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 77 – Adam Welcome

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Meet Our Guest

ADAM WELCOME is a former teacher, principal, and director of innovation. He’s also a recognized education leader, speaker, and the author of Kids Deserve It and Run Like a Pirate. Follow Adam on Twitter and Instagram @MrAdamWelcome.

Disappointed by Mediocrity

Adam recalls the year that his professional enthusiasm was dampened by colleagues who preferred to stay with conventional practices and were reluctant to support new initiatives. Students were disengaged, there was little laughter in classrooms, and he knew learning was being sacrificed in exchange for convenience. It was frustrating to see.

Finally, Adam decided to change grade levels and acquire his administration credentials. That move helped him get to a place where he could put his money where his mouth was and actually do the hard work of building school culture instead of complaining about negativity.

When you’re in a tough situation, try to stay positive and actually do something about the problem, Adam urges. This too shall pass, and you can be that positive solution.

The Birth of #KidsDeserveIt

After connecting with Todd Nesloney on Twitter and then chatting with him further at a principals’ conference, Adam realized the two educators shared a passion for putting the welfare of students at the forefront of their work.

After a tweet to that effect was widely shared, Adam and Todd wrote a blog post on the topic and then developed their ideas more fully in Kids Deserve It. #KidsDeserveIt continues in the form of book studies, Twitter chats, and an educational philosophy of school formation.

13 Marathons in One Year

Run Like a Pirate followed an impressive year of 13 marathons in 12 months. Although he was fairly public about his running goals and activities, Adam didn’t envision a book at the outset of the year. But after more and more people were inspired to set new fitness goals and do more with their lives, Adam started to think seriously about writing the book. Although he couldn’t do much writing during his year of marathons, the ideas and passion flowed quickly in the months that followed, and #RunLAP was born in the spring of 2018.

More than just running, this is a book about realizing our full potential, about challenging our vision of what is possible. In some ways, #RunLAP is #ThePowerofYET (I’m not a runner … yet).

When we put ourselves in a box by saying we’re just NOT something, it’s kind of demeaning. But when we take the opposite stance, when we say we can become anything we want to be, our students see that and build confidence as well.

What Excites Adam About Education Today

Adam appreciates innovations in education like edtech tools and the makerspace movement, but the macro change that really gets him excited is the idea of teachers backing up and taking more of a facilitation role in their classes.

Doing so frees up time and energy for teachers to build relationships with students and conference more often on a 1:1 basis. It also empowers students to take more agency and ownership over their learning journey. Teachers are no longer chiefly sources of information – they’re coaches, facilitators, and enablers.

Personal and Professional Goals

In education, Adam is focused on doing more video content. The world is moving more and more to video, which gets more play, engagement, and excitement. It’s where our younger learners are moving for learning, and it only makes sense to develop our message on video platforms.

As a personal goal, Adam looks forward to a 4-marathons-in-4-days event coming up in the Bay Area that uses 4 bridges to come up with the necessary miles. Being comfortable is easy, but nobody grows in the comfort zone. He’s looking for ways to push himself professionally and physically this year.

Passions and Productivity Hacks

Adam gains fuel from his family, and lately he’s also been inspired by leadership books outside of education. Authors like Jocko Willink, who’s written Extreme Ownership and also produces a podcast, are particularly inspiring.

He’s also a big believer in strong starts to the day, including getting up early and making the bed. Although he’s given up trying to make his bed while his wife is still in it, his kids have learned to practice this habit from a very young age. It’s about starting the morning right and feeling fully prepared for the day.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Adam’s Professional Practice

On Twitter, Adam recommends following the wonderful @RaeHughart, guest on episode 73 of the Teachers on Fire podcast.

One of Adam’s go-to edtech tools is Evernote. Whether you go with Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep, Wakelet, or another curation and note-taking tool, find and use one that syncs across all platforms and devices, he advises.

Adam’s book pick is Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Although these authors come at leadership from a military perspective, the lessons and principles they share are universal and apply equally in education.

Sticking with the same author in the world of podcasts, Adam recommends listening to the Jocko Podcast. He also loves The Rich Roll Podcast, produced by another vegan and legendary runner with a phenomenal personal story.

Over on YouTube, Adam shouts out CJ Reynolds, an inspiring English teacher in Philadelphia who also appeared on Teachers on Fire at episode 39. His YouTube channel is called Real Rap with Reynolds.

We sign off on this conversation, and Adam gives us the best ways to connect with him online. See below!

See more from Adam:

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 76 – Kali Slusser

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Meet Our Guest

KALI SLUSSER is an instructional coach, fitness obsessor, and kombucha fanatic! She is also a wife of a fellow teacher and a mom of three. Connect with Kali on Twitter @KaliSlusser and follow her ongoing book reviews with Greg Moffitt at https://readlikeapirate.wordpress.com/.

Rethinking Careers

Kali recalls the experience of being let go by a school district after twelve years of teaching. The school did not have a union and decided to lay off a number of teachers with seniority as a cost-cutting measure. Devastated and disillusioned, Kali started looking at a new career as a fitness instructor.

Things changed quickly at the end of that summer when an administrator called to ask Kali to step into a classroom on an emergency basis – the school year was set to start in two days, and the school needed to fill a position in a hurry. Despite the abrupt transition, Kali found her footing that first year and continues to serve in the same school (albeit a different position) – six years later.

The Journey of Read Like a Pirate

The mission to partner with Greg Moffitt to read and review all of the DBC books at readlikeapirate.wordpress.com began three years ago when Kali first read Teach Like a Pirate. At the time, she tried to get a book club going in her school, but the idea received little interest and support.

Later, she read Lead Like a Pirate, and soon decided that Greg (her principal) would thoroughly enjoy the read. She was right, and Greg didn’t stop there. He went on to read Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, Culturize by Jimmy Casas, and other great titles from Dave Burgess Consulting.

Inspired by the book reviews from Alicia Ray, Kali suggested to Greg that they also begin reading and reviewing the entire DBC series at a pace of one per week. The deal was struck, the blog was born, and so far these two educators have read and reviewed 19 books together.

One of the reading tricks or hacks that Kali and Greg use is the iPhone accessibility (voice over) option, which can read out loud from the Kindle app.

The Life of an Instructional Coach

As an instructional coach, Kali follows the school’s professional growth cycle to support educators along their independent learning journeys. She coaches, plans, observes, and helps teachers reflect on their practice – the most important part of the coaching process. She also attends professional development events and presents her learning to the staff about once a month.

Kali enjoys a highly collaborative relationship with administrators, who give her the room and flexibility to try new things and make adjustments in her role where appropriate. She calls the role a lot of fun and an amazing experience.

What Excites Kali About Education Today

Kali is excited and energized by the direction that education is moving. Today’s learning activities are less about memorizing facts and more about becoming an independent learner and problem-solver. It’s an exciting paradigm shift, and it’s been fun to observe these differences play out even in her own children.

Professional Goal

It’s been a challenge at times to shift her mindset from that of a teacher to a coach. She has to resist the urge to tell teachers “this is how you should be doing this” and instead pose reflective questions and help teachers come to new realizations on their own.

Personal Passions and Productivity Hacks

A couple of things that ignite Kali as a human being when she leaves the school are fitness and nutrition. Exercise fuels, relaxes, and energizes her. She enjoys taking care of herself and her family, and she tries to devote non-education reading time to these areas as well.

Kali gets up at 5:00 a.m. on most mornings, grabbing an energy drink, getting dishes and laundry going, and starting her workout. It’s quality me-time that allows her to listen to podcasts and prepare mentally for the day.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Kali’s Professional Practice

On Twitter, Kali recommends following @JeffreyKubiak, another charismatic California principal who appeared on the Teachers on Fire podcast at episode 54. Jeff is awesome! Be sure to follow her amazing reading partner on Twitter as well. You’ll find him @Greg_Moffitt.

Kali’s pick for edtech tools is Flipgrid, and perhaps no other platform is as good at increasing student voice and communication in your classroom. Follow Flipgrid on Twitter @FlipGrid.

Outside of the books from Dave Burgess Consulting, Kali recommends The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing by Bruce D. Perry.

One podcast that is really grabbing the whole family’s interest when they’re in the car is Brains On! Check it out at https://www.brainson.org/.

Over on YouTube, Kali’s go-to channel is the tried-and-true TED Talks. If you still haven’t subscribed, maybe it’s about time!

When she finds time for some Netflix entertainment, Kali’s watching Grey’s Anatomy. The show has it all: humor, romance, adult storylines, and the reminder that there are other fields more stressful than education.

We sign off on this fun conversation, and Kali reminds us of the best places to follow her online. See below!

See more from Kali:

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 74 – Susan Jachymiak

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Meet Our Guest

SUSAN JACHYMIAK is a 4th grade teacher in Orland Park, IL. She’s a rookie this year, and she’s clearly on fire! Follow her on Twitter @MsJachymiak and visit her blog at http://msjachymiak.weebly.com.

Rookie Year Challenges

Susan’s teacher training focused on middle school education, but her first teaching position has been at the fourth grade level. These students come with different learning and social needs than students in middle school, so it’s taken some professional growth for her to better understand the dynamics of these younger learners and meet them where they are.

#NewTeacherJourney and the Power of Twitter

As Susan started plugging into Twitter chats before her first year of teaching, she noticed a shortage of chats dedicated to rookie teachers. That led her to create the #NewTeacherJourney chat, which typically connects on Sunday evenings at 8:30 pm EST. She’s been pleased to see the number of other new teachers plugged in, connecting, and gaining encouragement and advice thanks to this hashtag.

Susan is a strong advocate of using Twitter – not only for the purposes of connecting socially with other educators, but in order to leverage the power of the platform by actively sharing and learning from what is happening in classrooms around the globe.

Passions in Education

What excites Susan about education today are the amazing opportunities that technology is allowing learners in her classroom. She uses GoFormative to facilitate exit slips as checks for understanding at the end of lessons, Prodigy to reinforce Math concepts, and Mystery Skype to reinforce critical thinking and geography skills.

Her professional goal for the rest of this year and going into next year is focused on organization, including what to collect from students, how best to arrange it, and how best to act on it. Because so much of teaching requires thinking on your feet and making quick decisions – especially during your first year – it’s been a challenge to find the systems that work most efficiently for her. Ultimately, better organization will set her up to better meet the unique needs of each of her learners.

Susan has also been fascinated by the possibilities for learning articulated by Jo Boaler in her book, Mathematical Mindsets. In the Math classroom, this helps students understand the power of “I don’t get this … YET,” seeing initial failures as merely first attempts in learning, and adopting practices of continuous revision to improve first attempts and learn toward mastery. These concepts don’t just apply to students – they apply to educators as well!

Productivity and Recharging

Susan is a list-keeper, and for that purpose her app of choice is Google Keep. Keep is where she goes to determine what still needs to get done, what is a higher priority, what needs to be added to the list, and what needs to come off. She also recharges her professional passion in Twitter chats, and she makes it a goal to participate in at least one of those per week.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Susan’s Professional Practice

On Twitter, Susan suggests following @RaeHughart. Rae shares a lot from her practice, offers great resources from the Teach Better Team, and co-hosts the Teach Better Talk podcast.

For edtech tools, Susan recommends Class Dojo as a means to build class culture and encourage collaboration toward group goals. She also points out Plickers as a fun way to quickly and efficiently collect feedback and formative assessments across the class using your mobile device.

Susan’s writing has already appeared in a published book! It’s called Chasing Greatness: 26.2 Ways Teaching Is Like Running a Marathon by Mike Roberts. Follow the author on Twitter @BaldRoberts.

Two educational podcasts that Susan is listening to are Teach Better Talk and The Pondering Education Podcast.

Over on YouTube, Susan is tuned into a channel called Pocketful of Primary, hosted by Michelle Ferré. On her show, Michelle shares all the ups, downs, and ideas from her work, and Susan gleans things of value from every episode.

On Netflix, Susan enjoys two classic series: Fuller House and Friends.

See More From Susan

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

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Follow the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media.

Song Track Credits

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

Episode 73 – Rae Hughart

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Meet Our Guest

RAE HUGHART is a middle school Math teacher, educational consultant, Director of Training & Development for Teach Better, and a co-host for the Teach Better Talk podcast – and if you haven’t given Teach Better Talk a listen, you need to! Connect with Rae on Twitter AND Instagram @RaeHughart, and check out her course offerings and resources at TeachBetter.com!

Shut Out as a Learner

Rae’s own experience of elementary school wasn’t an easy one. She struggled with a reading disability, complicating her learning in most subjects. In fact, Rae feels she is likely one of the few Math teachers out there today as one who earned a ‘D’ when she was in 6th grade math herself. By high school, these poor associations of school were slowly building a passion to pursue a career in education with the purpose of changing the experience of school for learners like herself.

The Teach Better Mission, Upcoming Book, and #MasteryChat

The book on the way from the Teach Better Team (to be published by Dave Burgess Consulting) will feature all four leading members as contributors: Rae Hughart, Jeff Gargas, Chad Ostrowski, and Tiffany Ott. The authors plan to bring a mix of personal stories, education philosophy, and tactical strategies that will help educators move forward and experience continuous professional growth.

#MasteryChat, hosted by the Teach Better team and taking place every Thursday evening on Twitter, covers just about any and all issues in education and really boils down to the idea of coming together to master our craft as educators.

Tips for PLN Engagement on Twitter and Instagram

Rae sees Twitter as the place for educators to build engagement around rich pedagogical conversations and focused issues. Instagram is a different dive, a different lens, with different kinds of moments and ideas to be shared.

Of the two, Instagram is the better platform to visit to really get to know the human side of educators, partly because Instagram stories give teachers a lot of space to speak directly to their followers and get personal.

“Enjoy Instagram,” says Rae, “but remember that fluff ain’t enough.” Make sure you’re finding ways to connect and have those rich professional conversations as well, she advises.

A Personal Passion and Productivity Hack

Rae’s favorite outlet and source of recharging is her dogs. She obsesses about them whenever she can and loves nothing more than walking them over to Lowe’s – they’re allowed to walk inside the store there!

When asked for a productivity hack, Rae simply asks how anyone can do it alone. She’s committed to the idea of joining hands with others – a village of support. That’s the only way to make great things happen and really crush it in education.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Rae’s Professional Practice

Aside from the Teach Better team, Rae suggests following @MrAdamWelcome on Twitter for a steady stream of balanced inspiration.

Her edtech pick is Seesaw. Follow them on Twitter @Seesaw.

Rae’s book recommendation is Educated by Design: Designing the Space to Experiment, Explore, and Extract Your Creative Potential by Michael Cohen. Follow the author on Twitter @TheTechRabbi.

One podcast that lifts her up outside of the education space is The Rise Podcast with Rachel Hollis. Follow this well-known author on Twitter @MsRachelHollis.

Rae’s choice on YouTube is an oldie but a goodie: TED Talks. And on Netflix, it’s been Person of Interest lately.

See More From Rae

We sign off on this conversation, and Rae reminds us of the best ways to connect with her and learn together online. Get connected!

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.