SXSWEdu Reflections Part II

Creating Session Boards EdCampATX

Photo by Stephanie Cerda 

Check out Part I of SXSWEdu Reflections here

The A in STEAM

I started out volunteering at the EdCampATX session. In other words, since I wasn’t presenting this year I needed to feel valued and productive, so I asked Stephanie and Adam if I could be of service. They directed me towards the session boards. Yess!!!

There is a sort of odd intellectual stimulation that comes from creating the EdCamp session boards. I love the craft of making connections from the seemingly disparate ideas on little stickies and coming up with titles that encompass the ideas with as much authenticity as possible. I get great pleasure from deciphering handwriting and acronyms I don’t know. I love trying to find a home for every single sticky in hopes that every idea can be discussed, valued, and heard. Adding to my delight, Moss Pike, jumped in on the fun as we sorted, rearranged, debated, and ultimately settled upon the sessions that would make up the next couple hours of discussion.

One of the categories which Adam Holman aptly named, The A in STEAM, brought together creative minds interested in everything from creativity in the classroom, to teaching educators the art of improv. This was one of my favorite conversations of the conference, not only because it resulted in some impromptu collaborative sketchnoting, but also because by the end of the conference some of these folks had become legitimate friends and thought partners (more on that later).

A in STEAM Discussion at EdCampATX session

Photo by Stephanie Cerda

I am also glad I shared about how sketchnoting was impacting my thinking which opened up some discussion about why and how it could have a place in the classroom. Then Chris Davis asked if he could interview me and share my sketchnote book right there at our EdCamp session table as the second session began. With no question prep? My lizard brain wanted to say no, but I am glad I didn’t. He made my stream of consciousness comments and messy sketchnotes into a beautiful little glimpse of the conversation that happened that day around the table.

EdTechWomen Networking Mixer

EdTechWomen SXSWEdu Mixer

Still working on the whole needing to feel valued and productive, I sped-walked over to the Capital Factory to help the EdTechWomen folks (Sehreen & Margaret) with set up and check in for the 100 women (and one brave man) who would descend upon the Capital Factory kitchen for a facilitated networking experience.

It was here, amongst this group of incredible women doing all sorts of extraordinary things, that I had conflicting emotions again. On the one hand it was hard to discuss the messy parts of my startup journey and not feel some sense of loss and failure around the experience. On the other hand, the very lessons I learned (and continue to learn) from that journey were valuable in several conversations with women who were where I was last year, in the middle of making decisions that could chart the course of their entrepreneurial journey.

I reflected back on my decision to listen and learn and added a verb–to share. I chose to share the behind the scenes experiences when I thought it my be helpful for others. I chose to say hey why don’t we all stop pretending like we have it all together and share the mess, so others might not have to go through that same thing. Let’s share the mess, so our successes don’t seem unattainable. Let’s share the mess, so we don’t have to clean it up and put ourselves back together alone.

I said some sort of rant like this at the event, women’s heads nodded in response–either from agreement or group think.

Visual Literacy Bootcamp

Visual Literacy Bootcamp SXSWEdu 

I have a confession on this one. I am a Brad Ovenell-Carter fan girl. I follow Brad on Twitter, Instagram, Paper-Mix, and simply can’t get enough of his ideas, sketchnotes, and the work he does with students. My digital sketchnotes have been greatly influenced by his style and Paper tips and he has pushed my thinking regarding the possibilities for sketchnotes and other visual mediums for student learning opportunities. Needless to say I was pretty pumped about attending his session and meeting him face to face.

The session went even beyond my expectations though, as I got to explore not only digital sketchnotes with Brad, but also photography with Julia Leong and videography with John Woody.

Each chunk had meaningful examples and wrapped up with hands on activities that got everyone involved with experimentation and creation. I tried to get rid of my internal editor, Brad, but I didn’t get my sketchnotes posted until after the session was over.

Sketchnotes Visual Literacy Bootcamp SXSWEdu

 Exploring at the Visual Literacy BootCamp SXSWEdu

Oh and remember my friends from the table at EdCampATX? A bunch of them were at the front table with me during the Visual Literacy Bootcamp….so we headed down to the hotel lounge area and continued the discussion. Sharing sketchnotebooks, drawing stylus’, iPad screens, ideas, and with my kindred spirit, even some relationship advice. 

Intentional Authenticity

I think if I could sum up what made SXSWEdu this year a valuable experience for me. It was my choice to be intentionally authentic in every opportunity possible. I listened, and learned, and shared–even when it didn’t do anything to progress anything I was working on and even when it didn’t make me necessarily look “successful” or whatever other perceptions of myself I was most convinced needed to be upheld. And in that place, with my guard down, and devoid of pretense, I was free to actively listen, deeply engage in learning, and humbly share.

Sketchnotes of Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit

10 Things I Learned About The Power of Habit

Sketchnotes of Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit

Sketchnotes: The ideas that stuck out to me as I read The Power of Habit

I am constantly on the hunt for productivity hacks. A disproportionate number of my books are of the self improvement variety. I have grand ideas and visions of all the things I want to accomplish or change or do better. But there is one key that drives the changes I hope for–the habit. In the book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg demystifies how habits are formed, changed, and maintained. Duhigg explains the neuroscience and logistics behind the successful creation of habits through fascinating stories of human change at the personal, organizational, and societal levels. Here are 10 things I am Learning about The Power of Habit from Duhigg in addition to my own experiments and observations:

1. Habits are not as simple as they appear.

Making changes would be much easier if we could just decide to modify a habit and our brain played along with our request. Deciding to change a habit is only the first step. It takes more than intention and willpower to rewire our brains when it comes to habits. Quote: You cannot extinguish a bad habit

2. You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.

I’m sure all of us have had a New Year’s resolution to stop doing ______. How did that work out for you? Now, at least we can understand why it is so hard. When a new habit forms, the brain stops participating in the decision making process. So, while habits are not our destiny, we do have to actively fight them. Since our brain can’t distinguish between good and bad habits we must play an active role in keeping and developing the good and uprooting the bad. Quote: You can only change it

3. The Habit Loop:

Simply understanding the three step process for how our brain deals with and forms habits makes them easier to control.

  • Cue: a trigger sending our brains into automatic mode and telling which habit to use
  • Routine: the behavior, the habit
  • Reward: helps brain know if the habit is worth remembering

To me these make the most sense in scenarios. One of my favorites from The Power of Habit was the story of Claude Hopkins and how he improved the dental hygiene of the nation (or at least normalized the use of toothpaste) with his Pepsodent habit loop. The cue was the dingy film on people’s teeth, which triggered the habit–routine of brushing teeth–and resulted in the reward of the tingling sensation customers associated with their clean teeth.

4. Habits are powerful but delicate.

Duhigg explains this best:

“Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

We cannot assume people, including ourselves, will be rational in their actions. In fact Dan Ariely highlights stories and research cases where the exact opposite is true in his book, Predictably Irrational.

5. Keystone habits have the power to transform everything.

For many this is a habit, like exercise, not only led to other related positive habits, such as eating healthy, but also things like charging less on credit cards. The keystone habit is like the first domino in a pattern of changes. Based on my own habit conquering quest, I think keystone habits are powerful because once you start to see changes you realize it really works. Change really is possible and that is empowering. Quote: Willpower isn't just a skill. It is a muscle.

6. Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle and it gets tired.

Willpower is a finite resource. This is a key to why morning routines matter so much. Don’t waste your creative juices and willpower on email or other mundane tasks. The limits of willpower also helps explain why reverting to negative habits often occurs when people are under the influence of something or tired. Keep your willpower tank in check and full, especially when you know you will need it.

7. Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things without thinking.

Michael Phelps visualized swimming the perfect race so habitually that winning became a natural extension of his preparation. Tony Dungy built habits so ingrained in his players that they became truly automatic. Players on the other teams couldn’t keep up because they had to think as the ball was snapped, something Dungy’s players were able to bypass once the habit had taken over. I remember a similar point made in Malcolm Gladwell’s, Blink, where seasoned firefighters saved their teams by getting out of situations moments before it would have become deadly. When asked how they knew the circumstances were about to turn, the veteran leaders weren’t even able to pinpoint it themselves–their brains automatically reacted based on experience and habit.

8. Identity and ownership can convert people from followers to self directed leaders.

When it comes to societal change, leaders must “give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.” I see this one at play a lot–classrooms, boardrooms, dining rooms. When leaders are able to nurture the agency of the participants and empower them to take on the cause personally, it becomes sustainable to support the cause on the front lines.

9. Small wins have enormous power.

Each time you respond to the cue with your desired routine you get closer to creating your habit. Eventually your brain doesn’t even have to work to “decide” to respond with the routine at all–you just tie your shoes and go for a run, or floss your teeth, or choose the apple, or read instead of watch TV.

10. There is nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.

I think this one speaks for itself.

Sketchnotes 7 Characteristics of the 20 Mile March (in Schools)

The 20 Mile March Part II

Check out Part I Here.

Jim Collins brings the characteristics of the 20 Mile March to life through the distinct stories and strategies of the explorers Amundsen and Scott, who each sought to be the first to the South Pole. Through the juxtaposition of their journeys, Collins outlines the important details related to achieving specific, measurable goals, no matter the circumstances.

I began to see positive effects when implementing Collins’ concepts. So, as it often does, my mind went to education and applying the idea there. Almost everyone I talk to can agree we need change in our education system.  Different initiatives, programs, and platforms are started in the eduworld with lots of energy and excitement, only to be abandoned or changed with the passing of each year. Whether it is an individual student goal or a large systemic shift, there is power in planning with the 20 mile march in mind.

Sketchnotes 7 Characteristics of the 20 Mile March (in Schools)

Sketchnotes 7 Characteristics of the 20 Mile March (in Schools)

7 Characteristics of the 20 Mile March in Schools

Collins outlines seven characteristics of the 20 mile march. So I decided to take the concepts from the stories and reflect on them with an education twist.

1. Clear Performance Markers


Amundsen and his team planned to go an average of 15 miles – 20 miles per day on their journey. No matter the conditions. He placed more than enough flags in the snow to mark their path near the supply stations. He did everything possible to know where he and his team were going and when they would arrive. As a result, his team reached the South Pole on December 15, 1911. After planting the Norwegian flag firmly at their destination, they made preparations for the return journey, knowing that success was not simply arriving but also surviving road back home. They arrived at base camp on the exact date Amundsen planned–January 25th.


Scott on the other hand let the conditions drive his pace. He did not lead his team on a strict regimen of travel distance or define daily measures of success for their journey. As a result, his team reached the South Pole more than a month later. On the way back Scott ran out of supplies less than ten miles from their next supply depot.

In Education:

We know it is important to check in and see where our students are in understanding things, but how clear are we about where exactly we want our students to go? What will the evidence of success look like? If we don’t make this clear to both ourselves and our students, how will we know where we/they are and when we/they will arrive? When we have clearly defined measures for success we will know quickly what is working and what isn’t. What will we do when storms come our way and there are challenges to overcome?

One more question: Are we measuring what we hope to see?

2. Self-Imposed Constraints


Ok we know Amundsen went an average of 15-20 miles per day with his team. Amundsen stayed the course even when his team pushed him to go further on days when the conditions were good. He said no, knowing the importance of rest for his team. Amundsen had self-imposed constraints at the upper and lower bounds that kept him on track and his team conditioned for the entire journey.


Scott let the conditions and his emotions rule. When conditions were good he went further, pushing his team to the point of exhaustion, yet retreated to his tent complaining about the weather in his journal on days when the conditions weren’t optimal.

In Education:

There is an important balance to be found and self-imposed constraints may be the key.

When we begin taking away things like recess, art, and music under the misguided impression that more “time” focused on core content will result in a deeper understanding of said content–we have lost the balance. Kids learn through play and need time to explore and make connections to apply the things they are learning to their authentic worlds (adults learn this way too). They need time to rest and relax and refresh before they are expected make sense of more information. We can help our students and teachers create self-imposed strategies to implement so they know when to push and when to rest.

What this looks like in action: I know I could stay at school until 7 pm to get all these things done, but maybe it is better for my students and myself if I just do a little bit each day and not push myself to the limits. Find margin in your life and plan for margin in your school day for your students–we all need breaks.

3. Appropriate to Enterprise(or Individual)


Amundsen did his research. After studying the ways of the Eskimos, Amundsen chose dogs as the main form of transportation for the journey. He also very carefully planned their route, even though it was a path nobody had traveled before. He picked the right methods, routes and details for his team to accomplish their goals, instead of relying on the plans of others.


Scott mimicked many of the decisions of another explorer, Ernest Shackleton, who he traveled with in the past. One of the most regrettable decisions was Scott’s choice to use horses for part of the trek and then to man-haul (exactly what it sounds like) the sleds for much of the journey. I don’t know a lot about arctic travel, but that just sounds like a bad idea.

In Education:

Educators need agency to make decisions for their students. Administrators need autonomy to make decisions for their campuses. In most cases, standardization is ineffective and inappropriate for the individual needs of schools and students. Maybe this is why there is so much push back against standardized testing as the ultimate indicator of success in our classrooms today. The 20 Mile chunks of work we implement to reach our goals must be appropriate at the enterprise and individual level. So how are our goals and practices differentiated for our diverse students? How are we giving teachers the space and resources to support a variety of learners in their daily 20 mile march?

4. Largely Within Your Control


Amundsen was beyond prepared. He knew there were many things that might happen and many things out of his control–like the weather. Amundsen’s average daily distance had to be something achievable on bad weather dates as well as calm sunny days. Supplies could get destroyed, there could be an accident, but he prepared to respond to any of these events with the supplies and plans to overcome the event. When one of his thermometers broke he had another four in his supplies. If they missed a supply depot for any reason, he had enough supplies to go on for miles.


Scott was prepared for the perfect journey. When things outside of his control occurred, he was not ready to respond. Scott had one thermometer and cursed when it broke. He cursed the weather and ranted about his misfortunes in his journal instead of responding and leading his team towards safety. He didn’t have the large quantities of reserves if they missed a supply stop and ultimately this lead directly to the unfortunate end for the team when they ran out of supplies and froze to death ten miles from the next supply station.

In Education:

There are lots of things that are beyond our control when it comes to school. You can’t control the fact that your student’s dog ran away the morning of the big test. You can’t change the fact your student’s parents are incarcerated. You can’t change what students did or didn’t learn the year before or what the writing prompt will be on the end of year assessment.

Focus on what you can control and build your 20 mile marches around these things. You can plan, implement, and reflect on lessons that nurture a love for writing every day. You can give students time to read for enjoyment and model this yourself even if it would be easier to use the time to catch up on grading. Let’s not waste time complaining about the circumstances like Scott, but be more like Amundsen and get down to business to support our students.

5. A Proper Timeframe

Amundsen & Scott: As mentioned throughout this post, Amundsen picked a clear, attainable goal to march daily, while Scott was all over the place in his daily distances and timeframes.

In Education:

A good 20 mile march is not too long but not too short. If the timeframe for reaching your edugoals is too short you may fall prey to circumstances outside your control, pulling you off track without time to make up for it. If the timeframe is too long and the check ins are too far off in the distance the march doesn’t have the power it needs.

The successful businesses (known as the 10X companies) Collins references in Great By Choice found this sweet spot of time set to implement goals. The proper timeframe kept goals tangible and in the forefront of the employees minds without being unreasonable to achieve.

6. Designed and Self-Imposed By Enterprise or Individual

Amundsen & Scott: Amundsen carefully researched and implemented plans based on his research of what would work best for his team’s journey. Scott relied on the experiences of others (as mentioned in point 3) to make his decisions, which turned out to be a detrimental decision.

In Education:

Students should play an active role in their learning and teachers an active role in curriculum and learning design and reflection. Let’s give power to our educators and students to design and implement their own 20 mile marches. What if students took part in developing performance indicators for different standards and concepts?

7. Achieved with high consistency

Amundsen & Scott: Amundsen’s team was resolute in their consistency to travel 15-20 miles each day, even if they traveled through storms and challenging conditions. Scott, in contrast, was swayed by a variety of excuses and conditions to go too far or not far enough. Slow and steady wins the race–is the truth at play here.

In Education:

When our 20 mile march goals are achievable with high consistency we gain confidence, we see progress, we build momentum, and we keep on reaching our goals. When we miss the mark and lack the discipline to correct our path, it is too easy to stop, switch to a new plan (project, curriculum, teaching strategy, superintendent etc.).

Last Thoughts & Some Questions:

The 20 Mile March gives me a mental model to organize my thoughts, plans, and actions as I work towards BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goals) a term from another Collins masterpiece, Built to Last. Since latching on to this concept, I visualize each little, daily, 20 mile chunk of work I need to do that will lead me to the goal I have set my mind on. I even add little flag icons in my to do list and map out the breakdown of the seemingly little stuff that needs consistency to get done. This structure and visualization help me plan reasonable goals, stay on track, and get things done.

How do you see these ideas at play in your school?

How can you incorporate these parameters for goal setting with your students?

What is your 20 mile march?

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play

Returning to Play

Inspiration Quote

At one of those college fairs in high school I remember my mom talking to a recruiter from an art school. The standard parent might try to dissuade their children from going that route for fear of the starving artist fate. Instead, my mom went on about how I drew an elephant or something and it was the most incredible thing she had ever seen #thanksmom. At the time, the vision I had of my future self was anything but a starving artist. My pursuit of perfection and  “success” blinded me to the possibility that art, play, and creativity could be part of my work. There was even a time I thought I wanted to be a lawyer—enough said.

Cherryblossom painting in acrylicI can’t remember exactly when I started painting and drawing again, but I quickly classified these as weekend activities and put them (quite literally) in a box I would get out and store in rhythm with the weekend workweek flow. It was as if I thought work time had to be hard or taxing to count. Surely this fun and carefree Tracy couldn’t be “working”.

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”

– François-René de Chateaubriand

We are guilty of the same misclassification in our schools, cutting out art, music,  and free play for fear students don’t have enough time to “learn”—when that is exactly what they are doing through play. What might our students learn when we give them time to play without specific structure and direction? What might we, as educators, learn and model to our students as we play and experiement ourselves?

Sugata Mitra Sketchnotes

One of my own experiments started recently, when I began to play with sketchnotes, visual note taking, or whatever you want to call it—and bingo! It didn’t take long to figure out this was clearly compatible with the way my mind worked. I had really been doing a rudimentary form of it for a long time. I just didn’t know it had a name, gurus (@Braddo, @AustinKleon, @MikeRohde to name a few), books, and a whole movement of folks who also thought, created, and reflected in this way. Playing with this medium of reflection and making connections has not only had a positive impact on the work I’m doing, but even the spirit with which I approach work.

Amateur Austin Kleon Quote

Austin Kleon, in his stellar book, Show Your Work, defines the amateur as “the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love.”

When someone is talking about me and my work, I hope that can be said.

I hope to see educators approach teaching and students, learning, with a spirit of love: I believe a big part of that will come when we learn to play again. When we allow ourselves to be amateurs at something again. When we learn to experiment and create and provide time and space for our students to do the same.

So, as we gear up for a new school year… What will you experiment with that will encourage you to play?

Some ideas for play this school year:

  • Test driving new technology

  • Redesigning your learning space

  • Learning some basic coding skills

  • Implementing a new teaching technique

  • Connecting with educators across the globe

  • Updating your centers, activities, or a couple lessons

  • Giving students the freedom to work in new mediums

  • Scheduling “play dates” with a friend to try out new things

  • Drawing, doodling, playing with art or testing out sketchnotes

  • Taking an online course in something you’ve always wanted to learn