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

Meeting Notes

It was one of those days.

I had tired of the regular, beginning of the month department meeting (this was the 7th in 8 days) and for some reason, I felt the need to have one of those meetings where you check in with why you are doing what you are doing.  Whether it be a few parent concerns that have arisen, or questions from other departments, I can’t say exactly, but some of the resources that have been coming through my filters lately have really made me look closely at what we do here.  What follows are the notes from the meeting that I sent out to our Connections teachers on their Google Group.

As you all know, we just completed the QSAC process here, and with that we went through every shred of curriculum we have in the district (including those old PBL’s) to make sure we met the standards.  In doing that, so many thoughts about the next steps we need to take kept coming to me.  We are at the precipice of some very big change in the field of education, and at times I feel as if we are so far behind the steps that the rest of the world has taken in this regard.  However, as Dr. Richard Miller from Rutgers says in his address “when Gutenberg invented the printing press, we didn’t have Europe plus books, we had a whole new Europe.”  Well, when I look at what we are trying to do here, it’s not like this is teaching learning plus cool new tools, but rather whole new teaching and learning. (I used from 3:22 on)

The nature of composition is really changing.  My own two kids will not only have to know how to write, and write well, but they will also have to understand how to compose their message in ways that capture the visual nature of our society today.  That’s not only everything we had to learn growing up, but it’s also a whole range of design skills that we were never asked to put to use.  Here’s one of the graphics I used to start the meeting:

Looking at how we consume words now, can we legitimately give our students a print-dominated reading and writing experience?  I don’t think we can anymore.  Yes, they will have to know the parameters of how to construct good writing, but the finished product is going to look so much different from a term paper or an essay.  Composition is now beyond the paper.

And when our intake of words is dominated by three other sources before print, can the teaching of critical analysis skills be limited to just one medium?  Friends of mine in college used to joke that schools were missing the boat by not teaching kids how to watch television critically.  I sloughed them off as being to saturated with it themselves as they were all going into that field upon graduation.  Now, here I am almost fifteen years later designing classes in media literacy and connected writing in which that medium is one of the most talked and written about.

Listening to the stories about the projects you have undertaken with the kids, from multi-genre research papers to documentary films, all with an emphasis on providing multiple means of expression while still holding them to design standards, I can’t help but think we are moving a direction that our students will benefit greatly from.

Here are the links to the resources I used so that you may go through them on your own and form your own opinions.  Thank you for all the great conversation and the feedback during our meeting.  I look forward to hearing more from you regarding the conversation.

Single Media Schools…

Google Living Stories

Sports Illustrated Tablet

Rutgers University English Chairman’s address to the Board of Trustees
“The future is now”

Deaf Ears

I went to a conference two weeks ago, and I am still sitting on my “what I learned at (insert conference name here)” post.  It’s not that I didn’t take anything away that is worth squawking about, nor that I haven’t the time to write about it, because, let’s face it, so few of us do anymore.  It’s rather that I’ve been trying to find the way to say it without ruffling the feathers of those who put on conferences all over.

There shouldn’t be any educational technology conferences anymore.

Oh great.  Now it’s out there.  There goes any chance I ever had at presenting at ISTE (or NECC, or whatever it’s next iteration will be).

While I truly love the conference I am speaking of, being that the first time I attended was one of the biggest eye-opening events of my career a few years back, something has changed around the world of education and educational conferences.   What’s changed is not the technology–that’s a given.  What’s changed is that we now ask different questions than we did before. The more “Ed Tech” conferences I attend, the  more I see people there who don’t need to be there.  If we are talking about real change in education, the kind that makes nervous people of those with big jobs in big companies that depend on education as a market, than we’ve got to get different people here.

Instead of the word technology or educational technology being mentioned anywhere in the nomenclature of the conference, why don’t we focus on student learning.

If you can’t show me (preferably with live students) how what you are talking about is credible, gets kids excited to learn, and allows them to share their learning with whomever wants to be a part of it, I don’t know if I am interested.

I know this has been said before, and many times here in this space, but it’s not teaching with technology, or learning with technology, or educational technology.  It’s just teaching, just learning, and just education.  It’s here, it’s your computer connected to the world, and it makes your job easier.  And if  the educational technologist in your district would just let you know about these conferences, it might just become very clear to you.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that these conferences need to recognize the fact that we moved beyond just inviting directors of technology, technology coordinators, or higher-level administrators, but rather classroom teachers, students, and even community stakeholders.

Creativity Myths, The Other Half

Myth 4: Fear Forces Breakthroughs

According to the research that Breen quotes throughout his article, “creativity is positively associated with joy and love and negatively associated with anger, fear, and anxiety,” meaning that when you are happy you produce more creative work.  Furthermore, according to the research, you are more likely to come up with a creative idea after a day in which you were happy than not.  Sounds less like rocket science than it does common sense, but again if we play this out across the field of education, workplace happiness and environment can play a huge role in how creative we are in finding solutions to classroom and curricular situations.  How do you feel when you are at work?  Does it bring you joy to be there?  I find that I work best when my environment is calm, but engaging, and there are people that challenge me.

Myth 5: Competition Beats Collaboration

With all of the tools we have available to us that push collaboration, nothing replaces what we can do in the direct company of others.  The myth here is that by pitting teams or individuals against each other, we gain in creativity.  We are in the midst of annual meetings in which we share how we use the district-issued technology in our classrooms.  The intent of the meetings is many-faceted: one one hand we as administrators need to assess the use of the limited technological resources we have in the district; on the other hand, the teachers involved truly get to see a glimpse of what their colleagues are doing.  The meetings usually play out with teachers fretting about what they will share (with a few angry emails sent our way), but then when the meeting begins each teacher goes well beyond the alloted 3-5 minutes, and the audience feeds off of it.  It becomes the type of meeting that we wish we had every month.  My point here in the comparison is that when we share, when we push against each other with confidence, the result is much better.

Myth 6: A Streamlined Organization Is a Creative Organization

Leaders of organizations that are undergoing major change, specifically in the number of staff or the size of budgets, need to pay close attention to the mental health of that staff.  The study showed that when employees understand that major changes are coming that may affect them, even measures taken to bolster creativity and productivity fail.  This one goes towards making sure we can check in with our colleagues and keep stakeholders abreast of what the goal is.

Prove It.

I’ll admit it: I just watched my own session from EduCon 2.1 on video.  Granted it’s not the whole thing, but it’s enough.

I didn’t know whether to take the athlete track or the celebrity track here: athletes do it without question, while celebs, when asked, never admit to watching their own movies.  When it came down to it, I decided that watching would be so much easier to stomach than knowing it was out there and neglecting the chance to reflect on the session.  Tony Gwynn used to do this for every at bat. Why can’t I?

After EduCon 2.0 last year, Dan and I came back a bit overblown by the whole thing.  We knew what we were walking into, but sensing the passion the presenters had and the depths to which many of these people were willing to reach to change public schooling made us really reflect on what we were doing.  What we heard was that “top-down” change was not enough.  Grass-roots change had to happen in order for systemic change to sustain itself.  We took that back and tried to make it happen through our actions.

That idea, that change had to be a marriage between administrative direction and teacher action, received yet another tweak as we learned through the weekend of January 23-25 that the student element was missing from our curriculum redesign process.  We took our two major redesigns last year, Technology Career, and Consumer Sciences and our critical thinking class called Connections, and put them through the ringer with what we had learned from the sessions we had attended at EduCon 2.0.  Now, a year later the idea that we haven’t included students to the level we need to is chasing me around as I plan to work with Visual and Performing Arts as they re-make their curriculum this summer.  What’s their role?  How much input should the greatest source of human capital in a school district have on the creation of curriculum? It’s no longer just a “top-down/bottom-up” issue, but instead it’s a “who should be in the room” issue.

Although he didn’t appear in the video of our session, Chris Lehmann popped into our session for the opening discussion.  I’ll attribute these words to him:

“If we say that we believe in something, we should point toward something in your schools that show, illustrate those values, those beliefs (and how they resonate in the school community)”

And, although he didn’t say it officially until Sunday, he implied it all weekend: if you believe in something, show me where your actions, your systems, and your decisions make it true.  We are at a point in our discussion and our study of what we know about about what works in education that we should be able to show in our own practice as educators what we are doing in light of our beliefs.  That works for everyone from superintendents to students themselves.  What are your ideals?  Where can you show me in your practice that these are reflected?  When we look at the inclusion of students in the curriculum redesign process, how does it reflect our beliefs about learning? About the students we teach?

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…

Big Ideas, Like Minds

A few days back, Alex Ragone posted this via twitter (I just don’t feel comfortable saying “tweeted”):

Working on technology vision for students and faculty. We really need to look big picture and design curric to match that. Not so now.

I’ve never met Alex face-to-face, only through a twitter request that landed me in his professional development workshop last year, but his thinking in 140 characters or less gave me an idea: Alex lives in New Jersey, so do I.  His thought made me think about what we’ve been working on in our locale regarding the same issues.  How do you design curriculum so that your pedagogy and technology are in harmony to the point where we don’t talk about technology as an isolated event that happens in the lab or is viewed as a separate bullet point in a curriculum document?

My response was simple

@alexragone would love to get a skype session about curricular vision with a few of us from NJ.

Those simple connections led us to including Bill Stites, Dan Sutherland, and Barry Bachenheimer in the conversation via a collaborative planning document and a skype conversation.  In our daily jobs as administrators, tech coordinators, and teachers, we often get mired in the issues that bog us down: supplies that don’t arrive, inter-departmental squabbles, crab-bucket culture, etc.  Having the opportunity to engage our minds in this form of big-picture play keeps us free, keeps us from the feeling that we are running through mud.

We hatched a plan and pitched the idea to the annual NJECC Conference on March 17-20 at Montclair State University.  Here’s the plan:

This conversation will address the following essential questions:  What does the student experience in a classroom look like when the curriculum is integrated with technology that they use?  What support structures need to be in place for this classroom to exist?  For the experiences to exist?
Bring your curriculum design question and we’ll help you develop it for the dynamic needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students.
We’ll demonstrate successful classroom practices using social networking, online course management systems, global and local collaboration,  and online writing to create audience for your students.

It hasn’t been accepted as of yet, but if it does, and you are in the tri-state area, please come join us.  There will be four of us leading this workshop in a hands-on format.  We are hoping for a lot of small group discussion and creation of solutions for participants.  One phrase I remember uttering during our skype planning session was that I wanted each of us to remember the key elements from the best conference workshop we’ve ever been to, and I want us to re-create them here.  We need to teach this one in the manner with which we would want to learn it.  For me, that’s conversation and sharing among participants.

This Rut We’re In

Yesterday I found the “Quotes” Flickr Group that was put together by Dean Shareski, Scott McLeod, Darren Draper, et al.  The power of the image to change and inspire is a tool that I need to use more of in my work with teachers.  In looking through the offerings and the work of the 11 members of the group on Flickr, you see the passion with which a great majority of us in education act with on a daily basis.  That passion, I must admit, has been missing from what I’ve been doing lately.  Not to sound trite, but it’s as if I’d lost my mojo, and with it any of the passion I was attacking my work with.

As usual, my wife sat me down and straightened me out.  She told me some very basic things:

“If you can’t find someone to buy into your ideas, look somewhere else. They are good ideas, backed by someone who is passionate about what they do.”

From that conversation, I’ve noticed an uptick in both productivity, and focus.  The WTF attitude is starting to return, and ideas are beginning to grow legs. I love that woman.

From shareskis photostream on Flickr
From shareski's photostream on Flickr

In that light, I found this item from George Siemens to be of significant import in my thinking lately:

The challenge many educators face today in trying to improve learning
is not one of technology or information access. The most significant
need is to begin envisioning a future reflective of the affordances of
technology now broadly available.

The biggest problem we face is not lack of access or technology or filtering, but rather lack of imagination and vision.  What can we do with what is available to us?  What can our students do?  A word I heard at Jim Burke’s englishcompanion Ning site (which if you are interested in helping build community with anyone in your English department, you should visit and invite them to it), is “withitness,” and that what every teacher needs to possess is the drive not to be cool, but to do cool things–things that make your students say something in response.  Whether they loved you or hated you, you want them talking about what they did in your room on any given day.

I think we are stuck, at least in my locale, on imagining the same things we’ve always done because we haven’t been brave enough to imagine what it might look like in the future.  I, for one, am going to start using my hands and my brain to create this vision.

MIT students build mobile applications in 13 weeks – elearnspace

Who is Who: Interview with Mike Wesch

This video came across the twitstream last week and has been making the rounds among my network.  It’s short enough to squeeze into a prep period for a quick PD session.  One of the things I would listen for, if you are so inclined, is Wesch’s definition of anti-teaching.  For me, the idea of anti-teaching, or as we’ve called it here in the past, Unschooling, is almost anti-thetical.  Sound teaching requires that you question assumptions both of your students and yourself.  Is this not what Wesch is doing?  If so, what is the need in the new moniker for good teaching?

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