Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How I Lead

My greatest strengths as a leader line up nicely with the last three chapters of Kouzes and Posner's "The Truth About Leadership": leading by example, being a continuous learner, and always having heart.  My greatest weakness, communicating the path forward, is what sits between heart and example.  I think the only solution for this is to not only be a lifelong learner, but to teach those I lead to also become better learners.

Grand Challenge Design is a great example of my problem.  I lead the class with lots of heart.  Deep down, I believe that the fully implemented version of this course will enable young people to develop new passions and useful skills, see school as serving both an immediate and a long-term purpose, and help our world actually solve huge challenges.  More immediately, I care deeply about the students I have today and have many 1:1 chats and small group conversations in order to better connect with them as people and help them grow.

As a vision-leader for the course, I can picture the kinds of thoughts and conversations that students are having in the fully-built simulation.  I can see them exploring a variety of business strategies, analyzing the tradeoffs between health and economics, deciding how best to organize a city, and trying to troubleshoot network problems on a handful of devices.  The problems they deal with are far above their head, giving them a great reason to connect with adult mentors who can support them in their learning.  In my head, all of this connects to a handful of experiences in my past in fuzzy ways that makes it hard to fully nail down exactly what the end goal looks like.  All I know is that it will "feel" right when we're close.  It is hard to get others, especially high school students in a small city in Minnesota, to see the vision in my gut.  Even for those who do have a decent sense of the end point, the path forward is fuzzy at best.

For me as one of the simulation designers, I am comfortable with the fuzziness because I know how to take the next step forward.  I am very confident in my ability to learning anything -- if there is something I need to understand or be able to do, I will use the internet and the help of the people around me to figure it out.  I am also comfortable with iteratively deploying an idea and adapting as I observe and hear feedback.  As an individual designer, that works great.  The problem is that I am a leader of a large class of co-designers who need direction and support.

In my math classes, I see the vision of the full course with a lot of clarity, break down the whole into units with testable end-points, and further break down every skill into its finest components so that every student can master it.  In GCD, I only lead by example.  I do a little bit of programming to blaze a path, then handoff the clearer tasks to a team of students who can create new things from my initial examples.  Two of our mentors lead in similar ways with our physical game board and our network control system, leaving lots for students to still learn on their own, but making the path forward clear enough to get started through their own examples.  The power in this model of learning is that students can learn side-by-side as other adults and I try things we have never done either.  The challenge is that we cannot give clear explanations or promise that the thing we're trying now is the best way to do it.  It is also a painfully inefficient means of transferring skills.  It prepares students for challenging, open-ended work, but it doesn't lead to students exiting the course with a great set of hard skills.

I believe that in an ideal education, there is a time and place for both.  The more skills that can be directly transferred, the better, as it enables young people to do interesting, professional-grade work.  The R&D and exploration help students learn how to learn and to handle the kinds of challenges that many employers need to solve: the problems that haven't been solved (well) yet by anyone else.  In GCD, we are trying to reinvent how classroom learning works, so none of us know the obvious path forward.  To actually teach students how to learn, I need to push them to try new things and use the online resources and people in their lives to support them in solving problems without me.  I need to show them frameworks for Design Thinking, Future Problem Solving, Entrepreneurial Thought & Action and Lean Startup approaches, the Engineering Process, and other approaches that make fast learning and broad thinking likely to take place.  However, I need to make sure that I build the need for these frameworks into the simulation or course so my advice and support come as a solution to a problem rather than an add-on to a busy day.  I'm making progress, but I have a long way to go yet.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Support in change

One thing I'm learning fast is that I'm doing a lot of hard things this year.  Going in, I knew that designing a game that teaching advanced tech while simulating the world and exploring Grand Challenges would be tough to facilitate.  I also knew that an intervention math class that is aiming to pull kids to accelerated levels of proficiency by the end of the year, while managing a huge variety of personalities and behaviors, was going to be draining and tricky.  There have been tons of bright spots in the year, but not right now.

In our Grad School prompts this week, Jen asked us to reflect on our support team and the role of trust in change.  Both fit together nicely with how I get through each day.

When I started teaching in Byron, I was a year-long intern working under math teachers Rob and Troy.  They were core support throughout that first year and the many years to follow.  They had a ton of useful experience to draw on, but usually, they just asked me the right questions and facilitated my own learning.  For this, I could never repay them.

More recently, I spent a larger fraction of my day teaching intervention math classes.  With Independent Math (self-paced, computer-based curriculum), many of my students were also in a Study Skills course.  I was constantly connecting with those teachers for strategies and support.  I also had a lot more behavior and emotional problems, so I spent a lot of time connecting with the office team.  When I started co-teaching last year for the Basic+Intermediate Algebra course, collaboration went from a nice support to daily life.  Ashlee (SpEd) and I constantly helped each other think through the challenges we faced in the classroom.  Because things were so difficult for both of us, we constantly reached out to our instructional coach, Andy, our principal and asst. principal Steve and Malia, and a number of peers across the building that we looked up to.  Our support team formed because of our problem and all the people who cared about us and our students.  Now, as I teach a class with different (and I think harder) challenges with Brandon and Rachel, I again can't imagine doing it alone.  Their teaching skill supporting me each day is huge, but the emotional support of doing something challenging with others you trust is very powerful.

I also have a somewhat separate network that I turn to in pushing forward with radically new innovations in the classroom.  I was fortunate to be granted time to work with Matt Weyers and the awesome teams he was with during two years of PBL pilots.  Matt continues to push me and help me think through my own course designs.  Around the same time, I was a Digital Learning Coach under our tech director++, Jen Hegna, who is a force of nature with innovation and pushing deeper learning forward in the district.  She has individually encouraged me, provided crazy amounts of feedback, and helps spark a number of ideas.  My graduate program and all that it pushed me to think through is her fault.  Support has also come through our admin team -- they feel like bulldozer drivers sometimes the way they just plow through barriers.  I can't think of a district where an idea can be pitched and a 2 credit class can be on the books in under a month, and then by the next fall, a 3-teacher interdisciplinary course based on it is already taking its place.

A third network, the robotics program, has been amazing.  When I started, there were a couple crazy adults that joined late in the year to help.  Now, there is an army of parents, alumni, and community members that make our team and everything we do just hum along.  The team is so powerful that I was able to step down as head coach this year, be replaced by someone without specific experience in FRC or robotics, and our team is doing better this year so far than we ever have.  I love working with and learning from this group of fantastic mentors.  I also really love working with the group of kids that have been part of the program for many years -- I have deep trust for them, and over time, have earned their trust.  Despite all of the adult support for Grand Challenge Design, I told my robotics students to take the class (a HUGE schedule killer) and 13 of 17 did it without seeing any plan.  If that isn't trust, I don't know what is, and I am more motivated than ever to follow through with that in GCD this year.

Outside of school, I am incredibly thankful for my wife who loves me even when I'm not that lovable.  As a bonus, she pushes me, gives me ideas, and creates time and space for my own passions.  The emotional support network of my friends in Rochester and my family back in Wisconsin enable me to take all the risks that I do.  The wider network of friends from college that helps me think through my ideas and reflect on tough questions is also amazing.

My support teams across the board are built completely on relationships.  At school, change happens quickly because of mutual trust -- I know what is expected of me when trying something new, and everyone involved knows that I will do what it takes to will something into existence.  I spend a lot of time talking to people in any given day, mainly because I need to in order to do my job well.  In most cases, I have lived up to others' expectations and built a track record of working hard and caring for kids.  I am also usually good about building a track record of caring about my peers and helping when I can.  This creates trust.

Do I think trust is necessary for change?  No.  Is it necessary for fast change?  Absolutely.  Rational people will eventually change when they believe that the new way of doing something is better than the old way, assuming they have the time and support to learn the new way.  You don't need trust to come to that belief, but that means you have to experience it yourself.  In a high-trust environment, I will try something just because you say it is awesome.  You will give me permission to take risks without proof that I know what I'm doing.  This lets innovation and new ideas take-off in an organization.  In a culture that is focused on student learning and growth, not just new-ness, all of this innovation will be constantly evaluated and tweaked as groups of peers push each other to improve.  Trust is the catalyst that gets everything moving.

As I push through the challenging spots of this year, especially with a new baby about to be born any day, I am SO thankful for the people in my day-to-day and the extended team around me, those listed above and the countless others who are pouring into me daily.  I don't have all the answers, but because of all of the people I trust that surround me, I don't need all of the answers.  I just need to be open and honest with my challenges and be willing to listen as they help me do what is best for our students.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

MiniCity

As part of an entry to the US Department of Education's EdSimChallenge contest, a few students and I wrote a 2000+ essay describing our vision.  Since the course title Grand Challenge Design no longer communicated the meaning of the simulation itself, I rebranded GCD as the MiniCity Simulation.  I thought it was worth sharing our contest video and application.




Submission Description:
A classroom of student business owners cooperate and compete in connected industries to keep a 3D-printed miniature city full of digital citizens healthy and happy.


ENGAGEMENT: Describe your simulation concept, including an overview of the content and a brief walk-through of the planned user experience. Identify which types of learners your simulation will initially target. Describe how your simulation will engage users at a level on par with commercially available entertainment games.

MiniCity plays like a multiplayer game of SimCity on a physical game table built up by the class.

Students control physical land, digital money, and a Raspberry Pi computer and use these to build up a business empire. Students have a choice in where they make their investments: game industries include food production, transportation, energy, and housing. Each of these includes key components such as farms, grain mills, and grocery stores. Since all parts are interdependent, players need to monitor the decisions of their peers to decide where they can add the most value. As they engage in their role, students become emotionally invested in the outcomes of their companies.

Despite the individual autonomy over land and businesses, MiniCity is a cooperative game: the class collectively wins by maintaining an 80% happy population of virtual citizens (determined by income, housing, environment, and other factors). All players are punished by unhappy citizens through vacant properties and understaffed businesses.

Players also control governments at the county and town levels. They have the freedom to experiment with the system of government of their choice. They can also pass laws that levy taxes, ban industrial pollution, or regulate housing prices, with every action directly impacting gameplay. The social dynamics in our simplified prototype have already proven how engaged an entire class becomes when individual agendas and strategies collide with a class-controlled government.

The most important game mechanic that engages students is where the technical learning occurs: building new businesses. While basic farming simply requires the purchase of seeds and water, optimal farming requires a digitally-controlled irrigation system and grow lights. To implement this, a student has to program a Raspberry Pi computer to trigger lights to turn on and a pump to move actual water from the central river. In the housing industry, players build upgraded apartments by modeling it in CAD software and 3D-printing it. The teacher’s role is to support students as they physically build their empire.

The bare structure of the game empowers players to fill the gaps with their imaginations. Students stumble upon issues as they progress throughout the game rather than being presented a topic for the day by a teacher. In our alpha prototype, students have already formed intercity corporations, farming businesses, law firms, and banks. Others decided to work independently, becoming career politicians, freelance farmers, and electricians. In an infamous hostile takeover of the county government, engagement went through the roof as the class collectively shut down a student exploiting loopholes and redesigned the entire government to prevent future dictators. Most significantly, students come to class with better and deeper questions every day as we progress through the game: “How do stocks work?” “What is ROI?” “Why are 18 volts running through my pump on a 5-volt circuit?” “How does the government control land use?” “Who pays for roads?”

Most simulations teach the HOW of key skills. MiniCity, despite being much simpler to implement, engages students by making them ask WHY.


LEARNING OUTCOMES: Explain the desired change or transformation in the user’s knowledge and skills. What academic, technical, and employability skill-learning objectives will your simulation seek to transfer? Detail the subject area(s) and/or curricular area(s) that your simulation addresses. Briefly review how your simulation will communicate feedback to the user and instructor with respect to progress toward achievement of the learning outcomes.

Students develop skills in technology, social sciences, communication, and collaboration during gameplay. For a student to progress, they need to develop some sort of enterprise or employable skill. Students will learn to direct their own learning as needed by the game, resulting in one mastering software, another learning to build group consensus, and yet another becoming an expert on water pollution. In all paths, students need to understand the complex system of the interconnected industries and how one action affects other parts.

Along with business, students must learn about government to bring order and consistency to the game. The game begins with a bare-bones constitution, leaving students in charge of government structure, enforcement and interpretation of laws, and passing new regulations. Once laws are put in place, students read them closely to find loopholes, thus providing the authors with valuable feedback on legal writing.

On the game table, most buildings get upgraded by designing a CAD model and producing it with a 3D printer. Every in-game building has basic specifications that players need to meet in their model, thus demonstrating an understanding of this skill while completing a game task. To encourage every player to try a game action like this (rather than relying on specialists), discounts can be offered for the first building. If a teacher has specific content outcomes, she can create in-game objectives with financial bonuses. Students include pictures, screenshots, and short reflections to retain a record of their learning. All of this can be viewed in aggregate by the teacher, better enabling her to notice and intervene with students who are not progressing.

Most game systems require an electrical control system with lights, servos, and sensors connected to a Raspberry Pi computer. The systems communicate data to and from the game server or individual data-monitoring tools. This is the same technology that forms the heart of the Internet of Things. APIs and technical documentation simply become part of students’ daily experience in-game.

Most of the game server comes with no visual interface by design. Students use a Chrome add-on to post API requests to the game server to list products on the market, transfer money, or take any digital action. The inefficiency for people using the API offers an opportunity for players to start their own mobile app companies, selling subscriptions to use a simple, time-saving interface.

The most significant learning comes from exposure to the key themes of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges. These are huge, interdisciplinary problems such as providing clean water, restoring urban infrastructure, and securing cyberspace. The problems are embedded as tradeoffs during gameplay that require both diplomatic and technical solutions.

Again, MiniCity doesn’t teach the HOW of any of these skills, and yet in our prototype game, we found that it produced the motivation to learn all of these. Peers, online resources, and the teacher can all offer direction as students learn these skills -- the game simply gives them an immediate reason to care.


COMMITMENT: Describe your team and characterize its strengths and commitment. How is your team best suited to bring this concept to fruition? Describe how your team plans to develop your simulation over the course of the Challenge.

Unlike most teams, our simulation is teacher, student, and mentor-built. We play and develop the game as a class for 80 minutes daily during the school year. With an active role in the development of the very game they are playing, students develop a sense of ownership and are eager to contribute to the evolution of the course.

As the lead developer and teacher, my background spans engineering, entrepreneurship, and education. I graduated from Olin College of Engineering, a school built 15 years ago with the explicit goal of reinventing engineering education through hands-on, integrated coursework. I majored in computing, but outside of the classroom I was learning about and designing tools for innovative schools. Now, as a licensed teacher, I have been working to innovate school curriculum to engage students more holistically.

Development and continuous feedback are supported by the pilot class of 23 students. Half of our class days are spent designing and building the game with the remaining days focused on playing the prototype.

As a group, we work in fast two-week sprints to iterate the rules and introduce new game components. In November, we had a generic idea and rough set of rules. Now, we have a functional NodeJS game server, a home-brew CNC router operational and cutting out the hexagon-tiled surface of the 6’x13’ game table, our Raspberry Pis are successfully running a mentor-developed control system, and the game economy is relatively balanced.

Over the coming weeks, we are expanding the prototype to include virtual citizens, housing, and employees. Once implemented, we will rebalance the economy and continue adding new industry verticals one-at-a-time. The game board frame and river are ready and the surface will continue to be machined. Our subteams have clearly defined roles on build days. We are highly confident in our design and implementation processes and see the game developing significantly throughout the rest of the year.

After our initial success, our school district committed to the second year of our course, but this time I will be joined by two co-teachers licensed in social studies and language arts. In this integrated course, we will re-theme the game so that players experience the challenges of ancient city life throughout key periods of world history before advancing to the present. The three-teacher team is critical for clarifying and deepening the learning objectives embedded within the MiniCity simulation so that students can earn a variety of required credits in a single course block.

Moving beyond the small town of Byron, MN, I will leverage a broad base of teacher contacts locally and nationally through my blog, Twitter, and the Grand Challenge Scholars Program. I also have engineering contacts through Olin College with deep ties to progressive high schools. This network can be greatly expanded to many interested teachers with the help of the Department of Education and the EdSimChallenge contest.


IMPLEMENTATION STRATEGY: What tools, software, and/or hardware will be required to run your simulation in the classroom environment? Identify any anticipated logistical, technological, or economic barriers to deploying your simulation. Briefly preview your initial thoughts around distribution, implementation, and integration with existing and future technology. How do you plan to control the costs associated with purchase and maintenance of the simulation and associated technology?

MiniCity has a fully open and modular design. The only limitation from bringing it into another classroom is the teacher’s confidence jumping into a host of new technologies. Its dissemination will rely on a core group of innovative risk-takers to adapt and try the simulation at their school. This group can then mentor and encourage the next wave of teachers as they make it work for their students.

In order to ease the transition for new teachers to adopt MiniCity, a top priority over the next semester is compiling and creating tutorial videos that demonstrate the setup of the core technology. This will also help my own students as they try to efficiently share their different knowledge domains with one another.

Thankfully, cost is not one of the major barriers to implementation. By starting with almost no money ourselves, we designed with low-budget schools in mind. Through the physical game table, MiniCity immerses users without expensive VR sets or advanced PCs. We built and operate the digital game server at no cost. All electronics were sourced for incredibly low prices from China. All startup supplies for a class of 30, including 1:1 Raspberry Pi computers, can be purchased for under $3000, well within the range of a grant or many schools’ technology budgets. Adding 3D printers to this adds $400-$900 per unit. Ongoing costs for additional plastic filament and replacement electronics are under $1000/year.

By the end of the school year, the full game rules, technical documentation, parts lists, and software will be organized into a single website. The site will also include any learning resources we create or compile. Our goal is to make everything we do transparent and available for innovative teachers to jump right in. I am directly invested in this process of organizing as I prepare to bring two new teachers on-board at my school before next fall.

Ongoing maintenance will be a task for the open source community around the game. I intend to continually use MiniCity in my classroom for years to come and thus remain a core leader in its maintenance. Beyond free online support, I would run a summer workshop at our school to prepare groups of interested teachers and professors to launch their own MiniCities by the fall. My students or I could be contracted to provide further on-site or 1:1 support.

Once adopted, MiniCity can be significantly adapted to meet a variety of educational outcomes, including the world history theme that we will launch with our own students next fall. Re-theming the simulation is highly feasible for a variety of classroom content areas thanks to the modular application design.


LONG-TERM VISION: How might your simulation fit into a future ecosystem of simulations for career and technical education (CTE)? Briefly describe preliminary thinking around how your simulation could connect with other simulations through approaches to data handling, use of APIs, integration of open source tools, and/or implementation of Experience API (xAPI). Describe your vision for how the simulation could expand or scale. How could your simulation be built upon by other developers?

Within the world of simulations, MiniCity offers a break from VR sets and TV screens to put students face-to-face around a complex challenge. The broad nature of the experience gives students a chance to try out many roles -- business leader, congressperson, farmer, engineer, electrician -- without committing to a narrow track early in high school. My students and I believe that this simulation will be the catalyst that encourages students to go deeper with more focused, single-career simulations in future coursework.

The simulation software will generate key financial, health, and happiness metrics each day as it analyzes the decisions of the virtual citizens. From this data, it could export useful stats to xAPI or similar systems that universally track student actions. The open source tools would allow new teachers to see how an established system works and thus make their first course flow more smoothly.

The simulation will grow in multiple respects. New industries will be added as new microservices in the application. Political structures will evolve. Beyond gameplay, the simulation as a course can expand to formalize the education students receive in language arts and history. Over time, additional coursework including entrepreneurship, statistics, political science, and agriculture can all be integrated.

The most exciting possibility for MiniCity is the chance to directly connect with additional sites around the nation and world. Rather than simply selling goods at the ports “overseas”, students would now be able to actually sell their goods through a peer-to-peer market to another classroom. Prices for virtual materials and services would be shared via API requests between MiniCity simulations. A new layer of government, the state, could be composed of student representatives from dozens of classrooms who are working to pass fair laws across the entire system. This opens a whole new world for trade, business, entrepreneurship, and politics. The learning experience gains value as you incorporate more and more students, and even community mentors, outside of a single classroom.

These classrooms could also connect outside of the game to present their learning at conferences and organize social meetups. In particular, the social network of the teachers would stay tightly connected online as we support each other in the implementation of our shared virtual society. The social integration and buy-in of a worldwide group of teachers may be the most powerful opportunity for MiniCity to advance engaging student learning.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

My Why --> My What

As our Innovative Instructional Leadership cohort continues through Kouzes and Posner's The Truth About Leadership, I was asked to reflect on what brought me into education, what roadblocks are in the way, and what new opportunities lay ahead.

I fell in love with education in my first year of college.  Olin College was my top choice school because of its hands-on and student-driven approach to engineering from the very first day of class.  As I was heading into my second semester, I was part of a group of six students who decided to create our own class, MetaOlin, and find six professors to each teach us a two-week segment.  As a group, we studied our own school through the lenses of systems engineering, diversity and privilege, digital communications, pedagogy, history, and information literacy.  Many of the units focused on the learning environment of the college analyzed in different ways, but the specific pedagogy unit opened me up to a totally new field of study.  I followed this up the next semester with a course at nearby Wellesley College, Improving Schools, that studied a variety of models of standard, private, and public charter schools that significantly improved student results.  By the end of this course, I was so addicted that I needed to take a year off of college just to study our nation's schools.

My leave of absence year was spent living with five other classmates doing the same thing.  We found the overlap of our interests -- a startup tech business focused on improving collaborative learning in schools -- and pursued this head-on.  During that year, my free time was invested in books about learning (lots of John Holt and similarly old classics).  My side job was planning curriculum and teaching at a weekend STEM program for high school students.

In my junior year after the leave, I committed myself to a temporary year-long focus on software skills in order to build some technical competence.  By my senior year, I decided that I wanted to create and lead a charter school modeled after the awesome school systems I had been studying and visiting over the past few years.  In order to get licensed, I needed three years of management or three years of teaching experience.  If I wanted to have a clue about what I was doing, I needed the teaching, so I found Winona State University-Rochester near my new post-marriage home and started the fastest, most hands-on licensure program I could find.  That brought me to Byron.

Since I started, my WHY has remained focused on redesigning the system to make learning relevant and meaningful to students so that we would be able, as a society, to solve the complex problems in our world and so that students would be excited to engage in this journey of lifelong learning.

This translated into many of the projects I poured myself into since I started teaching (see my last post).  All of this is preparing me to design the best learning environments possible.  Moving forward, I am finally coming head to head with the largest challenge that I feared when I started: the credit hour, also known as the Carnegie Unit.  Almost nobody believes that learning occurs just because time passes in a scheduled space, and yet the complexities of organizing people into places with enough adults per student has made this piece of our system indispensable.  If you add to that the need for whole groups to move through material together in time, the schedule becomes nearly impossible to take on.

I think the long-term vision for this breaks away from a schedule and tracks objective-connected learning for each student.  Students still need individual attention and monitoring, making advisors and special education teachers all the more important.  Rather than classes, shorter projects and learning modules could chip away required micro-credits for students over time.  This would afford the flexibility for new learning experiences that integrate subjects, work off-site, or allow students more choice in their work.  I want to be a part of making this possible in Byron and beyond.

The new English/History-integrated Grand Challenge Design course for next year will be a useful first step forward in exploring integrated teaching and learning in Byron.  If we can successfully create deep experiences that engage students in multidisciplinary learning, I think we can keep pushing against the traditional schedule and all of its weaknesses, barriers, and cost overhead.  I can imagine all 11th graders trading in traditional coursework for a year-long, themed, integrated experience that is heavily defined by their own dreams and needs.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Reflecting on five years of learning

I was asked to reflect on my professional growth since I started teaching, considering risks I took and the leaders that mentored me in the journey.  I see a few key actions that pushed me to where I am now:

  • building and refining project-based (PBL) Stats
  • coaching our FIRST robotics team
  • connecting to the MTBoS (online community of math teachers with an annual F2F conference)
  • co-teaching and co-designing an effective remediation Algebra course
  • pushing for Grand Challenge Design and its co-taught second round


All of these actions became growth opportunities because of the combination of challenge and incredible mentorship that came from the people around me in each.

As an intern teacher back in 2011-12, my formal mentors (and now co-workers), Rob and Troy, gave me an incredible degree of freedom to try new things.  They modeled a process of trying something and carefully analyzing the data to assess its effectiveness.  Their lack of experience with project-based learning didn't keep them from letting me try to implement it, but they stayed engaged with me as coaches by asking tough questions and pushing me to reflect on what was working.  After developing a first iteration of a PBL Stats class as an intern, Rob handed off the course that he had been teaching for years to let me continue to iterate the curriculum once I was hired on.  A few years later, when my schedule crowded out Stats, both he and Troy continued to develop and refine from what I built, despite it being outside of their comfort zones.

During my first "real" year teaching, a student pushed me to start a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team.  Thanks to good timing with funding becoming available, we started our team a year early -- two days after the new season's kickoff.  This nearly killed me, as it requires spending every second of January-March focused on learning a game, buying up parts, keeping a bunch of kids and families organized and engaged, and...building a robot.  We didn't fare so well in our first two seasons, but our team learned a ton and built up a base of students, mentors, and sponsors.  Four years after starting the team, we now have two of our own rooms in the Community Education (now district admin) building with 3D printers, a CNC router, tons of tools, and a warehouse of electronics and mechanical parts.  We expanded the program down to kindergarten and helped to grow the district to having ~7% of enrolled students on a robotics team.  The key to all of this was the network of mentors that we built up: they officially mentor the students, but unofficially have been my teachers and supporters.  Many are parents with years of industry and life experience who speak their truth, though even our younger mentors continue to teach me tech and amaze me with their commitment.

One of the easiest, but highest-reward actions as a teacher has been plugging into a community of other math teachers.  At my school, I have my PLC team that is amazing.  Part of our team always attends and presents at the Minnesota Council of Math Teachers (MCTM) conference each spring, plugging me into the larger community.  The most powerful connection has been plugging into the national/global community known as the Math-Twitter-BlogoSphere (MTBoS) -- if you tweet at other math teachers, write a blog, and/or comment on other blogs, you are plugging in.  The self-organized community developed a ton of resources that I now pull from and has many of the best teacher-leaders I have ever met providing free professional development and direct support for other math teachers.  I am not a frequent blogger or tweeter, but when I hit a wall or am in a new development push, I always turn here first.  Though I respected the ideas and resources of the community, I really bought in after attending my first Twitter Math Camp 3 years ago.  My first one required a 10-hour drive to Oklahoma to spend 4 days in non-stop conversation with some incredibly kind, supportive, and innovative people who happened to also teach math.  After going to dinner or having long chats with so many of these teachers, I am that much more interested in what they have to say in their reflections.

Hands-down, my most challenging experience as a teacher is my Algebra class.  It is a co-taught special education inclusion class that is designed to move all students up to grade-level math by the end of 9th grade.  The behaviors of any 9th grade class were enough to crush me my first year teaching, but this group and some of the uniquely challenging behaviors were insanely hard for me and my co-teacher, another young teacher, to manage.  We had frequent chats with our principal, Steve, as well as our math and SpEd PLC, as they all did their best to coach us through a variety of situations.  In order to make things work, we tried everything and found a few approaches that worked well, at least for a while, and built up strong relationships with our class.  This year, though I am with a different team, I feel MUCH more confident in my ability to co-teach, to keep order in a classroom, and to teach conceptual thinking about math to a group that has had nothing but procedure thrown at them for a long time.

My most exciting professional adventure came with the start of Grand Challenge Design.  The course sparked from an email thread about the idea of a STEM-focused school in Byron, and within a couple weeks, was turned into a course proposal that the awesome leaders in our district and school supported.  Conveniently, I was just starting Jen Hegna's Innovative Instructional Leadership Certificate program, and I latched the new course plan to the majority of my coursework.  This reading, discussion, and general structure pushed me to plan much further ahead than I usually did, so much so that the idea of the class simulation was born out of work.  Jen's feedback, as well as the conversations with other cohort members, pushed GCD far beyond what it ever would have been, and I continue to learn from the students, and class mentors that push me and teach me new technology skills every day.  The simulation, in turn, opened the door to multi-disciplinary coursework to purposefully take place within the GCD structure.  Again, supportive leadership shaped and approved next year's offering, a 3.0 credit block of technology (elective), social studies, and English credit, co-taught by a three-teacher team.  That experience, assuming enough students register for it, will bring full circle the full course development, robotics program, and co-teaching that led me to this point.  I can't wait to take what I am doing and learning this year and get pushed by two more teachers that are with me daily.

Looking back, my rate of learning has been crazy-fast, and yet it is amazing how much I still do not have figured out.  Being a good teacher is incredibly hard, but I love the journey.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Grand Challenge Design: Q1 is in the Books

The first quarter of Grand Challenge Design flew by.  Though it didn't go like I planned, it was a very positive start to this year-long adventure.  The key relational, cultural, procedural, and skills groundwork are in place, our game is going to launch tomorrow, and we have a productive space for learning.

To start the year, every student wrote a letter about themselves, their future, and the course.  This letter was based on Ben Zander's concept of transforming relationships and giving every student an A.  In the letter, each student gave me the insight I needed to start a successful working and mentoring relationship with them.  As first drafts, nearly every letter came in looking awful.  To address this, I started with comments and suggestions over Google Docs.  For some students, this was all that was needed to lead to a more productive draft.  For others, I found myself having one or two 1:1 meetings at lunch, during advisory time, or after school to verbally probe into some of the questions I wanted them to explore.  I also reached out to my English teacher colleagues who were amazing in helping me and my students through the writing process.

Once a letter was accepted as complete, I used it to match the student with the best-fitting mentor I could think of.  Every student is paired with their own mentor, a professional engineer or designer chosen from my college and local friends who were willing to jump in.  I don't know if my students realize how top-notch these people are yet, but they will in time.  One mentor, after receiving his mentee's introductory letter, even wrote back with his own letter, written as if he was in high school but then continuing to the present day.  As I see some of the email exchanges that I am CC'd on and poke my head into some of the Skype chats during class, I can't help but get excited for all the things students will learn from NOT me this year.  As I get texts and emails from mentors seeking additional advice and counsel on how best to help their student, I am amazed at how much these people care about a group of random kids in Byron, MN.


Our Grand Challenge for the first quarter was not the individual work, but the team effort that was required to build up the course.  After getting a sense of what students were interested in doing, I divided the class into teams of 2-4 with different areas of focus.  From there, I presented the core of the vision to the class: this quarter, we were going to get our game built and ready to play and improve our classroom to be a fun and effective learning space.  I structured this into "OKRs", or "Objectives and Key Results", a goal-setting and measuring format created by employees at Google so that everyone could have autonomy while moving in the same direction, have clarity of what they and others were focusing on, and have a system to measure their own progress.  I asked each student team to do the same.  Here are a few example OKR docs from the teams in class: CNC team, NodeJS team, Rules team.

At this stage, my role involved checking in with each team each day to offer ideas, direction, feedback, or whatever was needed.  I also made sure that the different groups were communicating with each other.  At first, this process seemed relatively successful.  After a month, I found that teams were splitting two different directions: the teams that had long-term projects did okay managing their day-to-day work productively, but the teams with many small tasks had a hard time figuring out where to go next without heavy support.  To address this, I introduced three elements of the scrum framework: a product owner, a Kan Ban board, and a daily stand-up

Scrum is used heavily in the software world as a way to help teams self-organize and complete tasks around user needs.  The role of a product owner is to decide which tasks need to get done, and what "done" looks like, to achieve the objectives of the company.  As the lead person pulling everything together, I was a product owner.  However, I also invited one student from each team to take on that role and work with me to generate and refine their team's task list.  From here, each team put the tasks on a large kanban board divided into four sections: backlog, in-progress, ready-to-check, and done.  The backlog includes all of the tasks that need to be done but had not been started.  In-progress is what you would expect.  Ready-to-check includes all tasks that the doer thinks is done but needs a product owner to review to make sure it truly meets the definition of done.  "Done" is truly done.

We used the board as part of the daily stand-up meeting.  Within the first five minutes of class, the entire class crowded around the board and said (1) what they accomplished yesterday, (2) what they were planning to do today, and (3) if anything was blocking them.  (1) was for public accountability -- I only realized after we stopped doing these daily meetings how well that was actually working (a few students slipped into multiple unproductive days without this).  (2) was for me -- if they said they were doing something, but it didn't sound very useful or sound like they knew what they were talking about, I would either correct on the spot or follow-up with that person after the meeting.  (3) was for everyone else to listen to -- if two teams were going to be doing something in the same space or with the same resource, they would have a heads up and be able to work it out ahead of time.  This didn't come up a lot during the time where I used the daily stand-up with the entire class, but now that we are closer to fully integrating everything, it seems more likely to happen.  I plan to return to using this whole-class meeting daily in Q2 on team days.


Back in August, I pictured the game starting up in a couple weeks after school started.  It was only after a couple weeks passed that I realized that my sense of reality was heavily warped.  The most obvious challenge we faced was finished the game board surface.  Doing so required the use of a machine that we bought in isolated components and assembled ourselves.  A former student and older brother of a GCDer led the design, assembly, and software setup for the machine.  Unfortunately, the challenges involved in making everything work were more than even this mentor could quickly master.  The two students working on the machine, with some weekend help from their mentor, found faulty limit switches, a bad stepper motor, wiring issues, and software configuration problems.  Then they went through a time-consuming process of calibrating the machine so that a software inch would be a true inch.  To actually cut material, they first needed to design a part in CAD (something they knew well), but then needed to run it through CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) software to tell the machine how to make the part.  They needed to figure out which bits to use and how fast to spin them.  They needed to find a consistent way to mount the stock wood in the machine so it would remain steady.  They needed to find a way to mount a shop vac hose to the machine with a dust-trapper so that the excessive amounts of sawdust would stay contained.  And this is not a complete list!  Though this team dealt with the most extreme set of challenges for what sounded like a very simple task, nearly all teams found themselves experiencing dozens of complex problems nested within something that sounded straightforward at the beginning.

I love watching students work through this kind of challenge.  Given that I am used to students giving up on tasks with lots of direction, resources, and a knowledgeable guide, seeing students persevere with none of these is refreshing.  Here are a few action shots from the semester as students persevere through this (thank you, Kris Nelson!):

 
 
  

Finally, I asked students to end the quarter with a video summary that they would share with me and their mentor.  This video had to be at least two minutes long and discuss what they did and what they learned.  Watching these has been a ton of fun for me since I sometimes forget where students started the quarter.  Thank you, Jen Hegna, for recommending that I do this!  A few examples are below:



Despite the number of tasks that are not completed yet, I am really excited about launching the game tomorrow and building the airplane at 10,000 feet.  We will alternate game days and team days so there is time to continue getting key tasks completed while allowing us to experience what things are actually needed for game play.  And hopefully, this time, I will blog more than once per quarter and keep each post under 1500 words.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Reflecting on Design Thinking

As part of my Winona State University cohort, we all engaged in a condensed experience in Design Thinking, a process that facilitates user-centered design.  Back at Olin, Design Thinking was the heart of the engineering curriculum, pulling together our technical work with entrepreneurship and the humanities in a process that puts people at the core, so this was not a new experience.  However, it was the first time I used Stanford-based materials, the first time I did a design project alone, and the first time I went through a formal application of design since I started teaching.

To focus my design work, I decided not to look at all of my students.  Instead, the problem I wanted to better understand was why my Grand Challenge Design course was so male-dominated (20 young men, 3 young women), so I studied current 10th and 11th-grade female students, the ones who could register for GC Design starting in January.  I did not enter with an expected outcome, but rather let the process reveal insights as they came up.  The point was to truly understand and empathize with this group that I was clearly having a hard time appealing to.  Starting with this understanding, I could improve the design of the course and more effectively communicate what was already good to these students.

Students are only one of many stakeholders in public education.  The federal, state, and local governments all have an important stake, as to community members, parents, administrators, teachers, and support staff.  However, given that students are the end customers, it is amazing how little we seek to understand them.  An empathy-centered process stops asking what students want (more time to do their existing work, better resources, etc.) and observes what students do, say, and think.  From there, I made inferences and connected the commonalities to create a picture of who these students are.  One of the more powerful insights I gained from this process is that the students I interviewed were open to creating and the engineering process.  Food and art were common places to make and invent.  However, content and peer groups mattered.  Nearly all of the young women I talked to had clear passions and career interests that developed in middle school, directing their decisions on courses and extra-curricular activities.  They were also aware of which courses were likely to be mostly guys, and most of them avoided these.  A surprising theme was the belief that they would fall behind in a technical course.  This is especially curious because the majority of them said that they did well in their 8th grade STEM course and never fell behind (where is this belief coming from?!).

After this research, I designed my first prototype solution: a two-hour course called "LED Art" on our school's exploratory lesson day (twice per year).  I described it as a chance to design your own art project on foam board and bring it to life with custom-programmed LED lights.  The description worked!  I recruited a class of 13 gals and 12 guys.  Though I was working with a lighter supply of materials than I was hoping for, I had enough to run the class.  On game day, it was a total disaster.  Students managed to mostly have fun and learn a thing or two, but the logistics of helping everyone get a basic circuit running proved just a hair too much for only two hours with my planning.  After running the course, I have a few dozen specific changes that I plan to make that will allow everyone to be up and running significantly faster, allowing more time for explorations, programming, and actual art design.

The most fascinating observation of the whole course was what happened when I asked students if they wanted to buy a $10 kit of parts to take home: 8/12 guys signed up, 1/13 of the ladies did.  While working, there were only a few people that appeared to know what they were doing, and yet the guys were the ones who seemed either confident enough or interested enough to want to take it home and keep learning.  I'm curious is this is an inherent fact about this group, or if there would be different results on taking a kit home if I provided more structured handouts and guides from the start.  I wonder if the outcome would have changed if I took the time to learn more names during the session and encouraged each person as they worked.

In the end, the whole experience was incredibly worthwhile.  More than any specific insights, of which there were many, I am fully re-convinced that the Design Thinking process needs to guide any important decisions that I am making.  I can guess what students want or need based on my past experience, and I can read a lot of relevant research that gives me insight, but direct, targeted observation and iterative design with student feedback leads to solutions that really nail the important details.  Beyond my role as a teacher, if I want to be an innovative instructional leader in my school, I need to be able to facilitate a team working through this process together.  With a partner or team, the process involves a lot of discussion and skimming of insights at every stage of engaging with users.  By leading the design process, I can expand the number of people who are empathizing effectively with students at our school and be directly supported in improving the design work I do for my own classroom.