Episode 13: Discovery Education with Matthew Woods, DEN Star
Matthew Woods is a K- 12 educator in Virginia. His professional experience includes being a high school history teacher, building and central office administrator, adjunct professor, and field instructor at the collegiate level for student teachers. Additionally, Matthew is the author of the children’s book series I Wanna Be, host of the K-12 podcast, Leading Out The Woods, and recently released an online professional development course called Leading Out The Woods: Building Relationships in collaboration with School Rubric.
You can connect with Matthew on Twitter @woodfromawoods or visit his website www.leadingoutthewoods.com. Also, Matthew Woods was introduced to us through Annenberg Learner partner, Discovery Education. Matthew is a DEN Star educator, which means he was selected and is recognized by Discovery Education for his deep knowledge of the platform and Discovery Education digital offerings.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nati Rodriguez [01:43]
Can you share with us what being a DEN Star is like for you and what it is exactly?
Matthew Woods [01:50]
Being a DEN Star with Discovery [Education] has been a great experience. You always hear the term time flies when you’re having fun. I believe it’s been about two and a half years now that I’ve been DEN Star. It’s just been great because one, it provides an opportunity to connect with other amazing educators across the country and a lot of them who are using Discovery Ed products and using in that format, but also, just collaboration, right and being able to have thought partners out there to think about different strategies, to talk about different topics, and just know that you’re not alone, right. A lot of times we can all get stuck in our own silos. It’s good to have that type of support. Also, additionally, it’s a great opportunity because I love how Discovery Education, you talk about, for example, or you hear companies or products say, “Hey, we’re making this for education, for students, we’re making this for this.” They actually take the opportunity to provide spaces where not only we can collaborate, but we can give them constructive criticism and honest feedback. We’ll get exposed to different things that they’re getting ready to come out with and they’ll say:
“Hey, from your perspective, how does this look?”
“Does this make sense?”
“How would you adapt it to your day-to-day roles and positions?”
“What are the things that don’t work about it?”
“What are the things you don’t like about it?”
“Please be transparent with us.”
I love that honesty and that openness to get that kind of feedback. Those are the two biggies that really come to mind. It’s helped me because it makes me think about when we have different initiatives going on or we’re doing different things, how are we structuring it in a way to get feedback and get that constructive criticism and then use it in a way to grow, develop and build.
Nati Rodriguez [03:48]
Great. Thank you. I recently read something about how ed tech companies, often at the foundation, aren’t using research-based practices, or sometimes even involving teachers in reviewing product before it gets released. It’s great to hear that Discovery Education does that and that you’ve been involved in this process. You mentioned they create spaces for collaboration and feedback. What does that look like? Is that happening virtually or in person? Did that change in the last 2-3 years because of the pandemic?
Matthew Woods [04:18]
A lot of it has been virtually, and when I became a DEN Star it was right here in the middle of COVID. A lot of it just started off the get-go being virtual. Now as different provisions and different safety measures are being put in place all across the country, opportunities are starting to open up for folks to connect to different conferences and so forth. Even just the way they structure it virtually. I think a lot of times folks automatically have the stigma, “We’re hoping on the Zoom call. We’re hopping on Google Meet, right?”
You can do it in a fashion that is very engaging, and I have to tip my hat to [Discovery Ed] because they are masterminds. They do it in such a way, it’s extremely valuable. The flexibility doing it that way allows to have all the different educators, like I said, across the country who are in different time zones, who are in different places and spaces in their lives.
Nati Rodriguez [05:21]
Another thing that you pointed out was the ability to collaborate and meet people across the country. When I think of teaching, that’s not what comes to mind, right? I think of a person in a classroom that doesn’t really interact too much, maybe with their department or grade level teams. How valuable is that for you in your roles, either at the school level or in the other work that you do?
Matthew Woods [05:42]
It’s extremely valuable because it’s hard when you tell people to think outside the box, but they’re trapped in the box. It’s hard to tell somebody, “Hey, you could do this differently?” If you have no frame of reference. It becomes easier when you can say, “Hey, we might not do it this way, or it might take some work to get it this way.”
“Look, you can’t tell me it’s not possible because I’ve seen it and I’m talking to someone who’s doing it right here.” Or we can use it to measure how far we’ve come on something compared to someone who’s starting on it. It gives you a good starting, middle, and end point, per se. It’s interesting a lot of times when we all in education have some of the same issues that we’re going through, which is hearing the different perspective, but then get dig into the root cause. So why is that perspective different for that person? It’s because they’re at this place. It’s because maybe they’re in a rural, not an urban area. It’s because maybe they have these additional resources that we don’t have or vice versa. You can start to really unpack, how can we all make that positive growth and that change to accomplish whatever the goal or the objective is that we’re trying to do.
Nati Rodriguez [07:15]
Yes. Thank you. Context! I think you get a sense of what their context is. That takes me to my next question, how have you seen Discovery Education used in the classroom and school buildings, either at your sites or across the country?
Matthew Woods [07:29]
I got a good in-depth view of it, per se, when I was principal. Our school at the time was working with Discovery Ed and when I say see it firsthand because I was interacting with it, my staff was interacting with it, and my students were interacting with it. One of the things that I tell folks this story all the time that really stuck out to me was when they did their initial pitch. They show up, got the really nice slides, they give you the cool pins, all the freebies, right? I’m sitting there, and I’m just reading the body language of my staff, and I could tell, “Hey, this isn’t clicking,” because, in the back of our minds, we were focused on literacy. We needed to improve literacy. I was like, “Hey, this is great, but I don’t see the connection, and I can tell my staff don’t see the connection.”
I remember being very transparent, and they were very transparent, that’s what was beautiful. “Hey, I don’t think this was connecting with folks.”
I said, “Well, now that you say that, let’s open the floodgates.” We had an amazing conversation where it was extremely authentic.
I said, “Hey listen, I love what you’re doing. I’m a firm believer in organized chaos. I’m a firm believer in seeing students move around and modeling and being active and hands-on. Everything you’re saying, I’m right there with you. The problem is, everybody knows that literacy is at the forefront right now.”
I said, “The fact that people don’t see that alignment is where you’re going to get heartburn and where it’s going to be a struggle.” I remember they were like, “Well, Mr. Woods, this does align with literacy. Believe it or not, here are the things and how its cross curricular activities and so forth.”
We came back to the table, and they spoke to the staff, and then it was like a light bulb went off.
You would see what they were doing in their class and how they were modeling things. It was great seeing, not only just how their resources were helping to improve instruction, but most importantly, how it improved engagement and collaboration. I thought that it was just powerful, just seeing it firsthand how these resources have really helped prove and elevate instruction.
Nati Rodriguez [10:54]
A couple of questions. What grade level school site were you the principal at, and which subjects in Discovery Education is used at your site?
Matthew Woods [11:02]
Yeah, it was middle school, so grade 6-8 and I was seeing it everywhere. We all know kids, some kids are at different levels and how they want to do something, same thing with teachers, right. Some teachers had a natural affinity for it and they started like, “Oh, I can embed this here, or I can do this.” Others were apprehensive about it. The apprehension that I started realizing was just how to properly make it accessible. I need to feel comfortable with it before I start modeling it, right.
In turn, there became a lot of investment in that professional development. I like to use the term – I’m going to understand it like I know the back of my hand, making sure that it becomes so automatic to me that when I’m talking to somebody, or in this case, I’m teaching students right and modeling it, I’m not reading a script. I don’t need to say, okay, where do I go on the website to do that? What resources do I need to pull? I already have it rocking and rolling, and it just becomes just another tool in my toolbox.
Nati Rodriguez [12:10]
I love that we’re talking about this – professional development – because I think you recently released a course on it. Can you share about that and your viewpoint on how to best train folks in the field?
Matthew Woods [12:23]
The course is in collaboration with School Rubric. We called it Leading Off The Woods based on a lot of the work that I do. Its emphasis is on building relationships and building relationships in a way that is not tangible. When you say building relationships, are you including everybody? It’s easy for me to build relationships with people I have a natural affinity to. So, it’s easy for me to say, I play basketball, so I walk into a room, “Okay, you play basketball?” Okay right there, we strike up a conversation. It’s different if you come into the room and say, “No, I don’t play basketball, Mr. Woods. I play hockey.” Okay.
I don’t really know much about hockey. Right there, what is happening where we’re not building up those silos, right?
If we’re all being transparent, we see that in education all the time. You see students have a natural affinity for teachers that they feel some type of connection to. You see teachers and educators develop relationships really easy with kids they have a natural affinity for. So, what about the ones where the barriers are there? What about the ones where the relationships are sour? What about the ones where data, historical data shows us we do not do a good job of building those relationships. We have data that supports these groups of students historically, through our schools anywhere, usually feel more marginalized, usually feel like they don’t have a connection. And what do we know, without that foundation of a relationship, the chances of them being successful in schools start to dip. Okay, so what happens when that starts to dip? Then their achievement score starts to dip. Their level of engagement starts to dip. Their behaviors start to increase because they don’t want to be there with us. The likelihood of or the increase of them dropping out of school starts to increase. The data is always there supporting that. At the end of the day, it all comes back to relationships, right?
Even though this isn’t the actual module, I’ll tell you just a small clip for all the listeners out there, I want you to think about who your favorite educator was that you had, either elementary, middle, high school, some folks, college, whatever it is, your favorite educator, whomever you came in contact with. Just think about that for a second, have that image pop into your mind. Once you have that person, then think about what made that person or those folks, the ones that stood out to you. What made that one or two people stick out? I say to folks, okay, so tell me, and folks will start sharing. I tell people all the time it always starts with relationships. Usually, it starts with something that had nothing to do with the class. It was like, “Hey, the way this person greeted me, no teacher had ever greeted me like that.”
Like I said, that’s in a nutshell, what the module talks about. It’s about how we build those relationships, but doing it in a very logical and operational way. We have built-in resources where we have you look at your data, but we have you examine your data from a relationship lens. For these kids who you’re like, these are behavior issues, who has relationships with them? So, nobody has a relationship with them. Maybe this is something we should reflect on and kickstart.
Nati Rodriguez [16:21]
Yeah, I mean, that’s the kind of foundation that would support whenever we encounter things like a pandemic and students feel connected to an adult. The strength of that relationship, I think, could probably be mapped to, and how they feel and how they feel about belonging. They say that one of the number one thing for kids to feel connected and to learn is to feel like they belong.
Matthew Woods [16:41]
Yeah. I think we all see the news and everything going on in the world. For a lot of folks who aren’t traditional educators, that’s hard to understand. No, kids just need to learn about English and Math and History and Science. When you even ask those folks, “Okay, tell me about the teachers who are so impactful to you? What made you care?”
Now, some folks will say, “Oh, my parents, they made sure I had that foundation. I couldn’t get in trouble at school.” True, okay not going to argue that a solid foundation at home does help. I think any educator will admit to that, but when I say what made those educators stand out, even the folks who harp on that, they’ll start talking about relationships. I think everybody gets it, per se, but I think sometimes with all the demands and everything that’s going on, it gets lost in the background. That’s why I’m excited about the module, and I’m excited about that professional development because folks are really connecting with it and vibing. It gives you resources, you get that professional development, you get a certificate at the end of it that you can turn in for in-service credit to your principal, or your district. So, it’s just been a great experience.
Nati Rodriguez [18:02]
Thank you for sharing it. It sounds like something we definitely need now more than ever. It’s a good point that you raised that we naturally are going to connect to some people. But for everything else, having something to fall back on to figure out how to do that is helpful. I mean, I’m a student at heart, and that would help me. Did you implement some of these strategies with your site when you were a principal?
Matthew Woods [18:29]
A lot of it just has come through the course of my career, you know trial by fire, right. You do it on the fly, you don’t really think about it, and then I’m a firm believer I learn more from my mistakes. I’m very transparent about that. Thinking about what could I have done differently? How could I have made this connection or done this? One thing that we focus on the PD too when we talk about building relationships, if I care about you, I’m going to figure out the best way to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Telling somebody what they need to hear, sometimes that might be a difficult conversation because if I actually care about you, I’m not going to lie to you. Especially in education, sometimes we talk about relationships you hear people say it, “Well if you really cared about me, you would have been honest with me.”
Now, you don’t do it in a way to demean people, but you provide it in a space where push comes to shove, no one can say, “Hey, they had me walking out here looking foolish. No one addressed that with me.” I think that’s the key that we’ve all got to continue to strive for, but do it in a way where we’re always respectful with not only our colleagues but then also our students.
Nati Rodriguez [20:23]
So, shifting gears a little bit, you’re also an author. Can you talk about the I Wanna Be series and how that came about?
Matthew Woods [24:21]
The I Wanna Be series is actually based off of my son. My son is biracial, I’m black and my wife is white. I tell people all the time when you become a parent, things change. You start looking at things real differently. My son was born, and he just recently turned three, a little three-year-old. Obviously, I’m an educator, my wife is a social worker. Education and a strong foundation is very important to us. We want to read to Hilton and practice things at home with him to help give him that foundation. What I started noticing was, we would go out to stores to look for books. I could just feel myself getting so frustrated because I couldn’t find books that I felt identified with our family dynamic.
It brought me back to places and spaces that I was when I was a kid, questioning different things. I’m a huge comic book nerd, so I always question I’ve never seen any comic book characters that really look like me. I remember as a kid saying that. Another random fun fact for your listeners – I can remember as a kid if I found a Black action figure, I would buy it. So, like, John Stewart was Green Lantern, Black Panther, and this is before the movies.
Finding things like that, I just had a natural affinity for, right. All these things are going through my head and my wife bought me for Father’s Day a couple of years ago, bought me one of those books. I don’t know if you’ve seen it before. It’s supposed to be like you. You send in a picture, and it’s supposed to be you and your kids. I’m looking at the book, and the first thing I said was like, “That dude looks pretty good. He don’t look none thing like me. He ain’t got these wrinkles. He don’t look tired like me, got black eyes.”
I’m sitting here thinking like, “Well, baby, I appreciate the gesture, but I don’t feel a connection to this.”
She was like, “If you can do better, why don’t you go write your own book?”
I was like, “Sure, I’m going to go in the kitchen right now and write my own book.”
I tell folks that was honest to God, how it all started. I remember sitting down at the kitchen table and the ideas just started flooding. I want to be, what do I want to be, well, I might want to be a lawyer, I might want to be a CEO, I might want to be a veterinarian. I remember as the ideas started running through my head, the occupations come from the fact that you don’t see many people of color, specifically males in those roles. I often tell folks when they say, what made you write this book? Okay, without thinking hard, name five Black lawyers. If you don’t actually know their names, name five experiences where you’ve seen five Black male lawyers. Tell me five Black male vets. Tell me five Black CEOs. It’s funny when I do that to folks how their faces get red and it’s not a matter of trying to be confrontational. It’s getting them to kind of see things and I think sometimes we don’t look at different perspectives.
In the books, we are very intentional about the vocabulary that we use, making sure that people understand what an internship is. How many kids know what an internship is, let alone families? When you talk about becoming a lawyer, how many people know that, no it’s not just going to college, getting a Bachelor’s. No, it’s additional graduate school. Some of these occupations require licensure and getting different licenses to practice these fields or to do these things.
It sparks curiosity, which is a beautiful thing. And the other piece, when you see the books, you’ll see pictures of my son, so he’s the main character, so the books actually grow with him. When you see the first couple of books, it’s a picture of him when he was one, and then you notice that the artwork changes as he’s become two and three, and as long as the ideas keep flushing in there, the artwork will grow with him just to continue inspiring him. Hopefully when he gets older and he can reflect on it, it will always just keep encouraging him.
Nati Rodriguez [25:01]
What a gift that you’ve given him to track him with books and then share them with the world. I’m curious, you mentioned that the images change as he grows. Does the content change to follow children as they start to read or improve their own vocabulary? What is the age group targeted?
Matthew Woods [26:34]
The age group targeted is pretty much from a toddler all the way up through elementary level. The artwork is geared towards the younger levels, and it’s done because you know as an educator too, the earlier that I spark your curiosity and keep your curiosity, the more as you grow and develop, you’re naturally going to want to seek out answers. You’re naturally going to want to figure it out. As you could tell, as a former history teacher, I used to tell kids, “Hey, I don’t really get into politics.”
Listen, I just teach you the facts. I present it in a way where you come to understand, and I have enough faith that when you just understand the facts and you ask questions, you’re going to go exactly where you need to go. That’s how we structure the books. Like I said, it‘s been amazing to see people across the country reach out to me and connect about the books. There was a school in Chicago that had reached out to me, and I was like, “You’re reading these in Chicago?” Okay, cool because it takes me back to that feeling of being frustrated that night, I was sitting at home at the kitchen table, drafting it out until now, just seeing how I took a negative emotion and turned it into a positive, it’s just been amazing.
Nati Rodriguez [26:40]
I look forward to the day when we can find books like that easily. I look forward to hearing about the big news related to your books. Can you talk about your own educational journey? What was that like, your K-12 experience, and what motivated you to be a teacher?
Matthew Woods [26:56]
So, my K-12 journey is interesting. Growing up, I did not want to be an educator. I tell people I wanted to run for the hills. I say that because I have a lot of educators in my family. My mom was a biology teacher, a high school principal, and an administrator. Both my grandparents were teachers. I’ve got education just all around. I would tell people, not only do I know what it’s like to be an educator in front of people, I know what it’s like behind the scenes. I know what it’s like seeing someone stay up late grading. I just remember as a kid, like, “no, don’t want no parts of it.” I think I was maybe 16-17, I’m getting ready to graduate high school. We were at a store, my mom and I, and this lady walked up and did double take look at it, and she’s like, “Oh my God, it’s Ms. Woods.”
For you, to say to her, Ms. Woods, it’s like, “Oh, you’re taking it way back when she taught you, right?”
My mom had said, “Oh my God. It’s great seeing you, honey,” and that was code word for my mom forgot your name. She said, “Oh, my God, honey, it’s great seeing you.”
I think I’m standing behind her chuckling. I remember I want to say I’m reaching for some cereal or something while she’s talking to this lady. This lady just giving her all these compliments, “Oh, my God, you changed my life. You were the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
I remember leaning back to see this lady, because my mom was to my side, and the lady was looking in my direction, but at my mom. I tell people, the way she looked at my mom, I’ve never seen that before. She was looking at my mom, like my mom was a celebrity. This lady had this type of impact. I remember that image was just burnt in my head because you were in her biology class, but she was just so sweet and so complimentary of my mom.
In my head, I’m sitting here trying to fathom, and I remember that was the spark that really was like, maybe I’ll try this education thing out.
Nati Rodriguez [29:34]
Well, thank you. You sort of have answered this, but I’ll ask you anyway. What is your vision for public education?
Matthew Woods [29:41]
The vision is that everybody has at least one positive experience. I’m a firm believer life is not about everything being peaches and cream. Everything is not going to go your way. You will hit adversity, but every student, every person should be able to say, “Hey, there was that one person in school, for whatever reason, we click.” Even with all the other bad things, that at least kept me afloat to finish, that sparked me into the career I’m in, that helped me stop from making some of these other bad decisions. That to me is the vision that I have for public education, that everybody can at least at some point, say they had that connection somewhere, because that lays the foundation for so many other things.
Nati Rodriguez [30:41]
Thank you for sharing that. We’ve covered a lot of ground. You’re involved in a whole bunch of different things, including being a DEN Star, a writer, professional development, and the podcast. Can you talk a little bit about the podcast and then also just what’s next for you?
Matthew Woods [30:55]
Sure. The podcast is Leading Out The Woods. The podcast really started from, I guess those negative emotions before that I had going through grad school. For a lot of us who go to grad school, grad school is very traditional, a lot of writing, there’s a very straight structure that you follow. I remember having conversations with friends of mine saying, I feel like my voice is getting lost in the shuffle. I’m fitting into a box just to finish, just to get the degree to do it. What it turned into a couple of years later was me being approached by a couple of folks to write a blog about my experiences and different things. I was like, “I don’t really have time to do a blog, even though I feel like I got time to do everything else.” They were like, “Why don’t you do a podcast?”
So, I started the podcast. It really started just reflections that I had in my experiences. I had folks approach me and say, “Hey, would you think about having guest speakers?” Sure. Guest speakers can help me reflect on something I’m going through and reflect on a topic they have. Then came a really big deal. I say that with all humbleness because some of the folks that we’ve had on the podcast; Dr. Luvelle Brown, Dr. Michael Hynes, Dr. Todd Whitaker, Darrion Cockrell, who’s just Missouri Teacher of the Year, Anthony Swann, who was just Virginia Teacher of the Year.
It’s been amazing because we’ve made a space where anybody can just log on to the podcast and listen. It gives me goosebumps having been able to talk to them and fills my toolbox up with different strategies. The podcast has been great. I think it’s amazing to think it’s already been two years doing the podcast, 60 plus episodes already, and I think we’re booked for the next four or five months. Shout out to all the listeners who are now sharing the podcast, but most importantly saying, “Hey Matt, here’s somebody that would love to be on the podcast or we’ve made this connection for you.” You make my job so much easier. So, I love you all. Thank you so much.
Nati Rodriguez [33:12]
Thank you and where can people find the podcast? What’s the best way to subscribe?
Matthew Woods [33:16]
You can find it anywhere. We’re on Apple, iHeart Radio, Google, Spotify, Amazon – you just type in Leading Out The Woods or you go to my website, www.leadingouthewoods.com.
Nati Rodriguez [33:30]
Great. Thank you. What are you reading, watching or listening to that you’d like to share?
Matthew Woods [33:36]
What do I listen to and read right now? Oh, my goodness, I read so many different things. I love to go back and re-read some classics because I think with a fresh set of eyes and perspectives. I’m looking at again, Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. It’s interesting, his perspective on things. Every time I’ve read that book, I think it’s already been like 10 or 12 times, I always pick up something new and something to think about. That’s the one off the top of my head. As part of my role, I have to look at education law and policies a lot. I love that stuff, but I know for the average person they don’t think it’s that cool. So, I’m actually looking at Dr. Dayton’s Education Law book, reading through just making sure I’m staying up to date on the different laws and policies that continue to get revamped and looked at all across the country, so I can stay as sharp as possible. Those right now are the two biggies that are in front of me that I’ve been flipping through.
Nati Rodriguez [34:35]
Got it. Thank you. Is there anything else that you would like to share with the Learner audience today?
Matthew Woods [34:51]
No, I would just say thank you again for having me on here. It’s been a great experience. For all the educators listening out there as always, I don’t think you all hear it enough, but I definitely appreciate you. I see you. I just want to thank all the listeners on here. You’re doing amazing work, it’s much needed and we appreciate you.