragmatically. Transitions do take time, particularly shifts toward portfolio-based admission strategies and feedback models of assessment at the post-secondary level. At their core, formative feedback paradigms attempt to put the focus squarely on learning.

In some cases, it’s helpful to think of useful assessment models being used outside of academia, such as the pass-fail structure we see in swimming report cards. Can this swimmer swim for 50 meters? The “score” doesn’t matter in that context – it really only matters whether the swimmer can make it to 50 meters or not. One refreshing result of removing weights and percentages from her own course reporting at the post-secondary level is that students no longer make strategic calculations about which learning activities to focus on, which activities to really invest effort in, or which activities are worth skipping.

Formative assessment makes learning more meaningful, says Christine. There’s no risk to the learner – only the opportunity for growth, learning, and improvement. It’s just a constant cycle of pushing forward, receiving feedback, and pushing forward some more. In pass-fail environments, students learn — not to receive status or earn commendation, but because they are wholeheartedly intent on the learning itself.

Professional Learning Networks

Many of the students and teacher candidates that enter Christine’s education courses at the post-secondary level are not quite as engaged with social media as popular perceptions dictate, she says. One of the challenges of showing these students the learning opportunities available to them via professional learning networks is the idea that we tend not to teach or practice things that we haven’t experienced ourselves.

With that in mind, Christine asks her students to proactively create their own digital footprint in the form of e-portfolios, starting with who a thoughtful look at who they are as a person, because who we are is how we teach. Her students then begin a process of documenting their learning and growth as teacher candidates, and they also project forward to who they will be when they leave the program as practitioners.

She also asks her students to create a Twitter account and to begin participating in that space, even if it means more lurking than contributing at the beginning. As students begin to realize the tangible wins of support and resources available in eduTwitter, they encourage others to get involved. It’s been fun to watch the #UNBCed and #BCedchat communities grow and gain momentum.

Weaving the Disciplines Together

Something that has really been igniting Christine’s interest and curiosity of late is the activity of weaving. She comes into this space very consciously a learner, and she sees all kinds of literal and metaphorical integrations with culture, indigenous learning, coding, numeracy, kinesthetic learning, and the environment. It’s an activity rich with application and extension, and it’s also good for the spirit. Speaking of numeracy, Christine says that “Everyone can do math – we just have different entry points.” For some learners, weaving might be one of those entry points. 

Professional Goals for 2020

Christine’s #OneWord2019 was WRITE, and although she looks forward to doing more published academic work, she looks back with satisfaction on all the writing that she was able to complete last year. This year, her OneWord is TENURE — not that she’s currently on a tenure track as a professor, but she seeks to move into the mindset of research, publishing, academic connections and collaboration.

Part of the challenge, Christine laughs, is to simply get over herself: as Brene Brown writes, to get past the senses of shame and inadequacy that we all wrestle with and simply get on with the work that is important to her. This will look like more academic contributions this year, and it may also include some personal work with sentimental significance, including a memoir about her mother.

Personal Learning: Weaving, Music, and Curling

When asked about personal passions and learning that ignites her passions when she leaves the UNBC campus, Christine can’t help but point back to weaving. She’s been enjoying weaving on Thursday nights at a community makerspace event, and she thinks part of the attraction is an interest in things she can’t do well. When she looks at weaving, she sees challenges with fine motor skills and coordination, but she knows that with time and persistence will come mastery.

Looking elsewhere, it’s also been a pleasure to discover the musical talents and passions of several of her peers in the UNBC faculty. Christine is also committed to rekindling a former passion: getting back to the curling rink. (For those from warmer climes, curling is essentially shuffleboard on ice.)

Professional Productivity

“I’m one of those people that works best under pressure,” Christine laughs. She’s not one for apps, routines, or hacks — she simply does the work that needs to get done by the time it needs to be done. Learning happens in community, so when we don’t complete contributions of learning by agreed-upon times, it affects the learning of others. Social responsibility compels us to honor deadlines more than penalties or money ever can.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Her Practice

Over on Twitter, Christine recommends following Nolle Pepin @Beaded_Tweets. Noelle is an indigenous educator whose work in weaving has been a big source of inspiration for Christine.

Dr. Christine’s pick for edtech tools is a classic: Google Docs. She asks her students to use Google Docs to annotate texts collaboratively, posting comments, asking questions, and responding to classmates on the same Doc.

Christine’s all-time favorite book in education is The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life by Parker J. Palmer. It reinforces her core values and mission and makes an easy recommendation to students.

When asked for a podcast pick, Christine admits she’s still relatively new to podcast consumption. Teachers on Fire is where it’s at! 

We close out this conversation with some really fun video picks. On YouTube, Christine is watching Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper). Dr. Lee’s content isn’t for everyone, but Christine finds her videos amusing and satisfying. And on Netflix, she’s watching two other funny shows: Schitts Creek and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Make sure you connect with Christine using the contact information posted below!

You can connect with Dr. Christine …

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Song Track Credits

  • Bluntedsesh4 (by Tha Silent Partner, courtesy of FreeMusicArchive.org)
  • Sunrise Drive by South London Hifi*
  • Anthem by The Grand Affair*

*courtesy of the YouTube Audio Library

Listen on YouTube and subscribe to the Teachers on Fire channel!

*This page contains Amazon affiliate links.

We Write for Life

The more reflective you are, the more effective you are. — Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral

Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

Last year I read Sparks in the DarkLessons, Ideas, and Strategies to Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in All of Us by Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney.

Wow. What a powerful and inspiring book.

If you’re passionate about literacy, about promoting the place and pleasure of effective reading and writing in your classroom, I strongly recommend this title.

I said “in your classroom,” but one of the things that comes across so powerfully in Sparks in the Dark is the fact that literacy must be a lifestyle.

To be genuine, to be vibrant, to be contagious — reading and writing must spill out of our personal lives.

And this goes for all teachers — not just those who teach English Language Arts. As educators, as thinkers, as lead learners, we must model a life of constant reading and writing.

Literacy is Breathing

If we say that communication, creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking are the core competencies at the foundation of today’s education, we must practice what we preach.

In an age of digital amusement and easy-everywhere distraction, we must show our learners what it looks like to mentally breathe. To stop, be still, and practice the acts of mental inhalation (reading) and exhalation (writing).

One of the most important reasons that we write is to know ourselves. As Don Murray says, “You write to discover what you want to say.

It sometimes feels like the act and art of self-reflection is a vanishing habit. But we must show our learners that these practices are essential aspects of living a healthy and productive life.

When Our Reading Lives Are Shallow, So is Our Teaching

Speaking especially to educators, Crowder and Nesloney write “We prioritize what we value, and when we do not value reading or learning, it shows. Our instruction is a mixture of what we have read, and when our reading lives are shallow, so is our teaching. It isn’t an insult; it’s the truth.”

We cannot be effective educators if we are not regularly reading and reflectively writing.

Becoming a Writer

To those who feel defeated by identity before they even start (“I’m not a writer”), James Clear describes his own evolution as a writer in his recent book, Atomic Habits.

You may not be a reader or writer today. But you can and will become one — one paragraph, one page, one article at a time.

So pick up a book. Grab a pen or sit down at the keyboard. Score some small wins, and begin the gradual process of redefining yourself.

Start breathing.

Because the more reflective you are, the more effective you are.

person writing on brown wooden table near white ceramic mug
Image Credit: Green Chameleon on Unsplash