How Toasted Are Your Lessons?


Learning is a journey, and your students want to know you are with them. How do you let them know you truly are? In my experience, this is done by creating learning experiences that mean something. Experiences that live in real space. Experiences designed to be seen by more eyes than yours as the teacher. What do the other students think about the issue? What about experts in the field? I am a longtime proponent of designing lessons that do not live on the page alone. And yet, I also understand that every lesson on every day cannot possibly live such a contextualized life. There are skills to be learned. Basic facts to comprehend.


And yet, even these basic facts and skills can be presented in such a way that they feel intended for the learner alone. Customized. Toasted. A recent post by Seth Godin posited the value of things being “toasted.” In this brief post, he defines “toasted” as this:

“Here’s a little treat, something extra I did that wasn’t necessary, for you, right now, here, I made this.”

He’s right. As a fan of good food, I can honestly say that whether via restaurant chef or home-made, anything toasted carries with it that extra bit of “just for you” at that very moment. This can apply to every single experience in the classroom. But first, what might be the alternate view? McDonald’s burgers? Textbook-company-created worksheets? Lesson 3.1.1?

I remember many of my first experiences as a teacher back in 1993 as clear as if they happened yesterday. Back then I was handed a textbook and a course title. “Biology” is a really vague direction without articulated standards and learning targets to define the scope. I must state that my district had actually produced a curriculum charting the path more than others. However, it would be some years before strong instructional leadership helped to not only define the K-12 pathway, but also to align it with local assessment to check progress along the way. Prior to that time, my colleagues generally marched forward along a path prescribed by the textbook company we had adopted. And this…  this led to stepwise assigning of tasks, number by number until the end of May. Students catch on to this. And they catch on quickly.


It is here that I must say unequivocally that the job of a teacher  – 100+ students of all abilities, defined time spans, the sum total of the “school experience,” etc. –  is massive. I know the depth of that reality because I lived it for 25 years. I lived it in both face to face and blended environments. I lived it as a teacher, and later as a school instructional coach, a district instructional technology specialist, and a district instructional coordinator. I know the time it takes to design a solid lesson. Luckily, I did this for many years prior to the national standards movement, as well as for many years under such external pressures.

One thing I can honestly say I learned in year one: never photocopy a blackline master worksheet. No matter how well constructed or designed. Even prior to the equalizer we now know as the dawn of the Internet, students could easily see through the McDonalds-like automation of the worksheet. If they were asked to complete a task on paper for me… it was designed by me. It was designed by me, and customized directly for them… and I made sure in construction that they would know it.



Today we know far better. We have long lived in a world where media is created by anyone and everyone. Students know when you are creating a task specifically for them, and they appreciate it. The appreciate it by responding to a level we desire because they buy in to reality far more than into a false construct. Fast forward to today…  where I lead a virtual school of 19 teachers offering a total of 34 courses to a district of nearly 20,000 students and many more in the region we serve. And so, I ask the simple question: to teachers near and far: how toasted are your offerings for your students? How do you put those dark delightful grill marks onto your designs for learning?

Artwork thanks

*Robyn Lee for “Ham, Brie and Apple French Toast Panini” via CC on Flickr

*Ewan McIntosh for “She’s not so keen on worksheets – quite right!” via CC on Flickr


Make It Rain


I apologize outright if you are from a drought-striken region desperately searching the electronic ether for a glimmer of hope, only to have arrived at this post courtesy of the title. There are no deluge-inducing instructions here. No chants. Barely a plea. But questions? Yes. This post is about questions.

Family Tree of Droplets


While sitting on the deck taking in a beautiful early evening outside, I began my traverse of the daylight/dusk/night barrier when my five year old daughter approached me at the table on the deck, and asked to climb into my lap. While shimmying in for kitten-like comfort, she kicked up a seemingly simple conversation…

Neve: “What are you reading?”

Me: “Oh… just about about ways of thinking. Just something to help me be smart about the work I do.”

Neve: “So, can you read a book to get smarter about anything?”

Me: “Almost. Yep… If you think about something you want to learn about, or know how to do… you can probably find a book to help you. You can pretty much learn about anything you want to today.

So, yeah… if you want to learn something, we’ll find books and things to help you.”

Neve: “Can you get a book if you want to learn how to make it rain?

Me: “(pause) Well… actually yes. Probably. There are people who have been trying to make it rain for a very long time. And sometimes they’re getting pretty OK at it in small spaces. Sort of.”

The conversation from there got a little too lengthy and geeky to relay here, but you get the idea. Learning at age five has so…… so much potential. Infinite, really.

Screenshot 2014-06-16 21.01.27


I’m really not entirely certain what the segue might have been between these two events, but, fast-forward twenty minutes to when I posted this*:

“Holy cow…… the girls asked what a cardinal sounds like. I pulled up a video from the Cornell Ornithology Lab on my iPhone, and seriously, our backyard is now a cacophony of cardinal music.

Why have I not done this until now?”

The comment stream below the post was rich as well, with several connections from those who had done similar things, as well as some fantastic suggestions for taking this to the next level. I get smarter, kids get smarter, rinse, repeat.


Once the girls heard the cardinals come to life around us, once they saw two land on the fence directly in front of us, they were in. “What does a goldfinch sound like?” “What about an oriole?” “Does a hummingbird make a sound?” While we Googled every last question in the fading light, I tried to interject a thing of two about the limits of their quick little tests. “Maybe those other species weren’t close by.” “Perhaps this was the wrong time of day for them to respond in that way.” Maybe this, perhaps that…  but at this point they had already crossed over into trying to mimic backyard birdsongs themselves to even hear my prompts. At this point, science was bridging a wee bit into art and I knew this wouldn’t be the last time we attempt such an exploration. 

Here is my question for you: do you realize how close real, honest-to-goodness, publishable scientific inquiry is from this very point? Once you’ve asked a fascinating question (often by accident) and taken the time to muck about and explore the elements of the investigation, you are so close to real sophistication. The sophistication of the process. It is at this point you begin to take those “what ifs” and figure out the scope of what you might be able to find out next. You’re digging into what others have already discovered. You are figuring out feasibility. You are formalizing. Little kids don’t need names for these things to inquire, they just need a guide. A guide who will stay out of the way. A guide willing to intervene minimally and only when needed, but a guide that is curious and kind enough to keep pushing. Gently pushing. Ask questions to get questions. Fewer answers. More possibilities.

Science education begins quite young if you let it. Ask the questions. Keep asking them. Once you get more in return than you give…  you’re winning. Go ahead, make it rain.

Today Weather

*”Family Tree of Droplets” by HUSO on Flickr via CC.
*”Neve and The Inchworm” by me.
*”Today Weather” by kristina Alexanderson on Flickr via CC.

On Avocados and Presidents

Life moves pretty fast

So, it happens that I was just checking out at the grocery store with my youngest daughter, Neve, by my side. While she danced around behind and beside me (literally), the checkout girl, who I could tell was quite green, asked if the bag of produce were avocados, “just to be sure.” My reply:  “Yep… they sure are.” I smiled warmly in an attempt to soften her subtle, but obvious discomfort in having to ask.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.


Meanwhile, my littlest one pulled her 3-4 year old frame (she’s rather tiny for five) up over the edge of the counter by her hands. With her lips barely perched atop the rim and her feet afloat above floor tiles, she said to the girl: “Avocados are a fruit. They’re not really a vegetable.”

The checker replied: “Oh yeah… how do you know that?”

Neve: “Well… see… they have a seed in them and that makes them a fruit. (significant pause) …Even though some people think they are a vegetable. They’re not really though.”

The checker looked up to me for what appeared to me to be a slightly sheepish content check. I’m not sure what exactly I did in response. Did I wink? No, I probably nodded. I think. Maybe. She then said to Neve: “Wow. How do you know that?”

Neve: “I don’t know… it’s just in my head.”

Checker: “How old are you… five? Wow. You’re really smart! Maybe you could be president some day.”

Neve: “Nahhh… I don’t think girls are presidents.”

My "doorman" …or, "doorwoman."

My “doorman” …or, “doorwoman.”


I had a bit of consulting to do after that last line. If you either, A) know me personally, or B) have read a bit of this blog, you can likely imagine our conversation in the car on the way home.* All of this has me wondering about the roots of empowerment. Do we really consider how early and deeply ideas become rooted in the brains of our little ones? When is “too early to matter?”


Actually, if you happen to be one of those die hards from the old days on the blog, you might remember a related story here: But Math is Hard. If you have not read it, you now have your assignment. And really, toward the end of the comments on that post, a rather beautiful thing was born. The web of links there will take you to a content area reading/writing strategy that I use to this day every chance I get. Now that I think of it, Miss Neve quite possibly learned that bit of history while observing the purely male string of presidents on Presidents Pro.

*These talks are usually the silver lining in the cloud of a 50 minute commute that is soon to come to an end. Why is this a negative thing? For one, I’ll just plain miss those long car conversations. Well, that and hearing her sing about 90% of the 96.5 The Buzz playlist from memory. (and yes, of course I have to switch to the iPhone playlist at times during The Church of Lazlo, she’s five.  ;)


-“inside the beast” by Darwin Bell on Flickr via CC
-“door opener” by me. 


Avoiding “Unmitigated Disasters”

Yet another

After stumbling upon the article, “Switch to e-books was ‘an unmitigated disaster,’ says school principal,” in my feed this past week, it occurred to me that there are increasingly predictable patterns surrounding stories of failed “innovation” in digital learning initiatives. Schools have been assigning computers to each child for some time now. And still, we continue to see stories like this in the media.

In short: we can do better.

Defining targets differently

The real target

But how? Unfortunately, none of these stories are terribly surprising. Many who read this article will likely slide straight into: “The HP Elite Pad? No wonder this was a disaster. That’s clearly the wrong device.” Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t recommend such a purchase for most classroom situations. My preferences over the past five years can likely be mined from the pages of this blog. But keep in mind: most outright failures of a digital learning initiative aren’t about the laptop/tablet you choose. I’ve noticed that time after time, most of these stories of failure in the media seem to arise from schools that set their sights upon a “digital conversion.” To me, this usually indicates a black hole of vision within the system. Making a massive systemwide purchase all in the name of trading out paper textbooks for digital textbooks is drawing your aim at the wrong target. Carefully consider this point: adopting computing devices as front-line learning tools is not the end game, it is one strategy in building a modern and responsive educational ecosystem.

It is true that a move from a dearth of access to one where every student is saddled with a laptop/iPad/Chromebook/etc. is a significant one. Because of this, it is easy to sit back and bask in the satisfaction of  tackling the access issue. It is certainly a celebration worth having. Computers are everywhere on day one of a 1:1 rollout. Access is the easiest box in the plan to check off. It is true that getting to this level of access requires significant logistical, financial, and political struggles. The real festivities should happen when, and not before, the entire learning environment has changed for the better. The issue at the heart of all this is where you want to be when all of these hurdles are cleared. If you cannot envision the details of the learning ecosystem you are seeking, go back and dig into what this means for a learning institution. The last thing you want to do is try to figure this out after every child and teacher possesses a digital device in support of yesterday’s educational ecosystem. Start at the top.


Get out the telescope

Ask yourself what it is you really want for the children in your charge. Are you still comfortable with the following?

  • Textbooks being the central resource for course content
  • Student tasks submitted for an audience of one: the teacher
  • Every child learning the same thing in time with every other child
  • “Creative” experiences consisting entirely of document creation
  • Online learning that consists of a checklist of independent tasks
  • School as defined by what is taught as opposed to what is learned
  • Measuring seat time and percentage grades as indicators of academic success

If you can say “yes” for many of the above, you might not find the logistical, financial, and political friction required by a move to 1:1 worth the trouble. If you’re still comfortable with many of these elements, you are still content with school as it has been for decades, and so often continues to be. Changing any of these characteristics takes more than a pocketbook and a five-step rollout plan. Developing educators as leaders on top of a shifting paradigm of what learning can be today is a far different task. This requires a plan with a robust framework for professional development and a built-in ability to be responsive to the needs of educators at each stage of the process.

We already know this to be true. Outstanding teachers effectively plan on two levels: 1) designing a long-term framework for learning built directly upon standards, that 2) includes a system of short-term responses to react to individual student needs based upon authentic formative assessment of learning. You read it right, a two-tiered plan involving both proaction and reaction. The best planning at any level involves a complex interplay between the two. The long-range and the short-term. The big picture as well as the detail. Education is serious business, huh?


Plug in the microscope

The same attention to proaction and reaction applies to the planning needed to move any learning organization into new territory. If you are truly no longer comfortable with the seven elements listed above, the next step is to dig into the details of your vision. Ask yourself and your team the following questions:

  • What resources for learning are available today? What would an ideal mix of resources consist of? Who is responsible for vetting said resources?
  • How can we best harness the power of the Internet to cultivate authentic audiences for student work and learning? What does open inquiry look like today?
  • What is the ideal progression of learning for a child? Do we plan for this at the student level? Do we react to this at the student level? How do we facilitate this?
  • What is an authentic learning task? What does creativity look like today? Does your definition extend beyond the realm of documents? How do you feel about digital “poster projects?” Study the TPACK & SAMR frameworks together.
  • Define “blended learning.” What do you think of when you hear the term, “online course?” What should define an “online course?” Where and how does conversation fit into the description? Talk about space and time. Talk about the Carnegie Unit.
  • Is a 1:1 implementation an opportunity to study standards-based grading? If you’re really daring, try considering… why grade?
  • Can you sketch three scenes depicting what your ideal school should look like? What is happening in those scenes? What is not? I’m really not kidding here. Do this. Don’t just discuss it. The value is in the slow process and the conversation.

If you really commit to an open study of these questions and tasks, then you will have a far clearer picture of what you believe today. You will possess the raw mental material for the next step. The next step will be to design the framework for the future. This is the fun part; the good stuff. This is the step I cannot even attempt to deliver generic bullet points for. This is the stage that, based upon your responses, moves in a unique direction for every learning community. How do you know when your educators are on the same page? How will you know your broader community understands what you’re trying to do? Quickly get beyond the jargon. Disclaimer: There is nothing inherently magical or official about the above set of mental metrics. They are merely questions I believe lie at the heart of this work.

It all comes back to your vision for and philosophy of learning. If you continue to see school as a top-down endeavor where knowledge is first owned by the teacher and then somehow magically transmitted into the brains of students, then that will guide (no: govern) your mission of bringing modern technology into classrooms. However, if research and experience have led you to the idea that perhaps real learning happens within the mind of the learner and is influenced by many inputs (one of which is a skilled teacher)… then you’ll likely make significantly different decisions for the future.


Design the process

This morning’s stream of thought reminds me of a post I logged four years or so ago. I can actually say I still stand behind those “four pillars” after considerable experience since that time. Like I said back then, “It’s not that dark in there anymore. Trust that there are others who have proceeded down this path before you, and they have learned many important lessons.” Get the right people into the room from the start. If you fear, “we don’t know what we don’t know,” get some outside experience into the room. Represent all levels of your organization. Think big, and think little. Ask the big questions first. Then work through the details before even mentioning “the device.” Many will want to jump there. Stay strong. Design protocols that help protect the conversation. Develop a true vision. Let it guide you. Under our best progressive lens “unmitigated disasters” rarely happen.


*”Defining targets differently” by Fritz Ahlefeldt-Laurvig on Flickr via CC
*”Untitled” by Brongaeh on Flickr via CC
*”Objectives” by Oliver Braubach on Flickr via CC
*”Business project drawn…” by Sergey Nivens purchased from Shutterstock.

On the Digital World and Culture

When we look ahead to the sorts of things that could be happening (especially where every learner is saddled with an Internet-capable device) in our classrooms and beyond…

Online in 60 Seconds

I just caught this image in a Facebook post by Will Richardson and it made me return here to record and share a few thoughts.


I think the infographic above begs this question:

“If this is already happening- if this is a truly a baseline average of what is currently happening online in a rather generic way, how do we harness the power of participatory culture for learning?”


It begs questions relating to relevance. It also begs for discussion about meeting kids where they are. It also makes me reflect on the theme of a rather powerful meeting this morning regarding “culture.” Is the culture we seek to create in school… from scratch and of our own doing? Or are these questions also an element of the debate? How can we also credit the culture being created today, and not only bring students into the fold of our vision, but also join them in new places to co-create a culture of learning for the future?

From where I sit, it is no longer a question of if we should. It hasn’t been. A few are already embracing these channels for good, and have been for some time. In my reality of classrooms soaked in the ubiquity of personal computing, I could easily be misled into thinking this is already the norm in many places. I’ve seen some pretty wise examples of this firsthand with teachers I work with. Yet, the reality is:  the sort of smart, purposeful embrace of new media for learning I’m talking about is still existing only in pockets.

And yet, I think that if we aren’t yet at least asking these tough questions, we’re behind. Television captured attention in its day. Digital gaming was perhaps the next cultural crack to vie for the attention of youth. Today it is the web. Each of these entities was potentially more all-consuming than the previous…  or potentially liberating. Yes, much of what is in this graphic is still little more than noise. That says little of the potential here. I believe it to be your mindset that largely frames the issue.

Delaney With Hermit Crab


Do I think life and learning does or should exist solely in a virtual world? No. Not even close. Trolling back through the hundreds of posts here will show this to be true. I have been a life sciences teacher for 21 years. I have been a parent for the past six. I want all children to learn by touching, smelling and interacting with the real world. I want them to learn deeply and rather slowly at times.

I also want to credit the modern world that currently engulfs us. I want smart teachers leading the way. I want balance in these things. I have long been of the opinion that playing “defense” and plugging away on a path that doesn’t credit modern communication channels is just, well…  nearly malpractice. Truly embracing these changes might be down the path for you and your organization, but that doesn’t mean you cannot engage in these tough questions as you strive to build a nimble and complete learning environment for the young people you serve.

Thank you………..  drive through.



*Will Richardson, who has pushed my thinking for well over half a decade.
*Dr. White’s Leadership Team address today that heavily featured the topic of school culture.
*My wife, Erin (pictured above) for being that kind of Mom to our girls.