Hear the experiences and insights that led to having a PD session for staff with the themes of equity and social justice being led by middle and high school students. Nili Bartley, digital learning and innovation coach, shared this observation: ”The mutual respect in the room for what students and staff members were asking each other to offer, sparked potential for relationships between them to grow and for opportunities like this to only continue.” Gain some suggestions for exploring the possibilities.
Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!
Steve: 00:32 Students leading professional development. I was intrigued when I read a blog titled, “Students Leading PD: A Powerful Shift in Learning” by Nili Bartley. I immediately reached out to Nili and I asked her to share her experiences and she agreed. Nili is currently a technology teacher and digital learning and innovation coach in Massachusetts. She’s an author and a PD provider. Welcome, Nili.
Nili: 01:05 Thank you so much. I am honored to be here. Thank you so much for reaching out, Steve.
Steve: 01:10 Well, I’m excited to have you share your your experiences with our listeners. Would you tell folks a little bit about your current role as digital learning and innovation coach? That’s not a title I’ve necessarily run into.
Nili: 01:25 . Yes. Well, I actually, I love the title and I was a tech integration specialist, I’ve been a digital learning coach, part-time with teaching, part-time with coaching. And I had the opportunity for one year in the district where I am now to actually serve at all the elementary schools and middle schools with the title of Digital Learning and Innovation Coach. So it was the first time I’d actually had that title and I found it to be very freeing because I think that when you have any kind of role that has digital or technology in the title, one can be misunderstood at times. And I think it not only freed me up from not being so tech-heavy, but also my colleagues. So it’s not ever about the tool, but that really kind of sent the message home and a bit clearer.
Nili: 02:16 And so I went back to the role that I had at the middle school I am now, which is part-time teaching and part-time in that other role so I kept the title because I thought it was really powerful. So typically I am very busy. It’s a little bit of a crazy situation, but it’s like wonderfully crazy. And I’m either in my own classroom teaching classes or flying around the building, meeting with teachers or administrators, co-teaching, modeling lessons in other classrooms. And what’s cool about it is I think there is power in both roles because I can sort of use one with the other. So I can share discoveries that I’m seeing firsthand with my students, with my colleagues and on the flip side, I find myself taking the coaching colleagues and coaching students, which I find to be the most valuable part of teaching.
Nili: 03:08 I try my best to make innovative ideas and tech tips and evidence and examples from classrooms as visual as possible. So I send out like weekly Smore newsletters and I think the most important thing that I can do is scale what I’m seeing. So as awesome as it is to share current innovation, current ideas that are happening outside of our school, I really try to capture what’s happening within the walls of our building as well as I find that quite motivational for my colleagues to take a leap. And I’m trying to include the voices of students as much as possible as well.
Steve: 03:49 So a question I like to ask folks who are instructional coaches to look back at when they were teachers, but this fits nicely because you’re doing both. If I had a chance to observe you working with students in your technology class, and then I had a chance to watch you working with the staff, what would you describe as similarities and differences that that you think I might find?
Nili: 04:20 Well, I love that question and I don’t mean to steal this from High School Musical, although that is one of my favorite movies to watch with my daughter and we’ve used it as a theme song a lot at the middle school where I am now, just particularly over the last few years, but I would hope that one would get the sense that we’re all in this together. You knew that was coming. When I think lately of the classes that I’m teaching, I have eight sections of students, fifth grade, seventh and eighth, the first thing that comes to mind is conversations. I feel like I am in constant conversations with students about the work that they’re doing, the projects they’re doing. We’re kind of constantly consulting and figuring things out. And I’ll never forget when I read Susan Scott’s book, “Fierce Conversations,” the quote that I’ve taken with me since is the conversation is the relationship.
Nili: 05:12 So with relationships, which we all know being the foundation for everything else, I would hope that you would see that piece parallel between what you’re seeing in classrooms where I’m co-teaching as well and then when I’m coaching colleagues. Whether it’s students or staff members, push for change and asking people to get out of their comfort zone if there isn’t that foundation of trust and that belief that they know that I’m going to show up wholeheartedly whether they succeed or whether they don’t and we have to come back to the conversation and figure out next step to take. But hopefully that’s kind of the commonality that you would see between both. I actually tried something new this year. I’m also trying to stress with my students and colleagues all the time that I am a learner first.
Nili: 06:11 So I’m really trying to approach when I visit classrooms just to pop in and I need to make more consistent time for this because my schedule is filling up, but it’s so important. I’ll go in for a few minutes and then I got this idea from Chris Jones who wrote “Seeing To Lead,” and it’s a beautiful book about coaching teachers. He leaves a Voxer message every time he leaves a classroom. And so I started leaving these voice memos and I don’t push an agenda. It’s not like, “oh, I saw this really good cool thing, how about you use this tech tool?” Right? It’s more about, this is so awesome what I saw you do in the classroom, and that’s it. And if it naturally comes up to share an experience that I think might be impactful for that teacher’s learners, I’ll share it.
Nili: 06:56 But I try really hard with whoever I’m working with not to sort of deliver this one-sided agenda because it’s that my style and I don’t think it’s effective. So I’m really trying to convey that I’m constantly learning from both students and teachers. And I think that when you open yourself up to that mindset, once you are invested in those conversations, ideas come out of them that you may have never thought of yourself. I think it’s just kind of a beautiful outcome when both people in the conversation are very much willing to learn.
Steve: 07:32 So listening to you, I’m going to connect your two books. It was a long time ago that I read Susan Scott, but I know that I walked out of there with that sentence, “the conversation is the relationship.” But if you tie it into the second part that you’ve just described, the learning is also in the conversation.
Nili: 07:53 Absolutely.
Steve: 07:54 So what you’re doing with the teachers when you leave that message is you’re leaving an opening for a conversation to start.
Nili: 08:00 Yes. And it’s happened and it’s it’s wonderful and it just feels so good because it’s organic.
Steve: 08:09 Yeah. So how did the idea of students leading a PD session emerge?
Nili: 08:16 Well, it didn’t happen just recently. About eight years ago I was trying to get my Brain Pop educator certification. I loved the platform, went to a session at ISD and one of the requirements was to lead a PD session on teaching your colleagues the newest features because there were tons of new features. It’s amazing tool. And I thought, okay, well my students are learning all the new features of Brain Pop and they’re teaching each other and it’s awesome. Why couldn’t I get permission for four of them to teach the four new features that we were working on? It seemed like this is gonna work. So I got permission to do that from my building from BrainPOP. And what I did was I had kids apply to do it. They had to get special permission to come on our PD day.
Nili: 09:07 And it was awesome. They led two sessions, they designed t-shirts, they each took on one of the new features. And I thought, man, this is so powerful. And it totally increased the amount of usage of Brain Pop, but the best thing was the most impactful part of it was that teachers were able to see students as leaders and they were getting high fives in the hallway. It just sort of shifted this mindset that we’re all human beings who have this amazing potential to offer each other insight and experience and advice and help with the technology as well. And so ever since then I’ve tried to create similar opportunities and it’s sometimes it’s difficult with the scheduling. Like, we offered a PD during a teacher lunch once, and that can be tricky, but I think that pushing for it to happen more often, something I certainly need to work on, is something that’s really invaluable to have in our school.
Nili: 10:07 So when I had a special class of seventh graders last year during a win block based on digital leadership, what I asked them to do was, under the sort of the inspiration and work of Jennifer Casa-Todd who wrote “Social Media,” they just had to simply create something digitally that would impact the school. So it was the power of sharing what we’re passionate about and trying to make a positive influence within our community. And from that class of 19 seventh graders, this social justice podcast was born. Four students created it and after they did their first episode on pronoun use in the classroom for their peers as well as their teachers, I knew that because of the relevancy and because of their courage and what they had been able to create, that this needed to somehow be a session created for their teachers to see firsthand.
Nili: 11:07 So we had a half day coming up, and I have an amazing principal who had already started scheduling high school students to lead sessions on any topic connected to social justice. And so this was going to fit right in. And in fact, they were the only middle schoolers who were presenting. But the power of having, whether it was high school students or middle school students, it was solely dedicated to them leading sessions. And it wasn’t the first time we had done this, but I can’t even tell you, teachers just wanted more. So, it was my idea to have this particular group lead a session, but the vision of student voice and leadership and running PD sessions is really a part of my district too. So I’m very lucky that the vision aligns.
Steve: 11:58 So as I’m listening, I’m wondering, do you think the teachers maybe even make themselves more vulnerable in that learning situation being led by students than they might, if they were being led by either an outside person or even a colleague?
Nili: 12:20 You know, and thinking back to even when we did this several years ago with my last crew of fourth graders that I taught, I think so. I had, I remember, a teacher just last year in this particular session, being very honest and saying, I’m not sure the best way to approach this. I feel, maybe not prepared or even shy to talk to students about this topic. And the kids jumped on it and they gave them advice. And it was really cool because you saw that transfer of teachers becoming students and the students becoming teachers and that sort of really healthy, I don’t know if the word is dependency, but they were relying on the, the kids to kind of show them the way. So I do think there’s that level of comfort in maybe becoming more vulnerable and I think that it puts the kids in a position of really feeling like they’re making a difference.
Steve: 13:23 So, great learning opportunity for the students and the teachers combined.
Nili: 13:28 Absolutely.
Steve: 13:29 So I’m wondering if you’ve got any advice for people who’ve never done this in their school. I’m sure I’ve got some coaches listening to the podcast, intrigued by what you’ve done and and wondering how they would go about it. Any advice for a starter?
Nili: 13:51 I think it really comes down to a mindset. I feel strongly about a lot of the things that we do that it’s, it’s first a mindset and buy-in. So if we all, in every classroom, in every building, take on the mindset that students not only have the ability to lead but should be leading and that we have this wonderful opportunity to lead from them and from their perspective, then I think that that’s huge. That’s the first big step. And then what ends up happening is we almost kind of develop this opportunity for students to lead like radar. So when I have kids in the classroom who are, a lot of times they’re leading their own work and they create something amazing, I’m now thinking, ooh, how can I get them to take two minutes to show this at a staff meeting?
Nili: 14:45 Or how can we build this into a workshop model that we’re doing on a half day? Whatever it is, that, I think is the first step. And I think along with that, once we have that mindset, we need to actually give our kids the space, the time and the encouragement to do amazing things. And the best thing about that is if we do that, most often they do. There’s this great quote, I’m not sure who the author is, it might be like anonymous, but I think it’s like, “kids will do amazing things if we let them.” So I think that’s part of it as well. We can’t just expect them to lead without the time, space and encouragement to do so. And I think that in those situations, we have to remember that we don’t have to be the
Nili: 15:28 So just a few parameters to support their success and then when we give them that creative freedom, we have no idea the ideas that they’re gonna come up with that maybe we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves. Some just little tips I would say, like bring to your admin the power in students leading PD. Maybe have kids who wanna share something even like write up a proposal. Depending on their age you can help them or if they have access to email, they could even email administrators or sit down with them. Again, even two minutes at a staff meeting, we had a student who shared her social justice co-space, virtual museum. We’re big into co-spaces. That’s partly because it’s one of the things I love, so I’m very excited about it, but teachers and students are really taking off with this platform that allows us to create virtual spaces and then actually enter
them with the VR headsets, which is fantastic.
Nili: 16:24 And she shared it in front of our whole entire staff. And that’s the stuff that people remember. Because once you see it in action – yes, you can show videos of students in action in the moment from doing something in the classroom and that’s much better than someone like me saying, “hey, try this because it works,” right? But when you have students actually sharing, there is no argument. You can’t get better evidence than that. They’re sharing their experience firsthand. So anything that you can get kids to share at any kind of meeting I think is super powerful. One thing that I did once we were doing the Brain Pop PD was, we asked any teacher who wanted to, to let myself and all of my students come into their classroom and my students joined the other students, it became like one-to-one tutors and taught them how to use the features of Brain Pop.
Nili: 17:17 And what that does is it frees their teacher up to simply learn. So she was getting PD from students who are actually teaching everybody in the classroom. You can do this with another class, say, hey, like make a deal. My kids will come teach your kids, you know, this tool and vice versa. We did that with a second and third grade class. And again, the teachers are actually learning. And when I now go into a class and I’m doing a lesson, for example, I had a colleague the other day say, okay, I’m gonna sit down, I’m gonna learn from Mrs. Bartley and then I’m gonna sit right next to you, so-and-so, and you are gonna help me create the project. So, little things like that that don’t seem like a big deal can have a really large impact. So those are a few things that I would say have worked well for us.
Steve: 18:07 Well Nili, I will put the link to your article in the lead-in to this podcast and I’m wondering if you’d share with people best way for them to connect with you if they have questions for you or would like to take the conversation further.
Nili: 18:23 Yeah. So I would say the best way to reach me would be either through Instagram or Twitter. And it’s the same – it’s just @nbartley6 and I would love to hear from you.
Steve: 18:37 Terrific. Terrific. Thank you. Really appreciate it.
Nili: 18:40 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 18:43 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.