New Thoughts, and Other Detritus.

Over the last two days, and one more tomorrow, I’ve been at the UbD By the Sea Conference hosted by Authentic Education’s Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.  It’s late and I don’t really feel like I have the writing chops to handle a huge thought explosion, but there are a few elements I’d like to get out in this space to see if they get legs.

Quotes from Andy Greene

Andy Greene is the principal at Candlewood Middle School in Long Island; his work was featured in Wiggins and McTighe’s Schooling by Design, and he is a charismatic speaker.  In his afternoon session, among many great ideas for creating controversy in the best possible way, I also pulled some interesting quotes.

I live by the rule of thirds: if I give my staff something to read, 1/3 are going to devour it like their hair is on fire, 1/3 is going to pretend they like it but not really do anything with it, and the last 1/3 is going to unabashedly ignore it.

This one is paramount for anyone willing to assume a leadership position, regardless of whether or not you are a teacher or an administrator.  One of the greatest pieces of advice I received was that I should expect to be stabbed in the back early and often by those from whom I least expected.  I ignored it out of my belief in the collective good will of the staff I worked with.  Nothing personal to them, but they tested the waters, and I found out very soon what that felt like.  Taking Greene’s words to heart will aid in avoiding those initial feelings of betrayal, should they arise again.

Be willing to call out those that do not exhibit collaborative behaviors,

or more broadly,

be very willing to have difficult conversations.

In an earlier post about the new humanities, I had written about the death of the grey areas in America discourse.  This statement reminded me of that idea.  Having conversations where we feel uncertain about the outcome is unnerving, but just as we must fall back on our ability to use learned strategies to decode difficult text and argument, we can do the same for difficult dialogue.  What I admired about Greene is that he firmly knew what he believed and was willing to discuss that with nay-sayers or teachers who challenged the schools mission and vision.  Our conversations about what we believe in education are very murky areas, but there is nothing more important than having them.  As leaders we have to help our staff get to a place where they can have those discussions.

Management is doing things right.  Leadership is doing the right things.  (taken from Stephen Covey).

My father-in-law was a huge Covey fan and he’ll often use phrases like the one above to characterize a tough situation and how we need to act within it.  This is the difference between completing checklists of tasks that allow a school to function well, and getting the school community together to agree on who they are as a community of learners and designing the systems and curriculum together to ensure the students arrive at the place we want them to.  Checklists are great, but not as great as a sound vision.


Is there a solution right before us?

Warning: somewhat of a tech bend to this post.

Last week, while I was on vacation we had a huge server meltdown.  While I am not an IT guy, I do understand some of the implications of what that means.  For example, our student information system (a great little product called Genesis), our wireless Internet radios, our Moodle courses, and many of our other essential services experienced outages that slowed workplace productivity to a crawl.  While it was a great week to be on vacation, it did bring to light some very glaring issues.

Jim Moulton, over at The Future of Education is Here, writes about a March article in eSchoolnews that cited:

Only 31 percent of respondents said their districts have enough IT staff to satisfy their needs; that’s up only marginally from 27 percent in last year’s survey. And 55 percent of those polled–the same percentage as last year–said they spend more than half their time reacting to technical problems, instead of working proactively on long-range planning and projects.

IT staffs in schools are traditionally understaffed.  In most districts I’ve been in, the ratios between number of IT staff and machines to service, not to mention servers and systems, is outrageous.  When issues like the one we ran into last week occur, an overworked staff becomes increasingly stressed.

Last October at TechForum Northeast, I was fortunate enough to sit on a panel with David Warlick in which we discussed some hurdles to implementation of new thinking in schools.  One teacher from the audience lamented, much as Jim did in his post, that the tech staff in his building are guarded and unwilling to allow for teachers to experiment with open-source technologies for fear of corruption to the network.  If, this audience member suggested, teachers are expected to push the limit on what they can have students achieving in the classroom, should they be constrained by an IT staff that does not have the best interest of the students in mind?

It’s an interesting dichotomy, the students v. IT staff one, isn’t it?  On the one hand we have students who are growing up in a world where 11-year olds make huge profits by designing iPhone apps, and on the other we have them working in school environments that can’t give them access to the types of tools that would let them create such apps.

At the tale end of Jim’s post, he presents a solution, one that I have heard via Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez in the past: give the students the ability to aid the IT department.  We are not talking giving them access to the firewall, or the major components of the infrastructure, but rather allow them to handle basic repairs, quick imaging and system setups so that the IT staff can begin doing some of their own imaginative work.

Be sure to check out her list of GenYes Schools where this solution is actually in place.

The Girl Effect

This came across my reading/viewing list a while back, but it means more today after having listened and spoken with Greg Mortenson.

Mortenson, recently nominated by the U.S. Congress to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, was an one of those figures you just jump at the chance to meet and talk to. What strikes you immediately about him is his supreme lack of urgency about his time. Here he was, scheduled to catch a flight to take him to a flight to Afghanistan, yet he sat and gave pictures and autographs, a 30 minute interview with three educational bloggers, and then signed over 50 books for people at the conference. He joked to us that he is notorious for missing flights, and I can see why.

His chronicle of his life since 1992, the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea, continues to change the mindsets of those who read it. It details his experiences after a failed attempt to summit Mt. Godwin-Austin, known more commonly as K2. Upon his descent and exodus from the region, he happened upon a village name Korphe. After resting and taking in the hospitality of the villagers, he discovered the schoolchildren there both lacked a school and a teacher. He described the moment in which an elder of the village had passed away and he was visiting his grave site. That elder had given him one piece of advice before dying: “Listen to the wind.” And so he did.

What he heard were the voices of the children in the village of Korphe, and that changed everything. He promised those villagers and those children that he would return and build them a school.

That same wind carried him back to build that school, and several others since then.

Individuals like Mortenson astound me. Meeting him and finding him so relaxed, calm, and giving was a revelation. I had fully expected him to be full of energy and movement–I would expect that from someone who affects as much change in the world as he has. Yet, he was placid and warm, truly concerned about what his message was.

He spoke of girls. He spoke about why education and empowerment were crucial to creating change in the world of our children. He spoke of the real importance of schools, and not once did he mention any of the words we often use when we talk about how we want school to change here in the United States. His message involved community empowerment and the need to be patient enough to wait for change in education, or anything for that matter, because the affect may not be visible for a generation or two. That is why, he says, education is a hard sell to politicians and community leaders.

If you haven’t heard of his program, the one that ultimately worked to raise the money needed to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it’s called Pennies for Peace. Please visit the site, or if you have already heard of it, donate your little Abraham Lincoln’s to help change the world.

It’s not lost on me that for the longest time I did not think deeply about geo-political issues in the Middle East and the effects of terrorism on the world at large. Now, twice within the last week, two very influential thinkers and doers have pointed at very similar solutions to combating terrorism in the world.

And they both begin and end with two words: Education and Empowerment.

ASCD Reflection

Being the first giant conference I have ever been to, and being the first non-tech-centered one as well, ASCD was fascinating on a few levels. The oddest thing about it was the fact that I chose not be connected via internet (god bless the iPhone and Twitter) for most of the conference. It might be a silent protest, but paying for wireless internet in hotels doesn’t sit well with me, especially when I am fronting the money. We listen often to people talk about the ubiquity of free Internet we will see in the future, but I feel it’s a long way off. More and more businesses are choosing to put proprietary restraints on the use of their wireless networks. Let’s use the Google model here: give it away and we will stay and use your product. Or at least we will give the perception to passersby that we are enjoying your business. I’ll end that rant there.

Bigger issues seem to dominate my thinking lately, issues such as school change and culture change within our society. My reading and writing tends to focus on the areas of motivating people to want something better, and giving them the means to create it for themselves. I am not going to be dishonest, I have goals and ideas that I would like to see put in place not only in schools, but in the larger picture as well (stay tuned for the world domination post to come shortly); however, I am wise enough, I think, to know that what I want matters little if the people I work with don’t see the value in it.

On the way down here, I sat next to a gentleman named Simon Sinek, of Sinek Partners. A while back, in my days as an expatriate in Greece, I worked for man who taught me that airline flights were the best places to go to school. “Interesting people fly and travel,” he said. Talk to the people around you on the plane.” So I took Fouad’s advice and struck up a conversation with this gentleman to my left. It turns out that Simon had an idea that he was trying to spread that involved asking corporations, individuals, government, or whoever would listen to articulate to themselves and others why they do the things they do. Without knowledge of and presentation of the “why” no one will be able to understand you, or better still, buy into what you are doing.

Often, he said, we confuse the “what” with the “why.” In business, people rarely buy the “what,” but more likely buy the “why.” I use Apple computers, and if you asked me why, I would probably rattle off that their design is intuitive, they are less buggy, I like the interface, etc. But what I would leave out would be the essential part of why I use them: I subconsciously buy into Steve Jobs ideal of irreverence and individuality. We might say the “what’s,” but only because we can’t articulate the “why.” I’ll admit it, I bought into “Think Different,” and why wouldn’t I? It’s a fantastic ideal.

Translating all of that into my practice, we ask our schools to change, and we say we need to change so that we “promote lifelong learning,” “create students capable of excelling in the 21st Century,” or any one of the mission statement buzzwords we might put there. But do we articulate why we do the things we do? What if I told my teachers that I wanted to inspire them to be innovative? Leave the kids out of it for a moment, and focus on the teachers. Inspire and innovate. I don’t have to tell them what that looks like, I have to model it in my own practice. Innovation comes from the fringes. Ric Murry and I had a banter back and forth about this via twitter the other day, but I think we can understand that teaching is not a “fringe,” but the model still works; it’s just semantics. Our teachers should be the ones leading the change and innovating. My role in all of this is to help provide the “why”. Steve Jobs didn’t make the iPod, he made the idea of an iPod possible. Teachers should be sharing their “innovations” with one another regularly, and I should be connecting them to one another to help spread that innovation.

Comparing what I do to what Steve Jobs does makes me feel way too self-important, but I think it’s an easy way to see the relationship between what we sometimes lack in schools and where we need to go.We don’t need mission statements, but rather leaders that inspire through action and empathy. Ginsberg’s session on Friday gave me a great insight into how to create a community of teachers that cares not only about one another, but about the level of teaching in the building: observations should be done with a group of teachers, as well as an administrator. Group observations and group debriefings, all with a common language and goals will become commonplace.

My thinking is shifting once again, and this time it’s shifting toward inclusion. Get on board, and grab an oar.

Meme: Passion Quilt

El Corazon

It’s a fickle thing, our relationship to words, so when Bach tagged me for this meme, I immediately conjured up images Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam. Not because of the topic, but just that word: Passion. There probably is some little known codicil of blog etiquette I am breaking here by comparing a serious topic to cheap club songs from previous topics, and I do apologize for that, but the thought process just happened. I am over it now.

This has actually been sitting on my GTD list for a few days now, moving between Today and Next depending on my level of commitment to the writing process, which has been low. We have a delayed opening due to weather this morning, and what better time to devote to this while everyone sleeps in a little.

Here are the rules:

  • Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what YOU are most passionate about for kids to learn about…and give your picture a short title.
  • Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt” and link back to this blog entry.
  • Include links to 5 folks in your professional learning network

I’ll tag the next five people:

Image credit: Untitled from Mirissa’s photostream

The Wearing of the Hats

Since school began, I have been meaning to get this post together because I am amazed by all of the various different tasks and roles I play throughout a day. Here is a snapshot of my day yesterday, broken down by how it was spent between the hours of 8am and 4pm:

  • Met with a teacher to discuss how to use OnCourse, our online lesson planner. The meeting took a turn at the end and we ended up editing her class website to update the information to reflect its current state.
  • Sat down with AP Language and Comp teacher to work through how to set up her students on an experimental (for us) LMS called SAKAI, which was very cool because I had gone to a training session on it over the summer and was able to recall much of what I learned. No small feat.
  • Taught a class of juniors and seniors about wikispaces so they can begin creating their own textbook.
  • Answered email and fixed student records and updated data in our Genesis, our SIS.
  • Met with colleague during lunch regarding multimedia project he is working on.
  • Helped teachers set up folders and mailing lists in Outlook.
  • Presented an overview of new technologies to a middle school team of teachers and walked them through setting up their online gradebooks.
  • High school faculty meeting
  • Meeting with a teacher to discuss setting up blogs for two of his classes in American History. Discussed the impact possible and the different responsibility he will have. Both very excited.
  • Answered emails and went to pick up the boy.

One of my favorite things about what I do, and there are many, is that the multitude of problems I am asked to help solve each day changes so much between those days. That aspect keeps me fresh and exhilarated. I do love this job.

Flickr image credit: “The Hat Shop,” Franco Falini’s photostream

School Supply List

As we move into the throes of another August rush back to school, back to that odd bouquet of spoiled milk that most schools tend to proffer, the preparations begin both on our end and on the end of students and parents everywhere. Never is this more evident than on a trip to Staples.

It’s like Christmas, except the lists aren’t created by the children, but by the teachers and staff in each school, grade and classroom. An odd reversal, if you think about it, as the students then present their bounty for inspection to the teacher as they arrive in school, often for the first grade of the year. Imagine if we did that with Santa? What pressure!

On a recent trip through the office superstore, I came across a kiosk that had supply lists from every school in our surrounding area in neat little piles for the taking. Just for giggles and grins, I took one. This is what was on it:

Grade 6-8 Social studies

  • 1 3ring binder
  • 1 composition book
  • Colored pencils

Grades 6—8 Science

  • 1 1-inch three-ring binder and lined paper
  • highlighters
  • pencils
  • paper reinforcements

Grades 6, 7, 8 Language Arts

  • 1 4/6 note card case
  • 200 4×6 note cards
  • 4 multi-colored highlighters
  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • Pencil case
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • 5 2-pocket folders
  • CD’s, floppy discs or flash drives
  • 1 5-subject notebook-college ruled

Grade 6 Language Arts

  • Pocket folder
  • 1 3-ring binder


  • 1 3-subject notebook
  • 1 set highlighters
  • Erasable pens
  • Non-erasable pens
  • Pencils
  • 1 2-packs of 3/5 index cards
  • index card box

I began to think immediately of how this looked different in some of the schools I read about, like, perhaps, 1:1 schools. Are the students still required to procure the standard items like binders, or, my favorite on this list: paper reinforcements (we had another creative name for these when I was working as a field archaeologist)? As we are currently rethinking our school philosophies, do these lists change? What would they look like in your “school of the future?” What does yours currently look like?

The last few days of mine have been spent working with a group of teachers in a workshop we called Research 2.0. One of the first discussions we had was about research methods and tools. Eric Hoefler (from whose work I borrowed heavily) had come up with this quote and list initially, and it generated some great discussion among my group on Thursday:

These tools and approaches are now “dead” or “almost dead.” If your research plan relies on them, you are probably not adequately preparing your students:

  • Floppy Disks
  • School computers with extreme filtration
  • CD-ROMs
  • Note Cards (or other pen-and-paper-only note-taking methods)
  • Limiting the number of “online resources”
  • Outlawing “citation help” from online services (Who memorizes the MLA handbook, anyway?)
  • Basic web searches or school-database-only searches
  • Completely independent research methods
  • Text-only sources
  • Text-only reports

With this in mind, is there a marriage between old method and new method that needs to be created? I am having trouble seeing it right now. Any ideas?

Image Credit: “Back to School Ad” by chishkilauren at Flickr.

Educational Heroes

I pulled this image from Ben Wilkoff’s Academy of Discovery Wiki, and he attributes it to the folks as Science Leadership Academy, but is something I think everyone involved in education should examine.

Let’s take a look at some of the words that are used to describe and “Educational Hero” in this picture:

  • Provocative: the first on the list, and for good reason. What is someone in education if not provocative. By nature, information is meant to incite in us something that lay dormant or underutilized. Giving our students access to such provocation is an act that we need to do often.
  • Risk-Takers: We teach our students to take compositional risks, to make cognitive leaps, and to attempt to connect several disparate ideas into one usable and coherent whole. Why should we as teachers not be doing the same? By nature, our approach should be daring, and variable based on “teachable moments.”
  • Balance-Freedom-Guidance: I like the inclusion of these words, and of “nurturing,” because if nothing else, our students need to feel valuable and safe before they can take the risks that they need to. These words, these actions are what makes it easier for learners to reach from the solid ground of what they know towards that which is shaky, unknown, yet incredibly valuable.
  • Humble: When I work with teachers who are trying to shift away from being the sole arbiters of information in the classroom, I always stress humility over the stress of trying to know everything. Being grounded, centered and comfortable with the idea that you do not have all the answers, and that these students can help you continue to learn, makes it all beautiful, doesn’t it?
  • Want to be like them: Perhaps the highest compliment anyone in education can receive. With the omnipresent stream of role models of ill-repute, being someone that learners want to be “when they grow up” is no small feat. I remember the moments that some of my past teachers did something amazing, showed us a door that we didn’t know existed, and then thinking back to it years later as I was doing the same thing to a group of students. It is high praise indeed.

What schools need to be

It may be my naivete in education, or just my all-too-positive outlook on the future, but I can’t agree with Chris Lehman any more when we says the following on his blog today:

Here’s, to me, one of the great paradoxes of education:

When we stop pushing the kids toward some idealized standard of
knowledge, but step back and support the process of growth and learning
and improvement, we actually stand a better chance to reach and exceed
that idealized standard.

I have worked in four schools now, one private and three public. One of the things I noticed was that expectation is what achieved high test scores. When the students were expected to achieve, and given a program that stressed quality work, they reached the levels that they should have, according to the state.

For a long time now, I have wondered what effect teaching to the test has on our students ability to think originally and solve problems.When we bring to the forefront the practice of test preparation, and subjugate critical thinking, what are we telling our students? I don’t think its the message we want to send.

When you want to sneak some medication by your child, you mask it in something else, something that has meaning to them, like fudge.The same holds true with high-stakes testing and preparation for it. Do we want our students to perform well on these tests? Absolutely because our funding and our reputation depends on it. But we should disguise our test prep under the guise of curriculum that is rich, investigative, and inquiry-based.

The first public school system I worked in did a fine job of that. The students were held to high standards, of which they were all keenly aware of, and the curriculum that supported those standards incorporated aspects of original thinking and learning by student and teacher, rigorous standards that mirrored and even exceeded those of the state, and a requisite engagement level that the teachers had to meet. By this, I mean that the material the students were given was varied, and heavily influenced by Roger Taylor’s methodology.

Those students far exceeded state averages of proficiency in all areas tested. And I can barely remember a day of test prep in regular education classes, other than letting them know what was expected of them. It’s a leap of faith on the part of the teacher, the administration and the district, but it is akin to what we talk about here with technology. Chris mentions fostering an environment of support and growth in learning, and I think we would be surprised at how many schools out there are not ready to do that at the level that his school is.

Balancing Levels of Concern

Teaching has always been synonymous with caring, and I see this personified at all levels. Whether I am at an elementary school, like I was yesterday, or dodging careening students at a high school like today, the teachers manifest their “caring” in different ways. Chris Lehman at Practical Theory posted yesterday about his definition of caring as it relates to teaching and professionalism, and I think it was, as is usual with Chris, a timely post. We have all been engaged in conversation at some point while explaining our choice to become educators to either parents or friends, when the idea that you have “passion” or that you “love kids” comes forth, either from you or as a suggestion from the other conversants. What does this really mean for us as educators? Many people in various professions love kids too, even ones that aren’t there own. Christian Long says that we should be in love not necessarily with the children, but with the collisions we create with ideas, learning, and the students we teach. I dig that, but there has to be room for the idea of caring, or genuinely having a concern over their future, and the future of those that love them.

To continue a recent them on this blog (which might be long in the tooth), I read Chris’ post with an eye on Ashley Merryman’s almost simultaneous post on the responses to her an Po Bronson’s article on Praise. They say similar things, whether Chris is talking about parents and choices being difficult, but necessary, or Ashley commenting that teachers should feel more comfortable about accountability at all costs. Take a look at a short sample:

Chris Lehman:

The best parents aren’t the ones who smoke pot with their kids because, ‘Well, they were going to try it anyway.’ And they aren’t the ones who let kids think that it’s o.k. to break rules, etc… they are the ones who teach kids the lessons they need to succeed in life, even when those lessons are really hard to learn. Same is true for teaching.

Ashley Merryman:

Since we began our research on praise and self-esteem, Po and I both heard many stories from parents and teachers about self-esteem issues. My favorite was from an English teacher. She’d recently given one of her students a “C,” and the mother came down to complain, saying “You’re ruining my child’s self-esteem.” The teacher shot back, “I’m not here to make him feel better; I’m here to make him do better.”

For two years before I become a technology coordinator for this
district, I was a history teacher on a middle school “team.” Our
philosophy, though strangely unspoken at first, was heavy on caring.
The lengthy list of issues that our students ran into, most
non-academic, were handled with a quasi-medical approach of “first-do
no harm.” We genuinely cared for our students and we did everything we
could to make that known to them. Did this produce a major change in
test scores? Not that it matters, but probably not. Did it directly
impact learning? Again, I don’t have that answer. What I do know is
that we all left those two years, teachers and students alike, with a
deeper level of respect for one another. What I now want to ask myself, however, is whether or not I was too focused on keeping kids feeling good rather than doing them the service of being honest.

This is the “art” of teaching, the intangible aspects of being a teacher that no length or depth of teacher training will prepare you for. These types of conversations bring us deeper into introspection, which I believe will lead us towards a higher level of empathy, one that does not involve just self-esteem for our students, but will allow us to make the difficult teaching decisions that we should.