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Become a Courageous Educator with Jorge Valenzuela (Ep 47)

/ Jason Sholl

Jorge Valenzuela is an education coach, author, and advocate. He has years of experience as a classroom and online teacher, a curriculum specialist, and a consultant. His work focuses on improving teacher preparation in project-based learning, computational thinking and computer science integration, STEM education, and equity-based restorative practices. Jorge is an adjunct professor at Old Dominion University and the lead coach at Lifelong Learning Defined. His book Rev Up Robotics: Real-World Computational Thinking in the K–8 Classroom is available from ISTE. Follow Jorge on Twitter @JorgeDoesPBL and visit his website at https://www.lifelonglearningdefined.com/.

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Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I am Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad and on today's show we have Jorge Valenzuela. Jorge is an education coach, author, and advocate. He has years experience as a classroom and online teacher, a curriculum specialist, and a consultant. His work focuses on improving teacher preparation and project based learning, computational thinking and computer science integration, STEM education, and equity based restorative practices.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Jorge is an adjunct professor at Old Dominion University and the lead coach at Lifelong Learning Defined. His book, Rev Up Robotics: Real World Computational Thinking in the K8 Classroom is available from ISTE. And on this episode, Jorge talks about what it takes to be a courageous educator. He also talks about how he plans for professional development and project based learning. I hope you enjoy the episode. I am so excited to have my friend and fellow project based learning expert with me today. Jorge, welcome to the show. Thanks for being a part.

Jorge Valenzuela: Hey Nathan, thank you so much, brother. It's great to speak again.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. I mean, it's been, I think, before the show we were talking, I think it's been six years since we have had the opportunity to be in the same room together, which is crazy, especially because our education world typically collides because of the work we do. I can't believe it's been this long.

Jorge Valenzuela: Yeah, it's crazy. It was six years ago in Nashville and we were at bootcamp for the Buck Institute for Education and really was an amazing experience. And I remember that we were paired up at the end and we did a reflection together on the experience. And I remember that you were just a great talent, but also a great human being and I never ever forgot you. And so, I know that we followed each other on social media and just to see everything with your family, your child, your marriage and all your work, man, I'm super excited to be here with you and to know you.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I sure appreciate that George and I say the sentiments are exactly the same. I think one of the most memorable experiences from this bootcamp was that we had all these educators in the room and I think we were the first or maybe second, it was the first time this organization had done a cohort for project based learning. And it was another things that took a journey to get there and you felt really proud to be chosen. And I'm pretty sure it was you, and correct me if I'm wrong, it was at the end of the retreat or the bootcamp that we were in and you had said something about, it was so good to be in a room of unicorns.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And everyone just completely erupted with emotion and it was such a meaningful and fun parallel you made of a lot of us are, I'm going to get deep quicker than I intended too, but a lot of us are in these positions maybe spread out across the country and sometimes we felt like maybe we thought differently or we had all these visions for change and sometimes it was a lonely place, but then when we were all together, we felt like we were all kindred spirits. Did I capture that like you remember it?

Jorge Valenzuela: So at PBL Works, formerly known as Buck Institute, I [crosstalk 00:04:02] the credit of naming the unicorns. It wasn't on purpose though. I didn't think it would be the name of the cohort, but I did not come up with that name actually. There's a guy named Tom MacDonald that I work with in Richmond. And we started out teaching together and he went away and he was a consultant actually. And he came back to the school system a few years later when I was in my office as an administrator and we sat down and we talked about STEM and PBL and all these things, and he's like, "Man, you're a unicorn around here." And so, at the time I really felt isolated. And the reason why is because I didn't know a lot of people that were thinking about the same things I was at the time.

Jorge Valenzuela: It's changed a lot since then. And we're going back seven years. And so, I was speaking to one of my bosses, Dr. Andrea Kane, and she said to me, "You have to seek out an organization that you can be part of a PLN with and learn together and travel together and just have some like-minded folks that you should join." And so, when I got into the cohort, I can honestly say I was very honored, but I was very intimidated. I was very scared. When I went into the bootcamp, I did not know what to expect. And when your confidence isn't there how it should be, you have a lot of anxiety, but the folks in charge really made us feel really welcome. They had some really great engaging activities and the guy Roddy, you know Roddy Boone Troy.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah.

Jorge Valenzuela: He walked up to me at lunchtime and he sat down in front of me and he was like, "So what do you think about all this?" And I said, "It's a room full of unicorns." And so, he said, "Okay," and he got up and left. And then I think he asked me to say that at the end and lo and behold, it became the name of the cohort.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. And I love every year. So there was a final picture taken. I don't think it was in Nashville, I think he was in a different place, or maybe it was in Nashville, I forgot where it was. But someone had found this unicorn blow up head, like a beach toy and it became our mascot. And I remember someone posted, I think on Facebook or some social media platform and it shows up in my memories every year and someone will comment on it like, "Great times." And anyway, so yeah, that has lasted for a while now thanks to you.

Jorge Valenzuela: Yeah. PBL Works has definitely been a great experience in my career, in my learning. And I consider myself a unicorn for life, man and I hope you do too brother.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I do, yeah. Absolutely. So I want to talk about your work in schools and you've done a lot of amazing work and project based learning, which we all call PBL in the field. Your writing is phenomenal. I love to see the things that you write about. One of the favorite things I love to read that you put out is how you're able to reframe learning in this real world context. And I know you have a book out on real world computational thinking.

Jorge Valenzuela: Right, right, right.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: You also have, I think a coaching book out or a book that talks about how you support in your coaching role. So I'd love to hear more, and I know our listeners would to, how you came about writing these books. And especially as you think about the context now, those who are listening to this, it's January still, in the height of the pandemic and schools everywhere right now they're remote, they're hybrid, they're distance, whatever term the districts might be using. So I'd love to hear where you are right now and you're thinking, how your writing is colliding with the current context of where we're in right now.

Jorge Valenzuela: Yeah, so when I write, I never set out to write a book. I set out to write about topics that I'm passionate about and that number one, I have experience in. And what I've noticed is that in my experiences, they're just my experiences and my thoughts. And there's times that I don't have the right background or the right data or the knowledge on a topic. And so, what I have found is that when I'm writing, I try to make it a fine tandem of three things. Number one is research, because when you do the research and you respect previous work in the field, then you really earn the respect of your colleagues who are in the know. But then second is that experience, is that personal touch, is that story in the classroom. It's that story on the road is working with other educators like your own perspective.

Jorge Valenzuela: But then the last thing is and I try to get there very quickly is to actionable steps using evidence based instructional strategies or protocols. And so, when you write with those three things in mind, then those things can actually become a workshop or they can become a webinar, or they can become an experience for an educator or a team of educators to on their own now implement that one thing. And so, for me, being an administrator for nine years at a district office, I was exposed to the Department of Technology, the Department of STEM, computer science, PBL, title one. So if you look at all the stuff I write and all the stuff that I coach on, those were experiences that I got a framework on or some experience in understanding the research, but then my own personal touch.

Jorge Valenzuela: And because I was over 40 educators and helping a district, I had to learn how to coach adults. And then when we get into PBL Works and Buck Institute, I was on the road for six years and I was in different schools, K through 16. And I'm having to help educators on your standards PBL as a research based instructional approach, but also help them understand how to plan within the context of their area. And so, I had to learn math, English, social studies, science, and all the content areas, and not just understand them in theory, but in concepts. Important concepts that are part of the standards.

Jorge Valenzuela: And so, when you mix all those things up and you write about what you're doing at the moment, then before you know it, after half a year, a year, you have the underpinnings of a book. And so, the ISTE book with Rev Robotics, I was writing about STEM and computer science, which is my content area. And I want to say after the 10th blog, I was approached and say, "Hey, Jorge, how do you feel about writing this book?" The same thing with the new book on writing on equity and SEL, I just wrote about it, but I wrote about what I'm experiencing and I made sure that it's framed in a way that's respectful of the research and all the previous work.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. I think this is really important because I know that educators are looking for not only some great strategies for things that they can try on their own, but I think as educators, we all want to know that you've done this before. Are you seeing this happen? Whenever we're reading something, I always gravitate toward something, Jorge has successfully incorporated computational thinking in the math classroom or projects that are very connected to the real world. But seeing, I mean, is that how you think about it too with writing is looking for ways that you can share things that you have tried out and worked, or maybe didn't work, and you're able to share that with educators?

Jorge Valenzuela: Yeah, and that's exactly right. I remember this was about 11 years ago and one of the things that really inspired me by an author named Malcolm Gladwell. He wrote a book that's called Outliers. And in the book, he talks about a concept of the 10,000 hour rule. Meaning that if you want to be an expert at what you do, you need to put in 10,000 hours. Now, I don't know exactly how much data is on that, but it makes sense to me. He said, "It takes three hours a day, 20 hours a week, over 10 years." And so, I remember that me being a coach in my school district, it was important for me to know what I was discussing in front of my audience. So I remember I did a presentation at one of the high schools and when I walked out, I was approached by three young teachers.

Jorge Valenzuela: And they approached me and they say, "Hey Jorge, that was great, but I don't think I could ever do what you just did." And so, in my mind, I already know that I got there through practice, repetition, right? But they don't know that, they're only looking at the final product. So the one thing that I do in all of my writing is I'm honest as possible about what my deficiencies were when I was a newbie or a novice. And I really consider myself a newbie right now, like I'm still just starting out, but I put that in the beginning so that the reader can identify and be like, "Okay, well, he started out too." And an example of that is in the blog that y'all posted, it's Five Ways To Become A More Confident Educator.

Jorge Valenzuela: In the beginning of the blog, I state exactly where in my personal life I was lacking confidence, where I was looking for it and how I learned that that's not the right place. And then I get into as an educator where I was lacking confidence and what was the thing that bothered me, or upset me to the point that it made me work on being more confident. And I stayed at that top, at the top. This is an opinion piece and so, I laid out five things that I worked on that I personally did in order for me to arrive to where I'm at now in my confidence level. And I made sure that there's a personal story there, it's accurate, right? And also, there's research, but then actionable steps that someone that is reading this, like a chapter four in a dissertation, they can follow the steps and replicate not just the process, but the success.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And Jorge, your blog post was fantastic. There's a real authenticity there, which I think readers really appreciate. You give a very honest and vulnerable place or window for people to see what your thinking is. And that's really what I want to ask you now is what does your reflection practices look like? I mean, you do a lot of training and working with educators. But I think that if we don't really deeply reflect on what we're doing and is it working, is it not working? How do we know if it's working? How do we know if the decisions we're making are making an impact? I'm just curious about what your reflective process looks like.

Jorge Valenzuela: Well, the one thing that, so it's changed over time, but there's a quote by John Dewey that I try to keep at the forefront of not just my practice, but really in every workshop, we do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. And so, there's a national faculty with PBL Works her name is Christine Camps and she was my NFDP, which means she was my national faculty development mentor. And so, when I did a co-facilitation with her, I remember that I rehearsed and I practiced and everything and I got up there and I did a great job. And that evening she had a facilitation rubric and she went over the rubric with me, each of the indicators and she said to me, "Do you want to help educators or do you want them to say that you're smart?

Jorge Valenzuela: Because if you want them to say that you're smart, well you've accomplished that, and you can go home right now if you want." Now, I'm not saying verbatim that's how she worded it but she wanted me to see that we need to unpack the material. We need to do the work in such a way that whoever the audience is, they can easily receive it because we're connecting it to their experiences, their previous knowledge, and you're helping them get to where they need to go. And at the same time, be engaging and be very personable. And so, the thing that I've done since then, I kept that rubric and her note, number one, but number two, I always look at the data from all my participants. And it's been hundreds since then, but I always make sure that the key indicators of engagement, knowledge, understands the context of the school, all these things are in alignment, so that I know that I did my best work.

Jorge Valenzuela: And so, how that translates now into the work I do with schools is that when we have a meeting prior to our workshop, I make sure that I write down what the needs are. I look at the lesson plans, look at the templates, even sit in on meetings sometimes. But when the slide deck is complete, I meet with them again and we reflect again and we look at every piece, so that way it's a collaboration and it's not just my ideas and what I think is good, it's what we think is good. So, yeah, I'm the facilitator but it's a group effort and I think that that is not only how a consultant or a coach should work, but how a teacher should also work with his or her kids. There must be a collaboration.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, I think it's so important, Jorge, because we talk all the time about what can we do to help transform education or learning. And it's not by these motivational speeches where there's these things like, oh, I've got to do this and this is the right way. This is the formula, the algorithm. But this focus on the collaborative approach. And you've built this trust and one of the things I love about the blog post that you wrote about was, the instilling confidence was you talked about how you critique the work and not the people. And I'm curious if you could share more about what that's about.

Jorge Valenzuela: Yeah, so I have to give credit to Dr. Gina [inaudible 00:21:20].

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: She's great.

Jorge Valenzuela: Yeah, she is, I would say the most talented facilitator and curriculum writer I've ever seen and I've ever heard. And I was very fortunate to have worked with her, although brief, but there were times when we would talk through one of my agendas for a second visit and having her talk me through certain things was really helpful. Well, anyway, in the second iteration of the PBL 101, one of the norms for the workshop that she created is called, Critique Work and Not People. And so, for me, and I think I mentioned this in the blog, I grew up in a home where that wasn't modeled. And so, that is something that as a teacher, you have to learn how to do, especially now where all the focus on SEL and on culturally responsive teaching, and just understanding the cultural nuances of your students and of their backgrounds.

Jorge Valenzuela: And so, that was something that I really took to heart like a lot of what I've learned over the years. I not only took it to heart where I'm putting this into the workshop, but that I'm actually inculcating this into my life. And so, when I think of that quote, I think of critiquing the work through a feedback protocol of some sort, having a system. And the reason why I believe in systems is because if you don't know how to do something, like let's say if you want to make a lasagna and you've never done it before, you find yourself a recipe, and then you follow the steps.

Jorge Valenzuela: And so, using a feedback or a protocol for telling someone where they are, but where they need to go as well, I think it's important but also, not people. And when I think of not people, people really resent it when you critique them when it's not done in a structured way, and it's not done in a respectful way. And so, it takes me back to what Christine Camps told me. You have to put your participants or your students first. How are you showing up with them? How are you delivering this information? And so, that's just a model that I hope that I can aspire to and that I can continue to.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I think it's really important because I think as educators, we are so very proud of our craft and maybe the knowledge that we possess. And as soon as we detect somebody giving a personal critique, we automatically put our defensive guards and we stop listening at that point. It becomes more about what rebuke will I have, or I'm not going to listen to anymore. I mean, it completely stops collaboration. I so agree. I think it's so important that we really think and be very intentional about, especially, I know you as a coach, this is something that you probably have to think about a lot is whenever you're giving feedback to be very intentional about how the feedback is being perceived. And you mentioned it too with students. I mean, this goes back to some of the fixed versus the growth mindset with Carol Dweck is making sure that we're not telling students, praising them saying, "Oh, you're smart."

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Because what that does is it says, "Oh, here's an innate quality that you don't have much control over and it doesn't really lead to any growth." But if you say something like, "I see how hard you're working and the perseverance you're showing and it's really effective because," and then you list the reason why the students' perseverance is effective, that's going to [inaudible 00:25:47] a lot further along. And is this going to help them build that skill level around work ethic and perseverance, but saying, "Oh, that was the right answer. Oh, you're so smart," that doesn't really do anything. But yeah, I really liked the intentionality about feedback. And it can be challenging because as humans we're so, in this world of social media, we're so very fixated on this is right, and this is wrong and this is the best way, this is the worst way. It's important for us as we think about growing and collaborating together.

Jorge Valenzuela: And there's something that I just thought about as you were speaking, I was watching an interview on, and this is completely out of context or a different context, but it relates. Akon, he was talking about Eminem and how when they did a song together, Eminem treated his rap music like a nine to five. He would show up at nine o'clock, he would take a lunch break at 1:00 PM and at five o'clock, he was done and he was a father, or he was a husband, whatever. And so, I heard a quote by Dr. Maya Angelou where she said, "You have to live your teaching. You can't do or say, 'Do as I say, but not as I do.' No, you have to live what you teach." And so, me, at the end of the work day, now it's not five o'clock like Eminem, but at the end of the work day, I am a father. I am a new husband, so I'm working on that as well.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Congratulations.

Jorge Valenzuela: Thank you so much. I'm a brother. And so, I very much work on not just critiquing people and the work in the workshop or in the classroom, but in my personal life. Because I just had an aunt that just passed away and basically a lot of folks I know are losing people right now. I mean, it's crazy. And the thing that I tell my kids is this, look, you never know when is the last time you'll speak to someone or when there'll be gone. But I think that if you treated them right, and you did the right thing, and you treated them with the respect that they wanted or that they look for, and you did the best that you can, then you really won't have any regrets in how you treated this person. And so, that really all aligns, I think, in critique work, it all aligns and I try to do that personally as well.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And I think it's so important, first, I'm sorry to hear about your aunt. It's a very sad time that we're going through right now with the pandemic, but I feel like what you just said really is especially, I mean, it's always true, but we have to be reminded, especially now with the boundaries being so fuzzy. A lot of us as educators are working, maybe doing Zoom sessions and Zoom classes and it's almost as if, and it busy before, of course, but there is a stricter delineation between schoolwork and at home.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And now that we're doing so much work at home, I think more than ever, it's so important that we really re-establish those boundaries. And yes, there's a lot on self care and social, emotional learning and I think those are so important, but it's one thing to say, "Oh yeah, self care is important," but to truly live it and be an example, I think, and as Maya Angelou's quote, I love that, is living out that purpose and it can't just be words, you have to see it in action.

Jorge Valenzuela: Yeah, that's one of the things when you see some people and not anyone in education of course, but you see some people and they say all these great things, but then when you interact with them, where is that emotional intelligence? Where's that respect for others? Where's that critique the work and not people? Think of Dr. Maya Angelou again. People will forget what you did for them and what you said to them, but they will never, ever forget how you made them feel. And so, for me, I don't call people out on things, I don't go back and forth, but at least from myself, I try to be mindful of how I've treated another person. And if I made a mistake, it's in the blog, I think it's number three, admit when you're wrong and apologize.

Jorge Valenzuela: And sometimes, an apology will suffice, but sometimes you have to restore justice and that really requires a conversation and a restorative practice. And so, it's all about living what you teach and there's a lot of moving pieces. There's a lot of models, frameworks, and things like that but if you're dedicated, you meet yourself where you are and you level up in the areas that need the most attention. And I think every individual, like if you're a teacher, you really should be focusing on how you plan lessons and how you facilitate them, in my opinion. I mean, that's the top two things. How you plan and how you teach.

Jorge Valenzuela: But then you have to look at all the other things, at your philosophy, at your understanding the learning sciences and how they can apply in your design practices and how you treat people, your emotional intelligence, how you're showing up every day. It's so many different things at your integrity. And I just think that everyone's in a different place, but everyone needs to really do a self-assessment. And for most of us, I think we can reboot. Some folks would have to reset, but I think that we can reboot with that self care.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Completely agree. And as we wrap up today, which is unfortunate because you're a great friend and I could just chat with you all afternoon. But as we wrap up today and educators as they're looking for you, you're everywhere. I mean, Edutopia, you have loads of great blog posts there, on social media as well, but how can educators get to know you more and find you on social media and on the web?

Jorge Valenzuela: Well if you follow me on social media across, well there's three platforms now, there's Twitter, Instagram, I do have Snapchat, but I don't understand it yet. But the handle is at JorgeDoesPBL. That is J-O-R-G-E and you can access my website at lifelonglearningdefined.com and all of these items, including my email will be in the show notes for the episode.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Awesome. Absolutely. Jorge, I am so excited to have this episode go out and just continue to learn alongside of you and I'm looking forward to the pandemic being over so we can reconnect face-to-face again.

Jorge Valenzuela: Yeah, me too, man. It's been a pleasure. I know that you're doing a lot with ISTE and the PLN. And congrats on all your success, man.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I appreciate it and same to you my friend.