Startup Weekend Delivered a Magical Weekend in the Magic City

Florida International University was the site of some incredible magic as Startup Weekend EDU saw one of its most diverse group of people come together to learn and practice critical entrepreneurship skills in order to take ideas from concept to creation in less than 54 hours!  It could not be more fitting that Miami, Florida also known as the Magic City was home to a magical experience for a diverse group of aspiring entrepreneurs that included: students from elementary, middle, and high school; university students; university professors; K-12 teachers; parents; ex-convicts; developers; entrepreneurs; and local professionals.  The youngest participants at this event were 8 years old and they both presented with their respective teams!  

SWmiami2Startup Weekend EDU is a 2.5 day event whereby educators, developers, designers, and entrepreneurs come together to pitch ideas to solve problems in education and form teams around the selected ideas.  Teams then spend the weekend taking these ideas from concept to creation, culminating into a final presentation to a panel of all-star judges from the community.  Judges assess pitches based on clearly defined problem statement, prototype design, validation of problem and prototype, and finally, the business model. This theme was critical for a region that is home to some of the largest school districts going through difficult challenges.  

Having facilitated over 16 events around the country, I thought I had seen it all.  However, nothing could have prepared me for this incredibly diverse group of people and all of the challenges and possibilities that would manifest over the weekend.  To be honest, I was concerned about whether the event could be a success and if everyone would figure out how to work well together quickly enough to deliver a final presentation by Sunday evening to a panel of all-star judges from the Miami community.

SWmiamiOn opening night, participants have the opportunity to pitch ideas that eventually serve as the context for work throughout the weekend.  The youngest person to pitch was a 6th grader from a local school and the oldest was a gentlemen in his 60’s.  After 30+ pitches, rounds of voting and team formation, we had 8 teams.  On one side of the room we had an 8th grader, leading a team of 5 people that included a university professor, on a quest to start a company that could customize, build, and deliver personally designed eyeglass frames to match any outfit or mood.  On the other side we had a team comprised of a middle school student, a high school senior, a local entrepreneur, led by two former convicts who pitched an idea to deliver high quality education into prisons.

On Saturday morning when all of the teams began their work for the weekend, I sat down with a young man from an underserved community and school whose idea was selected Friday night.  His team had not yet arrived so I sat down to have breakfast with him and he told me about his idea.  His goal was to reinvent the grading system to reflect student growth and development instead of simply an average of periodic assessments.  He believed that how a student’s grade changes is a more valuable indicator of learning than an average of test scores.  His passion moved me and as the weekend went on, I had the incredible pleasure of watching this young man open up and become a confident leader on his team.  On Sunday afternoon, my co-facilitator, Paula Celestino, and I listened to his team’s practice presentation; when he spoke, he left us speechless.  He did not speak from notes or slides, he did something more powerful, he spoke from his heart.  

His team would not go on to place, however, the judges were so moved by this young man’s passion and the potential game-changing impact of his idea that they asked to create the Education Impact award for this team.  The team that would go on to place first was the team led by an ex-convict as they effectively built a case for the need to solve this problem and how their solution prototype could begin to address the problem right away.  This weekend was nothing short of magical.  To watch people from all walks of life come together to work on teams, respect each other, listen to each other, work collaboratively, and bond was nothing short of magical.  I could not have had the pleasure of facilitating a better event that weekend and I will always remember Miami as the Magic City.

Could There be a Silver Bullet to Learning Math?

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me to explain the most challenging aspect of teaching math to students of any age.  She said she is not a math person and as a result always struggled with it.  Perhaps she wanted to know what I find most difficult about teaching students that might have been like her.  For years, I have been asked variations of this question.  “How do you do it?”  “What do you do with students that are just not meant to do math?”  “Why do you do it?”  “Is there a secret for teaching math?”  The list goes on and on.  If you are a math teacher, surely you have heard dozens of versions of the same inquiry.

I believe every person is meant to be a math person.  In fact, I believe this so wholeheartedly that I look forward to working with the students that people believe are the most difficult to teach math to.  I look forward to the cases where the uphill climb is the steepest.

It was in circumstances like this where I began to discover something very interesting.  I discovered that all people are wired to reason and use logic every single day of their lives.  People are constantly running complex algorithms in their mind to make decisions and conclusions in situations with friends, dealings with family, scenarios in sports, and many more challenging and high pressure contexts.  Essentially, people are practicing and getting tested in the fundamental skills of math every single day.

Lack of reasoning and logic ability are not the problem.  The problem is how do we leverage math, which is a simplified version of the complex algorithms we face on a daily basis, in order to continue to build our ability to evaluate, analyze, and make complex decisions?  And related to that, how do we take our existing reasoning and logic ability and apply it to learning math successfully?

But what if the problem isn’t the “how?”  What if the problem lies in a barrier preventing us from doing what we so naturally do already?  What if the problem has nothing to do with the teaching and learning of math?  What if the problem is unrelated to math?

For the last 10 years, I have been working with math students of varied ages (8 years old through 45 years old).  I have worked with students in a variety of contexts (i.e. private, classroom, workshops, small group) with a multitude of goals (i.e. scholarships, graduation, grades, passing, jobs, etc.) at stake.  Some of these situations were the equivalent of getting the basketball in your hands with 3 seconds left to shoot in the 4th quarter when you are down by 1 point – for both the student and me.

A few years into200438089-001 teaching math, I began work on my masters in psychology which was focused on executive coaching and leadership development.  I purposely sought this degree because I felt it would be the most helpful on my journey to helping people succeed whether in math, business, or life.  When I needed to practice the methods of executive coaching, I turned to my students.  They were my young “executive” clients facing challenges in math.  It was the practice of executive coaching that lead me to discover what could be the silver bullet to learning math.  From my experience, I have concluded that the single most important factor to learning math was something that holds us back in so many other realms of life – confidence.

When I have the opportunity to work privately with students, I always spend the first several sessions attacking confidence.  In those sessions, I have to draw out the most powerful negative thoughts and beliefs and take them head on.  This requires challenging each and every one of them, breaking them up into smaller nuggets that I can disprove, and then accusing my client of lying to me when we started.  What is the lie you ask?  The lie is that they can’t do math.  Or that they suck at math.  This is lie they tell me and themselves when we start.  I have to show them that they can do math and then begin building their confidence from there.  It is only after I win the case against their perceived ineptitude that we can even begin to practice math.  Any efforts to help my students learn math before that is a waste of everyone’s time.

I’m not one to believe in silver bullets.  And this probably does not fit the definition of one since it is anything but simple.  However, I do believe confidence is the single-most important barrier to learning math (and just about anything for that matter).  If we spend time attacking negative self-talk, win the case against perceived ineptitude, and help students build positive interrogative self-talk, we will be able to achieve the significant impacts we are looking for in math education in this country.  As for our students-to-be, – our babies, our toddlers – we can thoughtfully design math curriculum and pedagogy to integrate confidence-building language, strategies, and exercises.  I don’t mean coddling our little ones.  What I mean is teaching students in a manner that builds confidence along the way.  Developing a growth mindset, teaching students interrogative self-talk, encouraging and rewarding improvement, embracing and learning from failure, etc.

Here’s one way you can start building confidence in your classroom or teaching context right away.

Every time a student says “I can’t do this”, respond with “That’s not true, stop saying that.  You don’t yet have enough practice to do this successfully.  So let’s get back to practicing.”  You can also add, “The only thing that separates us is practice.”

When students say “I’m not as good as she is in math,” I respond with, “So what?  The only difference between the two of you is that she has practiced math more than you.  I’m sure there is something you have practiced more than she has.  Let’s not worry about her and instead get more practice.  You can get there too.  It’s not a race.”

Try these responses the next time you hear some negative self-talk from your math students.




Children are Awesome. Let’s Keep Them That Way.

Kids are awesome, even when they don’t seem to be.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with them.  What we do and say to them are the only things that can ruin that perfection.  Alternatively, what we do and say to them can also make them even more awesome.

Kids just want to play, have fun, learn, be inspired, be heard, try new things, come up with great ideas, have those great ideas heard, be cared for, care about someone, run around, crash in and out of love, run passionately after crazy ideas, challenge the status quo, be given a chance to succeed, have someone believe in them, have someone find the genius in their ideas and words, have deep and meaningful conversations, be rebellious, be fearless, be vulnerable, and most importantly, be awesome.

Children are awesomeEssentially, kids are everything we want to be and spend lots of money to try to become through self-help books, coaches, psychologists, motivational speakers, conferences, workshops, etc.

As teachers, parents, and citizens, it is our opportunity and responsibility to help them become the awesome adults they can become.  It is our opportunity and responsibility to: listen to their ideas and problems; support them when they try and fail; encourage them to fall madly in love again after heartbreak; support their subsequent events after failure; give them a chance even when we don’t think they stand a chance (they will surprise us); help them believe in something again even after they were let down; not tell them I told you so; inspire and motivate them; redirect their rebellious behavior towards situations that need that kind of behavior; look for and encourage the genius in their words; teach them what they want to learn; help them find something they can be awesome at, even if just for the short-term; be delicate when they are vulnerable; buy them a burger and have conversations with them for hours; and most importantly, believe they can be awesome.

So it’s really up to us as teachers, parents, and citizens.  Children are ours to ruin or make great.  Let’s focus our efforts on the latter.  It’s really that simple.