Julie A. Cunningham

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Failure, Patience, and Respect


This week, I’ve been returning to The Self-Directed Learning Handbook after some personal failures in relating with students and parents. I want to learn from these experiences and also to be prepared for more of the same as the E3 Learning CO program grows. I’m frustrated and uncomfortable- thankfully I was recently reminded that discomfort is an opportunity for growth. (hat tip to Michael Schneider)

This quote really hit home today:

Be infinitely patient, and show unqualified respect. Your students will be struggling with the demons that keep them from taking responsibility for their learning, their lives, and themselves.

As I review these situations in my head, I can definitely say that I was not “infinitely patient“. This is my struggle and an area for needed improvement. I will work hard to give you the tools and skills you need to learn independently. I will invest personal time seeking out technology tools to assist you in a way that meets your learning style. I will sit next to you and walk you through the process of learning independently. I will help you set up reminders so you don’t forget to work your plan. I will touch base to see how you are progressing. At that point, I have some expectations. I expect you to invest time in working the plan. I expect you to be honest with me regarding your progress, or lack thereof. I expect you to do actual work.  I expect you to be invested in your own learning. If students are not in a place to meet those expectations, my supply of patience runs low. Not how I want to be.

What is the balance between holding a student accountable and being infinitely patient? How am I as learning facilitator patient while addressing progress concerns?  How do I learn better language to communicate patience? I don’t have answers, and I’d like to have some. If you can share what you are learning in this area, I’d love to hear it. Comment, blog, tweet. Whatever works for you, but please share so I can learn from you.

The other part of the quote that hit home was showing unqualified respect. One of my concerns about my behavior this week is not so much what was said- I wasn’t mean or unkind, but did expect some answers. I know that my line of questioning could have been more respectful to the student as a whole person. I could have been more gentle in acknowledging “the demons that were keeping this student from taking responsibility”.

My learnings from this week?

  • I do a great job sharing resources and tools.
  • I can also train students to use technology.
  • I research well and can help others learn to research.
  • I need to learn to be more positive and clear in my communication with both students and parents.
  • I need to adjust my expectations of students.
  • I need to be comfortable with this learning path not working for everyone.

I’m somewhat afraid I have fulfilled “The Peter Principle” this week… rising to the level of my own incompetence. I’d like to change that. Time to do some more learning on the science and psychology of learning. (Resources welcome! I will be seeking out some Love and Logic info based on a suggestion from my admin.)

What are you learning this week? 

[image credit: cobrasoft]

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Struggling with Standardized Testing: My Mom of Four Perspective

So, I totally hate standardized testing. Period. Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s bad for students, families, teachers, and schools.

Now, with that said, we currently live in a system that requires them.


I have four kids in very different educational arenas this year, and I want to think through why I am feeling less threatened by their testing situations this year than any other year to date.

11th: My 17 year old will be required to take the Colorado ACT this  year at his public high school. He just completed a mandatory week-long ACT Academy at his high school. This school denies access to the senior picnic next year for any students who do not completed the full Academy. The ironic part is that he voluntarily took the ACT in early February…. with a 30 overall and a 34 on the English portion. Tell me, how does it help him to retake a test he has already shown proficiency on? If he is content with that score based on his post-secondary plans, why can’t the state accept that test? And why would the school require that he study for something he is obviously prepared for? Now, could his score improve? Yes, but the point for us as parents is not to subject him to multiple tests without cause… I probably have the biggest issues with this grade level this year because of the tone of their communication and the focus on penalties for non-compliance. It just makes me mad and feels manipulative only for the gain of the school/teachers. My kid is going to be one of their ‘good testers’, and they are doing nothing but communicate doom and gloom. Again, make me mad. This is compounded by the fact that I do not feel like they have advocated for him and helped him make the best choices in his educational path. (That is a whole ‘nother rant…)

9th: My 14 year old will take TCAPs at Colorado Early Colleges (public charter) the week after spring break. They administer it, but have not made a big deal out of it. From what my daughter has said, all of her classes are ‘normal’ and there has been zero test preparation. Teachers are just teaching their content. She will have three half-school days of testing, and will be provided snacks and water. They are soliciting family engagement with the simple line “As this assessment determines the scrutiny we receive from the state and our authorizer, CSI, we ask that you encourage your student(s) to embrace the TCAP assessment and to do their very best on the test!” on an email. Personally, I don’t mind helping support the school in this area because:

  • a) the test is not the focus of the school
  • b) the test is being administered in the least invasive way possible
  • c) the school is providing great opportunities for my child
  • d) the test is not the focus of the school (see what I did there????)

6th: My 12 year old will be taking TCAPs with Colorado Calvert Academy (online charter) this coming week. He will have two days of testing (one full, one half). He has taken several computerized predictive tests leading up to this time, but they were fairly minimal- 20-30 minute computerized assessments. I have spoken extensively with the principal about how these tests are administered, and I know that in the purposely small testing groups they honor needs to stop for a bit and play outside or get a snack. Again, I have similar feelings about this school as above- the school is minimizing the test as much as possible, while calling on the families to honor their intent. I can respect that, even though I hate the testing itself.

5th: My 10 year old is homeschooled, and I am still dithering about what I will do to comply with state law. At this point, I will likely just give her the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in a low-key manner, but am also exploring the option of having an educational professional assess her via a meeting. The frustrating part of this for me is that the latter option seems to be what is best for students. However, finding an educator willing to sign-off on this kind of face to face assessment is challenging… also also begs the question in my mind, “why doesn’t the state allow teachers to sign off on their own classroom?”. I mean, if they are qualified enough to say if a homeschooler is meeting expectations, aren’t they qualified to say a public school student is also?

Ultimately, I think the approach of the school makes a world of difference in how standardized testing is perceived by students. I haven’t heard a single stressed out word about testing from any of them this year. Contrast that with their experience at a public elementary school where they were freaked out for MONTHS… they were not allowed to read a book or lay their heads on their desk after completing the test section (this might promote kids rushing through to read or sleep, you know), they were not allowed to play at recess within 20 feet of the building (there were cones- they might disturb kids who were testing), they were not allowed to speak at all in the hallways (again, might disturb other students), they were told over and over and over and over how important this test is, they were test prepped to death, they were predictive tested to death, they were told their teacher was graded on their grades…. all in all the school and district made the test larger than life. As parents, we received repeated emails about the importance of sleep and food leading up to the test, about how students have to be present, about what would happen to us and our kids if we didn’t comply, etc. Very negative tone towards parental competency and high high high level of concern/control.

Contrast that with this year, where two of the schools have chosen to marginalize the tests. Yes, they are required to administer them. Yes, my student must take them or lose his/her spot at the charter next year. But the overall tone and tenor of communications about the testing? Very chill and very supportive of students. They are not pressuring students to perform, but asking parents and students as part of their learning community to just do their best so they can go about their work. Very different from a school where the focus is on the test for months. The way they are communicating is so different for my children- it’s a matter-of-fact, ‘we do this as a community’, not ‘do this for me or I lose my job’. The resulting emotional feel for my kids has been huge- they aren’t stressed about it, and yet are engaged in the process of doing the best they can. So much of test perception is based on how schools communicate the test requirement to students.

Although the state says the test is significant to the school, these schools have chosen to make them insignificant to students. Until we can change educational legislation, this seems to be a happy medium, from a parent of four kids perspective. Yes, we will all play the game together so that we can all get on with our lives and be about the business of letting our kids learn in an environment that works for them. As a parent, this is more acceptable than fighting a huge opt-out battle with each school at this time. (And yes, I’ve had a few of those discussions with my kids’ administrators, and it was evident that there would be consequences for me and my children if we took that path.)

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Bridging the Gap: HS to College Advising, Part I (7 Points of Parent Contact)

parentcontact[Disclaimer: These are my opinions based on personal experience a non-traditional college student with a fairly recent degree completion and  as a parent of children in both a traditional high school and an early college high school.]

Although we talk in terms of PK-20 in the world of education, the secondary and higher education systems do not align. The registration processes, course equivalencies, and terminology are vastly different. There is a huge opportunity for professionals on both sides of the divide to build a bridge through personalized advising appointments with students as well as streamlined communication with families.

I believe advising is really about an ongoing, personal conversation…. which is rare when high school counselors are swamped with high caseload and college counselors function on a drop-in capacity. High school students in particular need parental input into the advising process. And parents need an opportunity to learn what is available so they can give educated feedback to their children based on their knowledge of their child, the family financial situation, and a host of other circumstances that staff may not be able to take into account.

As such, it is vital that secondary guidance counseling offices place a high importance on effective parent communication. Here are some ideas using the general marketing rule that it takes seven points of contact to make a ‘sale’…. which can be translated to sharing information with parents- it may very well take seven contacts to communicate to your parent base.

7 Points of Parent Contact

  1. Student assembly- Often information is initially disseminated through large group settings where students retain a fraction of what is shared…. and much of what they do bring home may be incorrect. Invite  parents to attend these events. Publicize, publicize, publicize. (see #2, #3, #4)
  2. Social media- Go where the parents of these millennial children are… which for a large percentage is on Facebook. Information shared on these platforms allows you to get specifics out to parents in a format that they see regularly and can use to share with each other.
  3. Mini-handouts- I know that paper is out, but it is still needed. Rather than large sheets that get crumpled to the bottom of backpacks, try mini-handouts that are business card size or interesting shapes. Have students in a design program help create an interesting graphic and use a URL shortener like tinyurl or bit.ly to link to your website information page.
  4. School generated email- Most schools have the option to send parent communications via email. This is a great opportunity to share with parents information that was shared with students about post-secondary options. Include links- the more information, the fewer phone calls you will receive from confused parents which will allow you to spend more time on the important things- your students.
  5. Post-secondary options night publicity- Many schools already offer an evening dedicated to sharing options. However, families are often forced to choose between three activities or meetings on the same night… make yours sound like the most important! Use marketing terms like “free college”… parents may not know what ‘concurrent enrollment’ means and then choose to go another event. You are vying for busy parents’ time- sell them on your event using all of the first 4 parent contact points.
  6. Informal follow-up coffee- Parents can be actively following your communications, yet still have more questions than answers. Take advantage of these questions by hosting an informal coffee or two in your local coffee shop to answer follow-up questions in a group and allow parents to network. More information is shared by parents in passing or at evening events than you can imagine… harness the power of that network and let them help you communicate. Have resources and links available- you can use the same mini-handouts from #3 here if you have a generic URL and customize your landing page.
  7. One on one advising meetings with families- This is time consuming, but vital for student success. Early colleges often block out 1-2 hours per student, per semester (with parents) to do advising and enrollment for the following semester. Find a way to make this happen. Use an online scheduling app, allow parent volunteers to take on tasks… whatever it takes to make room in your schedule to personalize your advising information.


These points of contact should be in addition to and augment any newsletters or other parent web programs. Crosspost mercilessly. Obviously, having a quality and engaging website with links to social media is vital to the success of your high school to college advising. You are in the business of preparing students for their futures…. treat your counseling office as such. Ensure you are contributing to parents electing to remain at your school over other choice options in your area. Translate program names into parent friendly terms. Ask parents for feedback on your ‘translation’- what is still confusing? Be proactive, try new things, and adapt to the communication means that your families are using- text, email, social media, etc. Invest some time to prepare quality information so that you can decrease impromptu meetings and increase those planned one-on-one advising meetings.

Although I don’t want to take this bridge metaphor too far, I think parent communication is one of the first supports as we build a bridge from high school classes to college coursework (either during or following secondary), followed closely by student engagement and systems alignment…. and probably a few other things I’m going to think through in this ‘series’.

What is the most effective parent communication tool you use? What did you find was surprisingly successful? Have you tried anything that bombed? Parents- what school communication method has had the biggest impact? What do you want to see?

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100 Cups of Coffee: The Year-Long Conference

cupsofcoffeeI can’t remember where I was introduced to the concept of 100 Cups of Coffee, but it may have been The $100 Startup book.  All I know is that the concept of meeting with many people to discuss ideas and thinking around a particular field rocks. 100 cups of coffee is simply meeting one hundred people for coffee. It’s like an extended education conference that can last the whole year long for considerably less than a plane ticket, hotel, and conference fee. Not only that, but it can be personalized to your current learning needs. Tom Whitby recently posted about the relevancy of education conferences, and there has been amazing discussion on Twitter about the topic. It reminded me that the individuals I met and the discussions we had are what made EduCon 2.4 an amazing conference experience.

I know some are tired of the conference bandwagon…. maybe it’s time to make your own conversations? To buy 100 cups of coffee? To find the interesting people and learn from them like Chris Fancher mentioned this morning:

Conferences are a great starting point for conversations. Twitter can also be a starting point… the whole reason I met Chris at #educon was from his tweets inviting people to join him for dinner prior to the conference. Pick your starting point… then start.

As I learn about academic advising in order to better meet the needs of my personalized learning students at E3, I find the need to start those conversations. I am beginning locally through some traditional networking, but plan to meet over coffee with others via Skype or FaceTime. I can even email a Starbucks card to pay for the coffee. Voila!

You can too.

(And if you are an #acadv professional bridging the high school to college gap, please contact me or comment below. I’d love to talk with you.)


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My Academic Advising Independent Learning Plan


As I spend more time working with personalized learners through E3, I find there is a huge gap between high school and college in terms of adequate and personal advising. We have students in our program with very specific needs and goals who need expertise and advice from someone who knows them.  I want to fill that gap and help families navigate the many options available to them as their students complete high school requirements earlier and earlier. Although I am considering pursuing a Masters in Academic Advising from K-State, I do not feel that is the best use of my time and money right now. Instead, I have embarked on an independent learning project of my own to educate myself about the field of academic advising. (See- this personalized, independent learning thing works for adults too!)

Here are my recent steps:

  1. 100 Cups of Coffee – This is my variation on the concept for start-up businesses of meeting 100 people for coffee in order to launch your business. I am meeting with 100 people to discuss the career opportunities and education requirements in academic advising as well as learn about the day to day experiences in the field. (More on this to come- I need to request permission from the two folks I have already met with to mention them by name… and the two I meet with next week!)
  2. Volunteer/Intern – I have offered to donate 4 hours a week of my time to intern at two different schools. One is very excited about the possibilities of my ‘job shadow’ project, and the other does not really grasp how this can benefit them. (Discussions continue. Also something I will blog about once it becomes a reality.)
  3. Academic Advising Books – When I elected not to enroll in graduate study this semester, I had already researched assigned texts in order to calculate cost. Now, I am just reading through them… and paying attention! It’s amazing to me how differently I approach academic books when I am not under time pressure or “write a paper about this” pressure.
  4. Twitter for Academic Advising – I have started a list of higher education professionals in the field, and plan to spend time reading and interacting on Twitter. I was happy to see there are quite a influential folks using Twitter for professional development.
  5. NACADA Membership – I joined, and should start receiving their publications and other information. Not sure how much impact this will have on my learning, but I think it is an important step in being connected to the people and ideas that will make a difference in my journey.
  6. NACADA Region 10 Conference (May 2014) – I’ll be attending the conference in Jackson Hole, WY. Not gonna lie, this one sounds fabulous. These kinds of events are really important in the ed tech world, and I hope to see the same kinds of connections and learning happening at this conference.
  7. NACADA Region 10 Facebook Group – This group seems very active and helpful in sharing through the Facebook Group. In the past they have paired mentors with mentees within their group, and they assure me that they intend to offer that again in the future. Cool! Might just help with #10.
  8. YouTube Webinars – Amazingly, there are quite a few lengthy webinars specifically dedicated to academic advising on YouTube. I’m working my way through them and have created an Academic Advising PD playlist.
  9. COWY ListServ – It’s amazing to me that ListServs still exist in 2014. The last time I encountered one of these was decades ago… however, I hope that there will be helpful info shared through the COWY List Serve (COWY is the Colorado and Wyoming Academic Advising Association.)
  10. Find a Mentor – I’d like to work with a mentor or two in the field of academic advising. This could be via FaceTime or Skype or face to face. Not sure who, when, or how, but I trust that the above things will lead me to the right person.


What should I add to my plan? Do you have a book or video or conference suggestion for me? Do you know someone in northern Colorado who I should connect with over coffee? Know someone who would make a great mentor? Please comment. 

My Saturday- learning on the UNC campus while waiting for my son to finish the ACT

Last Saturday… learning on the UNC campus while waiting for my son to finish the ACT.

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Snowplow Parents and Personalized Advising

snowplowI must admit, I might very well be a snowplow parent. I’ve seen a series of articles lately come across my computer screen that make me increasingly worried that I am. From the A Nation of Wimps post on Psychology Today  to the host of articles proclaiming the evils of snowplow parents (Google it, my friends- lots more out there to read), I see some of myself reflected.

Not two minutes ago, my 17 year old son popped his head in the door on his way out to an event, telling me he will text when he arrives and when he leaves. I see such behavior as respect, albeit in a 21st century manner. My parents asked the same of us, but we used a telephone connected to the wall. My retired parents even texted me yesterday to let me know they had arrived at a trip destination. Respect. And safety. I don’t see that as being a snow plow anything.  Nor do schools and communities, given the removal of any piece of playground equipment that might lead to an injury,  the legislation requiring teens to drive later and later with more and more restrictions, and the involvement of social services in the lives of families due to what would previously been considered good parenting. But these things may very well be contributing to a fundamental shift in development in our teens. If anything, we have a snowplow society. And I’m worried. How do I require responsibility when every other part of their world tells them to stay immature?

Obviously, my educational technology background has me twigging to the part technology plays in this arena. These articles seem to indicate that cell phones are an ‘umbilical cord’ that means students never truly get away from their parents. I must admit to feeling the same thing when hearing a friend discuss how her college age children text or call at least once a day to check-in. This parent believes that is a sign of respect towards the people who are footing the bill for expensive degrees.

And therein lies part of the problem. As higher education has increased in cost, so has parental involvement. Quite honestly, I understand that. We are looking at a minimum of 16 years of college for our four children…. and it’s an astounding amount of money. We teach our children personal fiscal responsibility with an emphasis on being debt-free. I personally view it as my job to decrease that amount as much as possible by advocating for my students at the high school level. There are many options available to students (and when I say that I should probably say ‘parents’) that can cut the cost of higher education in half. We now have one student enrolled concurrently in the public school system/community college and another enrolled in an early college model charter…. with the younger two planning to follow the latter path. Would they have sought out these options on their own? No. Will this impact their life for decades to come? Yes. Students can no longer work over the summer to pay for school- it would take my son roughly a full year of 60-hour work weeks at a greater than minimum wage job to pay for ONE year of college.

For my eldest, it took an adult sitting down to show him the cost of his modest educational path (in-state at a four year public university) to help him truly understand why I push and harp and press about his enrollment choices in high school. He can save a measly $38,000 by taking advantage of concurrent enrollment and credit-by-examination options. Does that matter to us? Yes! Does he totally get the impact of that money yet? No. But he will.

This video is a priceless satirical piece from The Onion entitled  “Man Doesn’t Know How Parents Are Going to Pay Off His Massive Student Loan Debt”.

In spite of this snowplow stigma, I won’t apologize for advocating for him and saving our family tens of thousands of dollars. I won’t apologize for making phone calls to verify that classes my high school student is taking at a junior college will transfer appropriately to his four year university of choice. I won’t apologize for reminding him of his options and helping him understand the ramifications of his choices.

Why not?

Because our current education system does not provide a clear path for students as higher education is getting pulled further and further back into secondary education. Students have often completed graduation requirements by junior year. Middle schoolers are taking courses that were once only available in high school. Kindergarteners are expected to read, rather than play and explore a social introduction to school.

High school students need an advocate. They need an advisor who is able to spend more than 5 minutes making sure the paperwork is completed for the following year. They need options explained to them in a personalized manner, not using formal terms in a mass student assembly.Families need involved in the process as well, given the economic ramifications of decisions made by students. They need to know about concurrent, gap year, credit by exam, internships, and personalized learning opportunities. High school advising needs to be truly personalized and tailored to each student, which takes time. Much more time than high school guidance counselors currently have available. College advising also needs to provide education in available options beyond the factory model of meeting diploma requirements. Prescriptive advising is not enough when the stakes are so high. Most importantly, there needs to be a bridge between high school and college advising for students.

If students had such an advocate, I think snowplow parents might just be able to relax. I know I could. For now, I’ll be the one acting as their advisor until I can pass that task on.



Open Learning Irony

I learned something today. I learned that even in an open online course using an broad social media group, open learning is not a given.  I erroneously assumed that within such a structure, we would all be utilizing whatever resources we could just to learn and grow together. Open courses do not instantaneously make connected educators…. just as open education does not instantaneously make a self-directed learner.  


Of course in this group of close to 300 people, we are allowed to share funny videos, urban legends, unrelated pictures, and ask tons of questions that no one answers, but we can’t connect with each other outside of the group. Oh no. That would encourage people to spam us with educational information when we choose to click on the link and read someone’s blog. I purposely have not been posting my recent blog thinking around the course content because I didn’t want to be seen as spamming… I thought this might be a way to start a blog-to-blog conversation and add classmates to my feed reader.  And maybe the post does really seem self-seeking…. my intent was to share blogs with people, not direct traffic to mine. I was much more comfortable when I didn’t think anyone was reading my blog than I am now- it’s a scary thing to be transparent in your thinking and ask for feedback.

I need to be more patient in teaching others about connected learning. I forget that it isn’t normal to everyone. I do appreciate the kindness and humor with which the moderator commented (blacked out to protect his/her privacy). As with all things in this course, there is the possibility that age and culture is coloring the conversation… I’m older, and so posts about being nervous for a quiz feel sophomoric. I’d just like to discuss the concepts, how others are incorporating them into their classroom/life, and learn where my thinking needs challenged.  In other words, I’m a serious old lady. I’m also unsure of the nationality of the commenter, but it may be that open sharing of information is frowned upon in his/her country. Regardless, I  deleted the comment as requested and removed myself from the group as it wasn’t an effective learning environment for me.

The funny part? I found out about this network in the course discussion forums where they shared a link (SPAM!) to the Facebook group. Am I the only one that sees the irony in that?

How could I handle this better in the future? Do you limit yourself only to open networks?  

(Taking my ball and going home…. er, back to Twitter and Feedly where the conversation and thoughts run free.)



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