Episode 97 – Nina Pak Lui

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Meet Nina Pak Lui

NINA PAK LUI has taught at the middle and high school levels and today she instructs pre-service teachers at the School of Education at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, Canada.

Nina views teaching as a sacred calling, and she’s dedicated to inspiring and equipping future teachers to be caring, competent, inclusive and reflective. She is passionate about designing and facilitating meaningful learning experiences that intentionally connect theory to practice.

Tensions Between Vision and Reality

A few years ago, Nina was teaching in a high school context when her mental health began to struggle. She experienced a taxing tension between her vision for program ideals and certain systemic constraints that would not allow that vision to come to fruition. It became increasingly difficult to align her values and beliefs with practice, and the emotional distress eventually became too pressing to ignore.

Nina took an extended leave from her position, and the time away was healing and clarifying. With a lot of time for reflection, she stopped blaming external factors and began examining her own internal landscape. She learned to be kinder to herself, show more patience with others, accept the slow rates of institutional change, and recognize that perfectionism is a thief of joy. With lots of love from her support network, she has rested, recalibrated, healed, and now enjoys new optimism and outlook in her current context. 

Focusing on Formative Assessment for Learning

Nina regularly talks with her undergrad students about their own assessment journeys. They share about unyielding deadlines, grades being used to punish, no chances to refine or revise, and feedback that only comes at the end of a learning cycle. Although assessment experiences can be positive, the negative experiences seem to come through more often.

Katie White, author of Softening the Edges: Assessment Practices That Honor K-12 Teachers and Learners, writes that “continual intention and active capturing of learning in the moment and making inferences about a learner’s understanding in relation to a goal happens over time.” Dylan Wiliam adds that “for assessment to be primarily embedded in the learning cycle it must remain formative,” and “all activities undertaken by teachers and/or by students provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching or learning activities in which they are engaged.”

These quotes speak to the ideas that …

  1. learning happens over time,
  2. we must practice intentional goal-setting,
  3. we must allow more times for reflection, and
  4. we must support more opportunities for revision and additional tries.

For Nina, formative assessment is often about determining readiness: is the learner actually ready to take the next step? Too often, we push learners down a track that ignores their individual needs and progress, which only creates further dissonance and deficits in their learning journeys. By being more flexible and creating personalized learning experiences, we create more on-ramps for learners and ensure that every student remains on a track to growth.

Summative assessments have a place in classrooms, Nina says, as long as they are actually used as a tool for learning, celebrate growth, and close the door for further learning as seldom as possible. Summative assessments should look like rich performance tasks that demonstrate the complete learning standards that the learner is aiming for. When using summative assessments, it’s critical to carefully consider the best type of summative assessment to be used and ensure that the learning standards can be fully demonstrated.

Why Should We Assess Students At All?

So why assess? Katie White says that assessment is something that we are always doing, and it’s an essential process to support the human. Achievement in school is not about doing work to accumulate points and letter grades. Instead, school should be a place of learning and becoming. “I want my students to know that they can make mistakes, that they can try again to correct their mistakes and improve,” Nina says.

Questions to Ask Ourselves Around Assessment

  • Are we here to ensure that students are taught or that students learn?
  • Are we here to measure only past learning or support future learning?
  • Is our work about building walls and documenting who climbs over them, or making sure our learners have the tools and supports to push through the barriers that are in front of them?

When we identify and address barriers to learning through greater access, equity, and inclusion, our learners will be more successful.

How to Best Serve Pre-Service Teachers 

When it comes to pre-service teachers today, Nina points out that their needs haven’t changed too much over the last twenty years. They still need the safety and support to try new ideas, encouragement to take risks, and the freedom to think outside the box. They also need quality mentors and supportive partnerships in the field, because sometimes what they see and experience in classrooms does not align with the principles they are learning in their classrooms.

On that note, education programs must work hard to intentionally connect course work to field work, theory to practice. Pre-service teachers and inexperienced teachers are having to adjust to a rapidly changing landscape and movements, so we must give them the confidence to remain lifelong learners – professional learners – that aim not to have it all figured out at once but instead adopt a posture of continuous learning and growth throughout our careers.

Addressing Gaps in Equity and Inclusion in Our Schools

When it comes to equity, Nina says, she starts by looking at access. Does every student have equal opportunity and access to the learning experiences? It’s an obvious step, but school faculties and leaders must do a better job of representing the voices and cultures in their school populations, says Nina.

What’s Setting Nina on 🔥 in Education Today

Nina has become obsessed with collaborative inquiry and the Spiral of Inquiry, created by Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert. The spiral gives voice, choice, and agency to educators and the means to go on learning journeys as whole communities.

Nina gets ignited by other education soulmates, including academics like Jenn Skelding, Christine Younghusband, and Gillian Judson, co-author of Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. These three and others constantly recharge her passion for education and the changing paradigms in assessment.

One thing Nina has definitely missed since leaving the classroom are the voices of parents, and she wants to find ways to include their voices in more education conversations.

Nina’s Professional Goals

On the horizon, Nina is also passionate about taking on another new step of learning by way of academic research. In particular, she wants to learn more about teacher education program development and assessment for learning, including its integration at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

The two words that summarize Nina’s goals for this year are bravery and courage. Nina has felt challenged in this last year to really lean into transparency about her professional learning journey. On top of starting new research, she’s also committing to sharing her learning on her blog and modeling vulnerability for her students. She’s been asking her students to blog about their learning, and after reading hundreds of their entries, she recognized that it was time for her to walk the walk and start sharing her own journey as well. Creating and designing her blog and formulating her first posts has already given her more empathy for her students and understanding of the learning challenges they face.

Personal Passions That Keep Her Inner Fire Burning 

Nina’s chief passion and source of rejuvenation away from the university is her family. She’s a wife and mom to two kids, and spending time with them is her greatest joy. Calling her kids her greatest teachers, she says they help her come alive and continually remind her of what it means to be human.

She’s also enjoying the insights shared by authors like Ken Shigematsu, Henri Nouwen, and Jean Vanier regarding the nature of life and humanity, and she embraced opportunities this summer to unplug from the digital and become fully immersed in nature.

A Productivity Hack

Nina uses the Wunderlist app to track to-do items for her courses or profound questions asked by her kids. It helps keep her stay organized and on track.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Nina’s Thinking

Over on Twitter, Nina recommends following @KatieWhite426, author of Softening the Edges. Katie is active on Twitter and hosts the #AtAssessment chat which takes place every other Tuesday night.

An edtech tool that facilitates voice, engagement, and learning in her university classes is Socrative. Follow Socrative on Twitter @Socrative

The Way of the TeacherNina’s book recommendation is The Way of the Teacher: A Path for Personal Growth and Professional Fulfillment by Dr. Sandra Finney and Jane Thurgood Sagal. This book works on several levels, Nina says. It offers practical suggestions for our professional work but also offers guidance about how to work in human and sustainable ways that rekindle our love and joy for teaching.

One podcast that Nina enjoys is called On Being with Krista Tippett. What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? Who will we be to each other? These are the questions that guide their conversations.

Two shows that Nina has been watching on Netflix are The Crown and Queer Eye. More than just a fashion show, Nina appreciates how the hosts of Queer Eye go beyond fashion to meet people wherever they are in their lives.

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

Connect with Nina:

Sponsoring This Episode: Classtime

This episode is brought to you by Classtime.com, an assessment platform that delivers learning insights, giving you more time to teach.

Classtime.com helps you gain immediate visibility of your students’ learning progress, build engaging lessons, share with other teachers, and create your own tech-enabled questions to complement your lesson plans. Classtime.com also helps you engage all students with collaborative challenges & puzzles that make fun an integral part of the learning experience.

See what Classtime can do for your learners, and start your free trial at Classtime.com today!

Song Track Credits

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

Episode 91 – Latezeon Balentine

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Meet Latezeon Balentine

LATEZEON BALENTINE is a mom of three boys, a teacher, and founder of September Chances, Inc. – a nonprofit organization created to develop joy in reading, grow literacy, and increase reading fluency. Latezeon is also a Donors Choose Teacher Ambassador, dog lover, an advocate for mental health awareness, and blogger. And she’s got a book on the way, so stay tuned!

Latezeon is an English teacher at Jefferson County High School in Fayette, MS. The school is situated in a small, rural area and the student population sits around 380. It’s a region that has its share of economic challenges, and poverty is a continual issue for many families. Latezeon has some teaching experience in fourth and fifth grade, but most of her teaching has taken place in secondary, which is where she feels at home.

Baptism by Fire

Latezeon recalls the start of her career, when she was hired to fill a long-term substitute position in a primary classroom. She had all the duties of a full-time first year teacher, but the compensation and benefits of a substitute teacher. If that wasn’t challenging enough, her class size continued to grow as the year wore on.

Fortunately, Latezeon pushed through a difficult year one and was offered a full-time contract in Vicksburg, MS the following year. It was still an extremely tough challenge for Latezeon as she balanced full-time teaching, parenting, a part-time job, and the completion of her Master’s degree during this time.

She continued to persevere, however, and things have gradually improved. The work of education is about the outcome, not the income, Latezeon laughs.

Empathy and the Work of Supporting Others

Empathy is evident in so much of Latezeon’s work, whether it’s her care for her boys, her advocacy for the mentally ill, her passion for literacy, her support of other educators through Donors Choose, or even her love of animals. It seems limitless!

When asked where this bottomless empathy comes from, Latezeon points first to her own experiences. She’s lived the pain and hardships of mental illness in the family, and it motivates her to support others struggling in the same ways.

Speaking to her work with Donors Choose (a crowdfunding site for education-related funding campaigns), Latezeon is proud to have raised over $13,000 and supported 20 fully-funded projects for other educators. These include the creation of a food pantry and a hygiene closet at her own school.

“I’m all about helping people reach their goals, because that’s where my heart is,” Latezeon says. “I’ve been a nurse, a counselor, a liaison, an advocate – anything I can be for my kids, I’ve been it!” She’s also currently working on a project to raise money for animal shelters in her area.

Her Vision for September Chances

Latezeon started September Chances in 2014 with the purpose of helping struggling learners outside of the classroom. Over the time since, her focus has shifted from tutoring to book giveaways through Scholastic. She’s a big fan of the $1 books that Scholastic lists each week, and she’s made a lot of progress stocking her classroom bookshelves this way.

She’s also making it the aim of September Chances to provide two $250 scholarships to graduating seniors, and she’s working hard on an initiative to put a free book in the hands of every child in her school district. A love of literacy starts with getting books to kids that resonate with their interests and passions. As September Chances continues to grow and build momentum, Latezeon hopes to support districts across her state and even across the nation. 

What’s Setting Latezeon on 🔥 in Education Today

One passion in education for Latezeon is in the whole area of technology resources for her learners. She sees the applications and devices that are made available to students in other schools and districts, and she wants to bring the same to Jefferson County.

She’s also committed to developing stronger financial literacy programming in high school. She wants her students to have all the information, preparation, and life lessons they’ll need to survive and thrive financially as they move into adulthood.

A Professional Growth Goal: Sketchnotes

In terms of professional growth, Latezeon wants to learn more about sketchnotes. She wants to help her students acquire the vocabulary, techniques, and resources they’ll need to fully leverage this powerful learning strategy.

(*Tim’s Note: For more information on sketchnoting, make sure to check out the books, resources, and videos from Sylvia Duckworth – the sketchnote master!)

An Inlet to Her Outlet

Blogging has become a wonderful outlet for Latezeon. Her posts aren’t as long as others, partly because she recognizes that as a reader, brevity is often best. She calls her blog posts “a little inlet to her outlet.”

A Daily Habit: Building Her PLN

Latezeon started taking Twitter seriously in November of 2018. She plans to do a love tour through her network to introduce herself in a unique way to every single follower, and continues to learn from the amazing connections she’s made there in just a few months.

Voices and Resources That Inspire 

Over on Twitter, Latezeon recommends following @NicholasFerroni, leader of the #NoSummersOff campaign that intends to show how educators actually use their summer holidays.

Latezeon’s picks in edtech tools are Topeka, an AI-powered writing analysis service, and FlipGrid, a popular video platform that seeks to amplify student voice.

With a big passion for books and literacy, you know Latezeon’s book selections are on point. She calls out The Pepper Effect: Tap into the Magic of Creativity, Collaboration, and Innovation by Sean Gaillard and One Drop of Kindness by Jeff Kubiak. Follow these authors on Twitter @SMGaillard and @JeffreyKubiak

In the wonderful world of podcasts, Latezeon is listening to The Ed Podcast and Faculty Room. Follow these hosts on Twitter @TheEdPodcast and @Maire_from_NJ

Over on YouTube, Latezeon’s favorite teacher channel is A Classroom Diva. Follow the channel creator, Jessica Nichols, on Instagram @AClassroomDiva

Latezeon and her husband enjoyed binge-watching a number of the latest episodes from Stranger Things 3 on Netflix recently. Predictably, this show is very strange … but it’s been fun to watch how this little group of friends interacts with each other.

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

Connect with Latezeon:

Song Track Credits

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

The Joy of Food in Education

When it comes to building a positive staff culture, food is an easy win.

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My last two weeks of work have been highlighted by three wonderful, encouraging, food-fuelled community events. Perhaps your school context has enjoyed similar experiences.

The first came at the end of a Friday two weeks ago. I was exhausted. It had been a long day, a long week, and a long reporting period. With weeks of marking, reporting, and written comments in the rearview mirror, I was ready for a break.

Thank God it’s Friday.

Then came the call to head to our multipurpose room. Obediently, I headed over, not sure if we had a staff meeting on the schedule and definitely not expecting what came next.

A Friday Fiesta

As I entered the room with colleagues, we were greeted by an amazing Mexican-style spread: tortillas, taquitos, salsa, corn, and a handful of other delectable items up for grabs. Two of our administrators had put together a full-blown margarita bar, replete with bartender aprons and ingredients for custom orders.

Plates were filled and glasses poured. Teachers ate at round tables around the room, talking and laughing as Mexican music provided ambience. It was a fun way to end the day and the week, and I left with a spring in my step that I didn’t have at the last bell.

A Christmas Banquet

On Friday night, my wife and I attended an elegant Christmas banquet for the entire staff of our 1500-student community. And when I say all staff, I mean administrators, teachers, education assistants, facility managers, custodians. Everyone. And their partners, too.

Planning and preparation for the evening had begun a full year in advance, and it showed. The food was magnificent, the conversations were enlightening, and the entertainment was fun. I was able to get to know colleagues and their partners on a whole new level. It was a great evening.

A Staff Luncheon

The third event to make this highlight roll was a staff luncheon two days ago. This time, a small army of staff volunteers worked through the entire morning to prepare a delicious home-cooked Christmas feast.

Tables were set, candles were lit, and staff enjoyed an extended lunch to enjoy great food and great company. More great conversations, laughs, and shared experiences. Main courses, desserts, and beverages were available in such quantities that a follow-up meal was required to exhaust them all.

The Incredible Power of Food as Culture-Builder

Looking back at these three highlights, I’m struck by the power of food to do what it does. I get it — it’s no great revelation that food makes people happy. But in the context of school communities, food is an amazing facilitator.

1. It brings everyone into the same physical spaces.

Let’s face it — staff teams generally don’t congregate in their entirety unless required to. If you’re like me, sometimes a lunch break is best spent catching up on email, planning, marking, or checking items off the infinite task list. On other days, the 4.5 hours spent with students between 8:00–12:45 simply demands a few precious moments of peace and quiet. Sanity recovery.

But feasts like the one we enjoyed on Monday trump all those demands. Everyone shows up, because you don’t say no to a home-cooked Christmas feast.

Food has a way of bringing everyone together.

2. Food facilitates longer conversations and builds relationships.

I think back to our Christmas banquet on Friday and the fun conversations at our table. I was able to connect with other teachers and education assistants on our teaching team, and I was able to get to know their partners as well. We talked journalism, real estate, life histories, infertility, and a host of other topics both light and serious. By evening’s end, I knew everyone at the table a little better than I did before.

Opportunities to have longer, relaxed, and unlimited conversations with colleagues are few and far between. And none of it would happen without great food.

3. Food events level the lunch field.

This point is a lighter one to be sure, but to me, there’s something unifying about everyone eating — if you’ll excuse the cattle reference — from the same trough. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, there’s something there that quietly signals we’re all in this together.

4. Nothing says “we care” like the act of serving up a great meal.

It might be the most obvious point to be made here, but at the end of the day it may still be the most potent. As we know from Abraham Maslow, food speaks to us on deep physiological and emotional levels that we don’t always fully understand or recognize.

When administrators and education leaders go to the effort of providing a meal, it is noticed. It’s a gesture that says you are welcome, you are loved, you are appreciated.

A good meal builds positive morale, energy, and optimism on a team and in a building. As these factors tick upward, the quality of instruction, creativity, growth, and learning on the part of our lead learners can’t help but increase as well.

When it comes to building a positive staff culture, food is an easy win.

Episode 34 – Sarah Johnson

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SARAH JOHNSON is an author, speaker, and consultant in the areas of instructional leadership and personal-professional balance. With experience as an English teacher and principal, she likes to laugh, sing, and makes a habit of running every day. She is a co-author of Balance Like a Pirate: Going Beyond Work-Life Balance to Ignite Passion and Thrive as an Educator. Her mission? Helping educators thrive at work, home, and life.

In this conversation, Sarah describes the main message and heart of her book, which describes her experience and the lessons she’s learned from living out of balance as a school principal. She talks about the personal passions and practices that support her self-care and growth today, and offers some great recommendations for books to read, Twitter accounts to follow, and more.

Follow Sarah on these great platforms:

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below.

  • 1:17 – Sarah describes her current context in education: speaker, consultant, and author living in NW Wisconsin after a career in education as a teacher and principal.
  • 3:02 – The heart and message to educators in Balance Like a Pirate. Instead of the popular 50-50 work-life concept, Sarah urges educators to think of balance in four quadrants: personal, professional, positional, and passions.
  • 6:03 – Sarah recalls a particularly low moment in her education career, and explains how she was able to move through this experience.
  • 9:13 – What really excites Sarah about education today: the incredible opportunities for authentic collaboration and creation (for students and educators).
  • 11:15 – Rise: Sarah’s ongoing personal commitment to learn how to live the most purpose-driven life possible (in part, by listening and journaling every day). Another serious passion is education around mental health and suicide awareness.
  • 13:23 – A personal habit that contributes to her success is running every single day. She has not missed a day since July 11, 2014!
  • 15:47 – Sarah’s recommendation for educators on Twitter is @BethHill2829 (Bethany Hill of #JoyfulLeaders fame).
  • 16:42 – It’s been around for a while, but Sarah’s favorite edtech tool is still Google Docs. She even used Google Docs to collaborate with her co-authors on Balance Like a Pirate!
  • 17:23 – Her book recommendation is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (@ParsOpercularis) and of course anything written by Brene Brown (@BreneBrown).
  • 18:39 – Favorite podcast? For the Love by Jen Hatmaker (@JenHatmaker)
  • 19:17 – We review the best ways to follow Sarah online and receive more of her content. See above for details!

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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)

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