Jeff Utecht


As an educator I know first hand what an art it is to teach, and I know first hand how important and powerful it is to launch learning and to foster a learning community right from the start of the school year or start of a new semester. You don’t need me to tell you that this year is a unique one, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t make space for that reality. Students and educators alike have been through some extremely difficult times, and of course we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. 

Inside our free guide ‘The Art of the Start’ you’ll find seven different sections, each one with ready to roll out resources. These seven sections have been designed based on emails we’ve received from educators like you. Today I want to specifically talk about the seventh section which places an emphasis on the power of play. In her Edutopia article, Sarah LaHayne writes the following about play :

“Play is not only foundational for child development but can also help children process and heal from the impact of living through stress, trauma, or grief, including a global pandemic.”

Sarah LaHayne

I think as adult learners we also need to remember how powerful play can be for us. In an NPR interview, Dr. Stuart Brown, head of a nonprofit called the National Institute for Play. gives us a definition of play:

“Play is something done for its own sake,” he explains. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”

Dr. Stuart Brown

This is why I set my alarm early a few days of the week to do a little yoga. For me, yoga has been a wonderful way to play and stay playful. I might not get every pose exactly right, and I may not always be aspiring to become an expert, and that’s completely ok. As a matter of fact, it is probably because I don’t have a strict goal with my yoga that I’m able to focus on just enjoying it for the sake of enjoying it. They call it the yoga practice…you never really master yoga, you constantly are just practicing. I often say the same thing to educators about teaching. They call it the teaching practice…there is no mastery of teaching. We are constantly practicing, finding that balance between the art of teaching and the science of teaching. If we can get into a mindset that this is all just practice, then we allow ourselves to try new things, push ourselves in new ways, and become better at our practice one day at a time, in that mindset we find joy. 

In the academic week, where are we holding space for enjoyment for enjoyment sake? This might be drop everything and read time, it might be a spontaneous game of tag, a student sharing their photos of their new kitten, or an impromptu chat in the hallway.  We have to care about what our students enjoy about being at school, and we have to nurture those moments. School has always been more than about getting from point A to point B in the curriculum. Tell me about some of your strongest memories of being at school, and I bet those moments will have something to do with how a peer or an educator or a subject helped you connect with yourself or others. It has been my experience that students are best able to connect with others when playfulness is valued. And I’m talking about learners of all ages. 

I work with school leadership teams all the time, and I’ve noticed a correlation: the teams that aren’t afraid to be playful, the teams that laugh together are the very same teams who are more productive and are more collaborative. I did a little digging around to see if my lived experience is mirrored in any research, and I found out that in fact it is. Tracy Bower is a contributing author for Forbes, and here’s what her research tells us: 

“Company cultures that allow for play are better able to tap into the best in their employees, and employees themselves can bring more effectiveness into their work.”

Tracy Bower

The Art of the Start guide has a few of our favorite ways to encourage playfulness with learners. As always, we are curious to hear what has worked for you. 

I want to take some time to talk about a recent free guide we created called Finding Your Metaphor for the Moment. When I provide coaching for school leaders, we often spend a lot of time thinking and discussing metaphors as a communication tool. 

Now I didn’t invent the idea of leaders using metaphors to galvanize teams. There has been a lot written about how this matters and ways to experiment with it. I want to read you a quick quote from one of my favorite pieces from Forbes that explores this idea:

Metaphors and analogies  are exceptionally efficient ways to accelerate insight.  If you see recurring points of friction, think about the best metaphor or analogy for your system and communicate it explicitly. One team used the analogy of a hybrid car to explain how their hybrid structure would work: We’re one car, headed to one destination. We have two engines, a gas engine and an electric one that propels us forward. Both are necessary and equal.  In any given situation, we use the one best suited to the conditions.”

What I love about that example is how simple it is. So, if you were to think about your school’s library system, is it more like a hybrid car or a jet ski? If you reflect on the orientation schedule for your school, is it more like a roller coaster or a bridge? What about the communication system you’ve established with parents and care-takers in years past, would they describe it to be a water fountain or a water park?

When we reframe systems we engage with in a creative way, I think it makes us pay more attention to some of the details we may overlook. In our free guide ‘Finding Your Metaphor For the Moment’ you will find yet another example. The guide walks you through a few pages on how Baseball might be an interesting metaphor for classroom culture (I know me using baseball metaphors is a shock to many of  you, right?). In what ways do students have ‘batting practice’ where they can take swing after swing and devote time to one specific skill at a time? Fellow baseball fans will know the term ‘battery,’ this refers to a really tight knit bond between the catcher and the pitcher. So I would ask myself how my classroom culture is inspiring and providing space for each learner to co-create a new battery. 

The point of this thought experiment is to provide space to envision what we want to do, and how we want to think about our goals. We invited a few educators to share their metaphor for the year ahead. We will hear first from Angeline Aow, who is a pedagogical leader and consultant. Join me in listening what she has to say about the mighty onion:

What a great example–which fruit or vegetable is YOUR curriculum framework most like and why? 

Let’s dig into another example, this time from a Head of Community Relations:

Nancy thank you for demonstrating how our thinking around metaphors can be scaffolded with questions. If I were to go back to my baseball example, and I wanted to use it with a department or a grade level group I might ask them to share a story that was one of our ‘double play moments,’ or to tell me what activity they have in their batting rotation in the cleanup position. 

Let’s turn to one more example, this time courtesy of a Head of School, Kathleen Naglee

Thank you Kathleen for sharing that personal story. Her example reminds me that when we share our metaphor, we have an opportunity to share our stories and that cultivates stronger relationships. 

Ok, ready for our final example? Here we go:

I really appreciate what Dr. Waid says there about radically reimagining our education systems and ways of learning together.

So hopefully they have inspired you to think more about finding a metaphor for the moment, or perhaps for thinking about inviting learners to co-create one for the start of the your next unit.  If you are looking for more resources to help you do that, head over to

Today, I want to explore the power of making collaborative learning transparent.

What do I mean by that? Well for any of you who have ever been partnered with others on a project, think about that experience and reflect on the following questions:

  1. What structures or supports were in place for you to be able to seek out thought partners on your project team?
  2. What frameworks helped you calibrate your working pace?
  3. What prompted others to come and seek out your perspective?

When I talk about making collaborative learning transparent, that’s what I’m talking about: setting up scaffolding that helps all learners network and learn from one another.

The resource from the free guide that correlates with this theme is our KANBAN templates. If you’ve never used the Kanban method before, essentially it is a system that helps a team visualize where each other are at, on a given project. It often has the following columns: “to do”  “in progress”  “testing” “done”

If students were co-authoring a podcast script they might divide and conquer a to do list: some students might be researching online, others might be interviewing other students, others might be writing to the local library as part of the ‘to do.’ When each member of the team has updated their progress, they update the Kanban board so they know where each other is at. What does this do for teams? Well, the first thing that might come to mind is accountability–and yes, this is great for each member to stay accountable to their team’s goals. But in my experience the truly big win by using this system is that it starts conversations during the collaborative process. One of the biggest pitfalls for students working on a team is that we don’t intentionally make time and space for regular check-ins. I’ve made this mistake as a teacher–and the stakes are high, when we don’t help teach the skills and structures of collaboration, students end up seeing collaboration as an obstacle for learning when we want them to see it as a catalyst.

I even have a few teacher parent friends who have adopted this method for their household set of chores. Why? They tell me it creates a better sense of how their kids can jump in and help out when they have extra time, and it also models to them how much is involved in keeping the house clean, the fridge stocked, and the family taken care of. 

For me, when my team uses the Kanban method it also helps us make sure we really think through our priorities first. When you co-author a to-do list, you get the collective wisdom of others. For young learners this is huge. Even for an essay, asking students to all share their ‘to do’ starting place this will look different student to student, and when we invite them to learn from one another’s different starting places, they gain new entry points into that task. I think one of the most overlooked questions we need to remind students to ask each other more regularly is this one: “How do you get started?”

When I was a young learner, whenever I had a research assignment, I didn’t always know how to get started. And you know what? When that first step is cloudy, motivation drops. I had no idea how much time my classmates spent on their research or how they went about doing it. That’s a barrier for learning. The more we can make the learning process transparent, the more welcoming the process becomes.

I use a lot of sports metaphors. Here’s why I think they work for our educational context: athletes are so used to the idea of slowing down their technique. As a baseball player, my hitting coach would have me take hundreds of practice swings–and these were without a pitcher, sometimes with a bat, sometimes without it. My hitting coach wanted me to be able to memorize the motion, and really understand the exact position my elbow needed to be in, to feel the proper pivot on your back foot. We need to give students learning to collaborate more opportunities to slow down and isolate the moves needed inside of collaborative teams. When we do this right, we help lessen the anxiety about working together, we help students build their confidence, and we help build a sense of belonging.

I am excited to talk about one of my favorite shifting schools resources. If you follow us on social media, you may have seen us sharing custom made Jamboard templates. We have a collection of them in our resource library, and we’ve received so much feedback from educators. Why? Well, my guess is because Jamboard leverages collaboration. I think of it as a space to build an archive of ideas. The specific Jamboard template I want to dig into is called ‘Momentum From Mistakes.’ On the template you find four quadrants. Each quadrant is a space for the class or group to reflect on learning they’ve come to by way of a mistake. For example, one quadrant asks students to complete the following sentence: “Now I know to spend less time on (X) and more time on (Y).”

Why would I recommend you consider having a collaborative space to reflect on mistakes? In my experience, when we start a dialogue that reminds us that none of us are perfect, and that all of us can learn from mistakes, we take some of the shame out of mistake making. If you know me well, you know I love geeking out on new technology. Guess what, whenever I am trying a new edtech tool, I get to know it through mistakes. 

Often when someone tells me they don’t have the confidence with edtech, we talk a little more, and I realize–ah! They think those of us with confidence never make mistakes. And I feel it is my responsibility to let them know that I make mistakes with Edtech all the time. And it is because I’ve made hundreds of mistakes that I have a stronger sense of digital literacy. Whenever I think about all the mistakes I’ve made with technology, the memories of being in college and working on my wife’s Windows 3 computer. She used to hate it, cause I’d be geeking out and would have to reinstall the operating system at least once a week…..and of course always right before one of her papers where do…ah those were the days!

For too long there has been too much silence around mistakes in learning. We see someone who appears successful in a given subject area and we make assumptions. Even the phrase ‘natural leader’ is in my mind a misguided notion. In my career I’ve led a number of teams. I’ve even been told I am a natural leader. Guess what? I’m not! I work really hard at it. I look for feedback, I reflect, and I consume a lot of media about leadership. One of my favorite bloggers and thinkers when it comes to leadership is Dorie Clark. In a recent piece here’s how she defines great leadership:

“It’s about leading others consistently and allowing them to learn and make mistakes in a safe environment.”

Dorie Clark ~

That’s exactly why I love our momentum from mistakes jamboard template. It says let’s make room to discuss the different mistakes we are making. It asks us a fundamental question: How do our mistakes in the past and present help us navigate future learning?

When you check out the template in our free guide, you might decide to change the prompts we have—-and I want to always reiterate that our Shifting Schools templates are never meant to be prescriptive–they are always meant to inspire even better ideas. So if you find yourself coming up with other sentence frames, I would love to hear how you have taken our template, remixed it and made it better. You can email me about that via info at shifting schools dot come. 

In closing I want to share two of my favorite quotes from Baseball and consider what they tell us about the significance of mistakes. Ready?

Quote number one is from Babe Ruth who famously said:

“Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”

Quote number two is from Reggie Jackson who said:

“You can’t steal second base and keep one foot on first.”

As an educator how would you take those words of wisdom and apply them to your classroom context?

If you are a big baseball fan like me, you may already know that in 1923 Babe Ruth struck out more than any other player in the league. The more well known fact about Ruth’s career is that he was the first player to ever hit 60 homers in a single season. Is he defined by his mistakes or by his success? 

Reggie Jackson is legendary for many things-and again if you know your baseball history you may know that he was the first to strike out 2,000 times in a career. That’s a lot of swinging and missing. And you know what else Reggie Jackson did in his career? He found himself on the American League All Star list 14 times. He was on the world series winning team FIVE times. 

In fact, watch any baseball game and you’ll see mistakes all over the field. A mistake pitch from a pitcher that ends in a homerun, or a swing and a miss. Why do I love baseball…it’s pretty much the only thing you can be successful 30% of the time and considered an All-Star.

And the mental mindset you need to have to make that many mistakes and continue to be strong mentally is exactly what we want to work on with students. 

Making mistakes, making many, many many mistakes is part of the journey. As I often say in my trainings, failure is everything that happens right before you become successful. We fail our way to success…that’s life. We have to change the narrative about success. Being successful isn’t about being perfect. For both Jackson and Ruth–their experiences of success were most likely linked to being on a team where others encourage them, and where their mistakes were taken as opportunities to learn to get better. And that’s exactly what the fifth resource in our free guide intends to do for students. Let’s be open about making mistakes, let’s learn from them and allow those mistakes to lead us to success.

Today we’re going to focus on a resource we used in several of our trainings last year, we call it the “Let’s Go Fishing For Fresh Questions!” protocol. The resource has a menu of three ways to ‘fish for a question’.


In my experience, this resource is useful for SEL because it reminds students that creating and sharing questions builds community, and also establishes a classroom culture where we see curiosity as an asset AND we rehearse advocating for ourselves and others. One thing I hear from teachers in training that I work with is that many of their students feel like they cannot admit to not knowing something, or not knowing how to use a tool. If students don’t learn in school that it is ok to ask for help, where do we expect them to learn it? 

Here’s a question to ponder: Do your students know it’s ok to ask for help? I haven’t met a teacher yet who wouldn’t say “sure!” to that question. Then I ask, what structures do you put in place so that students know it’s ok to ask for help? If your answer is “well, they just know” or “Well, I tell them they can ask for help.” Then you might consider helping students learn HOW to ask for help. Asking for help is a mindset we must foster in our students. It’s a life skill that goes beyond school to the heart of life itself. 

Jackie Welsh talks about this issue in an article she wrote for where she says:

“Why don’t students ask more questions in school? The short answer is that most students believe it’s their job to answer, not ask, questions.”

And I want to pause here for a moment and invite you to reflect on a question:

Who in your life has done the most to teach you how to formulate great questions?

In education many of us have people we admire, folks we look up to. One thing I am working on is noticing how often and how well others use questioning. I’m passionate about inquiry, it has always been a big part of my practice, and the longer I’ve been in education, the more I have come to value questioning as a craft. 

This is why this resource resonates with me so deeply: it gives students an accessible menu to use in rehearsing the art of building better questions. We talk a big game in schools about wanting our students to be curious about the world around them, and if we really mean it, don’t we need to engage them in strategies that foster curiosity?

Harvard Business Review looks at data that says YES, most employers say they value curiosity, but that there is a big disconnect between how much employees say they feel their curiosity is truly valued by their employer. And I’m wondering, if we asked our students to tell us when and where they think we, their teachers, have valued their curiosity, what would we learn? What would your students tell you?

A small shift that I will be making in my practice is that I am going to be sure that the office hours I hold with teachers learning with me will have a menu of question starters–and I’ll explicitly say ‘this menu is not meant to be prescriptive, but it is meant to help us ask better questions as a community.’ 

When watching my favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, during warm up, it dawned on me that question-construction is a little bit like what you see before the start of a game. You’ll have players help each other with stretches,  players gradually loosening their arms, and of course batting practice. The thing about pre-game warmups is they are collaborative. There is a building of flow a building of energy. If you look closely you’ll see players laughing and smiling. Why? They know that the right mindset matters at game time. So if one of them drops a ball during warm ups, or if they have a terrible pre-game batting practice they support each other.  And I think that same mindset can really help in the classroom. I think baseball is the perfect analogy for exploring question construction (and let’s be honest I can make a baseball analogy fit almost any idea). 

Let’s talk bunting……Bunting is a skill that, in my opinion, gets overlooked by many in today’s game. Bunting the ball isn’t easy, it isn’t glamorous, it isn’t fun to watch, but you know what, it is a critical part of the game of baseball. In fact, the game that I went to was won in the bottom of the 9th because a player was able to bunt a runner from 1st to 2nd, putting him in scoring position. The next batter hit a single, runner from 2nd scores, game over. Of course everyone remembers the person who hit the single to win the game, but the real hero…the teammate who gave himself up, sacrificed himself for the good of his team. 

Sticking with my metaphor, I’m going to start asking students to ‘bunt,’ meaning I will say—you may not have the wow question ready yet, we as a team might need to bunt first, we might need to move our questions, our curiosity up a bit before the big question hits us. We might have to sacrifice what we think we know to be true to make room for something new, something better. What is something we need to ask more questions about before we continue?

I think throwing a few questions around, playing catch with each other’s questions and building on them will build camaraderie and foster the kind of relationships I want my students to have access to. If you have a better analogy or another sport that you think compares to the practice of collectively building questions I would love to hear from you.

As I reflect on this…I think about how Tricia, Chrissy and I work together during a brainstorming session. We start asking questions, we start answering questions, which leads to more questions. All these questions are bunts. Then all of a sudden, and rarely is it me, someone will ask the question we really were trying to get at? That’s the game winner and how do I know…because usually when Tricia or Chrissy asks the question, I get chills, I just go “WOW, and I can literally fill a whole new part of my brain open up. That is what I want for my students, for teachers in my trainings, I want them to experience that moment of “That might be the best question ever!” moment that unlocks a whole new potential of learning. 

Again, you can find our fishing for questions resource in the free guide “Small Significant Shifts for Stronger SEL” if you do use this resource or any other out of the free guide please leave a comment and let us know how it went! 

This week we explore an idea that has meant a lot to me, not only as an educator and a business owner, but as a local resident of Seattle. The resource that pairs with this post is a free editable slide deck series that walks you and your students through the process of drafting a class mission statement.  Inside the free PDF “Small Significant Shifts for SEL” the slide deck, you’ll find a few sample mentor texts of mission statements. We’ve linked the mission statements of Nike, Patagonia, The University of Washington, and the Seattle Seahawks. That’s right, the Seattle Seahawks have a mission statement:

Seahawks organization is guided by overall principles of acceptance and understanding that help us create a culture of respect, equality and inclusiveness both on and off the field. It is our goal to use these core principles and our commitment to passion, character and excellence to empower change within our community. We, as an organization and as individuals, represent and respect a wide range of human differences, personal experiences and cultural backgrounds.

Pretty powerful stuff, right? It is short and sweet, but also moving and clearly they get it–football is more than a game.

So let’s have a short little thought experiment with that mission statement. I want you to think of ONE, just ONE student from your past year, and try to see the following experiment through their perspective. I’m going to take that mission statement and turn it into a fill in the blank activity, and ask YOU to fill in the blanks answering from the lens of the student you selected. 

Ready? Here we go:

  1. It is the goal of our classroom to commit to the following three things:
    A)    B)   C)
  2. We as a classroom will respect the following three things
    A)  B)   C)

How hard or how easy did the answers come to you? Was it challenging to answer from the lens of a student? 

You might already be excited about the idea of your students taking a mission statement mentor text and making it their own. I know I’ve really enjoyed that activity with learners. And if you have participated in any of the workshops with Shifting Schools, you’ve already heard me preach the benefits of scaffolding an activity like this. This is why inside the free slide deck, you’ll also find a few ways to do some pre-thinking. For me, my favorite pre-thinking activity is to ask students to think about the THREE verbs that really tell the story of what our learning community is like. To get to those three verbs, our resource recommends giving space and time for student to think about these three questions:

1) Last week, which word best described our learning:
a) navigating b) collecting c) exploring d) other

2) When you feel most connected to your classmates, which action are you engaging with:
a) demonstrating b) playing c) pioneering d) other

3) Pick one: Success in our class asks us to regularly…

  1. A) act 
  2. B) reflect 
  3. C) practice 
  4. D) inquire

Now while this activity is great for students, the process of them collaboratively working towards a collective mission statement is a great way to bolster student ownership and foster community, but secretly there is another huge benefit to doing this activity: as a teacher it really helps you notice and get curious about how students are experiencing learning in your classroom.

In her book, Teaching to Transgress, Bell Hooks writes:

“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”

An activity like this one invites students to see how one another are experiencing learning, and to envision what they want it to be. Social Emotional Learning needs us to make space for conversations like this one. This is a wonderful way to have students not only get curious about each other’s experience, but also about their own. We know that self-awareness is a huge part of developing our social skills. In looking for ways to build it into our practice we rehearse it. So what I see is not just an opportunity in the rough-draft process of developing a mission statement just for my class–but I see an ongoing opportunity for each student to return to it later on. At the end of the day or end of the week I might create an exit ticket that invites the students to tell me how connected they felt to our mission statement at that point in time. 

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As an example of what that might look like, let me read you another mission statement, this one belongs to the toy you never want to step on: Lego

Their mission statement reads:

‘We want to Inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow’ Our ultimate purpose is to inspire and develop children to think creatively, reason systematically and release their potential to shape their own future – experiencing the endless human possibility.”

So let’s say that was the mission statement my students came up with. My exit ticket might be as simple as this: On a scale of 1-5 how inspired were you this week? What could we do more or less of to help you feel more inspired? What might help you better understand what is inspiring your peers this week?

Now here is the crucial thing, if I am collecting exit tickets that tap into SEL, in order for my students to know I value it, I have to show I’m thinking about what they share. So every once in a while, I’ll speak to what their exit tickets are telling me, and I’ll let them know what changes I’m trying to make. It’s a two way street. If we go through the hard work of making our own mission statement, that mission statement needs to work for us, and we need to work at it. 

Inside the free guide “Small Significant Shifts for SEL” you’ll find the slide deck that you can customize for your learners. The mission statement mentor texts in the example are local and personal for me, a Washington State resident. While they will work for you anywhere, it could be great to pick mentor texts that work for your location, and amplify small businesses in the neighborhood. You might even invite a small business owner to speak to your students about their process of drafting their mission statement.

By going to local businesses, you can ask students to have a conversation about how tangible their values are as a customer. For example, I live not too far from Pike Place Market, and they say that they are:

“… guided by the following values: collaboration, inclusion, respect, optimism and gratitude.”

The next time I head to the Market, I’m going to be on the lookout–where do I see collaboration in motion? Where’s the respect? How inclusive is the market? Does it make me feel optimistic, and does it make me want to express gratitude?

Before you take your students through this experience maybe you too need a mission statement. What if you had a mission statement and you shared it with your students? What if you were in it together? Trying each day to live up to your own mission statement as you support students in doing the same. 

{“type”:”block”,”srcClientIds”:[“879c712c-42b3-4acb-bccf-c0082bc10674″],”srcRootClientId”:””}I love hearing and reading other educators’ mission statements. Here’s Steve Murphy’s mission statement, a HS Social Studies Teacher:

Mission:  Developing globally aware, empathic citizens with a passion for service learning and service leadership to positively impact the world around them.

Of course you can watch Steve’s free webinars in our webinar section under Resources on our website and see if he’s living up to his mission statement.

Or what about Tyler Rablin’s mission statement. Tyler is a HS ELA teacher, creator of our Making Assessment Meaningful Course and has two free Webinars as well for you to watch. His mission statement reads:  

Mission: Creating passionate, well-rounded people who are excited about learning and empowered to make a difference in their own lives, their communities, and the world.

Mission statements aren’t just for companies or classrooms….we all have a mission statement just very few of us put it down for the world and others to see. Maybe it’s time to share your mission statement about what it means to be an educator with your students. 

My mission statement you ask:

Mission: To support schools and organizations in preparing students for their future not our past.

Something you may notice is how each activity is somehow connected to the practice of noticing and wondering. Christina Cipriano, the director of research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence said this about the essence of SEL:

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about teaching people how to be better citizens and more positive contributors to their society.” (courtesy of

In my experience, if we want students to want to make positive contributions to their community, we need to get them curious about that environment, and we need to create opportunities for them to see it and think about it differently. That’s what this week’s resource is all about: asking questions about our purposes for being together, learning together, and wondering how we can best leverage our shared experience as learners. 

If this resource inspires you to rethink your mission statement as an educator, or if you already have one, we’d love to hear about in the comments below.

I know that many of you work with families/students who come from poverty. One thing we need to remind teachers is that what we’re really fighting is not “kids not wanting to do the work” but a mindset that is not easy to overcome when it’s being reinforced at home…and now…we do not get to take students away from that and work on a Growth Mindset. A book that changed my teaching practice forever was A Framework for Understanding Poverty – A Cognitive Approach. This book focuses on the mindset of those in poverty and how that mindset affects why they feel that “life is done to them”. That they feel they have no control or cannot control their lives. Therefore, in moments like this when life literally is being controlled by others, they are in a “see told you so” mindset. Then schools tell them they have to do this assignment and that assignment and now school is being done to them without their control. When humans feel like they do not have control over decisions in their life they react in one of two ways. They either fight to get control back or shut down. Those coming from poverty often choose to shut down. No homework, no learning, not trying. Why try when you can’t control it and you can’t control the outcome, so why even try. So what do we hear as teachers “I don’t care, I’m gonna fail anyway”. 

When we give students ownership over their learning, especially the path (choice) of what they learn we give them power. We say “Hey, you get to choose something in your life, even if it’s between these 3 options”. Kids respond, families respond and they start to feel like they have control over something….even if that something is just school work. When we give choice in a crisis situation like we are in now we are not only supporting students but we’re supporting families in giving them back something they can control…in this case..what assignment I can help my child with. 

For those educators who didn’t understand this before this crisis, this is going to be an uphill battle. I did not come from poverty and I struggled to understand this mindset as it was not one I was raised with. I’m lucky that I’m married to an amazing school counselor who constantly made me focus on this fact, made me read that book and it forever changed the way I approach and understand that, it’s not that they don’t’ want to do the work. They don’t know HOW to think about doing the work. Someday ask me to tell you my apple story over a beer-it was when I finally got it.

If nothing else, my hope is that we can help educators see that by giving students ownership over the path of their learning we are supporting all students but especially those that come from poverty and homes that do not have the mindset that is needed to “do school.”

It’s been a crazy March, to say the least. Here in the state of Washington schools have been closed since March 17th and will not reopen until April 27th at the earliest. 

Our state education officials have required public schools to provide an educational experience for students. 

Now, most schools in the state were already doing this or making plans to do this. However, there were a few who were not making plans to provide any educational experience for students, citing equity issues as the justification.

Equity is a lens we must always consider, however, if you have inequities in a virtual school setting, I have news for you, they already exist in your face to face system as well!  

Jeff Utecht

If anything having to move to virtual school might be shining a light on the inequity that always existed within your school system. It has brought these inequities to the forefront, but that should not be an excuse to not do something. 

Not doing anything is far worse than trying to do something!

Jeff Utecht

This is why for years when working with school districts who were going 1:1, I would make sure we promoted that going 1:1 is an equity issue! In 2020, learning must include knowing how to learn on a device. For those school leaders (board members I’m talking to you) who were not willing to look at technology as an equability issue before this happened, hopefully, they are reflecting on this now.

With that in mind, I wanted to share with you some more thoughts on this current crisis we’re in and HOW we need to think and rethink as educators about what it means to teach in this current crisis. 

Let’s start with what we know students and families are going to need in this crisis. 

Created and shared by @jaydostal

This graphic created by @jaydostal can be used to rethink how we teach in a virtual setting.

Let’s start with what we know does not work: 

PACKETS OF WORKSHEETS: Packets of worksheets do not work for anyone. Whether you have a device or do not have a device, packets of worksheets do nothing educationally for anyone. Years of research on what equates to good teaching and learning show us that packets of worksheets are ineffective, time-consuming, and inauthentic ways to encourage learning.

STICKING WITH YOUR CURRICULUM: No curriculum was ever created for a pandemic. To think you can just keep going in your curriculum is not going to work. Besides, all testing has been canceled for the year. So the curriculum that was based on helping students pass the test is no longer relevant. 

Think about this teachers:

You have been unleashed from your curriculum that you found to be too rigid and state tests that you felt put too much pressure on you and your students. You have been unleashed to rethink what education can look like in this crisis. On some level, I hope that excites you. 

Jeff Utecht

STICKING WITH YOUR TIME TABLE: Sticking with your time table is not going to work. You are no longer teaching 6 periods a day. You’re teaching 120 students all at once. If you refer back to the graphic above you’ll notice in times like these, school is not, nor should it be, our top priority. Notice it says school and not learning. Learning can still be a priority but will only be if it does not feel like school, look like school, and students have all their other needs met. As many of us keep reminding you, students and families coming to terms with their ‘new normal’ can take up to three weeks or more.

We need to make the education we always wanted for our students a reality. It’s time to rethink teaching and learning if for no other reason than we must for our students. 

So here are some things we know are working that are coming out of virtual gatherings I’m hosting with educators who are in the trenches (listen to this SOSpodcast to hear even more):

I want to highlight one teacher’s journey who I feel is doing things the right way. Shannon Cunningham is a 4th-grade teacher in Enumclaw, WA who is sharing her virtual teaching/learning experience on the web for others to see.

REACH OUT TO YOUR STUDENTS AND FAMILIES: Make a video like Shannon did that allows you to connect with your students and families. Not only did Shannon make a video, but she also called each of her students and families to check-in. Every teacher has access to parent phone numbers and if you know there are families that do not have technology, a phone call might be what they need. A phone call! How simple is that? You have the information already you just need to pick up the phone and call. Doing this not only helps with the psychological and safety needs of a family (referring to the image above) but it allows the teacher to ask about the learning environment. Do they have the Internet at home, if not what do they have? Is there a smartphone in the house with a camera? What do parents need from you in the support of their child in this critical time? You want an equity lens? Reach out and ask parents how can you support them. It doesn’t need to be a phone call. Email works too! You have the information, now it’s time to use it. 

CREATE A STRUCTURE: We know learning routines are essential, so you need to set up a structure for your virtual learning. Shannon gives out all her directions on Monday for the week so that students and parents can set their schedules for the week knowing what needs to be done. She is using Google Classroom for this but has also set up a Google Site as well that you can find here. By giving a weekly outline at a time she gives students and families choice over time and place of the learning. 

TEACH AS IF THE WORLD WAS YOUR CURRICULUM: This is the most important part and by far the most difficult part. You have to rethink teaching and learning through a worldly lens. Instead of worksheets, we need to think in terms of real-world applications to the standard and then find ways to make that the learning. In Shannon’s class, she created a “Build a Fort” project where students get to build forts at their home, they then measured the perimeter of the fort, sketch a drawing of the fort, take pictures of their fort, write directions about how to make their fort so someone else could build it, and then research forts in the state of Washington. Of course, this project is going to take multiple days to complete. Shannon is thinking of ways she can cover things she never could before. There is no way in a traditional classroom she could have students create authentic forts in their homes that cover all aspects of their curriculum. But when you think about all the resources that can be found in a home you unlock new potential for learning. What are fun things you did as a kid and what was the learning involved in them? Ask yourself that question, and you start to use the world as your curriculum. You start to rethink teaching and learning in authentic purposeful ways. 

Our goal is to make learning authentic, purposeful and equitable. All things, I would argue, can not be found in a packet of worksheets for students to do. If you want to give students a packet, give them a packet of choice boards that cover your standards. Tyler Rablin a High School English Teacher shared his: 

In the end, we must rethink what teaching and learning can be. We must understand we’ve been unleashed from the daily grind and have an opportunity to rethink teaching and learning. We must continue to ask ourselves “What if the world was my curriculum?” 

NCCE 2020 here in Seattle has just wrapped up. NCCE (Northwest Council For Computer Education) being our regional ISTE sponsored conference with somewhere around 1500 participants coming together each year to share and learn. Being in Seattle and with the COVID-19 spreading throughout my state, Virtual School was a hot topic. 

One of the sessions I ran was titled “Tech Coaches Unite”. This session brought roughly 50 tech coaches together to share and learn from each other I asked how many of them were involved in Virtual School talks at the moment due to COVID-19. Roughly 20 districts raised their hands. 

I have had experience with “Going Virtual School” three times in my career and every time it was similar and yet different due to the technology we had. 

2003 – In Saudi Arabia due to terrorism in the country, I helped my school set up and run Moodle to do Virtual School. 

2005 – In Shanghai I helped to set up, run and train teachers to go Virtual School-though we didn’t end up closing due to SARS.

2009 – In Bangkok, I helped to train, facilitate and oversee Virtual School due to flooding and H1N1 in Bangkok we used WordPress blogs as teacher websites. 

2011 – I worked with Senators and the State Department in Washington DC to help fund a global Virtual School installment for International Schools to use in case of an emergency. 

Each one of these experiences was drastically different due to the technology that was available at the time. For example, the iPhone was only 3 years old and smartphones were just taking off in 2010.

So here are some lessons I’ve learned as well as recommendations I am currently giving schools when they ask me for advice on preparing for Virtual School in an emergency. 

Lessons Learned:

1. You can’t just flip the Virtual School switch. If you did not require that every teacher in the district must use the adopted LMS (Learning Management System a.k.a Classroom, Canvas, Schoology, etc) before now, you’re too late. In most cases, you will not have time to train both staff and students on how the LMS will work or does work before you find yourself in Virtual School. On the other hand, if teachers using an LMS is required in your district and they have been using it and training students on how to use it since the beginning of the school year-congratulations…’re gonna rock this!

2. Digital Worksheets uploaded to your LMS for students to do at home are 

  • Boring
  • Frustrating for parents 
  • Frustrating for students 
  • In general, are not good teaching practice
  • Not truly taking advantage of the opportunity you have in front of you

3 . In the two times that I was in Virtual School, we learned that teachers often gave way too much work for students to do at home. Most educators are not trained in online learning, which is different than traditional or even a blended learning format that most teachers find themselves in today. In a fully online learning environment, you must rethink the time you allow students to complete tasks. This was our #1 take away from Virtual School in 2010 in Bangkok. Both parents and students felt they were doing way more “busy work” (see #2 above) and were frustrated….especially at the Middle and High School level. 

4. Every assignment must be rethought. You can’t just take what you were going to do on Monday and do it anyway by just putting it in Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology or whatever LMS you use. 

5. Last but not least…. seize the moment! Both in Shanghai and in Bangkok we turned a negative into a positive by being able to-shall I say-’require’ teachers to “up their technology skills/usage” for Virtual School. Once Virtual School was over, those skills remained and we saw an increase in the use of those skills back in the traditional blended-learning classroom after Virtual School had ended. 

My Recommendations for Virtual School in 2020 if you did not require every teacher to be using the school adopted LMS.

Video, Video, Video we need to stop thinking in terms of “what can students type” and start thinking in terms of “how can students show me what they know”

Start by training every teacher how to make videos for instruction. Use Screencastify, Screen-o-matic or Flipgrid. I don’t care, just pick the one that best fits your system and train every teacher on how to make good instructional videos. What does a good instructional video look like? Here’s research out of Vanderbilt University on what should and should not be in your video. 

  • No longer than 6 minutes max! (3-5 is perfect)
  • Make it casual, make it you, you’re kids like you, they want to see you, they want to feel like they are in class so be you!

K-2 teachers – All you need is Flipgrid

If I was in a school today and we found ourselves quickly going into Virtual School mode I would make sure every K-2….well, every teacher really…but especially K-2 teachers had a Flipgrid account setup, and that parents had the app downloaded on their phone. During Virtual School teachers could pose questions to students via Flipgrid and students could do some investigation and post video responses back to the teacher. Teachers could read to students and ask comprehension questions. Teachers could pose a math question and students could film themselves solving the math problem with homemade manipulative in their house. Honestly, this one app is all you need. For more ideas check out #flipgridfever on twitter where teachers are constantly sharing ways they are using this incredible app. (If you use Seasaw that will work too!)

3-5 Teachers – One subject a day

Have students focus on just one subject a day in Virtual School. 

For example: 

  • Monday is Reading/Writing 
  • Tuesday is Math
  • Wednesday is Science
  • Thursday is Social Studies
  • Friday Specials/20% time

By having students focus on one subject a day you can support both student learning and parents trying to support their students at home. Again, video instruction will be key and whenever possible set-up lessons that allow students to submit video for their assignment. If I was in a 3-5 classroom, I would only set-up one written question-response sort of activity a week that was focused on learning, it would be my writing activity on Monday where I would ask some sort of prompt and expect students to respond to it and to each other. One a week…that’s it….everything else would be video. 

Middle and High School: 

During Virtual School we need to remember that we’re in this situation because something else is going on in our lives. Please DO NOT expect students to do the same amount of work they would have done if you would have had them face to face with you in the same amount of time….it just won’t happen. You’ll be frustrated, students will be frustrated, parents will be frustrated and then you’ve lost them. 

Remember learning, even in Virtual School is about relationships. So check in with your students. Ask them how they are doing, what they might need from you for support. Make sure there is space for everyone to talk about how they are feeling and what is going on in their lives. 

Work together with teachers from other departments not to overwhelm students with work. Again, uploading PDF worksheets for students to do is not what Virtual School is about! Powerful learning can still happen if you take advantage of the technology we have available today. 

I would recommend that each subject only assign things two days a week and make those days back to back so students can focus. So a schedule might look like this. 

  • Monday: ELA and Science
  • Tuesday: ELA and Science
  • Wednesday: Math and Social Studies
  • Thursday: Math and Social Studies
  • Friday/Weekend: Elective, Elective, PE

By making the days back to back you allow for longer larger projects. This gives students space and time to finish projects and allows them to chunk their learning into sizable, manageable pieces. It will also give teachers time to prepare lessons they are not used to preparing and time to assess any work that needs grading. 

Again, video is the key! Teachers making 3-5 minute instructional videos for students, and also requiring students to periodically respond in video would be taking full advantage of the technology we have in 2020 and is best practice today! If appropriate, using Google Hangouts, Skype or Zoom video conferencing for real-time interaction would be a huge bonus. Do not make it required, but an optional “Hangout” time with your friends and your teacher would help to make it feel as if school is still really happening. 

Lastly, keep it simple, don’t overthink it-and have fun with your students! Learning can and still will occur. It won’t be perfect, but your classroom is rarely perfect in person, so take advantage of this time with your students. Remember too, that if you are in a Virtual School situation, something serious is going on and kids will be struggling to make sense of things. Be respectful of that, be respectful of families, their time together and their individual circumstances. Just like in the classroom, one size doesn’t fit all.

Good Luck…and let me know if I can be of help or support.

Image: tommypjr

Over the past few weeks, I have had a couple of conversations with teachers and people in the business world that I just want to share with you and let you all tell me what you think about this idea. 

There was…and still is…a push that when we go 1:1 in the classroom that this also means moving towards a paperless classroom…where everything is digital, done on a device and we cut paper out completely. From an environmental standpoint I totally get it. From a learning standpoint, I’m not so sure it’s the right move. 

When we talk about a Blended Learning environment we’re talking about using the best physical stuff has to offer and the best that digital has to offer. It’s not about all of one or the other, but the blending of the physical world and the digital world. Knowing what, when and how to use all the tools at your disposal to create and learn from in the best the future has to offer. 

Here’s what I haven’t found….I have not found one company that has gone paperless. Maybe there is one out there…I’m willing to say I haven’t checked with every company. But I have friends who work in tech and non-tech companies here in Seattle and other cities and not one of them lives in a paperless work environment. In fact, I have had people high up at both Amazon and Target tell me they print off the paper for meetings because people on their devices are A) distracting to others and B) distracting to the one’s self. By printing off the report or research they are working on, they do not have backs of screens between each of them and…get this….paper is easier to read. 

It also reminds me of a story an 8th grade teacher told me a few years ago. She handed out a physical copy of the book the class was going to read and they thanked her. It shocked her that students wanted to touch, feel, and read a real book. 

One of the things that makes me sad to see is when I walk into classrooms and students are reading a book, a report, or any other printed material that has been turned into a PDF for their screen. PDFs as a file type do not allow you to take advantage of an online dictionary and thesauruses. In most cases, they can’t be read out loud to the student. There is very little if any functionality you gained by taking something that was already on paper and turning into something that can be read on a screen that does not take advantage of the technology we have today to enhance the reading experience. 

On the other side, everyone I know, have met or have talked to about this lives in a blended world. I take notes sometimes on my phone, sometimes on my computer, sometimes in my notebook. It depends where I am and what tools I have with me. I have a notebook I use to write down all the notes from each episode of these podcasts. I have another notebook I carry with me and write down all the notes during a meeting with school leaders before I come in for a day of training. 

I start all my presentations on paper. I have a whole notebook full of my presentations before they ever make it to a slide deck. Just like Pixar storyboards out…on paper…ever movie before it’s created. 

Paper and physical things in our classroom still have a place. I want to expose students to all of it. Going 1:1 shouldn’t limit the ways of creation in our classroom, they should enhance it. They should give students more options not fewer ones that are only digital. 

If a student wants to take notes on paper they should have that option, if they want to take notes on a computer, they should have that option. What I want to make sure we do is expose students to all the ways you can take notes so they know how to choose the right tool for them for the right moment. 

In the same way, I want to expose students to different ways of writing today. You can write on paper, you can write on your computer, or you can talk to your computer and it will write for you. Each one of these ways of writing has its advantages and disadvantages and that should be what our classrooms are about. Exposing students to all these different tools different ways to write, to read, to learn. I want students to be exposed to it all so they can choose for themselves as they move through school when is it best to use paper and when is it best to use a computer. 

You can be a paperless classroom or a blended learning classroom but you can’t be both.