Adapting to a New Ecosystem

I had to got to teach 5th grade science last week when a teacher was out, and the lesson was on ecosystems.  More specifically–producers, consumers, scavengers, and decomposers.  Each living organism in an ecosystem interacts with each other, and each organism has a specific role.  When reading chapter 2 of Katie Martin’s book, Learner-Centered Innovation, I was drawn to make some connections between the organisms in an ecosystem and teachers that I work with.


Producers make their own food and create their own energy.  The sun provides what they need to make food and grow.  To me, producers in a school are the go-getters.  They are the ones seeking out professional development, trying new ideas, failing forward, and getting others excited about innovation.  They create their own energy, and give others energy as well.  These are my go-to teachers.  When I have a new idea, I have my producers that I call on to try it out with their kids.


Consumers rely on producers for food and energy.  Consumers in school might be teachers that are relying on others to bring the ideas.  It’s not a bad thing, but they then become reliant on the producers to flush out what works with an idea or strategy.

Decomposers and Scavengers

Probably the most important parts of an ecosystem, decomposers and scavengers break down the dead plants and animals.  In doing that, they give nutrients back to the producers.  In a school setting, as odd as it sounds, I think of administration as the decomposers.  Stick with me.  Teachers leave the classroom each year (dead plants and animals), and the principal brings in new staff that are hopefully full of energy and ideas (nutrients).  The job of bringing in new energy and nutrients is a daunting one, but so incredibly important.

All About Balance

A successful, innovative ecosystem needs all of these components.  How can we maintain the balance?  Would too many producers be a detriment to the system?  Too few or a loss of producers would be disastrous.  Is there anything wrong with being a consumer?  Should people aim to go from consumer to producer?  What is the perfect balance for an innovative ecosystem?

I’m leaving with more questions than answers, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!



Bell to Bell Teaching

In my district, the mantra of teaching “bell to bell” is gaining momentum.  Teachers are expected to begin teaching right after the first bell rings and to not stop until the dismissal bell.  Even transitions between classes include some component of teaching, usually a quick review of concepts.  During lunch, tables get to line up based on answering math fact questions.  While this sounds like quality use of time throughout the day to some, I wonder what it feels like to be a student in this era of non-stop teaching.

For me, constantly going and going and going is exhausting.  I think about the August PD week before school starts where information is given to you 6 hours a day for 5 straight days.  I can speak from experience that most of that information is not utilized in the classroom because I wasn’t given time to ruminate on anything and reflect on how I could use it in my room.  I might think about the day’s teaching that evening, but the next day I was given even more information so what was learned the day before is pushed to the side.  I need time to be alone and really think about what I’ve learned.

Do students get a chance to reflect, to ponder, to take ideas beyond the sit and get?  Even if they are participating in hands on lessons or innovative practices, is there time to come back to that topic later to discuss it further?  Do students feel as exhausted as I do after a long week?

Thought, Idea, Innovation, Imagination

I recently heard someone say that it shouldn’t be about bell to bell teaching.  Rather, it should be bell to bell learning.  Students are learning when reflecting on their lessons.  Students are learning when they have the chance to mull over what they were taught that day or that week.   Maybe they need those five minutes during transition to think about what they just learned, and get ready for their next subject.  Concepts might stick with them if they can have time to make connections to previous learning.

So teachers, don’t be afraid of a little reflection time during the day.  Taking ten minutes here and there could help you in the long run!


Quiet Does Not Always Equal Learning

For 12 years, I taught at a school without any doors to my classroom.  Everyone walking by could not only see what my class was doing, but could hear what we were doing as well.  I became very aware that the perception was if my class was quiet, they were on task.  Administration would always comment on how quiet my class was, which I of course took as a compliment.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago when I implemented Mind Missions and Genius Hour.  Talk about loud!  Students were boisterous and voices were blaring from every corner of my classroom.  But you know what else?  They were working.  They were not only on task, but they were EXCITED about their task.  On Wednesdays, when we started Genius Hour right after the bell rang, I had zero tardies.  My kids wanted to be on time because they would lose out on collaboration time if they were late.  Their group depended on them to be there.

Collaborating is such a vital part of a teacher’s day, so why shouldn’t it be a vital part of the student’s day as well?  When my students were allowed to collaborate, their enthusiasm for learning skyrocketed.  My students learned so much more when they were given the time to collaborate with their peers.  I loved being able to still teach the curriculum, but also teach real-life skills of working with a group.

So teachers, celebrate the loud, the messy, the chaos.  Model respectful collaboration and applaud student efforts to work successfully with a group.  Have a chaotic classroom and be proud of it!

Curate, then Create

George Couros recently wrote a blog post about consumption vs. creation that resonated with me.  He writes that these two concepts should not be either/or.  Rather, they should be treated as first/then.

One should not forgo the consumption for the creation.  Students still need to learn and know curriculum.  It is with this knowledge they are able to go out and create something new.  Without the background knowledge, or schema, for their content area, students would have a much harder time moving to the creation of a new idea.

The Innovator’s Mindset is defined as “the belief that abilities, intelligence, and talents are developed, leading to the creation of better ideas”.  In order to develop abilities, intelligence, and talents, students must consume information first.

Let’s think about computer programmer.  When first starting out, they certainly don’t know everything they need to in order to develop new programs.  They consume the basics, then the mid-level skills, then the advanced skills.  Once they have consumed this knowledge, they can take it and create something new and better than what was before.

As the title of my blog suggests, I am a strong proponent of this idea.  Pedagogy comes first, then the innovation, possibly through technology.  This idea is something I make sure the teachers I work with understand about me first thing.  I’m not coming into planning to force the use of technology.  I’m coming in to see what your students can create after the knowledge has been consumed.

Going From In Addition to Instead Of

This topic has been resonating with me for a while now.  How do I, as a Digital Learning Coach, help teachers to understand that activity ideas from me are meant to be done instead of their district-given lessons, not in addition to them?

I work with teams that are way down in the TWWADI trenches (the way we’ve always done it) and cannot seem to dig themselves out.   Every week, during one day of planning, they simply hand out the lessons from the year before and call it a day.

On the flip side, I work with other teams who are so open to new ideas and ways of ensuring student learning.  They happily meet daily during planning to map out plans for the following week based on how students are doing during the current week.

What is the difference between these teams?  It’s not the average age of the teacher, average years of experience, or quality of leadership on the team.  I think it’s quite simple: teachers need to be open to the idea of innovation before this mindset shift can occur.

My goal this year is to give those in the TWWADI trenches a way out, be it with a shovel or a bulldozer.  I’ll start small, be in the classroom with them when the kids work with technology, and attend planning meetings in person or virtually.  I’ll sneak in tidbits of innovation when they aren’t expecting it during staff meetings or in weekly newsletters.  My goal is to get them to question themselves and ask “What if we did it this way instead of that way?  Would it increase engagement and/or learning?”

TWWADI Blog Graphic


I will go ahead and admit it…I was the teacher with the cute call-backs (macaroni and cheese, everybody freeze), the structure, the “do it my way” kind of teacher.  I was that way for many years.  My students knew how to behave and I was proud of it.  Other teachers came to me for advice on classroom management.  Things were going well.

Then, about a year or two ago, I began to really look at how I ran my classroom and asked myself if I would want to be a student in my class.  Would I want my life run to the last minute of the day with little to no time for choice?  The answer was a resounding “no”.

George Couros presents an interesting idea in Chapter 6 of “The Innovator’s Mindset”.  He says “Power is about what you can control.  Freedom is about what you can unleash.”  What a mindset shift!  I began to think about my students in a completely different light.  What could I unleash in them if I gave up my need for compliance?

I found the answer last year when I implemented Genius Hour with my 2nd grade class.  Even though it was merely an hour out of the whole week, the kids learned so much in that short amount of time!  They were collaborating, creating, curating, sharing, thinking critically, and communicating about a project they were passionate about.  It still related to the curriculum, but the experience was so much more powerful because the kids were empowered to learn and create on their own.  They were unleashed.


Control Vs. Freedom

Chapter 6 of The Innovator’s Mindset is so full of highlighted bits and pieces, there is almost more yellow than white on the pages!  The main idea I took away from the chapter is the idea of control vs. freedom in the classroom.

Classroom management is such a huge deal for teachers.  The first 4-6 weeks of school are spent setting expectations and practicing procedures.  While it is important to set the tone for the year, many times teachers come across as dictators of the classroom where students have no say about how the classroom will be run.  Sure, some teachers allow students to give input for the rules, but if we’re really honest, teachers are leading students to the rules they want to have.

What if (!) teachers spent those 4-6 weeks showing students how much freedom and empowerment they would have during the year?  What if expectations of learning were set with student input instead of just how to line up and where to sit?  How can we find the balance between the two?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!