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


Lessons Learned in the Gym

“It teaches the strong to know when they are weak and the brave to face themselves when they are afraid. To be proud and unbowed in defeat yet humble and gentle in victory. And to master ourselves before we attempt to master others. And to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep. And to give the predominance of courage over timidity.”

~General Douglas MacArthur, on the virtues of competitive athletics.

Yesterday, the 2011 Missouri State Wrestling Championships concluded with the toughest battles of the year for many young men (and a handful of young women). Driving back across the state after the conclusion of a season is always a time of deep reflection and introspection for me. This year might have been a bit more intense. I competed in the sport of wrestling from the time I was ten. Ten years after that I began a coaching career that lasted for another twenty. Though I walked away from coaching two years ago, my younger brother stayed on to finish out these last two years. A first cousin of ours completed his career yesterday. He does not intend to pursue the sport in college. I’ve hardly missed a meet these past two years, but yesterday finally felt like a very real conclusion for me.

Cousin Bryson Dixon and I at the 2008 State Championships

Cousin Bryson Dixon and I at the 2008 State Championships

Win or lose, when one of the boys in my family concludes a wrestling career, it is a curiously emotional thing. It is ingrained into the fabric of my family’s culture. I’m sure you’d have to be in it to get it, but I spent the better part of an evening in silence yesterday taking apart just why my family once again engaged in a festival of teary eyed embraces after Bryson’s last match. I’ve competed in many other sports throughout my life, but none dug into my psyche like that one. None of the others shaped my life quite like it.

My involvement in wrestling as a competitor and a coach these past thirty years may have taught me more real lessons about learning and life than anything else I have done. Here are a few of the things I know as a result…

  • There is no substitute for hard work.
  • A man’s strength cannot be seen on the outside.
  • Innovation without preparation is merely self gratification.
  • Rigorous challenges reveal as much character as they build.
  • There is nothing like a truly authentic assessment for milking every last drop of effort from a learner.
  • Even violence breeds respect when concluded with a handshake.
  • There’s nothing as brutal as the grip of someone who works on a farm.
  • Our country’s tendency to think of our brains as separate from our bodies is an unfortunate error.
  • The instructional model I favor today was honed while coaching kids to become powerful individuals.
  • No matter what you do, no matter how good you are, everyone needs a trusted coach to reach their full potential.
  • SMART goals work in the practice room too. Yes, I’m serious.
  • We all have unique strengths and weaknesses. Differentiating development along those lines leads to individual success and self-sufficiency.
  • Even in hand-to-hand combat, technology helps. Too much happens in those six minutes to not learn from video.
  • Reflection works. If you want learning to stick, that single behavior should be supported perhaps more than all others.
  • Success in something breeds a willingness to try other things.
  • All leaders have four basic functions:  They inspire, they empower, they encourage, and they teach. The better you are at the first of these, the less you must micromanage the latter.
  • There are few terms of endearment quite like that of coach.

Two years ago I made the decision to move away from wrestling and toward helping my district wrap our collective heads around the purposeful embrace of technology in the classroom. I’ll probably second guess that decision as long as I breathe.

I was careful to leave that team in better hands than when I found it myself. It was important to me to replace myself well before leaving. I feel like I did that, and now…  now it’s time to focus my energy surplus and continue to apply those lessons learned to every aspect of the future.

A final thought
There’s a reason your community might tend to vote for athletic initiatives in lieu of those of a more academic nature. While it is easy to poo-poo that away as a distaste for “education,” it might indicate something else. It might just indicate a willingness to support those things that are real. To be clear, not everyone’s experience with athletics is a rosy memory. However, if our academic pursuits were allowed to take aim at things beyond artificial exams and grade point averages, we might just move closer to where we’d like to be. If all learning were as real… if our focus were on creating real things and tackling real goals, then the inner struggle of hours upon hours of practice might seem worth it.

Think about those academic programs that are well-supported by your wider community. What might those have in common with extracurriculars? Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just a gym rat in need of a few push-ups.