Skip to main content

Failing Forward

acceptance email header

Wait, what? Yes, that’s right. I was accepted to the #TOR16 cohort of the Google for Education Innovation Academy. This is a huge deal, and even though it’s been nearly a week since I found out, I still feel kind of like this.

I wanted to share my story because much of the time, our students, especially the younger ones, believe that adults are successful in everything they do. They don’t realize the amount of effort that underlies success. That needs to change if we want them to learn to persevere and follow their dreams. It’s pretty tough to follow a dream without ever making a misstep, and we don’t want them to give up at the first complication that arises. When we fail, we need to learn from it and share what we learned. Fail forward and iterate, right? So here goes.

I first heard about the Innovator Academy (then Google Teacher Academy) a few years ago, and thought it sounded interesting. I applied to go to #GTAATL in 2014 and was rejected. They were probably right not to accept me, although I wasn’t happy about it at the time and didn’t really understand why. You didn’t have to submit a vision, but you did have to do a video that focused on how you were innovating. In hindsight, I can see that while my video was fun and creative, it didn’t really show anything specific about what I was doing or how I was doing it. It was too generalized.

I was hoping to reapply again soon, but I wasn’t able to go to Austin, TX, and the opportunity didn’t arise again for over a year. The next Academy was in Mountain View in early 2016. As soon as the program was announced, I went to work on my application. This time you had to have a vision. Mine was a podcast for teachers who needed help doing innovative things in their classrooms. I thought it was a good idea, my video and vision deck were good, the answers in my application weren’t bad, but I wasn’t chosen. Maybe they felt a podcast wasn’t innovative enough. Maybe they didn’t like my responses to the short answer questions. I don’t know.

I decided to implement my idea anyway, and began a podcast with my friend, Lisa Nowakowski, who is a Google Certified Innovator. We called it Tech. Learn. Coffee. (a play on our Twitter handles) or (our supercool domain name) for short. We weren’t getting a lot of questions about how to do things, so we decided to start having guests on. We invited teachers who were doing innovative things in their classrooms but weren’t well known and whose work wasn’t being shared. It was great, and we saw a lot of room to expand.

In the meantime, the application period opened for the #COL16 cohort. I was nominated by a friend and decided to apply. I changed my vision, thinking that they hadn’t liked the first one, and made it be a website to connect teachers who were doing innovative work but weren’t sharing on social media. Again, I thought I did a decent job, but I wasn’t accepted. I was okay with it, and thought I probably wouldn’t apply again. After all, I had done a lot of work 3 different times and hadn’t gotten in.

Then I was nominated again, by a friend who is a Google Certified Innovator and a person I really, truly respect. I couldn’t let her down. I had to try again.

The Innovator Program conducted a Google Hangout for people interested in applying and I connected with someone from the #COL16 cohort through the back channel. She reviewed the short answers from the May (rejected) application and said that what I had was not bad but I needed to give much more specific answers and examples.

So I went back to the drawing board. I decided to return to my podcast vision, since it was really what I was most passionate about. Lisa and I had been doing it for a few months, and we both felt that there was a lot of room to grow. I wrote and rewrote and edited and refined my short answers (500 characters = 3.57 tweets; not a lot of space to work with) until I felt that they communicated exactly what I wanted and needed them to say. I redid the vision deck from my January application and made it much more focused. I created a new video: a trailer for the podcast including clips from some of the episodes. I submitted it, and crossed my fingers.

A week later, on September 6, I began refreshing my email every 5 minutes. I checked the #googleei hashtag on Twitter incessantly. Lots of great memes about waiting for a response, but nothing else. Until 5:05 p.m., when I got the email pictured above.

I am so excited to be heading to Toronto. Our cohort is already connecting and sharing, and I know we will do great things together. I’ll keep you posted.

P.S. If you are interested, here is the link to the playlist of all 4 of my application videos.

CUE 2015 Conference logo

CUE marks the spot

CUE 2015 Conference logo

I have decided that, rather than follow my usual modis operandi [i.e. make myself crazy] and attempt to complete all the #youredustory prompts that I have missed, I am going to try something new. I am going to follow Elsa’s advice and Let It Go. I am getting back into the challenge starting with week 18, even though this is week 19, because it is an integral part of who I am as an educator. The prompt: What is your favorite education conference you’ve attended? Why should others attend?

I have been to many conferences (and unconferences) over the past few years. Some were larger, some were smaller, and all but one (which shall remain nameless) yielded valuable new knowledge, ideas, and connections, yet I have to say that the annual CUE conference in Palm Springs is my favorite. It has a special place in my heart because it was at the 2013 conference that my journey as a connected educator began. It opened my eyes to what was possible in the world of education. You can read more about that in this post.

Why should others attend the Annual CUE Conference? Because it is a wild and crazy ride, but if you are open to new experiences and willing to put yourself out there, you will learn a lot and have a great time doing it.

Before they fade completely from memory, here are some thoughts on the 2015 event.

The passion infection: #youredustory, week 10

Prompt: How do you infect students with a passion for learning?

Interesting prompt, this. The first thing that jumped out at me was the verb, “infect.” My computer’s dictionary defines it as follows:

infect |inˈfekt| verb [ with obj. ]

affect (a person, organism, cell, etc.) with a disease-causing organism: there is no evidence that the virus can infect humans.

• contaminate (air, water, etc.) with harmful organisms.

Computing affect with a virus.

• (of a negative feeling or idea) take hold of or be communicated to (someone): the panic in his voice infected her.

I don’t think I really want to infect my students with anything, but I have to say that while I may disagree with the choice of vocabulary, the prompt poses a valid question. I will rephrase it as How do you inspire a passion for learning in your students?

Here’s the issue. Most students are passionate about learning, but their passions might not match ours. They might be passionate when it comes to music or race cars or deliciously buttery French pastry, when we want them to care about Shakespeare or systems of government or calculus. To help them embrace what we are teaching, we need to make it relevant to them, their lives, and their interests. It is best if we can provide choice in how they acquire and ultimately express their learning so that we can tap into the passions they already have, growing and expanding them to include those subjects about which we are passionate.

In addition, I try to model my own passion for learning. As a media specialist, I love that my job consistently requires me to learn new things. My content, tools, and practices are in a continual state of flux as new technologies emerge to replace old ones and create new possibilities for teachers and students. I make sure my students understand that I am a learner just like they are. If they ask a question I can’t answer, we research it together. If a student can give me the answer, even better. It is empowering to kids when an adult is candid enough to admit that a student knows something she doesn’t. It lets them know that it is okay not to know everything as long as you are willing to learn. As a bonus, it also helps create a stronger teacher-student relationship.

(Still behind in the #youredustory posts, but working hard at catching up)

New floorplan

The importance of space

I’m a bit behind on the #youredustory challenge; I should be on week 10, but I am only on week 9. I hope to catch back up again soon.

The way we organize our space influences the way our students learn. For example, are all the desks in rows? That may have been appropriate before, but I don’t think it is the best plan for today’s students, who are expected to work together to build their own learning. When desks are in rows, learners cannot collaborate easily unless they are working in pairs and, even then, it is not a simple task.

What does an ideal learning space looks like? It depends on who is using it. It has to be designed by the learners to meet their needs, and it needs to be flexible. It should be able to change quickly and easily as the needs of the learners change. It might stay the same for a few days, but it might need to change after only a few hours.

As a technology teacher, I am and always have been in a room full of computers. I have been at my current school for three years, and for the first two years the room was set up something like the image below. (I have blocked the exact details out of my memory, but I recreated it for you the best I could using Google Drawing.) All the students faced a wall or the backs of other students who were facing a wall. I have added arrows to show the direction. It didn’t feel collaborative. It didn’t feel inspiring. It wasn’t an exciting place to come into. I know there is open space in the middle, but it wasn’t as big as it appears in my design, and it was never used for collaboration. The set up of the rest of the room just didn’t lend itself to students working together. That doesn’t mean the children didn’t learn much or weren’t engaged and working hard when they came in; they were. It means that most of the work they did was done individually without assistance or input from other students.


Old floorplan


I wanted to move the furniture, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it since all the computers had to be plugged into the wall and I didn’t want to have cords running across the floor where students would trip. Then I visited another school in my district where they had solved the problem (yet another reason why it is good to connect with other teachers!). I got rid of the teacher desk and spent a couple of days unplugging computers, dragging massively heavy tables around, and plugging everything in again. Afterwards, my room looked more like this.


New floorplan


The learners are now in pods, and all the computers face the center of the pod. The children are more relaxed and ready to learn than they were before, and they are helping each other much more often. Everyone is near at least three other children they can talk to when they need assistance. The open space and the tables are getting use, too, when the students need more room to collaborate and plan.

If I could magically change things, I would transform all my desktop computers into laptops and tablets, some of the chairs into beanbag chairs, barstools, and sofas (leather or vinyl to prevent the spread of lice), and some of the tables into standing tables. I would have whiteboards and cork boards all around the room, and lots of rugs on the floors. At this point, the learners could define their ideal space, moving and changing the set up of the room to fit their needs at the moment. On some occasions, the ideal space might even be created by opening the door and going outside. I don’t know when or if it will happen, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

3 children playing school

For the love of lightbulbs

This week, the prompt for #youredustory is “What was the defining moment you decided to be a teacher?”

Honestly, I think I was born that way. It just took me a long time to figure it out.

3 children playing school
Playing School, 1940 by Harold Reed via Flickr

I remember being in fourth grade when a new girl came into our class. Her name was Karin and she didn’t speak much English. We didn’t have any ELD classes back then (or, if we did, I wasn’t aware of them). Anyway, I was a very good reader and writer, as well as an early finisher, so the teacher asked me to help Karin with her English. We had a few simple books and we would go sit in the cloakroom together. She would read aloud and I would help her when she didn’t know how to pronounce a word or what it meant. Her joy and excitement as her understanding and mastery of English grew was contagious. I was hooked.

As I went through junior high, high school, and even college, I continued helping my classmates when they were struggling. I loved witnessing those “lightbulb moments” when a concept suddenly became clear, but I never really thought about being a teacher. Then I went to Italy on a study abroad program and when my year was up, in a fit of impulsivity, I decided to move there. The only job I could get was in a small private language school, teaching English to businesspeople and high school students. It was wonderful.

When I came back to the U.S., I got married and became a stay-at-home mom. Yes, I was my daughters’ first teacher, but I missed having my own class. When my girls started school, I volunteered in their classrooms so much I am sure their teachers were sick of me, even though they were gracious enough not to say so. I took a job as an instructional assistant in the school district. It was good, but I wanted more. Finally, my own lightbulb came on. I needed to go back to school, get my credential, and become a teacher. So I did. And I still love those lightbulbs.


I can’t help it

Why? by BuzzFarmers via Flickr, CC-BY-2.0

This week’s Share #YourEduStory prompt: People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it – Simon Sinek. Why do you do what you do?

My friends and family know that where I’m concerned, the answer to the question, “Why?” is usually “Why not?” Not today. When I saw this week’s question, I knew the answer immediately. Why do I teach? I can’t help it. I have to.

I have never been able to stand by and watch someone struggle when it was within my power to help. I believe that, as humans, we have the obligation to do what we can to make the world a better place. Depending on who you are, and what your talents and resources are, the way you contribute to the improvement of this planet will take a different form. For me, it takes the form of teaching, and it always has.

I have been a teacher since I was a kid. (See next week’s post for a fuller explanation.) I strive to guide my students, both children and adults, and ignite their desire to learn. I scaffold, support, provide the resources, and then let them do the heavy lifting. Why? So they will be empowered, resilient, self-sufficient, successful, and happy human beings who will make a difference in the world, and by so doing, will allow me to make a difference as well. That’s why.

people watching fireworks

The Spark of Connection

people watching fireworks
Image by matt_saywers, via, Public Domain

Bruce Springsteen wrote, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” As I considered this week’s #youredustory prompt, “What is connected learning and WIIFM (What’s in it for me)?,”  that quote kept coming back to me. To me, being connected means having people to provide the spark if it’s lacking for me, or to fan my spark, help me kindle the flame, and keep my fire going.

Connected learning takes many forms, and they are all based on personal relationships, which I cultivate with care. I make sure people know I am open and willing to share. Thanks to these relationships, I can go in person, text, or call other teachers at my school or  in my district if I have questions or want to bounce ideas off someone. I can also turn to my PLN (personal learning network) on Twitter or Google+.

These connections did not happen accidentally. I participated in Twitter chats, shared on Google+, commented on blog posts, and generally reached out to those I thought could help me light my professional fire. Most people responded very positively. I also went and continue to go to as many conferences and unconferences as I can manage because, although I love the online connectedness, I especially love meeting those people in person. It adds another invaluable dimension to the relationship. I found, too, that as I made more connections, I connected with their connections, and their connections’ connections, and my learning fire grew bigger and brighter.

So, what’s in it for me? Everything. I may have a great idea. By discussing it with others, it can become greater. I may need a great idea. By reaching out, I can find one. People I know may want to bounce an idea off others. By helping them, I am rewarded as they develop their idea and/or I might come up with something of my own. Not to mention that I have lots of new friends whose professional opinions I respect and whose personal company I enjoy. I truly believe that we are all #bettertogether.

Learning Defined

The prompt for  this week’s #YourEduStory post was particularly challenging for me. Suggested by Shawn White, it directs us to define learning in 100 words or less. Limiting myself to 100 words on any subject difficult, so I decided to go the image route using, one of my favorite word cloud generators. In an ideal world, the words would all be the same size. Still, in a way I like the messy, somewhat random nature of my word cloud. Perhaps it represents learning better that way.

Learning is…

Sharing is Caring

Two children sharing a milkshake
Image by krzyboy2o via Flickr, CC BY 2.o

The best thing I do in my job is share. I love sharing. It makes me happy and I like to think it makes those I share with happy, too. I don’t understand teachers who want to keep everything great they do to themselves. Not that I believe that what I am doing is great, but if you want to use it or adapt it, be my guest. Do you need to know something that I know? Just ask me to help you. I share wantonly and with abandon.

Teachers are some of the hardest working professionals around. If I can make the life of my fellow educators easier by giving them something I have done, I will happily do so. Do they want to change or adapt it so it better suits their needs? Excellent! I hope they will share it again when they have finished.

I am very lucky to have a job that gives me the opportunity to share generously. I get to meet with teachers and share my knowledge by providing training and assistance in technology use. In addition, I can share ideas on how they can incorporate that technology into their classrooms and even share lessons or unit plans.

My sharing isn’t limited to what I do on the job. I also share on Twitter, Google+, at conferences, at CUE Rockstar, and at edcamps. When I present, I share all my resources. Why would I want to keep them all private and under lock and key? My ultimate goal as a teacher is to ensure that students learn, and if I can help more students learn by sharing resources and information with their teachers, then how could I refuse?

My favorite teachers

apple-256261_1280Image by jarmoluk via

This week’s #YourEduStory prompt asks, “How are you, or is your approach, different than your favorite teacher?” I have been through lots of schooling and I have had lots of teachers. I remember many of them fondly. I don’t remember all their names. What I do remember is that I enjoyed being in their classes because they showed me they cared about me and my learning. They made me want to come to school to see them and to make them proud.

Considering how I am different from these wonderful educators was challenging for me. I struggled to think what distinguished me and my teaching from theirs. Even though I came to teaching after several years as a stay-at-home mom, I know that my teaching style was influenced by all those teachers and professors I loved. I made a conscious effort to emulate them; I didn’t want to do otherwise. I aimed for an approach that took what was best from those teachers and put it into practice.

So, how am I different? What sets me apart? I suppose I would have to say the fact that I believe in flattening the walls of the classroom to have students connect with others as much as I can. Being a media specialist, I don’t have the final say in how lessons are delivered, but I try to help my teachers come up with plans and activities where their students can share, interact, and collaborate with people in other cities, states, or countries, be it through Mystery Skype, writing and commenting on blogs, publishing work online, or something else.

Far be it from me to criticize my teachers for not doing this when I was in school. We had pen pals in one class, but it wasn’t nearly the same. The technology to do what I do didn’t exist back then. (I know, I’m old. At least I got to use paper and pencil instead of a stone tablet and chisel.) They did fabulous things with what they had available, and they certainly went above and beyond what was expected. For example, one of my teachers, Mr. Augenblick, used to take his classes camping for a week every year. He was wonderful, and we stayed in contact long after I left 6th grade. He was even invited to my wedding. He passed away in 2013 (you can read all about him on page 8 of this issue of United Teacher), but I am sure he would be proud of me and what I have accomplished. I hope all my favorite teachers would be.