Give Me Something That Matters

In November of 2007, I found myself in the audience at TechForum, wondering what I’d gotten myself into as I had just recently taken the position of technology coordinator in the district I was working in at the time.  There were lots of things I did not know (I still hate you Adobe CS series) and I never felt like I knew the answers to the questions I was being asked.  Alan November was giving the keynote that day, and I’d not really heard of him much at all, only that people either loved him or hated him.  Needless to say, his message that day became a pivotal moment for me in that I really haven’t looked at education or learning the same way ever since.

Alan talked about ownership and outsourcing that day in regards to the work we do as teachers.  Essentially, teachers do too much of the work of learning, and students can and should do more of the work.  That work, however, had to be owned by them.

Yesterday, I revisited that moment with a group of teachers during the second of our spring TED Series when we showed Alan November’s “Who Owns the Learning?” talk from this year’s TEDxNYED.  Alan shared a few anecdotal stories from his past with the audience, none that I haven’t heard versions of, but it was clear to me that although his message hadn’t changed much, it was still holding its value now.

About five minutes into the opening activity, the room turned its eyes to the locked door, indicating to me that we had a late arriving participant, and upon first glance I was taken back.

It was a student.

I had opened all of my Spring workshops up to students this year, and I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t fully expect to be taken up on it.  She came in and introduced herself to those in the room that did not know who she was and from that point on became as much as contributor to the discussion as any of us.  In fact, there were several junctures where we all fully leaned on her as the expert on certain matters.  At one point, after we had watched the talk, she said what to me, has become some an obsession lately:

“I mean, I agree with everything he (November) is saying.  If you’d given me the choice in my last two years to work on something that I could select, that was my interest and passion, I’d work on that non-stop.”

Dumbstruck, I was.  Why hadn’t we done this sooner?  Why did I wait so long to invite these voices into the room?  Shame on me.

To that end, my thinking since yesterday has been on fire, with ideas and hopes and dreams pinned on this new vision of creating opportunities for meaningful work to take place in my schools.  During my run this morning, I was full of ideas to try out and to push out into this space for vetting and hashing out, all predicated on these things:

  • Tangible artifacts of learning: the things our students create should be usable by others, and should serve not only their passions but their communities as well.
  • Globally available: accessible by anyone, anywhere.
  • Lasting: we feel different when we know that the work we create will live on after we are gone.
In closing, during the beginning of the session yesterday, I asked the teachers in the room to quickly craft ideas for projects they would do if they were unfettered by the current curricular restraints.  They had to abide by the above three rules.  Here’s a brief sample of what we quickly crafted:
  • run a political campaign for a student to be in town office.
  • Feature magazine to include all aspects of creative culture within a school.
  • Architecture: designing your own schools.
  • Forms of communication: how did societies communicate with one another in the past and how did it evolve over time?
  • Special Ed students to leave a legacy behind to other special ed students.
  • Collect the oral histories of the residents of our town and feature them on the web.

I don’t know how many of these will come to fruition, but I know it’s important for us to have these ideas and let them breathe for a while.  I do know this, my goal is to help them grow legs within our current structures, and hope they help us morph our schools into what we think they should be.


Opening the Doors to Discussion

I’ve opened up all of my workshops to students this spring.

Its something I’ve been pushing this around for a while now, nearly three years, but have yet to take the step to actually do it.  Here it is.

These are in-district workshops for teachers, mainly, but the addition of students just makes sense now. We are all learners here, and we’ll all need each other going forward.

Here’s the first one that I’ve advertised:

Yet Another Option for Readers

Yes, we have so many options these days as readers, not just in the types of material to read, but how we actually view the text.  In a conversation with a student today regarding the design of our media center, he plainly said:

“Look, I like books and all, but that’s just not how I read anymore.  If I want to read something, I always pull up a chair and go on the internet.”

Regardless of our emotions surrounding physical books, we must begin to adapt our teaching and our reading expectations to where the students are.  Let me clarify that a bit:

  • I do feel there will always be a need for paper-bound materials in schools and in life.  There is some sense of permanence, of romance for lack of a better term, in them.
  • I think the immediate future will see a mix of digital and paper-bound books, and, for schools, that is going to be a messy time.  We are so paper-heavy still, and any transition the other way will clearly have some growing pains.
  • Reading, truly and deeply, can be done on a variety of surfaces.

All that said, I’ve been doing some digging into ways to get more text in front of our students.  Here’s one from, of all places, the iTunes Store, that I think is completely under-utilized.

Additionally, check out Google eBooks for their collection of classics in the public domain.  I spent some time the other night cross-checking our lists of titles in our curriculum at the high school level with Google and iTunes U and found a surprisingly high number between the two sites.  That bodes well for students who simply struggle to read texts at the level of complexity of the books in the canon.

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.

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.

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?

My Reflections on Tech Forum Northeast-Bretag’s Push

In several of the informal conversations I had with Ryan and David last Friday, they laid out their plan for a  learning space whereby all of student work from moment they enter the high school will travel with them through the four years of high school.  Let me clarify a little from what I gleaned from them.

A problem, as Ryan pointed out in our panel discussion, occurred at several points in their experience with student blogging:

  • What happened if you were blogging in science class, in English class, and in social studies?  Did you as a student have the responsibility for maintaining three distinct blogs?
  • What happened when you finished the year with that teacher?  Did your blog die?  Were you able to take it with you and continue to write on your own?

These points came up as we were trying to get at what lies beyond the tools.  Having students keep isolated, individual blogs goes against most of what we strive for: transfer of understanding from seemingly unrelated areas to others.  We want students relating semi-permeable cell membranes to porous and non-defined border policies.  Having isolated learning spaces goes a long way toward furthering that view of education that our learning is isolated into small, un-meshed parts, when in actuality we learn through our connections to already processed material.

What this calls for is a systemic change within a school whereby students are asked to create their own learning space and tie it into the appropriate places within their subject areas.  For example, if a student sat down to write a piece for social studies on their blog, but found connections within the topic to a novel or short story they read in English, they could tag it with both socialstudies and english and the learning space would feed it to both of those courses’ Moodle site.  The teachers could then review the writing and help the student make deeper connections between the two.

Having some platform for blogging that is external, but able to be configured to be private is key here.  Google Apps may work, and I am sure you could configure WPMU to do this as well (both of which are beyond my realm).  This way, the students, as they graduate in four years, are able to take a body of writing over time with them to the college level, thus it becomes their portfolio.

I am truly just beginning to think beyond the glitz and glam of this tool or that one and delve into the deep possibilities we now have.  It’s empowering to know that we are capable of giving students this ability and that it really is very close to happening in certain places.  However, the biggest hurdle is getting more of my staff on board with the architecture of it.  Not every teacher understands blogging, tagging, or even what RSS is, nevertheless the connective and transformative nature of the tools.

That, however, was my second takeaway from last Friday.


Regardless of your spiritual persuasion, it is difficult to deny the serendipitous nature of life as it affirms you at just the right moments. Entering what I view as one of the most pivotal stretches of my career, albeit still abbreviated, doubts and some other scions of stress have been creeping into my mind lately. Is this the right decision? Can this be done without alienating some of the stakeholders? I am struggling with questions that don’t have exact answers.

Then this email arrives on Sunday from a former student of mine, who is now a senior in high school. Granted, since I’ve jumped around in the last few years, I don’t get many of these, so some of you might find this commonplace, but for me it landed in my inbox at the most opportune moment.

I actually am writing to thank you, because it was your class that showed me
what I want to do with the rest of my life. If you remember we did a huge unit
on human rights and the Burmese conflict. Ever since then my eyes have been
opened to the world. I’ve developed a passion for human rights and developing
countries and just plain helping people. I’m graduating this year, and in the
fall I will be enrolled at The University of Chicago as an International Studies
and Arabic double major (and a softball pitcher). One day I want to work in the
field of economic development and human rights. I’d want to work in Southeast
Asia (the Arabic is just because I love languages—I take French, Spanish and
Latin in school) and also join the Peace Corps. I hope to one day help further
the peoples’ struggle for democracy in Burma and similar conflicts all over the
world, anyway I can. In fact, this summer I’m going to Thailand, Cambodia and
China to volunteer at refugee camps, schools and orphanages. I’m very excited
since for four weeks I’ll primarily be working with Burmese refugees on the
Thai-Burmese border. Last summer I went and worked in Thailand for two weeks; it
is the most beautiful and peaceful place I have ever been. So basically, I
wanted to let you know that you were my favorite teacher ever and that you’ve
really made a difference in at least my life and indirectly made a difference in
the lives of those people you’ve convinced me I need to help and hopefully will
succeed in helping. Supposedly teachers like to hear that sort of thing, so I
thought I’d track you down and let you know.

Often we forget role we play in the lives of students, and the wonderful thing about them is that they often don’t forget that role. I couldn’t be more proud of this student, and after reading this letter. Proud that she’s looking at her future as a connected and global undertaking; she’s looking “big-picture,” and proud that I had the ability to be a part of her growth as a learner.

At the same time that the US News and World Report released their claim that teaching is one of America’s most overrated careers, we need more discussion of the intangibles that separate what we do from any other career.

Image Credit: “Global Warming,” from chatirygirl’s photostream

The Moments Never Announce Themselves, They Just Arrive


I am not a principal. I don’t run a school. I don’t monitor if you sign in or not. I develop curriculum and help teachers hone their methodology. It’s what I love to do. But I also found out over the last three days, I lead people too.
For the last few weeks, there has been a growing disconnect between the staff I work with and myself. I am new; my position was just created as of December 1st, but I have worked with this staff in other capacities for almost 5 years. Something was afoot, something palpable, an undercurrent of discontent that showed itself in subtle ways.
Then the fences went up.
We are beginning a three-year construction process (if we are lucky and the construction management Gods smile upon us), and the initial steps to begin destruction of buildings not in the redesign were taken last week. While the exuberance of teaching in a state-of-the-art building appeals to all of the staff, the reality of the three or so years leading up to it hadn’t shown its forlorn self until those fences appeared.
When I was in the classroom, I lead students by example. My passion was my greatest weapon, and the stories we shared together about the history of the world enveloped us all. As I migrated into staff development I relied on the same practice; it was a passionate relationship with the possibilities that technology and new pedagogy opened for me. It, too, infected those around me. Leading people was so much more about the “hey, look what I am doing. I’ll show you so you can do it too.” And it worked because it was a suggestion to a colleague.
What changed when I entered administration, and I don’t know whether it was a preparatory change I made sub-consciously or a change that was overt, was that method of leading by doing no longer was seen as suggestion, but mandate. Although I still felt like a colleague, acted like a colleague, and contributed to the development of ideas, it was no longer taken as collegial, but rather a directive.
Prior to this past week, I had been contacted by a few of the teachers in the departments that I oversee about the climate of the building in which they work. The general feeling was that the morale was extremely low, that teachers were not happy, that they had no voice and no support on issues that are essential to their ability to do their job. Decisions were made that affected their classrooms and they were being told about it after the fact. The top-down approach they were seeing was not helping them feel as if they had a stake in the future of our school.
My plan originally was to address the individuals who spoke with me and assess the situation in a one-to-one conversation. By the time our department meetings rolled around this week, it became clear that what we had was something close to revolution. Our agenda for this week was to have each department meet for 3 hours a day during the HSPA Testing and work on curricular issues. Each department would have 6 hours over the two days to examine their curriculum, methods and resources. That’s a lot to ask of an unhappy group. We have a professional staff and they worked brilliantly to revise and add resources to their curriculum. It was in these meetings over the course of three days that I learned something valuable about leadership.
The English Department came in on Tuesday and on Thursday faced with re-writing their research process due to the fact that our Media Center will not be a Media Center next year, but most likely become classroom space due to rooms lost to reconstruction. Our goal was to analyze what we wanted our students to do with the resources we did have left. As they progressed through the morning, I noticed that they worked hard, they were knowledgeable about what they taught and they cared deeply about doing it well. Something was missing.
A lot of the conversations in the blogosphere are about making students feel like what they are doing has a point in the real world. Meaning is a bigger issue than information. I agree with that, but I agree with that for teachers as well. On Thursday morning, I had planned to do all of this crazy tech stuff with the teachers: Google Docs, Notestar, Google Earth, etc. ad nauseum. On Wednesday afternoon, after meeting with one of the members of the department, I decided to throw all of that aside.
I gave them a copy of my image for the Passion Quilt Meme, and talked about the things I was passionate about in education. I asked them to list the things that made them become English teachers. What were there passions? And we talked about them, we agreed on things, we stole each other’s ideas, we learned about one another, and we laughed with one another. Then I asked them to take those passions and describe how they would want to pass them along to their students. Who do they want entering the world after they graduate? Our results connected us by way of our common and disparate ideas for our students.


I feel like most of the meaningful moments in my career are accidental; that I have no control over when my greatest lessons are going to be learned. This is what happened to me yesterday. I learned to be a leader, and I learned to do it by listening to people tell me what they want, and then helping them get there. Yesterday told me that leadership is not always about gaining control of situations, but giving it over to the people that need it.

I listened, of course, but then I let them act.

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Flickr image credits: “Flat” and “Heirarchy” from timabbott’s photostream