Category: Learning Environment

Academic Anxiety in an ‘A Culture’

Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions.

We live in an ‘A Culture.’

In an A Culture, when students sense Assessment, they respond with Anxiety or Apathy. The A Culture creates a mentality of winners and losers where success and failure is determined by data, high stakes test scores, and grades. In a traditional system, weighted grades, grade point average, and class rank sort kids by calculating formulas for reporting educational worth. When students sense assessment, they know they are about to be judged, quantified, and assigned an academic price tag—creating all-time high levels of academic anxiety and perceived learner apathy. Continue reading


A Reflective Approach to Personalize Learning

Leading change. Launching new initiatives. Driving improvement. Shifting a mindset. These phrases inspire some to turn visions into purposeful actions, but leave others with frustration and trepidation. Typically, leaders present ideas, committees are formed, and agendas are set. Responses are mixed—investment levels varied—but we move forward in education.

We’ve identified our purpose. We will reach every student, every day to prepare learners for success in a dynamic world, as advertised in school mission statements. But at the end of a typical (chaotic) school day, can we claim success in achieving our goal? There’s no perfect solution that packages a best practice script, complete with a how-to manual and answer key. However, with the help of educators sharing their experiences and effective models, we can shift a cultural mindset toward personalized learning. Personalized learning is not a program nor a new initiative; it is a philosophy.

The process of where to begin may appear hazy, but our efforts are validated by a clear purpose—reinforced by several simple educator truths.

  • We care about our students.
  • We want all students to learn.
  • We are passionate about education.
  • We take pride in our professional roles.
  • We impact lives.
  • We can always improve our craft.

The last truth often gets misinterpreted as a deficiency—a professional flaw or incompetence—but this is certainly not the case. As the world evolves, so must education. For educators, this means finding new ways to engage, challenge, and empower our learners. While we acknowledge the importance of placing students at the center of learning, many teachers continue to lead from the front of the classroom. Breaking the expected norms of what it means to teach (especially when being evaluated) is daunting. Before diving in or battling with logistics, educators should approach their entry point based on individual understanding and readiness. For educators seeking to personalize their classes:

  • Know where you’re at
  • Think big but start small
  • Design backwards to move forward

Professional growth begins with reflection

When we reflect on our current practices, we may find personalized learning is not far beyond our reach. I invite educators to utilize the reflection guide to increase understanding of personalized learning and recognize how many components of the personalized learning model they already implement. Continue reading

Framing Powerful Memories of School

Remember the excitement of fifth grade? We had enough tools in our backpack to read and write, problem solve, ask big questions, and attack the world with vibrant eyes and independence. Every Friday, I rushed off the bus to search encyclopedias (remember those?), call my grandparents, and contact library reference desks to find the answer to Ms. Setzer’s weekly trivia question. She piqued my curiosity and inspired my thinking with an optional weekend challenge.

By Monday morning, I proudly placed an answer on Ms. Setzer’s desk. Nothing beat the feeling of conquering another quest, and the look of satisfaction in my teacher’s warm smile. During the week in Ms. Setzer’s class, I eagerly completed daily content lessons so I could sit in the oversized chair—the one by the fish tanks—on the stage in the back of the room. In that sacred space, I had time to read for pleasure, solve brain teasers, learn how to play chess, or work on a project.

The most memorable project extended well beyond the fifth grade curriculum. Our school was running a silent auction to fundraise for a charity. Each student was asked to reach out to family and friends for auction items. My buddy and I brainstormed ideas from the oversized chairs in the back of the classroom. What could two fifth grade boys possibly contribute to the cause? Continue reading

Unleashing Learners’ Superpowers

Heroes quest for knowledge and crave adventure. Their journeys consist of trials–tests of strength, skill, resourcefulness, and endurance. With each challenge, heroes are expected to be courageous, take calculated risks, and prove their worthiness. Fortunately, heroes find mentors–teachers who provide guidance, wisdom, and feedback during training, and help each hero recognize their unique gifts.

While heroes appear superhuman, they must face the truth: like all humans, heroes are flawed. The greatest adversity is self-doubt, a conflicted mind, the temptation to give up. Heroes must look inward to conquer their darkest fears. Only then may they return to impact society and leave a legacy.

When we replace hero with learner in the classroom, we witness the impact of personalized learning. When we empower learners, we unleash their super powers. Empowering learners to explore the unknown requires courage–for educators as well as learners. It is not easy for educators to unlearn what they know and what has traditionally been expected of them.

Accept the call to adventure. Join our hero’s journey on a quest to personalize learning. If you are unable to attend the 8th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning, follow the Twitter hashtag #PLconf17

Want to “Foster Powerful Learners“? Unleash their superpowers!

We never know what our learners are thinking or capable of creating. When we provide time, tools, space, and opportunities to make their own connections, students will remove their masks and use their powers to answer questions educators would never consider asking. 

Attendees of Not All Heroes are Created the Same: Unleashing Learners’ Superpowers will be treated to a session featuring the voices of my heroes. Four courageous students will reflect on a year’s worth of challenges, adventures, and personal transformation on their quest for understanding. They return from their journey to share their stories, guided by essential questions from the Epic Final Exam.

Stage 1: Separation from the Ordinary World

  • What did you discover about yourself as a learner?
  • What was your call to adventure? Did you initially accept or resist the call?
  • How did crossing the threshold in this course force you out of your comfort zone?

Stage 2: Initiation – Trials and Challenges

  • What was your most memorable adventure in this class?
  • What was the most challenging obstacle for you this year?
  • What academic risks did you take throughout the year?
  • What was your greatest achievement?

Stage 3: Transformation – The Inward Journey

  • How have you transformed throughout the year?
  • What traditional habits and thinking did you have to unlearn in order to transform? Reflect on your growth and self-understanding.

Stage 4: The Return – Impact Society. Leave a Legacy

  • What new knowledge about the world have you gained by studying the content of this course?
  • Use the literature you’ve read to answer the essential question: “How may an individual impact society?”
  • Discuss your contributions to society. What have you created that did not exist before?

Throughout each stage, participants will receive supernatural aid and tools to support their quest to personalize learning. Before the session ends, heroic educators will be well on the way to crafting the story of their next educational journey.

Unleashing Learners_ Superpowers - Google Slides

10 Ways Music Makes Your Class Rock

Looking for an easy way to connect with students early in the school year and a fascinating cultural study? Initiate a conversation about music—best concert of the summer, new artists to watch, last song heard before school. When students have earbuds in, ask what song is playing. Every year, my students learn to have their favorite playlists available for reference (and should be added to their list of school supplies). Pop culture references to song titles, artists, and music lyrics are common in lessons. Favorite brain breaks involve students sharing what song they will play at their next opportunity to plug in. Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, iTunes, and YouTube are some of the most used apps in room A15. Is this class led by a teacher or a DJ?

When Joy Kirr, author of Shift This (CH4: Learning Environment) asked, “How can I incorporate music into my lessons?” I could not resist creating a list of my favorite uses of music in the classroom. Tune in for ten ways to make your classes rock! Continue reading

Welcome to Durstopia!

The month of May on the school calendar represents grueling tests of will, perseverance, and endurance… and I’m just speaking for educators. If it is this great a struggle for adults, imagine what wanders through the young, developing minds of our students?

In my ninth grade Visions in Literature and Composition courses, May presents the final stage of freshman training. In attempt to maintain the attention of students (and the teacher), I save the popular dystopian literature unit for the end of the year. And traditionally, it delivers.

Last year’s freshmen were treated to a different approach to close the school year. I gamified the entire dystopian literature unit and presented the ultimate challenge: Escape from Durstopia! They were hooked from the outset, but when they began discovering new missions with links to next steps for success, they were locked in. I communicated from the InfoTech Hub (Google Classroom) and added slides to a shared Google presentation.


Teams formed when necessary and individuals raced to conquer challenges. Students were slipping side quests to me before anyone else recognized the opportunities to learn or create. A group comprised of students from both classes even joined forces and stayed for hours after school to stump their peers with a coded scavenger hunt. Impressive. My students were doing more work and producing greater outcomes than I would ever consider assigning. Learners were not merely invested; they were immersed in our gamified literary universe.


So why would I save this level of engagement for the final month when I have an entire school year to plan? Why not start the year in game mode and see where it leads?

Spark GamersFile_000

With a final pep talk from Michael Matera (I urge you to read Explore Like a Pirate and follow the action of #XPLAP on Twitter), Tisha Richmond, Adam Bold, Nick Davis, and Carrie Baughcam in June, I left University School’s Summer Spark with the vision and motivation necessary to construct my story for freshman English. Thus, Durstopia expanded from a single unit concept to a year-long experience. Plans are currently underway in my imagination and on dry erase boards in my office.


The transition in planning is an invigorating challenge after years of teaching the freshman curriculum. I am restructuring the order of our department units (with common standards, learning targets, and assessments)—units I have helped create throughout the last two decades—to tell a learning story within the theme. Here’s what it looks like at this point in midsummer form (questions, suggestions, and brilliant insights are always welcome!).
Continue reading

Create Learning PERMANENCE Through Reassessment

Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the learning process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions. We live in a culture that continues to reward, rank, and emphasize grades over learning, points over progress, and recall over creation. 

It’s time to reassess our culture of learning. By acknowledging and acting on the following truths, educators live up to their professional title and create learning permanence.

All students can learn.
Always return to this central truth as foremost in education.

Learning is a messy process; consequently, teaching all students to learn is challenging work. Continue reading