ELENA AGUILAR is an accomplished educational presenter, speaker, and author. She strives to help leaders learn, be their best selves, and serve students well. In 2018, Elena published Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators, and in 2020 she released Coaching for Equity: Conversations That Change Practice.
Questions That Guided Our Conversation
1:15 – Why don’t you start by telling us a little more about your current context in education?
2:27 – First things first: how are you doing right now? How are you handling the home quarantine and social distancing?
4:37 – 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.
08:48 – In 2018, you published Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators. This seems like an especially timely focus today, with educators everywhere having to reinvent their practice and respond to challenges on a variety of levels. What are some pieces of wisdom and insight that you could share from your book that might provide educators with some hope and encouragement during a very challenging time in our schools?
18:46 – If you could offer one practical strategy or bit of advice to educators around the challenges of building equity, what would that be?
21:24 – How are you looking to grow professionally and improve your practice right now? Can you share about a specific professional goal or project that you’re currently working on?
22:41 – 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.
23:39 – When it comes to writing, are you the sort of structured or disciplined writers that follows the same writing time each day?
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.
CHANEL JOHNSON is a STEMinist, ASCD Emerging Leader, published author, K-12 Math and Science Program Specialist, instructional tech coach, and keynote presenter based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Pushing Back on Imposter Syndrome
Chanel was only 30 years old when she was hired as an instructional coach, and her age allowed feelings of imposter syndrome to creep in. It was her job to support educators across multiple campuses, and soon she could hear the doubts: why am I here? Do I really belong here?
One day, her supervisor put it to her directly: “If you didn’t belong here, you wouldn’t be here. You have to trust the knowledge that you have and believe that who you are is what brought you this far.” Chanel says she continues to remind herself of that helpful message whenever doubts and fears about her value start to reappear.
Chanel’s #GirlDad: A STEM Legacy
Chanel credits a lot of her love for STEM to her dad, an amazing father who enjoyed showing his daughter how science and STEM affected the world around them. He was a fan of sci-fi movies as well, an affection that Chanel shares today.
Chanel started her education journey with math and science programs, and she’s never looked back. STEM studies continue to thrill her because it’s a field that’s constantly changing, and it’s open to absolutely everyone.
Chanel’s brand is built around ‘STEMtastic‘ because she sees connections between STEM and everything she does, and she’s passionate about sending the message to underrepresented communities (including Black and Latina women) that they belong in STEM work. She’s quick to point out that there’s a lot more work to be done in this area.
Chanel is an ambassador for Flipgrid and she is always happy to boost this powerful platform. It amplifies some of the quietest voices in our classrooms, and it connects educators around the world. “I can’t stop talking about it,” she laughs.
One of her recent applications with Flipgrid was Character Book Day, which allowed her to dress up as a character, read a book to a group of students, and then share that same video with other audiences. Chanel is also excited about the possibilities that Flipgrid’s AR features afford educators: find Flipgrid QR codes on papers or posters and watch linked videos appear directly on your screen. These are powerful opportunities for living representations of learning.
Chanel’s Professional Learning
“My passion will always be instruction,” Chanel says. Her core passion is learning about new approaches and strategies that support student learning and achievement. Her PLN, particularly on Twitter, has been a phenomenal source of inspiration and learning when it comes to best practices in science and computer science education.
Chanel recently completed a 2-day training for ISTE certification, and she is so grateful for the growth she experienced during that event. She spent a lot of time focusing on the ISTE standards from the perspective of students, and it helped her think through the ways that we frame learning targets and structure activities for students.
A Personal Passion: Singing
“Everything for me is about learning in some form or fashion,” Chanel says. One activity that she’s enjoyed recently is plugging into her local church choir. It’s been a joy to build her singing abilities and share those gifts with others, and it’s really increased her love of music.
Chanel credits her husband for sometimes pulling her plug and saying “Nope, let’s go.” Sometimes we need that guidance to take a break, especially if we have a strong drive for learning, growth, and productivity.
She also gains a lot of value from Microsoft’s To-Do app, which she uses to sync her task list across all devices. She loves the sound it makes when she completes another task, and she doesn’t hesitate to include “take a break” in her list as well.
Voices and Resources That Inspire Chanel’s Practice
Over on Twitter, Chanel recommends giving Christian Padgett @SoontobeEdD a follow. “He’s a young powerhouse in the education field – a master in Math instruction and instruction technology,” she says. Chanel also shouts out Dr. Natalie Henderson @DrNHenderson, someone she credits for teaching her to take care of herself and always explore her outer limits.
One education technology app that Chanel is excited about is called Legends of Learning, a free platform that gamifies math and science for young students. Follow Legends of Learning on Twitter @LegendLearning.
Chanel’s book suggestion is Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. This book provides valuable insights on the psychology of individual and organizational change.
When she’s just looking for a fresh take on the news or some juicy gossip, Chanel tunes in to The Breakfast Club podcast, but when she’s looking for something of more substance in the world of education, she listens to The Leading Equity podcast with host Sheldon Eakins. Follow Sheldon on Twitter @SheldonEakins.
Chanel doesn’t watch a ton of content on Netflix, but one show that she’s started to watch on the advice of friends is You. It’s got just the right amount of dark and intriguing to keep things interesting.
We wrap up this fun conversation and Chanel gives us the best ways to connect with her work. See below for details!
Assessment is most effective and efficient when it happens right away.
“The most important takeaway from the research is that the shorter the time interval between eliciting the evidence and using it to improve instruction, the bigger the likely impact on learning … the biggest impact happens with ‘short-cycle’ formative assessment, which takes place not every six to ten weeks but every six to ten minutes, or even every six to ten seconds.”
— from Embedding Formative Assessment, by Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy
Think about that quote. The shorter the time interval, the bigger the impact on learning.
Let that sink in for a bit.
Nineteen years into teaching, I still don’t have the assessment game completely figured out. No matter how much feedback and assessment I provide, I labor under the constant burden of all the other student work that I feel I should be assessing.
In the evenings, on my weekends, on holidays, and even on snow days — especially snow days — I hear that quiet voice.
You should be grading work right now.
However subtle, it’s constant guilt and pressure. You know the feeling.
It’s enough to drive teachers insane. Studies confirm that it’s even enough to drive some from the profession entirely.
Lamenting the Marking Mountain
I started my career in the pre-internet classroom. In my 7th and 8th grade classrooms, I always had at least one tray marked INBOX. Work from learning activities given throughout the day generally ended up there. (Many of them with no names — remember that fun?)
Depending on the day’s activities, I might have anywhere between 25–100 sheets of paper in my inbox by day’s end.
And I would do my best to mark all those papers, of course. But inevitably the constant barrage of paper would start to pull away. My chunk of papers would become a pile, then a stack, then a mountain.
Within a month or two, my school bag was ballooning out of control. And I wasn’t alone. I remember colleagues who resorted to milk crates to ferry their paper mountain back and forth from home each day. Milk crates, filled to the brim with assignments that required marking.
Just take a moment to savor that accumulation of anxiety. Ahhhhhhh.
The Worst Beast of Them All: Writing Assessments
I’ve taught just about every subject in middle school, and I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that the most challenging assessments to complete — at least, in the traditional sense — were the writing pieces in English class.
Combing through a middle school student’s piece of writing was a brutally exhausting endeavor — especially before computers in the classroom. Traditionally, I was looking for form, style, meaning, and conventions. But I wasn’t just evaluating — I was coaching — and so I sought to offer meaningful feedback and notes as well.
“Make sure your subject and verbs agree.”
“Fortnite should be capitalized — proper noun”
“New paragraph here”
The math on this kind of feedback got ugly. To carefully comb through one piece of average writing and offer this level of feedback could take three or more minutes. With 28 students in my class, that was about 90 minutes of marking. Then the feedback had to be recorded — first in a place and way the student could observe it, then in my gradebook or assessment tracker.
Add any time to take breaks, talk to family and friends, or just generally be human, and we’re talking two hours.
Two hours of marking — typically in an evening when I felt exhausted from the day. For one learning activity.
And of course that didn’t count time spent on unit plans, lesson plans, email, parent communication, coaching, etc.
It was too much time.
Who’s the Winner Here?
The bad news about the scenario I just described is that it often failed to yield the results I was looking for. Even if I returned those assignments the very next day, it was unlikely that most students would pay much attention.
To put it bluntly, I could spend five minutes marking one piece of writing only to have the student look at it for five seconds.
And realistically, my timeline on returned writing assignments was decidedly not next day. A week or two, maybe.
Of course by that time, students really didn’t care. Well, they might care briefly about the grade. But it would definitely be a minority of students that would look much further at that point.
So what, exactly, was being learned through this assessment process? Very little, I suspect.
In fact, I knew it was very little, because my writers would tend to make the same mistakes all year long.
Rethinking Our Role: from Boss to Coach
In the last three years especially, my thinking on assessment has started to change in big ways.
For one thing, this is only my second year in nineteen years of teaching that my gradebook contains no numbers. I’ve gone gradeless. By itself, that’s a massive change in mindset with a ton of implications.
For one thing, I no longer regard marks as currency. In older models of education, students and teachers lived under the understanding that for every piece of work done, there ought to be a payment.
Students (workers) completed work for their teachers (bosses) and were paid grades (wages) for their efforts. Every piece of work was worthy of compensation.
The size of the reward matched the level of compliance. The game of school.
The problem with the game of school was that it often ignored the true business of education: the learning.
Putting More of My Focus on Real-Time Feedback
In school and in life, people learn best in the moment.When I learned to launch a podcast, caulk my shower, or build a website, it would have done me little good to receive feedback or assessment a week or two after I attempted the task.
I needed the help and feedback right then and there — precisely when I was engaged, prepared, willing to learn, making mistakes and finding my way.
That’s when feedback and coaching made the biggest difference. That’s when it was powerful.
In Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School, Starr Sackstein writes that “Assessment must be a conversation, a narrative that enhances students’ understanding of what they know, what they can do, and what needs further work. Perhaps even more important, they need to understand how to make improvements and how to recognize when legitimate growth has occurred.”
And that’s where I’m at today — intensely interested in those conversations, those in-the-moment, real-time, productive struggles.
I’m interested in helping my students wrestle with and through problems, create solutions, collaborate efficiently, and communicate effectively.
I’m interested in helping them understand where they are, where they need to get, and the steps they need to take to get there.
I’m interested in helping my learners assess their peers more effectively, offering feedback that is kind, specific, helpful, and accurate.
And I’m interested in tech tools like Google Classroom, Google Docs, Seesaw, and others like them that facilitate all of these ongoing, powerful, real-time conversations of learning in new and effective ways.
Just as it is on the sports field, my most effective coaching will never happen a day, a week, or a month after the fact. My best coaching and feedback happens right there and then in the classroom as my students study, learn, create, build, design, and share their learning.
That’s where the action is, and that’s why I’m putting less energy into summative assessment and more energy into formative. It’s why I don’t worry about the marking mountain as much as I used to. It’s even why I can relax enough to reflect on my practice and write this blog post.
Because the best feedback my students will ever receive happens right in the moment.
Jenny had been teaching for about eleven years before she decided to pivot her career and work for two companies that support project-based learning implementation across America. It was incredible work: she learned so much, saw so many school environments, and built a ton of amazing professional relationships.
After three years of this work, she decided to change course again. She had small children at home, and all her time on the road was putting a strain on her family. She returned to the classroom, thinking that teaching fifth grade would be a breeze, but was instead surprised to find it a steep challenge. Used to teaching secondary, the move to the primary classroom was a bit of a shock, and she calls it the hardest thing she has ever done.
Today, she says she has mad respect for primary teachers who work with kids all day, for every subject, often without breaks. She calls this part of her teaching journey the impetus for the work that she does today and credits her discouragement for adding perspective and insight into the challenges that middle school teachers face.
Keep it Real with PBL
In January 2020, Jenny will publish Keep It Real With PBL, Secondary: A Practical Guide for Planning Project-Based Learning from Corwin Teaching Essentials. Jenny intended the book to be a go-to resource for teachers who are venturing into PBL – an organized and accessible source of support that she could leave behind with teachers who hoped to maintain the momentum and learning derived from her training workshops. The book is designed for continuous reference and growth, something teachers can refer back to time and time again.
Jenny also offers a series of online courses and coaching opportunities around project-based learning. With work experiences at PBL Works, High Tech High, and New Tech Network, she feels that her philosophy and application of PBL integrates the best flavors of all three organizations. She’s not averse to going rogue or off-script in a workshop, she says, because sometimes educators become overwhelmed by the scale of the work involved. Clarity is essential.
A Favorite Project Idea
One of Jenny’s all-time favorite projects is called Silent Voices and it comes from a school called Lake Elementary in Vista, California. It starts by looking at the American Revolution from the eyes of marginalized groups in history and then moves to compare the state of those groups to the challenges faced by marginalized groups in today’s society. It’s a very layered project that demands critical thinking and substantial depth of knowledge, and the end products created by these fifth graders never cease to impress.
Something Setting Jenny on 🔥 in Education: Technology
Technology in the classroom can be a tremendous asset, Jenny says, especially when it is used in ways that enhance project-based learning. She applauds the schools that are using technology to engage their communities, showcase their learning in online exhibitions, collect data, bring experts into the classroom, or conduct field work instead of traditional field trips. She’s seen some classes at the elementary level – even kindergarteners – who are leaving the classroom to collect their own data in the field. How exciting and authentic is that?
A Professional Goal for 2020
Jenny has been giving her 2020 resolutions some thought lately, and one big focus will be a commitment to collect, highlight, and showcase more Math and world language resources for PBL. These subjects often feel like the forgotten children, she says, which only increases her desire to inspire educators in these important categories.
Personal Passions: Exercise and Nutrition
Jenny describes herself as a very active person, and laughs that she is not her best self unless she’s gotten her workout in for the day. She thinks it’s important to try a variety of fitness activities, and some of her experiments have included triathlons, boxing, and hip hop dancing. She’s also interested in nutrition, and with a sister who’s a registered dietician, it’s easy to remain a curious (hungry?) learner in this area.
A Key to Productivity: Her Happy Planner
One of the biggest keys to her productivity is her Happy Planner, Jenny says. She blocks her time by hour for every day in this notebook, and it generally results in a pretty regimented but productive day. To make sure a task is completed, it needs to appear in her planner – otherwise, it just gets lost in the shuffle.
Voices and Resources That Inspire Her Practice
Over on Twitter, Jenny recommends following Camille Nunnenkamp @MissNunnenkamp, a fifth grade teacher at Lake Elementary in Oceanside, California, part of the Vista Unified School District. Camille is doing some awesome things with PBL in her practice, and she posts accessible examples of what PBL can look like in the middle years. For anyone looking to grow their PBL skill set, Camille is a must-follow.
Jenny’s pick for an edtech tool has to go to Evernote, a tool that makes tracking, syncing across devices, and collaboration as effortless and efficient as possible.
Two podcasts that Jenny thoroughly enjoys include the legendary Serial, a true crime classic in the podcast space, and a newer show, To Live and Die in LA.
When the day is over or the weekend is upon her, Jenny is watching The Crown on Netflix. The series chronicles the life and career of the Queen of England, and to anyone with an interest in history, this is must-watch material.
We sign off on this fantastic conversation, and Jenny gives us the best ways to connect with her online. See below for details!