Episode 78 – Aaron Blackwelder

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Meet Our Guest

AARON BLACKWELDER is a high school English teacher and golf coach at Woodland Public Schools in Woodland, Washington, a rapidly growing community about 35 miles north of Portland, OR. The school has about 700 students and Aaron has been teaching freshman and senior English there for about 13 years.

Aaron is also the founder of the Teachers Going Gradeless website and Twitter chat @TG2Chat and #TG2Chat. He’s a father, husband, autism advocate, Google Certified Educator, and he’s loving life!

Disillusioned by Traditional Assessment and Curriculum

Aaron describes the professional journey that led from disillusionment with traditional grading practices and instruction to a thoughtful exploration and eventual embrace of gradeless practices. It’s been an evolution, he says.

Fundamentally, he’s trying to pour more energy into feedback and pay less attention to grades, because it’s the instructive nature of feedback that really helps kids learn. He’s been gradeless for about four years now, and he’s enjoying strong support from administrators and his department.

Gradeless assessment has also affected his course content, curriculum, and culture, and he’s leveraging project-based learning and problem-based learning to leverage his students’ own passions, interests, and needs around their learning activities.

He’s also become passionate about helping students become agents of change, creating world-changing products for authentic audiences. His seniors are tackling real-life problems, and it’s been exciting to see their work unfold and skills develop in the process.

Aaron loves the process of tailoring feedback to the learning and needs of each student – that’s another important feature of the gradeless paradigm. Are we preparing students for the test on Friday, or are we preparing them for challenges beyond school?

Answering the Critics

To high school teachers in the maths and sciences who say that gradeless practices can’t be applied to their specialized courses, Aaron points to the abundance of high-level project plans and resources available for exactly those subject areas.

For schools and educators who look at gradeless practices with skepticism, Aaron makes a strong case. Schools and educators don’t like being placed on a scale of assessment, he observes, and the same is true of students.

Scores tend to label and encourage fixed mindsets (“I suck at Math,” etc.), while feedback tends to inform and direct next steps for growth. Scores also reinforce a fear of judgment, which crushes creativity and risk-taking.

The Work of TG2

TG2 (Teachers Going Gradeless) promotes the idea that teaching and learning are better without grades, and from the outset, Aaron wanted to put the focus on teachers. Coming from that perspective, it only made sense to open the TG2 site to educators and contributors from all over the world, and as a result the blog features a rich diversity of voices.

Digging Deeper Into Aaron’s Reporting Practices

Aaron explains how his reporting practices and system translate into student report cards (he was actually busy filling them out at the time of this interview). Just about all of his students earn a ‘P’ for passing, and he writes lengthy narrative comments about the strengths and weaknesses demonstrated by each student throughout the term.

His philosophy is that if he expects high quality writing from his students, the least they can expect from him is the same quality of writing in their feedback. At the end of the course, he also conferences with students to determine their letter grade, but generally speaking, he accepts whatever students suggest as their grade. After all, grades aren’t really the point!

Once again, it’s really the feedback that will inform and motivate further growth – not the grade.

Personal Passion

Aaron’s chief passion is his family. His wife is an amazing source of support and inspiration, and he relies on her heavily. He also has two boys with autism, and he takes pleasure in his ongoing learning from and contributions to the local autism community.

Favorite Productivity Tool

Google Forms has been an incredible resource for Aaron as he completes report cards, solicits self-evaluations and progress reports from students, and communicates with parents. He also recommends an Add-on called Forms Publisher, which allows him to do even more with Forms.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Aaron’s Professional Practice

On Twitter, Aaron recommends following @HumResPro, @MakeThemMastrIt, and @LeeAnnJung.

Aaron’s got two book picks to share. The first is Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari. The second is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. Each title is mind-blowing in its own right, Aaron says, and will enlarge your understanding of issues that we hear about often.

Two podcasts to subscribe to are Teaching While White and The Human Restoration Project.

On Netflix, Aaron has been enjoying Abducted in Plain Sight. He’s not sure if he was more entertained or enraged while watching, but it’s a series that is sure to engage.

We sign off on this conversation, and Aaron reminds us of the best places to connect with him and his work at Teachers Going Gradeless. See below for details and links!

See more from Aaron:

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device.

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Follow the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media.

Song Track Credits

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

 

Episode 71 – Rose Pillay

71 - Rose Pillay

Meet Our Guest

ROSE PILLAY is an education leader and curriculum consultant for the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese. Her One Word for 2019 is SMILE, and Rose keeps educators inspired on her mission to serve, support, and celebrate growth and relationships. She sees her roles as 1) professional learner, 2) good news gossip, and 3) educational matchmaker.

Buckle up for this interview! Her colleagues call her a girl on fire, and you’ll understand why when you hear her passion and commitment for learning. Follow Rose on Twitter @RosePillay1 and visit her blog at https://teachafl.wordpress.com/.

Everything We Do in Teaching is Relational

There are days when Rose has felt she isn’t making a difference. Imposter syndrome creeps in, and she the doubts can be debilitating.

To counter these feelings of inadequacy and negativity, Rose makes a conscious choice to curate and keep any and all the cards, comments, and collectibles that are affirming and empowering. She also designates a label in her inbox simply marked Sunshine, and it’s filled with messages that empower and bless her.

To further bolster her confidence, Rose is proactive about surrounding herself with people who not only cheer her on but challenge her to be better. “Everything we do in teaching is relational,” she says. We need to find others who will fuel our passion.

Faith and Learning

As a committed Catholic, Rose feels called to bring the light of Jesus into this world, and as such she strives to be a lighthouse and source of hope for others. She wants to live in such a way that people say “I want what she’s having,” not living as one seeking to be accepted but in a way that is unashamed, unapologetic, and authentic.

She enjoys partnering with educators from all corners and backgrounds because we all want the same things for children: to equip them to live well in an ever-changing world. She is relentless in her pursuit of the good, true, and beautiful in an effort to make our students into saints. Education has shifted its focus from transmission of information to transformation, from products to people. We’re trying to define the very best qualities of what it means to be human, to contribute to this world and make it a better place.

Why Network on Twitter?

For Rose, Twitter serves two main purposes:

  1. it builds professional relationships, and
  2. it creates access to classrooms, innovative practices, and inspirational conversations.

Twitter isn’t the all-important platform, but the key is to find something, someone, or some place that recharges your batteries so that you have the ideas and energy to give back to your learners.

Fail Better

Rose’s blog, Fail Better, began as a reservoir of resources for educators looking to do more with assessment for learning. In June 2012, Rose wrote a post called Fail Better, inspired by a quote by Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

From that time forward, Rose decided to use her blog to reflect on her own learning journey. Dylan Wiliam says that every educator needs to accept two commitments.

  1. Every single teacher will carry on improvement in their practice, and
  2. Focus on the things that make the most difference to students. Embrace the idea that the job of teaching is so difficult that we never really get good at it. We fail every day, but every day following we can come back and fail better.

To fuel and direct her learning journey, Rose asks herself those Big Three metacognitive questions each week:

  1. What am I learning?
  2. Where am I going?
  3. How will I get there?

As Richard Wagamese writes, “Don’t just write what you know. Write what you wish to know.” Storytelling is about discovery of one’s self, a way for writers to document their growth and evolution.

New Competency-Based Curriculum for BC

One thing that really ignites Rose today is BC’s new competency-based curriculum. It’s infused schools across the province with fresh energy, vision, and joy. The focus is where it should be – on ALL students learning and growing, from wherever they are on their journey. It’s about students finding themselves, developing holistically, and answering the most important question they will ever answer: Who am I?

Rose is also thrilled by the new Career Life education program coming to BC’s high school curriculum – “the sun around which all the other courses will orbit.” Among other things, this new initiative is sure to challenge long-held assumptions and ways of doing in terms of high school timetables and course structures.

A third thing that energizes Rose is the cross-pollination of ideas, resources, and practices happening between districts in British Columbia.

A Professional Goal for 2019

This year, Rose would like to grow as a confident, competent, and creative workshop presenter. This will mean attending more professional development events led by people who are pushing themselves, including an upcoming CAFLN conference in Delta, BC.

Learning is a Life Passion

Rose is a fan of learning, whatever it is and wherever it’s available. She loves to rub shoulders with other learners who attend events by choice – she calls these campfires. Being with other educators who are there because they want to learn and love community is so energizing.

It’s the sharing of stories that really helps us grow, and for that reason Rose and her brother Gabriel are passionate organizers of an annual event called EdVent. It’s a place for educators to come and share their stories of learning and innovative practice. Teaching and learning have to be team sports! We need teammates to learn beside.

A Productivity Hack: Saying YES More

Inspired by Catherine Mulskey’s Ted-X Talk, The Courage to Say No, Rose is learning to actually say YES to more things, including this podcast. Saying no sometimes means that we’re not growing, and we miss out on learning. Right now, she’s focused on saying yes more often.

“My need to KNOW things trumps my need to say NO to things,” Rose says. “For me to be successful in what I do, I want to model what it means to learn, to grow, to stretch, to take risks.”

Voices & Resources That Inspire Rose’s Professional Practice

On Twitter, Rose recommends following @Vendram1n. He’s a continual source of leadership and inspiration, and he’s one of the kindest and most generous leaders in education you’ll ever meet.

Rose’s book pick is Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations by Richard Wagamese. It’s a breathtaking work of life and beauty from an indigenous perspective.

If you’re looking for another education podcast to add to your line-up, check out The Catholic Teacher Podcast. Follow the host @BeingCatholic1.

Over on YouTube, Rose suggests subscribing to Five Moore Minutes by a leading voice on inclusion in education, Shelley Moore.

Although Rose isn’t on Netflix, some of her current viewing includes This is Us and Doctor Who.

Connect with Rose

We sign off on this amazing conversation, and Rose reminds us of the best ways to connect with her and learn together online. Make sure to give her a follow on Twitter and subscribe to her blog!

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device.

iTunes | Google Podcasts | Spotify

Follow the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media.

Song Track Credits

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

Episode 67 – Dr. Erik Youngman

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Guest Profile

DR. ERIK YOUNGMAN has been a first grade teacher, assistant principal, and principal. Today, he’s the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for the Libertyville School District in the Greater Chicago Area. He advocates for continuous learning, feedback, growth mindset, metacognition, innovation, and visible learning. Follow Dr. Erik on Twitter @Erik_Youngman.

The Challenge of Change

Although his career has been overwhelmingly positive, change is a theme that must be continually addressed. Change can lead to either low moments or tremendous opportunities. Organizational change can spark awesome professional conversations but also requires learning mindsets, shared vision, collaboration, communication and a clear understanding of why the change is being put in place.

Growth Mindset

Adopting a growth mindset requires a powerful shift in thinking. Don’t just learn from mistakes; reflect throughout the day and seek feedback to spark learning from every activity for continuous improvement. Even if you’re performing well in an area, careful scrutiny and reflection can lead the further growth and development.

When teachers create, model, and use common vocabularies, it equips students to better reflect and gain more insights from their own learning journeys. When students and teachers are empowered to reflect and self-regulate, make choices, take ownership, and monitor their own progress.

The Possibilities in Education Today

What really excites Erik about the state of education today is the tremendous opportunities for learning among educators today. Books, journals, Twitter, conferences are fuelling so many powerful conversations around technology, equity, personalized learning, student choice and voice, and competency-based learning. In his position he is honored to be involved in many of these conversations, which are shaping education today and for the future.

Professional Goals, Passions, and Productivity Hacks

In terms of professional growth in 2019, Erik is ready to take some risks. His goal is to share his perspectives and learning with other educators more than he has in the past. This interview is a good start! He’s also presenting at the ASCD conference in March, he’s writing an article about homework for an online magazine, and he’s exploring a collaborative effort on a book with other authors as well.

Erik is a big sports fan, but another area that intrigues him is that of leadership. He loves to study successful leaders and pays close attention to their activities, quotes, and recommendations.

His productivity hack is all about maximizing time. He calls his workouts “multitasking education research exercise.” He listens to education and leadership podcasts at maximum speed which allows him to consume a large amount of content as efficiently as possible. He also takes notes on his phone to remember innovative ideas and resources worth pursuing further.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Erik’s Professional Practice

On Twitter, Erik recommends following @GeorgeCouros for a constant source of reflection and inspiration.

An edtech tool that does so much for learners and learning in Libertyville right now is Google Slides. If you like Slides, you’ll really love this Slides add-on: Pear Deck. Follow Pear Deck on Twitter @PearDeck.

Dr. Erik has two book recommendations, both of which have been instrumental in his own learning journey and dissertation. The first is called Rethinking Homework, 2nd Edition: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs by Cathy Vatterott.

The second is called On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting – A Book for K-12 Assessment Policies and Practices by Thomas Guskey.

Follow these two authors on Twitter @RealHomeworkldy and @TGuskey.

Over in the education podcast space, Dr. Erik recommends Better Leaders Better Schools by @AlienEarbud and The Wired Educator by @WiredEducator.

Follow Dr. Erik

If you’re interested in hearing more from this guest follow Dr. Erik on Twitter @Erik_Youngman.

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device.

iTunes | Google Podcasts | Spotify

Follow the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media.

Song Track Credits

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

Episode 40 – Kristin Hundt

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KRISTIN HUNDT is a devoted wife and mother of four boys, a 6th grade teacher, lifelong learner, and global citizen. One of Kristin’s recent highlights includes being featured in The PBL Playbook, by AJ Juliani.

In our conversation, Kristin talks about her passion to provide good reading materials for her readers. An engaged reader herself, she advocates for student voice and choice, genius hour, going gradeless, standards-based feedback, and revision of work. Other passions include project-based learning, the outdoor classroom, and the 40 book challenge. Kristin also shares some awesome recommendations for books to read, Twitter accounts to follow, and much more.

Follow Kristin!

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 0:57 – Kristin describes her current teaching role in a 6th grade integrated English and Social Studies classroom.
  • 2:04 – She talks about her passion to provide students with the widest variety of reading materials possible.
  • 5:11 – We discuss Kristin’s greatest sources of passion in education today: voice and choice for students, genius hour, going gradeless, feedback based on standards, and building classroom cultures of revision and growth.
  • 7:57 – As a mother of four boys and a teacher of even more, Kristin enjoys reading about boys’ development. She also doesn’t hesitate to suggest books for others.
  • 11:12 – Her recommendations on Twitter are @JoyKirr and @kttasch.
  • 12:56 – For edtech tools, Kristin points to the amazing communication and representation features on Seesaw. Follow @Seesaw for more information about what is possible on this LMS.
  • 13:47 – One book that has been an absolute game-changer for Kristin was Classroom Habitudes by Angela Maiers (@AngelaMaiers on Twitter).
  • 14:45 – Her podcast pick is Teachers Going Gradeless. Follow @TG2Chat for more information about the podcast, blog, and the amazing work around assessment happening on this platform.
  • 15:46 – On those late nights and early mornings with a sleepless baby, Kristin enjoys reruns of Friends or The Crown.
  • 16:40 – We sign off on the conversation and Kristin tells us the best ways to follow her online. See above for details!

Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube

Follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!

Episode 25 – Dan Ryder

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DAN RYDER is the co-author of Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom. Describing himself as an improviser and design thinker, Dan became an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2017. After teaching high school English for about twenty years, he is currently the Education Director of the Success & Innovation Center at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, ME.

In our conversation, Dan shares about what ignites his passion for education today: seeing the philosophical focus shift from the acquisition of information to problem-solving, creativity, and design thinking. He challenges teachers to go beyond learning activities that build things just for the sake of building things (ie. “dumpster projects”), and reflects on a personal habit that creates learning and growth in every area of his life. Dan also describes the main message of his book and gives us some awesome recommendations for accounts to follow on Twitter, channels to subscribe to on YouTube, and more.

Follow Dan Ryder and catch more of his inspiration on these platforms:

In this episode, Dan discusses …

  • 1:00 – his current education situation: Education Director at the Success & Innovation Center
  • 2:22 – how he overcame the challenges of having creative ideas and initiatives quashed by bureaucracy above him
  • 5:40 – what ignites his passion for education today: seeing the shift from acquiring information to problem-solving, creativity, and design thinking
  • 14:16 – a personal habit that contributes to learning and growth: maintaining a constant curiosity about everything
  • 17:20 – an inspirational educator to follow on Twitter: Ellen Deutscher
  • 18:47 – an edtech tool recommendation: FlipGrid
  • 22:19 – a fictional book recommendation: Little Fires Everywhere (by Celeste Ng)
  • 23:46 – a podcast recommendation that music fans will love: Song Exploder
  • 26:57 – a Youtube channel to subscribe to: Soul Pancake (with a shoutout to their video series on empathy)
  • 28:06 – what he’s watching when he’s not creating: Legends of Tomorrow, Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), The Strain
  • 30:42 – the best ways to contact Dan and follow his content (see above)

Song Track Credits

Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

LISTEN to this episode on YouTube and SUBSCRIBE for more episodes!