Category Archives: Thoughts

The Power of Presence

Networking. Connecting. Communicating. Collaborating. Learning.  Close your eyes and create a image in your head for each of these words.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

If you have anything to do with education in 2016, I’m willing to bet that at least three or more of those mental images contained a glowing screen from a computer or mobile device.  It’s okay.  I’m not trying to make you feel guilty or anything.  I love technology.  I depend on it to help me stay connected with amazing educators across the globe.  I regularly check Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, Google Plus, and several others to see what amazing things my teacher friends are doing and what they are learning.  I use these tools to ask and answer questions, share what I’ve learned, and offer encouragement and support.  Most importantly, I use them to maintain relationships.

In my office, I am fortunate to work beside Chris Carter.  Chris is an amazing teacher and tech coach.  Together we produce a weekly podcast in which we both have fun exploring various topics regarding teaching, learning, technology, and life in general. (  If you’ve ever listened to it, you know our one recurring theme: “Learning is all about relationships”.  Students – and teachers – don’t care what you know until they know that you care.  Or put another way,  “You’ve got to take care of Maslow, before you can start working on Bloom.”**

Establishing relationships is first and foremost on our agenda at the start of every school year.  Those eyes are watching are watching us.  They are observing us and testing us.  

“Does this person care about me?”

“Are they all talk and no follow through?”

“Is he/she real or fake?”

“Does he/she know my name?”

Making sure students and teachers feel safe and have a sense of acceptance and belonging – this is vital to the work we do.  Whether we are in the classroom teaching students, or supporting teachers as an instructional coach, establishing and maintaining that relationship is key.

Online tools can be useful in supporting these relationships but they can only do so much. A tweet, a direct message, a Google Hangout; these cannot replace a handshake, a high-five, a hug.  I can’t read your body language in an e-mail, or tell if your eyes betray you on a conference call.  There’s a level of trust, belonging and acceptance that can only be reached face to face.

When I think about the strongest personal and professional relationships I have, they all have one thing in common.  These are people I have met and spent time with face to face. We have shared the same physical space, shared thoughts and ideas, shared coffee and meals. These face to face interactions do more for establishing and strengthening a relationship than what can be achieved electronically.  I feel much more a part of your life, when I know the real face behind the avatar.  When I read your tweets I can hear your voice.  It strips away the anonymity of online communication.

If you’re taking my online class, it’s very easy to not take it seriously if you’ve never met me in person. There’s just a level of accountability and responsibility that’s not present when I’m not present.  

It’s true in coaching as well. Email exchanges can often get emotionally charged – especially when teachers are struggling with technology.  If at all possible, in those situations I find it works so much better to diffuse the situation if I just stop by the room. Being physically present sends the message that I care and that you are important. (Remember Maslow?)  

Consider your interactions with Facebook friends.  Compare the updates and comments you share with those you have seen recently to those “friends” you haven’t seen for one, two, or more years.  If electronic connection is all you have, my experience has taught me those relationships tend to fade and become more distant.

In June I finished my first year as a technology coach in China.  This summer it was important to give my personal and professional learning network connections an energy boost by purposefully making time for face to face connections.  I travelled to the ISTE conference in Denver with just this agenda in mind.  For me, attending ISTE was not about the conference sessions as much as it was about re-connecting personally with colleagues, mentors, and friends.

Seeing those friends in person – even for just a few minutes – strengthened those relationships and added life and energy to our online communication. That energy boost will sustain those relationships for the coming year now that I’m back in China.  

Online presence is important, but for building and establishing relationships, face to face…

  • networking
  • connecting
  • communicating
  • collaborating 
  • and learning

…have a power that cannot be matched – at least until we invent a working holodeck.


**By the way, if you happen to know who originally penned the Maslow before Bloom phrase please let me know.  I’d love to give credit where credit is due.

A New Normal

Call it what you will. A desperate need for change. A longing for new adventure.  A mid-life crisis. I’m calling it an opportunity that only God could provide. I know for a fact that this time last August as I sat at my desk in Orange, California exporting and importing student rosters from our SIS to various online services, while patiently waiting for a cartload of classroom iPads to sync, I would never have guessed that a year later I would be sitting in a 6th floor apartment in Jinqiao, Shanghai, China writing a blog post about my “new normal”. Yet here I am, feeling – at least for now – that this is where I am supposed to be, ready to embrace a new challenge and see how best I can use my gifts to serve the community here at Concordia International School.


So what are some of my new “normals”?

Walking to work. Okay so walking to work isn’t REALLY anything new for me. I did that almost daily in Orange, but there I always had the option to drive.  Here I do not own a car. Until I buy a bike or a scooter, my Reeboks are the vehicle of choice.  Oh, and here in Shanghai pedestrians do not have the right of way.  Vehicles do not have to stop to turn right on red, and the hundreds of electric scooters see red lights as just a suggestion.  Seriously, they’re everywhere jetting silently in and around traffic like mini stealth fighters . Want to cross a street?  Look both ways.  Twice.

Speaking of not having a car, here is something else worth noting.  As I sat at LAX on Saturday, August 1 waiting for my 15 hour flight to Shanghai, I realized for the first time in over 40 years – I had NO KEYS.  No house key. No work keys, No car key. Nothing. Sure, it felt strange, but in a way it was also a little exhilarating.


Mandarin. Guess what they speak in China? This is going to be a challenge. Not just speaking, but reading. It’s everywhere – signs, labels, text messages from my mobile provider.  Many of my fellow teachers are doing a wonderful job picking it up.  I’m trying, but listening and mastering the correct tones for speaking is challenging.  Thankfully people here in Jinqiao speak English and are quite patient with me.    I can order a grande latte at Starbucks – there are two close by –  and they know exactly what I mean.  Still, I need to be intentional about learning Mandarin.  This little bubble of Shanghai is populated by so many ex-pats that it is quite possible to live here and never learn any of the language.  I hope that will not be the case for me.  I did hear a joke that hit a little close to home.  What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.  What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.


The best Internet is at school.  You’ve no doubt heard of the “Great Firewall of China”.  Basically sites like YouTube,  Facebook, Google, Twitter, and many others are blocked. Residential service, at least where I live, is much slower that it is back in the states.  At school, however, they have what our IT director calls “International” or “White-listed” Internet.  Basically this means that students and teachers who want to check social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts, or watch YouTube, I need to do it at school.  It also means that while we can access and use Google Apps at school, for students to work with Google Apps at home requires setting up a VPN.  A little bit backwards compared to what we have back in the states, right?

Dependancy.  Back home I considered myself to be mostly self-sufficient, and I was very comfortable with that. Moving here is a big step out of my comfort zone. It means giving up a big chunk of that self reliance to be dependent on  the help of others. It’s a matter of survival, but it’s a good thing. The community here at Concordia is amazing. They are welcoming, helpful, caring, and have gone above and beyond to make sure newbies like myself don’t fall through the cracks.  As a result in just three weeks time I have developed some amazing friendships.  We work together, learn together, and play together.  In many respects, it is similar to the type of connections I’ve made at Discovery Summer Institutes.  I’ve been told by several “old timers” that this is a community unlike other international schools and I’m thankful to be a part of it.

I am quickly learning that you can’t teach at Concordia and not be a “lifelong learner”.  The passion these people have for learning and teaching was evident from day one.  Here you have a group of teachers at the top of their game, doing what they love, for the benefit of the students and the school community.  In some respects, as a newbie here it’s a little intimidating.  Am I up to the challenge?  Can I live up to the expectations?  At dinner last night with several other new teachers, I was able to hear one of my colleagues express the same feelings.  What a relief it was to hear that!   I am not alone. What a comfort it is to realize that in spite if any doubts we might have, that this is where we are meant to be.  This time, in this place. It is all part of the plan. A plan that is bigger than just me.

How to BE

Just think of the noise!


The noise from the girls.
The noise from the boys.
All wired from a summer of fun and sweet treats.
With new shirts on their backs and new shoes on their feets.
In your room they’ll come bounding with sweet shrieks of glee.
“I dare you!” They taunt, “You just try to teach me!”

You feel your heart pound. You wake up in a sweat.
“No this can’t happen now. I’m not ready. Not yet!”
“This frightening vision just cannot be true!”
“Not today. Not tomorrow. There is too much to do!”
“I must file my file folders, post signs to my doors.”
“I must dust off my desktop, and straighten my drawers.”
“My bulletin boards have no cute frilly borders.”
“And I’m missing the last of my pencil box orders.”

STOP right there! Don’t tense up in terrible tizzy.
All this whining and stressing is making me dizzy.
Just calm down. Take a breath. There you go. Feeling better?
Let me tell you the reason for this rhyming letter.

Sure the first day of school is practically here,
but let me assure you, there’s nothing to fear.
Those unchecked to-do’s on your list may seem huge,
But when you take a step back they’re just lipstick and rouge.
When kids arrive that first day, it’s important to see
You don’t have to be perfectly ready . . . just . . . BE

BE there to greet them with a smile on your face.
BE kind so they know that your room’s a safe place.
BE attentive and listen; they may have fears too.
BE humble. Remember it’s not all about you.
BE curious. Ask questions that make their minds fly.
BE unsatisfied with answers if they can’t explain why.
BE okay with mistakes. Show you learn when you fail.
and BE sure they know that’s what it takes to prevail.

So in June when your students think back to this Fall
They may not recall what was stuck on the wall.
And those signs on the door may not stick in their head
But is all that important? I think not. So instead
I pray they’ll say, “My teacher cared about me.”
“And a person like that is what I’ll try to BE.”

One Simple Change

I hear a lot about our broken education system.  I’ve read many blogs describing the large-scale, invasive systematic changes that need to take place in order to “fix” education. These broad and overwhelming reforms are so massive and so dramatic I can’t imagine they have any hope of actually being implemented.  The change would be too drastic.  What I can imagine is a change that’s more “small-scale”. What would happen if we all agreed to change just one “little” thing? Could one simple change make any difference?

Here’s what I’m thinking. What if I decided, as a teacher, that my students would never again take another multiple choice test? What if my school or district decided to do the same thing? Could this one, simple change make a bit of difference in our student’s learning, critical thinking, and problem solving abilities?


In his book, Stop Stealing Dreams, author Seth Godin tells the story of Professor Fredrick J. Kelly. In 1914 our factories were in need of workers and we needed a quick, efficient means to process and educate the throngs of immigrants coming to the US. Professor Kelly invented the multiple choice test. He described it as “a test of lower order thinking for the lower orders. ” Just a few years later however, Kelly actually disowned the test he invented saying that “it was an appropriate method to test only a tiny portion of what is actually taught and should be abandoned“.  Did we abandon it?

Last May I had the opportunity to visit a couple of schools in Finland thanks to a generous invitation from my friend and colleague, Janet English. I only had one week in Finland – enough time to get a glimpse, but not enough time to observe and discern the real beauty of the Finnish Education system. Janet had six months to observe classes and talk with teachers and students. Thankfully, she shared her thoughts and observations in her own blog and a two part article for OECD Insights.

In her article, Janet shares the following…

“Where American teachers frequently administer multiple-choice tests for assessment, Finnish teachers require students to produce something that reflects their learning.” (US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 1)

“Teachers (in Finland) monitor student learning on a continuous basis so that assessment adds to student progress rather than detracting from it…Tests are not the main method of assessment so students do not spend substantial time taking tests or reviewing for them. Multiple-choice tests are generally not given because having students pick an answer from a list is not considered the best way to assess learning.” (US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 2)

So what would happen if we stopped giving our students multiple choice tests?

What makes Professor Kelly’s test so appealing is that it is so easy to administer and  score, especially since it can be graded electronically.  Will teachers thank you for taking away this form of assessment? Probably not at first. In fact, they might actually complain that forcing them to use other types of tests will take much more time to grade because their students would have to explain what they know rather than just picking from a list. What if, as a result, teachers started designing shorter tests or tested their students less frequently?  Would that be such a bad thing?

Eventually, as an alternative, teachers might have to resort to other methods of assessing their students’ learning.  Methods that could include having students create digital projects that provide evidence of their mastery of particular concepts and standards.

I wonder…Could one simple change, make any difference?


Don’t Freak Out

When does a three and a half day week seem 7 days long?  When it’s the first week of school. Between all the last minute prep to get ready for last Tuesday (our first day with students), open houses and BYOD orientations for parents, and all the little technology glitches that no amount of preplanning can prevent, I sit here on a Saturday morning in the customer lounge of my Honda dealer basking the the peace and quiet while my car is serviced. Exhausted.

I’ve been down this road at this same school for 10 years now.  The little things that used to bug me, don’t seem to set off alarms anymore. In a way, I’ve taken on the “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs” role. The voice of reason. The one who says, “Don’t worry. It’ll all be okay. This isn’t rocket surgery.”

When parents come to me in a panic on the 2nd day of school, fuming that their child cannot login to Moodle, convinced that because they missed one day of class announcements and homework links that their child’s hopes of getting into Stanford are now ruined; I calmly reset their passwords, reassure them it will all be okay, and offer to help them research community colleges. (Okay, maybe that last part is just in my head.)

When my intercom line beeps with a call from a frustrated teacher because their computer was updated over the summer and their passwords no longer autofill, or they can’t connect to their SmartBoard, or they can’t print, or some other technical issue I try to break the tension by answering with a chipper, “Happiest Place on Earth, this is Dennis.” or “Your call is important to me, please stay on the line…” in an attempt to elicit a laugh, a chuckle, or anything to break the tension.


Maybe that’s why I’m so tired. Helping others is exhausting. It’s inconvenient. But it’s part of my job – not just to fix the problem, but to help people develop troubleshooting skills so they have the ability and confidence to solve their problems independently.

In the back of the Computer Lab I have posted my five rules. I bet you have many of the same in your classroom.

  1. Follow directions the first time they are given.
  2. Keep hands feet and other objects to yourself.
  3. Be prepared.
  4. Raise your hand if you wish to speak.
  5. Build others up.

This year I’m going to be adding a new rule.

6. Don’t Freak Out

Kids, teachers, and parents have too much stress in their lives – most of it self-inflicted.  Technology won’t add stress to your lives if you refuse to let it. When we get frustrated and panic, we make stupid decisions.  But if you remain calm while that blinking cursor on the screen taunts you, STOP, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “What else can I try?” often times a solution will present itself.  And when it doesn’t, you go to plan B, plan C,  plan D, and remember that the alphabet has 22 more letters.

Not At ISTE But Still Learning

In 2008 I attended my first ISTE (NECC) Conference, in San Antonio. Even from that first experience, I saw that “the entree”, my most valuable takeaway of the conference came in the form of conversations. Presentations, workshops, and sessions were important, but it was the conversations and the connections that occurred between sessions that helped me grow the most and kept me coming back for the next 4 years.

This year I missed ISTE. Correction…this year I REALLY missed ISTE.  As I slumped on my couch at home, reading all the tweets, posts, and direct messages of colleagues and friends announcing their arrival in San Antonio I couldn’t help but feel envious. Envious of all the face to face meetups, jealous all the sharing and learning that would not include me.  But I was not alone. There were others on twitter who, like me, also felt like the kid who couldn’t go to the prom.  We all had our reasons, but bottom line – ISTE was happening without us.

Then something truly magical happened. Our collective online “pity party” took a turn that I could not have predicted. A community was born. I noticed all the amazing educators posting #NotAtISTE hashtags on Twitter and started up some conversations.  One particular conversation with Victoria Olson (@MsVictoriaOlson on Twitter) led me to create a Google+ Community where all those of us who could not go to ISTE would be able to share links, resources, and ideas.  We may not be able to meet face to face and have conversations like those in the Bloggers Cafe, but we could use Google Hangouts to create a virtual Blogger’s Cafe. I threw it out there on Twitter.

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Would anyone show up? The next day our community had over 40 members and by the end of ISTE we had grown to 129.


We commiserated with each other and tried to cheer each other up by posting all the fun things we could do because we were #NotAtISTE.


We also shared resources and had some fun and thoughtful “face to face” conversations in Google Hangouts.  We discussed how to truly integrate technology for student learning, how to encourage teachers to move beyond mere technology substitution and grow to augmentation, modification, and eventually to redefinition (the SAMR Model), and so much more.  Thanks to Josh Gauthier (@mrgfactoftheday) for taking the initiative and jumping in to host some live hangouts. The growth and sharing was truly organic.

As a result of this group I also had a chance to really dig in and learn about Google Plus and how truly powerful it can be to connect people with other people. I don’t know if we would have had the technology even just two years ago to pull this off.  The sense of community from this group went beyond just education chat, we were building relationships here.  We’re even planning to have a real #NotAtISTE13 meetup at ISTE 2014 in Atlanta.  As much fun as it was to be #NotAtISTE, I hope I get to go next year. I can’t wait to meet my new friends face to face.


This is the second part in a series of blog posts sharing what I learned during my visit to Finland May 3-14, 2013.

Before leaving for Finland I read articles and blogs, and watched videos like Pasi Sahlberg’s TED Talk  and “The Finland Phenomenon” ( I wanted to learn about all the amazing teaching and learning going on in Finnish schools. I arrived expecting to see engaging, dynamic lessons that would blow away anything happening here in the US. I was expecting Finnish schools to look drastically different than American schools with thoughtfully designed creative learning spaces, and state of the art classrooms. I was expecting to see classes full of focused, attentive students, actively participating and producing awe-inspiring projects.

That’s the problem with expectations. They are used as a measuring stick to evaluate what we see. “This exceeded my expectations.” “That did not meet my expectations.” Expectations put an ideas in our heads and focus our attention to look only for certain things and not notice important details that fall outside that focus. My colleague Janet warned me not to let my observations be skewed by expectations, but rather to go in without any expectations at all and see the teachers, schools, and students for what they really are. I’m thankful for her advice. I’ve now had several days to process what we saw, heard, and talked about.

The Finnish schools I saw did not look that much different from schools in the US. Desks, chalkboards – yes I said, chalkboards. Student artwork decorates the halls. What I noticed is how clean and well maintained they were. Students walk the halls in socks – they are trained to leave their outside shoes by the door to prevent tracking in snow and dirt. I didn’t see an abundance of technology. The school in Ivalo had a computer lab not unlike those at many US schools, and the school in Utsjoki had a distance learning room equipped with a SmartBoard, but overall they were not equipped as well as many schools here in the states. Now I admit, we were visiting rural schools 200+ kilometers above the arctic circle, but Janet informed me that while there are some schools that feature some pretty innovative learning spaces, most are what we would recognize at typical schools.

Finnish teachers I met know their students personally. The schools I visited were small rural schools but I was told that even the largest schools in Finland don’t have more than several hundred students. This allows teachers time to build relationships, and develop an understanding of individual student needs. Teachers stress less about themselves and all they are required to teach, but focus more on each student and what they need in order to learn. Isn’t that what differentiation is all about?

One major difference between Finnish and American schools is that these teachers do not have all the standards we do. In fact, they don’t have “standards” at all. Instead their national core curriculum has “objectives”. These objectives are a lot more open-ended, like essential questions, and allow teachers to design lessons and activities that get students asking their own questions, thinking critically, and solving problems. Individual schools are in charge of their own curriculum and teachers are free to decide the best methods for teaching their students.

Here are a few examples of their objectives:

Biology (Grades 5-6)

  • learn to move about in the natural environment and observe and investigate nature outdoors
  • come to understand that people depend on the rest of nature in their food production
  • take responsibility for their own actions and take others into consideration

Physics (Grades 7-9)

  • learn to plan and carry out scientific investigation in which variables affecting natural phenomena are held constant and varied and correlations among the variables are found out

History (Grades 5-6)

  • understand that historical information consists of the interpretations of historians which may change as new sources or methods of investigation emerge
  • learn to identify the continuity of history with the aid of examples
  • learn to present reasons for historical changes

Math (Grades 1 -2)

  • learn to justify their solutions and conclusions by means of pictures and concrete models or tools, in writing or orally; and to find similarities, differences, regularities and cause-and-effect relationships between phenomena
  • become practiced in making observations about mathematical problems that come up and are challenging and important from their personal standpoints


If you look at their national core curriculum you’ll see, listed under their objectives for each subject area, core contents to be integrated into these objectives. The emphasis appears to be on practical examples, real world experiences, problem solving, and critical thinking rather than lists of facts to be memorized and tested. I encourage you to check them out for yourself.

The Finnish teachers we saw don’t take home stacks of homework to grade. The teachers I observed check to make sure homework is done, but that homework has little effect on students grades. Proof that students understand and meet the objectives is determined by assessments and student projects.  The don’t send home progress reports, but do communicate to parents when students are struggling.  I mentioned in my last post that students are trusted with more personal responsibility. This translates to a greater personal responsibility for their own learning as well.

Finland doesn’t have standardized testing like we have in the US, but that doesn’t mean they don’t test. They have one standardized test that all students take when they are 15 years old. They also have a matriculation exam to check and see if students are ready for upper secondary school and another one to determine if students go to University or Vocational School. The National Board of Education also randomly selects a sampling of basic and secondary schools for testing each year. Here’s the big difference. Those test are developed and administered by the National Board of Education, not private for-profit testing companies, and the purpose of those tests is to see how schools across Finland are doing as whole. These standardized tests are not used to evaluate individual teacher performance or rate schools as good or bad. Schools and teachers are not in competition with each other.

The Finnish teachers I met seem to have great respect for American teachers. In fact, many lesson and projects ideas used in Finnish classrooms come from American teachers. They feel that American teachers are among the best, hardest working teachers in the world, yet they are stuck in a system that is broken. A system that emphasizes picking correct answers over producing products that demonstrate student problem solving and critical thinking.

Wonder what might happen if you took an American teacher and a Finnish teacher and let them switch places? Here is what Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg thinks: “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?” The last three paragraphs of the article answer the question. I’m thinking this might make an interesting TV Show for next Fall: “TeacherSwap”. This is a reality show I might actually watch.

Why Finland?

This is the first part of several blog posts sharing what I learned during my visit to Finland May 3-14, 2013.

You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach as you near the front of the line to ride that scary new roller coaster for the first time?  That’s the best way to describe the feeling I had stepping on to British Airways flight 268 from LAX to London – the first leg of two flights that would take me to Helsinki, Finland. I was full of anticipation and excitement, mixed with a little anxiety. This would be my first ever trip to Europe. After months of mental preparation it was actually happening.

So why Finland? And why was I using my full allotment of personal days and spending my own money to jet off for 11 days in the middle of May? My good friend Janet English ( has been in Finland since January on a Fulbright Scholarship studying how Finnish schools teach problem solving. Her project has her visiting schools and interviewing students & teachers all over Finland to get their story. For the last several years Finland schools have been the focus of world attention because of their students high scores on the PISA, an international test that “looks at students’ ability to apply knowledge and skills in key subject areas and to analyse, reason and communicate effectively as they examine, interpret and solve problems.” (  When she invited me to join her on an adventure north to visit schools in Lapland, how could I refuse?

I arrived in Helsinki at 11pm local time Friday night. This gave me two nights to adjust to the 10 hour time difference and explore Helsinki before leaving for Lapland. It is a fascinating place and fun to explore. I’m embarrassed to admit that I am fluent in just one language while most Finns speak two or three. When I tried to use some of the VERY limited Finnish I learned online and on Youtube, most people just smiled and answered me in English.  The Finns are very gracious.  By the way, the World Hockey Championships ( just happened to be starting in Helsinki the day I arrived so finding something to do on Saturday was not an issue. Go Team USA (“Ooo, Ess, Ahh” in Finnish!)


Janet arrived in Helsinki Sunday afternoon, just in time for dinner and another hockey game. Monday morning our adventure to Lapland began. We flew to Ivalo, which is about as far north as commercial airlines will take you in Finland, then drove another two hours north from there to Kevo Subarctic Research Institute ( This would be our “home base” the next week. Since Kevo is 350km north of the Arctic circle we were blessed with 24 hours of daylight. While the sun would dip below the horizon for a couple of hours it never really got dark. In another month, it won’t even set, but rather just make a 360 degree circle around the horizon.

IMG_20130507_145228The next day we were off on my first school visit, a small Jr/Sr High School in Ivalo. As soon as we arrived the difference between Finnish schools and US schools was evident.  Doors were unlocked.  We just walked in. I admit I was a bit uneasy as we walked the halls. With security such a big issue in US schools, I couldn’t help but feel we needed so sign in somewhere, get a badge, or be escorted by someone official. Janet assured me we were fine. Finnish schools are open like this. When we finally met the school administrator with whom we had arranged our visit I was much more at ease – even though I really had nothing to worry about.

The math teacher created this card with string to help her students understand triangles in geometry and showed me how to fold a rectangular piece of paper into a triangular prism to teach surface area.

She brought us to the English class. Finnish students start studying English in first grade. One the high school students gave us a tour of the school and answered our questions – in English of course. Once again I felt a bit humbled that I only speak one language. We toured the school, observed math, chemistry, and art classes, and joined the Finnish teachers at their table in the cafeteria for lunch. Students here have a lot more independence than their American counterparts.  In this school, they have their own student lounge with couches and coffee. Students (age 15-17) who travel more than 50km to school stay overnight during the week in a building adjacent to the school. There they take care of themselves, even preparing their own meals.

IMG_20130508_100054The next day we visited a smaller school in Utsjoki – at the very top of Finland.  Here we met with their science teacher, a very talented yet humble man. He shared how his students learn principles of science by studying the outdoors right around them. They learn about biology by studying their own environments and how they survive and interact with it. We also met and spoke with a Sami teacher, a native Laplander, who teaches the Sami language to students at their school and others using their distance learning classroom. For lunch we enjoyed a delicious salmon soup in the cafeteria, and then met with students in the English class.  There we talked with them, in English, about life in Southern California. Our life is quite a contrast from theirs.  They wanted to know about Los Angeles, earthquakes, and life a metropolitan area that has more people than their entire country.  It was a good opportunity to let them hear that there is more to America and Americans than just what they see in the media.  Conversely, their lives are quite different from anything I could imagine growing up.  One of the students in the class actually works as a reindeer herder.  I suppose the definition of “fast food” is a little different here, but that’s not a bad thing.  In fact I found reindeer quite tasty.

That’s me sitting on a reindeer hide roasting reindeer sausage over a fire inside the “kota” (a teepee) at Kevo.

The Spanish Inquisition

I bet you read the title of this blog post and said to yourself, “Hmm, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.” That’s because…



The chief weapon of the Spanish Inquisition is FEAR!   Have you ever decided not to try something new and innovative in your class because of fear?  Fear of what others might say, fear that it might not work, or most of all, fear that someone will complain and the next thing you know you’re getting “The Spanish Inquisition” from THAT parent, or your department head, or your school admin.

I had the pleasure to tune in for part of the FutureNow LiveStream today, specifically the panel discussion led by Scott Kinney.  One of the topics of the discussion that struck a chord with me dealt with what needs to be done to get teachers to “buy in” to integrating Digital Age technology in their classrooms. That brought up the question of how do we support innovative teaching practices and foster an environment where it is safe to take risks.  That’s where the light bulb went off for me.

We all know that students cannot learn in an classroom environment where they do not feel safe.  How can we expect teachers to risk innovation if they do not feel safe?

Do our schools provide an environment where teachers feel safe enough innovate? If yours does, then it seems you may be in the minority.  As I work with teachers at both my school and others I’ve noticed, especially in the past two years, that the stress level of teachers seems to be off the chart. High maintenance and confrontational parents, tedious administrative accountability measures, high stakes testing, the push for Common Core, budget cuts, layoffs, all seem to eat up precious time and increase anxiety levels.  The time and energy it takes to try new things is smothered by the “need” to not rock the boat.  Add to that new technology initiatives which, while good-intentioned, overlook the need for adequate training and support. No wonder teachers don’t feel safe.

Those of us in the EdTech world see the benefits of technology in the hands of students. We recognize the need to, as 3rd grader Mary Moss Wirt so eloquently pleaded this morning, “Teach us the the way WE learn.”  We get it.  But what we don’t get are teachers who resist implementing technology. We look at them and shake our heads. We mutter under our breath saying things like, “I can’t believe they’re still using Power Point.” “Look, they still have a flip-phone.” “There they go, running off more worksheets.” “If they can’t change, they have no place in the classroom.”

What we fail to recognize is their fear. It’s REAL. It’s legitimate. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. Fear of failure. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of losing their job. Fear of stepping out and taking a risk because they do not have that safety net that those of us in the EdTech world have – each other.

Have you ever seen a teacher in tears because of their frustration with technology? Ever see the look on their face when you step in and with two or three clicks fix something they have been struggling with for hours?  These people know, or at least suspect, what we say about them under our breath. They can see it in our eyes as they roll.  You wonder why they don’t ask for help? There’s your answer. Instead of building a relationship, you’ve made them feel more isolated. Will they be coming to you for support again anytime soon? I know.  I’ve done this. Even if I didn’t intend to. It happens.  I know because I’ve seen teachers struggling with tech and when I offer help, in the same breath as they are thanking me they also say, “I was afraid to ask you because I didn’t want you to think I was stupid.”

Just like my students, when it comes to technology, I want teachers to be independent thinkers and problems solvers. But I also want them to feel safe enough to ask a question when they get stuck; to try something new because it’s how their students learn.  They need to feel that they have support. Not snarky, eye-rolling support, but genuine empathetic and caring support.

When a safe, supporting environment is present, learning can happen, but for real growth to occur teachers also need to take responsibility and build their own learning and support network.  Doing this requires trust.  I’ve written about trust before. I also encourage you to read this blog post from Principal Eric Sheninger  – “Autonomy Breeds Change“.   Using some of these strategies, hopefully your school can lower stress, encourage professional growth and create an environment where nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.


A New Theme for a New Year

Even though 2013 is still more than a week away, I decided to launch my new blog theme a little early. Why? Well, basically I was FORCED to CHANGE. Suffice it to say that my old blog theme was not compatible with the new version of WordPress, hence the new look.

I was not happy about being FORCED to CHANGE. I was happy with my old theme. I was comfortable with it. It worked for me. Selecting and customizing a new theme was troublesome and inconvenient. I resisted. Then I heard my own words coming back at me. Telling myself what I’ve told teachers on countless occasions…

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. It just happens. Deal with it.”            Why the Web Will Never Replace Books

Sure, it’s somewhat unsettling when the voice that’s mocking you is your own. So to all those teachers out there who’ve had to listen to me say those words, please know that I too feel your frustration and I’ll try to be a little more patient with you in the future.

By the way, now that it’s done I think I like the new theme better anyway.