Over the break, I took the liberty to actually move into my new office.  We cleaned out drawers that had not been cleaned in the months I had been there, we moved the ubiquitous curriculum binders to a place where they can gather dust less conspicuously, and we removed some aging pieces of furniture.

It’s that last piece that made the most difference to the space.  Over the last few years, mainly since I’ve known my wife, I’ve come to understand much more about what it means to have a “space,” and to cultivate it to fit your needs.  Having jumped into this position somewhat midstream while schools were beginning and routines were already established, I struggled with the space I was working in.  It defined the job, and thus, by default, had begun to define me.  Because I had not changed that space and made it workable for me, I truly felt a bit hamstrung from establishing myself here.

By removing some of the bigger pieces of furniture in the room and putting up a twelve-foot whiteboard, we in effect opened up the usable space tremendously.  What does that mean for me and those I work with?  More room to collaborate, more space to think and do, and fewer constraints on the ideas we have and actions we take.  It may sound a bit pie-in-the-sky, but after spending my first full day in the new space, I’m convinced that my thinking and activity will change for the better.



This afternoon, my phone made the familiar ping telling me that somewhere among the various networks out there, someone was mentioning me.  To my surprise, Kevin Jarrett had unearthed something I had written back in 2008 after attending his session (which he co-presented with Sylvia Martinez).

I’ll be the first to admit how easy it is to get lost in the minutiae of the work we do, to lose sight of the overall reason we are here and the bigger goals we have for the students and staff we work with.  Thank you, Kevin, for reminding that I do have these thoughts, I do have these goals, and that we can work to make learning, and the schools that go with it, an unbelievable experience.  Reposted, in its entirety:

Change is a loaded word. It strikes fear into the hearts of even the most secure of professionals. In looking at the idea of change, I see it as coming from one of two directions: either top-down, where those in charge of your program, your superintendent, building administrator, or your supervisor bring it about, or bottom-up, also termed “organic, or “grass-roots,” where change comes from the classrooms and spreads throughout a school building or district based on the practices of teachers and the work of students.

What I am seeing
When I started the process if looking at pedagogy rather than looking at tools as ways to help engage students, the world of technology became small. Granted, I really began this process in earnest about 5 months ago, so the sample size here is small, but nonetheless, what I see is what Chris Lehmann so aptly termed in his session at EduCon: “It’s not the product, it’s the process.” Learning experience matters infinitely more than the result. Focusing on that process rather than the final paper or diorama or wiki is a difficult thing to do when the tools that take us there are so unbelievably slick.

Our situation in regards to change
Our process of change that is occurring has been and continues to be top-down, where we as administrators and tech coordinators are introducing teachers to tools and pedagogies that are transformative and engaging, but we are relying on their trust and their willingness to open themselves to developing expertise. How well will this continue to work? It remains to be seen whether it is a model for systemic change with our staff. We are working within 5 buildings, each with varying levels of both adoption and readiness. When that is the case, your strategy involves as much trust-building as it does introduction to new ideas. We have worked hard on that, but there are elements that are lacking in our design:

  • overarching curricular goals written directly into our curriculum plans at the start. Technology and the pedagogy to use it transformatively is often left out of that process.
  • teacher’s as vocal advocates for change a building-level plan for helping teachers teach with these adapted methodologies (notice I said adapted methodologies because we are not re-inventing the wheel here; the methods we advocate are still the same we have touted for years: differentiating, cooperative learning, co-teaching, questioning skills, etc. Only now we are truly elevating their effectiveness through the use of social, collaborative and expressive technologies.)
  • An environment that allows teachers to be free from the fear of failure and it’s supposed administrative repercussions. If we expect our students to learn, unlearn, and re-learn, then we must give our teachers the freedom to create, experiment and play with content and its delivery to students.

I sat in Kevin Jarrett and Sylvia Martinez’s session about creating lasting change within a school district using the Future Search Process, and I remember thinking about all the ideas that were flying about the room in terms of gathering the necessary parties needed for creating change. The one that keeps sticking with me is the reference they made to something called “The Burning Platform,” whereby an individual is placed in a situation (a burning oil platform) where they must choose either certain death (staying on the platform) or the likelihood of death (jumping into the water). The analogy to education is that there is a situation whereby the outcome of staying still is obvious: student apathy and loss of engagement, but the outcome of changing and moving is less obvious but possibly a salvation.

I am looking at a situation where I don’t know if teachers understand that the platform is burning. They don’t know whether to jump, stay still, or get marshmallows. I want to create a community that is not afraid of change, that feels like they have a stake in the change process, and is willing to help create that change even if makes their role in the classroom change to one that is better capable of creating methods to solve rather than providing answers.

Why Does Change Cause Problems?

Today, I have the great honor of speaking to our Eighth grade students as part of their “Last Lecture” series run by Anne Bergmann, Gina Doane, and Lisa MacDonald.  Monthly, they ask a member of the school community to speak to their students in the format of a “Last Lecture” to try to impart some wisdom upon the students.

My charge today is to speak to these students about the idea of change: how it affects us, how it changes us, how we respond to it, and most importantly, how we make it.  I’ve invited the students here to discuss their answers to the question “How does a big change in your life make you feel?”

This post is open to any and all to respond to, but I’d love for the students and their teachers to drop in their views.

Writing and the Relevance of High School

In an effort to continue to bridge the gap between how we are preparing our students for future studies and the world beyond, on April 13th our high school will be hosting Dr. Richard Miller, Professor of English and the Director of the Plangere Writing Center at Rutgers University.  Dr. Miller is the author of As if Learning Mattered: Reforming Higher Education (1998) and Writing at the End of the World (2005). His articles have appeared in the journals College English, CCC: College Composition and Communication, JAC: A Journal of Advanced Composition, WPA: Writing Program Administration Journal, and Pedagogy, as well as in the collections Composition Studies in the 21st Century: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future, Teaching/Writing in the Late Age of Print, and Professing in the Contact Zone: Bringing Theory and Practice Together. He is also the co-editor, with Kurt Spellmeyer, of The New Humanities Reader (2nd edition, 2006) and co-author of the web site

Several of his presentations have been recorded and viewed by thousands via YouTube, including This is How We Dream (Parts I and II) which were made at the National Conference of the MLA, The Future Is Now (made to the Rutgers University Board of Governors), and The Spirit of the New Humanities.

We will be inviting other colleagues from our district, and Dr. Miller will feature several of his current undergraduate students in his discussion.  We will be live streaming the event via this Ustream Channel, and tweeting the link out to as many as are interested.  More information will follow in the coming days regarding some of your preferences in what he will discuss.  We are very excited for the discussions that will follow this.  Please Join us!

Problem Solved

After you’ve done a thing the same way for two years, look it over carefully.  After five years, look at it with suspicion.  And after ten years, throw it away and start all over.

The above is from Alfred E. Perlman, a railroad visionary in the 20th Century.  Much as we take inflation rates into consideration when comparing dollar amounts from past eras, I think we should do the same with time figures.  When Perlman made this quote in 1958 in the midst of turning around the New York Railroad, time and change moved at a much different rate.  Let’s look at this quote and remove the time factors that Perlman used.

How often do we need to review what we do as educators when it comes to our classroom or leadership practices?

Image Credit: “RETHINK” from depone’s photostream

Axiom Number 3

Last night, Beth Still announced via twitter that her daughter was thinking about writing a post on her own blog about the state of her own high school education.  Emily Still, a ninth-grader, wanted to think aloud about what she felt was an injustice.  She felt that she was not being prepared for her future by the classes she currently takes, and worse, by the teachers she currently has.

How can we be productive in this society, if our school system does not teach us how to use the tools we will need to be successful?
It seems like all the school system has done to get into technology is get a couple Promethean Smart Boards and hope the teachers figure out how to use them. How much training have our teachers received on how to use and teach the tools we need? Are we taught about blogging? How about using things like Google Docs to create, store and share files online? The answer would be no.

I commented to Emily the following:

Well done, and well put. You’ve stated your case, identified areas that need to be improved, and broadcast your message to the listening public.

You’ve done the first part, what a some would call the “what” part of the discussion. What will you do for the remaining two parts:
So What?
What Now?
I don’t know if you plan on sharing this with the faculty of your school, or at least with one you feel might be open to it, but I think you should. Once you do that, though, there is no turning back in this process. While you may not feel it is your role, you will play a huge part in their transformation as educators.
What can you do to help the administration and staff see that there are elements of your learning that are essential to your future success that are being largely ignored? You have a wealth of resources at your disposal from some very highly intelligent and prolific people in these networks. Use the work that others have done to show your teachers, and most importantly their administrators that this is relevant and necessary to your future.

In thinking a little longer on it today, and after reading Jim Burke’s short piece on the immediacy of Yelp and the effect it could have on teaching and learning shortly, I think we will see more and more letters like this one in the very near future.  If we do not, then our problem in public education is bigger than we thought.  If students do not care enough, like Emily does, about their futures, it is bleak indeed.

Emily struck a familiar chord with me here, one that Barry Bachenheimer so clearly pointed out to me a few years back.  It’s something I like to call the Broccoli Rule:  school does not exist to provide students with everything they like, nor should we kowtow to any choice they make in their own learning.  That would be akin to allowing toddlers to choose their foods of choice.  As their guides and teachers, we need to steer them toward choices that are going to make them stronger, and sometimes that means throwing in some broccoli when they do not want to eat it.

Our job as teachers is to help people reach their full potential–to aid them in the realization of a goal they previously thought was unattainable.  We can do this through the a fine balance of choice, suggestion, and at times, mandate.  In the case of Emily, I sincerely hope she takes the next steps and begins to change how her teachers and school approach the problems she has identified.  She mentions a few products by name in her post, but you can clearly hear that she is not talking about solely using computers for learning, but rather she wants to engage in something meaningful that will require her to collaborate with her fellow students.  The technology will serve the pedagogy, if those in charge will let it.