Being Innovative Can Be Lonely

Not only did these teachers get to share ideas, ask each other questions, and get feedback on their plans from like-minded professionals, but they could see and feel that they, indeed, were not alone.


Being innovative can be lonely.

Just consider these famous innovators:  Nikola Tesla, Alan Turing, Steve Jobs

If you know their stories, you know that they faced great adversity, in the form of doubt, even opposition, to their ideas. Their brilliant inventions did not necessarily bring them happiness, relationships, or respect.

Our teachers pursuing out-of-the-box thinking can experience isolation as well.

I met recently with a small group of teachers who share a passion for innovation and are trying out similar new ideas in their classrooms. This was not a formal meeting or PD event, but an organic “pop-up” meeting, if you will. Based on the #coffeeEDU  concept, these teachers reached out to each other on Twitter, where they had all met before during #cusdlearns chats or via their shared Twitter connections, to organize an informal get-together. Several of them had not met each other in person yet, although we all work in the same small district. It’s amazing how easily classroom teachers can feel like we are on our own island with only the children to keep us company.

We’d all been drawn together over the last few months by threads on Twitter on topics including digital portfolios, flexible learning environments, station rotation model, personalized learning through playlists, project based learning, and student-led conferences. The teachers have been implementing new practices based on these topics in their classrooms and even leading school-wide implementations, to varying degrees. In some cases, they have been operating alone while in other cases that had supportive colleagues willing to follow their lead. But all of them were wanting – needing – more support and connection to buoy them up.

The digital connections and conversations have been helpful, even essential, but these teachers are so passionate about what they are pursuing that they wanted to meet in person, on their free time. All it took was a tweet over the Winter Break from one of our most enthusiastic teacher-innovators, @MarisaEThompson , and nearly a dozen positive responses came back – yes, while we were all on winter break!

The actual gathering which took place after school resumed was small; only four of us could make it on a Saturday morning, but so worth it. Not only did these teachers get to share ideas, ask each other questions, and get feedback on their plans from like-minded professionals, but they could see and feel that they, indeed, were not alone.

Since then, I’ve heard (or read on Twitter) about progress being made on several of the areas we discussed. Student-led conferences have happened at two schools, students are producing impressive digital portfolios, and two teachers are preparing to share their insights and experiences with wider audiences at upcoming education conferences.

It’s exciting to see the momentum that begins when teachers are inspired and empowered to innovate. I think this wave is building in size and shape, and Carlsbad teachers are ready to ride!



Time for Reflection: Shifting Moods and Mindsets

An introduction to November’s innovative classroom “look-for,” Time for Reflection.

In a matter of days, the weather has changed from hot, dry Santa Ana conditions threatening fire and beckoning us to the beach, to drizzly and cool with dark clouds. The change of seasons brings with it a shift of mind and mood, as if we can hear an old, familiar melody carried faintly on the breeze. Our thoughts turn to traditions and rituals, holidays and memories. In classrooms, the newness has worn off and our students are now familiar, our classroom routines becoming comfortable. When we hit this stride, we may be lulled into complacency, or we could use this shift as an opportunity to reflect.

The classroom “look-for” this month will be Time for Reflection, so together let’s shake up that complacency a little and talk about how we reflect in our own lives. For me, at this time of year, I tend to look back on my personal relationships and note if I haven’t been in touch with someone enough this year. I make sure they are on my holiday card list, but also, maybe it’s time for that overdue phone call or to meet for lunch. I also look at my charitable donations – only two months left to count those donated dollars towards my taxes! I also look at house repairs – are there any possible roof leaks? Last chance to schedule yard projects or garage sales! Is there anything else left “undone” from this calendar year?

How do you reflect at this time of year? Perhaps the Thanksgiving holiday allows you time to consider what you are grateful for. Maybe the earlier sunsets cause you to get home faster, spend more time with loved ones around the hearth. Or perhaps the impending holidays – and all the associated feasts – make you reassess your gym schedule for the next few weeks!

On the school calendar, just over 25% of the year has gone by. The end is not even nearly in sight, but it is the perfect time to check in, with ample time left to change course if needed. We as teachers, administrators, and staff can practice reflection in our own lives as a way of preparing ourselves to guide students in reflection.  What have we learned so far this year in each of our roles? How are we serving our students, our clients or customers? How do we know?

If I don’t know, maybe I need to find a way to check in. In my role, that can be difficult. I don’t give quizzes or collect Exit Slips. I do send out surveys after every organized professional development event. Even so, I don’t often get a lot of feedback from my clientele. But that doesn’t mean I can’t reflect on how I am doing in reference to my own goals. One goal I have had this year is to be present on school campuses more, available to teachers and interacting with students and staff. I have to admit, I could do better. Lucky for me, it’s only November 1, and there is time.

Expect to hear from me soon about a visit to your campus!

And feel free to reach out to me to invite me on site, and to share the ways that you make time for reflection!Lagoon with bird

What is Innovation?

I think what innovation means to me in the context of education is… really examining approaches that are more effective for our students than current practices and being willing to take the risk to try something new.


December’s focus is on innovation, which I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

It sounds exciting, and it is certainly a popular buzzword these days, showing up in Twitter threads about entertainment, healthcare, business, and yes, overwhelmingly, in posts related to education. If it is such a hot topic, then it is probably important for educators to have a solid understanding of what it means!

Is innovation similar to creativity?  On some levels, yes.  Its definition implies newness, change, and novelty. In that sense, of producing or designing something in a new form, creativity is the sibling of innovation. However, innovation implies not just changing something to make it different but also to make it better.

Innovation shares a prefix with invention, and seems closely related in meaning as well. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and I suspect that innovation works the same way. If something isn’t working the way we want it to, we make a change to improve it.  George Couros uses this definition of innovation:  “…a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new) or “iteration” (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of “new and better,” it is not innovative.” 1  The innovation movement in education is not just based on a desire to be like the technology companies or mimic celebrity fads but on a real need for change.  If we desire to improve the state of education in this country, we become innovators by necessity.

Catlin Tucker proposed in a Tweet on November 30 that, “Being an innovative educator requires pushing against common assumptions about how school is ‘supposed to work.’” 2  That means being willing to scrutinize and question everything we know about how schooling works from years of being students as well as our time as teachers. That’s a lot of un-knowing! It is uncomfortable work to question the way we were taught to learn and taught to teach. But I am pretty sure that innovation doesn’t mean that everything we know and do must change – only what could be better! (And how do we know what isn’t working or could be improved? See my previous posts on Reflection!)

I think what innovation means to me in the context of education is not gratuitous invention for the sake of the shiny, new technique, but really examining approaches that are more effective for our students than current practices and being willing to take the risk to try something new.  It can be as simple as rethinking the role of homework: is it reinforcement of skills already taught, or preparation for concepts yet to be learned? If whichever approach I am using is not yielding my desired results, maybe I should try the other! Notice that I did not mention how the homework is delivered or completed, whether online or on paper, written, recorded, emailed, or hand-delivered. Thinking differently about how about how to do something doesn’t have to mean adopting the latest technology trends.

Whether technology is synonymous with, or inherently a part of, innovation is a question that comes up often. It’s a valid question considering the rapid proliferation of ed tech applications, online learning programs, and devices for classroom and take-home use.  I will definitely explore the role of technology in relation to innovation in upcoming posts, but for now I’ll paraphrase George Couros and say that we should focus less on the tools themselves and more on how various tools can be used for the success of our students. (Couros 20)

In the end, this look-for is about creating opportunities for innovation. So, once we have a pretty good idea of what innovation is, our very important next step is to create an environment and to structure the learning time to allow for and promote innovation – our students’, and our own.


  1. Couros, George. “Innovate Forward.” The Principal of Change, Word Press, 4 Aug. 2017, georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/7604. 
  2. Tucker, Catlin (@CatlinTucker). “Being an innovative educator requires pushing against common assumptions about how school is “supposed to work.” 30 Nov 2017, 7:17 AM. Tweet.

Diving Deeper into Reflection

When we talk about students reflecting on their learning, we are actually describing a partnership between teacher and student, not a solo activity. You see, when we ask students to do an honest self-assessment, it requires the teacher to be open to feedback as well. After all, a teacher’s impact on student learning is huge, so if a student’s self-reflection reveals difficulties or delays in progress, the teacher naturally takes that to heart and reflects on what he or she could do differently.  

As teachers, we are big-hearted people who want our students to succeed and are often willing to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of our youngsters. We buy supplies with our own money, we take grading home and stay late in our classrooms, we even share our lunch or keep snacks on hand for those kiddos we suspect are hungry.

But while compassion and generosity are hallmarks of the profession, vulnerability does not come easily to teachers. We have to be confident and self-assured, considering we have anywhere from 20 to 200 audience members listening to and looking at us every day. Not to mention the co-teachers, aides, and support staff that work closely with us, our principals and district personnel who parade through our classrooms, often touring a group of board members, community leaders, or visitors from other districts. We are on display constantly. And then there are the parents, whose well-intentioned interest in their child’s success sometimes manifests itself as over-concern with a grading policy, a book selection, or the way we spoke to their child about a homework assignment.  We have to believe that we are highly educated professionals who do know what we are doing and generally do a pretty good job, or we would not be able to show up each day.

We have to take down our armour to let in constructive feedback, even from ourselves.

Leadership can create a culture in which taking risks and being vulnerable are made okay by modeling vulnerability themselves. Brene Brown describes this in her book Daring Greatly.

Lowering our guards is hard, but modeling self-awareness for our students is important. George Couros says in The Innovator’s Mindset that taking risks is part of innovative teaching (Couros 51). He goes on to say that educators should “not try to answer [the question of “What is best for kids”] on behalf of our learners, but work from an empathetic viewpoint of our students.” (Couros “The Importance of Taking Risks”).  

In a recent Twitter chat on the topic, Carlsbad teachers shared some strategies and insights from their experience. They shared tools they have created for students to self-monitor their progress on learning programs such as Achieve3000 or self-rating scales from which the teacher determines small groupings for reteaching.

Achieve3000 self score 

Some of our high school language teachers are having students develop their own goals using positive statements to identify outcomes.  Many are using simplified, student-friendly rubrics to involve students in understanding their learning goals and monitoring their own progress. Digital portfolios are emerging as a promising way to have students take ownership of their learning goals and reflect on their progress in a tangible, comprehensive way. Our teachers are getting seriously creative about how to involve students in meaningful self-reflection, and that’s a great first step.

Next, as we ask students to tell us what is working for their learning and what is not, we need to listen to their answers. They may reveal something we need to know. Letting go of ego and taking student feedback to heart to improve our teaching is ultimately going to give our students their best chance for learning. So as we ask students to reflect on their learning, we must complete the circle in partnership with them.  

Time for Reflection in the Classroom

I have been asked several times recently to reflect on how things are going with projects I am involved in. It is nice to be asked, because I don’t necessarily take the time to reflect on my own. I’m too busy! But I was asked by district leadership about our OER (Open Educational Resources) initiative that is underway with English/Language arts teachers, because they want to stay well-informed but can’t be at every meeting or touch base with every team. I was also asked by colleagues from other districts about this OER work because that’s what we do at our county-wide network meetings –  we share ideas and resources and learn from each other, and OER is new to everyone! In both cases, being asked forced me to frame my thinking in a different way. Rather than thinking like a planner or a doer, focusing on the what and how to get things done, I had to think evaluatively, reflecting on the results, the challenges, what changes could be made to improve the process going forward, and recommendations I would give to others about to start a similar project. You could call those the “take-aways,” the lessons that can be applied to future work. And that is meaningful to me, because this OER work is most certainly going to be an ongoing focus, and I need all the “aha” moments I can get as I try to ascend up the learning curve!   

In fact, in the context of the school year calendar, teachers have built-in opportunities to stop and reflect. Carlsbad High teacher Jeff Brandmeyer described it to me this way: “One of the greatest things about teaching is that we are allowed a “re-set” a couple of times a year–at the semester break and at the beginning of the year. How many other professions get to “start over” on a regular basis? I feel as if thoughtful reflection is one of the mini re-sets we can make any time.”

Our students are no different than us adults when it comes to being busy, wanting to focus on getting it done and moving on. I’ll bet you can think of children you know who exemplify this manic urge to finish an assignment or test (hand shoots up, “I’m done!”) as if it was a race. Perhaps we have even known some youngsters in our own homes, so hasty to accomplish a chore and be allowed to play that we end up re-doing their chore for them in order to have it done right. If we don’t build in structures and routines that slow them down and stimulate mindfulness, they are not likely to do it on their own.

Teachers have an opportunity within the context of classroom instruction to make reflection a regular habit, even an embedded part of the culture.

I’ll share a few examples that have been brought to my attention of ways to do this that don’t require great effort or reinventing of the wheel.

Good ole exit tickets can prompt reflection if presented that way. The exit questions can ask students to not just restate their understanding of a concept but also to reflect on what helped them learn it or what they need for better learning. I used to use scraps of paper (#reuserecycle!), but these days teachers can get techie and have students submit their responses on a Padlet wall or via Google forms, or even record a short video of themselves and post to Flipgrid. Inspired by the possibilities of Flipgrid in the classroom, I recently created my first video prompt and asked the teacher teams who are working on OER curriculum to record their reflections on how the work is going. It is good information for us in the District Office so we know how to support them, but I hope it also allowed the teachers to stop a moment and coalesce their thinking around this complex task that we are all navigating for the first time.

I love the universality of this TAG Feedback form that uses sentence starters to help students frame their thinking. It includes structured peer feedback but also self-reflection (see page 2). And the acronym TAG makes it easy for even young students to remember and follow: Tell, Ask, Give. It would not take long for students to become familiar and adept at using this tool on projects throughout the year. The teacher who shared this with me used it successfully with her 8th grade social studies students, but she was inspired by seeing it in her 4th grade daughter’s class! (Thanks, Mrs. Salz, Calavera Hills Middle!)

At Sage Creek High School, seniors complete Genius Projects that they start working on in junior year. Throughout the process, they blog about the experience. “Failing forward” is encouraged, and the students acknowledge the challenges they have along the way as well as their success. They express these reflections in writing throughout the process in the form of blog posts and they are also required to describe them when they present in “Ted Talk” style at the culmination of the project.  I heard one senior from the class of ‘17 describe his efforts to make a guitar using a 3-D printer. In the end, not only was the guitar beautiful to look at, but it sounded just like any quality store-bought guitar. On the surface, his project seemed like an impressive success. But to hear him tell it, he was tempted to quit several times, had to start from scratch and redesign more than once, and almost did not finish the project on time.

Hearing him describe what he learned about himself through this endeavor was the most powerful part for me. I could see a young man who was ready to move from the safety of school to the possibilities of the real world, equipped now with academic knowledge and self-awareness. Someone who would be able to handle a complex project with a steep learning curve and no answer key. Kind of like we do every day in our jobs as adults.

Student Voice through Video

Including student voice in your classroom can be difficult. On one hand, students have so much to say, and their viewpoints can be so refreshing! On the other hand, I can hear the din of thirty-six young voices competing to speak at once and no one being heard as a result!

Classroom management and instructional design are key, then, when determining how to best allow students to have voice. Do they express their ideas during structured class discussions, or individually when the teacher has time for some one-on-one? Do they write their ideas and opinions down, submitting to a “comment box” or on an Exit Ticket? These days, we can use technology to provide students even more avenues to communicate with each other, their teachers, and their parents, through email, online discussion threads, blogs, shared documents, social media, and the like.  Some teachers are using video response platforms to ensure all students have a chance to speak their piece.  Using platforms such as Flipgrid, Padlet, and Recap, teachers can post a rich question and allow students to respond in a short video response, verbalizing their thinking. This makes answering a question an out-of-class activity rather than an in-class, raise-your-hand-and-wait moment. Students can record from the comfort of home or a cozy classroom corner, taking time to think over their answer, and re-record as needed until they are satisfied with their response, taking some of the risk away from having to answer on the spot in class. Student responses can also be saved and shared, creating a communal response and a virtual conversation.

Think about your shy students or those with limited English. We know that ELLs speak only a very small percent of their school day, and only 2% of their day is spent speaking about the focal point of the academic lessons (Zwiers and Crawford, 2011), and yet producing language is critical to developing fluency as well as understanding, for all of our students.  But, if they could take time to think about their answer, rehearse it, and then record it with the chance for retakes, how much more – more often, and at greater length – would we be able to hear from them? And allowing the time it would take to let every student to answer a question during class isn’t always practical, so moving some discussions to a digital forum “flips” the instructional time strategically.

Here’s what third grade teacher Jana Scott @janascott43  in Carlsbad did to engage her students around a “soft skill” she introduced early in the year.

She recorded a video of herself stating the prompt, to explain what it means when they talk about failing forward.


In response, each student recorded him or herself explaining what it means to them. Every student was held accountable for answering, and Mrs. Scott could judge their level of understanding. The collected posts are viewable by everyone in her class, so they can see what their peers think it means, too.


Students can use their own face on the front of their post or choose another image that represents them. (Stickers and emojis are an optional feature that can be turned off at teacher discretion.)

Whether they recorded ad-lib mutterings or well-rehearsed responses, their thoughts summed up their understanding of what their teacher had been trying to impart. They expressed ideas such as, “If you do it again, you might get it right;” and “You learn by trying something, then messing up.”

As a secondary level teacher, I have to say that watching the third graders’ videos was adorable! They haven’t yet learned to be self-consciousness, they are very excited to be on camera, and they are so little! Their video responses were literally the essence of capturing student voice.

Here’s a good blog by Dianne Csoto with even more ideas for how to Amplify Student Voice with Flipgrid.


Student voice and choice

“Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?” (George Couros, The Principal of Change, 3/14/2014)

Makes you stop and think, right?

I’m pretty sure that there were days when the answer was no. I hope that sometimes, often, the answer was yes. If I am honest, I probably would have been very happy in my classroom most days because I designed learning experiences that appealed to my learning style and interests.  Anyone who walked into my classroom could tell that I was a visual learner who liked color, organization, and music. You would also know that I loved books with a borderline nerdiness.

Auditory learners, boys who like sports and not reading, and anyone who needs to move a lot to learn: beware!

“The Innovator’s mindset starts with empathy for our students” (Couros 41). How better to practice empathy than to put ourselves in our students’ place, and to think about how they feel, what they are experiencing, and even what goes on in their minds while they are in our classrooms. We can observe these things and make educated guesses, even reflect on our experiences as learners, but ultimately, we need to ask our students, and listen to their voices.

In his blog The Principal of Change, George Couros suggests five questions that teachers can ask their students at the beginning of the year to start that dialogue:

  1. What are the qualities that you look for in a teacher?
  2. What are you passionate about?
  3. What is the one BIG question that you have for this year?
  4. What are your strengths and how can we utilize them?
  5. What does success at the end of the year look like to you?

Students’ answers to these questions will be revealing, and  can influence a teacher’s plans for the year.  As a teacher, I could launch into the year planning for the status quo, but if students express interest in sports, or strengths in singing and acting, I may be inspired to introduce more kinesthetic, performance-based assessment options. Or if success at the end of the year for some of my students looks like making a friend, I might spend more time crafting a variety of partner activities and helping students practice kindness and cooperation on a regular basis. Being open and responsive to student voices could change my ideas about topics of study, projects and products, strategies for differentiation and classroom climate, and even a my own self-reflection on style and delivery.

About a week ago, I asked my community of teachers what they are doing to incorporate student voice and choice in their classrooms as school starts. Here are some of the great ideas they shared.

  • Create class norms with student input.
  • Allow students to choose from multiple modes of assessment at the end of a unit of study. If the skills can be demonstrated in more than one way (written or verbalized on a video, for instance), and measured according to a consistent set of criteria (a rubric), why not let students have some say in the modality they prefer for showing what they know?
  • Involve students in creating the questions for discussion about a topic or reading. There are some great resources for teachers who want to hand over some of the question creation to students but who hesitate because of quality concerns. 
  • Task students with developing vocabulary lists drawn from the text they are reading, and use those student-curated vocabulary lists for class practice and assessment. This teacher likes vocabulary.com, a free online vocabulary development tool that has adaptive learning games and dictionary resources, allowing the learner to choose the tools they like best while offering self-paced routes to mastery.
  • Allow students to select topics for sustained inquiry projects, sometimes called “Passion Projects’ or “Genius Projects”.  Edutopia has some resources here.

Ultimately, what we want is to create an environment where students drive their own learning with enthusiasm, curiosity, and commitment.  Tapping into their interests and passions is one way to do this, while creating a climate where students feel heard and valued will help them be open to taking risks and ownership of their learning process.  Think about your experiences as a student, or even as an adult in a professional learning environment.  When you have choice in what you learn and how you learn, don’t you walk away with a more positive feeling about the experience and a better grasp of the topics? And if you were encouraged to ask questions, give input, and take part in deciding the direction of the training rather than being a passive recipient, isn’t that the kind of PD you crave? So as we design lesson plans and learning activities for our students, thinking about the classroom experience from your students’ perspective is a powerful way to check in.  And, when we listen to our students, we can learn a lot from them.   We can, as Mr. Couros says in Chapter 2 of The Innovator’s Mindset, “we can create a community that learns from and teaches one another.”