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 90 – Scott Nunes

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Meet Scott Nunes

SCOTT NUNES (rhymes with dunes) is a dad, teacher, coach, Schoology ambassador, and CCCUE board member. He’s Nearpod certified, MIE certified, a rapper, and co-host of the TNT EdTech podcast. In his day job, Scott teaches 9th and 10th grade ELA at James C. Enochs High School in Modesto, CA, where he’s also a site leader for digital curriculum and coaches swimming.

In Education by Design

Scott’s story of adversity actually began before his teaching career. He had started freelancing in graphic design – a personal passion – but the combination of cheaper foreign designers and a stiff downturn in the economy forced him to reconsider his direction.

After wavering between nursing and education, he eventually recognized that teaching was the path for him, and he’s so thankful he made that decision. Even in his current capacity today, Scott is able to do design work for CUE, his podcast, and other opportunities that come along.

On Dancing and Celebration

Scott’s dancing skills took center stage on edu-Twitter after he shared a clip of his fancy footwork from the Schoology conference in 2018. It was there, he says, that he first got into Twitter and began his relationship with Schoology as an ambassador for their platform.

“I like to have fun in the classroom,” Scott says. “It’s a way to engage students.” He enjoys the feel of the room when students engage in freestyle rap competitions or try to trip him up on a rhyme. It keeps the classroom fun, fresh, and lively. 

The TNT EdTech Podcast

Scott co-hosts the TNT EdTech Podcast with Matthew Ketchum, and he says the podcast really traces its roots back to the Fall CUE Conference in northern California. He and Matthew were attending a session on podcasting hosted by Tom and Mike from TOSAs Talking Tech (@TosasTalkinTech on Twitter), who convinced Scott and Matthew that the podcasting gig was easy and inexpensive to get into. Scott and Matthew already had access to Camtasia, Adobe Audition, Google Hangouts, and other apps and equipment they needed to launch their own show, so they went for it!

Today, their podcast talks about edtech, offers tools and tips, and features educators in the field who are doing cool things with technology in their classrooms. Scott brings the classroom experience, and Matthew is the tech coach for their 30,000-student district. Scott agrees that the podcasting business is a tremendous privilege, and he learns a lot from every guest they speak to.

What’s Setting Scott on 🔥 in Education Today

Scott’s biggest interest in education at the moment is the magic of connecting with other educators. He’s also passionate about the opportunities for student podcasting that lie ahead. Although they may not have permission to publish out to the web, just the chance to publish audio content and share out learning within the district is exciting.

Scott is a fan of the Anchor app for publishing content, and he offers a pro tip about how to line paper boxes with audio-muffling foam to create some really clean sound – even in busy classrooms.

A Professional Goal: More Blogging

Something Scott plans to invest more time in is blogging. As part of CUE’s sponsorship of his podcast, he is required to do some regular writing and publishing. Once the partnership with CUE ends, he’s hoping he’ll have a regular blogging habit in place that he can then transfer to a blog of his own.

A Personal Passion Away From Education

Few things bring Scott alive and allow him to decompress quite like building sandcastles at the beach. It’s a passion that he will devote several hours to, and his three kids are big fans of his work (although they specialize more in the deconstruction). 

Scott’s Productivity Hack: Strong Starts

Scott sets aside the first 90 minutes of each day as highly productive time. It’s here that he focuses narrowly on 1-3 major tasks that he’d like to complete very well. With this routine successfully completed, the day is already a win from there!

Voices and Resources That Inspire

Over on Twitter, Scott recommends following @JMattMiller. Despite his high profile and numerous accolades, Matt remains the real deal, Scott says.

An edtech tool that has got Scott excited right now is Gimkit, a smart quiz and formative assessment application that was developed for the classroom by a high school student. Follow @Gimkit on Twitter to learn more!

Scott’s pick in books is Welcome To The Grind: How Educators Achieve Exponential Results, edited by Randall Sampson. Follow Randall on Twitter @RandallSampson

Aside from our two awesome podcasts, Scott recommends subscribing to Between the Johns, a podcast produced by two administrators who bring interesting perspectives to education topics. Follow the pod on Twitter @BetweentheJohns

If you’re a creator, designer, or maker, it might be worth your while to subscribe to the 3D Printing Nerd channel on Youtube. The host never fails to amaze with his creativity and ingenuity. Follow @3DPrintingNerd on Twitter to see what he’s up to.

Scott’s got two well-known picks from the Netflix roster: Spiderman Homecoming and Breaking Bad

We wrap up our conversation, and Scott shares the best ways to connect with him and follow him online. See below for more links.

Connect with Scott:

Song Track Credits

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

Episode 28 – Jordan Potrzeba

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Jordan Potrzeba is a 4th grade teacher at Walter Caldwell Elementary School in Auburndale, FL.

Imagine being told by your principal in your first year of teaching that you were different and didn’t belong. After experiencing just that, Jordan moved from Nebraska to Florida, where he found a school that welcomes his energy, ideas, and unique personality. In our conversation, Jordan shares about his passion to see teachers grow, share, be vulnerable, and take risks. He also describes how travel and music enrich his life, and offers some great recommendations around books to read, Twitter accounts to follow, a great YouTube channel to subscribe to, and more.

Follow Jordan Potrzeba on Twitter and Instagram @JordanPotrzeba, and check out his reflections on education at https://bloggingjungle.blogspot.com/.

TIMESTAMPS. In this episode, Jordan discusses …

  • 0:58 – his teaching situation: 4th grade teacher at Walter Caldwell Elementary in Auburndale, FL
  • 2:10 – a low moment in his career: being told by an administrator in his first year of teaching that he was different and didn’t fit in
  • 7:45 – what gets him excited about education today: seeing teachers stand up, share their voice, be vulnerable, and regain their passion
  • 12:22 – another area of personal passion and learning: travel
  • 13:36 – a personal habit that contributes to his success: listening to music no matter what the context, dancing when possible
  • 15:23 – two accounts we need to follow on Twitter: Nicole Taylor (@GuysBride) and Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd), co-author of the new Sparks in the Dark
  • 16:34 – his favourite edtech tools: Nearpod (@Nearpod) and FlipGrid (@FlipGrid)
  • 19:21 – two book recommendations: Refugee by Alan Gratz (@AlanGratz) and Play Like a Pirate by Quinn Rollins (@jedikermit)
  • 20:36 – a YouTube channel pick that works well in elementary Math classrooms: NumberRock Math Songs
  • 22:44 – his go-to on Netflix (even though he’s currently not a subscriber): The Office
  • 23:23 – the best ways to follow him online … 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!

Episode 17 – Caterina Rylance

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CATERINA RYLANCE is a middle school languages teacher and ESL coordinator at St. Theresa Catholic Middle School in Sherwood Park, AB, Canada.

Still in her second year of teaching, Caterina talks about how her writing at survivingteaching.org became a healthy outlet for her to reflect on the mix of frustrations and victories that come with becoming an educator. A Ukrainian folk dancer on the side, Caterina shares about the joy she finds in learning new languages and bringing the rich diversity of other cultures into her classroom. She also describes a personal habit that contributes to her success and gives us some great recommendations for books to read, Twitter accounts to follow, an edtech tool to use in the classroom, and more.

Follow Caterina on all these great platforms!

In this episode, Caterina discusses …

  • 1:06 – her current teaching situation
  • 3:00 – challenges she encountered in her first year of teaching, and how blogging formed part of a healthy reflective solution
  • 4:52 – her work with languages, cultures, and the pride she takes in helping to build the mosaic of the country
  • 6:18 – some of her other personal passions: learning new languages, travelling
  • 7:31 – a personal habit that contributes to her success
  • 8:29 – an educator to follow on Twitter: George Couros
  • 9:13 – an edtech tool to try using in the classroom: Pen Pal Schools
  • 9:47 – a book recommendation: Teach Like a Pirate, by Dave Burgess
  • 10:27 – what she’s watching on Netflix right now: Timeless

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 7 – Jane Silversides

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JANE SILVERSIDES is a primary classroom and dance teacher at White Rock Elementary School in White Rock, British Columbia, Canada.

In this interview, Jane fills us in on what’s special about second graders, recalls a funny story from her early days in the classroom, and shares about what’s igniting her passion in education today. She also answers the question of “If you weren’t in education, what would you be doing?” and gives us great recommendations for a Twitter account to follow and a book to check out.

Follow Jane on Twitter at @janeteacher2.

In this episode, Jane discusses …

  • 1:11 – her current teaching assignment
  • 2:07 – a challenging experience early in her career
  • 4:10 – her passion for portfolios on FreshGrade
  • 5:57 – a Twitter recommendation (Antonio Vendramin)
  • 7:10 – what she would do if she wasn’t teaching
  • 8:39 – a personal habit that contributes to her success
  • 10:20 – an edtech tool that works well in her classroom
  • 11:40 – a book recommendation (Mindset, by Carol Dweck)
  • 14:49 – a YouTube channel recommendation (TED Talks)
  • 15:37 – the best ways to follow her online

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!