Matt Miller is a teacher, blogger and presenter from West Central Indiana. He has infused technology and innovative teaching methods in his classes for more than 10 years. He is the author of the book Ditch That Textbook: Free Your Teaching and Revolutionize Your Classroom. In this episode, Matt shares his story about how he stopped letting the textbook guide his classroom and instead designed meaningful learning experiences. You can find Matt on Twitter @jmattmiller.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning With WeVideo Podcast. My name is Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad, and I am super stoked to have my friend Matt Miller on today. Matt is a teacher, blogger, and presenter from West Central Indiana. He has infused technology and innovative teaching methods in his classes for more than 10 years. He is the author of the very well-known book Ditch That Textbook: Free Your Teaching and Revolutionize Your Classroom. He also writes as the Ditch That Textbook blog, and uses technology and creativity in his teaching and presentation styles. He’s a Google certified innovator, Bammy! Top to Watch in 2016, and winner of the WTHITV Golden Apple Award. He’s also been named top 10 influencers in educational technology and e-learning worldwide. Matt, it’s so great to have you on the show today.
Matt Miller: Hey, thank you so much, Nathan. I’m pumped to be here.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. I know that whenever people talk about you and they hear Matt Miller, it automatically goes around the conversation of Ditch That Textbook. For our listeners who are not familiar with how this came about, can you talk a little bit about how you came to write Ditch That Textbook?
Matt Miller: Yes, absolutely. It very much came out of my own classroom. I was teaching high school Spanish, and I’d been sort of trained to teach in a very traditional way. I did all of the things that you would expect of the teacher. We had the textbooks. I had that one moment at the beginning of my teaching career that I think so many of us have had where they showed me to my room, they handed me the teacher’s editions and my keys, and it was like, “Okay. Now, get going. Go do your teacher thing.”
Matt Miller: And so I did. I went and did my teacher thing with the books, taught very traditionally, high school Spanish out of the textbook, practice questions at the end of the chapter, did a workbook page, and assigned a worksheet for homework. And I taught that way for a few years. I started to realize that I kind of developed this secret about my class. I like to joke that my principal didn’t know the secret. My fellow teachers didn’t know the secret. The parents didn’t know the secret. But all of my students knew this secret. And my secret was that the students in my high school Spanish classes couldn’t speak Spanish. It’s kind of a problem if you’re a Spanish teacher, right?
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Right.
Matt Miller: Yeah. Anyway, soon after that I started to realize there had to be a better way. I figured babies can learn how to acquire a new language. I mean, you can do it without verb conjugation drills and long vocabulary lists. I just started experimenting with different things. Go into conferences and hearing ideas, getting connected on Twitter, trying different things with technology, and just all of that stuff. And little, by little, by little, I started to realize that when I had better ideas like that, I needed my textbooks less, and less, and less.
Matt Miller: And the crazy thing was that my students’ fluency in Spanish continued to get better, and better, and better. I sort of slowly weaned myself off of my textbooks until there was one day … there was one day in particular. I’m standing at the podium going through some practice questions, and I look up at my students, and I see this just utter boredom. This was one of those days where I still was leaning on my textbooks. And in that moment I was like, “You know what? I don’t need these things. We’re just going to get rid of them.”
Matt Miller: In a single moment, I just stopped what I was doing right in the middle of it, knowing that it was ineffective. And I looked at the kids and I said, “Everybody grabbed your textbooks.” And we went, and we put them in a cabinet in the back of the room, and we locked them up, and we never got them back out. That was kind of like my Cortez scuttling the ships at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico so we wouldn’t go back type a moment. You know? And ever since then when I was in my own classroom, I was trying to come up with new ideas to do all of that. And now these days with Ditch That Textbook, my whole being is focused towards helping teachers to equip and inspire them to do similar things.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: That’s fantastic, man. It took a lot of courage and bravery for you to do that. Because I know that for many teachers, we don’t have a lot of resources … especially when it comes to curricular resources. And so many times, that text might be the only support and resource that we have. What were the next steps? I mean, you locked the textbooks up in the cabinet. How did you manage your time? How were you able to create … obviously creating learning experiences is what we’re all about, and that’s something that the teacher does and not a textbook. But how were you able to be able to plan? Especially around assessments and standards without using the textbook, and especially any teachers who are in systems where the textbook is definitely a prominent part of planning.
Matt Miller: Yeah. And that’s a great question. I wish that I could say that I had an airtight plan for exactly what I was going to do after I put those textbooks up. But the reality is that I didn’t. I was very much trying to figure it out as I went. I think that for those that want to take a similar route where … if the thing that is standing between your students and success is your textbooks like it was for me, then maybe you want to start to ditch that. If you’ve got something else that you want to ditch that is standing between you and your students, then I think there are some steps that you can take. And one of them is that you don’t have to have it all figured out, I don’t think, before you start taking those positive steps forward.
Matt Miller: For me, there was a lot of trial and error. Now, it wasn’t just blindly throwing caution to the wind. I was still planning what I thought was my best opportunity to teach my students. But instead of thinking: “What do we have next in the textbook, and what can I assign?” I went and focused more on my learning objectives, and I’m going, “What do I want my kids to learn or do?” And then once I figured that out, I was just simply trying to figure out: what can they do to better learn that? How can I guide them to better learn that? It sounds so simple. But I think whenever teaching is at the heart of that, and you’re willing to be creative and take some instructional risks on trying to answer that question together with your students, then I think you’re really on the right track.
Matt Miller: And the beauty of teaching that way is that when you teach that way and things go well, boom. You have a new activity, a new lesson, a new strategy that you can rely on in the future. But when it doesn’t go so well, the beauty of it is that we can learn from that too and improve on it. Then we know the next time we try something similar, we have the data from that first experiment, so to speak, and we can improve upon it. That’s kind of the formula that I used to try to figure a lot of those things out. Yeah. It definitely didn’t come out of having an airtight plan on what I was going to do.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I think it resonates with all of us, the simplicity you talk about. In education, sometimes we get caught up in data, and we get caught up in faculty meetings, and paperwork, and all the diagnostics, the benchmarks, and the assessments, and air quotes around covering standards. I really appreciate the focus on what is it that we need students to learn and be able to do. And that was the primary foundational concept. And then everything that you did revolved around that focus, which I think should be the focus for all of us. What would you say was one of your most favorite learning experiences that you helped create for students whenever you decided, “Okay, I’m not going to let a curriculum or a textbook guide the experiences of my classroom.” What, I guess, are some of your prouder kind of experiences that you designed for students?
Matt Miller: Yeah. I think there are probably two. One of them was when I abandoned focusing my teaching on grammar and vocabulary lists. You know, doing the traditional teacher thing, and I started teaching through storytelling and conversation. Which was a huge leap for me because I’d only … I went to a little bit of professional development on it, but I had to learn a lot of it on the fly and there was plenty of failure. There were lots of days where it just didn’t work. But in the end, that ended up being huge.
Matt Miller: But the other one, I’d say, was when I started getting my classes connected to other people around the world through video calls. Like through Skype, and Google Hangouts, and that kind of thing. Because I just heard online about teachers that were doing these mystery Skype games, or were having virtual guest speakers in their classes and everything. I started reaching out. I reached out to a teacher in Valencia, Spain, and asked her, “Hey, would you want to do some things together with our class?” And she said yes.
Matt Miller: What I loved about that was we did a little bit of whole group stuff through the video calls, but what we also did was we paired our students off. Two of my students would work together with two of her students. And every Monday for about two months, we would do video calls together, and we had some predetermined activities for them to do together so they could practice their language skills. But they also had some built in time to just talk, and just to learn about each other’s culture and each other as people.
Matt Miller: I thought that was so important because my students came from this very rural, not very culturally diverse place in the Midwest. Many of my kids rarely got out of the state, let alone the country. And this was really sort of a thing that helped open their worldview. And this was yet another one of those things where I had never tried it before, but I wanted to give it a shot. There was a lot that I learned from it. There were some mistakes along the way. But in the end, my students forgave me, her students forgave her, and we still came away with a really good activity. Those are probably two of the bigger risks that had the great rewards for me.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, and you hit it at the end. The students … even though that there were some challenges you had to work through and mishaps, it sounds like these students to only had fun and were intrinsically engaged. But the level of learning and thinking, I think, increased. I also agree that storytelling can be one of those learning experiences in the classroom that can really elicit a lot of complexity and thought. Again, elicit a lot of empathy and active listening.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Because whenever you’re telling a story, you’re thinking about your audience, which is one of the missions at WeVideo is we want every student to share their voice and we want them to do it creatively. I think every student … because they from different places and they had their own individual perspective has the opportunity to tell a story. Those experiences that you just shared, I think, give students that voice to be able to do that. Teachers now [inaudible 00:12:09] activity creators, they truly are experience creators and allows students to create meaningful experiences for themselves. And so learning becomes more self-directed as opposed to compliance from the teacher.
Matt Miller: Yes. No, I totally agree with that.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, Matt, this has been a wonderful experience just chatting with you and hearing a little bit about how you started this new trend in schools. And I know that all of our listeners will want to read more about how you did this. And how can our listeners get connected with you, and also find your Ditch That Textbook?
Matt Miller: Yeah. Well, probably the easiest way is just to go to ditchthattextbook.com. That’s my blog and website where we’re publishing multiple articles with practical ideas in them that you can find every week. And actually, I’ve got something free that I’d like to give to your listeners, because we have a couple of free eBooks available on the site. If you go to ditchthattextbook.com/101, you can get the two free eBooks. One of them is called 101 Practical Ways to Ditch That Textbook. Just has a ton of practical things you can plug into class tomorrow. And it’ll email those in eBooks directly into your inbox, but it’ll also subscribe you to my email newsletter where every week there are dozens of new ideas that you can try in your classroom. It can kind of become your pipeline for new ideas in class. They can get all of that at ditchthattextbook.com/101.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Fantastic. Well, I know all of the listeners will be really stoked about getting on that opportunity. And then what about Twitter? How can we find you on Twitter?
Matt Miller: Yeah. My Twitter handle is @jmattmiller. That’s the letter J, Matt with two T’s, Miller. And then we also do a lot of tweeting at the ditchbook hashtag.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Got it. Excellent. We’ll be looking for new followers and connections after this show, Matt. Thank you so much. It has been just a honor and pleasure to have you on, and I’m looking forward to staying connected with you, Matt.
Matt Miller: Yeah, me too. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it.