Episode 70 – AJ Juliani

70 - AJ Juliani

Meet Our Guest

AJ JULIANI is a dad, a sought-after speaker, and prolific author of several education books, including The PBL Playbook, Empower and Launch. He is a recognized authority on design thinking, genius hour, growth mindset, IBL, PBL, and all things innovation in education. Read more from AJ at http://ajjuliani.com/ and follow him on Twitter @AJJuliani.

AJ is currently the Director of Learning and Innovation for Centennial School District, located near Philadelphia. He and his team serve about 6,000 learners. In addition to his work there, AJ writes frequently on education and speaks at schools and districts across the country.

Frustrated by the Game of School

Teaching in 2011, AJ was starting to get discouraged by the climate of his classes. His students were intent on playing the game of school, navigating their way through assignments in ways that they thought would earn them the best grades for the least work. Frustrated by what he saw, AJ started reading more widely and searching for better solutions in his practice.

He eventually found Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, and it led him down the rabbit hole of intrinsic motivation, inquiry and passion-based learning, genius hour, and much more. It was the beginning of a huge paradigm shift, and he’s never been the same. He now sees student choice as a sort of secret sauce when it comes to inspiring student engagement and empowerment.

Thoughts on How to Approach Project-Based Learning

AJ’s practical advice about project-based learning is to start small. Try to avoid massive projects that simply follow exhaustive requirement checklists, which really amount to recipe-based learning. Instead, start with small class activities that help students embrace greater amounts of control and direction in the classroom.

Secondly, treat the project itself as a source of continual formative assessment instead of simply using it as a piece of summative assessment at the end. It’s the main course, not the dessert. Students should be able to demonstrate their evolving understanding of concepts throughout.

The Professional Benefits of Blogging

In many other professions and industries, it’s normal and expected for practitioners to write about their work and share it broadly. In K-12 education, this work is often left to researchers, when in fact the teachers in the trenches have important and valuable perspectives worth sharing as well.

AJ sees three primary benefits in blogging about educational practice:

  1. It helps us reflect on and learn from our own practice.
  2. We’re sharing the highs and lows of our practice in a way that others can learn and benefit from.
  3. As we reflect and write, you start to see your profession differently. You start to see the growth that is possible as you track your evolution as a professional, engaging with other educators, and sharing other perspectives. Blogs and PLN activities can inspire us and give us the encourage.

Be More Chef

Most students – and many educators – approach education as cooks. We want to follow a given recipe, and follow it well, hoping to find the success and learning that the formulas promise.

The chef’s approach is different. She takes a look at available resources and asks “What can I make with this?” And that’s AJ’s call to educators.

As you think about your practice and even your life, ask yourself “Am I just following recipes?” AJ’s late brother was a fine example of someone committed to leaving the beaten path and writing his own recipes. Yes, there will always be economic opportunities for people who prefer to follow and be compliant. But there are far more opportunities in today’s economy for people who are go-getters, strong self-starters, creators, makers, designers, and dreamers.

Building Empathy Through Design Thinking and Story

Design thinking always starts with awareness of one’s surroundings. It helps learners learn to take note of the needs of others. It helps young learners to ask critical questions to better understand their context and the needs of others. These are important skills.

Another way we can build empathy is through stories. Brain researchers tell us that the brain processes stories in a different way than it does other information – it activates more resources in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the needs of others. Telling and sharing stories is by far the best way to build empathy.

One recent example of a design product that came from AJ’s district was the creation of reflector socks for cyclists from MIT. The students didn’t enter the design process thinking they were going to engineer a new sock design, but after getting a clearer understanding of the needs of the cyclists, that’s where they ended up. The socks continue to sell today! In another case, some elementary students designed an artificial insect that could evade exterminators effectively. These second graders had to pitch their product design to some actual exterminators – another authentic learning experience.

Goals, Interests, and Passions

At the moment, AJ is working with a company called Next Lesson to develop PBL lessons and units for elementary classes. These are resources that will help educators take their first steps into PBL without jumping straight into Genius Hour.

From a larger perspective, though, the thing that is really exciting AJ about education is how many people are doing things differently. Most educators have moved past the initial stages of integrating technology in their practices, and now so many educators are thinking more deeply and differently about the learning process itself.

AJ derives tremendous joy and fulfillment from sports, but the thing that he’s really been diving deep into lately is AI. He’s reading and watching as much as he can, and he feels like today we’re boiling the frog – things are already drastically changing around us, often in ways we don’t notice or are not aware of. For him, AI isn’t something to fear but instead something to be cognizant of and recognize.

Voices & Resources That Inspire AJ’s Professional Practice

On Twitter, AJ recommends following @CultofPedagogy. He learns a lot from Jennifer Gonzales and describes her as his pedagogical North Star.

AJ just finished reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, and considers it a fascinating read. Follow the author on Twitter @Harari_Yuval.

AJ’s podcast pick right now is The Knowledge Project Podcast with Shane Parrish. Follow the host on Twitter @FarnamStreet.

Over on YouTube, AJ suggests subscribing to his co-author, John Spencer. Follow John on Twitter @SpencerIdeas.

In terms of non-educational viewing, AJ and his wife are enjoying The Americans on Amazon Prime right now. It’s making him suspect everyone around him of being a spy!

We sign off on the conversation, and AJ gives us the very best place to connect with him and receive more of his thoughts on education: AJJuliani.com. Visit him there and subscribe!

Other Places to Connect with AJ

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Song Track Credits

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

Episode 40 – Kristin Hundt

40 - Kristin Hundt

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!

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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 36: Andi McNair

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Andi McNair is a keynote speaker and blogger specializing in edtech, genius hour, and innovation in education. She is also the co-founder of #makeithappenEDU and the author of Genius Hour: Passion Projects that Ignite Innovation and Student Inquiry. See more of her content at http://www.andimcnair.com.

In this conversation, Andi describes the low moment in her classroom that changed it all for her – when she realized her learners were completely disengaged and she knew she needed to reimagine her practice. Thanks to some inspiring education leaders, she began a journey of passion-based learning and has never looked back. Andi also tells us why it’s a great time to be an educator and shares some great recommendations for books to read, Twitter accounts to follow, and more.

Check out Genius Hour: Passion Projects that Ignite Innovation and Student Inquiry on Amazon!

Follow Andi on the web at http://www.andimcnair.com/ and on Twitter @McNairan3.

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 1:00 – Andi describes her past and current roles in education.
  • 1:52 – Reality check: when Andi noticed her students had become completely disengaged, she knew she had to either leave the profession or completely reinvent herself and redefine her practice. She chose the latter.
  • 3:53 – We discuss the heart of Andi’s book, Genius Hour: Passion Projects that Ignite Innovation and Student Inquiry. She describes how Genius Hour advocates like Don Wettrick, Gallit Zvi, Denise Krebs, Joy Kirr, and introduced her to the idea of passion-based learning. In the book, Andi maps out the 6 Ps of Genius Hour, a process that has worked well in her context give teachers and learners a clear path to the finish line: passion, pitch, plan, project, product, and presentation.
  • 7:52 – Andi tells us why it’s such a great time to be in education: because of the power to connect our learners with each other, with other classes, with outside experts, etc. and help students understand the WHY behind their learning through authentic products.
  • 10:07 – One of Andi’s personal passions is one that she enjoys with her family: watching and learning more about the great game of baseball.
  • 11:33 – A personal habit that contributes to her success: journaling every single day – not just remembering (what I did and how) but reflecting (what I learned and why). Some of her reflections happen collaboratively on Voxer!
  • 13:55 – Her Twitter account suggestion is @DonWettrick, international speaker and presenter, host of the StartEdUp podcast, and author of Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation.
  • 14:26 – Andi gives us two edtech recommendations. The first is Nepris, which connects industry professionals with classrooms (@NeprisApp on Twitter). The second is Thrively, which helps learners discover their strengths, interests, and aspirations (@Thrively on Twitter).
  • 15:25 – Her book recommendations start with a classic for any teacher looking for more passion, motivation, or imagination: Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess (@BurgessDave on Twitter). She also recommends a book we’ve recommended here recently: Shift This by Joy Kirr (@JoyKirr on Twitter).
  • 16:42 – On Netflix, Andi’s enjoying When Calls the Heart, a show built around a woman who teaches in a small Canadian mining town in the early 1900s. Add it to your list!
  • 17:02 – Andi signs off and gives us the best ways to follow her content online: and at her website (http://www.andimcnair.com/) on Twitter @McNairan3, and on http://voxer.com/ @AndiMcNair.

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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 35 – Joy Kirr

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Joy Kirr is a 7th Grade ELA teacher and Genius Hour advocate in Elk Grove, Illinois. She writes at GeniusHour.blogspot.com and in 2017 published Shift This!: How to Implement Gradual Changes for MASSIVE Impact in Your Classroom.

In this conversation, Joy takes us to a moment when a parent criticized her publicly with “Genius Hour is crazy – and all the parents think so!” She shares what she learned from that experience and how it has changed her communication going forward. Joy describes the heart and main message of her book, Shift This, which puts the focus on student-directed learning opportunities. She also points us toward a Twitter account to follow, a book to check out, an edtech tool that she is learning about, and more.

Follow Joy online:

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 1:02 – Joy describes her current teaching context (7th grade ELA teacher and big advocate for genius hour in Elk Grove, Illinois).
  • 1:22 – She recalls the challenge of hearing “Genius Hour is crazy – and all the parents think so!” from an upset parent, and explains how she learned and grew from this experience.
  • 5:32 – Joy talks about what excites her in education today: being challenged by parents, thinking deeply about her practices.
  • 10:29 – When it comes to personal passions and experiences, Joy likes to ask “Why not?” instead of “Why?” She likes to soak up life experiences for all they’re worth, investing in relationships, getting outside, and taking great pictures along the way.
  • 12:36 – On Twitter, Joy recommends we follow Vicki Davis @CoolCatTeacher
  • 13:13 – For an edtech tool, Joy suggests we try creating our own .gifs by converting our Google Slides using Tall Tweets. Try it!
  • 15:03 – Joy’s pick in books is Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston. Earlier in our conversation, she also recommended The Human Side of School Change: Reform, Resistance, and the Real-Life Problems of Innovation by Robert Evans.
  • 16:06 – No Netflix or movies for this educator … it’s all about reading!
  • 16:52 – Joy tells us how to follow her online and where to get more of her content. See above!

SUBSCRIBE to the podcast on your MOBILE DEVICE: iTunes | Google PodcastsYouTube

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 26 – Bobby McCutcheon

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BOBBY McCUTCHEON is the principal of Randall Elementary School in Independence, MO. He’s a husband, father, #GeniusHour advocate, travel junkie, Royals fan, and occasional political expert.

After teaching for several years at the middle and high school levels, Bobby was offered the position of elementary principal and has never looked back. He points to a decision to transform his diet and fitness three years as a turning point in what has become an exciting journey of growth. Today, Bobby is passionate about building a positive culture at Randall and promoting creativity in his students through Genius Hour. You won’t want to miss his remarkable story about a struggling student who dove deep into learning about K-9 police dogs. His learning took him to places he’d never imagined, and he was able to share that journey with the entire school community.

Follow Bobby McCutcheon on Twitter @Fight4Mizzou and see what’s happening at Randall Elementary School @RandallBears.

TIMESTAMPS. In this episode, Bobby discusses …

  • 0:53 – his current context as principal at Randall Elementary School
  • 1:34 – the challenges associated with students who are dealing with trauma, and the positive community culture required to create safe spaces
  • 4:11 – what really ignites his passion for education today: teachers who think outside the box, students who explore their creativity through Genius Hour
  • 8:14 – other areas of passion and learning: sports, history, and politics
  • 11:40 – personal habits that have transformed his mental and physical health in three years: regular workouts and an improved diet
  • 15:21 – an education leader to follow on Twitter: Adam Welcome (@MrAdamWelcome)
  • 16:29 – an edtech tool that facilitates PLN participation: TweetDeck
  • 18:08 – a book recommendation: Lead Like a Pirate by Shelley Burgess (@Burgess_Shelley) and Beth Houf (@BethHouf)
  • 19:52 – a podcast recommendation: StartEDup with Don Wettrick (@DonWettrick)
  • 20:59 – two Youtube channels to subscribe to: Message to a New & Aspiring Principal (by @PrincipalKefele) and Athlean X
  • 22:11 – what he’s watching on Netflix these days: all the Marvel and Avengers movies
  • 23:17 – 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!