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3 Tips to Help Make Remote Learning More Personal

May 13, 2020

How can we make sure that remote learning feels as personal as a traditional classroom experience? As schools are in the midst of a sudden shift to remote learning, we’re all tackling this question. So I went back to a podcast interview I conducted last spring for some inspiration.

Thomas Murray is the author of the book Personal & Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences That Impact a Lifetime, which was released late last year. I’ve known Tom for several years, he’s a fellow ASCD author and I’ve had the chance to see Tom keynote and present at a number of EdTech events. Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the podcast we recorded in November. 

During our discussion, Tom was kind enough to share stories from his new book, tips for creating personal and authentic learning experiences, plenty of EdTech connections, and of course, actionable information that you can put into practice right away. 

Making Remote Learning More Personal

Since this book is all about making sure that learning experiences are personal and authentic for students, I reached out to Tom this spring to see if he had had a few tips to help make remote learning more personal. Here’s what Tom had to share:

Tip #1 – Lead with Empathy

It’s imperative to remember that many of your students may have very different life experiences than you do. Things you take for granted may be things your students long for at home. Teacher empathy is key to remote learning success.

Tip #2 – Lead with Equity

Equity in opportunity and equity in access have been brought into the spotlight; something that has been long overdue. As a teacher, show grace and flexibility for your students that may not have connectivity at home or have limited bandwidth due to shared devices and connectivity. Ensure that children that don’t have these essentials at home are always a priority.

Tip #3 – Lead with Heart

“Social distancing” is the worst and most inaccurate phrase of this pandemic. Physical distancing makes sense, but we need to be more social and provide more opportunities for connections than ever before. Just like in a face-to-face classroom, social-emotional learning must remain at the core, so too is the case during remote learning. So, make time for students to connect informally, both with you and with their peers.

Now let’s dive into the interview! Which you can also listen to using the play button below. This bonus episode of the Easy EdTech Podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Personal & Authentic Learning Experiences

Monica: Thank you for joining me today for this bonus episode of the Easy EdTech Podcast. For those folks listening who are new to your work, can you share a bit about your role in education and in this EdTech space?

Tom: Sure. I’d be honored to. Hello, everybody. It is awesome to be with you. I’m Tom Murray. I’m currently the Director of Innovation for Future Ready Schools. We are a bipartisan, nonprofit group out of Washington, D.C. I share that because I get to work with thousands of educators. Many times, it’s teachers; many times it’s superintendents, principals, instructional coaches, tech leaders.

So my role varies all across the board, but a lot of it is focused on the effective use of EdTech. So one of the areas… It’s been a passion. Monica, we’ve been friends for so many years and I respect your work tremendously and the work that you do. When I think about your book around tasks before apps, it’s really in the work and the space we do. It really has that same premise. We are spending so much money on EdTech. How do we make sure that the dollars we’re spending are used well so that it has an impact on learning?

I know that we would both agree that just because something is digital doesn’t mean it’s any good. My work with educators is to help them say, “We’ve got these amazing tools.” EducationSuperHighway came out with another report saying up to 99% of schools now have the connectivity that they need for kids. So it’s helping them on one hand out of DC on a high level policy end in advocating around things where our traditionally marginalized groups of students that have limited access for things like the homework gap at home and connectivity at the high level, or working with teachers, just like I was doing the other day in Ohio, saying, “When we’re using EdTech in the space in our classrooms, what does the effective use actually look like and how can we leverage tools and apps for things like formative assessment and those levels?”.

So one of the things that I love about being able to do the work that I do is: I’m never bored. Sometimes it’s the highest levels in DC from a policy end, and sometimes it’s really where the rubber hits the road. My favorite place is working side-by-side with teachers and admin on how we support the great work that they are doing every day, and fortunately, EdTech has been a passion of mine. It’s an area that I can work in very consistently with them.

Personal and Authentic Learning

Monica: I love how you said you get to work with a bunch of different groups, right? So really seeing that policy component, but then that time with teachers in classrooms. I know I feel the same way, that that’s really such a special part of all of this work that we do. I’m actually at the ASCDCEL conference this week.

We’re both ASCD authors, and I love your book, Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today. It’s on my bookshelf and was excited to feature it on the blog when it came out. Your new book is very different, and I was excited to jump in. I absolutely loved the stories and the actionable items within each chapter, but I’d love for you to tell us about: What made you decide it was time to share your new book, Personal & Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences That Impact a Lifetime? What made you ready to share this with the world?

Tom: Thank you so much for the shout out. Going back to Learning Transformed, Eric Sheninger and I co-authored that, really with a particular purpose of: How do we get on the desks of the decision makers that are leading the work in schools? Whether it’s your superintendents, your curriculum directors, that have such an impact. If they’re not on board and helping to shift the system, it can be really difficult to support teachers in a way that they need to, and so Learning Transformed was very research-heavy; very research to practice.

Michael Fullan called it a blueprint for systems change when it comes to schools. And you’re right, Personal & Authentic, my new book, is completely different. It’s actually much more like I speak… Much more like if I’m doing a keynote for an event or presenting with teachers. This is much more geared towards the classroom focus, and so as you shared, this one is much more narrative and story.

I’ll be really vulnerable throughout the podcast just because in my book I really was. I just lay it out there and I talk a lot about my own failures. I talk a lot about struggles that I had and I talk a lot about reflecting on days, driving home, wondering if I had the courage that it takes to be a teacher every day. Part of that is that sense of needing to lead with humility in that work, because people can relate to that.

So when I take a look at this book, it was really… I felt like it was time to share my story. I didn’t do a whole lot of that from a narrative in Learning Transformed because it was much more that research to practice, and really what it looks like on a systems end; where this one is much more a reflection on some of my days teaching and some of the struggles that I had, and being just really vulnerable with that.

And you’re right, I share some very, very personal stories in there that, I’ll be real and said, as I wrote them, some of them I wrote for the very first time. Some things I’ve shared in certain events or places like that, that are hard for me to share without having tears in my eyes. I will tell you that some of these pieces… I’ve never had this before in a book.

As I wrote, I reflected and I had some tears. Part of that is just the understanding of the work we do as educators is so real. It can be so raw at times. It is so challenging and so difficult, and I never want to forget where I came from, even in the national work that we do. I never want to forget what it’s like to teach, say, fourth grade on a given day, and how difficult and challenging it is.

So I wrote it to inspire and encourage, yet at the same time, challenge and push us out of our comfort zones. When people put down that book for the last time, I want them taking a breath saying, “I can do this.”, and also having an understanding of the impact that they have. One of the themes throughout is that they get to leave their fingerprints on the lives of generations to come. To me, that is not a utopian-esque thought. That is an absolute real, tried and true. When I look back to my own schooling experience, when I was a student growing up or a child growing up, and I look back at the impact, here we are decades and decades later. It’s still the fingerprints that were of teachers of mine, or principal leaders of mine that I can still feel on my life generations later.

Really, I felt like it was time to continue to encourage and inspire, but also, to really look at it. I’d share the one last piece that really makes it different. There’s a lot of pieces that I wrote through the eyes of being a dad, and so when I look at some of the medical needs of my own children, and I look at, “What are the hopes I have for my own kids?”, it goes far beyond content and curriculum. It’s about seeing them as a person. So I’m open to sharing some of the thoughts like I do throughout the book, of some of the challenges my own children haven’t being vulnerable in that, so that their teachers see them as more than data points and test scores, but see them as the children that they are first and foremost.

Writing that and pulling it together was really to give teachers hope. I very rarely will ever go to a building and everybody’s saying, “Nope, we’re good and we don’t need anything. Nobody’s stressed out.” Instead, I would say like, I never hear that. It’s always people that are just running, and going and going and going. So taking a look at things like self-care and making sure that we are taking care of ourselves in this process is so vital because our teachers need and deserve that, but of course, most importantly, our students need and deserve that as well.

Being Vulnerable & Relatable

Monica: So all of these pieces, the stories that you share, that vulnerability component of really being honest in talking about struggles in the past and reflecting on what previous experiences have had in terms of an impact on the work that you do now. I mean, have you seen in other spaces that you go to, the schools that you visit, the school leaders that you speak to, do you see a lot of that vulnerability while you’re out in the field, or do you think that there’s hesitation from other folks who share that?

Tom: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good question. I would say, in… So I look into this in two ways. One, to adjust your question head-on from an educator end. I think there is often hesitation, but to me, it’s a direct sign of culture. In a culture in a building where people feel like they belong, where there is trust because trust is really the foundation of those relationships, and relationships is that foundation of culture, people will be more, more vulnerable. But in a toxic environment or an environment where, let’s say a principal rules by fear, vulnerability is seen as a weakness, as seen as you don’t know what you’re doing. Then thus, our brains are wired for that safety, and it doesn’t come natural to do it. So to answer that part of your question, there is hesitation all over the place.

Going back to my personal side, one of the things I committed to a number of years ago, and I know you’ve been at a bunch of events where I speak; I will never stand in front of an audience. One of the commitments that I make, and I’ll share this publicly, I will never stand in front of an audience and tell people how well I did something. I’ll never stand up there, pat myself on the back and say, “Look at me, and look how perfect my school was when I was a principal, and when I was in a classroom, look how perfect my classroom seating was.”

I will never stand in front of people and do that ever, because on one hand, the arrogance is a huge turnoff for me. If I’m listening to a speaker or I’m writing a book, and that person comes across as they’ve got it perfected, I’m out. I want nothing to do with the person, because the entire time I’m thinking, “Come on. You’re not being real. You’re telling me you’ve perfected all this?”

One of the things is… Putting myself back to that early teacher who was struggling and… I remember I’d have colleagues talking about, “Well, next month when we get to…”, and I’m thinking like, “Next month? I’m just trying to make it until 3PMtoday, you know?” So never forgetting what that feels like to just keep my head above water. On Tuesday, I was in front of about 2,000 educators. If I stand up there and basically just read them the riot act and what they need to do, I lose people, understandably so, in a minute.

From a humility end, I will never do that. So when I look at… In the way writing Personal & Authentic, what I have found is people relate to vulnerability. Now, I will tell you, I really put myself out there; in stories that I tell, in areas where my mindset was off, where I will share where I was looking at things wrong and it took a mentor whacking me upside the head and saying, “Maybe it’s you that’s the problem, and not the kids.”

It’s moments like that that I really believe people can relate to. I think when we’re vulnerable in our work and we have that mindset, even today people… This morning, somebody asked me, “How do you know so much about X?” I kind of laughed and said, “Look, it’s an area that I’ve been working, but I still have a lot to learn.” I think the moment we think we’ve arrived in these areas is the moment of our first step back, because what would we expect for kids in the classroom?

We expect them to have that growth mindset to own what they do, to own their mistakes, to keep moving forward. So how do we model that? When I look at it in the classroom, if kids look at us as teachers, as they know everything about their curriculum area, they know everything about every aspect that they’re teaching and they never see that teacher make mistakes; as lovingly as I can, they can’t relate to you because they don’t know what that’s like.

So whether I’m speaking in front of an audience or working side-by-side with teachers, I’ve learned to just be very vulnerable in the work, and people can relate to failures. It also shows that lesson through failure, so it’s not just listening like, “Hey, here’s Tom’s top 10 ways he’s messed up life.” It’s very much about the way that my mindset was off or the way that something really hit me.

I can share some of those examples if you want, but I think that vulnerability people can relate to. To me, it’s just so important. Throughout Personal & Authentic, there’s many stories of whether it was when I was a teacher and I wasn’t modeling what I was asking for, for my kids; when I was a principal and I would lead a faculty meeting in the exact opposite way I would ask my teachers to teach. It was just putting it out there, and part of it is really to help people reflect.

I think throughout the book, I created these points where it’s literally called, “Stop and reflect.”In the middle of a section or a chapter, you’ll see, “Stop and reflect.”And it’s really questions to help them reflect. It’s often after times where I share how I messed something up or my mindset was off, and then I challenge them with a similar question, “Has there ever been a time where once you learned the story about a child, your mindset changed based on them what you thought because you understood the why?,” and those kinds of examples. So to me, that vulnerability really is everything.

Leading with Transparency

Monica: Vulnerability can be such a scary word, right? Sometimes we all associate it with that idea of giving some of ourself or putting ourselves out there, but I really like how you brought it back to that word “relatable”, which doesn’t feel as scary, right? When we are vulnerable, when we are sharing, when we are able to reflect and talk about those experiences, that relatability, I think, can impact some change. It gets people thinking about how something connects to their own experience. It brings it to a level that everyone can connect to.

Tom: I think, Monica… I think an example… A lot of times, I do get the privilege of working with principals and I really love pushing their thoughts on this as well because when I was a middle school principal and I was an elementary principal, part of my mindset was like, “Hey, everybody’s watching. My teachers are looking for me for direction. They’re looking at me to feed the answers,” and it’s so easy to feel like, “Okay, I’ve got to have this all together.

I’ve got to look at it like I know those things because they’re relying on me,” and of course, we’ve got to be competent. I’m not talking about not being competent in that regard, but at the same time, the vulnerability of standing in front of a staff and saying, “You know, gang, last month I made that decision and it did not go the way that I thought it was going to go, and I’m going to own that and I apologize, because I know that created some chaos. So we’re going to regroup and I’m going to get your thoughts on how we can do this better.”

Teachers see the value in that because they know what that feels like in the classroom. They know what it’s like to have a well planned lesson, the principal is in the back of the room; we’re serving kids, so it goes haywire for one reason or another, and then when they regroup, the value for a principal to be able to say, “You know what? Last month when I did that, and then in our faculty meeting I was talking about it, I know that feeling and it’s okay. It’s going to happen.” Really, I think our legacy is all too often built in the moments where we don’t know what to do — not just in those moments where we’re riding the wave and things are fun and things are going well.

It’s what happens when we don’t know what to do. What happens when the principal is…I’m a teacher and the principal is walking in, and they’re sitting there for the observation, and every teacher in the world wants to do an amazing job during those observations because they want to show the great things that are happening in their classrooms. There you are, and it’s “All right, take out the Chromebooks or take out the iPads, and let’s get signed in and let’s get rolling,” and the Wi-Fi goes down. How do we handle that moment? So part of what I talk about in the book is this idea around failing forward. It’s not if, it’s when. And those moments of uncertainty create opportunities for our leadership legacy.

Those moments where we fail or those moments where things don’t go our way, it’s an opportunity to get up and to keep trying to model to those, for those that look to us for direction, perseverance. So when our kids in our classrooms see us, when something doesn’t go our way or the Wi-Fi goes down, or we’re trying to get something to work on a projector and it doesn’t, or if something we’re trying to use isn’t working; in that moment, how we respond in front of kids teaches them in life when things don’t go our way, how do we fail forward? How do we pick ourselves up and how do we keep running? And to me, that is such a valuable life skill.

Monica: It’s so valuable. Sometimes they think that becomes the memory, or the most memorable part of an experience. I know there’s plenty of times where I’ve presented to a group, and maybe the Wi-Fi wasn’t very strong right at the site, or a projector light bulb was being funky. I think to myself sometimes: Maybe it’s the way that I handled that, in the sense that, “It’s okay, we’re going to look at this,” or, “Pull this up on your device.” I wonder sometimes if those more teachable moments are the ones that people remember, as opposed to some of the content or the reasons I came someplace, right? Those management strategies, those pieces. You’re right. Those are the things we remember when we get into a moment of struggle when we see someone else who’s been successful, tackling a situation that’s a little bit challenging.

“Try This” & “Make It Stick”

Monica: One thing you mentioned, Tom, was about some of the items within the book, the reflection questions. I really love how you have, “Try this and make it stick,” sections throughout the book ranging from committing to sharing diverse stories, or overcoming adversity and reminders on the importance of taking one-on-one times for quick catch-ups with students. I’m curious if there’s a particular small moment or special story that really inspired you to make sure that some of these tips would be peppered throughout the book.

Tom: As an author, it’s: How do you consider your audience? For me, I’m looking at: How do I make this a book that encourages and inspires, but also is something that they can do in their classroom that afternoon?” Or they can read and say, “You know what? I can try that tomorrow.” So knowing that there’s going to be a kindergarten teacher reading my book, a high school physics teacher reading the book, and a superintendent, it’s: How do you meet the needs of all of those and not just have a one-size-fits-all approach? The make it stick, I came up with because I recognize that I have one lens. It’s a white male lens that has a lot of privilege in a lot of ways. There’s so many people out there doing amazing work that have just very different viewpoints.

So there’s about 50 make it sticks throughout the book. So the way that I did that, number one, is I wanted to find a lot of diverse voices. People that have different lenses than I do, different backgrounds than I do, have taught different grades than I do. I wanted kindergarten teachers, I wanted high school teachers, I wanted middle school principals. I wanted practitioners and saying, “What does this look like for you?”

So what I would do is I worked with about 50 different people that are practitioners in school in some way, and I sent them a section and said, “You know what? I’m thinking about this section right here. You’re somebody that comes to mind in my opinion. What’s a two or three sentence thing that somebody could try tomorrow to make what we’re talking about here in an area that I think you shine actually happen?”

So they created this two or three sentences… Just kind of make it stick, a way to actually do it because I know that practitioners and all they have on their plates, they want those practical ideas to try something. It’s not just this idea of: We’re doing it wrong or we’re doing it right, let’s celebrate. It’s very much: Well, what can I do? It really comes from this preference of: So what, now what? Say this idea of social-emotional learning is one of the areas that I talk about in the Personal & Authentic framework, well, we get it and we can talk about it. We all know the whole child is important, but what do I actually do to make it work in the classroom? So it’s meant to be really practical.

The Try This, is really a section where I wracked my brain and said, “Okay, if I’m a principal working side-by-side with a teacher, and that teacher were to say to me, whether when I was a secondary principal or an elementary principal, “Well, how do I do that?” What are the things that I would say?” Well, try this. So some of them are directed towards principals, some of them are directed towards teachers, but it’s really meant to be practical in nature because to me, when I work with thousands of people in a given year, understandably so, they want those practical takeaways. So those sections are fully designed just for that.

Monica: I love how they are ones that… As you mentioned, you can really tell are two different groups. You might see something that sticks out for you for a current role, or you might grab an idea that you share with someone else or who you work with throughout the school day that you know might resonate with the group of students they work with. So, having that nice wide range, I think, is really just a wonderful way to encompass all the different things that people might come into a book with in terms of their background and experience.

I have to say, Tom, that when I read the book, I think it’s fantastic and that’s why I brought you on today for this first guest for a bonus episode of the Easy EdTech Podcast because I think it’s really hard to find resources that are both inspiring with the big ideas, with the narrative stories that you share, and actionable; that you can put into practice right away.

Making Reflection Actionable

Monica: I know when I lead professional development for teachers or instructional coaches, I often frame goal setting when we kind of wrap up at the end of our day or end of our session into this week, this month, this year type of language, going from a shorter to a longer term. If you are talking with a teacher, a coach, a school administrator, I know you work with a large audience about making learning really authentic and personal. What is something they could do within that month time frame that they could tackle within a few weeks in that chunk of the school year?

Tom: Sure, and that’s a great question. Again, talking about making it actionable, and I’ll tie the two together. One of the things going back to the Try This and the Make It Stick is I really also wanted to look at it from an end of: It’s not a, “Try this, go spend $1,000 and bring it into your classroom to do this,” because people would laugh at that, right? We know that’s not feasible. So part of what I would say here that we can do is I’ll make it two-fold. One is the importance of reflection and focusing on the why. Let me give you a quick example. One of the stories I tell in the book around EdTech, this is where it hits me, and Monica, I think you may have heard me tell this story at a keynote that I did.

18 years ago in my classroom, I was teaching fourth grade. 18 years ago, I was one-to-one. PalmPilots. So there I was, and the quick story goes like this. This is where from an EdTech end and a reflection end, this is where it really hit me, and this is where my mindset changed. So there I was. My principal was coming in, he wanted to do an observation, it was the following week. I get the observation email and I’m all jazzed up. Here I am, I’m one of the few test classrooms in our district, and we’re one-to-one PalmPilots, baby, and we’re going to be using all this technology. So there it was, and he wanted to see a spelling lesson for whatever reason.

So there we were, and for the entire time, all 30 minutes, technology was used the entire time. Essentially, kids were beaming their independent spelling lists back and forth. One would write it, they’d beam it to the other, they would check it, and they went back and forth and back and forth. So as they did that, my principal observed and watched, and I will tell you, my lesson plan was followed to the minute.

I used technology the entire time, every kid was engaged the entire time, and as a 22 year old, I remember feeling like I should drop the mic because that principal, that’s how you observe a lesson right there. I hope you caught all that because that was some brilliance, I dropped the mic, sent them out to recess. The next day I go down to my principal and I will tell you just the full disclosure piece. He was an amazing principal that set the culture of vulnerability. He was one that would be vulnerable in front of us and he created a culture of innovation, a culture of risk taking. But he would also push us.

You see, in those cultures, it’s not that anything goes and it’s just about everybody’s feelings. You can do that and be hyper-focused on high quality instruction and no-nonsense kind of thing. He pulls me down the next day, and I remember walking down being like, “I can’t wait to hear how great the principal thought I was the entire lesson yesterday,” and I still joke about it years later, but it’s true.

So I walked down and like, we’ve all heard… so I sat down, the principal looked at me and he said, “So Tom, how do you think the lesson went?” I smiled. I said, “Bill, I’ve got to be honest. The kids were engaged the entire time. I used technology the entire time. I mean, they were using their PalmPilots the whole time.” So he kind of smiled and he nodded his head. He said, “So Tom, what were your learning objectives?”

I said, “Well, we wanted to use the PalmPilots be able to…”, and he cut me off. He said, “No Tom, what were your learning objectives?” I said, “We wanted to use the PalmPilots to be able to…” He said, “Tom, stop. Every time I ask you about learning you start talking about the technology,” and he really pushed on it. Again, he didn’t rip my heart out. He was pushing me because he knew instructionally, this is where I needed to go.

He said, “I really think you planned that lesson because the technology could do something, not because it was the best way to learn something.” He said, “Tom, let me give you an example. If you took the PalmPilots out of the equation, could they have sat side-by-side, pencil and paper and done the exact same amount of the things that they did in six or seven minutes without the technology?”

I remember my head kind of turning being like, “He’s spot on.” So here’s where I go back to your question. I tell that story… Yes, that’s vulnerability because that’s a time where my mindset was off. I was so hyper-focused on creating something because of the shiny devices that we had that I lost focus of: Is that the best use of the minutes that we had? Not that that practice or that repetition is bad, but could I have been more efficient in the time if I wasn’t using the tech? And the answer is absolutely yes. So going back to the question of: If I’m a teacher, what’s something I can do in the next month? To me, the importance of reflection on our why and our purpose in all that we do.

It is so easy, especially for somebody on social media, things get glorified on social media left and right, that are honestly, at the end of the day, real low level practices. It’s evaluating some of the things that we do and just being critical of ourselves. I don’t mean critical in a bad way, but just being critical of the: Is this the best way to really do that, or am I glorifying the digital simply because it’s digital?

The flip side… they will take that reflection on the why and those pieces, but then I would start to really process going back to that authentic and personal piece and really look at: How are we meeting the stories inside of each child? So one of the pieces, here we are, we are in November and we’ve gotten to know our kids, but do we really know the stories inside of our kids?

One more idea that I’ll give over the next month is one of the areas that I had written about. It’s really around the hidden stories within. When we take something like EdTech, we can leverage great tools to get to know kids’ stories in ways that can be confidential with us. Whether it’s a feedback form as kids walk into the classroom, and, “How are you feeling today? What’s one thing on your mind today?,” and every child gets to share.

We can leverage tools for the social-emotional side to create those connections that then you can lead to, “Hey, I just got to hear from 30 of my kids in my second grade class that I can now quickly look at where their hearts are at today.” I think those are some really practical, tangible ways that we can make that actually work, but refocusing on the reflection and the why. So just a couple of ideas or thoughts that I think could be in the next month that we can refocus on.

Monica: I love both of those pieces because they’re so doable and really customizable. You might have reflection that takes place on your own, right? In a journaling kind of format where you’re just looking back at the month and saying, “Here’s what I want to do in a month forward.” You might have a mentor or mentee to have a conversation about what you’d like to accomplish over that time frame, reflecting on those experiences, but then of course, you could leverage digital experiences to get kids talking and reflecting too in a short-term connection to your goals for them to think about what they’ve experienced so far this school year.

Moments of Awe

Monica: Let’s continue with this EdTech spin, true to the idea of the Easy EdTech Podcast. I’d love, Tom, if we could zoom into some ways to leverage technology when designing personal and authentic learning experiences. You talk in your book about moments of awe. I love that phrase, including the use of virtual reality and maker spaces too. So what is exactly… Like when you say that term, “moment of awe,” what are you getting at there? Then how might technology come into play there in a really meaningful way?

Tom: Yeah, so I’m a huge fan of EdTech to put that out there. I think it’s focusing on the right uses of it, and on one hand, I’m always hesitant when I say that because there are certainly times and places where technology can make things more efficient and that has a lot of value, but it’s understanding the premise of just because something is digital doesn’t mean it’s better or good. I just shared my own story with that as one example where that really hit me. But I think about moments of awe. I think about: What are those moments that when kids come home, they can’t stop talking about? My daughter, just two days ago, just had one in science class. They got to dissect a sheep brain, and I will tell you, to this day, she can’t stop talking about it.

It’s those light bulb moments and it’s that that kindergartner that reads the sentence independently for the first time, right around this point in the year, and they look up at the teacher like, “I just did it. I just did it!”. Or it’s the fourth grader in the back of the classroom with electricity and magnetism, and they’re doing some sort of PBL or inquiry base unit and trying to get the light bulbs to go on, and he’s getting frustrated and getting frustrated. Then he figures it out and that moment where he’s jumping up and down saying, “I did it! I did it!”, like that moment. So technology really gives us the opportunity, when we look at best practice, really from a research end, around explore, design, create.

Let me give you just one example. I was in Ohio recently working with a district. In one of the neatest uses of EdTech I’ve ever seen, they were connecting with a classroom that was in Africa. You see, they were studying, and I believe it was fourth grade. They were studying water and water tables, and clean water and drinking water, but also looking at things like culture and empathy and so many of those pieces. So somehow got connected to a classroom in Africa that had digital connections. They had the ability to connect through technology, because you would think things like space and time, which has completely limited us without technology, those barriers can be broken. Here’s kids in the United States leveraging things like Flipgrid to connect with children on another continent, in time zones… What is it? A 10 hour difference or something like that.

They can’t do it in real time because when they’re at night, we’re going to school and vice-versa. Then when kids are coming to school the next day, here’s a class that’s learning English that is in an area that does not always have clean drinking water, talk about technology, opening up the doors to the world. Those kids are so excited about the opportunity to connect with these other kids because it’s real to them. So technology can help bring things to life by providing that tool or that conduit in what wouldn’t be possible.

A child can not have that experience in a textbook. So when you take a look at: Yeah, you can read about clean drinking water. Yes, you can read about kids that don’t have it, and there’s importance to that. I’m not knocking literacy at all. I mean, that that’s certainly important, but it doesn’t remotely compare to hearing from your new friend when they talk about having to go miles for clean drinking water through the use of something like technology.

That is a very, very different world. Sometimes, when we take a look at this idea of making things personal and authentic, it’s how do we allow… Empower, not even allow. How do we empower kids to leverage technology to explore, to design, to create and not just regurgitate? So there’s certainly places for consumption.

There’s certainly places for critical consumption, but when we look at it on the whole, technology is such an amazing tool to put those tasks before the apps, as you would say, to then create those moments of awe that kids will look back on that they will never forget. Whether it’s science… Excuse me, digital music. There’s so many areas. Digital art. It can be to create those moments that when kids get home, they can’t stop talking about. So those moments evolve. When I think about my own experiences, those light bulb moments and sometimes to us as adults, they may not be big, but it’s those moments that those kids go home and they are so excited about.

My daughter… It’s funny being an author. My kids, now of course say they want to publish their own books, which inspires me as dad. So my daughter was part of this writing club and part of a moment of awe was being able to work on a book to be able to self-publish it, and as we submit it, hitting that button saying, “I’m publishing my own book,” and the look in her eyes of like, “I did it” is priceless. So it’s those moments. I would also say though I’m realistic, and going back to the idea of: The last thing I would want to come across in saying that, is a teacher thinking that every moment of every day it has to be this awe inspiring experience.

That’s not realistic, and of course that’s not the case. But the flip side is: What if kids go weeks without having it? Then that’s a problem. So, what do those moments look like everyday in classrooms these moments occur? I think as teachers we need to celebrate them and not look at it as just like, “Oh, that was neat,” but look at it like, “That’s one of the ways that our fingerprints get to be left of impact on, truly, generations to come.”

Monica: I love that. I mean, what a powerful story and what a wonderful way to frame that idea of moment of awe because we all know what that feels like as a student, as a teacher, as a person; to run home and want to share something special that happened to us over the day, something that we’re not going to forget when we figure out that thing we’ve been trying to figure out.

That Flipgrid example, my goodness, right? If you can give kids an audience, if you can connect them with students in different places, just a really, really powerful technology connection. So thank you for that story. Now, Tom, you’re active on social media. You can follow Tom at ThomasCMurrayEDU on Instagram. Definitely recommend that to folks who are listening, and @ThomasCMurray on Twitter. When I think about social media, being personal and authentic is important but can definitely be scary at times too.

Connecting With an Audience

Monica: Just to kind of finish us up together today, I’d love to hear a little bit from you about: What does it look like to be personal and authentic in social spaces when you are an educator?

Tom: So to me, it’s just about being real. It’s about being vulnerable, but it’s also about being cognizant of who your audience is. If you’re going to be sharing out on Twitter something that’s public and something that many, many people will see, is it something that you’re okay with complete strangers seeing? So it’s this balance of being vulnerable and putting yourself out there because nobody wants to follow the person that comes across as arrogant, that comes across as, “I’ve got the perfect classroom,” that comes across as, “My classroom design is perfect and you’re not doing it, and why aren’t you doing it?” Nobody wants to follow the person that is just, “Hey, just buy my book.” When it comes for me as an author, as somebody that speaks that’s out there, I want to be real. I want to be vulnerable.

I also would say around being personal and authentic, a way to model that is: How do you connect with voices that are different than your own, ideas that are different than your own? So for me it’s also about connecting with a diverse audience of people that have different views and different lenses and different life experiences with me. Because if I’m going to talk about being personal and authentic, the world has to be a lot bigger than my own eyes, my own lens.

So I would encourage you to get connected with those people that are telling different stories, that have different viewpoints, that have different lenses to push your own thinking, because part of being personal and authentic is recognizing that we still all have room to grow. We still have ways that we can connect with others in better ways, and social media is a great tool to do that.

Monica: Well, thank you for sharing that. You’re absolutely right. We have a wonderful opportunity to connect with people who have similar experiences, who have different experiences to open our eyes as well as to share in that space too. So Tom, your new book, Personal & Authentic, so fantastic. Thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your new book with my listeners.


Grab your copy of Personal & Authentic, now available on Amazon! Have you checked it out yet? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it! Leave a comment below or tag @classtechtips on your favorite social media platform.

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Dr. Monica Burns is a former classroom teacher, Author, Speaker, and Curriculum & EdTech Consultant. Visit her site ClassTechTips.com for more ideas on how to become a tech-savvy teacher.

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