“People want to join a great story. If you want to lead, tell one with your life. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they’re showing you the way.” (Miller, 2003, p. 5).
In approximately two weeks I will graduate with my M.Ed. degree in Digital Learning and Leading from Lamar University. The last seventeen months have truly been a balance of uncomfortable growing pains, inspiration, and enlightenment. It is still difficult for me to comprehend that I have accomplished something so monumental, especially in such a short amount of time. This realization really puts an ambition into perspective, right? The way I convinced myself to take the leap was to consider how the last seventeen months would pass regardless, so instead of complaining about all that was wrong in education, the time was now to consider why I do what I do and how this passion would be the driving force of positive innovation.
This journey has forever changed my perspective of what it means to be a learner, and furthermore a teacher. I have spent countless hours researching and developing my learning philosophy, influencing “disruptive” innovation specific to my organization, constructing an action research plan that supports the implementation of my Innovation Plan. Each step in this journey has been a reflective process uniquely designed so that we have choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities. These opportunities have shifted my mindset of what it truly means to learn how to learn and how failing forward is a natural step in the process. I believe it has taught me to appreciate the time and effort behind every innovative idea.
I have been reminded throughout this program that life is about learning. We are designed to be life-long learners. Therefore, education should be about learning. I believe many of us who decided to go to graduate school were searching for validation that there had to be more than what we had experienced in grade-school and how what we were expected to do as teachers in an outdated system didn’t cultivate learning. I know I wanted to be reminded of why I chose to be a teacher. I was seeking a way to reignite creativity and passion both within myself and my learners. Sir Ken Robinson (2006, 00:06:57) argues that “we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it.” Even though I believe he is absolutely right, we get to be the catalyst for changing this narrative. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it has to continue. It also doesn’t mean that we must change everything for the sake of change. We must discern why change is necessary and what we plan to do about it.
I’ve always cared that my students are engaged in learning, but what I’ve gained through reflection is I haven’t always considered how they were learning or why they should learn anything at all. When I began considering the “why,” it helped me shift my focus on what was important for them to learn in the first place and how it should be driven by the very audience I’m attempting to reach. Their learning is theirs just as my learning throughout this program has been mine. The Digital Learning and Leading Program’s professors set the framework by providing choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities (COVA). CSLE + COVA is a learning model designed by Dwayne Harapnuik, Tilisa Thibodeaux, and Cynthia Cummings (2018). They didn’t have us merely study the framework COVA in a text book, give us a quiz, and move on. They had us live and experience authentic learning and then apply it to our own organizations. I realized for the first time in thirty years that I had never truly learned how to learn. This realization has been the most transformative aspect of this journey. When I learned how and why I learned, my students did, too.
Simon Sinek (2009) argues that people don’t buy what we do, but why we do it. If we apply this same thought to our learners, they don’t necessarily buy what they are learning, they simply want to know why it matters. Without a clear “why,” it results in disengaged students who unfortunately misinterpret learning as a chore. We must capture the hearts of our audience (our students) if we hope to reach them. The DLL program challenged me to consider why I was teaching what I was teaching. Simply because the Texas Education Agency pushes certain standards at specific grade levels isn’t a good enough reason. Teaching a concept so that my students pass a standardized test is certainly not a good enough reason either. As I moved through the DLL program, we were often asked to create a “big, hairy, audacious goal” (BHAG) coined by Jim Collins (1994) for our students and work backwards. I was challenged to know why I was teaching something so I could guide my students to understand why they were learning it. I had to make sure I knew where I was leading my students so they would know where they were headed. This in turn fosters trust between the teacher and students. Authentic learning develops is a guided discovery with opportunities to apply this learning to real world context.
In my experience working within a shelter-school for families who had experienced abuse, I had already transformed the physical classroom space into more of a home-like environment. We had a safe corner full of plush pillows and de-escalation tools, low lighting, calming scents, and music that encouraged peaceful interactions. Every aspect of the classroom was built with the five senses in mind. Although this transition began prior to my DLL, I have gained valuable wisdom that has validated and supported what I had already been doing in my classroom throughout this program. The set up of the physical classroom space is the first impression our learners experience before they’re ever introduced to the content. This space invites students to come as they are. I am thankful the DLL program opened my eyes to the research based practices supporting why it is so important to cultivate a stable, trusting, and socially-emotionally connected learning environment. Students must feel safe and valued first. Unfortunately many of us work in school environments with textbooks, projectors (if we are lucky), and desks that have seen better days. Therefore, we must have the foresight to build spaces for our learners rich with opportunities for choice, ownership, and voice to engage in authentic projects.
What follows is my learning journey throughout the Digital Learning and Leading program:
Although the title of the first course in the DLL program may suggest it would be all about how to implement technology within the classroom, this course proved to offer so much more. I would almost suggest the title of this course be changed to one that captures more of what we gained, which was the basics of learning philosophy and an introduction to COVA. In this course, I was encouraged to come face-to-face with my fixed perceptions about my own abilities and the abilities of others. I learned how to embrace failing forward with the powerful word yet and how failing forward is a natural part of learning. Developing my own growth mindset early on in the program helped me overcome the difficult, frustrating, and uncomfortable learning curves that followed. This experience was liberating. I believe it was the first time I truly learned how to learn. When I learned how to learn, I was able to extend this learning process with my students. I gained wisdom and connection to other professionals through the following authentic projects including a growth mindset plan, my own learning manifesto, and the development of professional learning networks.
This course was the first time I had ever been asked to share my learning with a real world audience. My past experiences as a student typically revolved around me consuming information and that information was regurgitated back to my teacher, rarely escaping beyond those borders. However, this course gave me the opportunity to share my learning with others and reflect on each experience through an ePortfolio. I learned that even though my learning is mine, good ideas aren’t designed to stay isolated. We are meant to collaborate with one another and encourage others to become better learners. “To make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network signature: networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind exploring the boundaries of the adjacent possible” (Johnson, 2010, p. 47). Networking with others through an ePortfolio creates an authentic environment for authentic learning that expands beyond the borders of our own brains, classroom walls, or any other physical space. If I am being honest, it was difficult to feel comfortable sharing my innermost thoughts and passions at first because it required that I find comfort in vulnerability and transparency. However, vulnerability and transparency is where true strength and growth emerge. Looking forward, I am excited to continue sharing my voice and learning journey through my ePortfolio.
This was the moment in the DLL program when I knew this journey would be different from anything else I could have signed up for. Although I was introduced to creating significant learning environments (CSLE) with choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities (COVA) in the first two courses, Disruptive Innovation was the key that truly made those two concepts come alive. I had never experienced learning like this before, probably because I had never truly learned how to learn and been given the freedom to create something unique to my context. My work in this course centered around how I could influence change in my organization. The challenge was to design an Innovation Proposal that would apply the principles of disruptive innovation (even though Dr. Harapnuik encouraged us to maybe steer away from the word “disruptive” until we learned our audience). Because my innovation proposal focused on my unique organization, my learning became relevant and the work I produced could be applied to real situations. I didn’t merely learn how to innovate by reading countless chapters about other people’s innovations from a textbook, regurgitate the information and take a quiz. I was living this authentic experience. After completing my innovation proposal, the next step was to develop an Implementation Plan for how I planned to execute this innovation into action supported by thorough research. The purpose of this course was to inspire us to view our organization with the lens of innovation and develop a research supported plan so that every course that followed could be tied back to this grandiose goal. The culminating project for this course reflected how this innovation plan would transform and influence my campus toward personalized, learner-driven environments.
This course prepared me to think beyond the theoretical idea of innovation and challenged me to develop an applicable step by step plan to launch this vision through the 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX). I was challenged to adopt the role as the change-agent in my organization and rally other change-agents on campus to join my plan for innovation. I learned what other leaders have done well or not done well when influencing change so I could apply and model these same concepts when executing my own implementation plan. I had to reflect and consider why this change was important. Clarifying my why aligned everything else that followed. Again, Simon Sinek argues “people don’t buy what we do, they buy why we do it.” It all points back to connecting to the hearts of our audience. This reflection on why I desired this change was the first step in connecting to the hearts of my audience. I was encouraged to consider the Power of Influence and how these six sources of influence supported the practical application of my plan. Through 4DX, I developed a Wildly Important Goal (WIG) highlighting the vital influential behaviors necessary for executing change within my organization. People often do not want advice or a plan first, they want to be inspired and feel connected to something greater than themselves. I concluded the course by connecting the dots and contemplating the revolutionary ripple effects of influential leadership.
The principles of Creating Significant Learning Environments (CSLE) combined with the COVA learning approach are at the heart of the DLL program. These ideas are the building blocks for creating personalized, learner-centered environments. Although the DLL program is established in constructivist pedagogy, we were encouraged to research a variety of pedagogies and philosophies, ultimately developing a learning philosophy of our own. Like I had mentioned above, the DLL program has been one of the first experiences in which I felt that learning something new could be relevant and attainable. I found myself drawn to the constructivist approach both in my learning and thankfully within my teaching (most of the time). Reflecting on both my learning and teaching helped me define how the two are harmoniously synced. I began researching and applying the principles of constructivism in my classes and realized it was simply a shift in focus. This focus began with the end in mind. Two valuable frameworks I discovered in this course were the 3-Column Table and the UbD Template. Both frameworks helped clarify how to build a unit with the end in mind and consider guiding questions so my learners could navigate the process with me. When learners know where they’re going, not only do student-teacher relationships build a stronger bond, but they’re more likely to take ownership in the learning process. This points back to knowing my why so my learners can cultivate theirs. For the culminating project, I revisited my Growth Mindset, and determined that a growth mindset is simply a “learner’s mindset.” I connected how this mindset could be practically applied to my innovation plan.
The first step in adopting the role as influencer and change-maker on my campus was developing my own innovation plan and illustrating my message with a presentation. This presentation is designed to influence or “sell” my innovation plan to my leadership team and other teachers and staff on campus. My own creative ideas must be supported by research to elevate “buy-in” and help solidify why implementation is vital and ensure success. The research I conducted led to revisiting my original innovation plan to update areas needing extra “fine-tuning.” This course broadened my perspective to not only the needs within my own organization but how these needs often extend nationally and even globally. I learned how much of the research conducted in the United States has been used to develop award winning school systems in other countries, but little has been implemented in the US with our own research. I plan to conduct future research as to why our country has yet to implement many of the resources and evidence based research within our own school system. Needless to say, this course concluded with more evolving questions than answers on a global scale, but because of this, I want to know more.
This course exposed us to the principles of action research and how this practical research supplements our innovation plans. We explored how we can apply these principles in our own context and execute each step. This process helped me select one aspect of my innovation plan, and prepared me for further implementation of my ideas. I planned an outline for each step of the process and followed up with a thorough literature review that highlighted how social-emotional learning and meditation empowers students and teachers. Although my innovation plan overall proposes for a personalized, blended learning environment through project-based learning (PBL), I wanted my action research plan to focus on an even deeper personalized aspect of the learning environment and reflect a trauma-informed approach making a blended-PBL environment the most successful. Social-emotional learning skills make all other academic ambitions attainable.
This course was a bit more traditional in content delivery, but provided valuable information that I found extremely helpful especially when my school shifted to a completely online format due to COVID-19. I discovered Ribble’s (2017) nine elements of digital citizenship and reflected which of these nine elements were needed the most in my organization. Throughout the course, we discussed issues related to equitable access to technology and how this is one of the first courses of action needed to ensure every student has equitable access to an education. We also explored our digital footprints (or tattoos), copyright laws, compared and contrasted bullying and cyberbullying, and how we can best implement technology within the learning environment. This message of this course can be summed up with the following sentence. “Being a responsible citizen does not change when conducting ourselves online, in fact it is a mere reflection and extension of ourselves” (Herrin, 2020). Essentially, everything we do is a reflection of who we are, therefore we should be respectful, thoughtful, and diligent in our actions. We should also advocate for safe and equitable spaces for all whether or not we are engaging in the digital realm. Digital citizenship is simply being a good citizen.
The purpose of this course was to prepare an article for publication. Of course we can always publish right on our own ePortfolio, but the goal was to gain experience in how to develop an article specifically designed for publication whether it be in an online journal, magazine, or other printed source. This was one of the more difficult courses as I was quite undecided on which direction I wanted to take my writing so that it supported my innovation plan. Each publication has unique requirements and steps to accomplish when preparing to submit, so as I explored my options I narrowed the selections down to two different online platforms. I ultimately chose to write for the Educational Leadership column for ASCD because my style of writing and theme fit well. I spent most of this course developing an outline for my article, a rough draft, and then a final copy for submission. I also prepared a media pitch to help illustrate my written ideas and connect to the heart of my audience. The thought of being published seemed so grandiose, abstract, or almost unattainable, but as I reflect on this unique experience I am thankful to have a frame of reference on how to submit articles in the future. If my article is chosen for publication, I will update my final reflection of this course with an updated link to the article on ASCD’s website.
The goal of this course was to apply the principles of CSLE + COVA in an online setting and make it a space for learning. This meant we needed to consider how we make this space one in which our learners feel engaged, empowered, and connected to limitless information and their peers. As I explored a variety of learning management systems (LMS), I ultimately chose Schoology. I built an online unit integrating social-emotional learning and growth mindset through literacy. When planning my course, I used the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework and was encouraged to consider the learning goals, desired results, my audience, and how I could frame the unit so they had as much freedom as possible to drive their own learning and produce authentic work. I then developed an outline and syllabus which mapped out each section within the unit and included links to resources and the guiding questions my learners would discuss. One of the most vital pieces to ensure success of this online unit was reflecting on who this course is designed for, and how to reach them without any ability to guide them in person. My audience included elementary students, particularly 4th graders, so each piece of this unit was thoughtfully designed to create a fun, engaging, and growth minded online space for learning.
This course provided a renewed insight of what professional learning should be. Most careers require and encourage a continuation of learning within the field, but it is evident that changes are needed to provide more authentic, ongoing professional learning if we hope to see innovative ideas implemented. Traditional professional development is typically a one day “sit and get” event with very little follow-up or authentic application to each participant’s unique context. Teachers often leave sessions like these overwhelmed with mounds of papers, loose notes, and possibly even textbooks without any real understanding of how these new ideas will be implemented in their classroom or campus. Highs turn into lows fairly quickly. Without modeling and ongoing training with actionable steps, many teachers are too overwhelmed by the daily whirlwind of their jobs to follow through with what they learned in a few hours at a professional development session. Professional learning should also model the type of hands-on authentic learning we hope to provide for our students within the classroom. If it isn’t being modeled for teachers, how do we expect teachers to have a better frame of reference for how they are to structure learning in their own classroom, much less provide choice, ownership, and voice through authentic projects. Creating a significant learning environment shouldn’t only be limited to the classroom with students. This environment should extend to professional learning for all staff. Teachers need to be supported and mentored when learning new strategies the same way we support and guide our learners. A shift in accountability and support regarding professional learning would be the catalyst to empower and motivate teachers when implementing innovative strategies in their classrooms. I created a professional learning outline, a blended learning presentation and script that supports my innovation plan, a 3-column table highlighting the learning goals for teacher training. I have also included a list of online professional learning networks rich with blended-PBL resources for teachers and staff going through ongoing training. The culminating project for this course has valuable insight and a detailed description for anyone wishing to implement authentic ongoing professional learning on their campus.
This capstone course is the final piece in my Digital Learning and Leading journey. As I reflect on my experience through this degree program, I am humbled and thankful for all of the expected and unexpected growth I’ve gained over the past year and a half. So much of what I thought I would know has transpired into a balance of wisdom, curiosity, and hope for what is to come. Many of my questions haven’t necessarily been replaced with answers, but with more educated questions. I am inspired by such phenomenal professors going over and beyond to create authentic learning environments for their students, which in turn guides me to do the same for my learners. This program is the first time I’d ever truly learned how to learn. School had always been a checklist of items someone else needed me to do and offered very little encouragement or creativity to adopt learning as a life-long journey. I’ve learned how to find my voice, take ownership of my learning, and view failing forward as an opportunity to grow. I will forever be grateful for my journey through this program. This experience has truly changed my life.
I have had some time to reflect on what has worked, what is still needed, and what could be done better regarding the implementation of my innovation plan. When I consider what is next, I am taking note of the setbacks I have had throughout the last year and a half including moving school districts, personal life changes, shifts in the leadership at my campus, and the COVID-19 pandemic. I have had to consider which setback I have full control over and which ones I do not when moving forward with my plan next school year. I believe with the shift in schools moving to online or blended learning, I will be able to guide others with the valuable insight I have gained while studying and researching blended-PBL pedagogy during this DLL journey. I am hopeful that a shift from the traditional, physical classroom environment to an innovative blended-PBL environment will be met with openness and more educator buy-in. My innovation plan was designed pre-COVID-19, so now that we are in a critical state for schools to transition quickly, I believe I will be able to step in and help support and guide where needed with my innovation plan.
Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. 1994. Built to Last: successful habits of visionary companies. New York: HarperBusiness.
Harapnuik, D., Thibodeaux, T., and Cummings, C. (2018). Choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND.
Miller, D. (2003). Blue like jazz (p. 5). Thomas Nelson Books.
Ribble, M. (2017). Nine elements. Retrieved from: http://www.digitalcitizenship.net/nine-elements.html
Robinson, K. (2006). Do schools kill creativity?. TED ideas worth spreading. https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity?language=enSinek, S. (2009, September 28). Start with why–how great leaders inspire action [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4ZoJKF_VuA&t=769s
Image created using Canva by AnnaLeigh Herrin (June, 2020).
Featured image from http://www.unsplash.com.