Saturday, May 6, 2017

Bringing order to your chaotic life with Trello

Ever feel like your life is a hurricane of responsibilities? Of course you do. So do I. That's why I write so much about managing stress and priorities. That's why I've been using the Bullet Journal method for a few years now. But I've recently retired that stack of black journals on my shelf and discovered an even cooler tool for time and task management.

Last fall, Elizabeth Brott Beese, a Ph.D. student from Purdue who spent some time studying our program, saw my notebooks and knew what they were. I thought that was really cool, because I'd never met anyone who knew the system. I told her how much I loved it. Then she told me why she didn't use it. She'd discovered something better. It was called Trello.

It looked really cool. I tried it. I said goodbye to my black journals.

Why is Trello So Darn Cool?

What I like about Bullet Journal is the physical feeling of writing stuff down and drawing little boxes and arrows and checking things off my list with a G2 pen. It's an ingenious system designed by Ryder Carroll that enables you to move tasks from week to week and manage tasks by category or calendar.

But it has weaknesses. Though you create your own index, it's still hard to find stuff when you try to go back in previous journals for important info, and everything becomes disjointed. Pages of unrelated stuff separate related tasks and topics from each other.

Trello is better. It helps you visualize your tasks by category, and it's super easy to move stuff around, reschedule, and find stuff you need, when you need it.

My Trello System

There are lots of ways to use Trello, which is of one of the cool things about it. I made this video about Trello for my students that explains the basics--the four essential pieces of the Trello system: boards, lists, cards, checklists and calendars. Start there for the basics, but here's how I use it for my stuff:

I like to make the boards very broad. For example, I have one board for my whole, entire job at the Depot Campus. On my Depot Master board, I divided all of my responsibilities into categories. This was a cool exercise, because it forced me to really think about what were the most important aspects of my job. It helped me bring order to a job that involves a sometimes bewildering array of very different responsibilities.

In each of those categories, I create cards for particular projects and tasks, and then within each card, I create checklists. I set due dates for each card based on the next checklist item that is due in each card. When I complete a checklist item, I change the due date.

Once in a while, I'll go through each list just to remind myself of what I need to do, what's coming up, and do a priority check. It's a great way to reorient myself when I'm overwhelmed or refocus when I feel like I'm running around like a chicken with it's head cut off.

When I have new ideas, I jot them down as cards and tag them with follow up dates.

I periodically go through the whole board and archive old stuff, finished stuff, and stuff I no longer care about.

Trello is also really cool for delegating. I can easily move cards to my program assistant's board, for example.

I have a dual-screen set up on my computer, and I always keep Trello open on the right hand screen. This gives me a continuous birds-eye view of my job.

It's not perfect, but neither am I. You see all those little red rectangles on the screen shot above? Those are missed deadlines, or just cards I haven't updated.

But it still helps... a lot.

It's like a map of my working life.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Five things I'm learning these days

Five things I'm learning lately:

Fitness - I just passed my first year anniversary with CrossFit in February. I started at a new gym (CrossFit Aisling) last October, and soon I was going five days a week. It's hard for me to stay balanced with anything. I start getting  goals in my head, and I have a hard time not continually increasing them. Then in February, I realized it was starting to stress me out. I got a nasty cold, felt run down, pulled a muscle, and also felt like I should be putting in more late days at work, so I cut back to three or four days per week. I remembered why I started CrossFit in the first place. It serves me, not the other way around. I'm looking for just the right balance: enough working out to stave off the stress but not so much that it causes stress.

Boredom - I've been working on our progress tracking system since last year. It's all on Google Drive right now. Teachers put competency ratings in a single spreadsheet. The ratings get automatically pulled into a series of spreadsheets, where the numbers get crunched, then that data gets pulled into live progress reports that parents and students can see. Now I'm working on transcripts that will pull in that data along with data from the credit worksheets. I'm doing all of this with a combination of Google Apps Scripts and formulas in Google sheets. I really enjoy the problem solving that this involves, but I find I get bored as soon as I figure out the solution and all that's left is ironing out the final product. So I always need a new challenge to keep me interested, I guess. It's the same in every area of my life, I think.

Authority - When I started at the Depot, I had grand ideas about collaborative leadership and egalitarianism. I thought that what schools (and society in general) needed was less hierarchy, even between students and teachers, but what I've found is that students need structure--clear rules that are consistently enforced, and this matches the research. There's nothing wrong with authority. As Jonathan Haidt says, an instinct for hierarchy is probably built right into our genes, and authority is legitimate if the authority provides a legitimate service and the leader takes on legitimate responsibilities (provides support) for the good of the whole. I think it's safe to say that I do that for my students.

Ageing - I turn 46 this summer. I'm slowly coming to terms with what it means to get older and all the changes that come with it: my body changing, my relationships changing, my roles changing. I'm learning to accept these changes. But one of the biggest challenges is that there always seems to be this tension: part of me wants to kick back, relax, and just enjoy the last half of life, look forward to retirement, etc., and the other still wants to improve, achieve more, and grow. I think I understand those who choose the first option, but I can't choose it. I just can't. I'll push until I can't push anymore. Then I'll rest.

Mindfulness - I've been practicing mindfulness for about three years now. I do some extended meditation on the weekends, a little bit every morning, and try to be more mindful during the day. I started it as a stress management technique, and I think it helps with that, but I feel like that effect really only works during the meditation itself. I think the biggest impact for me has been greater awareness of what's going on in my head as I go through the day. I notice the way my thoughts are heading and am more likely to question my own thoughts now, rather than assume they are true and let them run away with me. I am also learning to enjoy the moment--to notice little things, like cherry blossoms on the ground, a breeze on my face, or my cool new socks, and for a moment, I can escape from my cares into a little vacation from worry. Actually, that's what a CrossFit workout is, too--a little vacation form worry, but it actually lasts longer. The euphoric feeling after a workout lasts probably an hour or so.

There are more than five things I'm learning, but some I'm really just getting started on and others I'm not learning so well. Actually, that's true for all of the above. All of this is imperfect, right? And that's OK. We're learning.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Change is tough: The slogging phase

"I'm done with my chores now. It's time. I say my prayer and head out on the hunt. The sun isn't up yet; it's cold; the fields are sopping. Brambles scratch my ankles, branches snap back in my face. The hill is a sonofabitch but what can you do? Set one foot in front of another and keep climbing.
An hour passes. I'm warmer now, the pace has got my blood going. The years have taught me one skill: how to be miserable. I know how to shut up and keep humping. This is a great asset because it's human, the proper role for a mortal. It does not offend the gods, but elicits their intercession. 
My bitching self is receding now. The instincts are taking over. Another hour passes. I turn the corner of a thicket and there he is: the nice fat hare I knew would show up if I just kept plugging."

-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Not sure exactly where I am in the hype cycle right now, but it's somewhere after the "Peak of Inflated Expectations." I'm in that phase when blogging about all the cool things that are happening, like our awesome Gallery Night and progress on our progress tracking system would seem empty. It would violate Ryan Holiday's rule of not talking about projects until they are almost entirely done. He says it's too easy to trade doing for talking about doing--to blog, post, tweet and brag about all the cool things we are up to and in the end produce nothing. Talk, Holiday says, is the enemy of work, and I'm in the work phase.

It's that phase when the brambles grab at your legs, your boots are wet and your legs are jelly. It's that phase when you wonder if it's all for nothing, and are tempted to let everything just slide back to where it was.

But it's also that phase when you can't stop--when you know you have to keep going, because you know in your heart and mind you are on the right track.

Last year was my first year in administration--my first year at the Depot, and I started with Barry Jentz and Jerome Murphy's Entry Plan approach. I rode over the top of the hype cycle right about then, disillusioned with the autonomy-based approach to education, and landed in the "Trough of Disillusionment." We did a program evaluation and immediately started up the slope with a set of changes we thought were needed.

It's tough not knowing where you are on that slope. I hope we're headed into the "Plateau of Productivity." There's a bunch of stuff in place, and data is coming in, but it's too early to tell for sure. So right now, we keep plugging, waiting for that rabbit to show up.

And I think it's right around the corner.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The procrastination equation: Putting research into practice at the Depot

They were discussing different forms of government, and the conversation had degenerated into a frustrating chorus of "There is no right answer. It's all just a matter of opinion."

"That's not true," I said, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice. "There are benchmarks. Some forms of government work better than others."

I'm not sure they got my point, but that kind of relativism is one of my pet peeves. Unfortunately, it infects many parts of society, including education. People in education often think that there are no real answers--no reference points by which to judge between the myriad of models and practices that promise to improve student success. But that's not true. Research has shown what works. The same science that brought us modern medicine and discovered global warming can help us educate our kids, and if we're not using it, we're fighting this battle blindfolded. Here's the story of how we're putting research into practice at the Depot, and how it's impacting our kids.

Last year was my first year at this little non-traditional school, and it soon became obvious that motivation was a serious problem. Motivation was low, engagement was low, attendance was low, task completion was low, and procrastination was high. Then I came across this article on procrastination from psychologist, Piers Steel. It was a thorough review of research related to motivation, and his "procrastination equation" became my guide. I took the liberty here to make it a bit more user friendly:

Utility is "how desirable a task or choice is for an individual." Expectancy is whether we think we will be able to complete the task, value is how much we value the outcome, the more impulsive among us will have a greater tendency to procrastinate, and the further away the deadline (the greater the delay), the more we'll put off the work.

Using the equation is simple. If utility is low, we procrastinate. To decrease procrastination, we need to increase expectancy and value and decrease impulsivity and delay. At the Depot this year, we're attacking all four factors of the equation.

Expectancy: According to Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, "efficacy expectancy is somewhat susceptible to verbal persuasion and emotional arousal but is especially influenced by modelling and actual performance accomplishments." With this in mind, we are increasing our use of explicit instruction at the Depot, and our new Project Block is designed to provide students with a string of small successes to build upon. As of last week, about 60% of our students had completed 8 science projects, including hands-on projects, lab reports and a research paper, and had begun their first independent project.

Focused work during Project Block
The ALEKS online math system, which we also started using this year, is another way we're building self-efficacy. It offers a mastery-based approach the kids love, and our students' average progress on their courses is 54%.

And finally, we've really ramped up the 1:1 support this year. With a combination of interns and an instructional assistant, we are able to assign struggling students one-on-one help during ALEKS, Project Block, and any other time they need it.

Value: Dr. Steel points to classical conditioning as one way to increase the value factor. During our summer program, we were having trouble getting kids to do their online math work, so I was tossing around the idea of a token-based incentive system with Ellen. I had planned to make the tokens worth credits. "But what if they don't care about credits?," she asked. 

She was right. Many of our students don't seem to be motivated by threats of credit loss or offers of credit. So what did we do? We still offered credit, but we also tied the tokens to a field trip reward, and it worked. They really valued that reward!

We carried that same approach over into this year: Students earn poker chips for on-task behavior, and if they earn enough, they qualify for special field trips. Many students use our new progress tracking system to keep track of their chips and they value them so much that their anxiety about the chips has actually become a bit of a problem. My hope is that this system will build the habits of work that we adults call intrinsic motivation. According to Steel, this is exactly what happens--students associate reward with the work, and the work becomes intrinsically rewarding.

(Of course, they don't always succeed. The other day, I told a student he would not have enough chips to qualify for the field trip the next day. He pushed his few chips away on the table as if to disavow them and said, "I don't want any more chips!" His protest reminded me of my son when he was young. He wouldn't eat his Thanksgiving dinner, and the consequence was not getting any pie. "I don't like pie!," he repeated, as he marched around the table. The fact that chips can tap into their emotion is testimony that we've tapped into the value factor.)

Impulsivity:  Impulsivity is considered a personality trait, and Steel questions whether we can influence it much, but he does suggest two possibilities: stimulus control and automaticity. "Stimulus control," says Steel, "helps to direct behavior by indicating what is appropriate (i.e., rewarding) under any given circumstance," and I think the chips serve this purpose also. If students stay off their phones and on-task for 10, 15, or 20 minutes (we gradually increase the blocks of time), they receive reward chips. Most students earn the full amount of chips available during ALEKS Block and Project Block, and it's surprising to see how easily most of them can focus for 20 solid minutes under these conditions.

To increase automaticity, Steel recommends schedules and routines. This year we've implemented a new blocked schedule at the Depot, but there's more we could do with routines within the blocks themselves. Interestingly, Steel also mentions reducing choice as a means of helping those with high impulsivity. I think the blocked schedule has also helped here, especially the replacement of "self-directed learning time" with Project Block, but I'm still chewing on this one.

We've also added another research-based strategy to the mix to try to address the impulsivity factor--one that Steel didn't mention. Stephen, one of our teachers, has been teaching mindfulness during morning pick-me-up since the beginning of the year. They've gone over several techniques, from focusing on the breath to mindful eating, and they had a great time identifying thoughts and feeling invoked by popular songs the other day. Several students have said they have started to practice meditation on their own. Our hope is that this will help them not only manage stress but also increase focus.

Delay: Our new progress tracking system is designed to give students continuous, rapid feedback about their progress, and the timed chip blocks have provided small chunked goals for the students, but I think we can help students a lot more with handling delays. My goal for the second semester is to explicitly teach the students two methods of time/project management, and then reward them for each box checked off their to-do lists. (Hat tip to Elizabeth Brott Beese, a Ph.D. student from Purdue who spent some time studying our program, for pointing me in this direction.)

That is how we're using science to help our students. That's our goal, anyway, and so far it seems to be working. Engagement is up, attendance is up, and even task completion seems to be up. I was so excited to find Steel's article last year. It has provided a framework--a science-based guide for improving our program. So often in education, we bounce from one model to another, often without much confidence that any of it will work. But there's no need for that. There is a research base in psychology and education that we can use and build on. We're not blind, we don't stumble in the dark, and we don't have to reinvent the wheel. We can't afford to. Time is precious for every one of our students.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The puzzle: Turning passions into careers

It made for a cool picture--Gabe pitching his hammock near a kettle hole on Mansfield Hollow Lake, while his classmates watched and learned. He had taken us all to his favorite camping spot to teach us how to set up a campsite and build a fire. He offered some really insightful tips. He talked about how peaceful it was, and how he practiced mindfulness out there, as he'd been learning to do during our "pick-me-up" lessons on Fridays.

The students tried out the hammock, we made pine needle tea, and on the way back, I'm pretty sure I heard another student ask if he could come along on one of his camping trips sometime. Gabe not only shared his passion and expertise, he inspired his classmates. He engaged them.

This kind of interest-based, student-driven learning is a big part of what we do at E. O. Smith High School's Depot Campus--it's what our internship program is all about, but it's not all.

We expend a lot of effort building relationships, not only through outings like Gabe's hike, but also through tough conversations, restorative practices, and simply working hard together.

The research is clear about the key role of teacher-student relationships, but it's just as clear about the need for explicit instruction. That's why we've recently ramped up the math here, and why our new "Project Block" is aimed at explicitly building independent learning skills.

So far, our average student is half-way through their math course, and most of our students have completed six out of the nine projects they need to move up to the next level and design their own learning projects.

Some of our students, like Kim, who is working on a fantasy novel, already have projects underway. Others, just plans. But our goal is that every one of them will graduate with some seriously cool projects under their belts--projects that will help them stand out in the college and career market.
The Depot has always focused on reading and reflective writing, and this year we are ramping that up as well by adding more explicit instruction in writing structured essays. So as Kim works through her novel, she will be able to apply new found skills in organization and structure, skills that will transfer to all of her communications in the future.

None of this is easy. It's a lot of change and a lot of work. But each piece of this puzzle is necessary. The finished picture will not just include young adults doing creative and engaging things they enjoy, but doing them well, and from a firm foundation of skills that will launch them into a future that no one can predict. It will be a picture of passions turned into careers.