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.


Exploring the State of Now

While I have a ton to say about my experience at the 140 Characters Conference yesterday, the workload on my desk precludes writing a ton about it.  Here is the reason I was there: a panel on creating authentic learning experiences for our students:

This-a-way or That: I’m Good.

Doors open, doors close.

from Schoeband's Photostream on Flickr

Frost said it thus:

Two Roads Diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

In the wake of massive funding cuts here in New Jersey, school districts, including mine, are reeling.  In my district alone, our submitted budget included the cut of twenty-four teachers, guidance counselors in both of our elementary buildings and our middle school, four out of six Vice Principals, all sports and extra-curricular activities district-wide, and everyone in my department except the head of the department.

I am not the head.

The way things work in New Jersey, nothing will officially shake out until either late April or early May, but the foundation of public education is being abruptly shaken, as are those employed in schools throughout the state.  The last few weeks have brought on a sudden sense of urgency about the directions many of us will take, and the next few weeks will surely be filled with the same.  But for right now, I am not worried.

Without sounding self-serving or prognostic, I knew this was coming.  And I think you did too.

Those of you who read the same books and articles as I do, and spend time talking about what you think about those books and articles, have long predicted the radical changes underfoot in American public education.   What is disconcerting is that these disruptive changes, and I do believe what is happening in New Jersey is the beginning of this radical change, are not coming from the place we thought they would come from.  These are the pressures we thought we’d be getting.

They are rising out of fiscal issues rather than fancy technological innovations or student revolt.  They are coming from anti-union advocates and property tax reformers. What a nice bow it would put on all of our work over the last however many years to have what Christiansen and Godin have claimed was on the way attributed to cutting edge technology and the cutting-edge pedagogy to go along with it.   It’s just not going to be the case.

Instead, what I think we are going to get is a whole lot of “good enough” solutions that will arise, much like we did in other areas that were affected by disruptive innovations.  I mean, c’mon, what are all of these talented teacher-folk (and possibly curriculum-folk) going to do with themselves?

Stay tuned for that answer, because it’s going to be good.

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.

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

Anagnoresis and Peripiteia

In my house, we are huge fans of Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel (we call it “Yucky Jobs”).  I saw his name pop up in my iTunes library the other day in my TED Talks subscription and I wondered what this was going to be about.

Rowe speaks of two elements that arrived in his mind at a moment that no one can likely relate to.  These elements, anagnoresis and peripiteia, which I am sure I once used in a literary analysis back in the day, both deal with Aristotelian tragedy.  Anagnoresis, which is a literary device used to show how the protagonist moves from ignorance to discovery, Rowe used to describe the awakening he had at the moment when he was illuminated by his faulty reasoning, and peripiteia, the point in a tragedy whereby the tragic lead realizes the irony of the moment he or she is in (think Oedipus realizing that his wife is not who he thinks she is), he shows us that there may be a whole string of faulty reasonings that underpin his belief system.

Heady, I know.

The idea that it takes a moment of unexpected clarity or irony to show us our flawed assumptions is scary, in that we could last a long time in our own rut until that moment occurs.  Rowe’s ultimeate discovery is that he feels he should challenge all of his “platitudes.”  For example, in the talk, Rowe points out that if people took the advice and “followed their passion,” we would have a whole lot of economic difficulty within this country.  See this pig farmer’s story. Rather than follow a passion, what if we just “looked and saw which direction everyone else is moving in, and moved the other way.”  What if we just analyzed situations to find where the needs were, and acted upon that?

His ultimate understanding was this:


As I watched the talk and gained a new appreciation for Mike and the show, I did what I always end up doing–I related it to my own work.  What if the ideas I hold dear in education, the very things I have been focusing on over the last few years, are wrong?

It made me go back to my notes from BLC last summer.  I’ve mentioned this before, but on the last day of the conference I hadn’t planned on attending Dr. Pedro Noguera‘s keynote, but I ended up there.  Three things I wrote in my notes were triggered by what Rowe talked about:

  • Too often we use this equation: Talking=Teaching.
  • We shouldn’t be asking what does good teaching look like, but rather what does good learning look like.
  • We need to connect the way we teach to the way they learn.

I hadn’t thought about Noguera’s ideas that much lately, and hearing Rowe talk about anagnoresis and peripiteia brought them back.  What is it about education that causes you to lose focus on the big ideas that should be driving you?  I’d like to shift the focus onto student learning; I’d like to be listening to students the way Ryan has been and getting feedback from students on how they learn best, and I’d like to share that information with teachers that will act on it.  These are the types of discoveries that lead to real change.

I am guilty of trying to find out what “good teaching” looks like through my observation of teachers.  Perhaps I should have been looking at what the students were doing.

The Thesis is Dead. Long Live the Thesis.

I have learned a great deal from my monthly meetings with the English department: how to lead, how not to lead, how to completely miss the mark on what teachers need, and how to recover beautifully from missing said mark.  However, one of the simplest things, I have found, you can do for teachers to aid them in their professional development, is to listen carefully and then deliver on what you hear.

On Wednesday, all of the above situations played out.  We have often discussed having an expert voice come speak to us to help us drill deeper into an element of our craft.  A while back, I  came across an article by a Duke University professor, Dr. Bradley Hammer (who is how at UNC), that dealt with the shifts that were taking place in student writing in the “academy.”  The title of the article spoke volumes: “A New Type of University Writing.” Now, my English department already thinks I have a massive case of technophilia, and inviting this professor who believed that college writing, long believed to be the epitome of thesis driven argumentative writing, was now transforming into another piece of the digital landscape, was a risky move.  But, after talking to him on the phone in September, I knew he would make some waves of the good kind.  And did he ever.

The teachers were very interested in hearing about trends he saw in student writing, in essence asking for feedback on what he thought of Freshman entering the program.  Dr. Hammer didn’t disappoint in his response.  Most of his work, he stated, is deconstructing what the students come in with.  For example, he stated that 15 years ago, it was common for students to arrive at the college campus with very poor argumentative skills: weak ability to write strong theses, very little support for arguments in their writing.  Now, they all arrive knowing how to “do the essay.”  Formulaic, straightforward positions, support at all the appropriate turns, and of course, an adherence to the five-paragraph format.  His work is to get them away from “doing the essay,” to caring about the essay.

His work is about teaching students to deconstruct their own biases in their writing so that when confronted with a traditional topic (he used abortion in our our conversation as an example) the students would begin to generate questions about the factors that define the topic rather than automatically deciding which side of the argument to sit on.  For the students in his writing class, it’s not about whether or not you can convince someone of something, but rather that you get an understanding of yourself through an issue presented to you. His greatest line, by far for me, was this:

High schools train students how to argue–they need to learn how to ask questions and interrogate ideas first.

As soon as he said it, I immediately began running thumbing through my mental Rolodex to try to remember how many times I have heard that in my reading over the last two years.  It just rings.  Whether it’s been caused by federal mandates or by our poorly thought out responses to them, we’ve underestimated our students ability to be meta-cognitive about the writing process.  It’s more about the process rather than the product, when we truly break it down to it’s smaller parts.  Is it really imperative that little Suzy write her essay in five standard paragraphs with a neat little thesis hook at the end of her first paragraph?  Or would we rather see her wrestle something down to it’s bits in the pre-writing and research stages and produce something in three paragraphs?  I’ll take the scrapping any day.

What was great for me, aside from the fact that it was a meeting where I did very little direct talking, was the dialog that sprung up after our call ended.  Some of those in the room were in agreement with Hammer; we should be focusing more on the meta-cognitive processes of writing.  Others asked if the reasons Hammer and his colleagues are able to do the deconstruction with students and push them in the direction they do is because of the argumentative underpinnings that high school English teachers provided them with?  Can they get to B without having gone through A?  Others asked if there was a way we could see products of the freshman Hammer worked with; we wanted to see what inquiry-driven writing looked like in the end.

The most challenging element about working with the four departments I do is trying to find something for each of them to sink their teeth into, and this did it for the English teachers.  My own personal belief about what compositional writing should like look at any level is very simple: writing should demonstrate your ability to think, and your ability to convey those thoughts succinctly.  My answer to the departmental question about whether or not we should be doing the things that Dr. Hammer does in our classrooms is undeniably yes.  But, like anything, let’s allow the students to determine the level to which they can successfully do it.  Just because they are 16 doesn’t necessary preclude them from inquiry, and the same can be said in reverse for some students.  Push where needed, pull back when necessary.

All in all, a great meeting.

Image Credit: “Me & teh thesis” from doryexmachina’s Photostream

Embedded Reporting

I am banking on one very important thing this year: that the use of publicity will continue to raise the tide of change and lift more boats.

For the last two years, I have managed a district technology blog called Tech Dossier.  This year, I have reconstituted it thanks to a few posts by Miguel, but changed it slightly.  First, the name: from Tech Dossier, to The Dossier.  I truly want to move away from the inclusion of the word technology in any of the titles I use.  Through several conversations with people like Barry Bachenheimer and Patrick Chodkiewicz, I’ve come to realize that semantics matter, especially to teachers.  It’s not about how to use technology when you teach, but rather it’s about how you can teach, period. Second, to match the semantic shift in the title, the focus of the articles has now broadened to include topics that are not solely technologically based, but rather a highlight of some of the innovative practices our teachers are using.  We have teachers in all of our buildings who constantly push their thinking and their students thinking.  I’d like to get there and find them; the rest of the district, and the world at large should be seeing what they are doing.

I’ve enlisted several people to write over the two years, and this year we’ve added a second-grade teacher from one of the elementary schools to the list of authors.  We’ve got three administrators, two high school teachers, a middle school teacher, a tech coordinator, and now an elementary teacher writing and looking out in their buildings for ingenious ideas.  Also, being no stranger to shameless promotion, I send out a bi-weekly email highlighting all of the posts that have appeared.  I am trying to get a feed service to send it to our global address book, but somehow I think that may either get flagged as spam, or individual teachers would not recognize it as an important message and just delete it.

The idea of doing some reporting, let’s even call it micro-reporting due to the short nature of the posts, on what is going on instructionally within you building is a gold mine.  While our commenting has been limited so far, our stats are through the roof, so I know people are going to the page.  At this point that’s all I want: people to know that others are out there looking for them, trying to catch them being competent and taking risks.

Head on over to The Dossier, and check out what our teachers have been up to.

Image Credit: “Reporter’s Notebook, U.S. Version,” from niclas’ photostream

9/27 part II.

Scobles Tablet PC
Scoble's Tablet PC

My months are rigidly divided into three parts: elementary school meetings, middle school department meetings, and high school department meetings.  These are my set dates for which I prepare for.  Each department that I supervise has unique (and often pressing) needs by the time I meet with them each month.  This morning I met with the world language department at the middle school, who, due to a change in schedule is now meeting with all of their students on a daily basis, whereas beforehand they saw 6th grade every other day and 7th and 8th grade every day.  Needless to say, there is some adjustment going on and emotions are high.  Their new schedule has them teaching 30 minutes instead of 40 minutes, yet on the whole for the year their student contact time is higher–confusing, I know.  What they had expressed concern over was that loss immediate class time.  And, if you add in student passing time between classes that 30 becomes 25 or less.

My approach to them was simple: how can I give you back more class time?  The reality is that I am not involved at the building/scheduling level; I can’t physically give them back more time.  I showed them how to create screencasts using Jing.  The thinking behind this was simple in that if they were losing up to five minutes of their class time to passing time and administrative tasks, was there a way that they could ensure that students had the resources to reconstruct that missed time?

There were a few assumptions here:

  1. That teachers will create the screencasts: I was asking them to give up “outside of class time” to create these.
  2. That students will watch them.

Both assumptions are not mutually exclusive. Teacher buy-in and student buy-in go hand-in-hand when it comes to the success of any change in the norm.  If I didn’t wrangle the teachers today in some capacity, there is no way the students will ever see these things.  Here’s how I ran the class:

  1. I showed them what was familiar to them on their tablets (our world language department all have tablet pc’s): Word, PowerPoint, and Journal.
  2. I showed them how to ink on those programs.
  3. I launched JIng and screencasted.
  4. I played it back.
  5. I asked someone to verbally repeat my steps.
  6. I asked them to begin the download process for Jing (slow network).
  7. I asked each of them in turn to come to my tablet and create a mini-cast and publish it.
  8. We laughed at each other.

Lots of “I’s” but also plenty of “we’s.”  There were many times throughout were I would have succumbed to dwelling on what is not possible in the classrooms, but for now, I wanted to focus on something they could do to be pro-active to increase their instructional capabilities.  Screencasting allows them to say that there are resources available to the students at ALL times.

I hope it works.

Image Credit: Scoble’s Tablet PC” from penmachine’s photostream

9/27 part I.

“If we cannot learn to engage in productive, ideological conflict during meetings, we are through.”  – Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

There is one thing that most every person that has ever met me may agree with: I am not much for rocking the boat.  My admission of that has never met with much discernment from myself, as I have often taken pride in that ability to remain objective.  Yet, in reading this quote, first in Dave Dimmet’s Leadertalk post, and then again in Miguel’s weekly recap, a smarter part of me took offense to my usual behavioral pattern.

What’s wrong with discord?  In this position, which I cannot call “new” anymore, I am constantly faced with opportunities for constructive discord, and I have found that over the course of the first 10 months in this position, I have often either pacified, avoided, or circumvented opportunities for disagreement.  Why?  Let’s see what happens when disagreement happens in front of me.  What will it mean if I help people who disagree come to terms with the fact that they disagree?  I am going to go with Dave’s advice here and see what happens.  I’ll report back on the state of that idea.

Image credit: “Gloom” from Shirley Buxton’s photostream