Category Archives: Education

Empowering LGBTQIA+ Youth and Promoting Parent/Professional Allyship: Models of Pride

Last week I was at a great talk in which Scott McCloud talked about stories being driven by desire. As long as the desire lives and unfolds, the story is unfolding and being driven. Yesterday I was reminded of McCloud’s framing of stories at the 2018 Models of Pride conference. As a parent I attended for my nonbinary child, and as an LGBTQIA ally I attended for the learning community I serve as the teacher librarian at El Cajon Valley High School. We can think of our personal development, our life, as the unfolding of a personal story. What we desire out of life moves us forward. Our desires keep us going. So, how does this connect to empowering LGBTQIA+ youth?

We should value everyone in our community. We should strive to create learning communities in which we welcome each other. We should seek inclusion. This is how things should be, but this is not the way things are. Groups of young people on our campuses get marginalized. Often, they face that same marginalization outside of school.

At the Models of Pride conference, Michael Anthony-Nalepa shared that thanks to neuroplasticity, long term suffering and damage can be caused when young people are forced to endure prolonged, sustained negativity around their LGBTQIA+ identity. How can allies seek to empower LGBTQIA+ youth in this context? We’re not able to change institutions overnight; we can’t change the hearts of those clinging to bigotry and hatred with a snap of our fingers; and we can’t be everywhere to call others out when they seek to dehumanize our LGBTQIA+ youth. What can we do?

Michael Anthony-Nalepa discussing LGBTQIA+ empowerment

Michael Anthony-Nalepa advocates using double listening as a way to listen for the desires of LGBTQIA+ youth. What he means is that as LGBTQIA+ youth express their frustrations and their traumas to us, we should listen in two ways. Yes, listen to bear witness to what our young people have to deal with, but also listen to their underlying desires. Their story, their path of empowerment, is wrapped up in those underlying desires. What do they desire? That desire is linked to what they hope for. What hope is wrapped up in that desire? Hope is what we do, what we have, when we have faith that our future can be better. Desire is what we do, what we have, when we believe we can achieve something better than what we have. When our LGBTQIA+ youth share with us, what do their stories reveal about their self value?

Helping LGBTQIA+ youth reach a statement like, “I want to be loved and accepted” reflects an underlying that desire is a belief that “I deserve to be loved and accepted.” That statement, that recognition of a desire to be loved and accepted, reflects a moment of empowerment.

To me, this is a beautiful, empowering way to view being an ally for LGBTQIA youth.

So, each and every time that we see marginalized individuals standing up and speaking out about the shit they have to put up with, we should recognize that as a moment of empowerment–of a switch being flipped–wherein a statement is being made about their value.

If we agree that we all have value, that we all have rights, that we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, then we should respect those individuals that we see in our communities who are being themselves in spite of how the world treats them for who they are. They are some of the host human people in our communities. Celebrate them. Be there for them. Love them. Support them.

My child had an amazing time at the youth events. This conference did a great job of providing amazing youth activities/sessions as well as positive, useful, authentic learning experiences for parents and professionals seeking to empower our LGBTQIA+ youth. I’m looking forward to the 2019 Models of Pride conference in Los Angeles.

Certificates to all attendees!

The conference started with several brief talks from members and allies of the LGBTQIA+ community

Dear Google: Please use big data to help educators

Rise of the Robots Book Cover

Image source:

Currently, I’m reading Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. As an educator, I’m always on the lookout for insights and information about my field as I read. Specifically, I find myself focusing more and more on how we learn and how we process information. This line of inquiry has led me to books like Ford’s, which discuss how machines learn and process information.

This morning, I got to a section of Ford’s book that involved an explanation of how machine learning works, how deep learning works, by giving the example of how Google Translate developed and continues to develop. Google Translate didn’t develop through gathering all the world’s language experts and having them explain to coders how to proceed with a translation tool. Rather, Google developed recursive learning algorithms that mined the loads and loads of data available on the web. As Google Translate attempts to do its work, it always offers users to provide feedback on the translation. In this way, the algorithms developed for Google Translate are continuously improved upon. The same is being done for computer programs that seek to automatically describe contents of images.

Look at what’s going on here: we have a huge amount of data, an algorithm that seeks to explain the data in a way useful to us, plus input from us. What we want in return is new information that specifically addresses our information need. And all this is happening. This is now.

Although Ford’s book is getting me a little freaked out by just how much machines are going to replace workers of all sorts, I have an idea.

I’m a digital portfolio advocate. I think that digital portfolios offer students the opportunity to more authentically show what they know and what they can do with what they know. My request to teachers has been: implement learning activities to help your students learn concepts, and then have students prove that they learned those concepts through the development of digital portfolio pages. While I believe this is a more natural expression of knowledge, and a more accurate method of assessing what students really know, when students are producing images, videos, audio, written explanations, and infographics to convey their understanding of a topic it’s incredibly challenging for teachers to view the variety of evidence provided by students in order to reach conclusions about a student’s level of understanding. Evaluating learning based on learning portfolio creation and curation is valuable, but difficult. I think this is part of why so many teachers haven’t jumped on the digital portfolio bandwagon, yet.

Screenshot of a student's digital portfolio page.

Ana’s Demonstration of Learning

It’s so challenging to tell students: “We just read this novel together and learned about several concepts related to literature. Create a digital portfolio page to show me what you learned” and then go through what students produce in order to evaluate learning. Giving students tasks like that is very valuable for learning (it gives students opportunities to creatively express their knowledge; it helps students take ownership of their learning and the learning process), but it’s legitimately difficult for educators to evaluate learning this way. No wonder so many educators are continuing to use inauthentic learning assessments like multiple choice tests. It’s easier to throw a multiple choice test at a student and call it an accurate assessment of learning rather than allowing students to really show what they know through presentations and digital portfolio curation. I’m incredibly grateful to the educators who do seek to have students more authentically engage in the learning process through digital portfolio curation.


But getting back to my idea, it seems very much in the realm of possibility for Google to develop a system (similar to what they did for Google Translate), that could mine student produced content for the purpose of evaluating learning. The algorithms of that system could mine student digital portfolios (their embedded writing, images, videos, etc.) for:

  • originality (it’s gotta be the student’s own words/images/videos)
  • accuracy (comparing learning iterated to current understanding of that concept)

Teachers could use the feedback of this system to help students improve their learning. Students could be free to use their creativity to express their learning. Creativity would be unleashed and valued in educational settings, and the hypothetical Google data mining system could provide feedback on learning. Again, this seems very much in the realm of possibility based on what machines can currently do.

A lot of the talk happening now around mining data is raising important points about ethics and individual privacy. Frankly, our data–how we interact with information online–is being collected and used in creepy ways to make money. I agree that issues around how data is collected and used need to be addressed. Still, I think that one way that tech companies like Google can redeem themselves is by developing tools like the one I imagine above. Use big data to help learning. Oh, and make it free, please. I’m all out of money. I just spent my allowance at the comic book store.

Finally, what about the title of Martin Ford’s book? Wouldn’t this kind of tech innovation threaten teacher jobs? If we had a system that mined student-produced digital content for evidence of learning, wouldn’t that mean we no longer needed teachers? Not quite. With a system like the one I describe above we’d certainly have teachers spending less time grading student work (millions of teachers would weep over not getting to grade student work on nights and weekends), but we would still need teachers to develop plans of action concerning the results of student work–and to create initial learning experiences in the first place. Teachers can then focus on questions like: “What new learning experiences do I need to design to help my students learn this concept? What, specifically, according to the data, do I need to help students with? Which students need what?” The machine isn’t going to teach. It’s going to get better at making connections between what students are producing and the concepts we wanted them to learn.

And Google, as I have no idea how to design such a system, I hereby release any notions of propriety around my imagined digital portfolio data mining and feedback algorithm. I release the idea to you or whatever other tech company is interested in helping us all better understand the universe and each other with a free educational data mining tool. Remember, “Do the right thing.”

Students Sharing Learning Stories Through Digital Portfolio Curation

What is the relationship between school and learning? As a high school educator, I think that many students believe that high test scores and high grades equate to learning. When students are asked to show evidence of learning, they often point to grades and test scores.

Future Ready Student Resume

“Future Ready Student?” Resume

Imagine a student trying to convey learning through test scores and grades. Perhaps that student might produce a resume that looks something like this:

This resume might be useful when sifting through hundreds or thousands of applicants–the grades and scores make it easy to categorize students. But although the resume shows high grades and high test scores, it doesn’t really convey what the student has learned. It doesn’t do much to show how this student is different from all the others. It doesn’t really convey the student’s learning story.

Simply put, a digital portfolio is a website that students use to share their learning. When I promote digital portfolios, I do so from the belief that student learning is increased when…

  • …students describe what they have learned.
  • …students offer evidence from their work demonstrating that they have learned.
  • …students reflect on how they learned.

A digital portfolio is a student’s personal learning story. When students are empowered to tell that learning story, the result is so much richer than a test score or a GPA. Those measures fail to convey what we should honor most as educators: learning.

Let’s say that you’re part of a school that has decided to give digital portfolios a try. You want to empower students to tell their own learning stories. You want students to share their learning with the world! You have teachers asking students to demonstrate learning through adding to their digital portfolios. Students are thinking deeply about what they have learned and how to best convey that learning through their digital portfolios. How will your school share all this learning? This is my current project. I’ve even made a little video showing how my school is doing when it comes to sharing learning through digital portfolios.

At the 2017 SDCUE Tech Fair, I shared a digital portfolio collection and display system that I invite any school leader to copy/modify. The idea is to have students’ digital portfolios displayed online–all in one place. To see how to do this for your own school, please follow the action steps at I’d be glad to help out with any questions that come up along the way.

Here is a quick update to the above system: now students can give each other feedback!!

Let’s get students sharing their learning stories!

Examples of Digital Portfolio Collection Systems
See digital portfolio collection systems school-wide and at the classroom level.


Classroom level:


Digital Portfolio Collection, Display, and Feedback System

When students take the time to create and curate digital portfolios, they are connecting more meaningfully to what they are learning and how they are learning it. I’ve been advocating for digital portfolio implementation on my campus, but it has been slow going. I’m hoping that a neat little feature I just added to our school’s Digital Portfolio page will encourage more students to use their digital portfolios to take ownership of their learning stories and to share their learning with others.

Students can now quickly and easily give peer feedback on digital portfolios! In a nutshell, here’s how it works:

  1. Students share their digital portfolios (created in Google Sites) through a Google Form linked at the top of our school’s Digital Portfolio page. (note: Google Forms on this page are view-able only to people in my district’s domain)
  2. The links that students share on that Google Form are automatically displayed on the Digital Portfolio page.
    • Google Form > Google Sheet > Awesome-Table Display
  3. I added a “Give Feedback” button, which is linked to a different, pre-filled Google Form (using an if/then statement plus some HTML in Google Sheets to add that link/button).
    • Part of the pre-filled section includes a unique identifier (not the student’s email or ID number–for privacy). The responses from this form are collected and then the unique identifier that was pre-filled references responses from the Google Form mentioned in item 1 above.
  4. Using the Add-On formMule the feedback immediately and anonymously gets passed on to the student who owns the digital portfolio.

My hope is that as students see their portfolios have an audience they will take more care to create portfolios that accurately and richly tell their learning stories.

As the video above shows, I’m also hoping that a little recognition through some digital badging helps this process along.

Thinking About What We Value

I am such a slow reader, but I’ve made a little dent in the stack of books that I got for Christmas:

Stack of books, mostly on Artificial Intelligence

At the rate I’m going, I hope to have these books read by Spring Break.

My line of inquiry went something like this: As an educator, I’m interested in how human brains interact with ideas–with information. I loved reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast & Slow, which presents the human brain as something that has a habit of making all kinds of mistakes in judgement as it seeks to follow a model of reality. Thinking of the brain as some kind of  faulty information processor, it made me want to investigate things that seem to process information more efficiently: computers (software, algorithms, etc.). That interest led me to many of the books that you see stacked in the image above.

I still have a lot to read, but I definitely wanted to jot down this note:

It feels like economic development has followed this path where humans are paid to do a thing, and then we get better at doing that thing, and then we get a machine to do that thing for us, and then we work with that machine to make even more improvements, and the desired end result is the machine is doing all the work and the machine owner is getting all the profit. This seems like how capitalism would be “solved.” I know I’m not making myself very clear here, but keep in mind I’m not an economist or a computer scientist–I’m a high school teacher librarian.

But, getting back to this goal of getting machines to do things for us to maximize efficiency and profit, think of the jobs that are lost if the end goal of an industry or a vocation is to make money. If money is the morality of a field of work, is that the kind of morality that’s best for our future?

  • Computers can trade on the stock exchange incredible numbers of shares to maximize profits. The mathematicians who help write the algorithms that trading software use are handsomely rewarded to use their skills to make… money.
  • Ideas can be promoted and shared and liked and retweeted by bots to grab our attention for advertisers and influence how we think about a subject. The folks who create bots are often blue collar type programmers who do the work to pay the bills. The brain power spent on making such bots seems like an example of trading money for improved efficiency at concentrating attention and influence.

If it’s all about money, and money keeps getting concentrated among 20% or 5% or 1% of the population, that’s what I mean when I say it seems like we’re close to “solving” capitalism. Like computers solved checkers and chess and Jeopardy!, capitalism will be solved and that’s kind of fun for the 1% who win, but what about everyone else?

We spend a lot of our resources, our human capital, on solving problems related to making more money. If solving the problem doesn’t lead to making more money, then why even attempt it?

  • Selling news that’s likely to get our attention, enrage us, or confirm our pre-existing beliefs is often more profitable than selling actual journalism.
  • Quality early childhood education leads to incredible benefits, but we (in the US at least) make it incredibly difficult for children from poorer families to receive quality early childhood education. A large part of the problem is that we don’t pay early childhood care providers very well. Perhaps it’s perceived that there isn’t enough return on investment to adopt policies and practices that guarantee all children access to high quality early childhood education.
  • Schools across the country have frequently elected to not employ librarians. Having such an information professional on campus is an extravagance that, apparently, doesn’t do much to boost the bottom line.

I suppose this list could go on for a while, and I understand the logic of a primary counterpoint:

Hey, nothing is stopping you from having all those things. You want early childhood education? You want quality journalism? Librarians? Pay for them. Nothing’s stopping you. The beauty of our system is we have freedom of choice–may the best forces win.

The problem is, as it’s turning out, the “best” ideas seem to be those ideas that maximize profits. Maybe money shouldn’t be the endgame.