The Girl Effect

This came across my reading/viewing list a while back, but it means more today after having listened and spoken with Greg Mortenson.

Mortenson, recently nominated by the U.S. Congress to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, was an one of those figures you just jump at the chance to meet and talk to. What strikes you immediately about him is his supreme lack of urgency about his time. Here he was, scheduled to catch a flight to take him to a flight to Afghanistan, yet he sat and gave pictures and autographs, a 30 minute interview with three educational bloggers, and then signed over 50 books for people at the conference. He joked to us that he is notorious for missing flights, and I can see why.

His chronicle of his life since 1992, the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea, continues to change the mindsets of those who read it. It details his experiences after a failed attempt to summit Mt. Godwin-Austin, known more commonly as K2. Upon his descent and exodus from the region, he happened upon a village name Korphe. After resting and taking in the hospitality of the villagers, he discovered the schoolchildren there both lacked a school and a teacher. He described the moment in which an elder of the village had passed away and he was visiting his grave site. That elder had given him one piece of advice before dying: “Listen to the wind.” And so he did.

What he heard were the voices of the children in the village of Korphe, and that changed everything. He promised those villagers and those children that he would return and build them a school.

That same wind carried him back to build that school, and several others since then.

Individuals like Mortenson astound me. Meeting him and finding him so relaxed, calm, and giving was a revelation. I had fully expected him to be full of energy and movement–I would expect that from someone who affects as much change in the world as he has. Yet, he was placid and warm, truly concerned about what his message was.

He spoke of girls. He spoke about why education and empowerment were crucial to creating change in the world of our children. He spoke of the real importance of schools, and not once did he mention any of the words we often use when we talk about how we want school to change here in the United States. His message involved community empowerment and the need to be patient enough to wait for change in education, or anything for that matter, because the affect may not be visible for a generation or two. That is why, he says, education is a hard sell to politicians and community leaders.

If you haven’t heard of his program, the one that ultimately worked to raise the money needed to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it’s called Pennies for Peace. Please visit the site, or if you have already heard of it, donate your little Abraham Lincoln’s to help change the world.

It’s not lost on me that for the longest time I did not think deeply about geo-political issues in the Middle East and the effects of terrorism on the world at large. Now, twice within the last week, two very influential thinkers and doers have pointed at very similar solutions to combating terrorism in the world.

And they both begin and end with two words: Education and Empowerment.

It’s OK. You Can Let Go.

Last year, I used a book on assessment from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in a study group with teachers.  When I saw their name attached to this morning’s panel discussion on Literacy in the 21st Century, I was intrigued.  My thinking was that they would have some great foundational elements to add to the what I’ve been thinking lately.

What happened was much more than what I thought.  Amy Sandvold, a colleague of Angela Maiers, was also on the panel as well.  Here is what I pulled out.

Fisher, Frey and Sandvold advocated a Gradual Release of Responsibility in the relationship between teachers and students.

grrA few years back, when I really began this journey, I saw Alan November present about the need for teachers to outsource what they do to the students to prevent them from being the only voice in the classroom.  What they advocated and described here is exactly that.  Focused instruction, according to Fisher, is pointed modeling of expert thinking and behavior. It’s in this mode of instruction where we help students build the requisite background knowledge and vocabulary they need for success in higher level tasks.  This argument, which is raging throughout the educational world right now, about content v. skills, then becomes moot.  Is there direct instruction in this model?  Absolutely, but it is followed by gradually removing the emphasis on what you as a teacher do in front of your students.  Once you model and instruct, move into more collaborative and shared modes of teaching and learning, until the end result is full on student responsibility.

And this from Frey:

Students and teachers must know stuff in order to do stuff.
Teachers now stuff.
Students know stuff too
Teachers and students learn from one another by interacting and collaborating.

I truly believe that learning takes place in many forms and through many processes.  One that I will recommend to anyone is that of conversation and communal learning among students and teachers.  Even today, sitting there discussing our greatest learning experience we ever had (my partner had a great one where she remembers finally being able to move from snow-plow skiing to parallel skiing), I didn’t realize my own until we began talking to others in the room and listening to the stories of people learning.  Collaboration is a powerful tool for learning.

There is so much more to come out of this session, but I am finding that it’s hard to process, especially in light of what occurred directly after this session.  That’s coming too.

ASCD: From Two Angles


I just stopped into the Convention Center here to pick up my media kit, and I immediately noticed a big shift from last year’s conference in New Orleans: tech.  Flat screens, laptops, live streaming of sessions, and a dedicated Technology Corridor (that’s going to be a separate post).  All things that had they been here last year, I wouldn’t have stuck out so much sitting all by myself in session rooms because the only viable electrical outlets for people with laptops were on the fringes of sessions.

Seriously, there is a decided effort on the part of ASCD to be visible, to pull in “21st Century Skills,” a word that the world has claimed as its buzzword du jour, and if you look through the session descriptions, there is a huge focus on these topics:

  • Visual Literacy and infusion of Visual Art into the classroom
  • Using assessment wisely to allow students to show they understand
  • Web 2.0 and its use in the classroom
  • 21st Century Skills and their broad definition

Over the last few days, I’ve spent some time looking at the sessions that immediately call out to me as valuable in what I do on a daily basis.  If you’ve been following some of the thoughts here lately, especially the dialogue between Scott McLeod and on a recent links post, you’ll understand that there has to be a marriage between teaching “soft skills,” and making sure content knowledge is sufficiently understood.  There is a balance we need to strive for in our work over the next few years in curriculum writing.  Scott really hit it here in this reference:

In Built to Last, Collins & Porras describe how visionary organizations do not “oppress themselves with … the ‘Tyranny of the OR'” (i.e., citizenship preparation v. employment preparation) but instead “liberate themselves with the ‘Genius of the AND.'” As they note, yin and yang are “both at the same time, all of the time.” Why is this so hard for educators to do?

I’d like to find some examples here at ASCD that show me this is happening, or at least show ways in which I can move forward to help teachers create learning environments that are innovative for students and teachers alike, yet provide a solid academic foundation for the future.  As I have said before, it never was an Either/Or.

The second major focus I have this weekend is to leave here with more actionable content which I am taking to mean both teaching strategy and assessment strategy.  When I work with teachers, especially in light of all the buzz about the influx of creativity and innovation ideas into the NJCCCS, they often ask me how they are supposed to teach these skills.  The sessions I have chosen center around giving teachers strategies for stretching student minds within their content areas.  In my own personal practice, I always fall back on the Kagan Structures and other forms of cooperative learning (and it just so happens, Kagan is presenting on Sunday).  With that creativity in how we approach teaching, I’d like to explore some innovation in how we assess our students.

Be sure to pick up the twitter feed also, which you can find here and here.

ASCD Bound

Later on this week, I will be leaving for the ASCD Conference in Orlando, and thanks to Scott McLeod and the generous group over at ASCD, I will be covering the conference through this medium.  With that responsibility comes some pretty cool benefits, one being that I can pop into ticketed sessions that I otherwise would not have been able to get into.

In that light, I thought I might throw it out there to the readership here (whatever that number might be) and ask if there were any topics that might be of specific interest to you.  I am sitting down to plan my conference over the next two days, so here are the main headings that ASCD gives out:

  • Creativity and 21st Century Skills
  • From Research to Practice
  • Networking Opportunities
  • Urban Education

Navigating the ASCD website is proving to be a little tricky, but the sessions are all available for browsing if you are so inclined.  On a personal level, my focus is going to be on visual literacy, critical thinking, assessment, and reading strategies.  Yes, I know, rather narrow. If there is a session you see that might fit that bill, or something you would like some firsthand knowledge of, drop a comment and I’ll do my best to gather some firsthand info for you.

ASCD Reflection

Being the first giant conference I have ever been to, and being the first non-tech-centered one as well, ASCD was fascinating on a few levels. The oddest thing about it was the fact that I chose not be connected via internet (god bless the iPhone and Twitter) for most of the conference. It might be a silent protest, but paying for wireless internet in hotels doesn’t sit well with me, especially when I am fronting the money. We listen often to people talk about the ubiquity of free Internet we will see in the future, but I feel it’s a long way off. More and more businesses are choosing to put proprietary restraints on the use of their wireless networks. Let’s use the Google model here: give it away and we will stay and use your product. Or at least we will give the perception to passersby that we are enjoying your business. I’ll end that rant there.

Bigger issues seem to dominate my thinking lately, issues such as school change and culture change within our society. My reading and writing tends to focus on the areas of motivating people to want something better, and giving them the means to create it for themselves. I am not going to be dishonest, I have goals and ideas that I would like to see put in place not only in schools, but in the larger picture as well (stay tuned for the world domination post to come shortly); however, I am wise enough, I think, to know that what I want matters little if the people I work with don’t see the value in it.

On the way down here, I sat next to a gentleman named Simon Sinek, of Sinek Partners. A while back, in my days as an expatriate in Greece, I worked for man who taught me that airline flights were the best places to go to school. “Interesting people fly and travel,” he said. Talk to the people around you on the plane.” So I took Fouad’s advice and struck up a conversation with this gentleman to my left. It turns out that Simon had an idea that he was trying to spread that involved asking corporations, individuals, government, or whoever would listen to articulate to themselves and others why they do the things they do. Without knowledge of and presentation of the “why” no one will be able to understand you, or better still, buy into what you are doing.

Often, he said, we confuse the “what” with the “why.” In business, people rarely buy the “what,” but more likely buy the “why.” I use Apple computers, and if you asked me why, I would probably rattle off that their design is intuitive, they are less buggy, I like the interface, etc. But what I would leave out would be the essential part of why I use them: I subconsciously buy into Steve Jobs ideal of irreverence and individuality. We might say the “what’s,” but only because we can’t articulate the “why.” I’ll admit it, I bought into “Think Different,” and why wouldn’t I? It’s a fantastic ideal.

Translating all of that into my practice, we ask our schools to change, and we say we need to change so that we “promote lifelong learning,” “create students capable of excelling in the 21st Century,” or any one of the mission statement buzzwords we might put there. But do we articulate why we do the things we do? What if I told my teachers that I wanted to inspire them to be innovative? Leave the kids out of it for a moment, and focus on the teachers. Inspire and innovate. I don’t have to tell them what that looks like, I have to model it in my own practice. Innovation comes from the fringes. Ric Murry and I had a banter back and forth about this via twitter the other day, but I think we can understand that teaching is not a “fringe,” but the model still works; it’s just semantics. Our teachers should be the ones leading the change and innovating. My role in all of this is to help provide the “why”. Steve Jobs didn’t make the iPod, he made the idea of an iPod possible. Teachers should be sharing their “innovations” with one another regularly, and I should be connecting them to one another to help spread that innovation.

Comparing what I do to what Steve Jobs does makes me feel way too self-important, but I think it’s an easy way to see the relationship between what we sometimes lack in schools and where we need to go.We don’t need mission statements, but rather leaders that inspire through action and empathy. Ginsberg’s session on Friday gave me a great insight into how to create a community of teachers that cares not only about one another, but about the level of teaching in the building: observations should be done with a group of teachers, as well as an administrator. Group observations and group debriefings, all with a common language and goals will become commonplace.

My thinking is shifting once again, and this time it’s shifting toward inclusion. Get on board, and grab an oar.

The Key to Moving People is Moving People

Part of what we do as teachers and learners is report back on what we find out in our personal inquiries.  As teachers it was done on a daily basis with our students.  We helped them disseminate the information that they need to be successful.  As administrators, the number of presentations often lessens, but the audience usually increases; at any one time there could be up to 100 people in the room we are presenting in.

What strategies were successful for us when we stood in front of students and helped them make sense of information?  What can we take from our time in the classroom and make it work for us as presenters?

Saturday at ASCD, I changed my schedule around so that I could attend a workshop by Deborah Estes, a presenter, former teacher and administrator from Texas.  The title is what originally caught my eye: “Brain-Friendly Presentation Skills.”

I present frequently to my departments, and I’ve struggled recently with creating engaging content.  Not that what I am saying is earth-shattering stuff, but I know that there are moments in my presentations that I need to invite the audience to digest what I am saying and give me feedback.  Sitting in Estes’ presentation, I learned that I have not been nearly observant enough of my audience; your audience and being able to read them and redirect them through the use of movement, storytelling, and, of all things, touch, determines the success or failure of your message.  Information without reflection and discussion does nothing for learners.  Give them the chance to hash out what you are saying and clarify it for one another and you stand a much better chance of making a difference in their learning.

Right from the start, Estes subtly began to coerce me into her presentation.  I was early by about 20 minutes, but she was much earlier than me.  She greeted me with a handshake and used my name (name-tag) when she did.

Points #1 and #2: Be early and set up at least 30 minutes before your scheduled start to greet your audience by name and appropriate touch (handshake) as they enter.

As she began to speak to the room of 150+ people, like most presenters, she gave her background and brief bio.  Hers was not done as a description of credentials or current occupation, but rather the story of how she became a teacher, coach, administrator, and speaker.  It was done structurally, meaning she related herself to all levels of educators: high school teachers, middle school teachers, and elementary teachers.  Each part of her opening story, which took about 5 minutes, had relevance to someone in the room because in our lives we, too, held or currently hold one of the positions she did.  More than that, her stories were relative to experiences we have all had.

Point #3: Use the power of storytelling to share information.  We remember best when we give our information context.

One of the most powerful things she did was move us.  Not the kind where we were emotionally moved, but rather we physically moved around the room.  In the 90+ minutes we were there, we moved over 15 times.  We conversed, we shared information and discussed the topics in the handout on our own terms, but in ways that she dictated.

Point #4: Move people.  Look at your audience and find clues that they are disengaging.  When you see the nods or the glazed eyes, change their state.

Some examples of what we did:

  • Moved to another seat
  • Turned and talked
  • Four corners of the room (body voting)
  • Invented names
  • Hand voting (raise your hand and think of a number, use your fingers to represent the number, then find someone else in the room who has that number.  When you do, discuss the topic with them).
  • People bingo
  • Touch blue (simply walk around the room and touch something blue)
  • Take your neighbor for a walk around the room while discussing the topic at hand.

Another thing I often struggled with is the format of how I present.  Should I do straight lecture and give a handout with all of the cute slides on the handout?  What other options are out there?  Estes presented us with at least 10 examples of how to change up the format of your lecture.

Point #5: Transfer of information does not have to be in the format that we all learned it: the straight lecture.  What if your audience knows a great deal about the topic you are covering?  Why spend time on the details if they already have them?  Give them the opportunity to list everything they know about the topic.  Have them present it to the crowd.  Based on what they know, amend your presentation on the fly and allow your group to go deeper into the topic.

After leaving the room, I realized that not only had I met over 20 people during the course of her presentation due to the movement and socialization, but I reflected on the attitudes of the staff that I work with as they receive information during faculty or department meetings.  Wow.  I see the source of their boredom and frustration.  They are disconnected from the information because they never have time to reflect on it.  The subtleties of presenting were on display for me today, and I thank Deborah Estes for sharing them with me.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,