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Building Classroom Culture with Flipgrid's Jess Boyce (Ep 60)

/ Jason Sholl

Jess is an Educator Innovation Lead for Team Flipgrid and gets the honor to work alongside educators every single day. She is a former middle school math teacher who is super passionate about classroom culture and building relationships with students. You’ll often hear her saying “relationships first, the rest will follow.” She is super curious by nature and loves learning/trying new things, which fueled the ways in which she ran her classroom.

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Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I'm your host, Nathan Lang-Raad, and in today's podcast, we have Jess Boyce. Jess is an educator, innovation lead for Team Flipgrid, and gets the honor to work alongside educators every single day. She's a former middle school math teacher who is passionate about classroom culture and building relationships with students. You'll often hear her saying, "Relationships first, the rest will follow." She is curious by nature and loves learning and trying new things, which fuel the ways in which she ran her classroom. I hope you enjoy this episode about relationships and student conversations.

Jess, it is so great to have you on the podcast today.

Jess Boyce: Thank you for having me.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh my goodness. You know, I just love being able to interact with you on Twitter and and through your whole Flipgrid team, and I can't believe we just now finally have the opportunity to have this conversation together. So I am just beyond honored and so excited to have you on.

Jess Boyce: Yeah, me too. It's been a long time coming, so I'm super glad that we get to connect finally.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Before we started recording today, we were talking about, of course we're still in the midst of a pandemic and we're so excited to eventually get out of there and connect back in schools again, and you were telling me about your experiences in the classroom. You were a middle school math teacher, and so I think it takes a very special person to be a middle school math teacher. So I'd love to hear about how you kind of chose middle school math as your career.

Jess Boyce: Yeah, of course. People always cringe when I say middle school and then they cringe a little harder when I say math, but it's always been my passion. What's kind of crazy is, so when I was in seventh grade, I had a math teacher who was miserable and was very open about how she hated the curriculum and was about to retire and didn't care, those kinds of things. I learned at that point that that age was the time when we decide if we love it or hate it with when it comes to math, right? So I found myself kind of going to that path of where I wasn't liking something that I used to be super passionate about, and I got D's in that class for the first time ever. I was an A student and it was kind of crazy to see my grades dropping. I realized that there was a lot that had to do with the way that the teacher felt about the curriculum that really impacted how I felt about it.

So right then, whereas a lot of people probably would have been like, you know what, math isn't for me, I was like, oh, I'm going to become a middle school math teacher, and I'm going to do this better and make sure that students love math. So at 11, 12 years old, I became super committed to what turned out to be my life's passion.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I love that. That's amazing. So that was an example, obviously, a [inaudible 00:03:18] example, really.

Jess Boyce: Right. Exactly, and I just use it to fuel me, and I will tell my students that all the time. I told them about her and I was like, look, "I promise you," I would promise them in the beginning of the year, "I'm going to make you love math." It was always really cool at the end when they would be like, "Oh my gosh, you totally did make me love math." That is what it's all about, you know?

Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. Well, you do such wonderful work at Flipgrid and your mission is empowering student voices, much like it is at WeVideo. We definitely want to empower all the students to use their voice to make an impact. I'm curious about how this unfolded into the math classroom, because in many math classrooms, it's very algorithmic focused, it's very procedural, it's very linear, and as we know in education, that math really makes more sense when it's meaningful and students can talk about it. So I'd love to hear about how you were able to incorporate a lot of student voice into the math classroom.

Jess Boyce: Totally. I was super fortunate to be able to be using Flipgrid in my classroom. Someone at the district level had come to me and was like, "Hey, I found this new tool." And I was known in the district for being the person who wanted to try new things. So at that time, I was already doing flexible seating and things were all over the place. I was doing personalized learning and organized chaos, if you will. So he was like, "I know you're going to want to try this app."

So I said okay, and I took it and ran with it, and I absolutely fell in love with the ways that it was allowing my students to articulate their thinking. We always talk about having that authentic voice, and like you said, math can be so linear and it's just right or wrong. We don't care why or anything like that. This really opened up an opportunity for me to hear my students' specific thinking of how they got to where they got to.

There's so much research and we know that everyone thinks differently and processes things differently, but so many times in the math classroom, it's show me your work and you must follow exactly steps one through seven in order to get your answer. Well, if I got the same answer, but I only did three steps and it was totally different, that should be okay. I always liken it to, if I say to you, "Hey, will you meet me in Chicago?", I'm not going to ask you specifically to take one route only. As long as you get there at the time that I asked you to get there, that's what matters, right?

And so being able to hear my students thinking through and saying, "Here's where my light bulb moments are," "Here's what's going on," was so impactful for me. I felt like it really opened my eyes to a lot that was going on with the students. I'm a big proponent of Jo Boaler and the way that she talks about mathematical mindsets, and that if you're assigning homework, for instance, it needs to be something that's specifically super meaningful. So my only homework assignment I ever gave them was a weekly reflection, and I actually took questions specifically from her book, that it was just like, what did you learn this week, and what did you have questions on? How can I help you, kind of thing. So just having them talk through things like that really was reinforcing those concepts that were being taught, but then they were also finding this safe space where they can say, "I'm actually really not sure what's going on with dividing fractions." Then I was able to pull them out and sit and talk with them and explain it further, whether that be back in the classroom or just via the feedback on Flipgrid. I would send them back a video and specifically talk through those steps.

I'm sorry. I'm super long-winded of [inaudible 00:07:09] but it's obviously something I'm passionate-

Nathan Lang-Raad: This is perfect. I love it.

Jess Boyce: I had a student who had autism, and I just always love to tell this story because he really struggled with articulating his thinking when it came to talking to me or talking to his peers. But he would get into... I had a Flipgrid booth. I hung a shower curtain in my classroom and they would go back there to record because it felt safe, and he would go in there and he would record these beautiful things. It was so articulate, and he would respond to his peers and have these gorgeous conversations that he wasn't able to have in the classroom because he wasn't thinking, "Am I making eye contact? Am I being weird? Am I doing the right thing?"

And so taking all of those outside factors away allowed him to have these incredible conversations. And that was... I feel like everyone who's passionate about using Flipgrid has one specific moment where they were like, oh my gosh, this tool is incredible. That was my moment for that. Yeah, and so when it came time for me to... I had fallen in love with teaching teachers and presenting at conferences, and I felt like I needed to help more students by helping more teachers and leave the classroom, it was a no-brainer. There was only one place that I wanted to work because I knew the direct impacts that it had had on my students, and I wanted to be able to share that with people.

Nathan Lang-Raad: It's such a beautiful story. It's a wonderful example of how student voice transforms a student's learning experience and really the classroom culture as a whole. I wonder what would you say to maybe a teacher that, say, middle school math teacher, and they are considering incorporating more student conversations in the classroom, but there is a fear that the more kind of collaboration and more conversations that are had, the less will be about the actual math content, and the rigor of the math content may not translate. What would you say to a teacher who might be hesitant to embracing this very student-to-student conversational discourse approach?

Jess Boyce: Yeah. That's a very real fear. Specifically, I mean, we all are bogged down by standards, but I feel like sometimes that's super heavy in the math class that it's like, look, you have two days to teach this and then you must move on whether they get it or not. I won't get into all of that because I get super worked up talking about the math education system. We call it, you know, it's a mile wide and inch deep.

But I think that there's something really beautiful about having those conversations and putting that worry in the back of your mind, which I know as teachers is really hard to do, because our evaluations are tied to this and blah, blah, blah. But I found when I decided I didn't care about that, that everything else followed. When I was like, I'm going to focus on the relationships that I'm building with my students, the classroom culture, that they feel safe, bottom line, not safe when it comes to math, safe, period, everything else fell into line because when they feel safe with you, they feel safe to make a mistake. They don't mind their peers knowing that they're not perfect. They can ask those questions and it transforms into deeper learning.

So when I stopped caring about the pacing guide, they did better. It was this super... You could totally just see it happening as it laid out that it was like, okay, teachers want to have control and we're holding onto this thing because everything's riding on it. But what happens when we relinquish that control? The students surprise us every time. I laugh because [inaudible 00:11:12] rogue a lot of times and was like, you know what? Forget it. I am throwing the pacing guide away. I'm going to do my own thing and see what happens. Then the year that I did that the most was the year that I won teacher of the year for our county.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, congratulations.

Jess Boyce: And I was like, oh, okay. Maybe that's okay. So I think just kind of giving up some of that fear is really important.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. That is so powerful and so much courage to be able to take that risk. I think about... I'm reading Adam Grant's Think Again book right now. It's really fascinating, and there's a phrase in there that goes something around, when people are under acute stress, they default to their best well-learned training. I think for teachers, our kind of best well-learned training or our response is kind of how we were taught to be very monolithic, very uni-directional instruction. I'm the teacher. I'm the expert. I'm going to show you how to do something, and I'm going to impart my knowledge, and you have to do it. It was a very gradual release model, kind of the, I do, we do, you do.

I think obviously we have to look at that model and then think about, is that going to get our students to where they need to be today, where they are being critical thinkers and problem solvers, they're able to communicate, how they are able to do something? And you saw that early on, and you made the choice of, okay, yes, I am the teacher in the room, but I'm going to serve more as a facilitator and activator of change and learning than an imparter of knowledge.

Jess Boyce: Yep, exactly. I challenged myself my last year in the classroom to never do a lecture for the entire year, to never stand up in front of my class and teach that way. It was beautiful, and I think about even as adults, if I'm looking... if I need to, whatever, change the oil in my car, I'm not going to just watch one YouTube video and be like, okay, got it. I saw them do it. I can do it. Right? I have to actually try and take the steps and pause it and go again and all these things, and I think that it's the same thing. If you're just a talking head giving information, it's not necessarily going to stick.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's a great example, and I think you've just brought in the real-world connections as well, with authentic and real-world projects. I think that's so what we have to do as teachers, is being able to intrinsically motivate students to see why they need to use math. It's not, like you said, with the curriculum and the scope and sequence where we're just going through the standards. There's a problem here. There's a challenge you've got to solve. We need our math skills to be able to solve this challenge.

Jess Boyce: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I love it.

Nathan Lang-Raad: So you're at Flipgrid now and living your best life and you're doing so many wonderful things. Are there any projects you're working on that you can talk about right now, or is there something that you're just really on fire for right now?

Jess Boyce: There's not a lot I can talk about, but I will say know that Flipgrid Live is coming up, as it does every year, and it's going to be bigger and better than ever, so stay tuned for that because there's some crazy exciting things happening. But really my biggest passion with Flipgrid, so I run all of our programs, so like our ambassador program, and it's really cool to see the parallels that it has when I think about myself as an educator. Because as I mentioned before, all I cared about was building relationships with my students. I was like, nothing else matters. I just want to build that culture. I think that that really translates to our ambassador community as well, because it's down to loving each other and building community. So I'm so fortunate that that's what my job is. When people are like, no, no, but what is your actual job? What do you do? And I'm like, oh, I love teachers. [inaudible 00:15:34] That's what it is. So I'm just super passionate about that and getting to grow that community, because we're all better together, right?

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Well, that passion definitely translates through the screen right now, and I know through the ear [inaudible 00:15:52] listeners right now and through the content that you post. You really are doing such amazing work and inspiring so many teachers and students, so thank you for all the amazing work that you do.

Jess Boyce: Thank you. It is my honor, honestly.

Nathan Lang-Raad: All right, well, yay, and ours too, to be the benefit of it. Well, are you ready for the lightning round?

Jess Boyce: Yes, sir. I'm nervous, but I'm ready.

Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. Oh, no, you got this. I can't wait. This week's a lot of fun. Okay, so first question. If you were on a desert island, which three books would you have with you and why?

Jess Boyce: Okay, so this one, I seriously am agonizing over, and I kind of want to cheat and allow my Kindle to be considered my book that I bring, because then I have access to hundreds.

Nathan Lang-Raad: [inaudible 00:16:51].

Jess Boyce: I seriously don't know.

Nathan Lang-Raad: What would be your most three recent Kindle... If I opened your Kindle right now and there would be the three books that you're reading, what would those three books be?

Jess Boyce: Okay, so pretty recent, I just finished a book called Good Girl, Bad Girl. So I really love psychological thrillers, so I'm constantly reading one of those. I'm reading the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson because I'm really trying to do a lot of work as it pertains to anti-racism and just educating myself. And then what... Oh, and I also just finished So You Want To Talk About Race.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Such an important conversation in our country.

Jess Boyce: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yes, and I'm also reading Caste right now too, so after we need to have a little book study.

Jess Boyce: Yeah, please.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, it's eye opening. It's phenomenal.

Jess Boyce: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay. Excellent.

Jess Boyce: It's so good.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, it really is. All right, next question. How do you recharge?

Jess Boyce: Okay, so, well, as ties into the last question, I love reading. I am constantly doing that, and it is my number one way to just kind of... I start and end my day with that. But after two years of having it in my Amazon cart, I finally purchased a hammock. So it is in my backyard and every night after dinner, I go and I sit out while the sun sets and just read and hang out and it is the best thing.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, that sounds so wonderful. Hopefully you have some bugs... because you're in South Carolina, so you have some bug spray with you too.

Jess Boyce: It's been okay so far, so we'll see. Since I just got here, I'm not sure what summer's going to be like yet.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, that's wonderful. Okay, next question. What is the biggest challenge in education?

Jess Boyce: Okay, so I touched on this a little bit already, but I really struggle with the teaching-to-the-test mentality and how so much of who we are as educators, who we are as schools in general, who we are as a country, and everything comes down to how you perform on these tests that I don't think have any validity, but that is a whole 'nother podcast for another day. But I really, really struggle with the let's-just-teach-to-the-test mentality.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, that's huge. Okay, what subject did you love in school?

Jess Boyce: Okay, so I know you're going to expect me to say math, but my absolute favorite subject was woodshop. I think that it's because it...

Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh my goodness.

Jess Boyce: So it combines... I really, really love the mathematical thinking, but I also really love art and being creative, and a lot of times those things don't intersect. I think that that's where that was, and even still, I love to build furniture and stuff like that. I'm always the one putting together things whenever we get them. Yeah, it was my absolute favorite class.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay, so now this question is not in here, but now I have to ask a follow-up because you just opened Pandora's box. What was your favorite thing that you made in woodshop, And do you still have any of the things that you made in woodshop?

Jess Boyce: I don't, which is so lame. I only took it for a short amount of time and I wish that I would've had the opportunity to take it all through high school, but we didn't have that. I made this clock that, it was just really cool looking, but I gave it to my grandpa, and whether or not he kept it, I'm not sure.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Of course he did.

Jess Boyce: But I [inaudible 00:20:50] I've been meaning to bring it back. [inaudible 00:20:50] doing things in my garage.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's impressive. I could probably take a square of wood and maybe put a nail in it and I'm good, so you inspire me.

Jess Boyce: Oh, thank you.

Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. Who was your favorite teacher and why?

Jess Boyce: Okay, so my absolute favorite teacher was my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Rzeczkowski, which I still can spell, R-Z-E-C-Z-K-O-W-S-K-I, because that was our homework on the first day of fourth grade and I never forgot how to spell his name. But he was my absolute favorite because it was, I think, the first time that I ran into a teacher who challenged me. He was known as one of the mean teachers, so people didn't like having him, but I loved him because he was challenging and he was pushing us because he believed in us and wanted us to learn and grow and stretch ourselves. I think that that was the first little piece of my love for learning and my love for always striving to do better. Something that's really, really cool is when I graduated college, I went back to my hometown and was substitute teaching. So I got this beautiful moment where I sat in the teacher's lounge and told him that he's the reason that I was a teacher, and it was so cool, such a special thing to get to do. Yeah.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, that's so [inaudible 00:22:11].

Jess Boyce: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: That is amazing. What a gift.

Jess Boyce: Yeah. I mean, I got to sub for his class too, which was so fun because it was in the same room, and so I got to tell the students, "I used to sit in this room," you know? So yeah, he's a super, super special guy.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's amazing. All right. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Jess Boyce: For the most part, a teacher, always. We do have a funny moment when I was young, young, young, like four. So my mom, when we would drive... My dad lived in New Jersey and we lived in Pittsburgh, so we would take those long drives back and forth, and so she would interview us with a tape recorder to pass the time. So there is this tape of her asking me what I wanted to do, and my dream as a very young one was to be a crossing guard, because I wanted to wear an orange vest. That was my big thing, and she was like, "I can buy you an orange vest if that's what you want." But that was my early dream, but then soon thereafter it was teaching for sure.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I feel like you could have used the opportunity when you're teaching to also double as a crossing guard to get your orange vest, get the stop sign. I feel like that could happen for you.

Jess Boyce: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan Lang-Raad: I love that. That's amazing. Okay, next question. Who had the biggest impact on who you have become?

Jess Boyce: Hands down, my grandpa, my mom's dad. He was the kindest person I've ever met, just always with a smile on his face, and just really, he loved all people for who they were and really taught me that, again, who you know... I've talked about this, right? Relationships first. But he really taught me that just loving people was the only thing that mattered. He was a super hard worker, and I watched that, just kind of silently observing, and it really shaped a lot of who I am as a person.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. What's the most positive change you've noticed in education?

Jess Boyce: So the shift in technology has been super fun for me to see. Even when I started teaching in 2008, that wasn't a thing, right? It just wasn't. So I started using technology probably, I don't even know, six, seven, eight years ago or so, and I was like, wait a second. This is a total game changer for my classroom. It just really opened up a lot of doors. I think that it's a super fun trajectory that we're on, and I'm just excited to see how classrooms change over the years.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Agreed. What's the worst advice you've ever received?

Jess Boyce: Okay. When I was in my junior year of college, I had a professor pull me aside and tell me that I needed to change my major because she was like, "You would be a terrible teacher." So I don't know why, still to this day, but that was her advice to me, that, change your major. I was like, no, mm-mm (negative), I'm not going to do that, and I'm really glad that I didn't listen to that advice.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, same. Oh my goodness, that's quite crazy. All right. All right, well, what's the best advice you've received then?

Jess Boyce: Just that it is okay to say no. I think that as a woman and as a teacher, we constantly are trying to please everybody and do everything all the time, and that really infiltrates into every aspect of your life, and then it's easy to become really bogged down and exhausted. So it's something that I'm constantly practicing, but just being able to value my own time and say no to things for the sake of me being a better me.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. That's great advice. Thanks for sharing that advice with all of us too.

Jess Boyce: Of course.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, you did amazing. That was it. That was the lightning round. That was fascinating.

Jess Boyce: Thank you. Thank you.

Nathan Lang-Raad: But no, thank you, Jess.

Jess Boyce: It's been good to think about things you don't necessarily think about.

Nathan Lang-Raad: You're welcome. Yes. Well, Jess, thank you so much for being on a podcast. It has been so wonderful just to learn from you, just to get to experience your positive energy. Very thankful to have you on the podcast.

Jess Boyce: Yes, of course. Thank you so, so much.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I went to invite you to our second annual WeVideo Creator Community Summit, July 20th to the 22nd. We will have educators from around the globe presenting on topics like personalized learning, social-emotional learning, and blended learning. The summit is free of charge and you'll receive a PD certificate for attending. For more information, visit www.wevideo.com/wccs21. I hope see you there.