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.


It Never Was an Either/Or

This week I have spent a good portion of my time working with teachers in grades PK-2 talking about creativity and innovation.  Due to the changes that New Jersey is proposing in the new draft standards, which came about through their membership in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (among other factors as well), the elements that are stressed in the P21 manifesto have populated themselves into the new standards.  Themes such as:

  • Global awareness
  • Financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy
  • Civic literacy
  • Health literacy

and skills like:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Communication and Collaboration

are all now written into our standards from PK-12.

If you come from middle or high school teaching into an administration position in which you work with grades PK-5, you will understand how stressful it is to work with elementary teachers.  They are wonderful people; I should know, I am married to one.  But when you look at all they have to do in a day and the limited time they have to do it in, having them sit in an afterschool meeting to work with curriculum is daunting.  To introduce these ideas to our elementary teachers, we used our good friend Sir Ken Robinson.  We took a page from the P21 Framework that centered on creativity and innovation and had the teachers use it as a backbone for writing down ideas that struck them while watching Sir Ken’s TED talk from 2006.  From there, we had them answer two prompts in groups of 4-5:

  • Identify the structures in place in your classroom that promote creativity and innovation either in your students or yourself.
  • So what?  What Now?

The responses were phenomenal, especially in relation to the areas where Sir Ken spoke about finding creative capacities and working with them instead of educating them out of them.  However, one thing I have learned in administration in regards to any kind of meeting is that you have to be ready for the “don’t waste my time question of the day,” which is the part where you have to make it matter to them.  A teacher asked the question very bluntly:

“where is this going?  How are we to fit these ideas, which by the way we all believe in, into what we already do?”

My answer wasn’t great, I’ll admit, and it had a lot to do with explaining where the ideas behind the new standards revisions came from, but it stuck with me.

Last night, in my reader appeared an article from Patrick Riccards at Eduflack in which he debated the mode of delivery that the P21 people have chosen.  This gem was smack in the middle of it:

The debate over 21CS skills should not be one between one set of curricular goals versus the other.  This isn’t core knowledge versus soft skills.  No, our focus should be on how we teach those core subjects that are necessary.  How do we teach math and science so that we better integrate technology and critical thinking skills?  How do we teach the social sciences in a manner that focuses on project-based learning and team-based activities?  How do we ensure that a 21st century student is not being forced to unplug when they enter the classroom, and instead uses the technologies and interests that drive the rest of their life to boost their interest and achievement in core academic subjects?  And most importantly, how do we ensure all students are graduating with the content knowledge and skills needed to truly achieve in the 21st century economy

One does not go forward by jettisoning the skills with which we gathered. To me it’s not about introducing new content, but rather how we engage students in content using the “soft skills” that we need them to develop. The ability to have a lasting understanding is our goal here, and providing relevant context to what we do in the classroom is a great way to get there.  So my answer to that question is not to change the content of what you do, but to use the same skills you are trying to develop in the students in your own practice.  Be innovative, be creative, be prepared to fail often, collaborate, model the behaviors you want to see in your students.

Kill the Mothership

I just did a cursory search on the web and within the edublogs I troll for the above phrase.  Kendall Crolius, one of the Friday night panelists at EduCon 2.1 dropped that expression on all of us in the audience in reference to how to innovate.  I can’t stand how cool it sounds, so I named this post after it.

Here was the context in which it was uttered: the panel was asked what the purpose of school is, and in their various answers, the responses between them and the interplay with the audience, someone asked if innovation and change were possible within the current model of schooling in America.  Crolius responded with a reference to Clayton Christensen’s work via Disrupting Class; Christensen states that the companies that are serious about innovation and change that focus on disruptive innovation especially do so by creating rogue “mini-companies” whose sole responsibility it is to innovate, and in essence “kill the mothership” by changing market dynamics.  Think of telecom companies in the early 1990’s.  Those companies that were able to devote time, resources and cutting-edge thinking to developing cellular technologies were ready when the use of these devices became as easy or easier than traditional telephony.

We have been squawking about our pockets of innovation within our buildings, or within certain geographic areas around the world as problematic.  After hearing this take on it, I think we are underestimating what we have.  While threats to the monolithic structure of public education are nowhere on the horizon as we speak, I can see a future where students whose teachers expose them to social networking tools and leverage them in a way that allows them to take charge of their own learning do not stand for rows, chairs, and textbook learning as the sole basis for their learning.  They won’t stand for the idea that the person in the room with them holding the teaching certificate is the last word on any topic.

These pockets we talk about, these teachers who are pushing against drill-and-kill test prep and standardized curriculum, are our rogues.  Where on this continuum are your pockets that you work with, or where do you think you fit?  Listening to the idea as espoused by Crolius on the panel truly made me feel like I lead two lives: I support these pockets with energy and by removing obstacles, yet work very hard to maintain somewhat of a status quo with the majority of the staff I work with.  Yes, we are pushing upward and advancing their craft through various professional development and discourse (as indicated by the linear usage lines above) but it’s the innovators that are advancing at the exponential rate.  In the end, how I support them and push that curve above the “most demanding use” line will determine how I view my success.

Year-end, Part I.

I don’t know why I would conclude a post name with “Part I,” when due to the schedule I am keeping these days, there is no guarantee there will be a “Part II,” but I guess it’s wishful writing.  Unless you are living in solitary confinement or have taken a holiday break job as a fire lookout, you’ve seen the onslaught of year-end posts that have been funneling through your mailbox, reader, or inbox.  For me, it’s a great lesson in how to deal with information overload.  Every one of these year-end recaps always points to some future point where the ills we’ve either created or ignored in the previous year can be righted.  This from Tom Friedman in the 12/23 NYT:

That’s why we don’t just need a bailout. We need a reboot.
We need a build out. We need a buildup. We need a national makeover.
That is why the next few months are among the most important in U.S.
history. Because of the financial crisis, Barack Obama has the
bipartisan support to spend $1 trillion in stimulus. But we must make
certain that every bailout dollar, which we’re borrowing from our
kids’ future, is spent wisely.

Earlier in the article, he alluded to the many ills that plague our great nation, taking a stab at our livelihood in stating that we have “…public schools with no national standards to prevent illiterates from graduating…”  and as Clay so rightly put it in his comment on this via Twitter:


It’s context, I understand, and Friedman as making a point about the state of innovation in America–all things I agree with him on here.  But I know that standards as we’ve come to expect them from the federal government are not ones I want placed upon me or the students I work for.

I’ve got this statement stuck in my mind this week, and it’s one that has appeared in various forms over the years:

“the most important skill of the future may be the ability to forget what you’ve learned, and learn something new.” —by Patrick Tucker, Senior Editor, THE FUTURIST

The feedback I’ve gotten on this one so far has been slightly comical, but let’s break it down over the next few days.  What does it mean for us if what we know, what we are competent in, no longer makes our livelihoods stable?  In education, we tend to feel immune to the fluctuations of the job market.  But what if we are not?  What if the profound changes that the futurists are predicting, these disruptive innovations, happen sooner rather than later?  This is something I’d like to look into over the course of the next few days, time permitting…

Five Ideas To Think About



I don’t know if this was prompted by the fact that he came up and said hello to me last night, or by the fact that the title of his post, Reality Bytes, struck me, but David Jakes has got me thinking about the five main points he brings up in his most recent post at TechLearning. When we spend so much time speaking of changing schools, whether you buy into what Alvin Toefler is saying or not, we often forget that we are a supreme minority, we edubloggers. That real change is a much bigger elephant that we are going to need a lot of help in biting over time.

According to David, “the conversation forgets:”

1. That schools, like the one on Main Street in Downers Grove, and the schools that are in your community, can indeed be successful.

I work in a public school system. We are bound by a state-mandated curriculum, bound by every regulatory principle under Title 18A of the New Jersey State Constitution, and participate in every mandatory data collection via assessment. That system is not changing; those responsibilities are not changing.

We are also a state with a powerful and active teacher’s union who does some great work for teachers. Any changes that are made within my schools will have to done with these two aspects in mind. This is possible because of the staff that we have and the vision that we have for our students. It’s just going to be much different than some of the visions we see and hear about as we read.

2. That school change, school reform, whatever you want to call it, can emerge from within schools themselves.

The most important aspect, and this came up in a brief conversation with Kristin Hokanson last night at the Franklin Institute, is that there are so many people involved in this conversation that are classroom teachers. I love to hear what Scott Meech, George Mayo, and Brian Crosby are doing because it is practical change. For someone like me, and this point was reflected in the comment from John Maklary, I am out of the classroom so I may not “get it” as much as I used to. Seeing best practices evolve from around the world helps me speak about change in practice with my teachers, and then show them the examples and put them into contact with these practitioners.

This is a grass-roots movement in that it’s not mandated from above. No one is telling you that you have to connect your classroom to the world. We would like you to see it for yourself.

3. That we know how to educate kids.

Our teachers did not suddenly unlearn how to teach, how to care, and how to lead. There is in every school those that should not be there, but you would find that in any profession. Currently, I am immersed with several groups of veteran teachers in professional study groups centered around the ideas of questioning skills, differentiated instruction, cooperative learning, collaborative teaching, student assessment methods, instructional practices, and unit and lesson design using Understanding by Design. Our teachers are still learners, and they want to hone their practice. If they don’t, well that is a different story, but one that again, plays out in any field.

This is as, Ben Wilkoff used the term last year, a “ripe environment” for change. Professional development in New Jersey is mandated. Mandated, but not enforced. Still, teachers are continually looking for development. Let’s make sure we offer the kind we need to facilitate the change we want to see.

4. That students still need to be placed in rigorous, challenging learning environments where they learn things like writing, math, civics, and science.

The relevance of this statement will always remain profound. It’s the geography of it that will change. By this I mean that where we teach these subjects, not just physically but topically, will change. We are currently in a re-design phase for our business and technology department at the high school and we are thinking of creating a series of open classrooms where the students are not only taught in the specific class that they signed up for, but exposed to other classes and ideas as well in one large open room. The possibilities for collaboration and exploration are boundless. We will have our subject areas, but the boundaries between them won’t resemble anything we know now. Still, this has to come from within your staff and not from a mandate. Let it be organic.

5. That not all kids are tech-savvy.

This fact is becoming a hot topic, not only in the edublogosphere, but in our individual buildings. Our students are not terribly academic online. I’ve written on several occasions about my experience with students and content management, and we had an instance the other day where a student was complaining about having to check the class wiki for update. What he is missing, and what our role as teachers in this era should be, is to teach him how to set up a reader to monitor it for him through RSS, rather than having to be a slave to a page load.

Either way, David got me thinking about these things. I love radical change as much as the next guy, but will it get us where we want to go. What is it they say about asking for what you want….


Image credit: “schoolhouse in a field of oats” at Mc Morr’s photostream


What are you Aiming for?

After a short day at the office, Dan and I headed down to Philly for Educon 2.0. Leaving work behind, I have to say, was a relief; I think we both needed some time away from the rigors of work (but I have to say, leaving the family was not easy–miss them way too much right now).

I laid kind of low tonight and avoided the really big gatherings, not for reasons of anti-socialness, but more to get centered before tomorrow begins. To be honest, this is my first “big idea” conference, where most of the people whose conversations I have participated in are here. There are definite goals I have going into tomorrow, and tonight was a good time to get them ordered and centered.

  • we’ve worked very hard to establish the groundwork for change in our district, but where do we go from where we are?
  • How do we create a “felt need” for open professional development and creation of personal learning environments for teachers to participate in dynamic learning alongside their students?
  • What are the best practices involved with this thing we are calling School 2.0? If I am going to continue pushing for innovation, I am going to need to be armed with strategies and materials for them to grow with.

My schedule for tomorrow breaks down like this, at least for now:

  1. Session 1: Influence without Authority: Finding the Common Ground to Frame Innovation and Change with Kevin Jarrett and Sylvia Martinez
  2. Session 2: Tearing Down the Walls – Practicing What We Preach with Vinnie Vrotny and David Jakes
  3. Session 3: Building School 2.0 — New Tools and Dewey’s Dream with Chris Lehmann

At the conclusion of the sessions, I will be leading a reflection session from 4:00-5:00, which I hope to do as little interfering with conversation as possible.

Sunday is still up in the air, as it should be. I want tomorrow’s conversation to dictate where I end up.

I look forward to hearing from all of you out there as the weekend goes on.