Making Reading Viral

“When we read a good book, the first thing we do is talk about it to our friends, and then we end up giving it to them and they read it, and so on and so forth. I mean, look at Twilight.”

This is a loose paraphrasing of a line from a conversation that occurred last Monday among the middle school teachers in my district. The purpose of the meeting? An all-hands on deck chat about summer reading.

It’s almost Sisyphean. Every year I spend a good deal of time hemming and hawing over whether or not it’s worth doing and whether or not we are doing it right. I’ve come to realize that whether you assign it or not, you will always anger 50% of the school community.

With that realization comes some clarity. If we know that no one will be completely happy, we can focus on doing what we think is right.

The first step in that process is always to ask the staff. Yvette McNeal, our middle school principal, and I got everyone together in the media center during their lunch last Monday to gauge their feeling on summer reading. What should it look like? Should we be assessing? What was the point of it anyway?

The feedback was fantastic from all directions. Teachers discussing their issues with the summer reading from their own children’s school; their concern with the students who read too early in the summer as well as those who read the night before; their feeling that reading, reading anything, was extremely important for kids to do over the two months they are gone.

That last statement is where we began. Let’s ask them to read something. Anything.

And then let’s go back to the beginning of this post and look at the meaning behind that quote: reading is, and always be, a social endeavor. It’s driven by what we share, and a book’s life is determined by how many people buzz about it.

So this is what we decided to do:

  • Require reading, but give complete freedom in choosing what it consists of.
  • Show the community that we are passionate advocates of reading by doing it ourselves.
  • Making the act of reading and sharing publicly visible.
  • Making any “work” the students do in regards to the book an act that will promote what they read to the community.

The first premise we started with is that of course we care about the reading students will do for us and with us, but we really care about the reading they will do in twenty or thirty years. We need to start them thinking about reading as a lifelong endeavor (thanks to Maria Clayton for that one). We will require them to read something over the summer in grades 5-8, but that something is up to them. Our media specialist is fast at work right now building suggested book and magazine lists for each grade level, but students have complete freedom to read anything else they want to.

We then began thinking about how we can show the community that this matters to us in visible ways. Taking a page from the work Ryan Bretag has been doing with his I.D.E.A., we began thinking about how books are shared. That’s where the quote came in. If we read something we love, the first thing we do is run and tell someone “Oh my god, you have to read this book–when I’m finished.” That’s what we want. We want viral reading. We saw it with Hunger Games. We saw it with Twilight, and before that with Harry Potter.

We built a school-wide reading site (sorry for not linking yet–we’re not ready for prime time) where teachers, students, and administrators are going to be featuring one title from each grade level list as the “buzz book,” a title that we will all read as a grade level. That “buzz book” will become the centerpiece of weekly blog posts by teachers, students, and administrators throughout the summer. Alongside that, we’ll also be featuring “staff picks” and “student picks” in the sidebars of the blog so that the community can lean on one another for recommendations. There was also talk of a rating system for the titles as they are read.

Lastly, the dreaded summer reading assignment that awaits each student when they return to school. Rather than have them slog through an essay on a book they may or may not have liked, we decided to use their assignment as another recommendation engine. Students will create book advertisements, book trailers, and flyers for the books or magazines they read over the summer. Each of these will be placed strategically throughout the school, space permitting, and used as part of regular book displays by our media specialists. Additionally, we’ll be collecting data from the students in September to see what the hottest 5th/6th/7th/8th grade title was, and then promoting that as well.

It’s the First Big Plan, and I am excited to see where it takes us.


Making the Case for the Humanities

Earlier this week, I was asked to speak to the parents of our upcoming 8th graders in the district I work in.  Rather than walking them through the courses available to them or answering specific questions regarding readings, requirements or subject matter–all of which I invited questions by email about–I chose a different tack.

I’m in the process of trying to redesign two departments K-12 with an eye on transforming learning practices and raising the expectations for our students.  I wanted to outline some of the pressures we as educators face, as well as show that students today are inundated with information.

I wanted them to know that learning in today’s world looks different than it did when they were in school.

This is what I came up with.  I’d love to hear your feedback:

We Need You to be the Lead Learner.

[slideshare id=4806056&doc=nyscate2010-100721094405-phpapp02]

This morning I had the opportunity to present at the New York State Association for Computers and Technology in Education’s annual Leadership Summit in Troy, NY.  When I pitched the proposal a few months ago, I was really leaning heavily on technology as the focus: what strategies could leaders employ to model learning and collaboration?  As the last few months have unfolded and my thinking has been influenced less by technology and Web 2.0 and more by things like Understanding by Design and designing learning communities, the impetus behind this presentation changed to reflect that.

Above is the slide deck I used, which, as the participants in the session will concur, most of which we did not see.  Again, we took time to talk to one another and to discuss some of the questions that came up, which is the real reason why we were there.  However, when I began designing this in its slide form last week, I wanted to do it in the style that I would ask a teacher to design a unit of study, so I used UbD to do it.  I started with what I wanted my audience to leave with: my transfer goal.  I came up with this:

I want you to learn the specific challenges facing education today so that, in the long run, you will be able to, on your own, create innovative and collaborative solutions to overcome them.

From that point I looked at the understandings they would need to have

  • Students today are not as academically tech savvy as they need to be.
  • We take in an enormous amount of data each day as consumers and our students need to be equipped to handle it critically.
  • Leaders responsibilities include that of growing future leaders, and in doing so, we must model the behaviors that we deem valuable for leaders to have: willingness to try and of fail, transparent learning, and collaboration.

and the questions I would use with them to help guide them:

  • Do the teachers in your district own the technology, or do the students?
  • Are your teachers more technology “savvy” than the students?  Is that a problem?
  • What is the dominant mode of learning in your school/district?
  • What is your role as a leader in your school/district?

From there, I realized that there would be no real way to assess them as they left the presentation, but I felt good about designing the presentation this way.  It had that “walk-the-walk” feel to it as I put it together and delivered it, and there is a lot to be said for feeling that way about the work you do.

In a nutshell, if students’ intake of information breaks down like this:

Should your classroom instruction look like this

or this?

There is no right answer here, but the real meaning lies in the discussions that have to happen along the way to deciding what they look like.  I spoke today about the lack of “grey area” thinkers as espoused by Dan Meyer in his TEDxNYED talk, and it applies here.  Leaders need to be very comfortable with difficult conversations about what we expect of our students and our teachers.  We need to be able to confront people’s belief systems (nod to Andy Greene).

Cover Letter to Everyone

If you haven’t discovered 750Words, you should.  It’s unbelievably liberating.

This is a recent rant that I think may make a decent cover letter.  I’ve been wrong in the past. Please tell me if I am so here.

I am a change agent. I will not apologize for this, nor make exceptions about or alter the course of this. There is a need within all organizations, especially within education, to remain relevant to their constituents. I go to find the steps between the pending irrelevance of the current system and the innovation necessary to continue the vital role that education plays in the development of productive citizens in the United States and beyond.

It has been said, by wiser minds than mine, that we live in exponential times. The information landscape that our current teaching staff evolved with is no longer a relevant model, but the skills they carried through that process are. How do we, then, take those critical analysis skills, those precise tools of skepticism, and apply them to the current, and ever-evolving flow of data that overwhelms our student populace of today?

I am a change agent. The paradigm is shifting in education and information ownership. It’s only the institutions of learning that are failing to realize this very simple fact.

“When Gutenberg invented the printing press, we didn’t have Europe plus books. Instead we had a whole new Europe.” (Postman)

There is no hubris in echoing the same sentiment today. We don’t live an a world where there is unfettered access to information and the existing institutions of higher learning. Rather, we live in a world where there are information-consumers and information-prosumers: those that can access information and those that can make information work for them.

Time is the one commodity that technology has traditionally promised to save. Every single invention created for the sake of time salvage has only done the opposite: we have increased our ability to work more meaningfully through the automation of tasks. Why would information gathering and displaying be any different? It is my distinct feeling that we as students, teachers, and administrators waste far too much time seeking information, when we should be aware of and acutely accessing systems that force information to flow towards us. RSS, social networks geared towards educational professionals, and the creation of personal learning networks should be a pre-requisite for any educational professional entering the field, or migrating one’s practice from one year to the next.

Data is omnipresent in our society. We have more meta-analysis about what works in education than we ever have before. We know that the most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of the educator in the room. We know that there are elements of instruction that each teacher can incorporate into their practice that are proven to increase student achievement.

Yet we struggle to incorporate those strategies into our practice as educators in a way that meaningfully leverages the social and cooperative nature of computer technology. This is not to say that our students have to be connected every minute of every day. To the contrary, we are seeking wisdom, not ubiquitous connection, but the restriction of learning to the moments we spend in the classroom with our students is disrespectful of our students time. Why should we set parameters on their willingness to engage in learning? We can provide everything we would have done to “deliver” content digitally and customized for each student we have and according to their needs, thereby reserving class time to that which is most important: discussion and engagement. Along with our detailed research on how children and adults learn, we know that we learn best in cooperative structures where we have the opportunity to learn socially with a mixed ability group whereby each member has a stake in both the contribution and distribution of knowledge.

Our current teaching staff exists various levels of technological dexterity, much as they exist at varying levels of pedagogical proficiency; we have teachers at all levels of expertise in all areas of professional domains. It is not practical to assume that if a teacher is not incorporating technology into the daily practice in their classroom that they are a poor teacher, much as it not practical to assume that a teacher who is incorporating video, social networking, or social media into their daily practice is an excellent teacher. What we have to engage our staff in is a bigger discussion:

What does it mean to be well-educated in today’s society?

Once we have an answer to that question that our whole staff and student body can live with, our journey to understanding what effective teaching is will take on its own life.


These things we call relationships, they are funny things when it comes to our professional lives.  Regardless of what field you are in, you started in that field somewhere.  Depending on where you are now in said field, there are those who you started with in certain positions that either still hold those positions, or have moved on to other responsibilities.  It’s just the nature of what we do, whether that be public sector or private sector.

brain bombs

How you handle that relationship matters a whole lot to your success.

Or does it?

I just wrote this in response to a teacher who reacted to an article I sent out to her department entitled “7 Bad Writing Habits You Learned in School:”

That’s precisely the question I want everyone thinking about. We truly focus so much of our energies on getting the format down and getting the “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed, and for many of the students we teach, that is completely necessary; however, as we begin to look at the next phase of what we’d like to do in the district which includes more than just being “proficient” on some state test, can we blend some of the thinking in this post into what we are doing.

And as for making people angry, my advice is that you don’t get the results you really want without making a few people angry along the way. Not that you try to, but when you know that what you are doing will make your students better, you just go with it.

She was asking whether or not it was all right to go forward with some of the ideas in the article, even if it angered some of her colleagues.  My response can be boiled down to very few words: “hell yes.”

We don’t propagate change in systems unless we are ready to have battles that we know will end up with feelings being hurt.  This is a fact that I am still warming to, as it is very contrary to my personality, and since I am creating change at the curriculum level in a district in which I originally taught.  When I think of the alternative, though, I can use that to gather the strength necessary to move forward with the type of thinking that will lead to the schools we need.

Yes, we can create change without alienating everyone on the bus, but there are times when we need to be strong enough in our convictions to say “yes, your voice has been heard and your input factored into the decision, but we need to move forward with this decision.”  Or, more simply, this is how we have decided it has to be done.  In no circumstances would I advocate a lack of explanation behind the decision, nor sound research supporting that decision.  When moving schools forward, we must always ask ourselves, regardless of the position we hold within that school, “does this help/hurt kids.”  Once we have that determined, the rest falls into place.

Image Credit: “Invasion/Relation” from colinwhite’s photostream

Re-Thinking a Few Things

It’s the end of the year, and with that, we are running into the usual pressures associated with a year of impending change.  For some reason, June gives educators an amazing amount of stress.  I was reviewing some posts from this time last year, and was amazed to find that there were odd similarities between what I was noticing then and what is happening now.

This summer is going to be an incredibly busy one, and an incredibly short one.  It has the feeling already of one that will be fleeting. If that is the case, I’d like to begin by setting a few goals for my own growth this summer:

  1. Read.  Here is the short list that I’ve put together for the summer:
    1. Readicide, by Kelly Gallagher
    2. Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
    3. Rethinking Homework, Cathy Vatterott
    4. Write Beside Them, by Penny Kittle
  2. Re-Organize.  A year in which I either ran or helped plan over 10 meetings a month can lead to a lot of paperwork and notes that need both organization and reflection.  Pulling all of that back together will take a good few days.
  3. Re-Focus.  As I indicated in the paragraphs above, the month of June has been crazy, but wit that crazy has come some good dialogue.  I’d like to take part of the summer to craft goals that I have for each of the departments I work with and the elementary schools I am involved in.  I’ve had many meetings this month where it was apparent that I am getting very little buy-in from the departments I work with.  As with everything in education, the factors that go into producing that are only partially controllable by me, but that which is under my control, I’d like to sharpen and hone.  I need to have goals regarding what I’d like to move towards with each of the departments, and then combine those goals with those of the members of the departments I work with.  A shared vision; yes, I think that might work.

There is probably more, but it’s getting light out, and the kids are waking, which brings me to another goal for the summer.  Leave work at work, and make the most of the daylight hours with my family.

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.

Executive Grammar

This is taken from an article from BoingBoing by Cory Doctorow where he details the work of grammarian Garth Risk Hallberg.  Hallberg took the following sentence, a rather long one, from Barack Obama and diagrammed it.

My view is also that nobody’s above the law, and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.

Some of his conclusions about Obama’s use of the language to cushion his harsh points are interesting and the obvious work of a practiced public speaker.

Creativity Myths

Digging through Diigo in search of something I can’t even recall now, I found this nugget from Bill Breen at Fast Company: “The 6 Myths of Creativity.” Finding this may have been the reason I was digging through all of my back tags and pages in the first place, because when I found the article and re-read it, the six myths called to mind several instances of awkward thinking I see very often.  Let’s walk through them:

Myth 1: Creativity Comes From Creative Types

Breen brings up the idea that looking for creativity in corporate departments like accounting might seem oxymoronic at first glance.  However, we recognize innovation in any form and in any pursuit if it truly transcends the status quo and creates original thoughts or processes.  In the contexts in which I work, the idea of creative thought applied to either discipline or process has unbelievable merit.  We look for “withitness” within our teachers; we look for them to be able to resonate with students regardless of teacher age or experience, student age or ability level, and regardless of content.  Do they get it?  What if we apply that principle to guidance departments?  Curriculum writing?  Schedule creation? Why push for anything less than creative environments and people in those areas?

Myth 2: Money Is a Creativity Motivator

Breen states that
People want the opportunity to deeply engage in their work and make real progress. So it’s critical for leaders to match people to projects not only on the basis of their experience but also in terms of where their interests lie. People are most creative when they care about their work and they’re stretching their skills
and our work in schools is no different.  When we ask teachers to come and work with us, whether it’s for curriculum or for some form of professional development, we offer the option of coming during school and receiving substitute coverage, or coming after school  and receiving compensation at a decent rate.  Our participation is very closely split down the middle.  Other reasons (child care, coaching, etc.) aside, we also find that those that come during the day and receive no compensation produce work that is equally as credible as those that come after school.  The difference, and this is a purely personal observation, comes when you do as Breen suggests, and match people that truly care about what they create and feel that they are pushing themselves and their colleagues around them.  Last week I worked with two teachers who were so full of ideas and so willing to take risks in regards to their ideas, the amount of work we got down and the quality of that work was astounding.  All three of us were truly blown away by the possibility of bringing to life the ideas we came up with.  That’s power.
Myth 3: Time Pressure Fuels Creativity
In college and graduate school I lived by the mantra “if you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute.”  While snarky and fun, when I began teaching, it didn’t cut it as a model to share with students of how to prepare and perform at you best.  So it was easily scrapped in favor of advance preparation.  In schools, we work amid lots of deadlines placed either by ourselves or external pressures.  However, having kids of my own, I realized something about being stressed: it’s contagious.  When I am under the gun with a project or presentation, I become a bear and my work suffers for it.  I feel guilty for not spending time with my family, and that weighs on me; I feel badly that my work is suffering due to lack of focus. It’s a vicious cycle.  Solution: advance planning and preparation that allows you to focus on the whole when you need to.

Tomorrow: Myth’s 4, 5, and 6.

Matching the Two.

My wife asks me all of the time if I am happy in what I am doing, because it is so much different than teaching, or even being tech coordinator; the successes are not as easily seen by either her or I.  There never is a real straight answer given by me because what I do is so difficult to get an immediate read on whether it works or doesn’t.  In October, I presented at TechForum in Palisades, NY and had a blast.  I got great feedback from those in attendance and truly had fun talking and listening.  Something clicked on the way home that day: how much fun I had, how passionately I had expressed myself had to be the way I addressed the departments and staff I work with.  I was holding back, and it was showing in the way I was received.

I dig this learning business.  There are some great ideas out there about how to get more people to learn in myriad ways using unlimited methods.   My goal in coming back from TechForum was to let the ideas just fly, let the people I work with shoot them down.  Coming off of EduCon, I realized I hadn’t yet done it in my practice.  Being in the presence yet again of such passionate advocates for kids, for their futures, made me promise to myself as I drove up I-95 towards home that this month would be different.  And so far, it has.  From my last department meeting:


Let’s see that this continues.