Episode 115 – Jonathan Alsheimer

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Meet Jonathan Alsheimer

JONATHAN ALSHEIMER teaches seventh grade history at the legendary Fred M. Lynn Middle School. He’s a family man, keynote speaker, and the author of #NextLevelTeaching: Empowering Students and Transforming School Culture. As much as he enjoys speaking to teachers about education, it’s a thrill for him to share his story with students and motivate them to overcome adversity in their own learning journeys.

Early Struggles with the Game of School

Although he grew up in an education household, Jonathan freely admits that he struggled to play the game of school. As a kid, test-taking was difficult, and he remembers adopting a facade of confidence to cover up those insecurities. To be successful, he realized he would need to work hard and never give up, and he carried that never-quit ethic into athletics and throughout his school and college career.

He’s found strength in being honest about his academic journey and enjoys encouraging students to keep pushing, keep grinding, never give up, and overcome those challenges that today seem insurmountable. “Be that teacher that you needed when you were a kid,” he says, and it’s something he keeps constantly in mind regarding his own practice. We need to see past the data and the test results to recognize each child for who they are and the journey they’re on.

Next Level Teaching 

One of the biggest motivators behind his book, Next Level Teaching, traces back to a major language arts test that Jonathan failed in high school. As painful as that failure was, it’s only made him more determined to become first a Master of Education and now a published author. He’s walking the walk — living out his message that hard work and determination can overcome the demons of failure and adversity. To the doubters and haters that second-guessed his potential, this book is a mic drop.

115 - Jonathan Alsheimer7.jpgOne of his hopes for this book is that it inspires teachers to reach out to learners and classrooms beyond the door of their classroom. No, one teacher won’t completely revolutionize an entire school and culture by themselves. But our influence goes much further than we think it does, and it’s when committed teachers truly take ownership of their communities that we start to see systemic change.

Bring the energy, bring the passion, engage with kids, and love on students beyond your classroom and throughout your building, Jonathan urges. Take those opportunities during supervision duties or athletic events to connect with kids on another level and communicate care. Be “that teacher” that we all look back to with fondness, the one who believed in us and made a difference beyond the academics.

What To Do When It’s Hard to Connect

To teachers who struggle to connect with their learners, Jonathan encourages them to view each student as their own child. How would that relationship change the ways you relate to that hard-to-reach kid?

Kids need to feel empowered; when they feel that they can’t win or don’t matter, that’s when they withdraw, isolate, and tune out. Teachers should rethink “throwaway minutes” and use that time to build quick connections and trust. When kids love you and they love your classroom, they’re more likely to learn.  “I’ll throw away 30 minutes today to gain an hour of focused instruction next week,” Jonathan says. Find their interests and connect with them there, and you’ll be on your way to building a positive relationship. 

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What Else is Setting Jonathan on 🔥 in Education: TeacherFit 

One thing that Jonathan is hyped about today is TeacherFit, a health and wellness program for teachers. It’s simple, affordable, and has the capacity to significantly improve the health and wellbeing of an entire staff community. Even better, TeacherFit gives Jonathan great mentoring opportunities with students. He’s been working out after hours at school, and students have been joining in. It’s been another great on-ramp for relationship-building with students, and it’s improving the health, wellness, and community culture at Fred Lynn Middle School.

A Professional Goal: More Speaking to Students

Jonathan’s new book has taken a lot of his his focus and attention over the last year, but he also continues to build his capacity to speak to students. He is speaking at schools in Texas and Kansas in January and anticipates more opportunities in the months to come. Some of the feedback from schools and students has been incredible, and to hear that his message is giving hope to the hopeless pushes him to do more. There are kids that need to hear that message of hope at virtually every school.

Personal Passions That Bring Jonathan Alive

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“I’m all about getting out there and living life,” Jonathan says. “I wanna DO stuff in life.” He’s committed to living a life with no regrets, visiting new places, and trying new things. He’s already tried white water rafting, climbing mountains, and mixed martial arts fighting, and he looks forward to experiencing a shark cage next. It’s all about living life to the fullest and modeling a spirit of risk-taking for his learners, and his experiences make for great stories, illustrations, and connection points in the classroom as well. “You can be okay with what you got or you can push life to the max,” he tells his students.

His Key to Productivity: A Relentless Spirit

Instead of an app or routine, Jonathan points to his relentless spirit as his key to productivity. It’s a value that kids need to learn to nurture and grow within themselves over time, he says. That said, it’s also important to take some time for yourself, and Jonathan credits his amazing wife for helping him find balance between work and play. Next Level Teaching isn’t about spending money and hours on Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers. It’s about acknowledging that you as the teacher are the single most important factor for learning in the classroom, and that being the case, we need to care for ourselves properly.

Voices & Resources That Inspire His Practice

Over on Twitter, Jonathan recommends following his principal, Hamish Brewer. Hamish has been absolutely inspirational, genuine, and he really does walk the walk at Fred Lynn Middle School. Connect with Hamish on Twitter @BrewerHM

When asked for an edtech tool pick, Jonathan goes to iMovie. It’s nothing new, but kids love it, he says. It’s such an easy and powerful way to energize learning activities and engage students in the act of creation.

When it comes to books, Jonathan recommends Relentless: Changing Lives by Disrupting the Educational Norm by Hamish Brewer, a book he was honored to contribute to and endorse. Jonathan also shouts out Leadership Lessons of the Navy SEALS: Battle-Tested Strategies for Creating Successful Organizations and Inspiring Extraordinary Results by Jeff and Jon Cannon, explaining that many of the principles contained in this book are universally applicable and certainly come in handy in the classroom.

Jonathan has a lot of commute time, and two of his favorite podcasts include Jostens Renaissance and TeacherFit

This episode released during the Christmas season, so when prompted for an all-time favorite Christmas movie, Jonathan went with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. It’s one of those family classics that never fails to deliver laughs.

We sign off on this inspiring conversation, and Jonathan gives us the best ways to reach out and connect with him online. See below for details!

You can connect with Jonathan …

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Episode 111 – Abigail French

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Meet Abigail French

ABIGAIL FRENCH is a mother of four, a history teacher for sixth graders, an advocate of public education, and an explorer of the natural world in Woodstock, VA. 

A Challenging Professional Reboot

For Abby, one of her biggest professional challenges was returning to the classroom in 2014 after leaving it in 1997. A lot had changed while she was away, particularly technology resources and internet access. She recognized immediately that technology should be used to build skills, facilitate learning, and create deeper understanding, but it took some time to adjust to the changes that technology had brought to the learning environment.

Today, her sixth graders enjoy 1:1 Chromebook access, a move that has come with a mix of tremendous opportunities and practical challenges. “It’s definitely a journey,” Abby says of her use of technology in the classroom. “It’s always evolving – it’s not like you ever arrive.” As she models a posture of constant learning and openness to new things, you sense that Abby’s learners are in good hands.

The Snake That Rocked Edu Twitter 

Abby has been fascinated by herpetology – the study of reptiles – for about as long as she can remember. She’s even gained such notoriety in her community for the courage, care, and prowess she shows around snakes that she is known by some as The Snake Lady!

When her daughter called her about a large snake in the backyard in the summer, Abby didn’t hesitate to run outside and move it. It was likely a female, she says, looking for a nice place to lay her eggs. What others fear, Abby loves to engage and learn from.

Not Measuring Up

Abby isn’t someone who went into teaching because she had such a great experience as a student. In some ways, she actually went into teaching to undo the damage done and to give students a better learning experience than the one she remembers.

As a young student, Abby is quick to point out that she definitely had some good teachers. But she had a learning disability, a processing issue, and that meant that she learned differently than most other kids. The symptoms of academic success, including good grades, words of affirmation, and the approval of her teachers always felt elusive. She still clearly remembers the feelings of falling short, of never being good enough, of never quite fitting into the game of school. Those memories and experiences have shaped her philosophy and professional practice profoundly.  

Rethinking Assessment in Her Practice Today

As with technology, Abby’s approach to assessment has been a journey. It starts with a mindset, she says. As she returned to teaching five years ago, she realized that traditional means of assessment – quizzes, tests, and multiple choice assessments – were not satisfying her desire to know what her students actually knew and had learned.

She started looking around at other examples and modes of assessment, asking how she could better partner with her students and include them in every part of the assessment process. She wanted to put students in the driver’s seat: how do YOU want to show what you’ve learned? Building strong relationships with students was an essential step toward empowerment, she observed. Student reactions to her change in philosophy have been exciting, and Abby is constantly learning about the ways to represent learning that energize her students and connect with their passions and interests.

One other way that Abby has started changing her practice is to change the way that she organizes her students’ digital portfolios. Rather than organize them by subjects and units, she has started to organize them around learning targets and skills: analyze and interpret, compare and contrast, using a decision-making model, etc. This means of portfolio organization shifts the focus from the content to the skills: what are we actually trying to learn? Which skill does this work demonstrate?

#HackLearning: Countering Toxic Cultures 

Abby recently moderated a #HackLearning Twitter chat about toxicity in schools, and she’s given this topic a lot of thought lately. It’s a challenging topic with a ton of complexity and layers, and she’s quick to point out that there are no quick fixes or easy solutions.

Teachers pour themselves into their work, and the emotional well can get pretty low if communities aren’t doing the important work of caring for their members. The work of teaching becomes doubly difficult in environments of toxic thinking and behavior, but one thing we should always keep in mind is that toxicity is rarely personal. Instead, it usually appears as a symptom of what someone else is going through.

Ultimately, we need to protect our own mindsets by finding supportive partners, both locally and through our professional learning networks. PLNs such as the education community on Twitter can deliver incredible encouragement and inspiration, and it’s a great way to find your people when you’re feeling isolated or marginalized in your own learning community. Even as we connect outside the walls of our school, however, it’s important to continue to invest in our own community. 

A Professional Goal: Instructional Coaching

Abby has been exploring some growing opportunities in the area of instructional coaching, and lately it’s been a pleasure to serve in a mastermind group for new teachers. She’s excited to contribute, and she enjoys the growth she sees in her own practice along the way.

Personal Passions Outside of Education 

MushroomsOutside of school, Abby enjoys sharing passions with her four children. Their curiosities are endless and they stretch her into new spaces that she otherwise wouldn’t necessarily find herself. She is also energized by running, getting into nature, and hunting for mushrooms. Mushrooms fascinate her, and it’s a joy to find them, photograph them, and cook with them.

A Personal Productivity Hack: Time Blocking

Abby credits Aubrey Patterson with the practice of time blocking. She uses Google Calendar to prioritize her time for the week and make sure that the big rocks are accomplished before the sand. Her next mission? Getting a better handle on her Google Drive and organizing it more efficiently.

Voices and Resources That Inspire Her Practice

Over on Twitter, Abby recommends giving Jeanne Wolz a follow @TeacherOffDuty. Jeanne is an instructional coach who Abby has learned a lot from lately. She also recommends following Aubrey Patterson @PattersonAubrey, co-founder of Nohea Kindred, educational leadership strategist, and consultant.

An edtech tool that has taken learning to the next level in her sixth grade classroom as of late is Zoom. Zoom has allowed her to connect with other educators in real time, bringing new insights and information into her classroom.

Entertaining an Elephant by William McBrideAbby’s book pick comes from a book club she joined this year. The title is Entertaining an Elephant: A Novel About Learning and Letting Go by William McBride. The book chronicles the journey of a seasoned teacher who battles burnout. Follow the author on Twitter @DrBilly7

Two podcasts that are making a difference in Abby’s professional practice are Teachers Going Gradeless and Human Restoration Project. Both shows completely reimagine education and particularly assessment, and they’ve been fuel for her professional growth and evolution.

When she’s got no energy left in the day and it’s Netflix time, Abby is watching Peaky Blinders, a great historical series, and Jane the Virgin, a source of non-stop laughs.

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

You can connect with Abby on Twitter @AWFrench1. 

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Episode 93 – Jorge Valenzuela

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Meet Jorge Valenzuela

JORGE VALENZUELA is a graduate teaching assistant and doctoral student at Old Dominion University and the lead coach at Lifelong Learning Defined. He is a national faculty member of PBL Works and a national teacher effectiveness coach for the Engineering by Design curriculum. His work is aimed at helping educators understand and implement computational thinking, computer science, STEM/STEAM, and project-based learning.

Jorge is also a national presenter, ISTE author, and frequent contributor to books, academic journals, how-to blogs, and webinars. He is the 2018 awardee of ISTE’s Computer Science Excellence Award and recipient of the Lynn Barrier Engineering Leadership Award for his contributions to STEM education in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

These days, Jorge balances a number of active roles in education. Besides teaching at Old Dominion University, he also teaches a computer science course for middle school students in Richmond, VA on the weekends. He’s working on his doctorate, he’s a coach, he speaks at institutions across the country, and he’s an author. Jorge is an active blogger and is currently working on his first book.

Learning to Let Educators Know, Like, and Trust His Work

Jorge recalls a period about eight or nine years ago when he worked as a curriculum specialist for a school division. At the time, he oversaw the area of STEM education, but although he had a lot of passions and ideas, he felt tentative about sharing those ideas with other professionals.

It was then that Chad Ratliff passed on a very important piece of advice: “No one cares how smart you are or if you have smart ideas. What they want to see is results. You should go on Twitter and social media and showcase what your students are actually doing.”

Jorge was slow to get started, but since receiving that advice he’s become adept at sharing the learning from his professional practice. As he’s shared bits of learning from his own practice, it’s made it easier for him to build credibility and help other educators understand what he’s all about.

PBL Advice

When it comes to project-based learning, Jorge calls us to remember first and foremost that PBL is simply an instructional approach. It’s another way to teach.

To get started, he advises looking at learning activities that are already happening in our classrooms – particularly experiential, hands-on, minds-on learning. By starting with the  knowledge and experience in a familiar content area, we’ll feel better positioned to gradually move towards a multi-disciplinary, PBL approach.

From there, look at resources like PBL Works or other stories that are being shared by successful PBL educators by way of blogs, articles, and videos to gain some tried and true inspiration. The resources at PBL Works are based on two frameworks: the project design elements and the project-based teaching practices (the what and the how). Both are helpful.

He quotes Tony Robbins as saying that “repetition is the mother of skill.” We have to get started to get better. 

What’s Setting Jorge on 🔥 in Education Today

Fred Rogers said that “The most important people in the lives of students are parents and teachers. Therefore, the most important people in the world are parents and teachers.”

Today, with modern families looking different and certainly busier than they were twenty years ago, the role of the teacher is more critical than ever. That being the case, let’s strive to make our classrooms as enjoyable, meaningful, and relevant as possible. 

The Place of Computer Science in Education

Jorge’s undergraduate education focused on computer studies, and in the decades since that schooling, he says that the core principles haven’t changed much. What has changed, however, is where computer science lives in the curriculum.

Today, CS can be integrated into Math, English, Social Studies, and other subjects. It’s more than coding – it’s a way of thinking and solving problems.

A Professional Goal

Jorge is currently working on a book called Rev Up Robotics with Computational Thinking and Programming. “I’ve found a lot of strength in numbers, and ISTE has helped me find my professional network, my tribe, and my home in a STEM PLN,” Jorge says.

Every educator should find a professional learning network that he or she can subscribe to and learn from – both in and out of the classroom, because working with others is key.

Productivity Habits

Jorge is motivated by self-growth of all kinds, and right now he’s especially fascinated by learning about relationships. He recently discovered Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, and it’s been incredibly insightful. Emotional awareness and social skills are helpful in every context, professional and personal. They’re especially useful when it comes to dealing with two teenagers!

Jorge also spends 10-20 hours a week honing his craft and developing his skills as an educator – not just for his students but also for the teachers he coaches. That amount of time isn’t for everyone, he admits, but for him it’s grown from a place of passion to one of intense purpose and fulfillment.

Jorge recommends waking up early each morning. He likes to start his day at 5:00, start with some meditation, and spend time reflecting on failures. In the past, he was embarrassed by mistakes, but now he welcomes them.

In the big picture, we actually experience more failures than we do successes. By having the courage and humility to reflect on and learn from each failure, we only accelerate our own growth and position ourselves better for our next successful moment.

Voices That Shape Jorge’s Thinking & Inspire His Practice

Over on Twitter, Jorge recommends following @ElonMusk, the ultimate STEM student, and @AyahBdeir, founder of LittleBits.

The edtech tool that is getting Jorge most excited for learners right now is the Code Kit by LittleBits

Relentless by Tim GroverJorge’s book pick is Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable by Tim Grover. Grover has an incredible story of coaching some of the NBA’s all-time greats, and he has a lot of insights to share that can be applied off the hard court as well.

As far as podcasts go, Jorge is tuning into a couple: Your EdTech Questions by ISTE and Coach Corey Wayne, a life and peak performance coach.

Though he doesn’t really get much time to watch Netflix, Jorge enjoyed When They See Us, the story of five African-American boys who were wrongfully convicted of a serious crime in the late 80s. It’s a tear-jerker, Jorge warns.

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

Connect with Jorge:

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Episode 89 – Lynmara Colon

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Meet Lynmara Colon

LYNMARA COLON is a dynamic leader committed to student learning and growth. She is passionate about technology, access, and equity for all students, and was named in the NSBA 20 to Watch for Innovative Practices. As a former teacher, assistant principal, and principal, Lynmara is focused on building healthy cultures by leading with a Disney mentality where all stakeholders are welcomed.

Lynn holds two master’s degrees: one in curriculum and instruction, the other in educational leadership. She is also the co-author of the recently published Empower Our Girls: Opening the Door for Girls to Achieve More.

Lynmara’s practice is located in Manassas, VA where she serves the Prince William County Schools. The district is situated 30 miles outside of Washington, DC, with 90,000 students, 29,000 English language learners, and 140 languages spoken across 98 schools. Lynmara is the Director of EL Programs and Services, including Central Registration, Translation, Instructional Services, Professional Learning, and Instructional Point of Contact for Schools.

Learning the Importance of Relationships

When asked to think of a time of adversity in her professional journey, Lynmara thinks back to her first year as principal. At the time, she was eager to jump into the work and felt ready to institute new initiatives immediately. But she quickly learned that slow is better, listening is critical, and building relationships and trust across the community is paramount.

As she looks back, she’s grateful for one teacher who graciously helped her to slow down and listen more. She values this kind of professional feedback and points to the importance of these “cocoon friends” who can offer healthy perspectives and hold her accountable.

Introducing the Book: Empower Our Girls

Lynmara is so excited about the feedback that she and Adam Welcome have received after publishing Empower Our Girls: Opening the Door for Girls to Achieve More. In her own story, she was as raw and vulnerable as she could be so that young girls everywhere will be better, stronger, and more empowered as a result.

This book brings together many different authors and contributors who have experienced similar challenges and experiences and are active in the work of advocacy for girls in education today. It includes superintendents, medical professionals, athletes, and other leaders who share their journey in an attempt to clear roadblocks, improve equity, and inspire others.

When I asked Lynn to suggest practical ways for me to empower the girls in my practice, she spoke to the importance of asking the right questions and intentionally making sure every voice is heard. Girls need to gain the experience of speaking and advocating in order to build confidence and step forward into new spaces.

Serving English Learners

In her new role as Director of English Learner Programs and Services, Lynmara serves with purpose. She was born, raised, and educated in Puerto Rico, so all of her early learning was in Spanish, and she understands the challenges in this area of education because she can personally relate – she’s lived it.

She’s grateful that her current district shares her vision of giving every English Learner what she calls a “Disney experience,” the sense that every person is valued and deserves magical moments of learning. To get serious about meeting the needs of these students, schools must invest in targeted professional development that helps educators better understand the unique needs of these learners, the challenges they face, and the exciting potential that lies within each child.

It’s always about building the kind of school cultures that offer quality education opportunities for every single student, regardless of background and journey. Lynmara can tell these learners that although the path may be difficult, it IS possible. She’s done it, and she’s living her American Dream. 

New Opportunities for English Learners

Lynmara is excited by the US Department of Education’s tech toolkit for English learners, which is providing more on-ramps and learning opportunities for students whose first language is not English. The department has stated that all students should have access to technology and innovative practices, including students in these important conversations and improving equity in schools across the country. With improved resources and access, kids are winning.

Her Professional Goal: Finishing the Doctorate

Lynmara’s number one professional goal at the moment is her doctorate in education. This has been a dream for some time, although her doubts in her own English language proficiency held her back from taking this step for too long.

Now that she’s plugged into the program and sharing spaces with other education leaders from other districts, she thoroughly enjoys the rich professional relationships and conversations that have followed. Titles aren’t important in this context, and she and her colleagues are free to grapple with important challenges and issues as peers. It’s been a wonderful and inspiring journey, and she’s grateful for the additions she’s been able to make to her professional network.

Productivity Habits and Routines

In conjunction with her latest role and responsibilities, Lynn has adopted habits from Hal Elrod’s Miracle Morning. She wakes up at 4:45 a.m., runs two miles, completes a devotional, does some journaling, and reads for twenty minutes. This routine helps her to center, plan for the day, and focus on positivity.

These habits have helped her to manage the larger challenges of her professional practice and also helped her achieve some impressive physical goals as well. Lynmara has even taken a further step with the Miracle Morning, following cues from the Miracle Morning for Writers. This has been a key resource as she strives to write her dissertation and complete her PhD. 

Lynmara also talks about the power of breakfast and sleep. They’re just essential, Lynn says, to stay on top of your game and make things happen in your practice. She never skips breakfast, and she tries hard to get at least six hours of sleep per night, finishing her day with reading and without access to her phone. She learned the importance of self-care the hard way, recalling a time earlier in her life when her body actually shut down after being pushed too hard.

Voices That Shape Her Practice and Inspire Her Thinking

On Twitter, Lynn recommends following her superintendent, @SuperPWCS. Steve Walts is a nonstop source of inspiration and consistently shouts out great learning happening across the entire district.

When asked about her favorite tech tools, Lynn points to Canva, a simple and powerful graphic design program. She also really likes the features for English learners provided by Lexia Core 5 Reading

Lynmara is learning so much from Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, where author Kim Scott offers a ton of insights into the best ways to have those difficult conversations. Get to know the author on Twitter @KimBallScott

At the top of Lynn’s Apple Podcasts line-up is the RISE Podcast, featuring Rachel Hollis. “She’s my best friend, and she doesn’t even know it,” Lynn laughs. Follow Rachel on Twitter @MrsRachelHollis.

On YouTube, a go-to source of quality content and inspiration is the GoalCast channel. Lynn enjoys their content personally and shares it with her staff teams as well. Follow GoalCast on Twitter @Goal_Cast.

On Netflix, it’s been Grey’s Anatomy lately – a fun point of connection between Lynn and her children. Her twins remind Mom to “Stop asking questions and just watch the show!”

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

Connect with Lynmara:

Song Track Credits

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