Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ramblings: How I Got Here

I had a really neat conversation with a former student over email over the last couple days. She emailed me to talk about how her year had gone and catch up a bit. She talked a little about her experience in AP US History - it was a positive one, and she felt like all the writing she had to do to prep for the AP test made her a better writer.

I always wondered what I would have done if I had had to teach APUSH. The sheer amount of content you have to plow through, so little room for choice for students over learning things they are interested in: teaching a class within a box like that would have been a challenge, for sure. I’m not sure what I would have done.

But back to the story. I was glad to hear that my former student enjoyed the class. It made me reflect a little bit on my time in APUSH. My APUSH teacher was an incredible man. First and foremost, his class was the second really good history class I had in a row. (Unfortunately, this was my grade 11 and 12 years…) Had I not had those two great experiences in history class, I doubt I would have taken a couple history classes in early college, fallen in love with the subject, and subsequently ended up teaching it.

Second, we kept in touch for a while after I graduated from high school and college. After a couple years in the Peace Corps and a couple of years doing environmental ed, I knew education was for me but I needed to my teacher certification. As I sat down to have lunch with him, we talked about my plan to get my certification and masters. I told him where I was applying. I mentioned I was on the fence about Stanford’s teacher prep program: how would someone with a 3.3 GPA in undergrad get into Stanford? Seemed like a waste of time. In short, he channeled my current favorite writer Shea Serrano and said, “Shoot your shot.” He talked me into applying to Stanford - what was the worst thing that could happen? Well, I got in and spent an amazing decade in the Bay Area because of it.

But the third reflection I had was an interesting one. As I was emailing my student, I recounted why I loved APUSH and this teacher’s strengths: great sense of humor, incredible content knowledge, and

(wait for it)


"Curtis Lecture Hall" by Theonlysilentbob from wikimedia
he was a brilliant lecturer. I remember reading ahead in our textbook to prep for his lectures. I wanted to know the outline of the content of the lecture so I could catch all the little nuggets and salacious information he always peppered his lectures with.

I fell in love with history, thanks in part to a brilliant APUSH teacher. Who lectured. Lectured really well. I don’t really know what any of that means; I do know I wasn’t the only person that really enjoyed his class. It was an interesting realization though: as someone who pushed to have his class as student-centered as possible, it was definitely an interesting memory to have float up to the surface. But without this brilliant teacher - whose class I read ahead in the textbook for to prep for his lectures - none of this (being a history teacher) may have happened.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

How Edcamp Changed My Career

Edcamp logo from Wikimedia
by the Edcamp Foundation
** Full disclosure: I serve on the Edcamp Foundation board. I don’t come at this without bias. However, I strongly believe what I am writing is true regardless of this bias. Now, to the story :)

In late July, 2011 Diane Main told me, “Hey. There’s a thing going on in the East Bay in early August. You should totally go.” Being new to the edtech world - and trusting Diane’s opinion - I signed up to attend the first edcampSFBay.

I remember it being a great day. I remember great conversations. I remember great energy. I remember seeing people I looked up to on Twitter there - a lot of them. I have no idea what sessions I attended. Or even if I said anything at those sessions. But at the end of the day, I filled out the evaluation form and checked the “I’m willing to help organize next year’s edcampSFBay” box.

Fast forward a year: the second edcampSFBay was at my school. Where I taught! I was nervously excited. We set up everything the night before. Signs. Session board area. Wifi information.

Then came Saturday morning. And naturally there was no wifi when we got to school. In upgrading a cable somewhere in the IT maze on Friday night, something had fried. It was unclear when wifi was coming back. I was crestfallen - how was edcamp going to run without wifi? How embarrassing!!

You know where this is going: people had a great day. Talking. Engaging in conversations. Sharing hard problems. Did we tweet much? Nope. Was the edcamp a success? Yup.

But this isn’t a story about a near-miss disaster. It’s a story about validation. See, when you help throw a party - and it is successful - you get excited. You feel brave. Ready to take risks. Your realm of the possible expands from that confidence - things that seemed hard or far-fetched before all of a sudden seem attainable. And my realm of the possible expanded because of organizing edcamp.

When it came time to rethink my classroom, I was ready to take big swings not little steps: I was CONFIDENT. When there were other edcamps in California, I hopped on a plane and flew to LA - or Orange County, or Palm Springs - and attended. #caedchat was born at edcampLA! When a couple friends started talking about running an online edcamp, I was all in and edcampHome happened. (Three times, in fact.)

The confidence from helping organize an edcamp transferred to my classroom, to my students.  The confidence I gained from helping to organize an edcamp helped me rethink my classroom: my role in that classroom, my students’ role in the classroom - things happened there because I believed in myself. I was confident - confident enough to take a risk.

That confidence came from helping to organize edcamp. From helping throw a party - or an edcamp :) - that people came to, and wifi or not had a good time. That confidence has meant and continues to mean the world to me.

Hopefully that confidence meant something to a bunch of students that passed through my classroom as well.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What You Look For Matters

As I apply for jobs for the first time in a decade, some interesting thoughts swirl through my head. Having spent almost a decade at my last job, searching for a school that wants to add me is a different feeling. As I think about myself and what I bring to a job, the way I look at who I am and what I can add to whatever school I end up at matters.

I’m a new educator in a new system: going from a place and education system I knew well - California - to a new education system in British Columbia. Not just a new state, but a new country! On top of that, British Columbia has just instituted a new set of education standards, further complicating the transition. That’s a big hurdle for someone to overlook when they’re looking to hire me.


I could look at the things I was able to do in my almost decade at Hillsdale. What I did in my classroom. What my students did in my classroom. Committees I was a part of. Professional development opportunities I helped organize and facilitate.

It’s a very different way of looking at yourself: what can you do, what do you know versus what can’t you do, what don’t you know? That deficit model - looking at weaknesses - can be really toxic. If I spend too much time thinking about what I don’t know, about what I can’t do, I get doubtful. I’m a risk - someone needs to overlook that big gap in knowledge that I have to hire me. But if I look at what I can do, what I do know, what is transferable between contexts, it feels very different.

I’ll own it: I’ve looked at other educators and focused on what they can’t do in the past. I don’t feel good saying that, but it is true. By doing that, I’ve missed strengths people have. Things they can teach me. The amazing things their kids are doing in their classrooms. Thankfully, I’ve had to eat some humble pie in those areas, as my perceptions of what people can’t do has been impacted by what I’ve seen them actually DO. The outlook - what could this educator do better - was wrong. Should we work on weaknesses? Sure. But focusing on weaknesses and ignoring strengths - as I have done about myself in my job search - is toxic.

How many times have I focused on weaknesses with students? How often did they feel like their areas for growth were being hammered on and their strengths ignored? That’s not a question I can answer, but it something I can take forward: look for strengths in students. Look for what fellow educators are great at. Focus on building on those things people do well, not on things people could get better at.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Chris Wejr’s TED talk on strengths-based education at the end of this post. Chris is brilliant, and his talk is everything you’d hope it would be.