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Dear George,

Read this quote:

I have always loved this quote and sometimes, I read it to feel empowered or to move on from tough situations.

Recently though, I have started to look at it differently.

What if the “critic” that is being referred to is me? What if the loudest voice of criticism is in my head, to the point where the “critic” wins the argument against the person trying to get in the arena?

Many people that we aspire to be like are waging this battle all of the time, whether we know it or not.  We see them as “high achievers,” but they are struggling with that battle, and when they show vulnerability in their struggle, we see ourselves in their process.

From Brene Brown:

“Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.”

Dealing with the critic in your head is okay. It happens to all of us. But when we try something new (or even consider it), identify that the critic in your head could be the same person that is holding you back from getting into the arena in the first place.  We wouldn’t give that power to someone else, so push against those self-criticisms that do not allow us to become what we are meant to be.

Your Friend,
George

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In high school, I played football for four years and loved the game.  I had a chance to play at the post-secondary level, but an injury to my knee and a lack of passion for the game when compared to basketball, led me to some different choices.

After high school, my friends and I would play Tecmo Bowl, and eventually, Madden on the Sega Genesis.  It is amazing how much I didn’t know about the game when I actually played it in person (clock management, when to call plays and why, and other fundamental coaching games). But when I played the video game, it actually taught me a lot about the strategy that I didn’t know about. For the first two years of my teaching career, I coached football, which I know I wouldn’t have had a clue to do if I didn’t play football as a video game.

Do I believe every video game will always push your thinking? No, but I don’t think it has to. Sometimes, it is okay just to check out and do something for the sole purpose of fun.  I love playing video games to this day, although I don’t do it as much as I once did.  But I also know that the “flow theory” implemented in game design is something that we can learn from in education. Finding that point of being too hard students give up, or too easy that students get bored, is something that is obvious in many games.

I recently read the book, “Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber,” and by the title, you can see the authors have a clear view on technology in education.  I read it knowing that I wouldn’t agree with a lot of it, but that it would a) push my thinking and b) help me think deeper about my arguments. I am a firm believer in the idea that if I can’t make your case for you, then I probably don’t understand your position or mine.

This quote stuck out to me:

And it’s not as though teens are using their phones for learning, creating, or other productive pursuits. I can honestly say I’ve never taken a phone from a kid who was in the middle of exploring a cyber art museum. I’ve never had a parent complain that she walked in on her son having a late-night FaceTime session with a group of school children in Nigeria. Pretty much all I ever see kids do on their technology is text and Snapchat friends, play games, take pictures of themselves, check Instagram for likes, watch silly videos, and play more games.

In my notes, I  wrote the following; “So why don’t you teach them something different?”  Do we simply hope that kids use technology for meaningful things, or are we teaching them the opportunities that lie in front of them? I have been saying this often; hope is not a strategy.  If we want something different, we can’t just hope it happens. We have to do something.

Understand this…I see negatives with technology use, but I also see positives.  I have really been trying to focus on the positives while acknowledging the negatives. An “all-or-nothing” mentality is not helpful in education, or elsewhere.

This quote is also from the book:

To put this in context, when the elderly discover social media, they apply their real-life understanding of social interaction to it. My eighty-five-year-old grandfather just recently got on Facebook. He did this not to replace existing social interactions but to enhance these interactions. He continues to write, call, and see his family and friends with the same regularity as he did before. However, Facebook allows him a chance to increase the frequency of interaction in a way that is more dynamic and timely than writing a letter, but not as fulfilling as actually being with the people with whom he chooses to interact. He brings his lifetime of knowledge acquired through face-to-face interactions to every type of social interaction he has. Whether it’s a phone call, text, e-mail, or Facebook post, he can accurately predict what type of remark will elicit what type of response from the recipient. He can also differentiate what setting is appropriate for a formal or informal tone. Despite being new to the technology, he picked up the nuances of Facebook instantly.

I love what was written here, and in my notes, I wrote, “Why aren’t we teaching kids more of this?”  I have said this often, “technology is not meant to replace face-to-face interaction, but it can be used to enhance it.”  That is precisely the point the authors are making with adults, but who is going to teach the students?

I have been thinking about this statement a lot lately; are we serving the score or the student?  A lot of times when I hear about schools (or countries) wanting to ban devices from students in schools, I wonder if they are focusing on “doing school” well, or helping serve kids in the world we live in now? Maybe it is both, or perhaps it isn’t. Either way, we have to find more ways to read the stuff we don’t agree with, find common ground, and figure out ways we can serve our kids.  The answers are rarely in the extremes, but often somewhere in the middle.  We can’t just hope for good things to happen, or hope bad things don’t. Education (and learning) in all facets of the world is always part of the solution.

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From the beginning of my teaching career, I remember trying to go out during recess and playing basketball with kids, because I was passionate about the sport, and that meant something to the students.  Not only did this boost my confidence as I grew older that I could still score on 12-year-olds on the playground, it was also a great way to connect with both students I taught and didn’t teach that year.

I have a personal policy that if I was to pass a student or an adult in the hallway, I would always acknowledge them in some way positive.  A little “hello” or positive comment to someone could significantly improve their day, whether you know it or not.  I know that when I go to the gym and get a friendly hello or acknowledgment from someone working at the counter when I check in, it can improve my mood and change my workout, and sometimes, my entire day.

There is a lot of bad stuff in our world. Maybe there is more than there has ever been, perhaps we are just more aware of it, or maybe it is both  I don’t know. What I do know is that a subtle positive interaction with a student (or adult) walking in the hallway could be a pebble in the ocean that eventually changes the tide for that child.

Or maybe it doesn’t.

I also know that no matter how many times I acknowledge someone positively, I never run out of opportunities to do it again.

The safest bet is to always err on the side of positive.  Small interactions can make a massive difference.

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I received an excellent message from a friend of mine that I have made over the past couple of years, Donna DeSiato. Donna is the superintendent of East Syracuse Minoa School District, which I have been lucky enough to speak to over the past two years on the topic of innovation in education. I have written about Donna and her district before, and they are pushing the boundaries of what school could and should look like. I am making an assumption here, but I know Donna would say that she is very proud of the work that is being led by her staff, but that can always grow and get better. That is what makes their organization special, and others like it; the constant pursuit of getting better.

What Donna had shared with me today was an article outlining the significant increase in graduation rates of their school district. From the article:

The East Syracuse Minoa school district showed the greatest improvement in graduation rates among all districts in the state with more than 200 students in a class, a Syracuse.com analysis shows.

Graduation rates improved from 81 percent in 2016 to 92 percent in 2017, according to records released last week by the New York State Department of Education.

The statewide average was about 80 percent.

Superintendent Donna DeSiato attributes the success to the hard work of students as well as staff and parental support for both high achieving and struggling students.

The school district was recently recognized as one of 26 in New York state to qualify for the Advanced Placement honor roll, which requires diversity in AP class enrollment and high test scores.

The district also analyzes data to identify struggling students, then works with each one to develop skills or figure out why showing up for school might be the challenge.

I asked Donna if their focus on “innovation” made an impact on this increase and she replied, “Without a doubt! It is the 10th anniversary of the implementation of our Strategic Plan, and the integration of innovative learning models clearly has contributed to these significant gains.”

This makes my heart and mind happy.

A few things:

  1. The focus is on “innovation,” not technology. I am sure that technology is present, but the focus is on changing the mindset to continuously new and better ways to serve students.  Schools need to shift away from the idea of “EdTech” to a focus on “innovation.” They are significantly different as the first seems to focus on the “stuff,” where the second focuses more so on the “learner.” Big difference.
  2. Do I believe that the results are 100% due to a focus on innovative practices? Nope, and it would be impossible to separate all things to see if that focus had a direct result of what happened here. What I do know is that the team at East Syracuse focused on innovation and their results went up. They were able to “innovate inside the box” and get results that are measured, while also changing the school experience for their students in a way that will serve them beyond schools in our present day and future.  Too often, people believe that “innovation” and the box of school can’t work together, but I disagree wholeheartedly.  How you teach is more important than what you teach.
  3. Someone said to me, “The more innovative I have become, the less classroom management issues I had.” Think about that statement and how true that is.  This is not only for classroom management but also with kids showing up to school in the first place and wanting to be there.  You are more likely to be able to push a student to their fullest potential if you create an environment that they both want to be in and feel valued.

I know Donna would say (and has said) that this is only one measure and should not be the only thing communities focus on to show if a school or district has been successful.  But I wanted to highlight this as proof as the idea of “school” and “innovation” are not necessarily counterintuitive.  If you have people embrace a different mindset and create something better for our students, while still working within the constraints of the system, incredible gains can be made within the present of what is expected, and the potential of what can be created in the future.

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Here is something I hear often;

“Are we creating a system of education where a student will come out and become the next Steve Jobs?”

Let’s unpack that.

Steve Jobs, a fantastic entrepreneur, businessperson, intelligent mind, and innovator.  But there is only one Steve Jobs, and I dare say that there will never be another “Steve Jobs.”  Even if it is of the highest of goals that we say this, replacing one pre-determined path, with a different one (although it may be a higher bar), is not a good idea.  What I think is important is that we create a system that helps our students find their path, their direction, and make their impact, not ours.

In Katie Martin’s book “Learner-Centred Innovation”, she focuses on our students (and her daughter) on asking their questions and finding their own path to purpose:

Some days my daughter wants to be a scientist; other days she wants to be a chef. I have no idea what she will end up doing, but I know that she loves to mix and remix and create new things—at least for now. What will we miss out on if her what if questions subside and she begins to settle for what is? What if her concoctions could someday cure cancer? What if she could open a restaurant where she could happily cook and care for people? What if she stops seeing the value of her creativity and questions and settles for a path that fails to inspire her to lead a fulfilling and successful life as she defines it? Like other children her age, she is developing her self-concept as she interacts with people and ponders her surroundings. She is learning to find her place in this world. The reality of our current system is that grades and academic achievement will increasingly play a role in how she perceives her abilities and trajectory in life. I wonder if she will continue to love learning and exploration as much as she does now if her experience in school is focused on compliance rather than developing skills and knowledge that she can use to be more creative and innovative. I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

Greatness (whatever that means to the individual) often starts by asking questions first and finding solutions second.  Curiosity is crucial to our students, and they should leave school more curious than when they started.

Maybe we need to stop saying that we want to find the next “Steve Jobs”, and start telling our students we need the next “you” and that if they continue asking questions, they will be able to leave their fingerprints on the world. The fingerprints they determine, not ones that are established for them.

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Eileen Lennon recently shared this image with me (and the world) on the “8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset” from my book:

This visual is incredible, and I appreciate Eileen taking and building on my work.

Here are the apparent benefits to Eileen:

  1. She has created something of value that others can use.
  2. She has dug deeper into her learning by building on the work of someone else.
  3. She has created something that will help her build a more extensive network.

Here are the obvious benefits to me:

  1. Eileen has promoted my work and brought more attention to it.
  2. She has created something visual that may have brought a different audience into what I have shared through a visual.
  3. I get to dig deeper into my work by going through the reader’s interpretation of what I am saying.

Through the opportunity to remix, both the originator of the content and the “remixer” benefit.

So why I am bringing this up?

Because in education, we talk about “stealing” each other’s ideas. I despise this, and it sets a bad precedent for our students.  We should use terms like “remixing”, “altering” or “build on” (all with references) but never “stealing.”  Personally, I get frustrated when I see an idea that I have worked on just taken and used by others without reference. I have had school leaders take my blogs, and post them on staff pages as their own.  It is frustrating and can feel entirely defeating.

I wrote this post, “4 Reasons Why Referencing Others Is a Good Thing,” and gave some suggestions on why you should ALWAYS reference to the work of others:

  1. It shows that you are well read.
  2. It raises up the profession as a whole.  
  3. Great leaders give credit. 
  4. It is an honor to be referenced by someone else. Pay it forward.

I do my best to be thoughtful of my work, and if I have a great quote in my head, I Google it before I put it out there.  It is hard to come up with an original idea, but it is important we do our best to give credit.  I always tell people that do presentations that it is always better to over-reference than under-reference. 

Simply stated, stealing might benefit one party, while hurting another.  Building on the work of others with proper referencing creates a win-win opportunity.  As a profession, let’s get rid of the idea of “stealing” the work of others, even if made in jest. We are all better when we lift up the work of others, instead of claiming someone else’s ideas as our own.

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Every time I work with a school district, I hope that they learn from me because I learn from them.  Recently, in Del Mar Schools, Laura Spencer shared their idea of “personalization” of learning.  Before she started speaking, I was skeptical because I have seen the idea of “personalized” learning happening in many schools where a student jumped on a computer and based on the information they share, the technology creates a pathway for that student.  Although the technology is impressive, it doesn’t mean that it is good.  Seeing a student completely zone out in front of a screen and letting the computer lead the learning is not where I hope education is moving.

Laura presented the idea of “personalization of learning,” meaning more in how does the teacher understand the student, build on their interests, and create learning opportunities for the student.  I can get behind this idea.

The personalization of learning creates the opportunity for more depth and authenticity, whereas “personalized learning” seems to be more about knowing the “stuff”.

I wrote the post, “Five Questions to Ask You Students To Start the School Year“, and these are the questions I suggested:

The point of the post was for learning to be personalized, not for “personalized learning”.

Let’s just remember that in “personalization” is the word “person.” Technology is powerful and creates opportunities that I couldn’t even imagine as a student, and we would be crazy not to embrace and build upon what is in front of us. But if it dehumanizes our schools, then we have forgotten that we are not only there to develop learners, but people as well.

Don’t forget the person in the word “personalized.”

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I am truly excited to announce that the second book from IMpress, a subsidiary of Dave Burgess Consulting, “Learner-Centred Innovation”, is now available on Amazon.  This book is by one of my favorite writers and someone I look to as a thought leader in education, Katie Martin.  I have known Katie for several years, and am also proud to call her friend.  Below is my foreword to the book, and I encourage you to get a copy as it is an incredible read.  I am proud to have been a part of this project and help bring Katie’s work to a larger audience.

In 2015, I had the wonderful opportunity to write and publish the book, “The Innovator’s Mindset. Katie Martin, a dear friend and colleague of mine over the past few years, was crucial in what was written in those pages. Her mind toward where education was and where education needs to go is one of the brightest that I have met in the past few years. When writing my book, after completing each chapter, I gave Katie carte blanche to edit anything that I wrote as she saw fit. To be honest, I can’t think of one other person in the world that I would trust so much with a book that would bear my name.

This doesn’t mean we agreed on everything, and to this day, we still don’t. The push and pull of ideas that Katie has provided me have sharpened my own thinking. It is something I wish were the norm in schools today. Often, we agree on ideas or practices in person, but are we too afraid to have the tough conversations and embrace the meaningful conflict needed to really create the important changes education needs to move forward? If we do not embrace opportunities for challenge, who does that benefit in the long term? Definitely not the educator, and most certainly not the students. We need that balance of “push and pull” if we are going to create effective change, and it is important that we have critical friends in our work as educators. Katie will not only challenge your thinking in this book, but she will also push you to ask more questions. Her approach is about starting and deepening the conversation with you, not telling you what to do. She knows that people who ask questions first are the ones who change the world.

When I met Katie several years ago, we spoke all things education for a significant part of the day. Her ideas challenged me and provided me with inspiration to try new things and question my own assumptions about what I believed I knew in the world of education. As she continued to speak, I stopped her and told her, “you need to blog.” My belief was that someone with the vision Katie had for educators and students (learners) should not be limited to a conversation here and there, but her thinking needs to be shared with the world. It would not only help Katie really reflect on her own learning but more importantly, that thinking would be shared with the world.

Katie eventually took me up on the challenge to blog, and her blog subheading, “Inspired by Research, Refined by Practice,” is exemplified through her work. Katie strikes a fine balance between identifying what has worked in the past while keeping an eye on what students need in the future. Too often, books take a stance on one side of the spectrum or the other, but Katie weaves the two intricately together, to help schools create students who ask questions and identify problems in the same way she creates experiences where the adults do the same

The work of educators is challenging. We must recognize Individuals and systems for the gains we have made, and we must create a culture that continuously looks to develop students’ strengths and improve in areas of weakness. And just as we expect of the children in our schools, we need to continuously grow as learners. Both elements are crucial for growth that is spurred by validation. Katie provides both in this book. You will end up feeling inspired to push your own learning through stories and examples of practice happening in education right now, and you will feel affirmed by the knowledge that many of your current practices that enhance student learning are putting both schools and individual students on the right path.

Three things I ask you as you read this text:

  1. Identify what has challenged you.
  2. Identify what has been reaffirmed.
  3. Identify what you will do moving forward.

This will give you a path to make your own connections to where you are and where you are going. No idea in education can simply be carbon copied, as each community and learner is at a different place. Katie writes this to provide the ideas, but it is up to the reader(s) to make the actions happen.

I have been blessed to have direct access to the wisdom of Katie Martin for the past several years, and I am glad that her ideas will now reach many more schools through this book. The ideas here will inspire you to challenge your own thinking, ask more questions, and create better schools for our students. What more could you ask?

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If Blockbuster was still around today, and you had to take out your life savings and invest in that company or Netflix, which one would you choose?

The answer is obvious.

But what about five years ago? Ten years ago?

Now it would be easy to say that Netflix would be the obvious choice, which would mean you are smarter than the leadership of Blockbuster at the time who turned down an offer to acquire Netflix.

The trick with leadership is to understand not only where they are, but the world around them, and what that means for where they have to go.

Still, many leaders go into organizations and focus less on leading, and more on maintaining. People often refer to this style of leadership as “managing,” but great leaders know they have to manage things, and lead people. “Maintainer” would be the more accurate description.

Unfortunately, if you act as a “maintainer” and focus on standing still in a world that continuously moves forward, you will fall behind.

Many educators hide their fear of future by saying everything has to be focused on the research of past practices. Research is crucial and should not be ignored, but many organizations have used evidence of success in the past to justify future direction, only to fail. Ask Blockbuster, Kodak, multiple music distribution companies, just for starters.  Past success does not ensure future growth.

In education, if you want to understand where learning can go, immerse yourself in the opportunities that your students have currently. I am not talking about throwing yourself in front of a computer and having a “choose your own adventure” type of learning experience that many schools now call “personalization,” but why not focus on what you can create because of what you consume? There is a difference between an opinion and an informed opinion, and while we encourage staff to take risks in their classrooms, leaders must model risks in their learning.

Leaders go first, and if they don’t, they are not leading. The best way to know what the world will need from our students is to immerse yourself in the opportunities the world provides and understand what you can do now and in the future.

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Having a vision of where you want to go is not only crucial for leadership but in life.  It applies to so many different aspects of what we do daily, whether it is about our work, our family, our health, or a plethora of other focuses we may have on our mind.

But that big vision down the road can become overwhelming if we are not able to break it down into smaller chunks where we can develop competence and confidence along the way.

I was thinking about this as I was doing one of my long runs this past week.  It is a fantastic opportunity to run in new places and cities, but it also can be daunting as you do not know the paths or terrain in front of you.  It can be both exhilarating or anxiety-inducing depending on the day.

As I am focused on running a half-marathon soon, I had a 60-minute run, so I got a road and started running what seemed to be a continuous upward hill.  I looked up to the top of the hill, seemingly an endless distance away and became frustrated, and stopped my run to walk.  Although I got to the top, I was extremely frustrated with not achieving my goal for the day.  What I realized though was that when I started to look down and focus on the few feet in front of me, instead of focusing on the top of the hill, running the hill became easier.

Today, on a longer run, I wanted to conquer that hill, so I went out again.  Focusing the entirety of the run, I decided to focus on what I learned from the last time I went out and focused on the few feet in front of me instead of the top hill.  As I kept that focus, before I knew it, I was at the top of the hill, and actually now running faster on the downward slope.  Focusing on doing the work right in front of me, sticking to it, and being consistent, before I knew it, I was where I wanted to be.

As I worked with a few administrators this year that were frustrated with what seemed to be the slow growth of their organization, I told them to be patient and focus on the work in front of them, instead of setting their sights to the endpoint that was so far away.  They focused on those little things every day, and now they are on a much better path and are much closer to their end goal, with a lot less frustration.

Tony Robbins often talks about how humans crave growth more than anything, and if we look too far ahead, we lose sight of our growth in the journey for the vision in the distance.  

Focus on the few steps in front of you, do those well, and before you know it, you will be at the top of that hill looking for another one to conquer.

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