teaching kids to embrace obstacles:

Valerie Lewis

Amy Senn

VP of Agency

Jul 26, 2018 | Edu

Recognizing that the workplace may limit her gifts, classroom teacher Valerie Lewis founded AppleSeed Learning as a tool to develop and deploy community-based cultural programs, partnerships, learning labs, and, most recently: EdObstacles.

She is respected amongst her peers as a motivator (of staff and students alike). She is Remind.com‘s Connected Educator’s Lead Teacher for SPED and consults with the New Business and Development group of Cox Communications in Atlanta on educational initiatives. For WorldChanging, she is a regular collaborator on K-12 initiatives. In this interview, she catches up with Amy Senn during her first week as a new Assistant Principal in Gwinnett County.

“Stop and think about it for a moment. How many times do you recall having an ‘ahah!’ moment while sitting on your butt listening to a lecture?”
Amy: What inspired EdObstacles? Where did it begin?

Val: The idea of EdObstacles came about around 2 years ago through my 9-year-old son. There’s this show called American Ninja Warrior and he wouldn’t stop watching it; he was simply captivated.

It almost looked like he had this strange obsession but, clearly, he was just so interested. I would observe him and think, if my 9-year-old can get all caught up and stay genuinely interested, how might I be able to recreate something in the classroom to get that same level of engagement? I realized it was the physical competition, the obstacle challenges, around the whole concept of the show that not only created a huge part of the fun, but also kept you motivated and involved. That was how EdObstacles was born.

Amy: How did you take it from inspiration to action?

Val: I decided to reach out to several teachers in the EduMatch group headed by Sarah Thomas. I told them about my idea, presented my vision, and asked them what they thought. I also asked if we could take a look at creating standards, study and form them, and then think about fun and engaging ways to put it all together in an obstacle course type format.

I asked them to think about things like Amazing Race and Spartan Race, Double Dare and Minute To Win It. How might we do something like that?

They were on board. We all divided and conquered the various content areas. We came up with some quick spills and they said, “You know what? We’ve given our spill. How about we come up with a student advisory board?”

From there it was like, “You’re right!” Who better to design something for kids than kids themselves?”

Then it turned into a PBL (project-based learning) project, and in less than 6 weeks, we got a phone call from the President-Elect of MakerFaire Atlanta. She basically said, “You know that EdObstacles thing you were telling me about? Can you put that together in about 6 weeks for about 2,000 people passing through the upcoming MakerFaire?”

And I thought “Oh no. What am I going to do?”

So I gave the task to the kids: getting together with a math teacher, engineering teacher and instructional design teacher, we merged our classrooms together and the kids started to create their own design ideas. We came up with a budget and materials list, community partners and the right people to bring it to life, and that was it!

At that point we realized, “We’ve got something,” and that’s how EdObstacles came to be.

Amy: What kind of impact have you seen since you first launched EdObstacles?

Val: The levels of engagement and connection are through the roof for the kids as well as the adults who participate. It’s the students, going through the design process, so there is that empathy piece where they’re thinking about what peers want and then coming back, problem solving, and designing for the enjoyment of others.

The second major impact has been through some staff development we’ve done at the county level with teachers, re-envisioning how to engage students. Here’s something that creates a relevant tool, outside and beyond the classroom walls, to get students engaged. Now we’re having teachers design their own mini-obstacle course. If they don’t want to go full fledge with multiple stations, they simply design one station that activates kids where they are and gets them moving physically.

Then you have the physical component. Kids are moving and wanting more. They are showing us, in quick short spurts, a kind of formative assessment – without the computer, or paper and pencil.

Then they are collaborating with each other, going through these series in teams. They’re not doing it on their own. We see kids who may have been struggling learners begin to rely on their teammates to work through the process of solving a problem.

If we can get this to scale, I think we can help teachers think about the classroom in a different way and what teaching and learning looks like for kids. We can encourage kids to rely on each other and to have fun, even while failing, in the process.

Amy: This is amazing! So why don’t we have EdObstacles everywhere?

Val: Teachers are afraid sometimes to go outside of the box. There are a lot of constraints with higher ups – from within the building as well as at the district level. Sometimes teachers don’t feel like they have enough room left to be innovative, and often feel they can’t get the level of support they need to make something like this work. We were very lucky to have a supportive Principal at our High School where EdObstacles began, and his belief in his teachers paved the way.

(This is a partial interview – the remainder will be posted on July 27, 2018)

Sounds like we need more rebel teachers

I think we need more wisdom, entrepreneurial spirit and empathy in the bureaucracies that govern education. I wish it was a pill, but you can’t “get” this in a single, small dose. The most powerful educators get caught at the educator-to-educator domain, and we forget to empower student champions to be that mouthpiece. So when someone asks me to do a training or staff development on EdObstacles, I let the student run that presentation and that workshop.

I try to bring 4-5 kids that actually design for EdObstacles into every presentation. Then the kids run the workshop. When educators see the power and testament to what kids are getting out of it, they look at it differently.

I believe in letting the kids do the work, letting the kids testify to the power of it and then as educators / administrators, provide resources, time and support. Then we just follow up and follow through with educators to ensure that it happens.

Amy: Speaking of connecting educators with resources, you’ve recently been behind the curtain at PassTheScope EDU and other huge initiatives that get teachers connected online. Your work has had tremendous impact, especially for teachers who were once isolated to rural classrooms and small teaching communities. Today we see previously invisible educators stepping into the national leadership spotlight at conferences. We see PLN networks going global. What is going on here? What is the deeper impact?

Val: It is the marriage of professional and personal growth, point blank. Period. Bottom-line.

You can look back on any group of educators 3-4 years ago and the chances are, they were not actively connected in meaningful relationships with educators from around the country or even the globe. Looking at that same tribe of educators today, that trajectory powerful and visible. Educators are connecting in ways nobody predicted, and it is truly the only driving force for change in education right now in America.

Imagine being in a small district with a very limited group of peers and wanting to think differently? Imagine wanting to build a project that will benefit students, but no one in your building wants to hear it? When you have like minds plugged into each other, willing to share and collaborate, you break free of those chains.

We amplify each other’s work. We develop our work and our voice with supportive collaborators who bring vastly different perspectives to the same goal. Perhaps one of the most overlooked features of our national community of teachers is how wildly diverse we teachers are.

So, communities like #PassTheScopeEDU can support and share in what a single teacher is doing inside their classroom and say, “Wow I didn’t realize that a rural school could face the same challenges as my urban school. Now what can I learn?”

Amy: Can you give an example?

Val: When I was at the ISTE conference this summer in Chicago, I connected with another educator in the Northeast. I remember saying, “I’m in the dirty South and you are way over on the West Coast,” and we were talking about issues of Title 1 that we were both experiencing. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought we could be experiencing the same thing. I we only faced those issues here in the South. Just having that conversation, we were able to share how we would curtail these issues.

We can’t just continuously say we have issues, we have to learn how to work around them. I think that is the power in being connected and amplifying each other. We are all in this great work together and I don’t believe you realize that if you’re limiting yourself to the people within your building or even just within your district. You’re seeing through a lens to a bigger global picture.

Amy: Would you call it a social movement?

Val: Absolutely. There was an early wave of Educators who are still planting seeds. They are passionate about it, authentic and genuine. Good people who want to see the best for kids. In a few years’ time, I think we are going to see the tides turn because we are choosing to control our narrative. We don’t want to leave that up to media. We don’t want to leave that up to other people who are saying what education is. We want to tell those stories ourselves and I think that’s why communities like #PassTheScopeEDU are so effective, because we are controlling that narrative and putting those stories out there. I definitely see the tides turning.

Amy: What is underneath everything that you do?

Val: Heart and community, all the way. I lead and teach from my passion to develop students and people want to contribute within their community. Education is community. I want to live in a neighborhood where I am safe and empowered. I want to live in a community where kids can encounter people from people all over the world, where educators are happy to show them what the world looks like beyond America. Community isn’t just who sits next to you in 5th period. Our human community is global and I want to inspire kids to become model citizens. I want them to understand they have an obligation to their communities and the people they come across every single day.

Amy: If you could plant an idea in the heart of every educator, what would it be?

Val: That your voice matters. Let me say that again: THAT YOUR VOICE MATTERS!!!

A majority of educators have gone mute because people have shut them down. How have they shut them up? By not valuing who they are or what they are trying to communicate. I tell people that when one person doesn’t listen, find someone else who will. Make sure they know what you have to say is valuable. Don’t try to cross other lanes, don’t look to the left and right to see what everyone else is doing. Just be you and know that your voice matters and cultivate that thing.

Let it grow, let it spread, and let it burn. We live in a world that tells us, especially educators, “You do not have value”. I want everyone to find value within themselves, and that their voice matters. If no one is inviting you to have a seat at the table, then build your own table and find the other people to sit there with you.

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