Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Do You Give 'Brain Candy'?

Opportunities for brain candy
Being an educator is an exciting and fulfilling profession:  each day brings different challenges as well as opportunities to make a significant difference in the lives of learners.  But like any profession, there seems to be a nearly endless amount of minutia that is part of what we do each day.  Whether it is taking attendance, marking labs, assigning lockers, or doing budgets, there is a litany of 'stuff' that we must attend to in order for our system to run in a reasonably smooth and orderly fashion.  Speaking from experience, it is very easy to become consumed with these technical, managerial bits of education whether you are a teacher, principal, or member of district staff.  And here's the bad news: that is not going to change.  No matter how hard we try or wish it to happen, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to tell our teachers and administrators "Starting tomorrow, you will no longer have to deal with 'day-to-day operations'!".

Ouch. So what can we do?

I think we can give educators 'brain candy'.  As much brain candy as we can possibly muster, in fact.

In our school district, we typically have between ten and twenty faculty meetings per year. Ten team leader meetings per year.  Thirty collaboration periods per year.  Six professional development days. Dozens of in-service offerings.  And then numerous, random, formal and informal meetings dotted on the calendar at various times during the year (which are not included in the image above).   I would postulate that each of these are opportunities to give our teachers and leaders brain candy.

But what is this 'brain candy'?

Last week, I was watching a documentary called "San Francisco, 2.0", a polarizing reflection by a San Franciscan describing the changes to her city as a result of the exploding technology industry that has taken over The City by The Bay.  And while the show was fascinating enough, the piece of it that was of particular interest to me was the first few minutes, where the viewer got to get a look inside some of the most innovative companies (both of the established and 'start-up' variety) in the world.  A few things jumped out at me in these companies that augmented what I had already been reading about think tanks and innovative environments:

  1. People were working together in groups
  2. They were doing something they felt was meaningful
  3. They were trying to solve a real problem
  4. They were relaxed, and working in comfortable environment
  5. They were optimistic--they felt they could make a difference

When interviewed, the employees were almost crackling with energy!  They were so excited to be working with others on a project team on something that was important to them.  Yes, you know what I am going to say:  it was like they had eaten 'brain candy'.

Working on VNPS
Early last week, I got to 'eat' some brain candy:  At an after school professional development session set up by our Math Coordinator Amanda Russett, I was fortunate enough to work with Dr. Peter Lilljedahl and a group of other educators to learn more about the uses of vertical, non-permanent surfaces (yes, this could be a whiteboard) and their significant, positive impact on learning.  And guess who'd believe it...

  • We were working in groups (random, in this case, and randomized for every task we did), and we were relaxed.  
  • We were working on a method for students to learn math in a more effective manner, which is a topic that is highly relevant for educators in the K-12 system. 
  • We were very comfortable--we were standing up together, able to move, fidget, write, chat, stretch and self-regulate the whole time.  There were some snacks and coffee within arms reach as well. 
  • We were hugely optimistic--we were 'learning by doing', and experiencing success ourselves with Peter's ideas and techniques, and could immediately see their application in any learning setting.   
And next thing you know, an hour had passed in the blink of an eye, and we were still going.  And going.  And going. And for those who judge activities in a slightly more 'millenial' fashion?  Not one person looked at or picked up their cell phone the entire time.

Brain candy.

Later last week, along with our staff at the Henry Grube Education Center, I was charged with the task of taking a group of more than 100 teachers and administrators through an exercise that would get their hands on the exciting new competency based curriculum being unveiled in BC in 2016.  So how could we make this 'brain candy' for the participants?  We could have handed out a paper copy of the document, or had people look through it on their devices to see what had changed from the last document.  However, we felt that would have been like 'brain Brussels sprouts' (with all due respect to those few people who like those things--ugh).

But instead we...

  1. Had a key address from our Superintendent saying how excited he was for the day.
  2. Sat people comfortable chairs at round tables, in groups, and had food and beverages available to them within arms' reach
  3. Started with an interactive warm up competition by Tech Coordinator Tracy Poelzer where groups had to come up with a sexy name for the new curriculum and vote a winner using Socrative (I believe the winner was "50 Shades of Learning".)
  4. Began the presentation by showing a fun video (Jeff Gordon's Pepsi Max 'Test Drive'), a clip that has a great deal of symbolism in terms of our new curriculum, someone who was 'ready to take our new curriculum for a spin', and someone who was a bit of a 'nervous passenger'.
  5. Groups working on VNPS - productive, messy and fun!
  6. Did a jigsaw, where each group member had to go out and become an expert on one part of the curriculum and then bring back their knowledge to the group in the form of an 'elevator speech'.
  7. Had vertical, non-permanent spaces for people to write their ideas about how they might do this in their own school.
  8. Had them work on collaborative document as a large group to crowd-source ideas (see the screencast here) on what excited them about the new curriculum, what concerned them, and what they felt they needed to implement this curriculum in an effective way going forward.
  9. Finished with another online Kahoot where groups were quizzed on the parts of the new curriculum plan.
And we did this on a Friday afternoon!  Friday afternoon is a great time, by the way--people are less encumbered with thoughts of "what do I have to do tomorrow".  The feedback was overwhelmingly positive for a number of reasons:

  • the content- about the curriculum document itself, the competencies, and some implementation ideas for back at our own schools
  • the learning beyond the content, and  actually experiencing the competencies as they are written in the new curriculum
  • the format - getting to interact with peers in a fun, comfortable environment around a task that was important, and that would make an immediate difference to their classrooms and learning situations.
For my money, it was brain candy at every level.  

There will always be minutia in education--it is part of the job we do.  However, if we can take every opportunity we have available to feed ourselves and our educators 'brain candy' in terms of meaningful collaborative work that solves real problems, I believe we can make the technical managerial bits in our busy days more manageable, and focus on the things that make a difference for us and for the students we serve.