Digging into databases

Setting the Stage

A few weeks ago, our junior English teachers approached me with the idea of deepening their students’ knowledge about how to use databases and other services like Google search tools and Google Scholar. But rather than asking me to give their classes the typical brief overview, they allotted a whole class period, and suggested perhaps a scavenger hunt model would engage students(agreed!).   We talked about what skills they wanted students to get better at, what tripped them up with researching on databases, and how to structure combining several classes at once to do this together. All this was in preparation for some research they were doing in book study groups a few days later.

Additionally, this assignment really meshed with our district library essential questions:  “What does it mean to be curious?” and “How can I explore?”

Creating the tool

I decided to construct some pathfinders using a basic Wikispaces page with a series to steps designed to guide them through some focused searches. Rather than to create a scavenger hunt in isolation from their curriculum, I decided to build it around the themes in their summer reading books. So the main landing page  of the wiki had general instructions, but each team had a different page with different questions on it. My hope was to make the results more pertinent for them and make it a “pre-search” activity for their real searching later in the week.

That evening after a Back to School night event, I reflected that the wiki “looked” sort of dullish just because of the formatting. I wondered if adding a gaming element to the page would engage students better, so I decided to create several headings or “levels” for the questions.   So as they progressed through the searches, they would periodically see something like “Level Two: Congratulations, you’ve reached the second level!”   Or “You win the gold coin for completing this section!”  I wasn’t sure with no graphics added if that would provide any extra incentive, but since I didn’t have time to set those up, I thought it would be a good experiment.

scavenger hunt booksWanting to make it more scavenger hunt like and to have some movement to engage their brains , we added in a couple of moments that required students to work as a team and move around the library.   To begin with, students sat with their previously existing book study groups(from their summer reading choice titles).   We then gave each group a slip of paper with a book title on it(related to the themes of their own book).   I gave an overview about where to find things on our library webpage and a global perspective on databases and Google, and then we set off.   First off each team had to use the online catalog to look up their book title and then they had to locate it on the shelf. Once they located it, we had placed a QR code on the shelf near the title with a link to the Wikispaces page.

Many students(despite having 1:1 iPads) did not have QR code readers so I was glad that I had included a link to the site below the QR code on the shelf.  (Note to self–students aren’t using QR codes).

Getting students moving

The librarians acted as facilitators and answered questions if students needed help locating something. What we learned?  Some students didn’t know how to find call numbers in the catalog or weren’t too sure how the books were arranged or a system for finding them(not that surprising, but an area for growth).  We also realized our signage could be improved to help them find things much more easily.  Teachers also realized that students may not have the skills they were assuming they had.

students whiteboard brainstorming googleIn the middle of the online scavenger hunt, we interspersed a “brain break” – again, to get students moving and give them a break from the searching.   Borrowing from Ewan Mcintosh’s work at NoTosh, I decided to have students brainstorm UnGoogle-able questions” on our new Huddle whiteboards.   It also allowed them to work as a team to consider what Google could not help them with, and many of the groups were empowered by brainstorming questions.

Overall, it felt like this method provided a much more successful way for students to engage with the databases and Google tools much more deeply and it was definitely more effective with three combined classes to do it this way.

Most of the teams gelled and helped one another with the questions and answers, using both their phones and iPads to follow along.   A few groups of course let one or two people do the work, so they didn’t really experience the database at all, which was a downside. This was harder to manage in the larger groups. But overall, most of the students were fully engaged, and we heard very positive responses, such as students commenting that this would really help them in other classes, or that it was a more motivating way to learn.  The gamification element was definitely noticed-I saw students giving each other “high-fives” for finishing a level and sharing with one another what “level” their team was on, so that was a good reminder to me that even simple ways of gamifying a learning activity pay off.

class ngc space scavenger huntWe ended the pathfinder with a Google form for student feedback.  The feedback made it clear that students made more distinctions about which tool to use when searching, so it appears that large numbers of them met our learning goal.  I also plan to conference with the teachers next week after students do in class research to see if it made a noticeable difference in their comfort level with the tools when they actually began their research.


Feedback loop

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to really help them dig deeper into using all the tools that the databases and Google have available for more effective searching.  And it gave me and our other librarian a great opportunity at the beginning of the year to work alongside the students and connect with them since our school is quite large.

This collaboration was more possible also because we have PLC time (Professional Learning Communities) built into our day so that teachers work with their grade level teams and can meet with us as a team.   This makes it much more conducive to this sort of joint planning that is hard to do at the high school level.

What do you represent?

At a recent district conference, author and consultant Jay McTighe spoke at length about how to use essential questions in the classroom to deepen student connection and learning.   After his presentation, I was reminded of the work that the Science Leadership Academy has done to lead with essential questions, and also musing on Andy Plemmons’ inspiring work last year, documenting his own goals and work through his blog.   All of those things inspired me to think about how our district’s libraries could use essential questions both to guide our work and to provide advocacy for our services.

Our librarians spent a day talking about what we hope to accomplish with students and brainstormed key questions we think libraries K-12 are about.

We landed on these questions:

  • What does it mean to be curious?
  • How can I explore?
  • How can I take action?

Research Center I’m in the process of designing a logo or branding(or having students design one).  We’ve summarized the questions on some of our websites with the tagline curiosity-exploration-action.

Thinking about libraries as centers for curiosity shifts the perspective a little bit—rather than just the place for answers.   And again, thinking of the library as a place for exploration opens up a different sense of what a library is.   Our last question shifts the focus to action – connecting to the belief that our students are capable of real world action—whether it is creating some sort of document or project, or changing the world, or anything in between.

I used Canva to create posters representing each question. (See examples below).   We are working to engage students in designing examples as well.   And following the lead of my colleague TechChef4U who creates cards out of photographic prints, we are working on designing a “card” that represents our core questions (see above).

Curiosity Exploration ActionHaving these questions not only centers my own thinking about my work with students (much like Andy Plemmons did), but it helps me reflect more on what I want our library to really be about.

What are your library’s essential questions?

Mindful partnership building — a SXSWEdu recap

rosebaumIn their SXSWEdu core conversation Schools and Libraries Together:  Rethinking Learning, Skokie Librarian Amy Koester and Graphic designer Vanessa Rosenbaum led the audience in a discussion of how to build richer partnerships between public and school libraries.

While we might normally exchange booklists, Koester and Rosenbaum urged us to consider deeper sorts of collaborations which impact our community more effectively.   However, to begin collaborative work, we have to be open to the idea that we don’t necessarily know where we are going, but that we will learn that through opening up dialogue.

They suggested Design Thinking or the Harwood methodologies might offer opportunities for conversation, suggesting that we start with larger questions like “How do you want to impact your community?”

Questions could be asked at a face-to-face meeting, or even posed in advance of the meeting to give staff time for contemplation.

A sample starter question might be:

engageHow might we _____________________? and then, How might we get there together?

Another way to open up communication might be with a structured dialogue, where one person talks for two minutes about their goals for their community, while the other just listens, and vice versa.  Then both the public and school library staff can see where their community goals might align, perhaps with a third party transcribing what was said.    Koester wisely suggests that the opportunities that arise will be much more impactful than just asking if we could bring “a pre-made” program into the school (or public) library.

They made it clear how our partnerships could help magnify our impact in the community(two heads are better than one).   Skokie Library has created a well designed toolkit for teachers that offers an example of how public libraries can reach out directly to school faculty.   But Rosenbaum and Koester made it evident that the most fertile opportunities lie in creating things together that best address our shared community needs.

Where do we go next with wearables? A SXSWEdu Recap

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 11.09.38 AMSXSWEdu is over, and I’m unraveling my thoughts about this year and thinking about the breakout trends for next year.   Watching trends from SXSWi as well as the advent of the Apple watch and other devices, I predict wearables will be an even bigger theme at EDU next year(along with the privacy issues they raise).

Beyond the neat

In their “Wear to Learn:  Body as Interface” session, Emory Craig(College of New Rochelle) and Maya Georgeiva(Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning)  led an intriguing conversation on wearable technologies.  I loved that they went beyond the “these wearables are neat” approach, and delved into the questions we are facing in education as wearables start infiltrating the market.

Food for thought

–How can wearables help us personalize learning for students and how in effect, will that change our instructional possibilities?

–How can wearables be used to create new learning situations for our students?  For example–augmented reality goggles could be used to create immersion experiences like immersion in a French cafe to learn French.  Virtual storytelling campfire spaces could add warmth and connection to a learning experience.  Designers not only will be concerned with creating software for learning, but for an experience. (Certainly this is already happening w/game design, etc.)

–How do we engage students in a wearable world?

–Will data being gathered from wearables be used to screen out students too?  Who owns the data and who has wearable sessionaccess?

–How are wearables going to affect our learning systems if everyone can wear their own recording device that is personalized?

–How can or will wearables increase “connectedness” within our student communities?  (and my question, will these increase “within school community connectedness” or will we outlaw this access forcing these communities to be “outside of school” as many districts have done with Twitter, FB, etc.)

wearablesPolicies and Privacy

–When do we start developing Wearable Tech policies in our districts and how do we make them flexible w/rapid pace of change?

–Will students be willing to give up privacy for more information about their learning?

Another question I have — if we allow BYOT wearables, which undoubtedly we will(and already are), does this add to the national digital divide our students face, and if so, how will we in edu compensate for that?

Not Just Shiny

Lastly, as TED speaker Diana Laufenberg reminds colleagues, we should be wary of getting caught up in the “shiny,” but instead think meaningfully about the opportunities, questions, and challenges that wearables will pose for our learning environments.

Tips for SXSWEdu

gourdoughssmartinezComing to SXSWEdu in Austin next week?  Here are a few tips for dining, fun, and navigating downtown!

First, my favorite thing–food.  Austin is a great food city, and there are so many choices that it is hard to go too wrong.  But the recommendations below are just a few ideas to start with because it’s hard to learn on no fuel!


Breakfast is hard to come by downtown, other than the hotel breakfasts, so if you can get to SXSW in time for the breakfast meetups, it is a good idea.  There are a few coffee places to choose from not too far away–a Starbucks at the Courtyard Marriott, Java Jive coffee shop in the lobby of the Hilton, and for real coffee connoisseurs, Houndstooth on 4th and Congress, or Jo’s coffee on 2nd street(an Austin icon).  My conference trick is to stock up on a little fruit and a couple of pastries to keep in my hotel room and then I just have to find coffee/tea.


Look for lunch all around the convention center.   Gus’ Fried Chicken is a Memphis import and has great piping hot fried chicken.  Also near convention center–PF Changs, Iron Works BBQ directly behind the convention center, Moonshine’s for home cooked food, Max’s Wine Dive and Cedar Door(another local icon) are all convenient and good choices.  Blenders and Bowls has smoothies, coffee for the morning, and fruit bowls for some healthy recharging. There’s usually a food truck or two nearby.   Personally I am not a fan of Julio’s, a large Mexican food restaurant near the convention center, but a lot of people eat there.  If you are at the J.W. Marriott, you are across the street from Manuel’s and near Annie’s, and Jo’s Coffee (a walk) has good sandwiches as well.  The Hilton has a restaurant for lunch but it can be a bit slow, though the food is fairly decent.


Austin is a food city, so there’s so many great dinner choices.   Use OpenTable to make reservations if you are eating downtown because things get crowded (although not everyplace takes reservations).   Some great dinner choices:

Manuel’s Mexican on Congress — great interior Mexican food, doesn’t get as crowded, can handle large tables
Moonshine (no reservations) — great home cooked, Southern food.  Come early or eat a late lunch to avoid a crowd.
La Condesa — great street tacos, but it gets crowded–better for small groups rather than large
Carmelo’s — delicious old school Italian restaurant near the Hilton, can handle large groups
Iron Cactus and Parkside — two good choices on sixth street
Lamberts — upscale and delicious BBQ on 2nd street, reservations a must
La Taverna — delicious Italian place in the more trendy warehouse district area
Threadgill’s — Austin tradition, southern style casserole built in the location of the old Armadillo World Headquarters-easy to get a table, can handle large groups-good service, cornbread, food
Roaring Fork — great steaks, seafood, in a nice historic hotel setting on Congress Avenue

South Congress is another mecca for Austin spots —  Stroll up and down the street, check out antique stores, and restaurants like:

South Congress Cafe — delicious food with a slight southern flair, loudish — need reservations
Guero’s Taco Bar — everyone eats at Guero’s and food and prices are delicious
Home Slice Pizza — there will be lines but you can get delicious pizza slices to go or eat in
Hopdaddy’s Burgers — there will most definitely be a line but great burgers worth the buzz

Other informal places near the Convention Center area:

Frank (Hot Dog) — 4th street
Rainey Street restaurants (area near convention center with an assortment of hangouts in old houses)
Stubb’s BBQ (famous music venue and known for their sauce)
Franklin’s or La Barbeque food trailers — go for BBQ early because lines get long.  By early, I mean 10 a.m. or earlier.
Torchy’s Tacos on South First — very informal — breakfast/dinner tacos

And further off the beaten path –

El Chile on South First or El Alma on Barton Springs Rd. — delicious interior food
Zax’s restaurant on Barton Springs Rod for delicious fish
24 Diner on Lamar — if you like breakfast for dinner
Mettle (on the East side) — healthy dining in modernist building
Stiles Switch for awesome BBQ — bit of a drive from downtown but their sausage rocks

And lastly, Gourdough’s Food truck/donuts on South First is not to be missed!

Photo Ops:
Check out the Hope Outdoor Gallery — a plethora of graffiti in the foundation of a “castle” and great place for some unusual photos.  Not my cup of tea, but it’s pretty intriguing.

Austin icons — check out Jo’s Coffee on South Congress and pose in front of the “I love you so much” graffiti for an iconic Austin photo.   Actually anywhere on South Congress can yield iconic Austin photos.

Austin Thinkery is the new and amazing Children’s museum–worth checking out.

Downtown is tricky because of lots of construction–  Parking garage for the Convention Center behind the Hilton is a good bet for parking.  Sometimes you can catch a pedicab because of SXSW opening shortly after SXSWEdu.  Most of the places I’ve mentioned are walkable, however!

SXSWedu has lots of food opportunities too, at the afternoon and breakfast meetups if you don’t want to have to make the effort otherwise.

Ice day inspiration…learning from afar

Today we had an “ice day.”  (Although the ice didn’t quite materialize).  So I’ve been at home getting to sleep in and enjoying tweets from the #NCTIES15 conference to jumpstart my day, which is why I love love love that people tweet from conferences.

Kevin Honeycutt gave an inspiring (judging by the tweets) keynote this morning, and I wanted to share a few gems because it was so motivational to me(and by posting it, now I won’t forget them!)

Personalize!   Kevin personalized his keynote podium rather than use the boring podium provided.  Reminds me that when we personalize our spaces and let our quirky selves fly, it lets people know who we are.  I’d never thought of doing it during a presentation, but I loved that idea.  Also, check out his “do it yourself” document camera idea for classroom stations!

Some other inspiring Honeycutt moments heard through Twitter:

What days at school do you remember? Something cool happened.

Let kids personalize their learning environment. Learning is deeply personal. Challenge inventive thinking.

WE are a species that is designed to learn in motion!

Don’t die with a trunk full of brilliance. SHARE, SPEAK!!

“Don’t be a secret genius”

Record excellence. I want every kid to have that moment were we hold them up and they see their goodness…

“Anoint and Appoint these Jedis that you have”

Teach digital in analog–Twitter bulletin board. Use Velcro to stick tweets on board. Changes

Relationships are the un-common core.

“Most great classroom innovations die of domestic violence.”—Kevin Honeycutt on why administrators must support innovators.

: Build the filter between their ears not a mechanical one says

Students are going to use these devices for the rest of the life – we need to let them rehearse now!

“We have great stories to tell. Take photos & videos and SHARE. If YOU don’t have time, let kids take the camera!”

“I am smart but my network is powerful.”

Once you start thinking like an inventor you can’t stop.

: Thoughts from

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: “We divorce kids from their passions by doing the same thing every day.”

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Thanks to all of you who tweeted the keynote, and thanks Kevin, for the inspiration!

Not just about the device — Libraries and cultural change in 1:1 environments

We all know that implementing technology isn’t really about the device, but about the cultural and instructional changes that we need to address in order to change and grow.  Being a 1:1 librarian is far more than about being aware of apps — and far more than just understanding how a device works.  It’s being able to analyze the culture around you, assessing the abilities you need to develop, and being open to a constant climate of change and growth.

We need to be prepared to meet those changes and be observant about our evolving roles as library information specialists.   In this TCEA presentation below, I tried to reflect about the areas that particularly impact the library:  supporting a culture of creativity,  analyzing what access means, finding the opportunities in the changing teacher-leader roles of librarians, and sharing how our knowledge of systems can be helpful to the implementation process.

There are many ways we embed ourselves in the growth of our campuses — from furthering our own knowledge, to leading teacher staff development, to helping lead systemic changes in the library itself and in the school’s culture.    We have to lead a culture of Yes, AND, instead of “no, but..” when we are faced with challenges.

How can librarian information specialists lead?  In my TCEA presentation, I tried to provide some food for thought.   How do you see our roles changing?

Becoming Students of the Network

How can we become students of one another’s learning?   Engaging in our Professional Learning Networks(PLNs) through Twitter, Instagram, blogs, etc. provides us opportunities to become aware of best practices and gain a lot of breadth of experience.   But even deeper power lies when we engage in a deeper way with those shared learnings.

Putting sharing in action

At our recent district librarian workshop, I decided to use other blog posts about best practices as our “texts” for further thought and reflection.   Using the See, Think, Wonder strategy, we took three rich blog posts on research strategies for libraries and engaged with them.   (The pieces were Shannon McClintock Miller’s Rainbow Loom blog posts, Buffy Hamilton’s Think, Puzzle and Explore post, and the third was Andy Plemmons’ Genius Con post.)

Using See, Think, Wonder model

Using See, Think, Wonder model

The librarians, in grade level teams,  used our new Huddleboards to collaborate on their impressions of each reading, and then shared for conversation with the larger team.  We were also fortunate that Buffy could also join us via audio for a 30 minute discussion of some of the “wonderings” from our encounter with her blog post.

The richness of this activity as a learning experience went beyond what I had anticipated.   The reflections of bloggers in my PLN became a source of learning for our whole district.  Reading about the experiences of other librarians, instead of hearing someone like me tell about them, and engaging their sense of discovery made for a powerful learning day.  I loved the way the See, Think, Wonder and Think, Puzzle, Explore strategies helped engender this as well.  But what was equally meaningful that my library colleagues had taken the time to write in detail about their own work with students and openly share what they were learning, how they retooled, and what was successful.

Why Sharing Matters

Santa Rosa Superintendent Jennie Oliver illuminated the power of learning from colleagues beautifully in her ASCD post, On the Moral Obligation of Sharing.  Oliver quotes George Siemens:

“It’s not what it does for me, but rather what I am now able to do with and for others…What’s important with a PLN is not ‘what it does for me’ but rather how I can use it to change things in education, society, or the world.”

Oliver also references Dean Shareski’s K12 Online talk  Sharing: The Moral Imperative:  “Shareski argues that sharing our learning regularly with others is an ethical obligation, one rooted in our responsibility to educate all students, not just the ones within our schools and districts, but also those in the wider global community.”

She concludes with a realization that “It is not seeking knowledge for my own benefit, but creating and sharing with others to work toward a larger purpose that matters.”

Not only when we take time to share our practices in deep ways, but also when we take opportunities to reflect on the learning others have shared in a deeper way, the power of engaging with sharing is evident.

pat heather librarian pd workshop 2015Learning Happens

After a day of engaging with these texts and conversations, our librarians came away with more knowledge and more questions about inquiry circles, connected learning, Visible Thinking strategies, Stripling’s Wonder Inquiry model, write-arounds, the work of BIE, and the #GeniusCon concept, all thanks to the generosity of colleagues who shared their work so freely.

This circles around to my previous post on ways to improve professional development  — by just thoughtfully curating materials for our librarians to engage with they were provided opportunities to have their own discussions, wonderings, and questions.  The Visible Thinking models provided them opportunities to figure out what they want to know or need to know.   When we are willing to let professional learning unfold naturally, powerful learning can happen.

Thanks for sharing

Thanks again to all my colleagues who share their work so generously, and as Jennie Oliver notes, “Siemens and Shareski both make the case that sharing is not just a ‘nice thing to do,’ but it is essential in building a sharing culture that is ultimately grounded in our moral purpose to educate children….to share and refine our learning along the way as a contribution to the greater good for students within our schools and beyond.”


Other blog posts/materials we used for exploration:

Musical peer review
Visible Thinking Routines
Introducing Friction (Debbie Abilock)
Stripling Inquiry Model

Power of reflection – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

What’s PD got to do with it? 10 ways to improve teacher PD

flickr - Shaggy359

flickr – Shaggy359

This week I struggled through a particularly ineffective inservice day.   As I sat in the room looking out across a sea of teachers who were just doing their best to endure the experience, I reflected on my own somewhat low expectations over many of my teaching years regarding PD.   Having worked in multiple districts, I thought about all the times I had endured experiences like this week’s.

Being more on the delivery end in other schools’ PD  efforts now, I’m more mindful of the precious few opportunities we have to advance change or inspire teachers,  because inservice days are rare.  I’m also mindful that it is a true challenge to plan for the learning of others and we always have room to learn, so this isn’t about pointing fingers.   There is just a delicate dance between forwarding district initiatives, inspiring teachers, and empowering them as learners, but it is a dance we need to do better.

Here are 10 ways we can improve PD for teachers in school districts:

1.  Include teachers in the planning process.

  • Teachers are professionals and perfectly capable and knowledgeable enough to offer pertinent advice about what their colleagues need to/want to learn and how that might best be accomplished effectively.  Teachers are capable of leading and planning their own learning and empowering them makes for powerful learning opportunities.

2. Enlist your connectors.

  • Every district has campus level educators who are well-connected online.   Exploit their connections to find meaningful and powerful presenters.  Grass-roots suggestions can tap into the pulse of the teachers as well.

3.  Be transparent.

  • Do teachers know who planned the inservice or why it was planned?   Do they know how it fits into the district long term goals in a very transparent, collegial way?  Do they know how much it cost or have input on how much gets allocated for their learning opportunity?  Empower teachers as part of the process.

4.  Prepare teachers for the inservice.

  • Are teachers prepared for the speaker(s) and familiar with their work?   Do teachers(counselors, librarians, other staff) have time ahead of time to think about the topic?   How do we build the “anticipatory set” for learning?

5.  Set presenters up for success

  • When inviting speakers, set them up for a successful experience.   Is the audience size an effective one for real learning to occur?   Do they know details about your district?  A recent district for which I did PD had a dinner meeting and outlined details about their district goals, employees, the audience, etc. so I was well prepared for my time with them.   (Also it is helpful to do this well in advance so the speaker can prepare properly).  As a speaker, I also feel speakers bear some responsibility for getting more information about the audience, too.

6.  Think globally.  Act locally.

  • Sometimes the best professional learning opportunities are the ones right in front of us.   Every district is filled with a wealth of teacher expertise — teachers who can share and discuss the difficult questions they face in the classroom–teachers who innovate — teachers who have developed successful strategies — teachers who are gifted teachers.   How can a district enlist and empower their own teachers in events like Edcamps or teacher-led PD?   Are there leaders in the district that can better meet the needs of teachers on a given topic?  Are we modeling the world-connected teaching that we hope teachers are using in their classroom?  Is the learning experience for teachers connective?

7.  Think formal and informal, suited to teacher needs.

  • Be open to what teacher learning can look like.  Consider alternatives that are meaningful to teachers and that different teachers have different needs.   Teachers are willing to learn on their own time, but are appreciative when that is honored.

8. Think long term.

  • Does the PD offer an opportunity for long term reflection or engagement with the rest of the teaching community beyond the given day?    How can the learning be extended?  Even if the speaker doesn’t extend the learning, who within the district can build opportunities for that ongoing reflection, possibly in a connected(online) format?   It’s clear from research that this makes the learning experience more “sticky.”

9.  Follow up.

  • Even without long term engagement opportunities, how can the district follow up with teachers about the PD experience?  Are there more resources that can be shared out in a structured way each time?   Are there follow up opportunities, books, upcoming conferences, webinars, etc. that can be shared?

10.  Measure and reflect.

  • Give evaluation forms, also, to find out if the learning opportunities met the needs of teachers involved(formative assessment in action).   Reflect on the comments shared.  Make sure your environment is one that welcomes this sort of feedback loop and not only reflects that to teachers in words, but in deeds as well.   Without trust and acceptance and collegial relationships, a district will not get the honest feedback they need.  Teachers also bear a responsibility in speaking up and offering helpful evaluative information.  Both involve remembering that all who work with students are colleagues working towards the same goals.

As long as teachers feel that professional development is something done to them, instead of something done “with” their own empowerment and learning in mind, they will be, by the very nature of things, passive participants.  Teachers also have a responsibility to step up and offer to lead their own learning.

But if we are going to change teacher PD, if not now, when?   Changing how we lead teachers is just as imperative and urgent as changing how we “do school” for our students. The more we seek to engage educators in their own learning–be it formal or informal, the more meaningful the time spent will be and ultimately the most impact we will have on the students we want to serve better.

Big Ideas Fest 2014 — Innovating around education

Big Ideas Fest is a unique conference.   When I first saw tweets about it, even the name intrigued me.   Who wouldn’t want to talk about the big ideas?

More workshop than conference, actually, it allows attendees to become artists, idea builders, and potentially, innovators.   The conference provides a mixed format to spur innovation and team building — from speakers to an artist in residence to improv — all combining to help further the agenda, which is learning to use Design Thinking to address “big ideas” in education.

bif2014 luminariesFrom arriving the first night when we created luminarias of our hopes for education with the conference’s artist in residence, to spending two days working on design challenges, to closing with a hula-hooping keynote, the conference tapped into the potential of community.

Big Ideas Fest takes place in the beautiful Half Moon Bay Ritz Carlton which is set away from the town itself.  Perhaps that aids in community building since many attendees stay there the entire three days.     There are fireside chats, keynotes, Rapid Fire talks, walks at sunset, Fit Bit challenges, and things like hula hooping practice interwoven into the schedule.

Solving the big problems

In past years, Big Ideas Fest has used design thinking to surface and address big problems in education and focused on solving one.  This year, participants’ own design challenge questions became central to the workshop.  For example, our team worked on three challenges (one of them mine) to come up with designed solutions to address problems we faced.

Improv was a central part of the conference–we used it to meet our neighbors, warm up, connect after breaks, etc. and it did add to the camaraderie of the event.   Facilitator Megan Simmons shared tenets of improv with our team:

  • let go of your agenda
  • listen in order to receive
  • build on what you receive
  • can’t be wrong
  • make your partner look brilliant
  • keep moving forward

“Make Your Partner Look Brilliant”

I have carried these tenets beyond the conference, really reflecting upon what it means to “make your partner look brilliant” and that in brainstorming you “can’t be wrong.”  It was very liberating as we worked in our particular team when anyone faltered, to hear the whole group cheer –  “You can’t be wrong.”

We also spent time talking about “Yes, And” strategies, which Carl Hooker first shared with me (I believe via an Apple workshop.)   The idea is to extend upon an idea.  Rather than responding to a challenging concept by saying all the “buts” and reasons it won’t work, the idea is to “extend” or build upon the other persons idea with a “Yes, and, what if…” sort of statement.   In any communication situation, this strategy can help open up dialogue rather than shutting it down, and is a beneficial practice for everyone from administrators to library managers to teachers.    And in this blogging, tweeting world, the notion of “making your partner look brilliant” really stuck with me for further reflection.

buttonology bif2014Buttonology

Part of what makes Big Ideas work is this sense of community the conference tries to foster.  Another aspect of the conference I loved was “buttonology”.    When we arrived at the conference, each participant got a zippered pencil bag filled with buttons.   When we felt appreciation for someone else or wanted to thank them, we were tasked with sharing our buttons with them.   It felt really gratifying to share a “button” with a Road Trip Nation student I met, or with a shyer member of the community to thank them for their ideas, and it just created a huge sense of generosity that I think any conference would want to support.

Design Thinking process

For the bulk of the conference, participants joined teams which addressed a couple of design challenges, and learned how to move through the “action collab” or design thinking model that ISKME uses in which you:

action collab bif2014Identify opportunity (gather info)
Design(imagine) – What could it be?
Prototype (model) How would it work?
Scale and Spread (plan) How is it realized?


We interviewed clients, brainstormed in teams, did improv, narrowed questions and solutions to ultimately address the design challenge we were working on.   On Day Two, we worked on our own design challenge questions in teams, and for me, a real project emerged from our solutions which I will be blogging about in another post.

One of the initial parts of the design challenge I found interesting was interviewing the “client.”   We were asked to listen and simply list observations of what was said.   Observations–no judgments, no inferences, but simply — “The client said….x.”  It forced some deeper listening and also led to better brainstorming after the fact.

The team building was also key to this process working because collaboratively was essential to having a team open to brainstorming.

My Takeaways

  • Crafting an experience like this means attention to detail, feeling, and vision.
  • Professional development that builds a spirit of generosity creates an environment more conducive to openness.
  • Buttonology is cool.
  • Having an “artist in residence” for a conference is also cool.
  • Improv opens up a lot of energy in participants and is refreshing on a long PD/conference day.
  • We should “make our partners feel brilliant.”
  • The design thinking/action collab process is a very effective way to move teams through brainstorming solutions.

When we empower teams with strategies for approaching problems, we can draw upon the best of their collective wisdom, something education in general needs to do more of.   When we empower students to do the same, who knows what they can discover or create.

In a future blog post, I’ll share what our team came up with in response to my design question….