About Mitzi Neely

Assistant Superintendent for White Oak ISD.

Educators as 21st Century Learners

There’s no question I am deeply passionate about meeting the needs of today’s learners through the creation of a ‘this century’ classroom. I really appreciate how @AmyHeavin shared on the Fractus Learning site (and Twitter) why educators need to be 21st Century Learners too. We hear colleagues talk about their PLN’s and how social media has changed their lives. We hear key buzz words used to demonstrate their understanding of change and transformation, and yet with all of that, what does the classroom really look like? Where is there proof that today’s learners are walking into classrooms they can’t wait to get to?

If I were to walk through your classroom would I see authentic collaboration between students? Would there be a boundless flow of student creativity being shared and honored? Would critical thinking and problem-solving be a natural part of the learning environment? Would I see proof of  student responsibility and accountability for their own learning? What would the classroom environment look like? And, how would students be measured or assessed?

We all want our students to master the skills and objectives taught in the classroom. We masterfully craft all sorts of expectations to set them up for success. We challenge them to be experts with technology. We create places and spaces for collaboration and creativity to take place. And the list goes on and on. But if we really believe in all of this and want it to happen, then we must model for our students. If we won’t take risks then why should they? If we won’t practice what we ‘preach’ then why should they? If we have not bought into transforming classrooms then why should we expect student learning to be transformed?

Bottomline~if we are going to teach 21st century learners, then all of us need to make certain we know the commitment, knowledge and time involved in doing just that.

 “It is impossible to teach 21st Century Learners if you have not learned this century.” (Gary Stager)


Six steps to a ‘this century’ classroom

So, here goes–Part 2 of creating a ‘this century’ classroom.

How do I go about making the transformation of instruction happen? Where do I start? How do I know if the changes I make to instruction will be effective and impact students the way I have envisioned? I won’t know until I’ve put my plans into play.

Let’s face it, this type of change is not for the weak or ‘faint’ hearted.  It is hard work and many educators you and I know will not make the effort to transform their teaching because it is hard work. It also takes countless hours to prepare lessons that may or may not have the impact we want. But, oh to try. You see, I’m a glutton for punishment. I love school and I love learning. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to reach kids; ALL kids. It is time to take responsibility that the whole learning process starts with me and how teach. 

As I see it, the first thing I have to change is moving from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom. Meaning that what goes on in the classroom is not about me, my teaching, or my lesson. It’s about kids and what they’re doing and learning. Here are six steps to help with transforming classrooms for “this century.”

1. Teach students how to think out-of-the-box. Let them tell you what they’re learning and be open to what they create as their take-away of the lesson. Ask the tough questions–the how and why. In any important project I’ve ever worked on, I’ve always included a colleague who had a different perspective on things. I don’t want to miss the incredible opportunities available for my students because of my short sightedness. .

2. Let the students have a say in designing the lesson. What happens if I provide the important start-up to the lesson and then begin asking questions that jumpstart students thinking? The point would be to ask the right kinds of questions to motivate students to delve further into the lesson. It’s all about voice and choice–let them have a say. When you integrate student choice, there is personal buy-in.

3. Be willing to stretch yourself as learning evolves. Let’s face it, nothing stays the same. And, there is no need to fear anything–not a new lesson or concept, or technology. Be willing to put yourself out there. Remember, your students can teach you a lot. I’ve never been afraid to look at my high school students and say, show me the shortcuts or ask what is the benefit of using this tool over something else? This also means taking risks by trying something new. Go for it–what are you waiting for? Let them teach you as you teach them.

4. Think beyond your classroom or your subject matter. It’s okay to use a plethora of resources to create your lessons or experiences. Twitter has impacted my professional life in more ways than I can count. I am so proud to be connected to so many talented educators who share a similar vision when it comes to creating a ‘this century’ classroom. Think about how to enrich your lesson with cross-curricular activities. Don’t limit yourself and your students to just your field of study.

5. Let students find solutions to problems. If you truly want to check mastery of student learning, there is no better way than to watch them in action. Formative checks along the way allow you to be involved from start to finish. Inquiring minds want to know and I want them to know.

6. Let students capture what they are learning. Students can take pictures, journal their experiences and publish on their blogs. They can Skype with classrooms around the world and share powerful knowledge. There are endless number of opportunities for students to showcase their learning–take advantage of capturing it. Take advantage of the technology available in a “this century” classroom.

The steps included here are part of a collection from years of note-taking from reading various articles, books, blogs, and attending conferences and training with respected colleagues. Having spent 24 of my almost 34 years in education in the classroom, I have had incredible experiences working with some of the best and the brightest students and outstanding colleagues who were willing to go with me as I journeyed into unchartered territory. Plus, I had supportive administrators who, even if they didn’t really understand what I was trying to do, allowed me to do it anyway because they trusted me and my teaching. Now, as a central administrator in charge of curriculum, instruction and professional development, it is my privilege, desire and passion to continue to lead in this journey of transforming classroom instruction in my own district. I am blessed to have a support system of colleagues who are totally on board with where we are headed and walk beside me as we move forward in creating a ‘this century’ classroom. This is not an easy job, but the rewards far outweigh the challenges. I will continue to celebrate each time a teacher makes the transition and sees the value of a student-centered classroom. 


Creating a ‘this century’ Classroom

You want to do something grandiose in education? How about ‘transform classroom instruction to meet the needs of today’s learner?’ By most standards, transforming anything is a lofty goal. Now, think about the task of making transformation happen. I can tell you the image of change is written all over the wall. It also brings a million questions to mind. Can it be done? What will it take to make it happen? Is it realistic? How will I do it? And, what resources are available?

At first glance all of these questions seem easy to answer. But a long, second look reveals a much deeper issue. Where do I begin? How do I weave authenticity into the transformation process, and do I have a solid grasp of what it will take in planning to reap the benefits of a ‘this century’ classroom? Talk about pressure, or blame, if this transformation stuff doesn’t work out.

Much of what goes into this process will test any seasoned educator, much less a newbie or less experienced teacher. Thankfully, I’ve got the seasoned part on my side when it comes to skill, life-long learning, perseverance and tenacity. However, it doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. In my mind, transforming instruction has more to do with things being less teacher-centered and much more student-centered. It’s more about student engagement and empowerment in what goes on in the classroom. Learning should be inquiry driven and require actual thought and problem solving. The learning process should also provide a plethora of collaboration opportunities. All of which would not exist if this was all about me, my lesson and my teaching.

It is important, I believe, to stretch our students far beyond the basic levels of Bloom’s where drill and kill collides with boring and unimaginative. It is time to move students into a world filled with curiosity, voice and choice and the ability to create the ‘need to know’ through mystery and intrigue. What happens if this instruction process moves my students to experience authentic learning at its finest? How do I pair transformation and authenticity and how do I replicate it to mean what I want it to?

A colleague, Dayna Laur, recently wrote an article titled, ‘The Top Ten Ways to Fake an Authentic Classroom.’ For the love of education, I almost broke out in hives when I read the title, but the article provided insight and forced me to reflect on my own teaching experiences.

As I scanned through the list of reasons, I caught on quickly as to why ‘faking it’ might be the road more traveled. I could pretend that every lesson I had ever prepared reeked of true authentic learning. In reality, what I walked away with was that while much of what I had taught or created for students to work on was indeed authentic. There were still a couple of their classes that deserved more authenticity than the ‘faked’ kind they got. Not only did that revelation burst my bubble–it actually hit a nerve. I could be a bit more dramatic; but to be fair, I already knew all of this. I’ve been making up for it ever since.

In the end what I really want is for “authentic” to mean that students are taking the lesson framework and creating solutions to problems. They should be writing action plans that require critical thinking to make it work, crafting a list of questions that Google can’t help with, and to be honest, I just plain want my students to be ‘out of their element’ to the point that they are probing their minds and souls looking for the answers that will satisfy their ‘need to know.’

Now, how to make this happen–stay tuned for Part 2.

Teaching in a Paperless Classroom

We are fortunate to have a couple of teachers at the middle school with paperless classrooms. With that said, there may also be some paper-based assignments given along the way, but the move toward paperless has boded well for many of the students because of the engaging assignments, discussions, and the integration of technology. We are not a 1:1 district, but we started this pilot with classroom sets of Chromebooks and the feedback has been very positive.

The link included in this post offers the perspective of Sam Patterson and his decision to ‘Ditch the Textbook.’ Our decision to go paperless in a few classrooms was more about inquiry driven learning, and engaging students to the extent that they would be accountable and responsible for their learning.

Something to think about……


Communication is the Key!

Communication is a subject we deal with on a lot of different levels. Are you a clear communicator? How well do you communicate with others–staff, administrators, students, parents, community? When you are required to answer questions was it because you weren’t clear or there was simply a miscommunication? Were words or directives taken out of context? Do we really hear the words being used in  a conversation or do we merely ‘see’ them as a request for something else? Do you believe that many of the messages we receive are always asking for something?

Click on the link below and read a message from a colleague who provides 5 strategies to overcome ‘Message in a Bottle’ syndrome. Can these strategies help us to articulate and clearly define our thoughts? Just something to think about…………


Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science; It’s Harder!

This article crossed my desk this morning, compliments of a colleague who thought I would find it interesting. As I read through it I found every single point to be relevant, truthful, and with a perspective that we as educators can appreciate.

Take a few minutes to read the story of this former engineer at NASA, who entered the Teach America program and is completing his second year of teaching science at a high-needs high school in Colorado.

Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science; It’s Harder!

10 ideas for transforming your classroom

Thought this blog post from a year ago was worth posting again — the sole district focus for White Oak ISD is to ‘Transform Classroom Instruction.’ The transformation occuring across the district in many classrooms is truly amazing, with teachers at every grade level and/or subject area working to engage students at the highest level and challenging them with project-based learning units that are inquiry-driven, and filled with collaboration, creativity, and student voice and choice. Add the high levels of technology integration to the mix and what our teachers are creating is student-centered, student facilitated classrooms that drive 21st Century Learning.


The experiences of a first year teacher

When I came across the site, Brown Bag Teacher, I was curious to read the blogs posted about teaching strategies, resources, and classroom experiences. What I got from the beginning was a first person blog from a new teacher. She writes with clarity, honesty and humility about her day-to-day experiences that capture the very essence of why we do what we do. Today’s specific post is technology/app related and tells of the classroom visit from her superintendent. What she is doing in her classroom in many ways resembles the very things going on in our classrooms across the district– while teaching philosophies vary, learning spaces set up differently, and lessons planned to target a variety of skills and abilities, the one common thread is that every choice we make, or action we take focuses on students. We live in a time of change but the one constant is how to make our classrooms student-centered, how to teach BIG, and how to convey a love of life-long learning to our students. I believe we can ALL do this!

No matter how long I’m in this business, no matter how many changes, challenges, or hoops I’m forced to jump through for the sake of accountability, no matter how often the roadblocks pop up to prevent forward motion, I’m still as excited today as I was 33 years ago when I stepped into my first classroom. It’s always comforting to get a breath of fresh air………….just something to think about.