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.

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 70 – AJ Juliani

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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

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 53 – Curtis Wiebe

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

CURTIS WIEBE is an elementary school teacher in Surrey, BC, Canada. He’s interested in the ways that technology augments learning, boosts creativity, and creates new opportunities for learners. Follow Curtis on Twitter @DivisionW and see his work at https://mrwiebesclass.weebly.com/.

In our conversation, Curtis identifies the key to bringing about positive changes in schools and structures in education. He describes why he’s passionate about preparing students to find creative solutions that address real-world problems, and he explains what his learners are doing with makerspaces and robotics. He tells us where he gets his best ideas, and offers us top picks on Twitter, in books, and much more.

Follow Curtis online here: 

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 0:53 – Curtis describes his current context in education at Crescent Park Elementary School in South Surrey, BC, Canada. Aside from his 7th grade teaching duties, Curtis is a part of the school’s tech team and the district Microsoft Inquiry team. He’s also currently pursuing his MEdL degree.
  • 1:47 – Curtis speaks to the challenges related to bringing about change in schools and structures in education. When we present a different way of doing things, it tends to create friction points and difficult conversations. One key to bringing about change in a positive way is to do so diplomatically, with research and evidence that these changes will positively influence learning – what school is really all about.
  • 4:40 – When asked what he’s most passionate about in education today, Curtis points to the ever-changing landscape of challenges that education can address around the globe. He loves preparing learners to find solutions to complex, real-world problems. He’s also enjoying an exploration of robotics (Check out https://www.vexrobotics.com/ and http://www.flowol.com/Flowol4.aspx) with his students, where he says “the excitement has gone through the stratosphere.”
  • 7:01 – Outside of the classroom, he’s energized by reading about technology, current events, and politics. He’s always interested in exploring current situations but is also intrigued by political philosophers from the past. In the same way, he enjoys looking at where technology has come and where it may be going in the future.
  • 9:43 – A personal habit that consistently energizes Curtis and supports his reflective process is engaging in professional conversations with educator – his wife! He also enjoys the analytical aspects of golf: looking back, thinking about how to improve, seeking to repeat good strokes, etc.
  • 11:05 – His recommendations on Twitter are Jeff Unruh (@Unruh_J) and Michelle Horn (@MsHornDiv10).
  • 14:55 – Curtis is all about robotics right now, so his top picks in the area of edtech are VEX IQ Robotics (@VEXRobotics on Twitter) and Microsoft Office 365 and (@MicrosoftEDU on Twitter). In particular, Microsoft Teams is working well as a point of connection and workflow for his learners.
  • 17:10 – In books, Curtis recommends Trevor MacKenzie’s Dive Into Inquiry: Amplify Learning and Empower Student Voice. Get to know Trevor on Twitter @Trev_MacKenzie. For a magazine pick, Curtis points to The Atlantic and their education section in particular. For a sampling of their top education articles, start following @TheAtlEducation on Twitter.
  • 18:09 – His top choice for education podcasts right now is MindShift: A Podcast About the Future of Learning. Follow MindShift on Twitter @MindShiftKQED.
  • 18:49 – As a self-confessed fan of all things politics, Curtis’s go-to show on Netflix right now is Homeland.
  • 19:12 – We sign off on the interview, and Curtis gives us the best ways to find and follow him online. See above for details!

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

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 37 – Dan Jones

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DAN JONES is a 7th and 8th Grade Social Studies Teacher in Mansfield, OH. He is the K-12 Editor for Flipped Learning Review Magazine and the author of Flipped 3.0 Project Based Learning: An Insanely Simple Guide.

In this conversation, Dan tells us about the time his passion for teaching died and he almost quit the profession entirely. Instead, he Googled “new and innovative teaching practices” and stumbled across the flipped classroom, which set him on a journey of transformation. Dan also tells us about a personal passion that energizes him, a habit that contributes to his success, and recommends some amazing resources for educators.

Check out Flipped 3.0 Project Based Learning: An Insanely Simple Guide on Amazon!

Follow Dan …

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 0:58 – Dan describes his work as a 7th & 8th grade Social Studies teacher and website director at the Richland School of Academic Arts, flipped learning trainer, editor of FLR magazine, blogger, and author.
  • 1:48 – He tells about a time seven years ago when he realized he hated his job, felt ineffective, depressed, and wanted to quit. Thankfully he was encouraged to stay by supportive administrators. He then Googled “new and innovative teaching practices,” and the flipped classroom began a journey of personal and professional transformation.
  • 9:16 – Dan explains what the Flipped Classroom 3.0 is all about, how it combines with PBL, and the opportunities it creates for educators and learners. Check out his book, Flipped 3.0 Project Based Learning: An Insanely Simple Guide.
  • 20:11 – Dan shares about the personal passions and learning that helps him relax and refuel: using fine craftsmanship tools to make pens, shaving equipment, Christmas ornaments, and more.
  • 21:50 – A habit that contributes to his personal and professional success: carving out quiet “me time” to allow him to be the best he can be.
  • 23:03 – Dan’s Twitter recommendation: @JonBergmann.
  • 24:23 – Over to edtech, Dan suggests we check out PlayPosit (@PlayPosit) as a place to distribute instructional videos to students. He also applauds the amazing Kahoot platform (@GetKahoot), which engages students and gives teachers a powerful tool for formative assessment in the classroom.
  • 25:22 – In books, Dan suggests Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters by Kylene Beers (@KyleneBeers).
  • 26:43 – Need a new source of education inspiration on your daily commute? Dan recommends tuning in to the BAM Radio Network (@BAMRadioNetworkand Jon Bergmann’s podcast, Flipped Learning Worldwide.
  • 27:18 – When he’s got no energy to plan lessons, write books, produce videos, or make pens, Dan is watching The Office on Netflix – especially when a good laugh before bed is in order.
  • 27:46 – We sign off on the conversation, and Dan shares the best ways to follow him and keep receiving his great content (see above).

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 21 – Brooke Moore

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BROOKE MOORE is the District Principal of Inquiry and Innovation in Delta, BC, Canada. She is also an instructor at Vancouver Island University and the editor-in-chief of UBC’s Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, located at teljournal.educ.ubc.ca/.

In our conversation, Brooke describes the experience of working through stiff parent resistance while introducing progressive strategies around assessment in a West Vancouver high school. She shares about some exciting cross-curricular learning initiatives she’s involved with and lists some of her biggest passions outside of education: parenting, writing, and storytelling. Brooke also gives us some great recommendations regarding books to read, a Twitter account to follow, and much more.

Follow Brooke on Twitter @BMooreintheloop and her blog at teljournal.educ.ubc.ca/.

In this episode, Brooke discusses …

  • 0:58 – her current education situation
  • 1:24 – the experience of disrupting the status quo around assessment
  • 5:21 – what excites her about education today: IBL and PBL initiatives like Delta Farm Roots
  • 7:30 – areas of personal learning outside of education: parenting, writing, story-telling
  • 9:22 – a personal habit that contributes to her success: consistent enthusiasm
  • 10:19 – a Twitter account to follow: @ClaireDaoust
  • 11:48 – her edtech tool recommendations: Canva.com and Google Read & Write
  • 12:56 – two book recommendations: Leadership for Teacher Learning (by Dylan Wiliam) and Embers (by Richard Wagamese)
  • 13:33 – a podcast recommendation: Office Hours (by Daniel Pink)
  • 13:57 – a Netflix recommendation: Jane the Virgin
  • 14:26 – 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!