The Scary Part About Being a Student

It’s summer! I just moved from North Carolina to Wyoming to start a new job. I’m getting settled in. Posts between now and August 21st will be intermittent as I get up to speed. Regular content will resume August 21st.

Recently, I drove about 1800 miles to move from Durham, NC to Laramie, WY. You can do the drive in three days if you’re willing to drive 8-10 hours a day and stop only for necessities. I didn’t want to do that and took 5 1/2 days to get here stopping to see the sights along the way.

A picture I took in the cave system.

One of the places I stopped at was the City Museum in St. Louis. I had no real understanding of what this place was and simply went on the recommendation of a friend who said I had to go there. If you’ve never been, there is no way to explain what this place is like (however this site and this one do a really solid job). One of the things they are known for is an elaborate, man-made cave system that you can explore. However, that’s just one aspect of this place which encompasses 600,000 square feet.

There are, of course, other things you need to know about this place. For example, there are slides everywhere. You can be walking around and suddenly a hole appears next to you. It could be a tunnel that you can climb through OR it could be a slide that leads to who knows where. You have to decide if you want to take the slide or not, and it’s not a simple decision to make. Taking the slide means letting go of exploring where you are at, and you might be interested in seeing what lies ahead. If you go down the slide, you will end up someplace that may or may not appeal to you, and getting back to where you had been before you took the slide isn’t necessarily easy and, in fact, may never happen.

Why? Because there are no maps at the City Museum. You just have to go for it.

And during my experience there I couldn’t help but think about how what I was doing in the museum helped me better understand myself as a teacher and just how scary it could be to be a student in one of my classes.

No Map

It’s not that City Museum doesn’t have any directions as far as where things are. When you enter the lobby there’s a sign that tells you the cave system is directly ahead. That’s kinda about it. You have to figure out where things are and, as a result, end up getting annoyed, frustrated, scared, and excited. I experienced at least all of those emotions.

The whole no map thing reminded me of how I recently started exploring the idea of creating customizable paths in my class this fall. The options for students would be to have a map – completely crafted by myself to meet goals I had determined – or to create their own based on a set of choices placed before them (and then they can tailor their experience towards their own goals). What I learned through my experience at City Museum is that this isn’t as straight-forward as having students decide which path they want to take.

Why? Because sometimes you challenge yourself and get completely freaked out.

Go ahead. Any place you want to start is good.

The first thing I did at the museum was enter the cave system. But I immediately found out I didn’t understand what was going on. Do I just start climbing anywhere? Go through any opening? Is that allowed? I was an adult conditioned to a system where there are rules that I should follow, and I kept looking for someone to tell me what to do.


There was an opening in front of me so I started to enter it when a woman said, “You are brave.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I can’t make myself go down that part,” she answered. “It’s dark and narrow.

Upon closer inspection I thought, well, it does look a bit scary, but I can do this. And in I went.

And she was right. It was dark and narrow. And while I knew, logically, that I was completely safe and that, eventually, I would come out of this dark and narrow place I couldn’t do it. I panicked. I could have pushed forward, but doing so would have required me to make a series of decisions about which way to go (there were usually options and this was rarely a straight path) and put up with my fear and discomfort. But I didn’t do it. I let the fear take over and I backed out the way that I had come in because I knew that would get me out of the tight spot I had gotten myself into.

How This Experience Informs My Teaching

For me, City Museum asked me to take risks. I didn’t know where I was going most of the time. I didn’t know where I would end up. Sometimes things got uncomfortable. I realized I ask my students to do the same. I ask them to do things that are not a big deal to me but that are a big deal to them. I am sure there were plenty of kids running around the museum that day that would not have understand my panic in the caves. For them, it was nothing, you just keep making decisions about which way to go and you end up where you end up. Some of them likely had been enough times that they knew where they were going.

Second, when students take risks I need to give them options if they push themselves too far. I pushed myself too far in this example. But I knew how to get out of it (back out the way I had come in) and doing so had zero consequences. I didn’t fail at the museum or get kicked out. I simply made decisions from there on out that didn’t put me back in the same position. Yes, this limited my experience at the museum but I don’t regret it. I wasn’t ready for all the experiences the museum had to offer. However, I learned a lot just from wandering around within the spaces I was comfortable. Being in the museum was so new that it was overwhelming. I didn’t need to take it all on at once. What I needed was multiple trips. Over time I would likely start pushing my boundaries a bit.

If students take risks, and go farther than they are ready, then I need to consider what that means in the context of class. I want students to take risks, and I like the idea of them deciding how much of a map they want to be provided with. However, I learned it’s easy to get excited about push yourself too far. When that happens, there needs to be a way out that comes without consequences.

If the idea is to learn, but to also push yourself, then I have to recognize that sometimes this will fail. Just like I recognized that I didn’t want to continue on in a particular part of the cave system so too might students realize they have taken on too much or selected a task that ended up being more than they were ready to take on. This isn’t failure, and we shouldn’t treat it as such. This is recognizing one’s one limitations at the moment and adjusting accordingly.

Yes, I could have kept on in the cave system despite the overwhelming fear and panic I felt within the tight space I had wandered into. But what would it have accomplished? Probably nothing but relief when I got myself out – which is exactly what I felt when I backed myself out. What would have been the point of dragging it out? Yes, I would have learned that I was capable of doing it and surviving, but I would have just endured it. I don’t think I would have learned much else.

I don’t want students to endure class. I want them to learn and grow. And giving them that experience might require backing up and re-configuring the path. I need to remember to make space for that.

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The Campus LMS: Bound to the System

Regardless of if you teach online, face-to-face, or in a hybrid format you likely have some experience with a Learner Management System (LMS). And, I assume your campus subscribes to one which, technically, means you are supposed to use it.

So let’s talk about that.

First, there are obvious benefits to a campus LMS. For me, the benefit is that it simply exists as an option. So if you know nothing else about technology, or other options, you always have the campus LMS to fall back on. And, if you have issues, you should have tech support to utilize as well.

But the campus LMS, for all the good it’s supposed to do, has its drawbacks. Of course different ones have different features and may be more or less user friendly and to your liking. I get that. But they all do the same thing: they bound us to their system, and they do it in the following ways:

Sets the Structure

An LMS takes control over how your course is structured. This includes what features you can use, how you use them, where they are located, etc…It also dictates how your course looks. The system controls the way things look to you and your students.

Of course any tool that can be utilized as a syllabus or course website is going to do this. For example, I am a huge fan of Wikispaces but using it means that my syllabus and course are going to look particular ways and have particular features. The difference is that when I get to choose a tool like Wikispaces I am making a mindful and conscience decision about how I want my course to look. I’ve played around with Wikispaces. I like how my class website/syllabus looks when I use it. I don’t like how things look when I go into my former university’s LMS (Sakai).

If you have little knowledge about alternative tools to your LMS, or little time to research them, then you are forced into the structure and format of whatever LMS your campus subscribes to. You may like it, you may not, and you may or may not know any better. Which brings me to my next point….

The LMS Has Power

The LMS is now dictating to you what your course looks like, how you and your students function within it, and even how information is communicated. This means that is maintains power over teaching and learning. If you use an LMS mindlessly (i.e. “I use this because that’s what I was told to do”) then you give up any power you had over your course and turn it over to the LMS.

Of course, as I said, any tool you use will shape your course. But if you get to select that tool then you retain your power. You are deciding what you want the course to look like, and you are identifying the tools to make it happen. If the tool doesn’t meet the need for you, then you can drop it and find a new one (or make your own!).

And what if you don’t get to select your own tool? What if you are told you have no options, you are simply not allowed, to use anything BUT the LMS?

Then that is a lot of power and control placed over you, how you teach, and how your students experience their education. And I bet the people who make such decisions don’t even realize it. They don’t realize that what they have done is sanitized teaching and learning.

I’m Not Against the LMS

Least this sound like I am anti-LMS let me state that I’m not. What I am against is being told what tools we must use to accomplish our teaching. If a university wants to subscribe to an LMS then by all means do so. If you are happy with that decision, if the LMS works for you, then please, use it. But I think it’s important to recognize that these systems have power. If we agree with what they have to offer us then that’s fine.

But we need to stop and took a look at what these system say about teaching and learning. Who are they benefiting? What does teaching and learning look like within the system? Are we ok with that? Do we want something more, something different? And will we be able to strike out and utilize tools beyond the LMS?

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Reimagine Education

I want to put something on your radar in case you don’t know about it: The Reimagine Education conference. I’m not sure how I found out about it, but I was excited to learn that this is a group that supports innovation and change in education (particularly with technology). I’ve never been before (I’m hoping to go this year), but the conference serves as a, “global competition designed to identify the most innovative, novel approaches to higher education.” You can see last year’s award winners here, and I would note that while they might emphasize higher education, some of these ideas can be applied with a variety of ages.

I was excited to learn that my good friends at Edorble was recognized with a Silver award from the conference in 2016. Their work is a great example of something that is not just limited to higher education and can be used in a variety of contexts. Make sure you check them out as well as the other winners.

After learning about Reimagine Education, I decided to see if I could convince them to let me be a judge. Somehow, I managed to get them to agree to this. Did you know you can apply to be a judge? The nice thing about being a judge is that you are not required to attend the conference. You judge about 20 projects from the comfort of your own home (or your favorite bar – I’m not judging). They expect that each project will take you about 30 minutes to judge which comes out to about 10 hours of work. They give you a half-price ticket for being a judge.

Now, I’ve never been to the conference before, but I do hope to go (December 4th-5th in Philadelphia). I got a little bit of sticker shock when I first looked at the prices (even with a 50% discount). But, let’s get real. There are several options for how you can attend the conference. The full experience – which looks like it includes every meal under the sun – costs 900.00 (full price). I spend around 2000.00 on a conference give or take a bit for everything. So, when I framed it like that I realized that even the full price ticket with all the bells and whistles (you can get tickets for less than that) was really on par with my normal conference going budget. So a 50% off ticket for being a judge?

More than do-able. I’m so in.

I am also so excited. As a judge, I’ll get to see the innovative work people are doing. At the conference, I’ll get to see some of this in person (I assume) and meet a whole new range of people. I’m expecting to see a range of ideas that can inform and transform how we teach in higher education.

Who’s with me?

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Virtual Presence

I’m over halfway through reading a book by Ethan Nichtern called The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path. Yes, I identify as a Buddhist. However, it doesn’t matter if you do or not as the book is full of ideas that can give you much to consider in terms of how you live your life. In this case, I started to think about how some of Nichtern’s ideas could be applied to teaching.

There is a section of the book – pages 128-129 if you have it – where he discusses being present and what it means to be present in relation to technology use. I love the following quote:

Physical reality and virtual reality are locked in a twenty-first-century tug-of-war. The answer is not to destroy our technology and go back to some pre-virtual paradise – the answer is to turn communication into a mindfulness practice. We need to know the guidelines for when we are physically present with someone, and when we are virtually present with someone, and to create principles around each of those periods of communication, so that we engage in each more fully (pg. 128).

When I read this quote, I found myself asking the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be present both virtually and in person?
  • How do we use technology in our teaching mindfully?
  • How can we help students engage in technology mindfully?

At this point, it seems critical to define the term mindfulness. I found a great page that expounds on it here. While I am sure there are many different ways to understand what mindfulness is, I do like the concept that it is about paying attention on purpose, within the present moment, and in a non-judgmental manner.

And let me tell you, that is really, really, REALLY difficult to do. But it’s something I work on.

With a good working definition of mindfulness set in place, I’d like to take a look at the questions I posed. What I want to do in this post – you’ll notice the title is Virtual Presence – is move beyond the idea of how to get students to stop screwing around online during class and instead think about the issues of mindfulness and technology in terms of how do we (as teachers) stay present and then how do we help our students do the same.

What Does it Mean to be Present both Virtually and In Person?

I’d like to start off by considering what it means to be present virtually. You might teach an online class, or (like me) you might find yourself teaching a blended/hybrid class. In these cases, students are expected to maintain some sort of virtual presence and so are we as teachers. What does this presence look like and what does it mean to stay in the moment?

As Nichtern stated, there is a constant back and forth for our attention between the physical and the virtual reality. As I write this, my attention could be pulled away from any number of things. And we might determine that some of those “things” are more valid than others. My dog standing by the door needing a walk was definitely a valid pull out of this virtual space and into the physical one.

On the flip side, one could be present physically in a classroom – as a student or a teacher – and have any number of virtual distractions attempting to pull your attention out of the physical. I recently bought a fitness watch that would buzz whenever I had a twitter alert. It constantly snapped me both from the physical into the virtual and from one virtual task (such as writing a blog post) into a different one. I turned off notifications because the distractions were interfering with my work and in no way beneficial. But I give the example to show that it is also possible to be tugged across virtual experiences just like your attention could be tugged across physical ones (you want to pay attention to a class discussion but you also want to have a side conversation with your friend).

So being virtually present means doing all of what I outlined before I started this section: paying attention on purpose, within the present moment, and in a non-judgmental manner. So whatever space we are in, these are some basic guidelines to be attuned to. The thing is, it’s not an either/or situation. As my dog demonstrated to me, I could choose to stay in the virtual – and not walk her – but there would be consequences for me that I would not enjoy. So to some extent there is always a dance. We have to figure out how to bound this dance to some degree – like when I turned off watch notifications – but this is something we each have to figure out on our own.  I can encourage my students to engage in mindfulness, and we can even discuss it, but I am not about to quantify it for them.

How Do We Use Technology in Our Teaching Mindfully?

Technology pushes and pulls us in and out of physical reality. And yet, for most of us, there is a need to us it. I will admit that I can get distracted when shown a new technological tool that I *might* be able to use in my teaching. But I’ve gotten better at staying focused. It’s fine to get distracted by a piece of technology at first – to think, “Oh – look at this shiny new thing. I wonder if I can use it in one of my courses?” – but then it’s time to settle down and consider if it can REALLY be used.

When I think about using technology mindfully in my teaching, I generally start with examining how a tool can be used to help or enhance learning. I also consider how it might be used to completely redefine what we are doing in my courses. As basic as it sounds, I love tools like Twitter because my students can keep talking to each other throughout the week. It changes the dynamic of what it means to be a student and a teacher. It’s not just about showing up for class once a week and then wandering off until next time. We can start to use technology to think about regular, sustained engagement and what that looks like.

And this is where the mindfulness really starts to kick in.

Because we all know to not use a tool for the sake of using a tool. We all know to evaluate how the tool might connect to learning. But the interesting thing about technological tools is that they can transform learning in ways that push us to be mindful in different ways as well. As we use a tool, learning can start to look different. In my twitter example, I started to see what it meant for students to engage in interactions between sessions. But then I had to start to be mindful about what it meant to engage. What did I want to encourage in my students and in myself as an instructor? This is where I believe mindfulness starts to get really interesting in our teaching.

How Can We Help Students Engage in Technology Mindfully?

Like any of us, our students will operate along a continuum of how mindfully they engage with technological tools required in our class as well as the general push and pull between the digital and the physical. I do think that how we set up experiences for students, and the guidelines we use to frame them, can contribute or inhibit how mindful they are being.

For example, in the spring of 2016 I worked to think about how to use twitter chats with my students.  The first time I did this I was focused on how many times a person tweeted. This encouraged students to be mindful of the total number of tweets they produced during a week and probably not so mindful about how they interacted with others. And I can’t blame them. I directed them to be mindful about quantity.

So I changed it up. The next time, I still had a focus – though greatly diminished – on quantity but now I was trying to communicate to students that I wanted them to engaged in sustained and interactive participation during the week. But it still came down to me counting people’s tweets. Things got better, but the focus on quantity was still higher than I liked.

In about a month, I am trying this again with a more focused effort on quality (I think). I’m also not going to be counting anyone’s tweets. While I do try to help students think about quantity (because they will want to know something about this which is fair), I have shifted to having them demonstrate how they think their participation is going. Ultimately, they do not get points for participation in and of itself. They get points for examining and reflecting on their participation and considering what they like about it and what they want to do differently.

Whew. I think I might have something decent in place. Finally.

Mindfulness is an Ongoing Process

The twitter example shows how I had to work to get an experience for my students to a place I was happy with and that supported the things I wanted it to support. The first time I tried twitter chats I  was very mindful about what I was doing. However, in practice I started to see where it all fell apart and did not support what I wanted it to.

So I refined it.

And then I refined it some more.

But because I was always mindful about what I was doing, and because I was willing to examine and refine an experience, each iteration got me closer to what I was aiming for. Ultimately, I want my students to be mindful about their interactions when using twitter. However, they are in a class, and they are receiving a grade. Therefore, the structures I put in place will guide them to be mindful about particular things. This might mean they ignore or do less of the things I want because of the very structures I put in place.

Sometimes, I am responsible for a lack of mindfulness in particular areas from my students.

I am looking forward to seeing how this newest version of my twitter chat assignment shapes students into being mindful and engaging with each other.

One Year Ago Today

Two Years Ago Today


How Do We Help Bring in the Digital?

Not too long ago, I came across this fascinating piece. The article looks at how a high school teacher (Eddie Kim) and his students developed a business where they take classic texts and play them out in a video game format. If you click on the link, you can see some examples of their work and read about it further. They also have a website.

As I was reading the piece, I came across the following quote:

Despite his devotion to the classics, Sedlacek emphasizes the importance in letting them find new forms. “I don’t think it helps to act as if the classics occupy a sacred space isolated from the rest of culture. It’s better to allow these texts to be played with, to put them into conversation with the other media that make up our world.” He describes video game puppetry as a “postmodern mashup of old and new, high and low. Video games lend flair and fun, the stories lend wisdom and gravity. Together, they give the audience a chance to appreciate both for the unique feelings and thoughts they can evoke in us.”

This quote, along with the work that Eddie and his students have been doing, led me to the following question:

To what extent are teacher educators engaging educators in ways that allow them to do this king of work and/or develop the capacity to do so?

I’m not here to say that every teacher needs to learn how to translate the classics into a video game. What I am concerned about is how well we support teachers in developing the background knowledge and thinking abilities that allow them to engage their students in creative and new ways. I think doing so is going to require us to think very differently about teacher education. Specifically:

  1. We have to stop looking at things in silos, and we have to stop organizing classes that way.
    1. While my institution doesn’t offer a specific educational technology class in the programs I teach in, I could imagine that such a class isn’t unheard of. The masters program I teach in does offer a content area literacy course (how to help kids develop their abilities to read/write in the academic disciplines), and we use edtech tools in the course, but not in ways that merge and blend to the extent that Kim has done.
  2. I can see the argument for silos. If I teach a course in content area literacy, then (theoretically), it should allow me and my students to go in-depth into that topic. In reality it doesn’t. It allows for a superficial skimming. To be more in-depth the class would have to be more specific – like developing academic literacies in English/Language Arts for secondary students. This thought leads me back to…
  3. Making an argument for competency based education and getting rid of classes as the way we structure education – at least from the Masters level on – in teacher education. While such a model is not a guarantee of a better education, what emerges is the opportunity for students to create a plan of studies that allows them to go more in depth and overlap disciplines.

So you can see that my point here isn’t to argue that we need to add more classes or different classes because I think the existing model is limited and dated. What we need to do is find ways to help teachers think critically about content and the pedagogical techniques they use to employ that content. It’s not just a matter of learning content or learning tools. It’s how we think about them and employ them in our teaching.

In some ways, this requires a mindset shift from teachers at both the pre and in-service levels. All teachers want tools to address the issues they are facing and help their students learn. I get that – totally reasonable. But if you’re the teacher who shows up and wants to be handed a list of the best tools and how to use them – with the intention of pretty much just plunking them down into your instruction – then you have to make some changes. Now and then this mindset is ok and works fine, but it can’t be the default mode if you want to get to someplace as interesting, creative, and relevant as Kim has.

We Have To Engage With the Digital

The article discussing Kim brought home to me the importance of engaging with the digital in K-12 instruction. I consider myself to be someone who is relatively up to date on edtech issues and tools, and I am always interested in learning more. I work to infuse my courses with technology in ways that serve learning. I want the teachers I work with to learn tools in was that are useful and relevant to their learning of course content, but (ideally) they will gain insight into how to use those tools in their own classroom.

So how do we help teachers start to use digital tools in ways that extend and reshape what learning looks like in schools? I don’t have the answers here. I barely had suggestions. I only know that I look at what Kim does and I want to figure out how to help the teachers I work with acquire the skills they need in order to design experiences of that caliber.


Two Years Ago Today

One Year Ago Today


Teaching in a Virtual Environment

As you can probably tell, I tend to be into how to use digital tools in my teaching. I’m also interested in how to teach in online/virtual environments. I teach in a masters program that is hybrid. This means that about 50% of the time we meet face to face and 50% of the time is supposed to be some sort of online/blended learning. There are any number of ways to approach this online/blended aspect. Today, I want to discuss one new tool I’m considering using in the fall.

Edorble is fairly new and (I think) still in beta mode as I write this. It is a 3-D virtual world. I learned about it because one of the founders (Gabe Baker) used to work for TES, and I’m a long time fan and user of Wikispaces. And so our paths eventually crossed.

Edorble is intended (though not entirely) to be used with educators.  I was able to download it and claim a world for myself without any issue. You can have additional worlds, but you have to have a separate email account for each. You design an avatar once you get in, and only people who have the room number can join. The world you claim is not just free and open to anyone who wanders in.

edtheaterOnce in the world, there is an amphitheater where you can come together as a group. In the theater, there is a screen and a blue circle in front of it. Whoever stands in the blue circle controls the screen, and you can show a number of things on that screen. You will see that there are specific sites already on the screen (You Tube for example). These sites are pre-loaded on, and you can’t change them or add to them. I think they are working on modifying that. Like I said – currently still in beta mode.

Now, how do people communicate? You talk. That’s it. In a way it’s just like being in a room with a bunch of people. If everybody talks at once you likely won’t hear anyone clearly. Students can also raise their hands.

There is also space in the world for students to breakout into small groups. I believe they are also going to be adding additional screens along the lines of what is in the theater. This way, students could be in small groups and look at something online together and discuss. When you are in your group – and in your own space – you will only hear what others in your space say. So if I’m in the theater, I will only hear people in the theater. If a group is outside and talking, I will not hear them. Just like real life.

What To Do With This Space?

This space brings about some new and interesting ways to interact with students, particularity if you have online or hybrid courses. I haven’t totally figured out what to do with it yet. On a very basic level, you could hold office hours in this space. You can meet a student in the theater and talk to that student while others wait outside. Those outside the theater won’t hear your conversation.

You could give a lecture in this space or have students give presentations. This is good if you meet 100% online and need some time to come together.

I also see this as beneficial to a program at large. You could have one room for a program. You could host

Students can hang out in small groups within the world.
Students can hang out in small groups within the world.

discussions/meet-ups in this space as well as guest speakers for your program.

One thing I can envision – just off the top of my head – is using this as a space to highlight something called Teach Me

How. This started last fall. The idea is that one of my students – classroom teachers – could share with us a particular method that had been used with K-12 students. They would be teaching the other teachers how to engage in this practice and lead a short discussion about it. Edorable could be a great venue for this. We could host Teach Me How sessions in that space, and it could be a great way to have multiple classes come together (if I could figure that out logistically).

Anyways, I wanted to use today’s post to highlight Edorble for you. I’m looking forward to thinking about how to use it in my hybrid courses this fall, and I can’t wait to share what happens!

Two Years Ago Today 

One Year Ago Today

Next Week: The Argument for Front-Loading