Episode 111 – Abigail French

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Meet Abigail French

ABIGAIL FRENCH is a mother of four, a history teacher for sixth graders, an advocate of public education, and an explorer of the natural world in Woodstock, VA. 

A Challenging Professional Reboot

For Abby, one of her biggest professional challenges was returning to the classroom in 2014 after leaving it in 1997. A lot had changed while she was away, particularly technology resources and internet access. She recognized immediately that technology should be used to build skills, facilitate learning, and create deeper understanding, but it took some time to adjust to the changes that technology had brought to the learning environment.

Today, her sixth graders enjoy 1:1 Chromebook access, a move that has come with a mix of tremendous opportunities and practical challenges. “It’s definitely a journey,” Abby says of her use of technology in the classroom. “It’s always evolving – it’s not like you ever arrive.” As she models a posture of constant learning and openness to new things, you sense that Abby’s learners are in good hands.

The Snake That Rocked Edu Twitter 

Abby has been fascinated by herpetology – the study of reptiles – for about as long as she can remember. She’s even gained such notoriety in her community for the courage, care, and prowess she shows around snakes that she is known by some as The Snake Lady!

When her daughter called her about a large snake in the backyard in the summer, Abby didn’t hesitate to run outside and move it. It was likely a female, she says, looking for a nice place to lay her eggs. What others fear, Abby loves to engage and learn from.

Not Measuring Up

Abby isn’t someone who went into teaching because she had such a great experience as a student. In some ways, she actually went into teaching to undo the damage done and to give students a better learning experience than the one she remembers.

As a young student, Abby is quick to point out that she definitely had some good teachers. But she had a learning disability, a processing issue, and that meant that she learned differently than most other kids. The symptoms of academic success, including good grades, words of affirmation, and the approval of her teachers always felt elusive. She still clearly remembers the feelings of falling short, of never being good enough, of never quite fitting into the game of school. Those memories and experiences have shaped her philosophy and professional practice profoundly.  

Rethinking Assessment in Her Practice Today

As with technology, Abby’s approach to assessment has been a journey. It starts with a mindset, she says. As she returned to teaching five years ago, she realized that traditional means of assessment – quizzes, tests, and multiple choice assessments – were not satisfying her desire to know what her students actually knew and had learned.

She started looking around at other examples and modes of assessment, asking how she could better partner with her students and include them in every part of the assessment process. She wanted to put students in the driver’s seat: how do YOU want to show what you’ve learned? Building strong relationships with students was an essential step toward empowerment, she observed. Student reactions to her change in philosophy have been exciting, and Abby is constantly learning about the ways to represent learning that energize her students and connect with their passions and interests.

One other way that Abby has started changing her practice is to change the way that she organizes her students’ digital portfolios. Rather than organize them by subjects and units, she has started to organize them around learning targets and skills: analyze and interpret, compare and contrast, using a decision-making model, etc. This means of portfolio organization shifts the focus from the content to the skills: what are we actually trying to learn? Which skill does this work demonstrate?

#HackLearning: Countering Toxic Cultures 

Abby recently moderated a #HackLearning Twitter chat about toxicity in schools, and she’s given this topic a lot of thought lately. It’s a challenging topic with a ton of complexity and layers, and she’s quick to point out that there are no quick fixes or easy solutions.

Teachers pour themselves into their work, and the emotional well can get pretty low if communities aren’t doing the important work of caring for their members. The work of teaching becomes doubly difficult in environments of toxic thinking and behavior, but one thing we should always keep in mind is that toxicity is rarely personal. Instead, it usually appears as a symptom of what someone else is going through.

Ultimately, we need to protect our own mindsets by finding supportive partners, both locally and through our professional learning networks. PLNs such as the education community on Twitter can deliver incredible encouragement and inspiration, and it’s a great way to find your people when you’re feeling isolated or marginalized in your own learning community. Even as we connect outside the walls of our school, however, it’s important to continue to invest in our own community. 

A Professional Goal: Instructional Coaching

Abby has been exploring some growing opportunities in the area of instructional coaching, and lately it’s been a pleasure to serve in a mastermind group for new teachers. She’s excited to contribute, and she enjoys the growth she sees in her own practice along the way.

Personal Passions Outside of Education 

MushroomsOutside of school, Abby enjoys sharing passions with her four children. Their curiosities are endless and they stretch her into new spaces that she otherwise wouldn’t necessarily find herself. She is also energized by running, getting into nature, and hunting for mushrooms. Mushrooms fascinate her, and it’s a joy to find them, photograph them, and cook with them.

A Personal Productivity Hack: Time Blocking

Abby credits Aubrey Patterson with the practice of time blocking. She uses Google Calendar to prioritize her time for the week and make sure that the big rocks are accomplished before the sand. Her next mission? Getting a better handle on her Google Drive and organizing it more efficiently.

Voices and Resources That Inspire Her Practice

Over on Twitter, Abby recommends giving Jeanne Wolz a follow @TeacherOffDuty. Jeanne is an instructional coach who Abby has learned a lot from lately. She also recommends following Aubrey Patterson @PattersonAubrey, co-founder of Nohea Kindred, educational leadership strategist, and consultant.

An edtech tool that has taken learning to the next level in her sixth grade classroom as of late is Zoom. Zoom has allowed her to connect with other educators in real time, bringing new insights and information into her classroom.

Entertaining an Elephant by William McBrideAbby’s book pick comes from a book club she joined this year. The title is Entertaining an Elephant: A Novel About Learning and Letting Go by William McBride. The book chronicles the journey of a seasoned teacher who battles burnout. Follow the author on Twitter @DrBilly7

Two podcasts that are making a difference in Abby’s professional practice are Teachers Going Gradeless and Human Restoration Project. Both shows completely reimagine education and particularly assessment, and they’ve been fuel for her professional growth and evolution.

When she’s got no energy left in the day and it’s Netflix time, Abby is watching Peaky Blinders, a great historical series, and Jane the Virgin, a source of non-stop laughs.

We sign off on this great conversation, and Abby gives the best ways to connect with her online. See below for details!

You can connect with Abby on Twitter @AWFrench1. 

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Song Track Credits

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Episode 108 – Deanna Lough

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Meet Deanna Lough

DEANNA LOUGH is an eighth grade English teacher at Sussex Academy of the Arts and Sciences in Georgetown, located in the southern part of Delaware. She’s an aspiring leader, kid Mom, puppy Mom, Mrs., music fan, and a lover of all things inspiring and positive.

How She Rediscovered Her Joy

A few years ago Deanna reached a point where she felt like she was killing herself with work. Her lack of energy and margin was preventing her from connecting with her students the way she wanted to, which led her to start asking how she could make her classroom a better space for her students.

That question has since evolved into a focus on equity, a pursuit that has really driven growth and evolution in her practice. Thanks to the changes she’s made in her thinking and work, she enjoys teaching a whole lot more today and has rekindled the passion that led her to enter the profession in the first place. 

A Journey of Putting the Needs of Learners First

At the time that Deanna really started rethinking her practice and her learning space, she asked her students to describe their ideal classroom.

  • What would it look like?
  • What kind of work would they do?
  • How would teachers support their learning?

Their responses steered her first toward flexible seating and then to her own embedded biases and the obstacles faced by students from cultural and sexual minorities. She also started asking tough questions about her instruction and assessment.

  • Were her assessments actually fair?
  • Were they really assessing what she wanted to assess?
  • Were they really supporting the learning journeys of her students?

As she asked these questions, she realized that a lot of the traditional and adversarial grading policies that she had complied with for so long were causing her the most stress and stealing her joy. Although her school still requires her to submit grades, she’s begun the slow work of changing her assessment practices and allowing her students to demonstrate their learning in new ways. 

What Else is Setting Deanna on 🔥 in Education Today

In addition to her changes in assessment, Deanna is keen on supporting her LGBTQ students and students of color in more effective ways. She’s become aware of so many situations that don’t do a good enough job of supporting these learners, and she’s also started to think about how some of the same systemic barriers affect minority educators, too.

The work of educators such as Dr. Sheldon Eakins (@SheldonEakins) and Dr. Mechele Newell (@mechelenewell) has also been deeply influential in her journey. One of her biggest realizations is that she does have a voice in these issues and that she needs to use it — to advocate not just for her minority students but for all of her learners and for the state of humanity.

A Professional Goal

Deanna is thrilled to teach in a professional environment that allows educators to set their own professional goals. Her focus for this year relates to thoughtful uses of technology in her classroom. Her school is 1:1, meaning all of her learners have Chromebooks, so she wants to not only improve learning experiences for students but also increase her own expertise in the Google environment. She makes the point that as we grow, learn, and gain competence as educators, we bring more joy to the job, and students notice that. Lately, she’s also enjoyed watching her students support the digital expertise of others.

A Personal Passion Outside of Education: Music 🎶

Deanna is a huge music enthusiast, and even though she’s never been trained to play an instrument she’s taken up the challenge of writing about it. This commitment has pushed her to listen to music podcasts to learn more, and shows like Sound Opinions and Rolling Stones Music Now have helped and inspired her to keep going. Right now, her goal is to write one formal music review per month, and she’s shared this journey with her students as well. 

Productivity and Priorities

One set of strategies that Deanna has found valuable is Angela Watson’s 40-hour Teacher Week Club, and one her biggest takeaways has been the prioritized task list. Whenever she has a lot going on, she takes a few minutes to sit down and arrange to-do items by priority.

Another helpful takeaway has been Google Keep, a simple but effective list keeper that syncs across all devices. “Nothing will kill your joy faster than when you try to be overly ambitious and get more things done in a day than are humanly possible,” she points out.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Her Learning

Over on Twitter, Deanna recommends following Dr. Sheldon Eakins @sheldoneakins. As mentioned earlier in our conversation, he’s doing great work in the area of equity and Deanna has learned a lot from his online course. Make sure to visit his site and tune into his podcast as well.

Deanna’s edtech tool pick is Screencastify, a leading screencast application that works well in the Chromebook environment with a handy Google Chrome extension. She’s also been extremely impressed by their customer support.

We Got This by Cornelius MinorA must-read book title in the equity space is We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be by Cornelius Minor. Deanna can’t say enough about how open Cornelius is about his own journey even as he helps other educators rethink the accessibility in their learning spaces.

A few education podcasts that Deanna appreciates include Dear Teacher, Don’t Give Up by Jeffery Frieden, EduMatch Tweet & Talk by Dr. Sarah Thomas, and The Dr. Will Show by Dr. Will Deyamport III. All three hosts are former guests of the Teachers on Fire podcast!

When she’s looking for education inspiration on YouTube, Deanna turns to Edusations by Phil Strunk. On Netflix, the show at the top of her list that just restores her faith in humanity is Queer Eye

We sign off on this great conversation, and Deanna gives us the best ways to connect with her online. See below for details!

You can connect with Deanna …

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Episode 84 – Jennifer Wolfe

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Meet Jennifer Wolfe

JENNIFER WOLFE is a mother, writer, English and AVID teacher, Google Certified Educator, hyperdoc fanatic, and WeVideo Ambassador. She teaches 7th, 8th, and 9th grades at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School in Davis, California. Her subjects include English, Reading, and AVID (more on that program to come). She was actually a student at this school herself – super weird when she first began teaching there!

A Year to Forget 

Jennifer recalls a year in the classroom when a parent of one of her students decided to make her a persistent target of scrutiny and unreasonable criticism that amounted to bullying. “I always believed I would teach until it wasn’t fun anymore,” she says. Well, this ordeal took the fun away from the job, and Jennifer seriously considered leaving the profession for good.

Yes, dealing with parent conflict is an inevitable part of the teaching process, but this experience was especially difficult for Jennifer because she lacked the administrative support that she critically needed. She took some extended time off that year to ask herself if teaching was really what she wanted to do, and although she returned to finish the school year, she was at an all-time low of dissatisfaction.

Somehow, despite all of this turbulence, she was awarded teacher of the year! Even with that recognition, however, she realized that in order to keep teaching, she would have to care for herself in ways that would allow her to actually care properly for her students. This ethic of self-care, proactivity, and consistent growth has helped shape her practice ever since.

*If you’ve had a difficult year and feel closer to burnout than on fire, check out a podcast called Dear Teacher, Don’t Give Up.

Advancement Via Individual Determination

Jennifer is an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) educator, and she’s a big fan of the program. AVID is a national program currently in place in 47 states, with over two million students enrolled in 7,000 schools. By 2025, the goal is to bump the number of enrolled students up to five million.

The focus in AVID classes is academic success through rigorous student-centered learning environments and inquiry-based classrooms. Students also receive academic, emotional, and social supports that meet them exactly where they are.

The AVID program has been transformative for Jennifer, helping to move her from test-based instruction at any cost to looking first to the learning needs of the student. It’s also been transformative for her learners, helping them to pursue areas of learning that traditional systems may have ruled out for some students.

The Magic of Hyperdocs

Jennifer clarifies the nature and purpose of hyperdocs in the 21st century classroom, and explains how they can enable greater student choice and agency in learning. Hyperdocs should promote creativity and curiosity – they are much more than just Docs with links. They support the 4 Cs and are made to satisfy the learning needs and progress of all learners.

What is going to capture student interest? How can we engage student learning in ways that move away from teacher-focused instruction? We need learning activities that move away from Googleable information toward activities that require critical thinking, analysis, transfer, explanation, and further curiosity.

WeVideo and the Kids Take Action Podcast Unit

Her district provides her students with WeVideo licenses, which they can access via their Chromebooks. One of the most illuminating breakthroughs to come from their work on WeVideo was podcasting! (Check out her Kids Take Action podcast unit.)

Jennifer noticed that her students can be very self-conscious when it comes to recording – especially on video. But after Jennifer crafted cardboard boxes as miniature recording studios and Brian Briggs set up the class with more advanced recording equipment, the students felt empowered to create great content.

WeVideo got so excited by her learners’ work that they appointed Jennifer as a WeVideo ambassador and has since enhanced their capacity for students to record audio-only content on the platform! WeVideo has also showcased audio recordings made by her class, and their content has been heard by other learners around the world as a result.

Jennifer has been so energized by the authentic work and communication produced by her students – including higher-level reasoning and debate over controversial issues. She’s also been using Wakelet to help curate student podcast episodes. Although her student podcast content has not yet been widely distributed and available on podcast platforms, that is a step Jennifer looks forward to.

Jennifer’s Core Values

Jennifer talks about the history and heartbeat of the tagline you’ll find on her blog: loving fiercely, teaching audaciously, and thinking deeply. Each of these values is precious to her and together they represent what she is all about in education. Everything she does – whether it’s edtech, writing, professional development, and speaking – are wrapped up in these three core values.

Professional and Personal Goals

Jennifer became an AVID national staff developer this year – the realization of a long-time professional goal. She’s also had the satisfaction of seeing her message and profile gradually grow as her blog and work attracts more interest from other educators. She was thrilled when Lisa Highfill (@LHighfill), a recognized innovator in hyperdocs, actually recognized her at a conference and shared that she had been following her blog!

Jennifer is also excited by the prospect of an empty nest at home and three books currently on the go. Wow!

Personal Passions Away from Education 

Jennifer is a huge reader and challenges herself to read all sorts of books across all genres. This connects with her love of writing, and most of her outside-of-teaching times are spent on these two activities. She also loves to travel to other countries, and is passionate about a campaign that she’s been a part of that is helping to restructure the education system in Nicaragua. Last but not least, she rides her bike to work daily, which provides a regular workout and a prime opportunity to listen to podcasts.

Keys to Productivity

Jennifer’s best productivity hacks include daily gratitude, journaling, proactive planning, organization, and maintaining firm boundaries. She’s a big believer in intentionally letting go of the things that we can’t control so we can be fully present and engaged with the people and work right in front of us.

Voices and Resources That Inspire Her Practice 

On Twitter, Jennifer recommends following hyperdoc master Lisa Highfill @LHighfill.

Jennifer’s pick in edtech tools is Wakelet, a content curator that’s still free to use. Follow the company on Twitter @Wakelet.

A book that has been instrumental lately is Inquiry Mindset: Nurturing the Dreams, Wonders, and Curiosities of Our Youngest Learners by Trevor MacKenzie (@Trev_MacKenzie) and Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt (@rbathursthunt).

Jennifer’s podcast pick is called Check This Out, a podcast produced by edtech experts Brian Briggs and Ryan O’Donnell. Visit their podcast home and follow the show on Twitter @CheckThisOutBR.

Jennifer also shouts out the Educational Duct Tape Podcast, produced by the legendary @JakeMillerTech.

Over on YouTube, a channel that never fails to capture her students’ attention is TED-Ed. If you haven’t tried their content lately, it might be worth a visit and a subscription!

We sign off on this conversation, and Jennifer gives us the best ways to connect with her online. See below for details!

Connect with Jennifer:

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

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Follow the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media.

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

Episode 38 – John Sowash

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JOHN SOWASH is an educator, freelancer, presenter, husband, and dad. He is also the author of The Chromebook Classroom, which you can check out at http://chrmbook.com.

In this conversation, John describes how a dead end in his high school context launched him into the business of teaching teachers – a true passion. You’ll hear him explain why the Chromebook is so much more than just a web browser – it’s a creation tool as well. You’ll also hear about the personal habit that keeps him on track, some great edtech tools to consider using, and much more.

Check out The Chromebook Classroom on Amazon!

Follow John:

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 0:52 – John describes his education context and background: starting as a high school science teacher, leading a big edtech transition in his school, began sharing his learning in a blog, and today enjoys helping other educators.
  • 3:32 – A very low moment: when John’s superintendent was suddenly fired, the project he was investing in was suddenly dropped. This dead end led him to venture out on his own, focusing on professional development resources for educators.
  • 6:36 – What excites him about education today: the ongoing commitment of teachers.
  • 9:24 – Speaking about his book, The Chromebook Classroom, John reminds teachers that Chromebooks are so much more than “just web browsers” – they’re creation devices, too.
  • 13:26 – John shares about another passion outside of education: serial entrepreneurship. Some ventures crash and burn, while others work well. And there’s always more to learn.
  • 15:12 – A personal habit that contributes to his personal and professional success is leveraging his email inbox as a reminder and task list.
  • 18:17 – Twitter recommendation: @JakeMillerTech.
  • 19:15 – John recommends two edtech tools worth using: Canva and Screencastify.
  • 22:25 – Book recommendations: Start with Why by Simon Sinek and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.
  • 24:01 – John has a few favorite podcasts to share: the first is The Chromebook Classroom – a podcast series he produced as a way to share additional stories that couldn’t fit in his book, Reply All by Gimlet Media, Smart Passive Income by Pat Flynn, The Gary Vee Audio Experience by Gary Vee, and This Week in Google by TWiT.
  • 26:17 – A YouTube channel to check out that isn’t strictly education-related but does demonstrate some incredible strategies worth trying on Google Sheets: Ben Collins.
  • 29:16 – Although he doesn’t have much time for TV or movies, John’s latest pick on Netflix was Nailed It.
  • 30:20 – We sign off on our conversation and John shares the best ways to follow him and receive more of his content online (see above).

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

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Song Track Credits

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

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