How to Stay Focused If You’re Assigned to Multiple Projects at Once

Few people today have the luxury of working on a single project at a time; most of us are juggling the demands of many teams at once. In theory, this system of “multiteaming” offers a number of upsides: You can deploy your expertise exactly where and when it’s most needed, share your knowledge across groups, and switch projects during lull times, avoiding costly downtime.

 

The reality, though, as we found in our research over the last 15 years, is a lot more complicated. For many people, getting pulled across several different projects is stressful and less productive than theory would suggest. Switching attention between tasks takes time and saps your focus and energy. Moving between teams, you probably also need to adjust to different roles — you might be the boss on one but a junior member of another, for example — which changes not only your level of accountability but also your ability to juggle resources when a crunch time hits. Different teams encompass their own unique cultures, including relationships, routines, symbols, jokes, expectations, and tolerance for ambiguity, which requires energy to handle. And unless you carefully plan and negotiate your contribution on each team, you may end up doing repetitive work instead of pushing your own development.

How can you manage your time, stress, and development if you’re on multiple teams? And how can you stay focused on what’s most important? Start with some up-front planning and follow a few simple rules:

Prioritizing and Sequencing Your Work

Get the big picture. Focusing narrowly on a given day’s work puts you in a reactive, firefighting mode. Schedule a regular status check on all your projects to note milestones. By proactively identifying crunch times when multiple projects have high demands, you can better manage your time and set expectations. The speed and demands of your projects determine the ideal frequency of check-ins, and the management style and seniority of your stakeholders sets the tone for establishing priorities when push comes to shove.

Sequence strategically. Pick one task and focus on it intensely, rather than juggling. Start with the task that requires the greatest concentration and give it your undivided attention. Decide on a distinct set of must-achieve outcomes, define which actions are necessary to achieve only those results, and ruthlessly stick to them. Research shows that attention residue — thoughts held over from a project you’re transitioning from — takes up valuable mental space, so the fewer switches you can make in a given day, the better. If you must multitask, then coordinate and group any compatible duties. For example, if you know you are going to need to answer phone calls at random intervals, work on another task that can be interrupted at any time.

Setting and Communicating Expectations

Protect yourself. When you’re focused on a high-priority task, buy yourself a mental escape from unnecessary intrusions. For example, when I’m writing — my highest-concentration task — I put an automatic reply on my email telling people I’m not checking messages till a certain time of day, and offering my mobile number in case of an emergency. By telling people not to expect an instant reply, you buy yourself some time to focus, while reassuring them that you will pay attention — later. Including your phone number signals your willingness to respond but also makes people think twice about whether their request truly needs immediate attention.

Document and communicate progress. Seeing momentum helps your team leaders feel empowered and in control. Be up front when problems arise. The earlier you say, “I’ve got a conflict and might have trouble delivering 100%,” the more leaders will trust you. One seasoned team member in our research said many of his responses to team requests are simply two words: “On it.” Even this super-brief response tells colleagues that he received their request, so they know he’ll follow up when he can provide more details.

Optimizing Your Development 

Know thyself. A big downside of multiteaming is the truncated exposure to experts from different areas, reducing both your chance to learn from them and your ability to create an impression. Under time pressure, the temptation is for each person to contribute where they already have deep knowledge, rather than investing in members’ learning and growth. You need to own your development goals and your progress toward them. Figure out who else on the team you want exposure to. Make your development goals explicit, to both your team leader and those experts.

Force thyself. After identifying your development goals, block out time for actual learning. Research shows that a critical determinant of learning is time spent reflecting on and integrating new information. This is a challenge, because multiteaming forces us to jump between projects with the express goal of reducing downtime. Therefore, you need to intentionally and explicitly schedule time for reflection. Obviously, you can’t go overboard and become a bottleneck just to carve out contemplation time, but make sure team members see reflection as “real work.”

Across the world, the significant financial benefits of multiteaming mean it has become a way of life, particularly in knowledge work, despite the stresses and risks it can pose for people working across multiple teams at once. As one of those team members, you can manage the trade-offs of working in an overcommitted organization and reap some of the benefits yourself.


Heidi K. Gardner is a distinguished fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession and faculty chair of the Accelerated Leadership Program at Harvard Law School. This article draws on research in her book Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).

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The Difference by Scott Page

Harvard Business Review

By Larry Prusak

How much time and money is spent seeking “diversity” in our organizations around the world? How much value comes out of these activities?

My answers to those questions are a lot of money and very little .

Now before you think this is going to a political rant, let me assure you that the book we are discussing here, The Difference, by University of Michigan professor Scott Page, is all for diversity, but of a specific kind. Cognitive Diversity is what he is advocating, and he makes a very strong argument for it.

Many of our efforts to be diverse, based on race, gender, age, or some other broad stroke often miss the mark in producing better decisions and outcomes. Page believes that, when “solving a problem, cognitive diversity can trump ability, and when making a prediction diversity matters as much as ability” Taken seriously, this is quite an inflammatory statement.

Cognitive diversity is based on the “toolbox” each one of us carries with us, built from our individual experiences and education and trainings. Specifically the toolbox contains four “tools”: perspectives, heuristics, interpretations, and predictive models that we all use every day in every way. All of us have these tools in differing proportions and we all use them somewhat differently. When an organization manages to build teams emphasizing this type of diversity, desired outcomes – better decisions and better innovations – are far more likely.

This is a difficult book to read, despite the author’s humor and clear writing. It is a serious work of social science and an important work for anyone interested in how to better exploit organizational knowledge, using much more sophisticated methods than the very crude and ineffective tools we currently use.

What kind of diversity do you think results in the best decisions?

The #1 Factor That Determines A Toxic or Thriving School Culture

288H.jpgBy Alex Kajitani

As a teacher leader who travels the country working with schools to improve their culture, I’m constantly amazed at the varying degrees to which staff members respect, encourage and communicate with each other.

Here’s what I’ve concluded: the number one factor that determines whether a school culture is toxic or thrives is how staff members deal with their own conflicts as they arise.

As teachers, part of our job is to help students learn to get along. As teacher leaders, we must be able to address our own inevitable conflicts in a positive, respectful manner. This can make or break our school culture.

So, How Can We Handle Conflict Effectively?

Try this step-by-step approach when a conflict with a colleague arises:

Step 1: Be well-rounded.

Think about the situation from
at least three perspectives: yours, your colleague’s, and the students’. Whatever the situation you need to confront, this will help you see the situation more fully, and begin to pinpoint exactly what the issues are.

Step 2: Confirm behavior privately. 

Often, we wonder if a colleague’s behavior is bothering others, or if it’s just us. It’s OK to privately ask another colleague for perspective–in a professional, upbeat manner, focusing on specific behavior and how it affects the group.

For example: “I really want to approach (insert teacher’s name) about how she interrupts in meetings, as I’m concerned that it’s affecting our productivity. However, first I wanted to check with you to see your perspective on the situation.”

Step 3: Make an appointment.

When you’re ready to approach the person, it’s important that this conversation takes place in a comfortable, private location, with plenty of time. Catching someone off guard is not only unfair, it can also block the ability to have a relaxed and real exchange.

Consider stepping into your colleague’s classroom when she’s most likely to be available, and saying, “Hey, I was hoping to talk to you, when’s a good time?”

Step 4: Open strong.

Sometimes, knowing how to begin the conversation is the hardest part. Rehearsing a clear opening is key to whether the conversation becomes productive, or gets derailed before it even begins.

Consider something like: “I’d like to talk to you about (name the problem in one sentence). You don’t have to agree with everything I say, but I do ask you to please listen first.”

Step 5: Be specific.

Avoid making general, “blanket” statements about an issue. Rather, use specific examples, such as, “You arrived 12-14 minutes late to our past three Tuesday meetings.” Only when we are willing to confront someone with specifics can the specific behavior be addressed and improved.

In addition, it’s imperative to separate behavior from self-worth. Telling someone he came to the meeting late (behavior) is far more productive than telling him he never gets anywhere on time (self-worth).

Step 6: Be real.

It’s OK to laugh, cry, or admit to being confused. It’s also OK if the conversation goes silent for a few moments. By bringing our authentic selves into a conversation, we’re able to lean into a conflict, instead of shying away from it.

Being real also means truly being open to the other person’s perspective. Thus, after you’ve opened the conversation with specifics, your main job is to listen.

Step 7: Make a plan.

Conclude the conversation by agreeing on a plan of action, including how you’ll hold each other accountable. Too often, great meetings end with everyone feeling better, but no plan in place. This often leads to the problem occurring again.

Simply saying, “So, what’s the plan?” will move the conversation toward implementable, sustainable solutions. Then, follow up.

It’s Up To US.

When it comes to the success of an individual classroom, nothing is more important than the relationship between the teacher and the students.  When it comes to the success of an entire school, nothing is more important than the relationship of the adults in the building.

Conflicts happen when human beings work together. How we deal with those conflicts is where we have the power to truly shape our school’s culture.

 

Alex Kajitani is the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, and the author of the acclaimed book Owning It: Proven Strategies for Success in ALL of Your Roles as a Teacher Today

Why Edcamp?

Edutopia

During the past six years, hundreds of Edcamp events have popped up worldwide. Teachers from every corner of the globe have been organizing open opportunities for educators to collaborate and solve problems.

In spite of this growth and energy, there are still many educators who are either uninformed or skeptical of the Edcamp model for teacher professional development. Given the plethora of “silver bullets” and magical cures in education, some skepticism is healthy. It ensures that we refine and revise our beliefs through meaningful investigation.

What’s an Edcamp?

Let’s begin with a definition. In short, Edcamps are:

  • Free: Edcamps should be free to all attendees. This helps ensure that all different types of teachers and educational stakeholders can attend.
  • Non-commercial and with a vendor-free presence: Edcamps should be about learning, not selling. Educators should feel free to express their ideas without being swayed or influenced by sales pitches for educational books or technology.
  • Hosted by any organization or individual: Anyone should be able to host an Edcamp. School districts, educational stakeholders and teams of teachers can host Edcamps.
  • Made up of sessions that are determined on the day of the event:Edcamps should not have pre-scheduled presentations. During the morning of the event, the schedule should be created in conjunction with everyone there. Sessions will be spontaneous, interactive and responsive to participants’ needs.
  • Events where anyone who attends can be a presenter: Anyone who attends an Edcamp should be eligible to present. All teachers and educational stakeholders are professionals worthy of sharing their expertise in a collaborative setting.
  • Reliant on the “law of two feet” which encourages participants to find a session that meets their needs: As anyone can host a session, it is critical that participants are encouraged to actively self-select the best content and sessions. Edcampers should leave sessions that do not meet their needs. This provides a uniquely effective way of “weeding out” sessions that are not based on appropriate research or not delivered in an engaging format.

Despite the concrete definition, it can be difficult to truly capture the Edcamp experience. That’s because a “typical” day of learning at an Edcamp doesn’t really exist. Each Edcamp is unique and based on the needs of the participants. When you arrive at the location (usually a school or university) on the day of the event, there is no pre-set schedule of sessions or presenters. Instead, there’s just a blank sheet of big paper with a grid on it.

From that blank slate, everyone builds the session schedule together. As people mingle and chat over free coffee and donuts, they put up potential discussion topics on a board. Since it’s my job to build the schedule at the Edcamp events I organize, I can truly attest that the entire process is positive and organic. Occasionally, people who don’t even know each other realize that they have similar interests and end up running a session together. Other folks come with an idea, throw it out to the group, revise it, and end up posting it with a refined focus. Since anyone who attends an Edcamp event can be a presenter at the event, it’s a very empowering experience for everyone involved.

The skeptics are likely wondering, “What do you do if no ones signs up?” (I get that question a lot.) And while there are certainly specific strategies you can use to ease your anxiety (building an idea board on the event page, having conversations with amazing educators who are planning to attend, etc.), they usually aren’t needed. I’ve never attended or heard of an Edcamp where the schedule board didn’t fill. It just doesn’t happen.

What Happens in a Session?

Given the spontaneity of the schedule creation, you may be curious about the content of the sessions that are typically shared at an Edcamp. Well, it’s certainly hard to generalize, but here is a sampling of sessions from recent Edcamp events:

  • Edcamp SF Bay
    • Fostering Student Learning Networks
    • How to Run Your School from Your iPhone
  • Edcamp Omaha
    • The Global Read Aloud and Reading in the 21st Century
    • Badges, Levels, Games, and Learning
  • Edcamp Atlanta
    • Twitter Newbies
    • Collaborative Classrooms, a New Physical Environment

Educators often have very specific, concrete takeaways from sessions like these all over the country. Consider these positive personal outcomes:

  • “I learned ways to flip my faculty meeting, spending less time on announcements and more time on PD, relationship building and modeling a maximization of time with my staff.” – Joe Mazza
  • “I absolutely loved hearing about Lauren’s experience with a school-wide topic of study, and would love to bring this practice to our school. She described a school whose study topic was ‘India,’ and every grade level, across all content areas, sought to plan experiences that helped students engage with that topic in some way.” – Lyn Hilt
  • “In one Edcamp I learned about all the cool things you can do with Evernote and how you can save everything there!” – Joy Kirr

These aren’t merely fluffy concepts. They are specific, practical strategies and ideas that educators are sharing and investigating at Edcamps all over the nation.

Beyond the Takeaway

Further, the social, interactive, recursive nature of an Edcamp is directly aligned to adult learning theories. In a whitepaper I wrote in 2011, blog posts about Edcamp were qualitatively analyzed to determine common themes. The most popular ideas were:

  • Collaboration and connections
  • Group expertise
  • Tech tools
  • Instructional design
  • Surprise (at the number of educators dedicated to their craft)

These themes are directly correlated to the tenets of effective adult learning as stated in the meta-analysis by National Academies Press entitled How People Learn: Brain, Mind Experience, and School. And further peer-reviewed research in 2016 has corroborated these findings and added greater understanding about the efficacy of the model.

The Edcamp model provides educators with a sustainable model for learning, growing, connecting, and sharing. Everyone’s expertise is honored, and specific, concrete strategies are exchanged. When professional development is created “for teachers by teachers,” everyone wins.

Teaching Smarter: Sharing the Instructional Lift Through Collaborative Frameworks

EdWeek
By Kathy Thayer

Teachers are busy. We plan, grade, and provide students with extra help or a shoulder to lean on. We talk with parents, coach teams, advise clubs, lead committees, and participate in professional development. And we constantly think about how to more effectively meet the diverse needs of our students.
As an 8th grade English/language arts teacher, department chair, and data coach at Mount Vernon Middle School in Ohio, I’m keenly aware of the challenges my colleagues face in finding the time to complete all that teaching demands—and do so consistently well. We’re always looking for ways to improve. At the same time, we also need to find supports that make teaching easier. As the saying goes, we should work smarter, not harder.

During the past four years, our school has adopted Ohio’s new learning standards using an interdisciplinary approach. We want to better engage students and enhance their learning by creating powerful connections between subject areas. We also want to leverage our collective skills and share the lift of teaching students to these higher standards. In other words, we are trying to make our teaching better and easier. Here are a few examples of what we’re doing to achieve these goals:
Sharing the responsibility of reading instruction. Ohio’s new standards demand close textual reading in each subject area. Our challenge is that science and social studies classes are scheduled for 42 minutes per day. Time is already tight for teaching the subject area scope and sequence, as well as trying to include student-driven experiments and project-based learning. In contrast, our English/language arts and math classes are scheduled for 84 minutes per day—double the amount for other content areas.
It was apparent to all of us that the ELA department had the class time and the instructional background to lend our colleagues a hand. We now spend part of our ELA classes introducing students to the complex texts they will be grappling with in social studies and science. This provides students more instructional time in complex reading and we also meet the ELA standards for teaching informational texts. Now, when students arrive at their science or social studies classes they are already comfortable with the new, complex texts and are prepared to dig deeper into its meaning with their content teachers.
Using tools that help us plan lessons collaboratively. When we began our interdisciplinary approach, co-planning wasn’t always easy and there were times when we struggled to create focus and consistency across classrooms. Then we were introduced to the Literacy Design Collaborative, a national network of educators who share a common instructional framework and tools for assignments and lesson design. We use the LDC tools to co-design assignments that capture the shared literacy standards for implementation in different classrooms. The tools create a consistent form and a concrete way to develop and implement our interdisciplinary approach. Whether it’s LDC or another tool, it’s important to find a solution that saves time and improves the quality of assignments and lessons.
Teaching skills multiple times, in multiple classes, through multiple teaching styles. Our educators also share the teaching of specific literacy skills our students need. We identify common skills, build or borrow lessons (called “mini-tasks” in the LDC design system), and teach those skills in each subject area. For each interdisciplinary module‐such as The American Revolution or Plate Tectonics—students engage in related mini-tasks in each class. Through multiple teachers, within various topics, and in different ways, students continually learn and practice important skills, such as researching, annotating, note-taking, creating graphic organizers, and outlining. Our teachers save time by sharing mini-tasks and instructional strategies, while our students benefit from the transference of content and from the multiple opportunities to learn a skill in different ways.
Recognizing students’ own connections across subjects. Facilitating student’ connections across subjects is a quick but powerful way to recognize and reinforce student learning. Students are excited to talk about the connections they make and we provide them class time to share their findings. I also use an interactive bulletin board titled “Building a Strong Foundation,” where students share their connections for everyone to see. One of my students recently reported that she found a source that she was already using for her research within the bibliography of another source. This quick connection of information allowed her to prove the validity of her sources. Without placing an emphasis on the importance of making connections, this brief association may not have occurred. It’s easy on our part and it deepens student learning.
Co-grading. We also share the lift of grading student products. As students complete interdisciplinary assignments, they submit their work on Google Drive. Depending on the content area, the ELA and science or ELA and social studies teachers provide students with feedback using a common rubric, such as those found in the LDC platform. For student projects on a science content standard, for example, our science teacher evaluates the controlling idea, related reading or research, and content understanding of the work, while I do a close reading of the students’ focus, development, organization, and conventions. We split the work and tap into our areas of expertise for feedback to students.
Finding the common thread. These days, every school is managing multiple continuous improvements efforts. A way to make sense of it all is to find a common thread that can connect each of the efforts into a coherent plan. For us, finding a resource like the LDC platform that supports lesson design has become that thread: It helps us collaborate, plan, and improve our instruction within our interdisciplinary approach. The system helps us set a common goal around literacy instruction and allows us to discover places through shared assignments and lessons where we can connect our disciplines.
These are the strategies that are working for us, but there are sure to be others that fit other teachers and schools. It’s important to note that it does take time and commitment upfront to work more collaboratively, but, ultimately, it brings us to a place where teachers share instructional responsibility and students receive multiple, coordinated supports that enhance learning. It’s really a win-win.
Kathy Thayer is an English/language arts teacher and department head at Mount Vernon Middle School in Mount Vernon, Ohio. She has a master’s degree in administrative curriculum and professional development and is currently pursuing principal licensure.

Your Summer Reading List

Independent School’s Columnist Shares His Top Picks for Summer Reading

​A college friend gave me a book-embossing stamp a few years ago, with my initials in the center; but around the rim he had had printed “Immoderate Bibliophile,” to which I plead guilty. Since the only pleasure to match reading books is recommending them, I’m happy to comply when asked for suggestions.

So here’s a list of recommended books for your summer vacation. As with my column in Independent School, it isn’t limited to educator books, but rambles eclectically. Obviously, it is one reader’s set of blinkers and enthusiasms. These are books I’ve started, finished, or mean to get to very soon, and my sources for suggestions include prize winners, major newspapers, and the shelves of my favorite independent bookstores. I hope you’ll try some.

Required Reading

David Brooks, The Road to Character
Because everyone else will have read it or read about it, and because even glib journalists get some things — but not everything — exactly right.
Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
Because the 99 percent, and especially the lost children, are our responsibility too.

Arts

Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read
Not so much a book as a mixed media inquiry into what happens when we use our eyes for the “unnatural” act of reading type and making visual meaning.

Fiction and Poetry

Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics
Posthumous collection from Italy’s great magical realist.  I wonder if Stephen Hawking knows Calvino’s version of the Big Bang?
Louise Gluck, Ararat
Although Gluck just won the National Book Award for Faithful and Virtuous Night, I prefer its predecessor, a sequence of poems by a daughter, offering profound insight into the most mystifying human institution.
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
The Japanese tsunami, a young woman’s diary, and the wisdom of a Buddhist nun, along with a fascinating challenge to our everyday view of cause and effect.
Marilynne Robinson’s just-completed trilogy (Gilead, Lila, Home)
I started Gilead years ago and put it down, then picked it up recently on the recommendation of a friend. I have no idea how I could have abandoned it – lack of maturity I guess.

History and Biography

Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
Less compendious than similar works, with a very unusual take on the theme.  You’ll never think about refrigerators, mirrors, or novels the same way.
Ben MacIntyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
For those interested in the Cold War, and the British class system; the “true spy” version of a LeCarré novel.
Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
Want to know why there has never been an unum of the pluribus?  More readable than Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, more historical than Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America.
Michael Zantovsky, Havel: A Life
Hardly noticed in America (ranking #117,425 on Amazon, almost exactly 117,000 behind the in-house Steve Jobs book), the life of the closest the last century produced to Plato’s philosopher-ruler.

Humor

Bob Mankoff, How About Never — Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons
More than 300 New Yorker cartoons, from early days to today, and a history of the magazine’s cartooning that provokes as many laughs as the cartoons.

Memoir

Philip Glass, Words Without Music: A Memoir
The avant-garde composer tells a straightforward story, of a life filled with Eastern thought, western literature, and innumerable surprising connections from visual art to yoga.  Pair with Patti Smith’s Just Kids.
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
A memoir in poetry recognized by both the Newbery and the National Book Awards, this book shows the limitations of the “Young Adult” label.

Nature

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
If you have only a vague understanding of, or respect for, “native American wisdom,” this book will enlighten and delight.
Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk
City boy reads Wart’s adventures among the predators, then Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Hurt Hawks.” Fascination culminates with this gem.

Philosophy

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex
Yes, that Plato, and that Google.  The Athenian holds his own among scientists, advice columnists, child-rearing experts in the liveliest Platonic text since the Apology.

Science and Technology

John Brockman, Edge Question Series (This Idea Must Die, What Should We Be Worried About?, etc.)
The perfect formula for wisdom: Ask 300 of your closest friends a good question; publish.  Of course you have to be friends with people like Howard Gardner and Stephen Pinker.
Sam Kean, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery
Kean is my favorite science writer of the moment.  He made the periodic table and DNA interesting, and now he has an even more engrossing subject – us.
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
The book on our environmental impact that has even The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider worried. It received the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in April 2015.

Shifting your Professional Network into the 21st Century

Teaching Channel

When I first became an educator, the term “network” had a different connotation for me when I compared it to other professions. In my mind, it implied we were supposed to reach out to other educators within our building, or perhaps at the district level, to exchange both ideas and resources.

After being selected to Honeywell’s Educators @ Space Academy in 2006, my idea of an educator’s network broadened to include educators not only in other states, but around the world. In fact, after realizing the opportunity, a few of us decided to make our own website to stay in touch and collaborate. It worked so well that my students participated in joint science experiments with students from other states, but they also helped set up an “American style” student council in Romania.

SpaceAcademy2

After seeing the value of collaboration, I was eager to be part of the initial cohort at the Dayton Regional STEM Center. This cohort included professionals from K-12 education, higher education, and industry, working together to develop STEM curricula for students in all schools. As a STEM Fellow, you participated in training which includes learning about the engineering design process, as well as touring labs at local universities and industry sites. Working alongside passionate individuals and seeing their amazing work environment was very inspiring. As an educator, I knew that I had to find a way for them to become part of my classroom. And that’s when things changed.

I had lived in self-imposed exile for far too long. I used to think that cross-curricular activities within my building were good enough, but when I saw the value that was added through these highly gifted engineers and scientists interacting with students, it forever changed the way I organized my units of instruction. My idea of a professional network was forever changed.

I started using sites such as LinkedIn to keep track of my professional contacts and building an even bigger network. Additionally, I started the practice of sending home a letter at the beginning of the school year outlining my course of study, which also invited parents to sign up as a potential volunteer/site hosts if their profession seemed to fit within the scope of our studies. Finally, I reached out to former students that were either in college or in their young careers for support. The response that I received was phenomenal.

As a result of leveraging my contacts, not only did the number of visitors coming into my classroom sky rocket, but my middle school students have been active participants and earned experiences that have been much more than just “field trips” at the following sites over the past 3 years:

  • Mad River Township Fire/EMS
  • Wright State Visualization Laboratory
  • Schools of Chemistry, Physics, and Engineering
  • The Ohio State University Aero/Astro Research Center
  • Ohio State University Schools of Engineering and Architecture
  • Air Force Institute of Technology

Once your classroom develops the reputation of engaging the community, entities will search you out. As an example, I was contacted by Jason Kruger of Stratostar out of Indianapolis, Indiana. Even though his company is a couple of hours down the road, through reputation he found us. We worked together with my students to create experiments that would be attached to a high altitude weather balloon that launched into near space. Ovular objects (how fluids behave with changes in temperature and pressure), Dancing Confetti (a study in turbulence as well as sound waves at different altitudes), and the ill-fated AstroCrickets, were our way of conducting authentic engineering and scientific investigations for nearly a month. Our school organized a launch day in which all of the students in the building, as well as parents and local media, were invited to attend. We even had a mission control in which everyone could watch as the real time data from the sensors rolled into our classroom.

Balloon

The day after our successful launch and retrieval, one of my students — a 12-year-old girl who was very quiet — came up to me and said, “You know Mr. J, I had a great moment yesterday. When my dad came home from work, he asked me what I did at school today. I said nothing big. I just helped launch a weather balloon over 62,000 feet into near space. ‘What did you do?’” On that note, we both smiled then chuckled, and I knew that my extra efforts to reach outside of my classroom walls were well worth the time.

Tom Jenkins teaches both middle school science and STEM in Enon, Ohio. He is a NASA SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, Manager of Special Projects at the Dayton Regional STEM Center, as well as the Boeing Science Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Tom via Twitter: @TomJenkinsSTEM.