Give Me Something That Matters

In November of 2007, I found myself in the audience at TechForum, wondering what I’d gotten myself into as I had just recently taken the position of technology coordinator in the district I was working in at the time.  There were lots of things I did not know (I still hate you Adobe CS series) and I never felt like I knew the answers to the questions I was being asked.  Alan November was giving the keynote that day, and I’d not really heard of him much at all, only that people either loved him or hated him.  Needless to say, his message that day became a pivotal moment for me in that I really haven’t looked at education or learning the same way ever since.

Alan talked about ownership and outsourcing that day in regards to the work we do as teachers.  Essentially, teachers do too much of the work of learning, and students can and should do more of the work.  That work, however, had to be owned by them.

Yesterday, I revisited that moment with a group of teachers during the second of our spring TED Series when we showed Alan November’s “Who Owns the Learning?” talk from this year’s TEDxNYED.  Alan shared a few anecdotal stories from his past with the audience, none that I haven’t heard versions of, but it was clear to me that although his message hadn’t changed much, it was still holding its value now.

About five minutes into the opening activity, the room turned its eyes to the locked door, indicating to me that we had a late arriving participant, and upon first glance I was taken back.

It was a student.

I had opened all of my Spring workshops up to students this year, and I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t fully expect to be taken up on it.  She came in and introduced herself to those in the room that did not know who she was and from that point on became as much as contributor to the discussion as any of us.  In fact, there were several junctures where we all fully leaned on her as the expert on certain matters.  At one point, after we had watched the talk, she said what to me, has become some an obsession lately:

“I mean, I agree with everything he (November) is saying.  If you’d given me the choice in my last two years to work on something that I could select, that was my interest and passion, I’d work on that non-stop.”

Dumbstruck, I was.  Why hadn’t we done this sooner?  Why did I wait so long to invite these voices into the room?  Shame on me.

To that end, my thinking since yesterday has been on fire, with ideas and hopes and dreams pinned on this new vision of creating opportunities for meaningful work to take place in my schools.  During my run this morning, I was full of ideas to try out and to push out into this space for vetting and hashing out, all predicated on these things:

  • Tangible artifacts of learning: the things our students create should be usable by others, and should serve not only their passions but their communities as well.
  • Globally available: accessible by anyone, anywhere.
  • Lasting: we feel different when we know that the work we create will live on after we are gone.
In closing, during the beginning of the session yesterday, I asked the teachers in the room to quickly craft ideas for projects they would do if they were unfettered by the current curricular restraints.  They had to abide by the above three rules.  Here’s a brief sample of what we quickly crafted:
  • run a political campaign for a student to be in town office.
  • Feature magazine to include all aspects of creative culture within a school.
  • Architecture: designing your own schools.
  • Forms of communication: how did societies communicate with one another in the past and how did it evolve over time?
  • Special Ed students to leave a legacy behind to other special ed students.
  • Collect the oral histories of the residents of our town and feature them on the web.

I don’t know how many of these will come to fruition, but I know it’s important for us to have these ideas and let them breathe for a while.  I do know this, my goal is to help them grow legs within our current structures, and hope they help us morph our schools into what we think they should be.


Quite a Slate

This coming Saturday I will be riding the rails to the Upper West Side for TEDxNYED, a conference not officially affiliated with the groundbreaking TED Conference held yearly.  I’ve had all sorts of travel restrictions this year due to the budget constraints being placed on us by both the state offices and our own offices, which was the sole reason I wasn’t able to attend EduCon this year, so missing this one would have been unbearable.

The conference is organized in the format popularized by TED–short, 20-minute maximum length talks detailing the passion of the individual. This is coming at a really great time for me as well, as we are heading into the time of year where creativity and resourcefulness are key.  An infusion of new ideas and energy is sorely needed.

Here’s the schedule of speakers for the day:


Andy Carvin
Michael Wesch
Henry Jenkins


11:30am OPENNESS

David Wiley
Neeru Khosla
Lawrence Lessig


2:00pm MEDIA

TED Talk
Jay Rosen
Jeff Jarvis



TED Talk
Gina Bianchini
George Siemens


4:30pm ACTION

Dan Cohen
Amy Bruckman
Dan Meyer
Chris Lehmann

There are individuals on this list from whom I have stolen mightily, and from whom I hope to pull some more insight this weekend.  I’ve designed slides based on Dan Meyer’s advice, discussed school structure based on Chris Lehmann‘s ideas, created curriculum from the ideas of George Siemens, and used Michael Wesch’s videos in front of more audiences than I care to remember.

After having sat through a session with Alan November today that, although re-affirming for the group I came with, contained nothing in the way of new, motivating ideas.  I am really looking to Saturday for that to happen.  Hope to see some of you there.

Heidi Hayes Jacobs: Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World

On my desk yesterday sat an unwrapped copy from of Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ latest book “Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World” my monthly gift from ASCD. In all honesty, I immediately balk at most things labeled with the ordinal number “21” as a result of its saturated use in educational circles these days. Rarely does a memo leave the offices in Trenton without mention of this initiative or that program designed to incorporate the 21st Century in some manner.

I am just a little over the term, that’s all.

Being that today is a day of airports and the requisite time-suck that they, and the airlines, put you through, I knew that I’d have time to get through some of the book on the way down. My intent was to use some of it as a springboard for FETC, as some of the themes presented are concurrent with some of my aims at the conference.

The book is laid out in an interesting format, in that Jacobs is the editor, but the first four chapters are hers. Following her are chapters from: Stephen Wilmarth, Vivien Stewart, Tim Tyson (of Mabry Middle School fame), Frank W. Baker (who is also creating a ton of great content over that the Making Curriculum Pop Ning), Daivd Niguidula, Jaimie Cloud, Alan November, Bill Sheskey, Aurther Costa and Bena Kallick.

Since this is mid-flight, and I am nowhere near through the entire book, I thought I’d start with some reactions to the first chapter authored by Jacobs. The thrid through fourth chapters dealing with the structural change to schools and curriculum at the systems level, also Jacobs’ chapters, I’d like to treat on their own, especially after some of the sessions I plan on attending tomorrow.

“The good old days are still good enough.”

In chapter one, I enjoyed the three myths that she believes need addressing when talking about school reform, especially curricular reform. The first myth is a sentiment anyone involved in moving schools and districts forward encounters on a daily basis. Very much the same as the TTWWADI mentality, this one extends beyond schools typically and into the community that surrounds it. There are methodologies that are timeless in education, and there are those that are fleeting. Without careful examination and experimentation with these ideas, we lose the ability to know what works best in given situations. Schools or communities, Jacobs states, are “shackled by memories,” and many times paralyzed by the insecurity of change.

“We’re better off if we all think alike–and not too much.”

The second myth addresses what Jacobs calls “America’s love/hate relationship with being educated.” The myth, is as unsettling as it is hilarious. The glorification of the self-made man who rises out of poverty with little or no formal education to millionaire status is revered among the general population of the United States. Jacobs points to Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” here with its examination of the fracturing of American discourse into factional discord, whereby thinkers surround themselves with those who share their own ideas. This for is evidenced by the consistent battle between the viewers of Fox News and those of every other major media outlet. We now have the ability and what’s worse, the desire to surround ourselves, rather insulate ourselves with those who think like us. What is missing and necessary in any future of curricular change, according to Jacobs, is a return to active, open discourse between factional thinkers. We were founded amid chaos, and our students need to understand that disagreement is not disloyalty.

“Too much creativity is dangerous–and the arts are frills”

Even though we have much data showing the correlation between study of the arts and music and future academic success, as a society we marginalize the study of these disciplines in times of extreme panic or budget shortfall. Jacobs looks to Dan Pink to help characterize the future skill-set of the 21st Century worker (ugh, I used it as an adjective). Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as this: an original thought or idea that has merit. In that capacity it cannot be limited to the realm of arts and music. We don’t have innovation fields like accounting unless there is someone who sits in his or her chair and conceives of a whole new way to crunch numbers and manipulate their trade. Eliminating or denigrating arts as “frills” does a complete disservice to the students we teach today who will become tomorrow’s leaders.

Discussion Protocol

Of the many things I pulled out of EduCon this past year, the most useful has been a tool that Chris Lehmann asked a few of us to use as we led reflections sessions at the end of the day.  This discussion protocol has come in handy after working with teachers showing them new tools or methodology, especially those that are particularly complex and paradigm-shifting.  It’s simple:

  • What?: What did I see today that caused me to think, wonder, dream, plan, or question?
  • So What?: What are the consequences, ramifications of what I saw?
  • Now What?: What are the next steps for me?  my school?  my district?

When we are confronted with new knowledge or ideas, it’s easy for us to become overwhelmed, either by the potential positive effect of the that change, or the magnitude of changing our own or our district’s practices.  This protocol slims it down for you, paring your thoughts into three linear categories that intersect nicely in various places.

After being here for the last few days, there has been a mix of things I know about already, things I needed to see to believe, and a budding sense of practicality that was wholly necessary for me to see–it’s the reason I wanted to come in here in the first place.  Several of my conversations lately have centered on the very fact that I am ready to move away from the theoretical and land firmly in the practical and the applicable.  Sitting and listening to Darren yesterday explain in a calm, measured, and often hilarious way, how he began his journey with his students, gave me some real perspective in regards to how a classroom can be structured not around, but infused with, the tools we have all come to use in our professional practice.  I can take that back.

For now, as I sit here with about 40 minutes to go before heading to see Darren and Clarence present together, I focus on the first question:

  • What?: What did I see today that caused me to think, wonder, dream, plan, or question?

One of the first things I pulled from Ewan’s keynote was that we should view all of our teachers as researchers. I see the need to create a culture in our schools that pushes thinking and learning at all levels: teacher, student, administrator, etc.  As Ewan stated, “Everyone should be in R and D.”  I began to think what that would look like in the buildings I work in, and luckily, the principals or assistant principals are here with me to bounce those ideas off of.  What we’ve decided is that it has to begin with our own practice.  Run our faculty meetings as we want them to run their classrooms: worksessions and discussions rather than announcements.  If we want to spread information, send an email or post to the wiki, but if it’s about pedagogy and teaching and student issues, make it face-to-face, and make it worthwhile.

There is a theme running through a lot of the workshops here that incorporates the idea that we should promote the teachers that “get it.”  Which teachers get it, and I don’t mean technologically only, but which teachers will look at something new and attack it, refine it and make it their own?  Find them and ask them to show how they do it.  Let students show teachers how things work.  Have you heard Alan’s quote: “always bring a student to a technology conference.”  Let students show their teachers what they are actually capable of (from Eric Marcos‘ presentation today)

Next: So What?

BLC Preparedness

In a few hours, myself and a team of administrators from my district will be boarding a plane for Boston to attend the Building Learning Communities conference.  If you are a somewhat regular reader of this blog, you may already know how often I reference Alan November’s ideas and what an influence he’s been on my practice.  When I pitched the idea for us to attend, way back in April, I didn’t anticipate all of the us going, but I am glad we are; it will be nice to see the reactions of my colleagues to some of the ideas that will be circulating.

The last few days have been interesting for me here.  On Saturday, I had the great opportunity to talk about new teacher induction programs with Steve Kimmi (the conversation was recorded and can be found on Steve’s blog or on the EdTechTalk site).  When Steve emailed me and gave me the list of topics that we might get to, it was a big one, and my preparations for the conversations led me to do some deeper thinking than I had done in a while–nothing like a deadline to get you motivated.  Steve’s idea was this:

We will be discussing how to prepare new teacher’s for today’s classroom and 21st century skills.  There are a lot of resources that attempt to define 21st century skills, so I will list the one’s that I am privy to.  However, this will also be discussed.

  • 21st Century Skills:
  • Digital Literacy
  • Global Awareness
  • Collaboration/Communication
  • Problem Solving/Inventive Thinking
  • So I knew I needed to formulate some ideas about them, and it coincided nicely with the direction I was heading in as we approached BLC.

    New Teachers and 21st Century Skills

    When I saw this heading, I thought immediately back to some of Jeff Utecht’s posts about interview questions for hiring of new staff.  What should our incoming teachers be versed in technologically v. what can we expect to teach them in the induction programs and in working with them over time?  This dichotomy gets at a few things I feel are important.  When new teachers arrive at our offices and classrooms, we expect them to have licensure and credentials as certified by the state and have passed through a teacher training program at a university.  I know nothing of what teacher training programs look like these days, only what the products of those programs, the new teachers we hire directly out of college, show us when they arrive for interviews or as new hires.  As Jeff stated in his post from last spring, we need to be a bit more stringent in what we are asking of our new teachers.  This is much easier said than done when we consider the amounts of schools out there that will open in September without a full staff due to the inability to find qualified applicants; however, for my own personal experience, I don’t think it’s enough to expect that a teacher have a basic understanding of the trends in education, rather, I feel they should be on the cutting edge having come from a teacher training program.  They should understand the power of networked learning, of the use of mobile technologies, and the utmost importance of critical thinking skills and collaboration among both their students and their colleagues.

    Digital Literacy/Leadership

    In looking back for Jeff’s post above, I came across one of my earlier posts regarding a conversation I had with my Uncle Bill in early Spring regarding the effects of changing systems and the workplace.  He posed a question that is apropo here as well:

    “If you believe in changing education, who are you working for now, the students and teachers of today or the students and teachers of tomorrow?”

    In the conversation with Steve on Saturday, I mentioned a story I heard via a comment on the “Uncle Bill” post in which she relayed a story that Alan November told audience at the Learning 2.0 Conference last year in Shanghai.  In it, Alan spoke of how Plato struggled with ideas espoused by the current educational system in his day and railed against those in control of it in order to have it changed.  In the end, his conclusion on how to change it was simple: wait for all of those in control to die.

    That’s not exactly an option we have; I think of all of the students that would exposed to new pedagogies, all of the teachers that would not come to know the power of a network that can be tapped into constantly and one that can be added to at the same rate.  Steve said it best in the discussion when he referenced the fact that we cannot give up on trying to help teachers develop lessons steeped in 21st Century literacy because what if students have a teacher that uses new methods successfully and exposes them to the use of new tools and transforms the way they learn, only to have a teacher the following year who does none of that.  Does that put the child at a disadvantage?  I don’t have that answer–reason being is that I don’t exactly know what the variables are yet.  What does good teaching with new tools and new pedagogy look like?  Are we at the point yet where one way trumps the other.  I have visions of Dan Meyer floating in my head here:  are we trying to re-invent something that is already invented?

    What this calls for, this change we keep referring too, is a change in the vision of our educational leaders.  I am excited to meet up with David Truss this week and get into his head about leadership, and with Dennis Richards to look at what type of vision for schools of today we can forge.

    More to come as the week progresses.

    Image Credit: “lead type” on jm3’s flickr photostream

    Moving it Along

    Although it might go against the very spirit of blogging, I think responding to Dina’s comment on my post about the “Connections” class deserves a little more attention.

    This class sounds like a jewel in the making. I’d love to know nitty-gritty (length? scheduling? vertical alignment?) if you’re willing.

    I wonder this too: it was recently at a meeting of the minds educational panel (2004 NYS Teacher of the Year, 2008 NYS Teacher of the Year, and a former National Science Teacher of the Year) that I heard this put forth as a pedagogical touchstone: “Who owns the question?”

    I thought of this as I read the list of questions your colleagues have drawn up– truly exciting and challenging stuff. Will these ideas exist with the leeway for students to determine their own critical inquiries?

    In other words– in your proposed class, who do you think will own the questions? I’d love to know.

    Dina’s question has been sitting on me for a few days, possibly weeks, now, and it’s not that I’ve been ignoring it, but rather gathering some resources to include in my response.  One of the things I found was a recent post by Dr. Tim Tyson called Value Chain 2.0.  Dina had asked who was going to own the questions that these teachers were proposing as essential to the unit of study, the students or the teachers?  Tyson’s article asks a much similar question, but he refers it to “who owns the learning in the classroom: the teachers or the students?  It also raises questions for me in the area of responsibilities shared by students and teachers.  A while back I wrote about being impressed with Alan November‘s idea that teachers should “outsource” a lot of what they do to the students.  Tyson’s point about who is doing the thinking work in the class goes to that–are you doing all of the thinking, or are the students?

    What I am struggling with, and I think it’s a struggle that all teachers and administrators will face in the coming years, is convincing and working with teachers to learn alongside their students, to model their practice for them, to fail in front of them, and to resurrect themselves in front of them.  The key point I have been trying to drive home with the teachers I am working with is that this class should be designed around topics that both you and the students want to learn about, and that this class has unbelievable potential for personal learning.  That being said, I like the idea that the ownership of both the learning and the questions be distributed evenly between the teachers and students.  Student-centered? Teacher-centered?  How about learning-centered?  or inquiry-centered?

    As with anything we do in education, there needs to be some structural framework to all of this, and we are ramming up against that pretty hard as we write the curriculum.  Questions of assessment strategies keep arising being that we are stripping out all of the focus on conventions (spelling, grammar, mechanics) and focusing solely on thinking process and ability to express ideas.  We are also running into the issue of how to structure this class on a daily basis, how do we set this up technologically (please, any classroom bloggers out there, we need your methods and practices that have been successful!), and what do we do to convince students that writing and thinking are not drudgery?

    Writing Workshop notes, 1/21/08

    Writing workshop

    Is there an authentic audience for you student writing?
    Elements of the student writing processes demonstrated in the video:
    -students know they will be writing for an external assessor
    -students know that they will be anonymous
    -“they don’t know me, they are only criticizing my work, not me.”
    -performance is part of the process

    Creating an external assessor adds a layer of motivation.

    Nursing home example of writing project. Can we make this authentic?

    Partner Teachers:
    -find classrooms
    -teachers sign up and want to be found

    Wikipedia articles created by students for publication and submission.
    -energy and excitement created by allowing students to do this.
    -responsibility to teach students how content is created in this manner.
    -not to mention the fact that there is constant revision of this article

    Blogging with Students
    -comments are the magic of blogging
    -students get to interact with one another and provide feedback
    -provide for asynchronous conversation between students and their “teachers”

    The Major Disconnect

    I had such selfish reasons for choosing to do this workshop at Franklin Lakes School District today; not only was it a great opportunity to talk about some really fun topics and make some extra money, but Alan November was the keynote. Alan’s message conveys a sense of urgency like no one else I have ever seen, and I always leave feeling recharged.

    Today’s presentation by Alan centered on student content creation, much like the last one I saw, but this was the first time I was able to see him interact directly with a small group. His ideas, juxtaposed against the usual smattering of teacher doubts, really resonate with “no excuses.” Counterpoints to every dissension. Creation in the face of doubt.

    When I think of my own practice, I wonder if I am doing enough creating of community. Darren Draper posted about bloggers who create community, but focused on the online environment. How do I do it in my buildings? Alan talks about allowing students to create material that is public, debatable and viewable by people from a global environment. I was twittering about the amount of teachers in a room here that do not have Google Accounts, or how few of them have heard of RSS feeds, and wondering to myself whether or not I could say the same for my district where I had worked on this for almost two years. What have I done to create the sense of urgency that Alan does?

    This is perfect fodder for thought as I enter the week before EduCon, and I hope I’ll be able to gather some resources for this there.

    Looking back over the course of the time I have spent at Tech Coordinator and now as Director of Curriculum, I don’t think formal professional development worked to the extent that I expected it would. I taught classes which were not well attended, or attended by the same group of people. I held in-service days where teachers were exposed to applications and strategies to help them implement social technologies in the classroom. But where did it get us? Sitting here, listening to Alan push these teachers, a very receptive bunch no less, I can’t help but place myself in a daydream where this is my district. How many of my teachers would know what RSS means? How many would have a Google Account? Did I make a difference, or did I just keep the same model that has not worked and made it look nicer?

    I am feeling the need to break the mold, to present a shift so sudden yet so necessary that teachers would look at it with both fear and longing–saying “I want to do this for my own development!” or “This has to happen!” But what it looks like is escaping me. How do you make someone feel like they need something?

    Alan November Notes, 1/21/08

    Some highlights from Alan November’s keynote:


    • Rigor is expected not only by teachers and parents, but also by students.
    • Lifestyle we give our students here can be dangerous as compared to Chinese students
      • they are earning their lifestyle
      • we are giving our students a sense of entitlement


    • produces 500,000 engineers per year
    • we produce 50,000
    • Cisco is moving their headquarters to India
      • 80% of the world’s population is within a five-hour plane ride from India
      • that part of the world is growing faster than this part.

    We have to overhaul what we are doing

    • rethink creativity, innovation and imagination
    • We are the last industrialized nation that values test scores the way we do.
    • It’s a numbers game-gifted children v. total children in America

    What is your role?

    • how do you teach children who will have to compete globally?
    • Tear this apart; debate it
    • Who owns the learning? Who should own the learning?
    • Who knows more about technology?
    • If technology was gone tomorrow, would you still be able to teach?
    • Let go.

    Commander of West Point ordered his staff to introduce Islam into the curriculum whenever possible.

    • Literature student from West Point anecdote about the Pope quoting from a 14th century scholar
      • Professor asks students to do a web search on the impact of Pope’s speech in Turkey
    • host, link, URL

    Job of a teacher: Idea #1-You must teach critical thinking as early as possible

    Job #2 You can have fantastic social skills over the web.

    Job #3 You should become a fantastic researcher using the internet.

    Job #4 You should have the ability to empower children to be a learner. Give them a stake.

    would adding an authentic audience add value to your teaching?