The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men…

#INFO233 PLN Post 5

I have been a big believer in the power of digital portfolios for years. When I became the teacher librarian at El Cajon Valley High School (@ECVHS), I knew I wanted to advocate that we try to go more school wide with digital portfolios. I blogged a little to share the educational value of having students build digital portfolios to demonstrate understanding.

 

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click to view the “classic” Google Sites Digital Portfolio Template

I was so pumped to hit the ground running with digital portfolios, that I spent some time to put together an easy-to-copy digital portfolio template for students at my school. It was going to be so simple: students would visit the URL, hit “Use Template” and then they would have their very own skeleton of a digital portfolio to build up with evidence of learning over the years. Teachers would be able to get started with digital portfolios without really having to understand all the intricacies of how Google Sites worked. And let’s face it, “classic” Google Sites was pretty clunky. It was hard to use. But once you spent some time learning how to get it to do what you wanted it to do… it was still clunky, but in a way that Google Sites users understood. Plus, it had the advantage of integrating pretty well with the other Google Tools we were already using: Docs, Slides, Drawing, and more. So, I built the template and waited for the fall of 2016 to come so that I could help lead this digital portfolio experiment.

 

And then, after years of having few, if any, updates to Google Sites, Google announced the “new” Google Sites. Luckily, our Director of Instructional Technology, Dan McDowell (@danmcdowell), requested and received access for our district pretty early on. Now, because this happened over the summer, I was pretty sure I would be able to simply build up another template based on my earlier template. But I ran into two (I thought) significant hurdles:

  • the new Google Sites doesn’t offer blogging pages (yet)
  • the new Goolge Sites doesn’t allow sites to be published as templates (yet)

I see blogging as very valuable for educators wanting to take a risk on digital portfolios. And clicking a button in order to make a skeleton of a website is so easy. I was worried that students and teachers would see digital portfolios as less valuable and more difficult with the new Google Sites (and yes, we would be sticking with Google Sites because of how well it integrates with our other Google Tools). I emailed a few people and talked to Reuben Hoffman (@reubenhoffman), one of our district’s Digital Learning Coaches, about my worries. Everyone’s advice made sense: new Google Sites is the way to go because:

  1. it would get better over time,
  2. it is very easy to use (much easier than “classic” Google Sites),
  3. “classic” Google Sites may stop being supported after one year,
  4. we don’t want to have our students invest intellectually in a dying web tool, and
  5. our staff members are still excited about digital portfolios.

I stopped worrying about the problems now associated with the original plan and started getting excited again about going more school wide with digital portfolios.

 

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click to view the “new” Google Sites Student Sample/Guide

I used a lot of the content from my old template in order to create a “sample” in the new Google Sites. Students will be able to use this sample as a guide for developing their own websites. The original plan has changed; there is more uncertainty when it comes to how digital portfolios will play out at ECVHS–neither of those are bad things! I’m looking forward to seeing what opportunities this uncertain path forward will present.

 

QTEL Summer Institute

#INFO233 PLN Post 4

The week of July 18th I was able to go to The Quality Teaching for English Learners Summer Institute in San Francisco with a team of educators from my school. I was connected to this professional development opportunity through Brent Enerva (@mrenerva). Brent was drawn to this institute as a science teacher working on effectively implementing Next Generation Science Standards with a high English learning population. However, he initially thought that the cost would be prohibitive (flight, hotel, registration would add up to about $4,000). Still, he asked our school site council, and not only was he approved, it was suggested that he bring a team of educators. To make a long story short, with the support of our school site council and our principal (@KimPattersonECV), Brent brought a team of five to this valuable (and expensive) learning opportunity.

20160719_151959One lesson from this experience is that it never hurts to ask when you see a valuable PD experience come along. I am very glad that I got to participate in the QTEL Summer Institute. I spent about 6 hours a day learning in my sessions, and then I spent time in the afternoons exploring San Francisco with colleagues while processing what we were learning.

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The institute was held in the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio. I was able to hear from icons of English learner instruction such as Aida Walqui and Kenji Hakuta. Our session leader gave us instruction on QTEL’s 3 moments approach to designing lessons for English learners: Preparing the learner, Interacting with the text, and Extending student learning. As a Trainer of Trainers in SDAIE, I was familiar with these concepts, but participating in an immersive training like this Summer Institute helped me internalize how keeping QTEL’s 3 moments in mind will ensure effective implementation of ELD standards. I look forward to bringing what I learned to future meetings and trainings with staff members this school year.


Take Aways

The most significant connections I made during this training were:

1. If learning, especially language learning, is social, then we should facilitate the kinds of interactions among students that promote language exchange.

2. ZPD! Is it bad that after 10 years of being an educator that I’m still growing in my understanding of Vygotsky’s concept? Before, I thought of ZPD as a magical realm in a student’s ability where he/she could still access a slightly more difficult task, like a step on a staircase that’s not too easy and not too hard to take. Now I understand ZPD, I believe, more accurately. The Zone of Proximal Development is the space in which all learning occurs. It is the zone in which a learner has ventured out of what is known and taken a risk to build new knowledge. This knowledge building path is something that, in order to be authentic and substantive learning, the learner must take on his/her own. This is why it is soooo much more meaningful to have learners “discover” concepts rather than simply having the teacher tell him/her the concept. In order for the learning to “stick,” the learner has to be the one to build the learning in his/her own mind (through things like quality interactions with peers within learning activities). It’s the teacher’s job to notice when and how a student is venturing into the ZPD and supporting that journey as needed through instructional scaffolds.

20160719_2027273. Instructional scaffolds! How appropriate that right across the street from my hotel, there were scaffolds set up! I had to snap a picture. Just as with ZPD, I feel like my understanding of what scaffolds are have changed due to this training. Before, I thought that instructional scaffolds were those meticulously pre-planned supports that I, as an educator, would put into place as part of a lesson in order to help students reach a high level of understanding. Now I understand instructional scaffolds to be:

  • temporary (I already knew that)
  • given to students as needed (I kind of knew that, but now I understand why)
  • based on the risks students make venturing into the ZPD (wow!)

That last point is what felt new to me. So, in order for any real learning to occur, a student must venture into the ZPD, take a risk, to build new knowledge. That step, that risk taking, must be based on something the student wants to do/learn. If the thing the student wants to do/learn is too difficult, that’s when the teacher adds scaffolds. With my misunderstanding of scaffolds, I was creating scaffolds for a path of learning that I predetermined students would take. That’s not how people learn. Instead, I should be providing scaffolds to help students with a learning path that they want to take. Put it this way: if a worker needs to get work done on a 4th story window of an east-facing wall, I shouldn’t be constructing scaffolds to a window on the 6th story of a south-facing wall. The worker doesn’t want to get there, so the scaffold is useless. I can hear the opposition to this idea: “But I want my student to learn X, not Y!” I get it! But if we don’t get our students to want to learn X, no scaffolds in the world are going to cause them to truly learn it. And until we figure out ways to get students to want to learn X, why not experiment a little and learn some Y?

 

Growing New Branches in my PLN

#INFO233 PLN Post 3

As an educator, I agree with the people who say that the most valuable thing we can help students learn is: how to learn. With this in mind, I like to think that I’m the kind of person who can make connections to people and resources that will help me learn what I want (or need) to learn. This is essentially what we’re talking about when it comes to building a personal learning network. So, in the spirit of  reflecting on my learning process and the development of my PLN, I want to share a few things I’m currently learning about and how I’m learning them:

1. How to run a TED Ed Club

I first heard about TED Ed Clubs on Twitter and I thought, “That sounds cool–we should have one of those clubs at my school.” And then I didn’t do anything about it. A few months later, I saw a local middle school district announce on Twitter that they were putting on a TEDxKids event. I couldn’t register fast enough. I really do love the idea of empowering students to share their ideas, and I was eager to see what a middle school in my own back yard was doing with TED Ed Clubs. I was very impressed by the event and blogged about it here. I went to the same event this year (as well as another TEDx event). I also attended a couple presentations on TED Ed Clubs, including one by Liz Loether (the organizer of the TEDxKidsElCajon event I first attended). From there I finally took the step to sign up to be a club leader and I am in the middle of my very first cycle of helping students develop their talks. I am very new to this, but it’s easy to track how I grew my PLN to get me to where I am: First) I was attracted to cool things I saw on Twitter. Second) I attended an event related to that cool thing. Third) I attended a couple conference sessions teaching me how to do that cool thing I was learning about. Forth) I am trying it myself. There will be many steps beyond this, but I am where I am thanks to how PLNs work!

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2. The Raspberry Pi

I love what technology can do to amplify learning for students, and I am pretty good at learning how to use edtech tools, but I am very new to coding and building computers (I’m an English major!). But I run a library now, and that library has a makerspace. Our retiring librarian bought a Raspberry Pi for students to tinker with in the makerspace. That Raspberry Pi kind of just collected dust all year. I didn’t know what to do with it. I had kind of heard you could do cool things with a Raspberry Pi, but I just didn’t know and I was so busy learning other library stuff, I just ignored the Raspberry Pi for a while. Then I attended a session at the Computer Using Educators conference on the Raspberry Pi. The presenter framed the Raspberry Pi in a way that I valued: teach planning, teach problem solving, encourage creativity, foster perseverance. I was sold. I asked my vice principal for some money to buy more Raspberry Pis. He said yes! I advertised a Raspberry Pi Club to students. They showed up! I told them before we started that I had no idea what I was doing and that we would all have to learn about this thing together. I think they really liked the idea of the teacher not knowing all the answers. The situation I’m in with my Raspberry Pi Club members makes students much more authentic members of my PLN. We’re learning together. I’m excited to see what we do with our Pis in the fall!

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3. 3D Printing

As I wrote above, my library has a makerspace. I’m thankful that the previous librarian at my school was forward thinking enough to leave me with a very well developed makerspace. To make a long story short, I was able to order a 3D printer for my library’s makerspace! This is cutting edge maker-stuff here! And what did I know about 3D printing when I ordered the 3D printer? Almost nothing! But I couldn’t pass up on the chance to get a 3D printer for my makerspace, so I moved forward. Now I’m watching YouTube videos and reading through the manual that came with the printer. I received it the last week of the school year, so I have a few weeks before school starts in August. I hope to develop a student-friendly how-to guide for students to use the 3D printer.

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So there is a little insight into 3 things that I’m currently learning about. I look forward to developing my PLN to further these and other learning goals. Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed, like I’m trying to learn too many things at once, but I feel very fortunate that I have access to learn about the things that interest me.

Leaning on the Experts

#INFO233 PLN Post 2

One of the first “libraryish” things I did after getting the teacher librarian position at my school was to attend an information literacy workshop put on by California State University San Marcos librarians. The presenters offered to deliver an information literacy workshop to all the librarians in my district, so we jumped at that opportunity.

The timing was perfect. Our district librarians were in the midst of developing district-wide research practices for each of us to deliver to our individual school sites. And as we made decisions about what skills to focus on, we had these CSUSM librarians to guide us. So far, it has been a match made in heaven and I am very thankful for the work CSUSM is doing with local school districts.

Now, as a way to deliver what we are learning about research practices to our school sites, all the librarians in our district are working together to build this Research Toolkit (work in progress!). I am co-presenting this toolkit next week with my librarian colleague Stephanie Macceca, but the creation and organization of this website (and the work it represents) was shared among all nine of our district librarians.

Here is what this process is making me realize about my professional learning network: I am far from the smartest, most capable person in the network of librarians I belong to. I don’t mean to come off as too egotistical, but I’m used to being near the head of the group when it comes to the different subjects my personal learning network is dealing with:

  • Developing literacy? I’m on it.
  • Integrating technology to amplify learning? I’m ready to train others!
  • Developing prompts and assessments? You’re talking my language!

I’m used to catching on quickly and (if necessary) doing a lot of the heavy lifting. But this first big project with my fellow librarians is reminding me that I have a lot to learn, and I can learn from the amazing colleagues I work with. I don’t have to be near the front of the pack in all areas of my PLN. I’ll admit, I kind of like being near the front of the pack and helping others catch up. But there’s no way to sugar coat it: I am a novice in the librarian world.

As I’ve worked with the librarians in my district to build the Research Toolkit, it has become abundantly clear that I could NEVER have done this on my own. I cringe a little remembering telling a fellow librarian: “I’ve got time this summer–I may just build the whole website myself!” I made that comment in a state of ignorant hubris. What made me think I could, on my own, develop this research resource for use across the entire district? The website we’re building together is so much better than what I could have done on my own.

I’m very glad for this experience. Without experiences like these, I worry that I would become the kind of person who feels like an expert at everything–the kind of person who thinks others should look to to learn from, but who doesn’t need to learn much from others. I would hate to become that kind of person. Of course, I don’t want to feel completely inept and ineffective, but I do hope to always stay in touch with the ability to be vulnerable and admit that I don’t know and that I need help.

Finding Connections: Sometimes it Takes a While

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For a lot of my teaching career, I was the kind of team member who listened to other peoples’ good ideas and supported them. I just wasn’t really coming up with anything new to add to the pedagogical conversation. My colleagues were already sharing such great ideas, that I had plenty to do to help make their ideas a success. Ideas like:

  • English learners should be developing their cognitive academic language proficiency
  • Let’s share our ideas on a website that we build together
  • Let’s read research to inform our instruction
  • Let’s ask local colleges for advice for how to prepare our students for their courses

Again, there were plenty of high quality ideas to support–and it took work to implement these ideas! It wasn’t until I was finishing up my masters in education that I came across an idea I hadn’t heard my colleagues talking about. I completed my action research project on formative assessments (specifically, how we can use weekly formative assessments to improve writing among English learners). I read from Reeves and DuFour (2 of them!) and Ainsworth and Marzano, and along the way I got the impression that the way I did grades was not ideal for learning. In fact, based on what I was reading, the way a lot of my colleagues did grades was not ideal for learning. I finished my research project/presentation on formative assessments, but what stuck with me was the issue of grading.

So, I read more and I watched videos. I found some great blog posts by Shawn Cornally and I was inspired by the ideas shared by Rick Wormeli on YouTube. Point after point I found myself agreeing with sources I found in books and online. I now had this idea that I thought was GREAT, and I wanted to bring it to my fellow English teachers. I presented this Prezi at a department meeting (I even made it into an exhilarating 22 minute video) with the aim to revolutionize how we grade in order to promote more learning. The reception to this idea was lukewarm. I was able to get the department to agree to some changes to our collective grading practices, but not others. It was clear that no one in my immediate professional learning network (the teachers in my department) was very passionate about this idea that was influencing me and my practice so significantly.

I made some pretty big changes to how I grade, but in the spirit of developing common practices, I didn’t fully run with standards based grading because I felt like I didn’t have many other teachers in my department willing to go along for the ride.

Fast forward to a few years later. I was at a Google Apps for Education conference, and I was stopped in the hall by Natalie Priester. She said something to the effect of: “You’re Anthony Devine. You posted some stuff online about standards based grading, right?” Now, this made quite an impression on me because I hardly expect anyone to remember or remark upon anything I post online (except that my mom is always sure to “like” the pictures I post of my kids to Facebook). But Natalie basically ran with the idea of standards based grading (I think she went well beyond what I’ve done with it). She mentioned coming across my video (linked above) early on in her development of standards based grading practices. She sent me some rubrics that she developed and other materials she made based (in part) on the explanation of standards based grading that I cobbled together from my research.

This interest got me to start thinking again about advocating openly for some changes to the way teachers produce student grades. It took a while, but after experimenting with my grading practices, I wrote this little post to help explain my grading practices to students and parents. And based on that post, I presented earlier this year at a local conference on using our a 4 point grade scale in our electronic grade book (Infinite Campus). In attendance at that session were staff members from an experimental high school within my own district where EVERYONE was giving proficiency grading a try. I loved talking with them about the ins and outs of implementing proficiency/standards based grading in a “traditional” grading world.

One of the outcomes from that presentation was that a colleague of mine who teaches math at that experimental high school, Melanie Ruiz, approached me to co-present on proficiency grading practices this summer. We’re finishing up this website as our presentation tool and our plan is to get teachers to reexamine their grading practices and to adopt some practices that will encourage and value learning more than “traditional” grading practices do.

That’s where I am with this journey with this one idea. And while it’s definitely a story about sticking to an idea that I think is good, it’s also about the fact that finding the people who will connect to an idea with you can take time. My personal learning network did not necessarily gravitate toward supporting this idea at first. That doesn’t mean I abandoned that network! It also doesn’t mean I abandoned the idea. Slowly, over time, I was fortunate enough to add to my network other educators I admire who agree that this idea is a good idea.

In summary, lessons learned from this situation:

  • If you have a good idea, but not many in your immediate PLN agree, stick with it! You may find people later who appreciate your crazy, innovative ideas.
  • Go to conferences! Whether attending sessions or presenting sessions, conferences give you the chance to make personal connections to educators in other schools and districts (and they probably have some great ideas to share).
  • Share your ideas. You may think what you have to say won’t add anything all that great to the conversation, but you’re just wrong! You never know who will latch on to the ideas you have to share. And you never know when you may decide to revisit your old ideas to share again or modify. Just look at this post. The things I’ve linked here go back to 2012 (and that action research project I mentioned was from 2009). Share–join the conversation!

Are you encouraging students to shelter knowledge, or share it?

As teachers, we’ve got important things to do. We need to develop lessons, deliver those lessons, assess student learning, and provide quality feedback. In reality, we do a lot more than that. One thing we may struggle with, though, is designing quality groupwork. But that’s okay, right? I mean, we have a lot to cover–we’ve got enough to do as it is!

Consider this situation when thinking about whether or not we should spend more time emphasizing groupwork with our students:

A student recently visited me in the library because she heard a rumor that I know how WeVideo works. She wanted to know how to layer sound tracks and change the volume of her video as it played. I showed her what I knew and she applied what she learned to her video. Then, and this is the important part, she turned to her friend and said: “Okay, let’s not tell ANYONE else in class about this!”

Woah! Where did that come from? I asked her why she wouldn’t share what she learned with her classmates, and she had clear reasons:

I want to have the highest grade in class.

If I tell other people how to make their videos better, they might get a higher grade than me.

The student’s thinking is pretty attractive to our culture. We want people to be competitive. We want people to want to be the best, right?

Let’s pretend that was the end of the conversation. This student would go back to class. She would show her video. Students would be pretty impressed that she figured out how to edit the sound in her video. She would have produced one of the best videos in class. A few other students might have good videos, too.

But what if the teacher had placed more emphasis on cooperative learning? What if students knew that one of the primary goals of this activity wasn’t that a small number of students would produce good videos, but that the class would work together and learn from each other in order for everyone to create good videos?

What if that student, after learning her new information about WeVideo, had turned to her friend and said: “Okay, let’s run back to class and tell EVERYONE how to do this.”?

Would we lament that this student was diminishing her own accomplishments by freely sharing what she learned? Would we worry that she was setting herself up for failure in a competitive world? I don’t think most of us would. I think many of us would recognize the value that she was bringing to our learning environment? I think we would appreciate seeing a class full of videos that were better, because one student shared what she learned with others.

Share or ShelterSharing her inside information may run counter to some of our cultural values, but it’s right in line with what we value most as teachers: learning. As we give students group assignments, let’s stress the value of sharing learning and helping each other solve problems.

How are the problems our society faces going to be solved? By sheltering learning to maintain a competitive edge, or by sharing learning to make our world better for everyone?

 

Using Digital Portfolios to Demonstrate Learning

Authentic Learning

 

Digital Portfolios, GUHSD Presentation
This image links to my GUHSD English Summit presentation on digital portfolios.

I remember the first time I started using digital portfolios in my classes I was motivated by the idea of getting students to take part in creating online content rather than just consuming it. It was getting easier and easier for students to add to the world wide web of knowledge, and I wanted my students to know how to take part in the digital world. That was a few years ago. Since then, I continue to support digital portfolios for the value they can bring to the learning process for students. I believe that educators can use digital portfolios to train students to take authentic ownership of what they are learning and how they are learning it.

 

Digital Portfolios, GUHSD Presentation (1)Taking ownership of their learning process is vital to helping students see that school isn’t just something that happens to them. Students often see themselves as passive participants in the learning process. Have you ever asked a student: How do you know when you’ve learned something? The answer I frequently get from students is something along the lines of: “When I get a good grade” or “When I get a high score on a test” or “When the teacher tells me what I learned.” Good grades and high test scores are nice, but I argue that it’s more authentic for students to be able to point to a demonstration of their learning, beyond a score or a grade. In the near future, no one will care what grades or scores our students received in high school, they are going to want to know what our former students can do.

Make Thinking Visible

As a teacher, I understand how assessments can be used guide students as they developDigital Portfolios, GUHSD Presentation (3) skills. I think something is getting lost in translation, though. However much we stress learning in our classes, our students often value grades/scores more than what they have learned. As students go through school, they perceive that high scores and grades have more value than the learning that high grades and scores represent. This flawed value system is bad for all students, but it’s especially bad for students that may not necessarily value high grades/scores in the first place.

Digital Portfolios, GUHSD Presentation (5)Demonstrate Your Understanding

Digital portfolios offer us a way to train students to put more value on learning and the learning process. As a teacher in a 1:1 school, I’ve witnessed the tendency for students to passively engage in the digital world vs. actively engage in it. Our students’ tendency to be passive learners when we focus on grades and scores bleeds into being passive technology users.

But what if, rather than only having students demonstrate understanding on tests andDigital Portfolios, GUHSD Presentation (6) chasing “points” for high grades, we asked students to prove that they have learned by giving evidence of their learning? The learning demonstrated and defended by students on their digital portfolios would be a more authentic assessment of their understanding compared to a score on a test (a number) or a grade in a class (a letter). To repeat, in the near future, no one will care what grades or scores our students received in high school, they are going to want to know what our former students can do. Digital portfolios allow students to show what they can do. More than that, digital portfolios offer students a plethora of possibilities when it comes to how they want to represent their learning. With student choice comes more meaningful, personalized learning and more buy-in.

Digital Portfolios, GUHSD Presentation (7)Rethink the Audience

Digital portfolios will help our students shift away from the “is this good enough for the teacher” mentality. When we ask students to use their digital portfolio to demonstrate their learning, we should stress that making their understanding public means broadening their audience. Digital portfolios allow students to share their understanding with teachers, future teachers, parents, college admissions officials, future employers, their future selves, and their personal learning network. Students should understand that their learning enables them to join a wider conversation, to participate more broadly in the discussions that shape our world. With digital portfolios, students can learn to connect to to a wider audience.

How to Make Digital Portfolios Happen

As much as I’ve tried to implement digital portfolios in my classes, I admit that I haven’t perfected them. It’s very difficult to unleash the amazing things that digital portfolios can do when students are used to a passive educational model. It’s also tough to get digital portfolios going when only a handful of people on a campus are using them. Still, I have seen students grapple more with some of the most valuable educational questions they can consider: What do I know? What did I learn? How do I know that I learned it?

I think digital portfolios can benefit the learning goals of every class on campus, so I am advocating for a school-wide push to incorporate digital portfolios into our instruction. I’m not talking about simply adding one more thing to our list of things to do in class. I’m talking about using digital portfolios as a way to demonstrate understanding–something we all have our students do in some way or another in all classes. What do you want your students to know? How can they demonstrate that understanding on their digital portfolios?

In order to make digital portfolios meaningful for as many teachers as possible, I would like to meet up with staff members who are willing to give insight as to what a digital portfolio needs. For now, I have created a skeletal template of a digital portfolio in Google Sites. Why Google Sites? Isn’t it old and clunky? Well, it isn’t the prettiest website building service out there, but as a school in a Google Apps for Education district, Google Sites integrates very well with a majority of the web tools that our teachers are using. It’s very easy to embed docs, slides, sheets, drawings, and YouTube videos in Google Sites. Here is what the template I created currently has:

  • a home page with instructions to students to edit anything and everything on the site

    Digital Portfolios, GUHSD Presentation (10)
    This image links to the digital portfolio template.
  • a self introduction page
  • an archive page to keep the site from getting too cluttered
  • a help page with links to Google Sites tutorials
  • a learning blog page for each subject to show thinking and reflection
  • a sample project page for each subject to demonstrate learning on larger assignments
  • room to grow

I look forward to working with my colleagues to give students more ownership of their learning process. Thanks for reading!

Additional Reading and Resources