RABBI MICHAEL COHEN is a designer, educator, creativity instigator, podcaster, YouTuber, speaker, and an Apple Distinguished Educator. He’s also the Director of Innovation at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles Boys High School and the author of Educated by Design: Designing the Space to Experiment, Explore, and Extract Your Creative Potential.
⭐️ Use the timestamps below to jump to specific parts of this conversation. ⬇️
05:09 – It’s story time! Please share with us about a low moment or an experience of adversity that you’ve faced in your teaching or education career, and describe how you overcame it.
08:54 – I can’t say enough about your book, Educated by Design: Designing the Space to Experiment, Explore, and Extract Your Creative Potential. So many good directions we could go here, and it’s been fun to hear you discuss your ideas chapter by chapter on your podcast. But let’s start with this quote:
“We want our students to believe that they have the ability to create something incredible, but for that to happen, they must experience the freedom of authentic learning. Our students must be allowed to take risks and be given the space to experiment, fail, and try again.”
Can you talk more about what you mean by authentic learning? How can school leaders and teachers move their practices and thinking in this direction?
12:15 – You also wrote that “I believe that creativity is a mindset, not an art set.” I love that quote because I hear the growth mindset there – the ideas that our identities and capacities to learn are not fixed, that we all have creative capacity.
What is your word to students and educators who have decided that they are not creative people?
16:39 – How are you looking to grow professionally and improve your practice next year? Can you share about a specific professional goal or project that you’re currently working on?
19:55 – Outside of education, what’s another area of learning for you? What is it that ignites your passions outside of the classroom and brings you alive as a human being? Tell us why this area interests you and why you enjoy it.
20:38 – Share about one personal habit or productivity hack that contributes to your success.
Voices and resources that spark Michael’s thinking and ignite his practice:
JESUS HUERTA is an elementary school teacher at Kennedy Gardens Elementary School in El Centro, California. He’s also an instructor for the Krause Center for Innovation, a 3D print enthusiast, a futurist, and a believer that technology is for everyone.
Competing During Uncertainty
About a year before our interview, Jesus was a finalist for the Leroy Finkel Fellowship, an award given annually to a teacher who presents “an innovative technology-enhanced curriculum project that is standards-aligned, replicable, relevant … and fun.”
Jesus had entered the contest and had made it to the short list, but he was laid off by his school just days before he was expected to present. Despite the professional uncertainty, Jesus gave everything he had to the presentation and won the award based on the 3D printing work his students were doing to create prosthetics (see a full description of the project with videos). As gratifying as it was to be recognized in the contest, it was equally satisfying to be given another teaching position shortly afterward.
The Evolution of 3D Printing and Learning
Jesus has been teaching for six years, and he’s been 3D printing the entire time. From classrooms to conferences, he carried his printer around with him wherever he went in his first years.
One way that 3D printing has really changed in the period since, Jesus says, is that the financial barriers to entry have come way down: printers and filament have both fallen a lot in price. Software has also improved and diversified and the 3D printing community has grown over these years as well.
It’s an exciting space, because 3D printing just keeps moving forward. Jesus shares a number of ways (other than prosthetics) that 3D printing technology is being used to provide medical solutions and improve quality of life around the world. On top of all the other competencies and skills that students build as they learn to design and print in 3D, the list of real-world applications only seems to grow.
Board Games, the Design Process, and Entrepreneurship
Another project that has really energized Jesus and his 5th graders is a board game project. The project combines the best of entrepreneurship, the design process, collaboration, and presentation skills. Working in partners or small groups, students begin by drawing a board game design, followed by a cardboard prototype. Further iterations follow.
Jesus describes a very authentic learning experience that occurred when one 5th grader forgot to bring her group’s prototype into class for her group’s pitch. Yes, there was some distress and some tears in that instance, but after thoughtful debriefing and reflection, he knows the real life lessons learned will last a lifetime. By project end, Jesus is always impressed by what his students manage to come up with, saying he would likely purchase them for his own family if they were commercially available.
Increased Access to the Joys of STEAM Learning
Something that Jesus has wanted to do outside of his classroom for some time is offer evening classes that align with his core passions: 3D printing, robotics, the design process, engineering, game design, coding, drones, and anything else related to STEAM.
In particular, he wants to create opportunities for kids who can’t access this kind of learning in their schools, districts, or towns. He’s built a partnership with an LGBTQ center to share space, and he’s proud to support diversity and equity for all learners by doing so.
“Learning is for everyone,” Jesus says. A kid’s gender, culture, language, religion, or orientation shouldn’t be limiting factors – and that’s something that Jesus has always been passionate about. Historically speaking, STEAM learning has tended to include more boys than girls, and evening that playing field is another part of his mission. He’s also looking at ways to include adults and mature learners, too.
Personal Passions: Creating with Wood and Playing the Violin
One of the areas of learning that Jesus recalls fondly from his childhood is drawing. In recent years, he’s revisited this passion through woodburning and carving. He’s also passionate about the sounds of the violin, and it’s been a joy to practice an instrument he’s always appreciated but never played. Jesus brings these passions into his classroom, too, using applications like Google Quick Draw, Google Music, and SoundTrap to helps students create a wide variety of digital art and media pieces.
A Productivity Tool: Wunderlist
Jesus loves using the Wunderlist app to track to-do items and track his progress, and the gamer in him enjoys the satisfying ding the app makes every time he checks off another task.
Voices and Resources That Spark His Thinking and Ignite His Practice
When it comes to a Twitter follow recommendation, Jesus doesn’t waste any time. “Paul Gordon does even more than I do,” Jesus says. One of Paul’s core passions is esports, but he also does 3D printing, laser cutting, design thinking, and more. He’s an advocate of risk-taking and a culture of yes, and he’s been a great education partner. Follow Paul @TeachTheTech.
One edtech tool that has really captured his imagination is the Oculus Quest, an all-in-one VR set. Users no longer need controllers – the set will now recognize user hands. His kids have played around with an Oculus app called Virtuoso that allows them to play piano in VR, and it’s blowing their minds. Other apps, like TiltBrush or Sculptor VR, allow users to paint and sculpt in VR as well.
Because his wife works in the criminal justice system, Jesus says they’re both enjoying a podcast called Crime Junkie. The series is so good that occasionally Jesus gets a few episodes ahead of her, and then he’s got some explaining to do! Follow this podcast on Twitter @CrimeJunkiePod.
Over on YouTube, Jesus points to the Uncle Jessy channel as a great source for 3D printers, techniques, and projects. Jesus appreciates how he follows up review videos with subsequent videos that clarify and update previous evaluations. Follow the creator on Twitter @UncleJessy4Real.
On Netflix, Jesus and his family are enjoying NCIS. They’ve been enjoying it so much that he’s actually a little sad that he’s been missing it for the last 15 years.
KELLIE BAHRI is a 5th grade teacher at the Birmingham Public Schools in Birmingham, MI. She’s a supporter of the Sustainable Development Goals, a member of Nohea Kindreds, an Agent for Agency, and a co-founder of the @CrazyPLN. She’s also the cohost of the EDU Exchange Pod podcast and is currently working on her PhD in educational leadership. Best of all, Kellie is a tremendous elevator and amplifier of other educators.
Falling Back in Love with Education
A few years ago, the state of Michigan moved to a high-stakes model of evaluation for teachers. It turned Kellie’s world upside down, increasing stress and anxiety, isolating her colleagues, and making her fall out of love with the profession. “I wanted to walk away,” she explains, but she felt trapped in the classroom by her need for health insurance.
After taking some time to reflect on herself and her role in these circumstances, she concluded that she was actually the source of the problem. Her inclination to hoard ideas and outshine others in order to keep her job were actually the cause of her misery.
From that realization, Kellie changed things up completely: she re-opened her classroom doors, started sharing ideas and resources again, and took every opportunity to spotlight the work of others. This pivot in her approach allowed her to rediscover the joy of teaching, strengthen her friendships with colleagues, and change the culture in her team … and she’s been on fire ever since.
The EDU Exchange Podcast
Kellie and co-host David Hennel @HennelD_EDU recently teamed up to create the EDU Exchange. Their hope is to publish educator stories that resonate with the masses and push the thinking and practices within our education systems. David manages the tech side of things, and Kellie brings the perspective of a homeroom teacher. The podcast is still in the early stages of development, but Kellie and David look forward to publishing more episodes soon.
Elevating the #CrazyPLN and Nohea Kindred
ELEVATE is Kellie’s #OneWord2020, and most of her activity on Twitter does exactly that: it elevates and celebrates the work of others. Hashtags that Kellie follows closely on Twitter include #CrazyPLN and #NoheaKindreds.
#CrazyPLN began as a small group of educators who simply came together to support each other, but that small group has grown into a swelling community of teachers, authors, and leaders. It’s a community marked by collaboration and a deep belief in student agency and empowerment.
“They’ve transformed my teaching and my life,” says Kellie. If we become the people that surround us, she can’t think of better people to want to emulate. A care for kids is at the center of everything they do.
The mission of Nohea Kindreds is to “help school and district leaders create information peace of mind, so they can lead effectively, teachers can teach joyfully, and students learn.” Kellie commends Nohea’s co-founders, Aubrey Patterson and Lori Harvey as possibly the kindest, most lovely people in education.
Nohea is built around a three-step leadership philosophy that puts special emphasis on three actions: simplify, amplify, and clarify. Much of their consultation and coaching work for schools and school leaders helps education organizations increase capacity by decluttering communication, clarifying mission, and strategically investing in leaders within their communities. The Nohea Kindred tribe is made up of givers: educators who want to freely share with educators around the world.
What’s Setting Kellie on 🔥 in Education Right Now
“I feel like I’m on fire for every possible angle that education has to offer,” Kellie laughs. One of her many areas of passion right now include the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. She combines the UNSDGs with design thinking to transform her middle school classroom.
“It breaks down walls and brings the world right into our classroom,” she says. It’s given her middle schoolers passion and mission and some deeply authentic project-based learning. “This work has me so on fire that I could go on and on about it.”
Kellie is working on a PhD, and she admits that part of the challenge to come will be narrowing the focus of her activities. She’s also enjoyed working with Evo Hannan and his Agents for Agency, an association of educators committed to changing paradigms in education that give students more agency and ownership in their learning. Find out more about Agents for Agency at EvoHannan.com.
A Personal Passion Outside of Education: Nature
Kellie has a lot going on at all times, she admits, but one thing she always makes time for is fresh air. Getting into the woods and walking through the trees is calming, clarifying, and centering, and she’s incredibly blessed to have easy access to the wilds of northern Michigan. Her summers are filled with camping and kayaking, although she doesn’t share Abigail French’s love of snakes! Getting off the grid once in a while is important, she says. It helps us get back to basics: our health, others, and nature.
A Productivity Hack: Preparing for the Morning the Night Before
Sleep is Kellie’s ultimate productivity hack, she says. “I’m a sleeper. Once my head hits the pillow, I could sleep for 13 hours. Getting up in the morning is so hard for me – I could sleep until noon if given the chance.” With that in mind, Kellie has learned that absolutely everything for her morning routine must be prepared and ready to go the night before.
Voices and Resources That Spark Her Thinking and Ignite Her Practice
Over on Twitter, Kellie recommends following #SDGwomen, @CrazyPLN, and @LPortnoy. “Lindsay has changed my teaching and how I approach learning with students,” Kellie says.
For a great edtech tool, Kellie points to FlipGrid. “Flipgrid was really great for student conferences,” Kellie explains. “It was wonderful for parents to hear their child talk about the things that they loved about the classroom and what they were learning.” Flipgrid has also offered a nice way for Kellie’s students to communicate with students in Africa and around the world. Follow Fligrid on Twitter @FlipGrid.
Kellie is a huge supporter of the Teachers on Fire podcast and claims to never miss an episode. Amazing! Another one of her podcast favorites is The Staff Room Podcast with the very charismatic Chey and Pav. They’re fun, they’re human, and they bring some great down-to-earth perspectives on the state of education today. Follow this podcast on Twitter @StaffPodcast.
Some of Kellie’s recent Netflix viewing has included The Stranger and The Five. Both series are based on fascinating books by Harlan Coben, and Kellie will consume anything he puts out.
We sign off on this conversation, and Kellie gives us the best ways to follow her online. Check the links below and get connected!
JULIA FLISS is a sixth grade ELA teacher, activist, world changer, Sustainable Development Goals Ambassador, lifelong learner, creative, and yogi who lives in Evergreen, Colorado.
No More 12-Hour Workdays
When asked to recall a low moment in her professional journey, Julia makes a quick distinction: with the right perspective, low moments can better be viewed as growth moments. Every bit of adversity presents an opportunity to learn.
One of the more impactful growth moments for Julia was her move from Denver West High School, an inner city Title 1 school, to a school in the mountains of Colorado. As challenging as the shift was, Julia was thankful for the ways in which her mindset was strengthened: it helped to give her a broader understanding of her value as an educator.
Before the move from Denver West, Julia’s formula for work was 12 hours a day – an unsustainable pace that made her a prime candidate for burnout. After a period of reflection, she realized that she was modeling unhealthy behavior for her students, so with the change in teaching contexts came a change in her professional philosophy and personal boundaries.
She decided that it was okay to define healthy boundaries, create personal prosperity, and live a life that allowed her to be the best version of herself … and by doing so, be able to serve her students better.
“For me, it’s not about going without or giving up in order to serve – it’s about living into each moment and creating a reality where everyone has everything they need in every moment.”
UN Sustainable Development Goals
Julia dreams of some day visiting the United Nations centers in New York City or Washington to speak about the Sustainable Development Goals in person. She is committed to the SDGs because she is committed to her students and their future.
“They deserve a classroom without walls – a global learning community that prioritizes collaboration, collective wellbeing, and taking action for the good of people and the planet,” she explains. The SDGs provide the platform and the launch point to help students engage with these important efforts and connect with other like-minded agents of change around the world. They give access to kid-driven inquiry and design that is exciting, invigorating, and now at our fingertips thanks to technology.
As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and the UN sustainable development goals provide the common language to go about that work at any grade level.
Julia’s favorite goals are 4 and 16 – a fusion between Quality Education and Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. “Quality education requires a coming together, a looking in the mirror, a grassroots connection that helps us create access for every child to get what they need in order to learn. We are not going anywhere as a planet or as a species until we reach out our hand to every single person on the planet in a way that creates systemic change.”
Why Should Educators Build a PLN?
Julia is a committed networker and community builder, and she believes it’s our responsibility as educators to model the kinds of people that we’re encouraging our students to be. If we want our kids to be global citizens, we need to demonstrate what that looks like. Looking outside of our classrooms and our buildings gives us greater perspective on our own behaviors and a reference point for our professional practice and learning.
With all the benefits of global connections, the question becomes … why not? Why not connect and learn more? As Jen Williams says, being a lifelong learner means investing in our own growth and evolution as an educator.
Julia’s first years of teaching at Denver West High School taught her to develop professionally without waiting to be professionally developed. As a result, her career has been marked by digging in, asking, connecting, and sharing professional learning.
Important first connections included George Couros and his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, which prompted her to get on Twitter. From there, Julia found Jennifer Gonzalez who then led her to Marisa Thompson, someone Julia calls a huge mentor from the moment they connected. From Marisa, she connected with the whole #TQE family.
Simply by watching and listening on Twitter and in other spaces, Julia was inspired to find her tribe: other educators who shared her professional values and ideals for education. “I feel like our opportunity as educators to be the best we can be is truly by building on each other,” Julia explains.
“#BetterTogether could not be more true. It’s just gold. Any teacher who is hesitating to connect should just try it. Get out there, jump in, take a risk, and try it.”
Seeing Other Classrooms at Work
When I asked Julia for an example of something in eduTwitter that is setting her on fire today, Julia pointed to the opportunities to see inside other teacher classrooms. “When someone is willing to share what kids are doing, what they’re trying out with students, what they’re revealing about what didn’t work well, when there’s an authentic moment of learning that truly provides a window into their world, that lights me up. I will always find those posts to dig in, learn more, and celebrate.”
What Else is Setting Julia on 🔥 in Education
Zooming out on education, Julia is energized by the movement of change within education today. So many educators are coalescing and combining their efforts to support student-driven learning, global collaboration, the rewriting of curriculum, and rethinking traditional practices. The power of the PLN is about more than just professional learning: it’s about working together to reshape our education systems and change the planet for the better.
A Professional Goal: More Collaboration
In her current context, Julia serves on a sixth grade language arts team, and from a practical standpoint she would love to find more time to collaborate with her teammates. The times that they do find to share passions and identify opportunities for interdisciplinary learning lights her up and makes their teaching practice richer.
“It’s about strengthening our community of teacher-learners so that we can impact our community of student-learners,” she says. This year, she’s been using the UN sustainable development goals to build a framework for meaningful teaching and learning on her team and for their sixth grade students. When kids feel that team approach to learning, it helps everyone to grow, get excited, and get on board with meaningful work that leads to global change.
Passions That Bring Her Alive
Julia has always had a passion for spiritual growth. For her, this starts with being a solutionary, and it helps that she lives in a cabin in the wilderness – something that allows her to connect with nature every single day. She also draws inspiration and guidance from meditation, and she’s passionate about art and travel.
“I’m a life liver,” she says. “I believe that we truly learn from our experience of the world around us, and I believe that we create our reality.” For that reason, she’s learned to be thoughtful and strategic about the moments, experiences, people, places, and opportunities that she surrounds herself with. The human experience is a gift to be fully and intentionally realized.
Personal Productivity Practices
Her mindfulness practice is the key to helping her stay centered and do all that she does, Julia says. She gets up daily at 4:00 a.m. to get on an elliptical, explaining that she needs quiet time and unplugged time to get away from all notifications and interruptions. The right morning practices set her on fire for the rest of the day and give her the energy to be her best self for her learners and colleagues.
Resources That Ignite Julia’s Practice
Over on Twitter, Julia recommends following the Human Restoration Project (@HumResPro on Twitter), an organization of educators that makes it their mission to bring back the humanity to education. “They’re amazing,” she says. Julia also shouts out her beloved wolfpack – fellow educators who have the bug, push the envelope constantly, and challenge each other to be the very best they can be. These educators include Abigail French, Kellie Bahri, and Donna Guerin.
The edtech tool that has really gets Julia excited right now is Zoom. “I love the ability to connect with people, kids, and classes from around the world in a way that transforms the screen from passive to active. It’s a learning opportunity to have a window inside another classroom, to talk with an expert, or to see something that is happening in the world in ways that wouldn’t be possible without it.”
Julia’s book pick is The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries by Zoe Weil. Zoe is passionate about raising a generation of students who are committed to being the change, and she is the co-founder of the Institute for Humane Education.
After saying some very kind things about the Teachers on Fire podcast, Julia shouts out The Human Restoration Project as another podcast that she gains a lot of inspiration from. Follow them on Twitter @HumResPro.
When it comes to best value on YouTube, Julia points to TED-Ed. “I can’t speak highly enough of TED-Ed,” Julia says. “My kids crave it.” Not only is the content from these talks helpful, but Julia points to the many applications of claim-evidence-analysis that can follow.
We sign off on this great conversation, and Julia gives us the best ways to reach out and connect with her learning. See below for details!
ANDREW CANLE is an Assistant Principal at Shaw Avenue School, a K-6 elementary campus in Valley Stream, New York, a suburban town just outside of Queens. He’s a three-time champion coach at NBA Math Hoops, a program that engages students in math and social-emotional learning through the game of basketball. He’s also the creator of the #EDUCanle podcast.
Education or Law?
Andrew recalls a time during his second year of teaching when he seriously considered leaving the field of education entirely. “I just wasn’t happy overall,” he admits, which led him to consider moving from the classroom to a career in law.
What kept him in education, he says, was his decision to revisit his core passion: helping kids and doing the work of transforming lives. So many people made that sacrifice for him, he says, and so he redoubled his commitment to teaching. Looking back, he values this crisis of calling as a time that allowed him to find himself and redefine his true values.
The EDUCanle Podcast
Andrew credits colleagues and co-workers for the inspiration to start the EDUCanle Podcast. Part of his role at Shaw Avenue is to facilitate professional development opportunities for his staff, and at some point it occurred to him that recording these events and then repurposing the content on a podcast would be a great way to allow staff members to review content or catch up on missed learning.
Publishing in podcast form also allows him to support the learning of professionals outside of his own building and expand his professional network, something that can only benefit him and his teachers. Moving forward, Andrew plans to expand his asynchronous professional development offerings by screencasting presentations and sharing these on YouTube.
On 🔥 for Formative Assessment
Formative assessment is an area that is lighting Andrew’s fire in education right now. “It’s the crux of everything,” he points out.
Checking for understanding, strategic questioning, and determination of student progress are such critical components of what teachers do in the classroom, and so much of student learning depends on these activities done well. Lately, he’s been taking a close look at the mindsets needed to ask the most effective questions of students – questions that generate the data that informs our next instructional decisions.
A Professional Goal: Improving His Writing
At the forefront of his professional goals, Andrew is looking to become a better writer. He’s now had several articles published, including one with Edutopia, but he laughs about the silent suffering of perfectionism that remains a constant challenge. He talks about making his writing process more fluid and simply going with the flow of his ideas, steps that will make his writing more powerful and accelerate his productivity at the same time.
Personal Passions: Psychology, Sociology, and Sports
Passions that bring Andrew alive as a human being outside of his professional context include the studies of psychology and sociology. “They absolutely fascinate me,” Andrew says, and some of the learning he does in these spaces also equips him to be a more effective administrator. “You can never have enough tools in the toolbelt.”
Andrew is also a big sports fan and points to the legacies of dynasty teams like the New York Yankees and the New England Patriots as examples that our educational institutions can learn from.
Andrew’s Productivity Hack: A Little Blue Notebook
The engine that keeps Andrew on track and productive is a small blue notebook that he keeps in his inside pocket. That notebook is where he tracks to-do lists, items of concern, future tweets, and random notes. While others turn to cloud note-taking services, he likes to keep things analog.
Voices That Spark His Thinking and Ignite His Practice
Over on Twitter, Andrew recommends following @MrDataGuy, an important voice on the subject of assessment: traditional, PLC, and student ownership. His graphics are incredible and Andrew says they have supported many of his professional learning events.
One of Andrew’s favorite edtech tools is Review360, an application from Pearson that helps education leaders track student behavior patterns and support student learning based on situational trends.