Lehigh Valley Learns: Growth Through Collaboration

Education faces some mounting challenges as we approach the second decade of the 21st century.  What has largely remained an unchanged institution for the past 100 years is in desperate need of a new look.  Many schools are now approaching or tackling these challenges head on in an effort to revolutionize education to meet the needs of their students.  Despite the pioneering of many individuals, schools, and districts, there are still systemic challenges to education, many of which extend far beyond the reach of any one person or organization.  Such a complex set of challenges requires a multi-faceted solution in order to meet the varying needs of our education system.

There is precedent both in public and private sectors, that help point to a solution that has a proven track record.  Regional innovation clusters support development through a “dynamic mix of researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, and infrastructure, with support from universities and local, state, and federal government policies.¹”  One of the most notable innovation clusters developed during the course of the 1990’s and 2000’s; Silicon Valley.  This region saw a massive amount of growth due to the collaboration of various entities and sectors in the areas surrounding the San Fransisco Bay.  Personnel, monetary, and intellectual capital joined together, in this particular case ,to fuel rapid growth and create systems and feedback needed to continually improve processes and products coming from Silicon Valley.  For the better part of 50 years, Silicon Valley has been a proving ground for many technological breakthroughs as a result of the collaboration taking place in this cluster.  Though more common in the private sector, Innovation clusters have formed in the field of education on a couple of occasions.

Enter Remake Learning.  Somewhat in honor of Remake Learning days, I wanted to take some time to reflect on and share some of the successes and thoughts on one of the most successful innovation clusters in the field of education.  Remake Learning began as an organic organization composed of a few members that began to meet regularly to discuss challenges within their schools.  With the support of the Grable foundation in 2007, thought leaders began to convene to discuss learning and how collaboration can be leveraged to open new opportunities to children living in the Pittsburgh area.  This week Remake Learning is hosting by some accounts more than 300 learning related events for people living in and around Pittsburgh.  Truly amazing what this organization has done to bring learning to everyone, smashing down barriers in the name of equity and opportunity.  How do we build out an extensive network like Remake Learning that brings together more than 250 organizations all with common purpose?

I live in the Lehigh Valley, virtually the opposite side of the state of Pennsylvania, and this location has steadily been growing over the past 20-30 years culturally, economically, and demographically.  Though this area is not necessarily anchored by a major city, it is home to a three quarters of a million people within the tri city (Allentown, Easton, and Bethlehem) and the potential for a dynamic learning ecosystem.  Our world is rapidly evolving and with it, so much education to assure our students are prepared for their future.  Challenges unfortunately extend far beyond any one classroom and include but are not limited to, innovation, pedagogy, technology, teacher preparation, curriculum, equity, professional development, early childhood development, and the list goes on.

Addressing these challenges and scaling solutions will require a complex system of professional relationships.  The Remake Learning Playbook, a roadmap to building collaborative infrastructure, provides us with some helpful starting points through the 5 C’s.

  1. Convene a community of practice.  Our challenges demand that all stakeholders are brought to the table, including those within the school setting (students and parents, educators, and community members) as well as those that lie outside the school including private sector companies involved in education, non profits that are educationally oriented, as well as institutions of higher education.  The more diverse the group the greater opportunity exists to leverage different solutions, the more inclusive the better.
  2. Catalyze the community in order to build capacity for change.  Empowering members within the organization through various means can help move the needle and serve as a beacon for others facing similar challenges. Assistance can take many forms, however monetary and intellectual capital can be two powerful means for assisting growth.
  3. Communicating the work of member groups can help create a narrative that not only sheds light on the work taking place within the organization, but attract new involvement.  Rewriting the narrative in public education needs to be a priority to build trust for innovating within education.
  4. Coordinating the efforts of member organizations can be a daunting challenge, but in the name of efficiency a third party network that closely monitors the work of its members can better inform all parties involved in the educational process.  Too often schools have operated in silos, and therefore, changing ever so slowly.  Coordinating efforts can help propel growth by creating shorter feedback loops between schools, businesses, non profits, and higher education institutions.
  5. Champion the efforts of members and in particular, the students.  It is about them after all.

I have slowly been dedicating time here and there to this cause in the form of Lehigh Valley Learns.  The power of the collective will always be greater than that of the individual and Lehigh Valley Learns is a way to begin to convene, communicate, coordinate and hopefully in the future catalyze and champion our schools in an effort to better meet the needs of our students.  I hope you can follow Lehigh Valley Learns through Facebook and Twitter, and become part of the change our students need to be competitve in a 21st centruy environment.


  1. http://scienceprogress.org/2009/01/regional-centers-of-innovation-101/
  2. http://remakelearning.org/playbook/#chapter-4-network-support-strategies

Lessons from Genius Hour…2 Days in

As an educator, one thing that frustrates me and many others in the profession is the proliferation of standardized testing and the stakes that seem to grow with it year after year.  Testing time has continued to grow as we look to “measure”more and more of what our students know.  The true measure of what our students know cannot be quantified by a couple hundred multiple choice questions; our students are much more than a test score.

This year to help remind my students that not all learning come down to open-ended and multiple choice questions, I decided to stick it to the man and host a Genius Hour Project for my students.  On Tuesday, my students began to grapple with the idea that they could explore anything they wanted to and present their findings at the end of our state testing window.  As of today, all students have selected the essential questions that will drive their research over the next several days in class and though it was a mere two days I have seen some flashes of what can and hopefully will come to fruition.  These are some thoughts on some of the potential impacts of creating more student-centered experiences.

  1. Chaos:  Though a bit of an exaggeration, the classroom is abuzz with activity.  Students building, coloring, voice recording, researching, creating.  This is not your traditional classroom, and logically this would be the case as the classroom shifts to focus not on what the teacher does, but what the students can and will do.  Be prepared for a bit of uncertainty and more importantly fun!
  2. Building strong relationships:  One of the best things about student-centered learning is that as the teacher, I am not required to spend minute after minute directing traffic.  In a student-centered environment, my time is spent working with small groups and individual students and meeting them where they are, and where their needs are. My focus each and every time I switch from person to person is their focus.  It allows me to interact with the students at a much deeper level each and every time.
  3. We’re learning?:  In two days I can’t count how many times I have had students say to me this is fun because we aren’t doing anything!  Seventh graders have a very unique way of saying thanks for meeting me where I’m at.  When learning is a passion, it comes very easy, and dare I say can be fun.  The reality that student-centered learning brings to the table has the potential to turn education on its head in a very positive way.

I am incredibly eager to see how these projects turn out.  In simplest terms, this project was worth the time simply for the fact that my students can find joy and passion in learning.

The Case for Collaboration and Innovation

The last 10 years have seen various sectors of the economy turned on its head, due in large part to the emergence of B2C (business to consumer) organizations leveraging the power of technology.  You do not have to look far to find examples of this business model and successful businesses taking this approach.  Facebook is the world’s premier media company but does not produce any content.  The largest taxi company in the world, Uber, owns no cars.  The largest living accommodation provider, Airbnb, owns no hotels.  The meteoric rise of these companies all have one thing in common, and that is they exploit economic inefficiencies.

If it is a fascinating business story it is also an encouraging economic one. The only way our economy, or indeed any developed economy, is going to get richer is by becoming more efficient. What these technologies do is to enable existing infrastructure to be used more efficiently. -Hamish McCrae

The catalyst, in the case of economy, was the emergence and ubiquity of the mobile device and ability of those devices to connect to the web.  New technologies have made the possibility of exploiting these inefficiencies possible.  It is here that we find what could be an incredible parallel between the stories of our modern economy and that of education.

Though the story varies greatly from place to place some schools are approaching that ubiquity point, so the question is why hasn’t the fundamental narrative mirrored that of the economy?  Why hasn’t there been an Uber of education?

The answer lies in the current structures with which education operates.  Education processes that predominate today are archaic in most cases with outliers being an exception as opposed to the norm.  For the past several decades schools have focused their gaze within, operating as silos isolated from like institutions.  As a result of that policy, schools have been slow to innovate and change simply because, unlike our economy, external forces have not commanded it.

To further the analogy,  just like McCrae and the economy, there are encouraging signs in education.  Sharing, collaboration, and innovation is springing up in pockets across the globe.  Schools are adopting sustaining innovations in the form of devices that will continue to steadily improve learning outcomes.  Some schools have even gone the route of adopting disruptive innovation in the form of virtual or distance learning.  Professional development practices are coming under the microscope, and new innovative models for developing yourself professionally are becoming more accessible.

Technology is smashing down barriers that once existed in  almost every facet of society.  Education is poised for the same change that we see in our economy, but the key in all this is that the successes we find within our schools as we continue to take risks for the sake of growth, is that we share.  Collaboration is indeed the key to exploiting our inefficiencies and revolutionizing education.

In light of the remarks above, I would like to put a quick plug for Lehigh Valley Learns. If you are going to talk the talk you better walk the walk, and such is the case with Lehigh Valley Learns.  The goal of this organization is to lead through collaboration by helping connect schools, businesses, non profits, and higher education to form a regional learning eco system.  If you live in the greater Lehigh Valley Area check out our Twitter and Facebook presence, and hopefully soon, our website.

Thanks for your time and attention.




The Leader in You: Developing Teacher Leaders

Teachers leaders occupy a very unique space in public education, often straddling the line between various roles.  This is especially true in organizations that do not build structures in place to formally recognize these individuals.  That being said, many of these individuals have to balance two worlds that are strikingly different and suffice to say it can be tricky.  This blog will serve as part one in a two-part blog series focusing on teacher leaders.  This first post will take the perspective of the teacher leader and focus on some of the ways and considerations teacher leaders must take given their unique position.

What exactly is a teacher leader?

“In schools, the term teacher-leader is commonly applied to teachers who have taken on leadership roles and additional professional responsibilities.”

Before looking beyond the surface here it is worth mentioning that all teachers are leaders in our own way within each and every one of our classrooms.  Our leadership in this realm must focus on continually learning and growing along with our students.  However many of us continue to serve our students and communities beyond the classroom walls, and these roles can be as diverse as our students are. Teacher leaders roles can be defined into categories like curriculum, instruction, or even school leadership (serving as team leader, committee member, etc.).  They can also serve niche areas that may not have a formal position such as mentoring, community outreach, other school-based activities.

Regardless of the role you may be filling your contributions are critical to the success of your organization, however, we are all capable of performing critical functions outside of our classrooms that can advance the work we do in the classroom.  This post is a look at how anyone can be an agent of change and become a teacher leader.

  1. Start Small-  There is so much that is happening within our schools as a result of changes occurring to all sorts of internal and external stimuli.  The system as it stands in most school districts was built on now archaic top-down models that have not adapted to the times.  The net result is that there is way too much to do and not enough time and bodies to do it.  With that in mind, find something small that involves a need not immediately addressed in your school.  Perhaps it is as simple as sharing a lesson or  a new tool you have found.  Nothing is too small if it means that even one student or teacher will benefit from its use.
  2. Come from a place of Comfort-  Every single person who is or ever will be in a place of leadership was once the “low guy on the totem pole.”  That being said focus on an area that you are comfortable with or better yet even passionate about.  Much like in number one, the key is to find an underserved area and then to address it hopefully in a way that will bring a positive impact to the school culture.
  3. Take a Chance-  My father was an educator for 40 years, and one of the most memorable pieces of advice he gave he is that “as a teacher we don’t ever have to ask when is the last time you have done something for someone else.”  We get up and serve our students, our school, and our communities each and every day.  So long as our risks and our chances have the potential to impact our students in a positive way, it is worth the possible result.  The reality is that some of our chances or risks may result in failure, but that hardly means a risk wasn’t worth it.  Failure is not the opposite of success, it is part of success.

Regardless of where you are at on your journey in education, we all have the capacity to demonstrate leadership.  Lead by example, you never know who’s watching. Lead up!

My Journey Into Blended Learning

It was 2010 and I had just completed my first year teaching, in which digital devices were available in my classroom.  The computers were large, slow, and relatively limited in their ability to deliver instruction, but that didn’t matter the seed had been sewn.

Fast forward 6 years.

No longer a novelty, technology has begun to permeate every possible nook and cranny of teaching and learning, and with it has come vast new experiences and opportunities for our students.  My early experiences, though just a glimpse of that opportunity, helped form my own personal philosophy and beliefs on how and why technology can help me and my students teach and learn.  This post is going to look at my own personal journey with regards to blended and online learning.

From moment one when my students began to leverage technology in my face to face classroom, I knew that technology had the potential to serve as a solution to many of the aging nuances that traditional education had engrained in our youth.  Digital media has transformed the world for many, but especially our youth.  Accordingly, our approach to teaching must change with it, as the world we are preparing them for is strikingly different than that of 10 years ago.  Having said that, the qualities that we must instill in our students are far more diverse than the traditional reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Though these still remain important, focus needs to shift to areas such as creativity, critical thinking, communication across many different platforms, and collaboration all within a digital world.  As I continue to leverage technology, my goal is to instill these core values into my everyday practice, all the while demonstrating the power of teaching and learning with technology.

Engaging students in a digital world can be a very challenging task, particularly when our students have all sorts of different experiences and preconceptions about what technology is and isn’t.  In order for us to leverage technology, we must often deconstruct and then reconstruct, why and how we use technology for learning.  By modeling the effective and responsible use of technology my hope is that we are able to engage students in a way that allow them to see technology as a key to their future.  With such a fluid and rapidly changing world, our goal as teachers needs to in part focus on creating and fostering the desire of our students to become life-long learners.

On a personal level, my classroom has and always will be an ever-evolving work in progress, in order to best meet the needs of my students.  One of the primary challenges that I am expending a lot of time and energy on is creating an engaging community within my classroom.  Though reach of technology continues to grow each day, our world is still built on human to human interaction, and it is those interactions and relationships that shape who we are. I believe one of my biggest challenge is engaging students in a digital community and teaching them how to leverage technology to enhance our world.

Though creating online learning communities can be a challenge, there are three methods I have been leveraging in my class to help create an online community.

  1. Model, model, model.  No different than more traditional methods, it is important we model what effective and responsible use looks like.  Anytime online communication is required within my class, I try to model what responsible behavior looks like.
  2. Have consistent high expectations for online behavior.  Just like in a face to face setting, if we have clear expectations that students can follow, they know where the line is in the sand is drawn.
  3. Use the teachable moments.  When students choose not to be responsible and effectively engaged digital citizens, use those decisions as a way to teach them WHY those decisions are not constructive and how they could make other choices in the future.

Though we are all at different parts of our own digital journeys, creating a community that uses technology to enhance our classrooms is something that all educators should take seriously.  Using some of the methods outlined above, I hope you find value in this post and are able to open up your classrooms to a new bright future with the use of digital learning.

Learning in an Era of Micro-Moments

I’ve been very intrigued in the last several weeks maybe even months, with some concepts in marketing, branding, and business in general. You can’t speak in these areas without touching on social media and its impact on the aforementioned. One particular concept that has me thinking is the idea of micro-moments.

So what are micro moments and why do they matter to teaching? Micro moments are a series of decisions a consumer makes on the way to a decision. Not only is this term applied to products and services, but also information. One can see this clear example with the advent of advertising through social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine etc.

Follow my logic. Consumer behavior and human behavior in general has been revolutionized by mobile access. Has this change in information consumption infiltrated learning? Case and point, Skillshare. Recently Skillshare reached its millionth student, a significant achievement in an open source learning environment. Users have the ability to choose from many types of courses, but each course is broken up into 3–5 minute snippets; quiet the shift compared to 40–60 minute lectures. A perfect example for how learning can cater to new age consumer behavior. Below I have listed three take aways that educators will need to be considerate of in an age where micro moments are the norm.


Without a doubt one of the most important skills students today can master, involve aggregating and curating web based content. Sorting through the mess that is the web, finding what is important, and leveraging the new knowledge is going to trump necessities of the past. With the explosive growth of the Internet and with no end in sight, content curation needs to be at the forefront of much of what we do as educators.


Feedback loops. Video games have crushed this idea, and the popularity of the game is closely linked to the use of these loops. Frequent feedback in games and in learning can make the user or learner experience that much more rich. Long periods of time between feedback can be tough for learners to deal with. Though we must teach and emphasize grit, we should be cognizant of the fact that feedback can be powerful in terms of driving achievement.


Platforms are critical for success. Skillshare’s mobile platform allows for me to connect almost any time anywhere. Learning on demand needs to be an option for our students. The world is now their classroom and the access to just in time information can make or break a user experience.

This is very much just skimming the surface and in no way constitutes a complete list of considerations for teaching in micro moments. The intersection between consumer behavior and learning is just reaching a tipping point and so conversation on the topic is critical to the future of education.


What if It’s Us?

What if it’s us?

Today ended and there were two moments today that brought this blog post together.

I was discussing with a colleague a student who has been a “struggling learner,” but yet has demonstrated technical knowledge that exceeds many of the professionals I work with. His abilities happen to lie outside of our core curriculum, specifically in the area of computer science. He recently talked to me about his ability to root basic devices (toys, old phones, etc.), allowing him to essentially “hack” or control these devices remotely.

The second moment was in over hearing a conversation about screen time. Two colleagues were discussing there thoughts on screen time in schools debating what the appropriate amount of screen time is. There seemed to be some charged feelings with regards the topic.

Putting these two events later in the day led me to begin thinking…what if it’s us?

The picture at left eludes to not only the depth with which disruption has occurred, but if we look deeper the pace. None of the companies listed above existed before 2000. In less than 15 years various sectors have had their inefficiencies exploited by technology. Prevailing attitudes by leaders in each industry dictated their appearance on the list.

Clearly consumer and cultural paradigms have shifted and that includes our students. The current lens through which we view education will need to be adjusted accordingly. What was once 20–20 vision has now become a blur, as evidence by the rapid knee jerk shifts occurring regularly at the state and federal level. What gains and what loses relevance in the 21st century will surely be a major discussion. Regardless it will be a process, and will take time. The “traditional” model of education as many would call it is the product of nearly 100 years of blood sweat and tears, and surely this shift will be much the same.

Unfortunately this post is most likely preaching to the choir, so please share across platforms and modalities. Rethinking the focus of education is of utmost importance to our nations youth and each day we are late is an opportunity missed. Innovative educators will be needed to help move the needle.