Climber asking for a helping hand

S2E8: Janet Lee – Part 1: Always ask for help

Janet Lee is an Instructional Designer specializing in practical professional development strategies and content development for professors wishing to transition meaning-full training from face-to-face to online learning. She has a varied background in international K-12/higher education including curriculum development publications, international speaking, media literacy, and micro-learning video production. Currently, she is a Learning Architect and inspirational speaker working on various projects in higher education. She likes being known for inspiring teams with a fun practical approach.

In This Episode


Welcome to Demystifying Instructional Design, a podcast where I interview various instructional designers to figure out what it is instructional designers do. I’m Rebecca Hogue, your podcast host. If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on Demystifying Instructional Design, please complete the be my guest form available on Demystifying Instructional Design dot com. I’m particularly looking for guests who do not work in higher education. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe or leave a comment in the show notes blog post and consider helping to support this podcast with a donation to my Patreon account. Welcome, Janet. To Demystifying Instructional Design to begin with, can you start telling us about yourself?

Thank you so much for having me. My name is Janet Lee and I live in Safety Harbor, Florida. That’s just a little town outside of Tampa Bay. And it’s taken many years for me to get to this place in my life and my career. But I can truly say I’ve created my own beautiful and creative life and work. I am a learning architect. I’m an adjunct instructor. I’m a published author and a speaker. I have an Airbnb and I’m a super host. Really proud of it. And I’m also they call me a ‘fun-cilitator’ And what that means is I do the art tour of Safety Harbor. I take people around on a journey showing them what art and community is available here in this super cool place. So as you can tell, I do a lot of things, but all of them have something to do with instructional design and education. So for someone looking at my life right now, it might seem really amazing and truthfully, it is amazing. I work hard at the things that make me happy. I’m constantly learning and stretching my mind, and I live in a community where I’m embraced. This is crazy. It’s amazing. I’m embraced for these arts and my special talents I bring, which I went through a lot of moments of sadness, some loss in my life, and times when I knew my life wasn’t what I was hoping it could be. So I made choices I would choose again. Through all these times, I learned to choose again in that choosing, along with elements of instructional design, has brought me to this place.

Now I have to ask you, because you brought it all up, what’s your origin story? How did you get

to where you are today? It’s a longer story, so I’ll try and slim it back. But there are so many roads that I take and I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so I am American. I was raised by adults who had very low literacy, and I learned at a very young age to help my family members. I would read them menus and I’d write out checks for people. I’d explain things that they didn’t understand in a way that would help them get to the goals that we had. I had a learning disability myself and that made school really difficult for me. It’s a perception disorder. I have called Irlen Syndrome. You ever heard of that?

No, I haven’t heard of that one.

Yeah. So Irlen Syndrome is where the fluorescent lights change the way text. So when I was reading text, it looked like the black type on the white background. The type was spinning and it looked like rivers were flowing down the pages. And when I was out and about, I had trouble taking a step on an escalator because of lighting. It’s a perception disorder. So I was always trying to compensate for my eyesight and for how I was seeing the world. And I can never talk to anybody about it because how do you explain how you see and how other people aren’t seeing the same way? I just always felt that it was hard for me to learn, so I would go and sit in the front of the class. I would dig in the garbage for the teacher’s handouts and take them home. And then I would sit in my room and I would teach the class again.

So I’d go to school all day and then I’d go home and I would teach it in a different way then, to invisible students. Mom would come in and go, Who’s over at this house? I’d say, Oh, nobody, Mom, just teaching my lessons again. And doing that really helped me. It was a learning strategy that helped me to get through. But all of these experiences gave me empathy and compassion that I ended up needing in my teaching career. When I was really new as an English teacher, I was super, super poor, and the only job I could get was teaching high school students who were bused out of Washington, D.C., to a school in Brandywine, Maryland. So I was so excited. Like it was the best job in the whole world, but I had no idea the challenges I was about to face. The first day of school I got there at 5 a.m. and I sat at my desk. I was so excited I actually fell asleep and what woke me up was the busses pulling in and I was like, Oh, I better get ready.

And I welcomed these students in who were way taller than me, and then I welcomed the police officer in every day. We had a police officer in the back of the classroom, and his job was to watch the parking lot because many of my students had hits out on them and it was a dangerous place to be. So I thought, All right, I’ll start with something that maybe these students who’ve seen violence, maybe they could relate to it. I’ll start with Shakespeare. Let’s start with Romeo and Juliet. So I started with them. Okay, everybody, we’re going to start and was at the front of the room. We’re going to start with Romeo and Juliet. It’s a story of tragic lovers. Has anybody in here had any tragedy happen? Does anybody in here seen? I don’t know. Seen someone killed. 80% of my students very slowly raised their hands.


And I just thought. Okay. I’m doing this wrong right off the bat. I pulled up a chair and I started to talk to my students, like, right from the beginning, because I wanted to know their stories, and I wanted to know how I could get them to take the literature and apply it in their lives and do something different than what their background was telling. So they changed me as a teacher and I thought, All right. Let’s sit down with students. Let’s talk and move forward that way. I moved to Canada because I married my partner. Way back in the day, we were like the first online couple ever. I never saw him for ten days. I never saw him. And then he just flew down to D.C. to see me. And we were in love and we moved to Canada.

So I just dropped my job after three years of being there and went to Canada and I started teaching in Canada with the students who struggled. So they always every principal always gave me classrooms full of students who struggled. And I had great empathy for them. And I learned about Canada very quickly. I tried to travel around. I went from coast to coast trying to figure out what Canada was about in the provinces. They were, there was so mad at me. They were like, You don’t even know the provinces. You’re an American. I’m like, All right, let me learn them. I’ll know them by Monday because I’d show up Monday with more knowledge and just try to figure out the culture. It’s very different than the US in Canada. I felt like literacy, practice and education was ten years forward then the U.S.. Wow. Everything I learned in the U.S. was nothing compared with what they were doing in Canada. So I had a lot to learn. I had to do overnight work. I had to take extra courses. I had to learn how to be accountable for what I was teaching. And I had to overcome a lot of my own struggles to learn and be better at it one day. So it went really well.

And one day there was a presenter who came to the school and we all crowded into the library. And this guy, he was 59 or 60 years old and he was shaking and he looked scared. I thought, Oh gosh, this guy’s going to be a terrible speaker. And I looked at my students. I gave him that teacher, Look, don’t you dare do anything wrong. So he starts talking and he said, My name is Arnie Stewart. And I was in grade one for two years. Grade two for two years. Grade three for two years, four for two years. Grade five for one hour. And I was kicked out of school. He said, I never learned to read and write. So he proceeded to tell my students the story of his life and how he lived in a parked car for a while. He ate food out of a garbage can to survive. He but his trick was he always bluffed his way through. So instead of reading the signs to go anywhere, he would just get in behind the bus and follow the bus wherever he was going. To get his driver’s license, he took it seven times and every time he would mark a different box until he finally passed. He was like the Forrest Gump of literacy, and my students were totally enraptured by him. A lot of them cried.

And one boy at the end came up to me and he said, miss, if you look in the parking lot, see that car? I said, Yeah. He said, My family lives in that car. I live in the car in the parking lot. And I’m asking for help. Can you help me? And I’m asking because of Arnie. That day I went and I found Arnie before he left and I said, You don’t know me, but my name’s Janet Lee, and I want to write your book. I want to help you speak to more kids. So that’s what we did. We got together and we ended up traveling around.

We spoke to 72 audiences about always asking for help and how important literacy is. And that was interesting because speakers come into schools. But to think like a designer, I thought they parachute in and they parachute out. Why don’t I create training around Arnie? So I created a free lesson where the teachers would see his picture and make a prediction about what he was coming to speak about. And then they would generate questions. And this was all training I made. Arnie would come and ask, answer the questions the students had, and then students would go away and talk about his lecture and how it applied to their lives. And they would write him letters. And what I noticed was that Arnie, at the age he was 60, 61, still couldn’t read. He was going around telling everybody he could read, but it wasn’t true. When we went out for lunch, he couldn’t read the menu. When we were going down the street, he couldn’t read the street signs. And I thought, He can’t read. He’s bluffing me.

So what I started doing was say saying, Hey, kids, why don’t you write Arnie letters? And he would show up at my house for his speaking tour, and I’d say, Hey, Arnie, check this out. I’d have a big box full of letters. You have to read these letters. And he’d go, okay. And he’d have this motivation to read them. So little by little, Arnie started to learn to read for real, and he would write back to the school. So then he learned to write for real. And I really feel like in the eight years that we traveled together, he came along, but also I became a better designer because it’s really about what motivates students. And he was my student and I was his. Arnie passed away in 2012 of cancer. He found out he had cancer. They told him he had 11 days to live. At the time, I’d already left Canada. I was in Tampa, so I rushed back to his side, to say goodbye. And I did. I said goodbye to my friend and he said to me, I want you to tell the kids to never be afraid and to always ask for help. And that those were his last words to me. We’ve written a screenplay about Arnie’s life that we’re hoping someday gets made into a movie because we all have stories and we all feel like it’s not a good thing to ask for help. And I feel like he inspired that in thousands of kids lives and and that his missions should continue.

So to me, like I always said to my mom, I say, Mom, if I could just inspire one, that would be great. And she said to me, One, what? What do you mean? One, what? She said. One What? You want to inspire. One. One student. One classroom. One country. One world. One what? So there was that point where I started to think about online learning, and I started to think that is the way for me to inspire on a larger level than just one person, then just one classroom. I could maybe inspire lots of people. But to me, I felt like, maybe that’s just my master’s. I need to go finally get my master’s.

So I’ve done all sorts of things like opened high schools, and I wrote textbooks and like teacher’s guides and all the things. I don’t know if you heard of Nelson Education. Nelson Literacy. I’ve written their grade 7 to 10 teacher’s guides and I did all these things and I thought, Well, let me get my master’s in education. So I went to the University of Tampa and I sat down in the orientation session, and there was me and like a ton of really cool looking people in the room. Like cool. I had the cats eyeglasses with the diamonds in the corners. Everybody had laptops with stickers all over them. And I was like, Whoa, these people are cool for education people. As I’m sitting there and the lady came in to present and she says, there’s two groups of people here today, actually, there’s one person for one group, master’s of education, and the rest of you are here for instructional design. And of course, I’m like, okay.

So she looks at me and she says, Janet Lee with your master’s of education. You’ll be able to be an administrator. And I’m thinking I already did that. Yeah. Okay. And she said, and you’ll be able to know maybe help with instruction and you’ll be able to go up a little bit in your pay grade. So this is great. The rest of you are here for instructional design and technology. Congratulations. This is a new and emerging field. And she put up this description of how everyone was going to make double and triple the salary of a teacher. And I’m like, What am I doing? And she’s excited. So I’m sitting there thinking, What is an instructional designer do? And she said, Instructional designers write curriculum and then like, instructional designers help with training. I’m like, Check. Instructional designers help faculty. And I’m like, check, I want to do all of these things. They create microlearning lectures to engage students and I’m like, I’ve done video production. I love all these things. I’ve always done all these things.

Why can’t I just take my portfolio from a master’s of education and shift it to instructional design? And I don’t know if you ever had one of those days where it’s like this aha moment. That’s what happened to me. I had an aha moment and I just said, All right, I’m doing this thing. My whole life is changing now. And sure enough, I really got excited about instructional design and I thought about Arnie as I did all of these classes and all of these classes, there was an instructor who recommended we look up a company called Designers for Learning and Designers for Learning was doing a MOOC and a MOOC is a massive open online course. So this MOOC, she said to me, I think maybe you would like this Janet Lee. And I’m like, Whatever, I don’t know. I’m busy [laugh], she said why don’t you just look into it? So I looked into this project they were doing, and what they were doing at Designers for Learning is they are nonprofit and they are looking to bring in designers who wanted to learn how to make content for adults with basic education for adults like Arnie.

So if you think about it like they wanted to help people like me who are in college or university getting a masters to be good at creating content for adults who couldn’t read and write. Think about that challenge like, oh, so I just, I put in my little intro and I’m like, whatever. And there was thousands of people signed up from all over the world to take this MOOC. And I missed the first webinar that they had the intro. So the next morning I came out and with my pajamas on my coffee and I start listening to it and she goes, Jennifer MeJrell. She says, We have a lot of really wonderful, interesting people signed up for this course. For instance, there’s this man in California who’s done all these great things, whatever. He’s written textbooks. We’re so glad to have you. And we have someone from Tampa, Janet Lee. She’s working on a movie with Arnie Stewart. And I’m like, spit out my coffee.

So she reached out to me that way. It was so touching, but I ended up really getting on board with them. I became one of their facilitators and I was in charge of a pathway that helped challenge designers to go to the next level with their designs. And I really learned a lot and a MOOC. This was like the coolest thing Arnie could never have imagined. My friend passed away, but now I was a part of taking his story and taking the stories of all these people who struggle and getting teachers and designers to understand how to reach people like Arnie and make a difference. And this was huge. So I was talking about inspiring one, this was 2500 people at a time coming through. Now, they didn’t make it through the whole course and I certainly didn’t design it. I was just lucky enough to be a part of it and to be a volunteer. But we traveled around and we talked in different like at AECT, Technology something. Anyway, we did that. We went around speaking and then I created something. It was like an anti-bullying program that I created. They just it was so wonderful to be around people who were like me when they would see something that wasn’t working and then make it work.

When I graduated, I ended up getting my first job at a college. I was an instructional designer for them. I was so proud. But here’s the thing. I had applied at so many places when I graduated that when they called for an interview, I didn’t know what the job was for. They said, Would you come for an interview? And I’m like, Yeah. And so I went to this interview. This is horrible. I went to this interview and I didn’t even know what the job was. I walked in and there were nine people on the panel and I’m like, Oh my God. Like, how am I going to get through this?

So I just I sat down and I thought, I’m just going to rest on what I’ve done in the past, like whatever this is. And it turned out to be an instructional design job. And they had been interviewing people for maybe a year and they finally they found me. And the thing that kind of tipped me over to getting that job was the fact that I could do video design, I could do learning lecture stuff. I was really good with the equipment. I knew what they needed. And yeah, I had this extensive education background, but also the video stuff pushed me over. So if there’s anything in addition to just the normal instructional design qualifications, having that to a like having the quality matters stuff is important or get you in there. Doing accessibility stuff is a big deal knowing video production, but not just the production piece but the practice underneath it. And that was what I started.

So when I started working there, they would have people come in and shoot a talking head video that was 55 minutes long, kill me now, like it’s the worst. And I said, Why don’t we put in some best practice training underneath it? Why don’t we talk to instructors about the purpose of their content and the placement of their content? And then we’ll talk to them about let’s focus on a topic, let’s create a hook, let’s have three specific points and then a call to action. And that little template became really important to people, especially who like stutter or had trouble. Like with their confidence level. People would ramble on and on, could really focus in because I made this template and it looked really elementary like it was start here in a box and I.

Noticed it’s on your, on your website. Yeah. That template, that microlearning template and I thought that’s brilliant, I might.

Have to try that but I do now is I take that template and I put it on a jam board so inside of Google Docs and put in a jam board and then I put little text boxes in it that are blank and together I work with the faculty to fill in those little pieces and yeah, it feels elementary, but once you go through that template with me, once you know what you’re doing, then all of a sudden those little boxes become buckets. This lady I just worked with, she said to me, I’m not a logical thinker. I’m not like I want. Or she said, I am a logical thinker. I said, okay, great. Let me give you a few. She’s linear, right? I want to give you a circle. So begin here and go all around. It’s actually a Z, a Z beginning to end. And when she saw the template, she could take those points and then create a script. Now I know that scripts are usually like frowned upon or people think scripts are bad, they’re not bad. You just have to know how to write one and you have to know how to. Use a teleprompter and teleprompters. There’s wonderful free teleprompters out there, but there’s also an app on your phone. It’s at smart prompt. Dot com. Or it’s an app called Smart Prompt. And you put your script in there and then it is responsive to you. So if you stop and go off track, it’ll stop. And then when you pick up the script again, it’ll continue going.

What was that called again?

It’s called prompt smart.

Prompt smart. Okay, I should try that because I script. I found that if I didn’t script when I’m doing things, I umm too much.

And I’m probably umming a lot now and I’m probably using the word okay, I’m trying to diminish that word from my vocabulary.

I have a brilliant tool called Descript that I upload the audio to, and then I can remove all filler words.

Oh, I’d like to know about that.

Yeah. And you can just edit it transcribes it right away and then you can edit the transcript. And if you delete things out of the transcript, it deletes it out of the audio.

Oh, nice.

It’s actually quite brilliant. It doesn’t do as good a job transcribing as some of the other stuff. So I actually use Echo 360 for my final transcription. But for the earlier transcription, for the first thing, the fact that I can just hit a button and have it in it and it takes all of the ‘you knows’ out and the. ‘Yeah, rights’. And ‘so’ I so a lot like almost every question I ask, I start with the word so. So we got as far as your first job.

And when and all I have to say about that, I’m starting to talk like Forrest Gump. But all I have to say about that is when COVID happened, that was transformative.

Part two of my interview with Janet Lee will be in the next episode of Demystifying Instructional Design. You’ve been listening to Demystifying Instructional Design, a podcast where I interview instructional designers about what they do. I’m Rebecca Hogue. You’re podcast host. If you or someone you know might like to be a guest on Demystifying Instructional Design, please complete the Be My guest form available on Demystifying Instructional Design dot com. Show notes are posted as a blog post on Demystifying Instructional Design dot com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe or leave a comment in the show notes blog post.

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Demystifying Instructional DesignFormer K-12 teacherHigher EdPodcast
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