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Sunday / September 24

Solve Problems of Practice Through the Gripe Jam

What is something teachers around the globe have in common? A list of problems wider and deeper than the ocean itself. We share them over our coffees while supervising morning entry, dismissal and in the rare occasions we have time to each lunch together. We lament to our partners and families about “if only.” So what if you had a magic wand and could somehow finally address one of these nagging problems? Would that make your educational life different – and better?

To start on the road to solving your problems, you first have to identify what they are. One way I like to do this is through an activity I call the “Gripe Jam.”

I have teachers sit at large tables, or individual desks with plenty of room to spread out. After giving everyone a stack of sticky notes, I let the teachers know that we’re about to engage in a Gripe Jam. (Note: while I did this whole group during a meeting, you can certainly try it yourself with a stack of sticky notes at your desk or kitchen table.)

I then ask the teachers think about all of the challenges they face throughout their educational lives. As they do, they should write each problem on a sticky note. They are two follow two guidelines while doing so:

  • One problem per sticky note
  • No problem is too big or small (don’t curate your problems yet, just get them all down on paper)

To help the teachers bring to mind problems they may face, I give them situations to imagine, one at a time:

  • You just arrived at school.
  • Your students are entering the classroom.
  • You’re teaching a whole group lesson.
  • You’re teaching a small group lesson.
  • Your students are participating in group work.
  • It’s your planning period.
  • It’s lunch time.
  • Your students just left for the day.
  • You’re sitting in professional development.
  • It’s Sunday night.
  • You’re grading work.
  • You’re in a staff meeting.
  • It’s the middle of the night and you can’t sleep because…

Then I play the rock anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” let them know that they have until the end of the song to write down any and all challenges they face in their classrooms and let them go at it.

Once the song is over, they spread their notes out on their desk. This is a pretty simple idea: allowing yourself to gripe about problems. This happens unofficially every day in teachers’ lounges, after school and over dinner tables. However, the next part of the process is the important differentiator between staff room griping and a productive Gripe Jam.

After teachers finish their cathartic unloading of obstacles, they shake out the pile and try and categorize the complaints. They ask themselves a series of questions to analyze and sort the problems as follows (see figures 1.2-1.6 for graphic examples)

  • How frustrating do you find these problems?

(sort in a straight line from most to least frustrating, left to right)

  • How many people does this problem affect?

(move them up or down based on approximate number of people affected, keeping them in their horizontal order)

  • Which of these problems are you most passionate in solving?

(draw a circle around these notes)

You can go through this Gripe Jam as a collaborative group, or an individual. If you decide to engage in this process as a group, an optional added activity is a gallery walk. Once the problems have been sorted and circled, everyone gets up and silently examines each other’s Gripes. As participants circulate and review their colleagues’ problems they can leave notes regarding:

  • Ideas to address a challenge
  • Contact information to collaborate on a challenge
  • Encouraging notes, or a star to give a “yeah me too” nod of agreement about a challenge

Upon returning to original workspaces, participants review notes left to them and update their sort based on what they saw on other tables and/or feedback given. I love to see the collective sigh that arises when colleagues see that they aren’t alone in their struggles… and sometimes the gift of a collaborator who has volunteered to team up and attack that struggle together.

After teachers complete their sort (and the optional gallery walk), it’s time to select a problem of practice. I ask them to begin by looking at the top left quadrant. These will be the problems that affect the most people and cause them the most frustration. Still, if they see a circled problem that they’re passionate about solving, but are located in another quadrant, they can certainly decide to start there. The most important thing is that you are excited and motivated by the challenge.

However you engage in the Gripe Jam, this process will help you identify a problem to solve.

The next step, of course, would be to start solving problems! In Courageous Edventures, I’ve provided a tool called the Teacher Innovation Exploration Plan (T-IEP) to help you do so, which you can find on the book’s companion website.

Bon voyage!


This blog post is an adapted excerpt from Courageous Edventures.

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Written by

Jennie Magiera always knew she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. Throughout all of her roles starting as a Chicago Public Schools teacher to currently serving as the Chief Technology Officer for Des Plaines School District 62, she always made teaching and supporting students her priority. A White House Champion for Change, Apple Distinguished Educator, Google for Education Certified Innovator and TEDx Speaker, Jennie works to redefine teaching and learning through innovative new practices. She is also passionate about transforming professional learning, which she’s personally championed through her work on the Technical Working Group for the US Department of Education’s 2016 National Educational Technology Plan and co-founding PLAYDATE and other new conference concepts. Jennie has earned degrees from Phillips Exeter Academy, Columbia University and University of Illinois-Chicago. Aside from her students, Jennie’s great loves in life are sci-fi, mashed potatoes, Tabasco sauce, her dog and her husband. You can find Jennie on Twitter at @MsMagiera or through her blog Teaching Like It’s 2999. Jennie is the author of Courageous Edventures: Navigating Obstacles to Discover Classroom Innovation.

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