Disruption in the Classroom
My journey transforming lesson plans into learning experiences.
I first went to the South by Southwest Education Conference (SXSWEDU) in March 2018. It changed my life. Before arriving in Austin, TX, I had been to a few other education conferences. In fact, since leaving the classroom and becoming an instructional innovation coach, I jumped on the conference bandwagon and attended as many as I could. I became a “conference junkie” collecting SWAG from every venue: lanyards, tshirts, refrigerator magnets, books (tons of books), and goodie bags filled with catalogues to order more books. There were so many edtech and education conferences to choose from: InnEdCO, Learning Forward, ISTE, Comic Con Denver, GAFE Summit, Solution Tree’s PLC Summit, Higher Education Diversity Summit (HEDS), and SXSWEDU, just to name a few. What surprised me most at each conference was how large of a role technology played in “creating the classroom of the future.” So many sessions were about a new app or website that was guaranteed to motivate and engage students. For those with money to spend (either out of their own pocket or on behalf of their district), there were learning management platforms (e.g.: Schoology, Canvas, Blackboard) and a ridiculous amount of curriculum resources and instructional tools (BrainPop, BreakoutEDU, ClassVR, CyberPatriot, KaBOOM, Lucid for Education, Nearpod, PearDeck, and so, so, so many more). Everyone claimed to have the answer to how best to improve student engagement and increase creativity and innovation in the classroom. Every tool or website was the resource that would transform your classroom or school or entire district into the most innovative.
Mostly, I would walk around and play with all of the demo products and collect as much free stuff as possible. I could never afford to purchase anything for my classroom, so I just gathered as much information as I could and later looked for (or created) free solutions that mimicked edtech offerings I liked.
I was beginning to tire of the conference scene. ISTE, especially, exhausted me. It was HUGE. So big that I spent most of my time wandering around the vendor areas and getting turned away from breakout sessions because they were full. I couldn’t even collect my usual booty of free SWAG because the lines were so long at each booth!
In March, I decided to attend SXSWEDU with a friend. It looked different. I had heard of SXSW: the famous music, movie, and technology festival where tons of celebrities come to Austin, TX to debut new albums or films and entrepreneurs come to demo their latest ventures. I was intrigued by the idea of an education version of this conference. What would SXSWEDU be like?
SXSWEDU shattered all of my previous ideas about what to expect from education conferences. That year’s opening keynote was Stories of Schooling & Getting Schooled: a collaboration with the storytelling phenomenon The Moth, which promotes the art and craft of storytelling. They are known for honoring and celebrating the diversity and commonality of human experiences. Micaela Blei, Chris De La Cruz, Crystal Duckert, and Tim Manley all took the stage to tell their stories and journeys from inside and outside of the classroom. They explored the intersection of teacher identity and craft. I was mesmerized. Watching others speak their truth, I felt inspired to be vulnerable and share my own story while connecting with other educators from around the world.
Every day that week, I participated in interactive breakout sessions that discussed everything from scaling K-12 innovations across the globe to possibility thinking in the classroom. A new keynote speaker kicked off every morning and they just kept getting better each day! Dr. Michael Sorrell, the longest-serving President in the history of Paul Quinn College, spoke one morning and told his story about transforming the college experience and creating a social movement (We over Me). He passionately spoke of his Four L’s of Quinnite Leadership: (1) LEAVE places better than you found them; (2) LEAD from wherever you are; (3) LIVE a life that matters; and (4) LOVE something greater than yourself.
Instead of edtech vendors, I met grassroots organizations trying to disrupt the current educational system. Instead of collecting lanyards and stickers, I met a ton of people, sharing and collecting contact information. These people were my tribe! They weren’t just talking about being more innovative in the classroom, they were actually doing it, and without some fancy app.
At SXSWEDU, I learned that innovation in education is doing the same things a bit better. Along the way, you try new things and hope they are better than how you used to do it in the past. Great! This meant I was an innovative teacher. I was trying out new stuff all the time. Some stuff was working; most was not. The problem I faced was that I did not know how to systematize the innovative things I found that worked in my classroom. A lot of what I was doing was trial and error. For example, I would gamify my social studies activities and make them more fun and engaging. However, they were not as meaningful as I wanted. At SXSWEDU, I heard educators talking about disrupting the status quo using meaningful leverage points. They were actively working to make things (or create pedagogical practices) that would make the old way of doing things obsolete. Not just doing things a bit better, but doing things so differently that the status quo seemed silly, ineffective and antiquated.
That’s what I wanted.
I returned to my classroom and got serious about how I was innovating my pedagogy. Was I relying on technology to be creative? When I had students build something, was I really empowering them to own their learning? Were my PBLs really just fancy maker projects at the end of a series of lesson plans? That last question kept me up at night. I hated inauthentic projects and after returning from Austin, I questioned whether my projects were having a real impact on the my students’ academic experience. At SXSWEDU, I had listened to educators share how 4th grade students were fighting inequality and injustice with their PBLs. My students were building catapults and learning how to scale recipes for more guests. I knew what I was doing was more innovative than worksheets and computerized tests, but I couldn’t stop thinking that I could do more with my students.
I wanted to do more. I wanted to disrupt the status quo. I wanted to amplify my students’ voices so that they could create the learning experiences that they needed to be successful.
I felt a sense of urgency. As an educator, I’m charged with guiding students to their fullest potential. I am not a sage or an expert or a guru. I am a teacher. And for me, that meant that I needed to step aside and let my students shine; let them discover their passions and play with their own curiosities. It takes courage to admit that you don’t know all of the answers, and bravery to step aside and lead from the side. The teachers I met at SXSWEDU seemed fearless.
Jean Case, from the Case Foundation, writes about five principles common to people and organizations that change the world. Teachers are charged with inspiring students to change the world and giving them the resources they need to do so. Challenging the status quo seems scary. Those who do it successfully seem fearless. Seth Godin writes in Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, “People who challenge and then change the status quo do something that’s quite difficult. They overcome the resistance of people they trust, people they work for, people in their community. Every step along the way, it’s far easier to stop…than it is to persist and risk the humiliation of failure” (p. 79). It’s not that these leaders are fearless. They have faith that helps them overcome their fear. Godin continues, “we hesitate because we’ve seen what’s happened before. We’re afraid of failure, of criticism, of making a mistake, of getting caught” (p. 90). The amazing educators I met at SXSWEDU were not fearless, they had almost superhuman amounts of faith that what they were doing was what’s best for students, even if it defies the status quo; in fact, because it defies the status quo.
Having faith that disrupting the status quo in the name of bettering a broken educational system for students requires courage and vulnerability. It means “setting audacious goals, acting urgently and boldly, being unafraid of risk, being willing to strike unlikely alliances, and accepting the possibility of failure while still pressing forward” (Case, 2019).
I want my students to believe that they have the ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance for engineering real solutions to real problems in their community and the world. After SXSWEDU, I started using Case’s Be Fearless principles to disrupt the status quo create a culture of real innovation in my classroom: (1) Make big bets; (2) Be bold; (3) Make failure matter; (4) Reach beyond your bubble; and (5) Let urgency conquer fear.
Here is how I translate these into my current work to disrupt public education.
Make Big Bets and Make History
What worked in the past can’t always work today. In fact, doing what you did last year is taking the easy road. Plus, it only allows you to inch along incrementally; taking small steps toward improvement. Trying to do better every day is difficult. Trying to reinvent your pedagogical practice every year is really difficult! Thomas Edison didn’t set out to make better candles, he wanted to “make electricity so cheap that only the rich burn[ed] candles.” Similarly, the goal of every educator shouldn’t be to just move students along to the next grade level. Think bigger! What if your goal was to have every single one of your students make 3 years academic growth? Solve a problem in their community? Help others in need? The Case Foundation states, “History suggests that the most significant cultural transformations occur when one or more people simply decide to try and make big changes, rather than move incrementally.” I am not suggesting that you make arrogant, foolhardy or reckless goals because you think you have all the answers. I have learned, however, that it’s often easier to make exponential progress toward an impossible goal then it is to make incremental progress toward a small goal (more on that in a later blog post). So, think big and make big bets in your classroom!
Here are some guiding questions I used from the Case Foundation:
Can I categorize my teaching into “Big Bets” versus “Small Bets?” What is the difference in effect or impact when I put energy into one versus the other?
What is my riskiest learning experience? What do I hope to gain from it?
If failure wasn’t an option, what are big bets I would take in my classroom?
Be Bold. Take Risks.
It is difficult to go first. It’s more comfortable to let early adopters test out a new product or a renegade teacher test out an idea in their classroom before you decide to spend your time or money or effort on something brand new. I felt the same way those first years in my classroom. I know that many educators feel the same way today. Teachers are inundated with a new “best practice” and many feel that trying something new is like prescribing to a new fad. There is a running joke in most schools that if you just wait long enough, the latest “best practice” will disappear and be replaced by something that was considered a “best practice” years earlier.
When I take a risk in my classroom, I get a tingly feeling because I get a chance to respond creatively and experiment with a new idea or technology tool. This is what it’s like to teach in beta mode. It isn’t just picking up any new idea and running with it because it sounds cool. When you have a software developer’s mindset in your classroom you use every attempt at strategically implementing something new and then treat it like the first in a series of iterations. Jennifer Gonzalez from Cult of Pedagogy discusses how having an iterative pedagogical practice allows you to use repetitions of a process with the goal of making improvements each time around. Teachers shouldn’t be afraid to go first. Be bold and take smart risks because the result of not doing so will always maintain the status quo.
Here are some guiding questions I used from the Case Foundation:
How can I apply the minimum viable product concept to learning experiences I develop (or co-develop with my team)?
What changes can I make that will allow my teammates and me to experiment more freely?
What processes and procedures do I have in place (or does the school have in place) that encourage or impede experimentation? What policies can I advocate for that will make experimentation the norm?
Make Failure Matter
There is a difference between failing and being a failure. John Spencer and A.J. Juliani describe how important it is to learn how to fail. “We want [students] to revise and iterate based on what they learned from failing — all on a path to real success” (Empower, 2017). Failing is temporary; failure is permanent. This applies to both students and teachers and requires support, guidance, and most importantly, the time and space to reflect on our failings. As a teacher, I often reflect at the end of the day about my own instructional failures. I realized that in the past I wasn’t asking my students the same questions I was asking myself. I was still trying to insulate them from failure because I wanted them to be successful with my experimental learning activities.
I started asking my students, how did you fail today? This subtle shift from failure to failing reduced the unease of judgment or acceptance that held my students back from reaching their full potential.
Not only is it important to begin asking yourself Am I sure this is going to work, it is also vital that we practice living in the discomfort of things not working. Being innovative is not about never failing; being innovative is about failing over and over and over again and making those failures matter.
Here are some guiding questions I used from the Case Foundation:
Do I honestly talk about failures? How do I respond to them internally and publicly? How do I respond to them in front of my students?
Do I give my students permission to fail, talk about failure, and course correct?
How can I create a regular forum for my students to discuss and learn from failure?
Reach Beyond your Bubble
Innovation is a team sport. I will be the first to admit that I used to fantasize about being the lone creative teacher who has a Eureka! moment in my classroom, and then implements it flawlessly. That just isn’t the way the real world works. Innovation requires us to break through our silos and reach outside of our comfort zones. The Case Foundation calls for “forging new partnerships and collaborating within and across various domains, fields, and sectors” (Case, 2019). In education, we call it collaboration. In Silicon Valley, they call it radical collaboration and creativity. Forming partnerships, not only with our colleagues, but with those outside of education, allows teachers to gain differing and fresh new perspectives and execute on ideas in ways we couldn’t have imagined alone. This is what I gained from SXSWEDU. Educators need to be encouraged and incentivized to reach beyond their bubbles!
Here are some guiding questions I used from the Case Foundation:
Which educators, educational organizations, or districts do I admire? How can I partner with them or learn from them? What about outside of education? Whom do I admire and how can we collaborate? What lessons can I bring back to my classroom?
What are my most common areas in need of improvement? What partners can help fill those gaps?
Let Urgency Conquer Fear
I got tired of waiting for change to happen from the top. I’m still tired of waiting. Whether it’s government’s legislation to “improve” schools, or school districts buying technology and fancy furniture in an attempt to innovate classrooms, any change effort in public education moves slowly. Too slowly compared to the rapid pace of change in the world. The challenges we face in public education are dynamic and complex. They can seem daunting and almost impossible to address. The old way of doing things is simply no longer effective in this new world. We must rethink and redesign our traditional model of education. This may seem audacious, but every day we continue to do the same thing in the same way, we are robbing children (and teachers) of opportunities to be creative and innovative. We can’t wait for change to come from the top or from somewhere else. When I came back to my classroom after SXSWEDU, I decided to wipe the slate clean and start designing educational experiences that propelled my students into the future. I couldn’t think my way to being more innovative. I had to do things. I needed to act. I started questioning and disrupting the way I do things. I found that in the face of resistance, urgency pushed me and my students to be better.
Here are some guiding questions I used from the Case Foundation:
What are the most important issues for me and my students right now and why?
How can I balance tested solutions (“best practices” )with meeting the immediate needs of my students?
Tradition in public education impedes innovation in the classroom because fear of failure and criticism overpowers all of us. There is a knowing-doing gap where you know that you should probably change the way you are teaching, but you cling to what seemed to work in the past. What I learned most from the educators I met at SXSWEDU was that instead of just trying to be innovative in the classroom (where fear can sabotage your efforts), I just need to be innovative. There is a great story about a demonstration the d.school’s Academic Director Benie Roth would give his students. At the start of every year, he would hold out a water bottle in front of him and ask students to try and take it out of his hands. Mr. Roth is almost 90 years old and as one of the founders of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (the d.school), most students would hesitate and then struggle to take the bottle out of his grip. After some time, he would say, “stop trying and just do it! This prompt always initiates another volunteer to stroll up to Mr. Roth and rip it out of his hands. What changed? The difference is easily summed up by Jedi master, Yoda, Do or do not. There is no try.
When I returned from SXSWEDU, I realized that my efforts to try and be innovative often led to well-intentioned and misguided attempts. I was too busy trying all of the creative things I could (PBLs, makerspaces, edtech) instead of thinking bigger and more strategically about how I wanted to disrupt public education.
I decided to be intentional and think beyond my classroom walls.
For example, in 2015, leaders from the United Nations’ 193 member-states met to discuss the world’s problems and decide on an action plan to tackle them. They named this plan the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (commonly known as the Global Goals). Their action plan had three major targets: fight inequality and injustice, end extreme poverty, and tackle climate change. At the time, these were the most ambitious written agreements for sustainable development that world leaders had ever made. What made these goals even more exciting was that they were public and accessible. The UN invited the entire world to learn the goals, teach them to others, and take action in local communities. Could I harness the power of design thinking to create innovative learning experiences that would give students the chance to fight injustice? Why not!
The Global Goals for Sustainable Development and the d.school’s design thinking framework have now become my innovation plan. I know that if I want to disrupt the current status quo, I need a healthy dose of radical moonshot thinking. The issues facing my students are the issues that are going to require a large amount of creativity and innovation. I don’t want to just be creative in my classroom; I want to radically improve my teaching and the innovate the experience for my students. After SXSWEDU, I had a vision and knew I was going to come up against roadblocks. However, if I want to create monumental change, I need to learn how to steer around any obstacle in my way.
Since 2018, I have deepened my understanding of educational innovation and worked to engage my students in meaningful learning experiences that contribute to their academic development. I have made a commitment to double-down on forming authentic student relationships. Simple as this may seem, these two things are disruptive to public education because they create a space for students to see and feel how their culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and academic abilities shape the perceptions of their educational opportunities. By giving students the freedom to own their educational experiences, I am taking power away from those select few who make decisions on behalf of teachers and students. Disrupting public education starts with disruption in the classroom.
Case, J. (2019). Be Fearless: Five Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose. Simon & Schuster, Incorporated.
Godin, S. (2008). Tribes: We need you to lead us. Penguin Group.
Spencer, J., & Juliani, A. J. (2017). Empower: What happens when students own their learning. IMpress.
Equity Defined: Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom
Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge (2020) has five planning questions for integrating culturally responsive pedagogy in the classroom. With each question, there are items for teachers to reflect upon as they design rigorous learning experiences.
What do I want students to understand?
How does this connect to last year’s learning?
How does this connect to this year’s learning?
What do I want students to feel?
How do I avoid students feeling less-than, behind, inferior?
What feelings do I want students to bring with them from their last experience? (empowerment, independence, resilience, etc.)
What are the targets for rigor?
How can I synthesize what students bring from last year?
How can this propel our learning instead of slow our learning?
What are the indicators for engagement?
How am I honoring what came before?
How am I tapping into any new learning my students did on their own?
What kinds of problems are students able to engage with and tackle during the learning experience?
What are the opportunities to be responsive?
How am I allowing students to share their own resourcefulness?
True equity and justice in the classroom occurs when teachers build authentic relationships with their students in service to creating an environment that is conducive to experiential learning. I believe that learning experiences are greater than lesson plans. When teachers spend time creating an experience where their individual students can connect what they are learning to their culture, environment, community, etc., this is when the magic happens in the classroom. I believe that the inability to provide equal access and opportunity experiential instructional activities for marginalized students begins with a willingness to acknowledge how the presence of privilege and power continue to under-serve students of color, further widening the gap between access and inequity.
Students need to feel that their academic pursuits and hard work mean something and are worth their time and effort. Rigorous and challenging instructional activities promote deep learning because “learning is optimized when students are involved in activities that require complex thinking and the application of knowledge” (Hess, Carlock, Jones, & Walkup, 2009).
Innovative teachers and students can work together to solve complex problems such as racism, world hunger, poverty, and environmental issues as well as more local problems to students (e.g.: the lunchline bottleneck, getting home safely, etc.). In order to positively impact public education, teachers and administration need to explore and scale equitable and impactful design solutions to the district’s most pressing and stubborn problems. Creating an environment for experiential learning helps educators build partnerships with other innovative leaders throughout the world and work to engineer a culture of innovation that honors the culture of students.
All students crave academic experiences that mirror their lives. Students have a desire to feel efficacious regarding their cultural and academic identities. Therefore, it is up to teachers and other school leaders to connect learning to students’ lives both inside and outside of the classroom. Engaging students in experiential learning contributes to their development of content knowledge, as well as how their culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and academic abilities shape the perceptions of their educational opportunities. As teachers pay attention to and validate students’ everyday experiences and interests, they are closing educational equity gaps.
Learning is a social act. Student collaboration and discussion are essential elements of an engaging classroom and promote deeper understanding. Elements of Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) and experiential learning experiences “encourage peer discourse as a critical part of teaching and learning” (Walker, 2012, p. 86). By focusing on student learning communities, teachers promote experiential learning experiences while using CRE to “engage students by drawing on their academic knowledge as well as their social and cultural identities” (Stembridge, 2015). Students, in turn, will take responsibility for their learning and “feel responsible for each other’s learning” (Walker, 2012, p. 86). A classroom that promotes and facilitates experiential instructional activities/experiences is one that also promotes positive classroom behavior and a shared determination to achieve.
True collaboration needs to be voluntary, with mutual goals and a shared responsibility and accountability. However, at its heart, collaboration is when people (teachers, students, administration) work together toward a shared goal. This applies to students in a classroom and successfully engaging cross-disciplinary faculty in career development activities. True collaboration requires an interdependence “characterized by trust, norms of give-and-take, shared responsibilities, consensus-building and conflict resolution mechanisms, shared power and authority and shared information and decision-making systems” (Anderson-Butcher, Lawson, Bean, Boone, Kwiatkowski, et al., 2004, p. 2). Does professional development in your school district or building sound like this?
Design principles and strategies for collaboration, collaborative leadership, and successfully engaging cross-disciplinary faculty in professional development are numerous; however, here are the three I find most important: (a) environment, (b) structure, and (c) purpose. Creating an environment of trust is the first priority for anyone wanting to collaborate. The ability to compromise will be difficult for some; however, in order to obtain a common goal, teachers must be unified in a single purpose. Collaborative teachers must agree to this purpose before they can proceed. Having a structure for professional development is the best way to ensure that you, your students and your colleagues are able to continually collaborate across a variety of topics/problems.
To learn more about culturally responsive education in the classroom, I highly recommend Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge’s Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom: An Equity Framework for Pedagogy.
Anderson-Butcher, D., Lawson, H., Bean, J., Boone, B., Kwiatkowski, A., et al. (2004). Implementation guide: The Ohio community collaboration model for school improvement. Columbus, OH: The Ohio Department of Education.
Hess, K., Carlock, D., Jones, B., & Walkup, J. (2009) Paper presented at CCSSO, Detroit, MI, June 2009.
Stembridge, A. (2020). Culturally responsive education in the classroom: An equity framework for pedagogy. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Walker, E. N. (2012). Building mathematics learning communities: Improving outcomes in urban high schools. New York: Teachers College Press.