Human Development As Professionals


(tl;dr Show up to the soulcraft cohort open house on Saturday, December 20th at 9am. Awesomeness will ensue.)

I often wonder what is being “developed” in the traditional professional development served up to educators. My experience has been that most of these courses mainly seek to encourage and develop skills. Experience has also shown that it’s not my skills that necessarily need developed. In fact, I often find most rewarding those experience which develop me as a person, towards my own human growth path. I appreciate sessions that somehow get through to my soul as a teacher, that strike to the heart of my decision to live a life as a mentor and teacher to others.

A couple of months ago I put out a call very similar to this one.  In it, I asked my PLN to consider joining me in what then seemed to be a crazy experiment in professional development.  I asked whoever would be willing to enroll in a furniture design course at soulcraft Woodshop, and promised that something magical would come out of our shared learning experience as petrified novices. None of us had ever built anything made of wood before. Few, if any of us, even understood how to work the machines and tools.  But we did it.

There were six of us in the first #soulco cohort.  We were asked to show up with a small-to-medium sized project to work on . Julie, Tom, and Karen each chose to make a table.  I made a boombox. Morgan somehow wound up with a beautiful wall shelf from her original shoe organizer design.  Vicki made a beautiful headboard. Jeremy took the long road, and chose to slowly master a smaller project using complex joinery, and we all can’t wait until he gets good enough to make the standing desk he envisions for his office.

We learned so much about woodworking, but even more about teaching.  In learning design via our projects, we found new insights on lesson planning.  In our efforts to share both thoughts and progress, we took to social media and became bloggers, tweeters, and facebook friends.  We sat around coffee before, after, and during the time in the shop swapping ideas about how best to serve students, how hard it is to do what we do,  and how inspiring it is to work with other people as driven as we are to do all we can to move the ball forward in education.  Lastly, and most importantly, we became friends and better people because of our work together.

Now we’re excited to invite more people to join our cohort.  We would love to get 6-8 teachers together on either Saturday mornings or Tuesday evenings to design, learn, and grow together.  This Saturday, December 20th at 9 am, we would like to hold an open house at soulcraft Woodshop for anyone interested in becoming a better professional by tapping into our natural tendencies to create, design, and reflect as a learning process. On Saturday we’ll give a tour of the shop and provide a host of specifics regarding the work we’ll begin on January 3 and January 6th.

Show up. It’ll be awesome. 

Learning To Save Time

This video documents an important step in my growth as a novice in this Soulcraft Cohort work, but the step isn’t shown in the video.  It happened about an hour before we ever hit record.

I had built three walls of the boombox, and had done all the acoustic panelling with the woodblocks, and I had arrived at the shop ready to work on the front piece. I knew it was going to be tough work and that I was going to be pushed to try things that I hadn’t tried. Volume sliders, a speaker panel, and some kind of lid mechanism were all called for, and I knew absolutely nothing about how to do any of it. They were just ideas, drawings in my head, and I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get my hands to carry it all out.

Peter was in the shop working on a new lamp, and he looked pretty engrossed in it. I didn’t want to bother him, but my project had hit a brick wall and I needed help. Having just felt something similar when the whole team was working the previous Saturday, I was very mindful to take the least amount of time from Peter that I could possibly take. My question had to be succinct, and lead him into a very quick and easy answer.

“Hey Peter.”


“I don’t know how to cut holes in wood when I have to start in the middle of the board.”

In order to cut the speaker hole, and the holes for the volume sliders, I knew I couldn’t use a band saw, chop saw, or table saw, but those were the only tools I knew how to work aside from the jointer and planer. Peter quickly showed me the drill press machine, and taught me that I could drill holes in wood with a special bit. After I drilled the holes, I could take a handheld jigsaw and finish the cuts I needed.

Easy-Peasy. Peter went back to work and I got started. Next thing I knew, I was ready to make the video.

The thing I learned is that it’s important to know when to ask a question, and how best to ask the right one.  I didn’t get Peter involved in my whole problem, which would have taken more time in discussion. Instead, I identified exactly what I needed to learn for the immediate next step, and then stated it to Peter directly. I think it’s also important that I didn’t quite ask a question, I simply stated my problem. In a relationship in which a design framework is understood with depth, I could rely on Peter’s facility with problem solving as a starting point to finding a solution, and I could trust that he’d take the next steps to design the best answer, in this case, showing me the drill press and handheld jigsaw.

Applied to teaching in a problem-based classroom, I think my takeaway is that it might be interesting to have students learn how to maximize time by leading not with a question, but a specific problem statement.  I’m not exactly sure what I mean yet, but there’s something to having students be mindful of the teacher’s time, especially as PBL work is quite a bit more time intensive especially during feedback conversations.

Soulcraft Cohort: Data Analysis

For the past few Saturday mornings a group of teachers here in the Cleveland area have been meeting to learn at Soulcraft Woodshop. Our cohort is an experiment in professional learning. We believe that by putting ourselves in the unfamiliar world of woodworking, and in the hands of skilled and passionate artisans as mentors, we can grow through the experience of working on a furniture project and use what we learn to help us in our day jobs as educators. So far it’s been a bunch of fun mixed with a bit of healing and a ton of nervous excitement. We talk alot. We joke with one another. And now we’re starting to build stuff.

The video below is a thirty-five second look at the first time our team was set loose in the shop to start building. I’d like to dissect the video and highlight the learning I see.  While only a brief look into our work, I think it illuminates why we’re so excited to experience and share our time together.

0:00-0:06 – This is Peter and Christie. Peter is one of our mentors. He was helping Christie (actually his educator-genius-sister) mill her first pieces of wood for the project. Christie had never operated a saw like this before, had been shown how to work the tool and what to expect, and was very nervous about the whole deal. Check out Peter’s attention to the process, and his perfect role as a guide-on-the-side.

0:09-0:12 – This is Morgan and Julie. Morgan is planing her lumber on a super loud industrial machine. Julie has planed lumber before, and has offered to help Morgan during her first couple goes at it. We’ll come back to them in a few seconds.

0:15-0:20 – This is Tom and Jeremy.  Jeremy is wearing blue jeans for the first time in over a decade (don’t ask).  He also has designer safety gear.  Joking aside, the two of them were in deep discussions about how to build a great standing desk.

0:21-0:32 – Back to Morgan and Julie for my favorite bit. This is a great example of formative assessment. Morgan’s goal is to wind up with planks of wood that are planed to the exact same thickness. I won’t get into the whole process, but the gist is that each piece of wood must be incrementally thinned in succession until all planks match the thickness of the thinnest piece. In these nine seconds, we see Julie and Morgan spot-check their progress and determine how to proceed. I wish I would have kept the camera on Julie for a few more seconds. At :33 we see Julie begin to give feedback to Morgan.

0:33-0:35 – Back to Christie and Peter as she finishes her first successful cut.

In project-based learning, the data looks different. Numbers and letter grades could never capture what this thirty-five second snapshot can tell us about the learning going on in this “classroom”.

(Follow along with our cohort on twitter via the #soulco hashtag. We’re sharing posts, photos, insights, and laughs.)

The Starfish Story and Why It’s The Worst Motivational Story Ever

If you’ve ever been a teacher in a professional development session anywhere in the past ten years you’ve heard this one. If not, go ahead and watch it right quick.

Touching, no?

I hope every teacher gets the chance to “make a difference” in a kid’s life.  Any teacher in this world will tell you that these are the moments we live for, these moments in which we impact lives for ever. “The Starfish Story” is a favorite of teachers because the metaphor is perfect: As teachers we are so often starfish throwers, and it’s wonderful to be that person in life, especially when everyone else thinks it’s such a small difference we make.

But what about why all of the starfish are washed ashore so far from the natural habitat they should be thriving in to begin with? How did the problem become so large that the only answer is to sort amongst the dead and dying? Are we supposed to be motivated by the small, but personally meaningful, impact we are having on a much bigger, and more dire, problem?

I never want to see “The Star Fish Story” again. I don’t want to watch it in a staff meeting, opening day convocation, or professional conference. Instead, I’d like to watch something that asks how we can all work together to tackle the starfish problem. I’d like to hear the story cast with The Wise Old Man from the story as the protagonist as he decides to join in with the young girl in the throwing of starfish. A story about how he got others to join him in helping the girl, until one glorious day, there weren’t starfish washing up on the shores anymore.

We’re not going to solve any problems in education by condescendingly telling people they should feel good about making the best of a bad situation.  Instead, we should be honest about the scope of our problems, and as professionals get inspired to do what’s difficult together.

Let’s replace “The Starfish Story” with something more like this. Let’s motivate one another to solve a great problem.

Why Creativity Is Important

“You’re doing what”?  This is the response I’ve been getting from my colleagues as my 9th grade physical science students begin the Cardboard Challenge inspired by Caine’s Arcade.  Little do they know that my students have been comparing and contrasting the engineering design process and the scientific method.  They don’t know they will  be discussing how force, motion, and energy play a role in their creation.  Why?  Because this isn’t how school is done.

I want my students to have the ability to dream.  I don’t want them to simply imagine a world that they can build, but actually build a world they can imagine.  I want them to take chances.  I want them to fail forward without be penalized.  These are the skills of entrepreneurs, change agents, and successful individuals.


Why creativity?

  • My world in education isn’t changing quickly enough and that’s a shame, however, the world outside of my classroom is moving rapidly.  That world needs people that adapt, problem solve, collaborate and communicate ideas.
  • Creativity creates jobs.
  • Creativity drives economic growth.
  • Creativity provides answers to problems in our communities.
  • Creativity fosters a growth mindset.
  • Creativity maximizes my students’ potential.
  • Research quoted in Newsweek says that children with high “creative self-efficacy” are better able to handle stress and are more “confident about their futures.”

Please join us on Saturday, October 11th at Lakewood High School as we celebrate my students’ creativity.  People of all ages can come out between 10am-1pm to play cardboard arcade games designed by my students or build your own cardboard masterpiece!  We will supply all materials all you need is your imagination!  


I think it’s time we stop thinking that creative play in the classroom is all fun and games.  Why?  Because our future depends on it.

Hope Does Not Disappoint: Some Reflective Grumbling

I’m thinking about teachers I know. I’m thinking about me. And I’m thinking about why it is so hard to convince people that the internet should have an effect on education.  It feels like convincing the last house on the block to go ahead and try out electricity.

If I had a nickel for every person who called what I believe to be new, and permanent, a fad…

If I had even a penny for every time I’ve been told that change happens one step at a time, and that we must take baby steps….

I’m thinking about how tiring it is to not only try to learn how to teach in the internet age, but to talk about it at the same time.  And for that talk to almost always be an argument, a barrier, and a beat down.

It’s not often I go to the Bible. In fact, it’s nearly never.  But I’ve got a preacher friend who gave me a few words that were meant to help in situations like this, when we’re all so tired, beat up, and yet enflamed.

“Hope does not disappoint.”

We have to keep hoping if we believe what we believe to be inevitable.

Hope, of course, is not enough. But I’m thinking of people who have run out of the energy to do anything much else but hope. There are so many teachers who have had to give up just to stay sane, and as many others who keep bashing into the waves of a society struggling to understand the capability of entirely new tools.

We didn’t get the chance to baby step into the internet age. That bird’s flown.

The printing press wasn’t a pendulum swing, it was a wrecking ball.

The Opposite of Fixed Isn’t Broken

Soulcraft Cohort 9/20/14
Soulcraft Cohort 9/20/14

The Soulcraft Cohort we started up just might be the most difficult professional development course I’ve ever participated in. Taking several educators and putting them together in a furniture design course taught at a local community makerspace is a direct affront to our perception of ourselves as educators.  After all, we’re in the education business, so we should be really good at learning, right?

The local educators who’ve signed up for this course are all really good at what they do. In fact, the roster is a greatest hits of my favorite colleagues, and it’s an honor to even know them. But you should have heard us talk about building furniture. To a person we admitted to being afraid and many of us said we weren’t very “gifted” when it comes to making things more complex than a sandwich.  We were out of our element, overwhelmed, and nervous. Teachers aren’t very good at not feeling smart, and I could tell right away that my biggest obstacle in this whole process is going to be my ability to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

Like Apollos Hester taught us this week, we grow the most when we work the most, and when we believe that the work pays off, not on the scoreboard, but in our souls. This professional learning community that we’ve created around our work at Soulcraft Woodshop is a response to a broken professional development model. It’s a networked and human response to a systemic and impersonal failure in our profession. We’re carrying the baggage of a fixed mindset, and by putting ourselves in a learning situation that none of us are good at, we aim not to fix the education system, but help it grow and shift into what it, and we, could be.

Other posts from the cohort this week include: The Properties of Wood by Jeremy ShorrSoulcraft Woodshop Cohort and My Fixed Mindset by Morgan Kolis and An Academic Curriculum Through Making? by Peter Debelak.

Does institutional change in education have to begin with the teacher contract?

I feel like I might be late to the party on this one, and I’ll admit up front that I haven’t done the research yet, but isn’t the way we write and think about teacher contracts a major barrier to any kind of systemic change in education?

Yep, the can of worms. The teacher’s contract.

Here’s what I’m seeing  in the situation we’ve got at present.  The teachers are contracted employees of a school district. They need a contract that will allow them to be the best teachers they can be, and need to be free of abuse regarding wages, time, conditions, and work load. I want to be clear that I absolutely think that teachers need a contract and that it should be of benefit to them. On the other hand, there’s the administrators, and their job is to make sure the work gets done, done well, on time, and for the right cost. This is especially important, because the administrators are the head public servants in a very big public service system.  They have been given the public’s trust and resources, and with that, comes the public accountability. Any school administration’s work is especially difficult right now because the money is tight, the hours required to make change are long, and the public demand for accountability in the form of testing , state mandates, and political rhetoric is at an all time high. And sometimes, the noble goals of both parties clash.

This is where the lawyers come in. In any dispute between the teachers and the administration, the written and signed contract becomes the focal point of all further conversation and action.  The contract is parsed and scrutinized, it is argued and amended, and it almost always becomes divorced from any sense of principle or vision of teaching and learning. In my district, we simply refer to the contract as “the language”, as in, “‘the language’ says we can’t have more than 30 kids in a classroom”.

If a document that is supposed to be built on principles of fairness, excellence, and helping children is instead turned into a semiotic legal nightmare divorced from any sense of a school’s true public mission, isn’t this one of the first things that have to change?

How can we think differently?

This is a pretty fresh thought, but I’m asking myself a few questions. I’d love to hear some comments on this post. I’m interested in some input.

– Could we write a contract that didn’t use classes as a fundamental unit in the contract?  (ex. current model states that teachers must teach 7 class periods a day, etc.)

– What if we didn’t define the start or end of the school day on a whole-staff basis, but instead allowed for individual flexibility based on class times and location (physical+digital)?

– What if contracts included statement of agreed principles rather than infinitely detailed potentialities?

– Am I thinking all of this because I’m naive and neither a lawyer, union leader, nor administrator?

– Are there examples of sensical teacher contracts? Any that could fit on one page? Wouldn’t that be better?

– Wouldn’t everyone have more time to get the job done if we didn’t have to spend so much of our time arguing about “the language”?

Like I said, I’d really like to hear what people think about this one. I’m not picking a fight, for sure.  I’m wondering out loud and asking to learn.

Learning at SoulCraft – A Proposed Learning Cohort in Northeast Ohio

I’d like to get a few educators in Northeast Ohio to join me for an interesting experiment in professional learning.

soulcraft piano

Here’s the idea:

I’d like to get some educators to take a woodworking course at Soulcraft Woodshop, a local makerspace in a fantastically cool building near W.49th St. and Clark Ave. in Cleveland. The course would have participants choose what they’d like to design, and then have group and individualized instruction that will lead to a finished project. (Ex. I want to build a WikiSeat. I sign up for the course and I get the materials and skills that will enable me to not only make this one wikiseat, but also begin a larger exploration of woodworking projects and ideas. )

On top of the woodworking course, I’m excited to think about how we could have a meta-level engagement as educators at the same time.  As we’re working on our projects, I’d like us to to think about and share what we  learn about design process, assessment, feedback, curation, and the host of other classroom applicable concepts we’d run into together. The cohort would be a way of learning about learning by doing. I could see us blogging about it, engaging more in the maker community, and bringing much of what we learn back to our day jobs.

As for cost, I’d want to keep it pretty low. $400 covers time and materials for a once (3hrs) weekly, 6-week course.  My aim would be to get the cost subsidized either through grants, districts, or a local organization. I’m sure we could get CEU credits applied with little problem.  I’d facilitate and participate with the cohort for the fun of it.

This is an idea that Peter Debelak and I dreamt up today while hanging out at Soulcraft.  We’re very interested in the potential, and think it would be a blast to give this a whirl.  If I can get at least five people to give this a go, I can begin working on trying to make it a free class. We’d start in October and we’d have to pick a night that works for everybody. Wednesday or Thursday evenings could be possibilities, as well as a possible Saturday AM group.


Please let me know. I’m looking at you NE Ohio’s #ohedchat gang. Ken Kozar, Julie Rea, Karen, and I all took the class as a group last year and it was a great learning experience for all of us. Both Jim and Peter are excellent people, patient teachers, and skilled artisans. This would be a really neat exploration.

Because it's time