Monday, December 11, 2017

Pursuing Your Passion Projects: A Conversation with Art Lieberman

Recently, I enjoyed a conversation with my friend Art Lieberman (@artFling). He is a middle school teacher in Texas and author of several books including The Art of Focus and The Art of Motivation

I'm sharing a recording of this conversation for you to enjoy. It's a blogcast. It's kind of a mix of a blogpost and a podcast. 

Art and I talked about how he became an author and why passion projects can be helpful for teachers. You can listen to the entire conversation embedded below, and I also included highlights and key takeaways in my notes below.


Twitter allowed Art and I to connect and eventually collaborate on a project. He helped edit my new book Future Driven.

Art credits his increase in productivity to changes in his diet and exercise habits. When he made these changes, he had more energy to devote to things outside the school day, like passion projects.

One of the changes was adding green smoothies to his diet. He explains how he makes them and why they make such a difference. They are much better than taking vitamins.

Art wanted to do more writing and so he started blogging.

Blogging is a great way to share, connect, and grow.

As he wrote more blog posts, Art realized with the amount of writing he had produced, he could've written a book.

Blogging helped Art practice his writing so he was ready to take on a bigger passion project, writing a book.

Passion projects can sometimes also be extra sources of income, but sometimes they are just for the love of the experience.

Being creative is good for us. Everyone has the ability to create. Everyone has gifts. When you use these gifts more fully, it actually helps you have more energy. It helps you be more productive.

Your passion project may be related to education, or it may not relate directly. However, a passion project can make you a better educator too. It's one way educators can model lifelong learning.

And finally, don't wait to start that passion project you want to do. There will never be enough time. You have to make time to do what's important to you.

Be sure to check out Art's podcasts here: One Teaching Tip.

Are you working on a passion project or thinking about starting one? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I would like to hear from you.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Another Thing High Schools Might Learn From Elementary Schools

I completely agree with the tweet below from Jennifer Hogan. High schools can learn from elementary schools. And every level of education should stoke the fire and cultivate curiosity in learning. It's important for every classroom to inspire kids to want to learn more.

I truly believe that regardless of what level we teach, we should also strive to learn from each other. When we share our knowledge and experience across content areas or with other grade levels, it just makes us all stronger.

The tweet also reminded me of another way high schools might learn from elementary schools.

I'm always amazed when I have the opportunity to visit elementary classrooms. I observe keenly and enjoy seeing different strategies and methods that lead to more learning in that context. I often see things that would be beneficial in the typical high school classroom, too. 

All the way down to primary school classrooms, I have observed students taking responsibility, working collaboratively, and self-managing in various structures. The teacher is often working with a small group of students while other learning activities are happening all around the classroom.

I've heard teachers at the high school level make statements that seem to reject this type of learning. 

"Freshmen can't handle working in groups."

"Projects don't work for my students."

"I would like to do more collaborative things, but I have 30 kids in my class. It's just not possible."

"If I'm working with a small group of students, how will I know what the others are doing?"

All of these statements have an element of truth. It can be challenging to do these things, at any grade level. But the statements are also extremely self-limiting. These statements become self-imposed limits, probably based on an experience that wasn't positive, "I tried that. It didn't work for me. Case closed."

Is it possible for projects, collaboration, and small group instruction to be effective at the high school level? Of course! I've seen high school classes thriving with these methods. And it makes no sense developmentally that even much younger students can handle self-directed methods while older students cannot.

So why do teachers tend to revert to more teacher-centric approaches in high school? It's likely because of the efficiency, control, and structure that is provided through direct instruction. It's partly because it's what's comfortable, and perhaps all they've ever known. 

By the way, direct instruction is not bad. It can be an effective and necessary method, but it shouldn't be the only way students learn.

There should also be opportunities for more self-directed, student empowered methods also. We must provide students opportunities to develop agency, ownership, and social learning abilities.

So what does it take to have success with this type of learning?


It's the same thing that makes teachers want to use direct instruction. Every teacher knows that a productive learning environment is going to have structure. And it feels easier to do in a direct-instruction, teacher-centered classroom. And maybe it is easier to do. But that doesn't make it better.

In the classes that succeed with more collaborative, student-centered approaches, teachers must clearly communicate the structure that will be used. There must be boundaries. The expectations must be communicated consistently and revisited regularly.

Whether it's an elementary classroom or high school classroom, it takes structure to make any learning strategy successful. We are not talking about anarchy in the classroom here.

However, it will take willpower and determination on the part of the teacher to push through some of the struggles that may happen as students learn the structure. But as the teacher works with students to clarify expectations and provides opportunities for practice and reflection, students will learn to have more independence and exhibit a higher level of responsibility.

It's not that the students can't do it. Don't impose your limits on a classroom of kids. Don't diminish their capabilities. You are choosing not to pursue success when you embrace disempowering thoughts. You won't have success with any method if you don't believe in it and your kids' ability to succeed with it.

It's just that you must teach them to do it. You must provide accountability as needed. You must coach them. You have to reflect with them. You have to provide consequences when needed. You have to bring so much passion to the space that students know you're not going to settle for less than their best.

With your guidance and creativity, you can help your students do amazing things, regardless of the grade level you're teaching.

Is there a misconception that student-empowerment means not having structure in the classroom? I wonder about that. Share your thoughts below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

5 Ways to Lend Your Strength to Students

I'm interested in how educators can help students develop resilience and problem solving. On the one hand, students need to develop independence and healthy coping. On the other hand, caring adults need to provide appropriate support.

After all, we have more wisdom, life experience, and emotional support than most students. You never know what they are facing at home. You never know the battles they are fighting on the inside. Life can be tough.

It's not uncommon to see difficult behaviors surfacing as a result of what a kid is dealing with on the inside. Kids don't need more judgment, harshness, or anger in their lives. What they really need is for the caring adults in their life to lend them some strength to carry on, to help them get to a place where they can be stronger on their own.

Remember, how you treat your students says far more about you than it says about them. No matter how they act or what they say, you have the opportunity to speak encouragement and hope into their day.

Here are five ways to offer your strength and dignity to a student who is struggling. It's all about lifting them up and helping them stand on their own.

1. Focus on who students are becoming, not just who they are right now.

Every kid needs someone to believe in them, to advocate for them, to champion for them. You never know who this child might become some day. He or she has great value and worth, and you can help shine a light on it.

2. Show acceptance even when you can't show approval of the behavior.

Students are going to make harmful decisions. But don't make it all about you. Their job is not to please you. We want them to be better people, not just compliant students. So show them you care for them even when you have to correct them. 

3. Never give up on any student. Little miracles happen every day.

Kids who are hurting the most often cry out for love in the most harmful ways. It can be easy to give up on them. Sometimes it seems impossible. But you can be a mother's best hope. You know she wants to see her child succeed. Say, "You can do this! This is important. I believe in you."

4. Value people over performance.

Your value as a person should not be based on successes or failures, wins or losses, how you look, the size of your bank account, who your friends are, or even how much you accomplish today. We need to treat every person will great care and concern simply because they are worthy of all the human dignity we can offer. 

5. Offer a quiet voice, an open mind, and a patient response. 

When you give a student your full attention in the moment, you are giving a valuable gift. Just listen. Don't react. Don't try to solve the problem. Just listen and encourage. Be patient. What is making us think we have more important things to do? I am writing this for me as much as anyone. I can be terribly distracted. I want to do better.

If we build great relationships with kids and combine that with high expectations and support, we can help students be stronger and find a new path.

Are you in a place to lend your strength to a student? What gifts can you offer to make them stronger? Share a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

7 Thoughts on Being a Passionate Educator


Educators should be the most excited people on the planet for kids and learning. Your passion is needed in your school. Imagine what your school would be like if every person brought great passion every day.

A passionate, caring educator makes all the difference. When I think about the teachers in my life who made the greatest impact on me, they were passionate. They had high expectations and they expected success. They were deeply caring. They helped me be more than I thought I could be.

Here are 7 thoughts you might consider about being a passionate educator:

1. Passion is developed, not discovered.

You can't expect passion to settle on you like a fog. It's not just about finding something you like to do. For most people, you don't just wake up one day and suddenly think, "Eureka! I've found my passion!" Passion and commitment feed each other. You won't generate maximum passion without maximum effort to become everything you can be. As you continue growing and giving, your passion will also grow. And you will make a greater impact on the world around you. 

2. You are responsible for nurturing and growing your passion.

It's never helpful to blame your circumstances for your lack of passion. I realize there are immense challenges you face as an educator. We can have personal issues that pile up. It's easy to blame something outside of us for squelching passion. But the truth is there are educators who remain passionate in the worst possible situations. And there are also educators in thriving environments with tremendous support, who are lacking passion nonetheless. Don't allow your passion to be a victim of anything outside of you.

3. Your students deserve a passionate teacher.

Our kids' futures are too important to have educators in their lives who are just going through the motions. Every day counts. And your kids are counting on you. Great teachers bring so much passion and persistence to the classroom the kids know this person is not gonna settle for less than my best. Your students need you to bring your best to help them be their best. Bring it!

4. When teachers are more passionate about learning, students will be more passionate too.

Great teachers ignite the passion to learn. Your passion and commitment becomes contagious. Your energy and enthusiasm will spill over into the whole classroom. If your students master every standard without discovering joy and passion in learning, is that success? I don't think it is. You want to be so passionate about teaching and learning that your students look at you and think, "I want to do that when I grow up! That's a fun job! Teachers make a huge difference in people's lives."

5. Passion is pouring yourself into something you care deeply about. 

It's important to always remember your 'why' and focus on making a difference. When it gets really hard and you want to quit, remember why you started. Remember your purpose. Remind yourself what kind of teacher you set out to be when you began. You wanted to be a difference maker. I'm guessing you didn't want to just be average or mediocre. You wanted to be great. And you can be great! Let your passion lead you to greatness!

6. Passion will lead to greater significance and meaning in your life.

It's living beyond yourself and using your talents and abilities in a way that impacts a greater good. You were created with gifts that make you great. When you use these gifts to the fullest, you will find the greatest significance and meaning. You'll have more energy. You'll jump out of bed in the morning to do the thing you were meant to do. And no one will have to make you do it. You will do more than expected. Passion and commitment will always surpass accountability and compliance.

7. The greater your passion, the smaller your problems.

Ever talk to educators who think the solution to every problem is better kids and better parents? Some people can't resist the urge to blame and complain. They can't fully realize their passion because they think, "If only..." If only something outside of me would change, I could be great. Too many educators are choosing dis-empowering thoughts. They are choosing to believe things can't change. They are thinking the problems are too big. But that's just not true. We must challenge our beliefs about what is possible. We can create schools that work for kids. We can have powerful learning that is irresistible. We can overcome the obstacles. When you are passionate and you focus your energy on solutions, anything is possible. 

Who is responsible for your passion? I hope it's you. Let me know what you think. Leave me a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Is It Possible To Teach Grit?

In a previous post, I shared about the power of keystone habits. The ideas are based on the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business

So what are keystone habits? They are habits that seem to have a spill over effect. The changing of a keystone habit leads to changes in a person's other habits too.

For instance, getting enough sleep might be a keystone habit. It could also result in improving other habits like better communication, more productivity, or avoiding late night snacking. The initial goal was just to get better sleep, but it can lead to improvements in other areas too.

One critically important keystone habit is willpower. In fact, it has been shown in research to be the most powerful habit of all.
In a 2005 study, for instance, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 164 eighth grade students, measuring their IQs and other factors, including how much willpower the students demonstrated, as measured by tests of their self-discipline. 
Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework.
"Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable," the researchers wrote.
"Self-discipline predicted predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the school year, whereas IQ did not... Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent."
Sounds a lot like grit and growth mindset to me. These have been very important topics in the education community. We see this every day. Kids with willpower habits do better. But I wonder how much success schools are having with teaching these skills? And should we be doing more?

Starbucks has an intensive training program to help employees develop the willpower to handle the moments they believe will make or break the company. It must be working because we all know how prolific Starbucks has become.

They focus their training on what employees will do when they hit rough patches. Each employee develops a plan for how they will deal with an angry customer, for instance. And there are opportunities for role playing. They want to develop automatic response loops that employees can rely on when faced with a problem.

So if the Starbucks employees encounter a certain situation, they automatically use the strategies they've learned and practiced.

I wonder what that would look like in the classroom? Sometimes, I think we simply tell students to work harder or to persevere, but we aren't giving them tools they need to learn these skills. We aren't teaching the behavior we want to see.

Sure, we may reinforce qualities like grit and willpower when we see them, and that's a good technique, but could we be doing more to explicitly train students how to have willpower?

Based on the studies of willpower as a keystone habit, it seems like it should be one of our most important priorities. Most of your students who are struggling in your class have probably always struggled in school. That becomes a pattern of frustration and failure. Part of that might be attributable to a lack of willpower. How can we disrupt that pattern? That's something to think about.

I'm curious what curriculum or programs readers have been using to teach grit and willpower? For instance, I've heard some good things about Leader in Me, but I've also heard it's expensive. I would like to find a more systematic way to teach these habits in our school. Leave me a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Information Without Emotion Is Rarely Retained

In 1993, famed college basketball coach Jim Valvano gave an inspiring and hopeful message at the ESPY awards. Valvano was fighting terminal cancer that would soon cut short his remarkable life. I occasionally watch the speech over again. It reminds me of what's most important.

During his passionate speech, Valvano helped put everything in perspective:
"If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. And if you do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."
I invite you to take a few seconds to listen to Jimmy V speak these words in the video below.

So how can this apply to what we do as educators? Well, I think a great day at school includes the same things. We should laugh, we should certainly think, and we should also cry. 

I'm guessing that crying is harder for most of us to think about. We tend to think of some emotions as good or bad. We tend to hide those emotions that are sad or might be considered weak.

But emotions are an important way for us to connect. It's how we better understand ourselves and others. Emotions help us to reach the heart and not just the mind.

We know that stories are powerful for learning. I think that's because of how stories connect to emotions. You can talk about ideas all day, and I might be interested and even learn something. But if you connect those ideas with a story, and you touch my emotions, I may never forget what I've learned.

I remember one day years ago I was teaching freshmen English. It was one of those days when for whatever reason, I had a class period that was ahead of the others, and I needed to fill some time.

I decided to read a short story, The Scarlet Ibis, to the class. It was the first time I'd ever read the story myself, so I didn't know exactly what to expect.

But as I read, I was drawn into the story in a powerful way. No doubt the class could sense my quivering voice, my efforts to fight back tears, and my unsettled body language. As they saw how the story was connecting with my heart, they too were drawn in. You could've heard a pin drop.

The story is about two brothers. The younger brother is born with health problems, and he was never able to keep up with his athletic older brother. At times, the older brother is cruel and ashamed of his handicapped sibling. At one point, he even thinks of smothering the little brother with a pillow.

But he also demonstrates his love for him. He nicknames the younger brother Doodle and decides to teach him the things he will need to be ready for school, how to run, swim, climb trees, and fight. You know, the important stuff.

But the Saturday before school starts, the older brother pushes Doodle to physical exhaustion while rowing a boat. And then a storm blows in suddenly. The older brother runs ahead angry with Doodle for not keeping up so they can get out of the rain.

But when the older brother's anger calms, he notices Doodle is missing. He goes looking for him and finds him curled up under a bush with his head on his knees. He is bleeding from his mouth. He is dead.

It's a tragic ending.

I remember talking with the class about how the two boys reminded me of my own sons. Both of my boys are perfectly healthy. But there was something about the way the brothers interacted that reminded me of my own sons.

I also remember talking to them about empathy and cruelty. How most of us have it in us to be cruel. How we can fail to understand what someone else is going through. How selfish we can be.

I know without a doubt, even many years later, during that class period, there was laughter, there was thinking, and there were definitely tears. I think every student in the class felt something special that day.

So what does a perfect day in the classroom look like? 100% mastery of the objective for the day?

For me, I think a great day is when students are learning the objective, and the learning is also connecting with the heart. I'm not sure who said it, but I believe it's true, "Information without emotion is rarely retained." The lessons that stay with us the longest connect to our emotions.

Are you teaching with heart? Let me know what you think. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook

Friday, November 24, 2017

5 Reflective Questions to Encourage a Growth Mindset

A teacher at one of our elementary schools shared this recently. She was talking about how she encourages her students to persist in the face of difficulties.

Instead of saying something that makes a wrong answer seem like a curse or worse, she encourages the process. She says to students with curiosity and wonder, "Oh, that's my favorite mistake!"

Students are then able to view problem-solving as something that is not just about getting a right answer. It's about having thinking that perseveres. It's about staying with the problem longer.

Thomas Edison failed over and again in trying to invent the incandescent light bulb. He documented 1,000 failed attempts before he was successful. When a reported asked him how it felt to fail 1,000 times, he replied, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps." 

Our district has adopted new math curriculum, and it's challenging. But kids are rising to the occasion. And a big reason it's successful is the focus on the process and the greatness of teachers to promote perseverance and model growth-mindset thinking.

Here are five questions to ask your students to help them reflect on their own mindset. The questions might need some unpacking for younger students. But I think all kids can think about these ideas.

1. When I start to feel like quitting, what will I do in that moment to persevere?

This might be the most powerful question on the list. When people decide exactly how they will respond to a difficulty in advance, they are far more likely to push through in the face of the challenge.

2. What are my thoughts telling me about how successful I might be at learning this skill? If these thoughts are limiting to me, how might I think differently?

Lots of kids are thinking thoughts that are self-limiting. "I'm not good at math" for instance. It's helpful to think of phrases that are filled with belief and resourcefulness to replace the negative thinking. Teachers can help students find the words for this.

3. What am I saying or doing to myself that is holding me back?

There are many things that can undermine a growth mindset. Excuses, justifications, worries, perfectionist thinking, thought patterns, past failures, etc. It's important to recognize what unhelpful beliefs students need to overcome.

4. What would I want my teacher to say to me when he/she sees me taking a risk, trying hard, or pushing through mistakes to pursue this goal?

This question is helping to shift the perspective to expecting success. When I try hard, good things happen. My teacher will say this to me, and that feels good.

5. Imagine how you will feel when you accomplish something that is really challenging. Describe that feeling. 

Again, this one is beginning with the end in mind. Getting a picture of success is so important. Humans are the only creatures on the planet with imagination. We can experience the whole range of emotions through our minds. Visualization is extremely valuable. It teaches the brain to expect success.

When gymnast Mary Lou Retton won her first gold medal, a reporter asked her, "How does it feel to win gold?" 

She replied, "Just like it's always felt."

"But this is your first gold medal?" said the puzzled reporter.

"Yes, I know. But I've experienced this moment thousands of times in my mind," she explained.

The power of belief cannot be understated.

What do you think about these questions? Do you have suggestions for other questions that might be helpful for students? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.
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