Sitting down to talk with Kristin felt like talking with a friend.
Kristen Swanson, founder of EdCamp and current Director of Learning at Slack, brings to the table an accomplished career in education and leadership, but during our interview, I was most in awe of her humility and down to earth nature.
It was incredibly clear that, in her life, she listens, connects, and elevates the ideas of others. These qualities are all components that likely enabled her to create the EdCamp platform. For readers not familiar, EdCamp is an “unconference” where participants drive the content, structure, and flow of their professional development on the day of the event. EdCamp provides ownership of ideas, participant voice, internal motivation, and relevance to teachers seeking to redefine their professional learning experiences.
I couldn’t be more excited about the launch of this Teaching Channel project — it’s so near and dear to my heart. Over the past five years, much of my work in the classroom and with teachers has centered around math routines that generate student discourse and help us learn more about our students’ understandings. All of this work has been inspired by books I’ve read, conversations with colleagues in person and on Twitter, and the amazing student mathematical discussions I’ve heard, sparked by these routines. With this project, I have the opportunity to share all of the hard work of my colleagues, showcase the safe culture they have established in their classrooms, and highlight all of the wonderful mathematical ideas of their students.
My first year as an instructional coach was a learning year.
I was experienced as a department chair, but the role of an instructional coach was a bit different. For starters, I was in a different district. The District of Columbia Public Schools have a robust approach to coaching called LEAP — Learning together to Advance our Practice. This method of coaching almost mirrors how assistant principals observe, except for the evaluation component. It was an adjustment at first, but LEAP has helped me to hone my craft as an intentional observer.
The school where I coach and teach, the historic Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, was America’s first Black public high school. In the first half of the twentieth century, this school was an elite institution, which attracted an extraordinary faculty. (Watch as I give a tour of the school’s museum.) Today, we remain a committed and extraordinary faculty; however, like many urban public schools, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School is a high-poverty school that has historically experienced high staff turnover. Nearly half of my ELA department is either new to the building or new to teaching.
Finally, understanding the human dynamic present within the feedback cycle is something that has to be experienced to be appreciated. Teachers are humans, just like every other professional, and their humanity must be maintained throughout the observation and feedback process. At the same time, however, instructional coaches and other school-based leaders must see the potential in each teacher and design learning opportunities that help them to see potential in themselves as well.
As a first generation college graduate, a decision I made early in life was to have a growth mindset. If you’re new to the term growth mindset, or maybe just on the hunt for resources, check out Teaching Channel’s Growth Mindset Deep Dive. While many people assume things in my life have come easily, I’ve spent my entire existence struggling to succeed. Blessed or cursed (depending on your perspective) with an insane amount of drive as well as a natural curiosity toward all things, my life has been a constant cycle of discovery, failure, retooling, and — mostly — eventual success.
This lifestyle has carried over into my classroom, as I believe that regardless of the content I’m teaching, it’s my duty as an educator to prepare all of the young people that walk through my door to face the challenges that lie ahead of them. That’s why I’m such a staunch advocate for the incorporation of the engineering design process into all classrooms. The EDP is the epitome of growth mindset and transcends the classroom into every facet of day-to-day life.
In that spirit, I continue to refine my practice. Every year, I identify one area of my instruction as a point of emphasis. In the past, these areas have ranged from classroom management, to individualized learning plans, to the integration of technology. One area I’ve been putting off is refining the writing process that occurs within my STEM course. Why have I been putting it off? Quite honestly, I struggle with writing. I believe in the value of writing, but freely acknowledge that it’s not a strength I possess. Opening up this area of my practice could be humbling, but it’s my hope that we (myself as well as fellow educators) will all benefit from this experience.
I grew up with the belief that I could do anything — that being born a woman wouldn’t impede my path to achieving my goals or obtaining a leadership role. One of two girls, I was raised learning how to fish in the ocean, play sports, and dance. Moreover, both of my parents held two jobs so traditional gender-based roles were not my norm. I often felt empowered because I was surrounded by strong female coaches and role models who inspired me to reach beyond what even I thought possible.
It wasn’t until high school that I understood being a strong, intelligent woman may not always be a popular choice. While running for student body president, I campaigned against a young man who wore a gold colored t-shirt to school every day and took on the nickname “golden boy.” Void of a dense platform, I assumed my marketing, clever ideas, and rich resume would convince the student body that I was the best candidate. Unfortunately, this was an incorrect assumption and I lost in what might be considered a landslide. That moment gave me pause and made me doubt whether I really could do anything. Surely I had the talent to be a leader, but would others be able to see it too?
I count myself among the richest in the world.
No, I don’t have a lot of money or an extravagant home, but I am a teacher. I know most people think teachers are good people because they’re willing to sacrifice and work so hard for a salary that is meager when compared to other professions with similar levels of education. I have to say that I love what I do — I #LoveTeaching. I would certainly appreciate making more money; perhaps enough so I wouldn’t need to supplement my income, but I didn’t go into teaching thinking I would one day be a wealthy woman — at least in the traditional sense of the word.
Yesterday was one of the tough days for me — we’ve all had them — when students seemed to push back on every choice I made, I felt boxed into a lesson I didn’t love, frustration mounted for all of us, my patience ebbed, and pride flowed. The whole endeavor of teaching and learning seemed to hang by a slender thread.
But that thread must be woven of something other-worldly — of unicorn hair and phoenix feathers — because it finds a way to hold every time. That thread tugs, eventually, at the best of who I am and how I want to be. It makes me find a better way.
And that’s how I’ve come to look at, and love, teaching. It’s not easy, ever. Not when the world at large and powers-that-be seem distant and tone deaf to what children and schools need from society. Not when there isn’t close to enough time to plan and prepare to teach as I’d want to ideally. But if I accept that those tensions are there to stay, I can find a way to work through them. And that’s what I’ve decided to do.
The National Board Certification process was one of the most effective exercises I’ve been involved in. The initial process, as well as my subsequent renewal, have proven to be invaluable to my development as an educator. The challenges presented to me have encouraged continued growth within this profession.
I found one of the most difficult aspects of the certification process to be the videotaped reflective piece. This component forced me to critically analyze virtually every aspect of my practice. Lessons learned through critical analysis of the recording have compelled me to find solutions to a wide variety of minor issues that were possibly hindering the success of my students. The videotaping has had such an impact on my classroom that I continue the practice to this day.
This entry is the second post in the series Getting Better Together: A Lesson Study
In my first Lesson Study post, I discussed choosing a mathematical goal and task. In ending the post, I invited you to take some individual think time to work out the four questions posed. This was your time to think about how you would plan the lesson for your class, what sequence you would use, and what questions you would ask. You were also tasked with choosing a warmup to engage your class and a formative assessment strategy. Now it’s time to think about the math and the lesson plan.
This entry is the first post in the series Getting Better Together: A Lesson Study
Don’t you just love those days when a math lesson goes really well? A lesson where, at any given moment, you could look around and see students engaging in a task, persevering through problems, talking with one another about the mathematics, making connections, and in the end, be able to demonstrate understanding of the mathematical goal for the day? While it’s an amazing experience we probably wish we could have every day, there’s also much to be learned when a lesson doesn’t go quite as well.