Losing humanity?

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user shapeshift

I think natural fears of immersing oneself in virtual environments to learn through digital media are a) that facets of your personality will be clouded and b) there is an inability for true “human” interactions to occur. I would agree this is a possibility, but I argue that it is not a guaranteed result of working in these environments.

When I first began reading You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, I was skeptical that I would agree with his many points of how our society’s use of social media and technology are causing us to lose pieces of our humanity. But after reading a few of his opening thoughts,

This book is not antitechnology in any sense. It is prohuman.

and

You Are Not a Gadget argues that certain specific, popular internet designs of the moment—not the internet as a whole—tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual.

I was on board.

These are my main take aways from the reading and the connections I see to our work with students.

We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.

The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush. You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.

People are meaningful. We can’t forget that behind every tweet, blog post, Facebook status update, and 4Square check-in, is a person. A person with feelings, ideas, hopes, and dreams. I wrote about the day I decided to rename all of my Google Reader subscriptions to include the author’s name, because I wanted to associate the ideas expressed with the actual person who shared them. A child who blogs about what he has learned is the same complex human being who summarizes his learning orally in front of the class. We must ensure the responses we craft to the ideas shared by students and adults alike are respectful, constructive, and meaningful. We must model this for our students.

Much discussion has occurred regarding the pack mentality of Twitter, and how perhaps we all jump on the same sharing bandwagon, virtually high-fiving one another whenever we reiterate common themes and beliefs that drive us. I see that. Do we want our forums to become “mutual admiration societies?” No, we don’t, and we don’t want our children thinking that they have to agree with the thoughts of others simply because they’ve surrounded themselves with like-minded learners. We all need to hone the skill of expressing dissent respectfully and justifying our beliefs and ideas.

Demand more from information than it can give, and you end up with monstrous designs. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, for example, U.S. teachers are forced to choose between teaching general knowledge and “teaching to the test.” The best teachers are thus often disenfranchised by the improper use of educational information systems. What computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.

We have to keep our wits about us when faced with the power of information technology. Data, data, data. Do we want our lives turned into a database? Do we want to create a data wall where a child’s performance/worth is represented by a few benchmark scores? Do we want to give every kindergartener an iPad? Do we want the successes of our schools to be reported in the percentages of students who are proficient on state assessments? Or the value of our nation based on a comparison of how our students perform on international testing measures? No. Look past the numbers. Look past the tool. See the child.

I always said that in a virtual world of infinite abundance, only creativity could ever be in short supply—thereby ensuring that creativity would become the most valuable thing.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning, and it’s about what students create with the tools that matters. I think we all recognize the beauty and value in witnessing a child express her creativity in a way that only she could imagine. We owe it to our students to allow them to think and work creatively.

The excerpts I’m sharing here merely scratch the surface. Lanier explores technology’s historical developments, the social impacts of these developments and questions the merits of information freedom. It is a fascinating read.

I think we need to also consider how the use of social media allows us to be more humanistic in our interactions with the world. Without the use of social media, for example, my students and others would have more hoops to jump through in their efforts to stay informed about world events and contribute to a cause. Another recommended read is Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith’s The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change. The authors explore how passionate individuals and groups harnessed the power of social media to make extraordinary changes and impacts on our world.

There are days when I wonder what the impact to my learning would be if I allowed my connections through social media to dissipate. I have made a conscious effort to read more books (okay, they’re Kindle books), and not to spend as many hours of my week reading and commenting on blogs and tweets. I have not posted to my blog as often. This transition has caused me to feel a bit out of the loop, but no matter how far removed I become from social media, I know the technology will always allow me to jump back into the conversations when I find a relevant need to do so.

I’m human, after all.

Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. Knopf.

Sharing is contagious!

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user Funchye

Last year I spent some time throughout the school year snapping photos of student work that was displayed in the hallways and classrooms, creating slideshows using PhotoPeach, and posting “I Spy” tours of our student learning displays on our school websites to share with parents.

I Spy, March 5! on PhotoPeach

I admit that I have not been posting these slideshows regularly this year, and today I made a commitment to do so, because there is so much fantastic learning going on in our school! But then I considered why I didn’t feel as compelled to do this.

It’s not because what I see in the hallways or classrooms is any less enthralling or interesting than it’s been in the past … it’s because more teachers and students are sharing student work and learning themselves! It’s like we’ve all been infected with some sort of wonderful, crazy, addictive sharing disease that is spreading like wildfire throughout our school!

My teachers have grown so much in their willingness to engage students in different types of learning experiences throughout this year. Much of our increased ability to share student work can be attributed to the use of social media and the integration of new tools to enhance student engagement with the content.

Our primary students have created Voicethreads and teamed up with intermediate grade reading buddies to create digital stories with Little Bird Tales. They’re trying Voki, Skyping with virtual pen-pals (check out their visitor map!), and have really been dedicating time to writing on their blogs. We’re sharing our school events with descriptive slideshows.

Intermediate students have been broadening conversations with Today’s Meet, working with Xtranormal, garnering input for math data projects with Google forms, and creating Voicethreads. We’ve jumped into collaborating with Google Docs and students use Glogster to summarize their learning. They’re engaging in conversations with their families and visitors around the world! One of our fifth grade classes created a video tour of our school to share with their Oregon penpals, and some students even participated in our staff Sharing Showcase last week! I’ve seen some very eager Prezi creators, and enjoyed reading these Kidblog reading reflections. Our school “newspaper” has been moved online to help easily share our students’ writing and project work. Parents and teachers can more easily comment on what’s happening!

 

The benefits of sharing are endless. Parents have a wide open window into classroom happenings. Students are connecting with other teachers and students throughout our country and world. Students are active, engaged, and motivated learners in these experiences.  Teachers’ and student excitement is spreading…

Initially, I believe the teachers that felt comfortable risk-taking and trying new ideas with students were hesitant to share their joys about the process, for fear of “bragging” or looking they were trying to out-do their grade level colleagues. Similarly, I think teachers were timid about sharing the struggles they experienced throughout the change, worried that their frustrations might dissuade other teachers from taking risks themselves. We need to overcome this mindset. We need to encourage growth in ourselves and others.

Reading Shelley Wright‘s post this morning, I knew I immediately would share her words with my teachers, because her message to Improvise, Learn, Don’t Regret is one that I want my teachers, and students, to embrace. She has taken the time to document her journey into project-based learning and share that experience with all of us. We have gained insight, perspective, and appreciation for the process because she has done so. This doesn’t happen without honest transparency.

Thank you, Justin, for the challenge to share the wonderful things happening in our schools! We all need to spread the sharing bug… it’s an ailment worth enduring!

Principal 2.0

 

CC licensed image shared by Flickr user davidr

This piece was originally posted on Powerful Learning Practice’s Voices from the Learning Revolution blog. Visit Voices and be inspired!

“The principalship is the kind of job where you’re expected to be all things to all people.” (Fullan, 2001)

“Wanted: A miracle worker who can do more with less, pacify rival groups, endure chronic second-guessing, tolerate low levels of support, process large volumes of paper and work double shifts (75 nights a year). He or she will have carte blanche to innovate, but cannot spend much money, replace any personnel, or upset any constituency.” (Evans, 1995)

“At the present time the principalship is not worth it, and therein lies the solution. If effective principals energize teachers in complex times, what is going to energize principals?” (Fullan, 2001)

Not worth it. That is a pretty significant phrase, but one that I don’t believe most administrators find true. I would like to instead address Fullan’s question, “What is going to energize principals?” One possible answer? Connected learning.

I experienced some feelings of isolation my first year in the classroom, as my assignment was in a small, rural school where I was the only sixth grade teacher. The feeling of not having readily available help that first year pales in comparison to the isolation I felt in my first year of the principalship. Add to that the increasing demands Fullan describes, and the rate at which administrators are expected to lead change, and the complexity of our role increases hundredfold.

An administrator has the option of seeking guidance from a principal colleague or central office administrator, although there are times when doing so could cause the principal to feel fearful that she is exposing a weakness or lack of judgment. She instead turns inward for solutions, for explanations, until the isolation compounds and the day-to-day management tasks overwhelm the true leadership that should be prominent in her work.

As administrators, we expect our teachers to collaborate, cooperate, and continue to learn. We ask the same of our students. Why should we hold ourselves to a different, even lesser, standard? I believe assuming the role of lead learner in our school community is one of the most imperative roles we can play.

Harnessing the power of social media

We live in a time where the tools and technologies we are afforded have flattened our world. Principals and school leaders now have a vast array of options for learning and connecting with others. I have experienced the very real benefits of time invested in developing my own personal learning network, utilizing the Web and social media tools.

By harnessing the power of social media, principals can take advantage of improved organizational efficiency, solidify and broaden communications, serve as lead learner, and develop relationships that will ultimately build an organization’s capacity and benefit children. Our students will be expected to enter adulthood as critical thinkers, problem solvers, and collaborative, productive team members. We must model the power of digitally enhanced learning for them, for our teachers, and for the community.

We must connect. If you’re capable of connecting and learning from those in your physical realm, consider the power of building relationships with other inspiring educators from around the world. Too often we think: how could that person’s experiences help me when their schools and circumstances differ so greatly from mine? That’s precisely the reason we can learn so much from one another. I have as much to learn from a high school principal in an urban school setting as I do from an elementary principal in a neighboring district. The varied perspectives are invaluable.

So, where can an administrator find these connections? For me and many others, Twitter has been the main vehicle through which we’ve built a network of professional learners. This article can help you get started, and I personally am willing to help any interested administrator embark on this journey! The blog Connected Principals was essentially born out of the relationships built around conversations on Twitter. George Couros, recognizing the valuable contributions stemming from our online discussions, decided to create a common space for administrative bloggers, to bring us together and unite our voices under a shared purpose. I know that if I ever need advice, ideas for projects or resources, or just someone willing to let me vent, I can go to any of my Connected Principals colleagues who will be there for me with a supportive, critical voice.

We must share. As a starting point, consider the simple benefits of using shared, digital spaces such aswikis to organize and exchange information with staff. Respect your teachers’ time by only holding a faculty meeting when there is an agenda item worth true discussion. Empower your teachers to be wiki contributors so they can add information of their own. Stop the insanity of searching aimlessly through email inboxes to try to find that tidbit of information someone mass-emailed two weeks ago! Do you and others often locate great resources to share? Use Diigo or a similar social bookmarking site to share and even annotate those resources in a streamlined, organized manner. Collaborate on projects usingGoogle Docs. No longer do precious minutes have to be wasted in meetings if project authors can work in a common digital space and contribute at times that best suit them.

We must build community. Communications with families and community members are vital to the success of any school and can be powered up through the use of social media. Consider the advantages of writing about school successes in a public blog or Facebook page regularly, highlighting the wonderful accomplishments of students and staff. Social media affords principals the opportunity to develop forums where community voices can be heard and valued. The benefits of managing public relations before outside sources distort the facts are innumerable, and the platforms through which these communications can occur are, for the most part, free to use!

We must be transparent. Are you transparent in your learning? Would you like to be? What does transparency entail? For one, allow your teachers and students to see that you value your own learning. Have you ever discussed with a teacher how a book or article you’ve read could impact classroom practice? If so, you’re comfortable with sharing your learning in a local forum, so consider branching out to share your ideas with other interested parties. Blogging is a great first step to becoming a producer, not just a consumer, of information. Simply take the thoughts you’d normally converse about and compose a post! Posterous, WordPress, and Blogger are all user-friendly platforms and ideal for the beginning blogger.

Keep in mind that there are no right or wrong ways to express one’s feelings and share knowledge. New bloggers often ponder, “Who really wants to read what I have to say?” “What if someone doesn’t agree with what I write?” Begin blogging as a personal form of reflection, to help you examine your decision-making processes and actions as principal. Read other educators’ blogs. Subscribe to RSS feeds and organize the flow of new ideas with Google Reader. Comment and include links to your own writing to develop a readership. Get to know the other educators you’re connecting with. Learn about their philosophies, and let the shared wisdom you discover help guide your work.

Principals leading the way

The role of the principal is definitely worth it. It’s a role that should, first and foremost, be about sharing, building relationships and community, and connecting for learning. Principals need to ensure they are modeling and building capacity in the most efficient and meaningful ways possible. We need to embrace, not ignore, the tools we now have available to build powerful learning communities. We are faced with a compelling need for change, and we owe it to our children to lead the way in bringing connected, enhanced, and authentic learning opportunities to our schools, communities, and world.

Evans, C. (1995) ‘Leaders wanted’, Education Week.
Fullan, M. (2001). The new meaning of educational change. Teachers College Press.

 

Crossing the finish line.

 

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user iman Khalili

It’s not whether you win or lose… it’s how you run the race.

Jonathan Martin provided us with a detailed summary of his reflections after viewing Race to Nowhere, a documentary film that highlights the lives of high school students, parents and families, and teachers and administrators, all in the context of a system that is broken and failing our children. As Jonathan stated, it is “emotionally manipulative,” and the first sentence of the About the Film description on its website indicates that it indeed features “the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids.”

I didn’t know what to expect from the film, and I actually wasn’t prepared to take notes, but about 20 minutes in, I knew that I needed to write a reflection on the film’s contents. I covered the fronts and backs of scrap pieces of paper I had in my purse with seemingly incoherent scribblings. (I had owned my iPhone for about 1 hour prior to attending the screening, so, unlike Jonathan, was not yet skilled at taking notes on my phone in the dark. 🙂 The quotes below are my reflections as I remember them and may be paraphrased.

These are my take-aways:

On happiness:

  • Children are trying to balance lives that few adults would be comfortable balancing. Something that resounded with me was a student explaining how people always want to know from her, Aaand… “I’m a member of the student council.” And? “I have straight A’s.” And? “I play sports.” And? Why aren’t you doing any community service??!
  • We are basing students’ successes not on how happy they are, but rather on a systemic assumption that they need to get into a good college and make a lot of money, which will lead to happiness.
  • Why cant happiness be a metric used to determine the success of our schools? Why just reading and math scores? Focusing on academics alone does not respect the child.

On accountability:

  • We have a “tremendous preoccupation with performance.”
  • Our educational system is an inch deep and a mile wide. What is important is NOT “knowing a whole bunch of things.”
  • We’re always preparing kids for “what’s next.” Think about it: “In middle school, you will have to do X, so in sixth grade, we’re going to make you do X to prepare you.” “In fourth grade, your teachers will expect you to write in cursive, so in third grade, we’re going to learn cursive.”
  • Due to the pressures of No Child Left Behind, we teach students formulaically so they can pass a test, but if they encounter something unlike that which is on the test, they fall apart. The tremendous pressure to produce leaves out time for critical processing. Cheating has become “like another course.”
  • Kids want to know exactly what’s on the test and not go beyond it. We give them study guides! We base our teachings off of those guides!
  • Teachers feel like “yes men” doing what the district, state, or government wants, even if it’s not best for kids. One teacher cited the example, “like teaching them what a semicolon does.” She went on to explain the need for us to teach students critical thinking, problem solving, and how to work in groups. This passionate teacher explained that she wants for her students to be learners. She stressed that if you’re not teaching what you love, you can’t do this job. “I’m a mother to my students. I see them more than they see their families.” This teacher’s frustrations with the system and feelings of helplessness eventually caused her to resign.
  • The tutoring industry has exploded because we are treating all kids like they need to be in the top 2 percent academically. Children are nervous about upsetting and disappointing their teachers if they don’t perform. And that they may “lose recess” for incomplete work.

On homework:

  • “At what point did it become okay for school to dictate how a child will spend time outside of school?” It’s not about learning anymore.
  • There is no correlation between homework completion and academic achievement in elementary school. (This was my absolute favorite line of the movie.) In middle school, there is a slight correlation, but past 1 hour of homework, it lessens. Past 2 hrs of homework time in high school, the effect lessens. Reference made to Sara Bennett’s and Nancy Kalish’s work, The Case Against Homework.
  • We all need to educate ourselves about the effects of homework. Why do we insist upon assigning it? Teachers think it’s necessary to cover content. Parents expect it.

On passion-based learning:

  • Our kids have grown up in a “world of training wheels” and have been coached from a very young age. They don’t realize they can fall off the bike and pick themselves up.
  • Instead of taking 5 classes, think, here are 3 classes I’m really interested in taking. One student expressed his belief that college is going to be a place where I “start to learn.” What does that say for his high school experience?
  • “Smart” has so many different meanings. The system is ignoring a great group of kids that is talented artistically, visually-spatially, etc. “Absolutely no appreciation for that kind of talent, or thinking.”
  • What creates the opportunity to be innovative? What does it take to create a creative human being? Children need time, so we must provide that downtime. Play is children’s work. It’s a tool to figure out how the world works. They’re not able to figure out what they love to do or find their passions without that freedom.

I was surrounded by a very emotional audience at the screening I attended. The movie was shown in the high school auditorium of a neighboring school district, one whose name is synonymous with wealth and high academic achievement. We have often looked to this district for ideas about how to implement programs and structure schedules due to their documented successes. The parents in the audience were likely those of high school students, and it was clear, from only 30 minutes into the film, that they would start to reconsider the types of discussions they would have with their children about learning and achievement. I wonder how this movie’s message made them view their roles differently?

There was a member of the audience with whom I’ve interacted on several occasions in her role as consultant. She has spent hours with our administrative team, reviewing the RtII framework, discussing data at great lengths, and yet, her best intentions noted, not once did we mention a child by name, or discuss actual, meaningful learning. I wonder how this movie’s message made her view her role differently?

The president of my parent-teacher organization approached me about the film and asked if I thought it would be beneficial for her to view. I agreed it would be, and she is taking a group of our parents to see the film in a few weeks. I wonder how this movie’s message will cause them to view their roles differently?

One of my colleague principals had a chance to view the film, and I feel it’s important for us to share our thoughts with the rest of our administrative team. I wonder how this movie’s message will cause them to view their roles differently?

I’m actually overwhelmed composing this post, as I decipher my notes to try to articulate just exactly what I’m feeling about this film’s message. I agree with the conclusions shared at the end of the movie that we need to rethink how we “do schooling.” What do we want to invest in? What matters most? The quality of teaching is what matters most.

We have to start asking ourselves how films like this, articles we read, success stories we hear, problems we encounter, and convictions we hold cause us to think differently. And then we have to do something about it.

There is no easy fix to the flaws in the system, because the inherent problems are so complex. But there is so much that we are doing right in schools across the nation and beyond. What I’d love to do is create a Race to Nowhere-esque documentary that captures and celebrates the extraordinary learning that’s going on within and outside of our classrooms each day. (Many of us do this with our blogs. But is it enough?) We need to share our successes with a wider audience. We need to inspire each other and start to build a collective body of knowledge that can help lead us in the direction of a finish line worth crossing.

Living on the edge.

Shared via Imagebase

Since much of the most relevant knowledge on the edge is tacit knowledge, edge participants naturally place a heavy emphasis on building diverse networks of relationships that will help them to collaborate more effectively with others in the creation of new knowledge. For this reason, conferences and other gatherings where participants can share stories and experiences, learn from each other, and identify potential collaborators become particularly prominent on edges. The Power of Pull (Brown, Davison, Hagel)

Do you live on the edge? Are you an educator who uses the power of pull to access, attract, and achieve in shared, passionate-filled learning spaces? Having recently attended Edcamp NYCEducon and Pete & C, with ntcamp Burlington to follow next weekend, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the educators involved in the passion-driven organization of these events harnessed the power of pull to make these learning experiences a reality for attendees. What’s so great about gathering together in these types of learning environments? Why do so many of us count down the days until the next Educon, Edcamp, Ntcamp, ISTE…  what’s in it for us?

As our passions become our professions, we begin to see how social networks can provide us with an unparalleled opportunity to achieve our potential by allowing us to access resources and attract people who can help us while we help them. We construct our own personal ecosystems, an interesting blend of local relationships and global relationships, and a mutual leveraging occurs.

Not long after arriving in Philadelphia for Educon, I was surrounded by familiar faces. How was that possible, considering I had never before met most of those with whom I interact in the Twitterverse? Because we’ve spent the last few months…years… connecting. We’ve reached out to one another in times of need, shared our excitement and successes, and revealed personal tidbits of our lives to help connect with one another. Throughout that weekend, I was able to engage in meaningful discussions about learning (and sometimes nonsense), breaking free of the 140-character limits to really get to start to build relationships with the educators in attendance. There was much laughter, camaraderie, and a little karaoke. Once the connections are made, they require attention. Forming meaningful relationships requires time and a lot of hard work. Those of us in attendance benefited from face-to-face interactions that provided a whole new insight into the hearts and minds of our colleagues. These interactions allowed us to identify those with whom we could exist “on the edge” and continue learning from.

Edges are places that become fertile ground for innovation because they spawn significant new unmet needs and unexploited capabilities and attract people who are risk takers.

Would you describe your school as a “fertile ground for innovation?” Most would not, although I think some of us are starting to see glimpses of what is truly possible! This is because in many organizations, businesses, and schools, push is the preferred mode of operation. Teams of administrators or policy makers forecast needs based on past performance, then design efficient systems using a standardized method to ensure that the right people and resources are available to meet system goals. We push standardized curriculum, lesson plans and strategies, and learning materials onto students and teachers. Push models treat consumers as passive recipients of information, and can lead to boredom and stress among program participants. These conditions are necessary in a push environment because they yield somewhat predictable results that can then feed into the cycle of forecast planning. Push programs are important when explicit knowledge is valued over tacit knowledge. But I do not believe any of us want our students to be passive, bored, and stressed recipients of information that may or may not be relevant to their lives and learning.

Pull differs from push in that it escapes institutional boundaries, seeks to help individuals realize their fullest potentials, and values knowledge flows and experiential knowledge more so than standardized bodies of unwavering factual knowledge. The authors of The Power of Pull examine three powerful levels of pull: access, attract, and achieve:

At the most basic level, pull helps us to find and access people and resources when we need them. At a second level, pull is the ability to attract people and resources to you that are relevant and valuable, even if you were not even aware before that they existed. Think here of serendipity rather than search. Finally, in a world of mounting pressure and unforeseen opportunities, we need to cultivate a third level of pull—the ability to pull from within ourselves the insight and performance required to more effectively achieve our potential.

Pull also requires awareness of trajectory (what’s your vision?), sufficient leverage (how will we best use the passions and abilities of other people?), and the best pace (how fast will we move with these changes?) to make meaningful forward progress a reality in a world that’s constantly changing.

Sometimes it truly amazes me how I managed to assemble such a powerful learning network of educators in such a short period of time. Serendipitous encounters definitely played a role, facilitated by social media, as I know others have also experienced. We can’t be satisfied with the connections we’ve made, however, and not continue to branch out and bring new people to the edge. A comment that has often been made following an Edcamp or Educon is, “Well we’re all just preaching to the choir. Everyone here gets it.” Let’s get new people on board so they, too, can connect, build relationships, and contribute to the tacit knowledge flow that we all seek to learn from. As we increase the number of people we connect with, our ability to pull from that network grows. Doing so will help us all achieve the third level of pull, where we reach within ourselves to achieve our fullest potentials.

The subtitle of this book is How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion. And isn’t that what we’re constantly discussing, debating, and detailing? The educational reform movement is a “big thing” that we are starting to put in motion with each one of our smartly made, small moves. We have to continue to connect, build relationships, share knowledge, and live on the edge to make our collective ideas the new reality for today’s students.

Cross-posted on Connected Principals

Be an artist.

In Linchpin, Seth Godin asks us to consider the task of emotional labor: doing important work, even when it isn’t easy. It’s the type of labor we often avoid, due to its difficulty and the fact that to some people, emotional labor is a gift given without reward. In reality, emotional labor perhaps yields the greatest benefits, to both the giver and the recipient of those efforts.

The act of giving someone a smile, of connecting to a human, of taking initiative, of being surprising, of being creative, of putting on a show- these are things that we do for free all our lives. And then we get to work and we expect to merely do what we’re told and get paid for it.

Godin’s message is to bring your gifts to work. Your initial reaction to this idea may be, “Why should I? I just want to leave work each day and go home and do things I enjoy and be around people I actually like.”

What gifts do you bring to your school? Clearly you seek to display your strongest leadership qualities on a daily basis, in the hopes of modeling and shaping learning for your staff and students. What art do you create on a daily basis, at work, that allows your organization to flourish?

If you believe that your role as administrator or teacher or parent does not fit the definition of “artist,” I ask you to consider the following:

  • Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.
  • Art is about intent and communication, not substances.
  • Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.
  • Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.
  • Art is the product of emotional labor. If it’s easy and risk-free, it’s unlikely that it’s art.

I didn’t want this to post to be filled with feel-good fluff and void of actual instances of how I know emotional labor is being expended each day in schools, and how this work benefits our kids. In our elementary school, there are artists creating at every turn.

  • My guidance counselor recently designed a “break the mid-winter-blahs” picnic lunch day for the entire school using her gifts of compassion and her awareness of our school climate.
  • For a few weeks of the year physical education teacher transforms our gymnasium into an amazing obstacle course, complete with hanging “vines,” hula-hoops, clever contraptions made of PVC-pipe, and opportunities for rolling, tumbling, running, laughing, and learning.
  • One of my kindergarten teacher’s many gifts is her unrivaled ability to break into song, dance, skit, funny character voice… basically whatever theatrics is necessary…to excite and energize her students and engage them in learning.
  • My 3/4 hallway has this amazing chemistry. You can feel it when you walk through the hall. It hits you in the face. I love their contagious energy!
  • An incredible group of teachers and staff imagined and implemented a now-annual Day of Service for our entire school community in honor of a teacher who lost her battle with breast cancer last year.
  • Grade 2 teachers designed a Parent Blogging Night, where they will introduce parents to the learning opportunities their children will be involved in using blogs and where parents will help their child write their first post!
  • Students offer to stay in from recess to assist a teacher. They offer to make posters and visit you at lunch time and give you their ice cream and deliver cupcakes to you when it’s their birthday.
  • Dedicated parents in our parent-teacher organization write grants for technology and run science exploration clubs for our young scientists. Another parent blogged with a third grade class on his recent business trip to Shanghai and visited us upon his return to share this experience with our students.

None of these given gifts are written as requisite activities in teachers’ job descriptions, nor in any of those instances do you see the words standardized testing, curriculum map, or homework. They clearly all involve love, care, and learning.

How will you be an artist today? How will your emotional labor and efforts change your organization? Take a risk. Your passion-driven efforts will not go unnoticed, and you will find that when you expend emotional labor, although sometimes exhausting, it will be deeply gratifying. What we often forget, as Godin reminds us, is “The act of the gift is in itself a reward.”

Inspiration delivers.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Minneapolis Institute of Arts

My vision for how staff development should look in my school has undergone a transformation over the past year. In my first year as a principal I recall the dread of conducting the marathon faculty meeting on opening day, droning on and on about everything from recess line-up procedures to my expectations for lesson plan submissions. In Year 2, most of our professional development days were dictated by district initiatives, and the few “building days” planned by principals were spent on data analysis. We looked at a lot of data. No shortage of graphs in those meetings.

We covered a lot of topics, but there certainly wasn’t a lot of learning going on.

In October, Chris Wejr described his plan for covering his teachers’ classes to allow for them to engage in collaborative opportunities, the focus of which would be self-directed and hopefully involve an elements of creative thinking and innovation:

This would benefit me as I would get to spend more time with students, it would benefit the teachers who take me up on the offer as they would be motivated to take a risk and try something innovative, and most importantly, it would benefit the students as the teacher would deliver something to our school that would impact student learning.  The extra prep period would be their “FedEx Prep.”

Chris was inspired by Daniel Pink’s Drive, a book that delves into the fascinating world of human motivation and how the ways businesses and schools currently motivate their employees (and students) is a far cry from the way science says they should.

I finally finished reading Drive a few weeks ago and knew I wanted to explore the idea of helping my teachers be more autonomous in their learning. I wanted to ensure our organization was striving to reach mastery (but never attaining, of course, since mastery is an asymptote) and develop a strong sense of purpose for our actions.

I knew I could accomplish this without having my teachers read Drive, but I certainly brought the book to school and shared it with those who were interested. To start, I asked my teachers to view three short videos: the RSA Animate version of Pink’s Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us talk; Two questions that can change your life; and What’s your sentence? By taking just 10-15 minutes to view these videos, I feel most of my teachers came prepared to start the day understanding the fundamental ideas behind why we were taking our professional development in this direction. Teachers were asked to consider a “sentence” that exemplifies their role in our school/their life, and when they were comfortable doing so, post on the Wallwisher I created.

I summarized Pink’s key points regarding autonomy, mastery, and purpose and outlined the expectations for the day on our wiki. An excerpt:

So today, your task is to be self-directed in your learning. Be productive. Live your sentence. Ask, am I better today than yesterday?  Seek mastery in your role. Remember our ultimate purpose. The only rule? You must deliver. A product…a project…ideas…action.

Pink calls providing this autonomous time for innovation a Fed Ex Day- employees choose what to work on, with whom, and however they’d like. The expectation is that “they must deliver something: a new idea, a better internal process, a refined lesson plan – the next day.”

As you work today, consider the following:

  • Task – Choose tasks that will benefit and impact student learning. Think differently!
  • Technique – Design your activities and project work in your own way, so long as the end result is a benefit to students.
  • Team – Work with anyone you want to work with today- you do not need to work with your grade level teams. Consult with the many knowledgeable people in our school! Individuals that choose not to collaborate will still be responsible for “delivering.” Consider the importance of the collaborative efforts!
  • Time – Use your time as you see fit. You’re free to head home at 11 AM. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Our day began at 8 AM. We met briefly in the library for a 5-minute, “go and have fun today!” speech from me. That was it. I saw a lot of smiles. I saw an almost-equal amount of incredulous looks. (She’s lost her mind, does she think we’re actually going to work today?!) I told the team I’d be camped out in the library if anyone needed me or wanted to collaborate with me.

So… what resulted? First, I have to share our sentences. They are really beautiful. What I wonder when I read them is how I can urge more of my teachers to be transparent- to not choose to post a sticky under “Anonymous” when they have such meaningful work to contribute?

Watching my teachers work together on our “Fed-Ex” Day actually made me a little giddy. I seriously may have had a smile plastered on my face all morning long. I did a lot of listening. The conversations were encouraging. I relished in the fact that many of my teachers were leaving the “comfort” of their grade level hallways and teaming up with other teachers, including our specialists. To say I was impressed with how my teachers embraced this first foray into autonomous PD would not be fair. They blew me away. And it’s not that they were creating such innovative projects that were going to revolutionize the face of education as we know it… it’s that they were opening their minds to new ideas, they were enjoying their work, they were considering alternatives to current practices, and they were definitely stepping outside of their comfort zones.

Our ESL and special needs teachers teamed up and located a fantastic resource and planned for our students to engage with e-Books in their learning. A team of intermediate teachers considered how to develop students’ skills for error analysis in their work. Primary teachers gathered around the Smartboard, some of whom do not ever use the tool, to consider its use with their students. They created a team Diigo group to share resources. Two second grade teachers planned for how they would involve students in reader’s theater, and came to me to discuss their options for recording and posting their performances. Third grade teachers wanted to explore how to better immerse students in literature and enlisted the support of our media specialist. Our music and art teachers seriously debated why in the world we give grades in the specialty areas. Both teachers planned on bringing Fed-Ex type days to their classrooms. The Mid-Winter-Pick-Me-Up-Picnic was born. Primary teachers designed a way to incorporate more student-choice into their project work. One of my tech-savvy teachers bounced from group to group, leading the way with various initiatives. A revelation from a teacher who was working on a document to share with third grade colleagues: “Wait. Why am I using Word for this? I should be using Google docs!” Me: “Uh, yeah!”

Thoughts from the teachers? The day was not without a limited number of grumblings, however, on the delivery form they were asked to submit to me following their work day, I was so pleased to read positive feedback. One of the questions asked, Did they enjoy the format of the day?

  • Yes, because it gave me a chance to be creative in my own way.  If I have had any success in my teaching career, it is because of a format or structure like today, being able to create on my own, curriculum, selecting activities that best meets the every changing needs of our students, with administrative support but without administrative restrictions.
  • I was extremely annoyed at first when I heard the plan, because I had a lot of s$*t that needed to get done, but I have found the day to be extremely exhilarating and rewarding. 🙂
  • Yes we did! We got a lot accomplished and feel that what we did will have an immediate benefit to our students! Thanks for the opportunity.
  • LOVED IT! More please 🙂

And allow me to share the reflections of my most-excellent of guidance counselors, who will not at all be alarmed that I am posting her thoughts on my blog… I think her words perfectly depict her personal journey to planning a new community-building activity for our school, an idea she’d been thinking a lot about but, until Wednesday, had not brought to fruition. I introduced our Fed Ex day on Monday, which is when her wheels started spinning…

“Monday/Tuesday:  Hated it  (too open-ended.  daunting.  outside of my comfort zone.  getting in the way of getting my “real” [boring & mundane] work done.  scary.)

then

Tuesday/Wednesday:  Loved it (went crazy.  found and discarded ideas. refined them.  enjoyed bouncing them off a bunch of people.  liked having people show me what might not work and what would work better.  especially enjoyed watching people go from “What a ridiculous idea” to “Hey … that might actually be fun.”)

You and Daniel are very wise.”

I know that I will be mandated by my central admin to include specific activities on future professional development days, but I also know that a) I will try to transform the day so that I meet district initiatives while granting autonomy to my teachers and b) every chance I get, we’re going to have another day like we did on Wednesday. I enjoyed the feedback on Chris’s post and would love the same about our day’s structure and how I can improve this idea in the future.

I am very appreciative of Chris and all of the innovative principals who’ve inspired me in this area over the past year, and of course to Dan Pink for sharing his thoughts with us all, and making me want to be better and do things differently tomorrow than I did today.

Win the battle.

Robert Bruce Murray III - Flickr
Robert Bruce Murray III - Flickr

A few weeks ago I starting drafting a blog post titled redundancy.

I was becoming pretty flustered. I felt like I was saying the same thing over and over again. I felt like the articles, blog posts, and tweets I read and composed just yappity-yapped the same ideas. I kept thinking, “This is super… now what??”

Clearly, there are many days when I feel like Will Richardson:

But here is the thing…read between the lines in most of these descriptions and you get the sense that we see it, we want it, but we ain’t gonna get it very soon. Budgets are being cut. The people in charge don’t really see this vision. We haven’t figured out that assessment thing very well. And so on.

But as one of the “people in charge” (so I like to think), I have to muster up all of the stickwithitness in my soul to make change happen in my school. For my kids. I have to suck it up when the district officials impose more budget cuts and think creatively to do more with less.

Not all teachers are on board with the shift in thinking I’m trying to embody within our school walls. I can’t force them to collaborate. I can’t make them follow me blindly. I can only demonstrate the incredible power in sharing knowledge with one another, for the benefit of our children. I am going to provide my teachers with learning opportunities that allow them to see the benefits of autonomous, masterful learning with a purpose in action.

I have to model for them that I am passionate about learning. Every day I want to learn something new. I want to do something differently, better than I did the day before.

I will take risks, and I will fail. But I will learn from the experience. When I do fail, I know there will be people to support me.

We can do this, you know. We can, little by little, individual by individual, exalt student learning opportunities to the levels they deserve to be. There are success stories everywhere. I think of the VanMeters and the Identity Days and the Karl Fischs and Dan Meyers of the world. I think of organizations such as PLP that are raising an awareness as teachers and administrators taking on the lead learning roles in their schools. I think of my Connected Principals colleagues, who, in a matter of a few short months, have become such an integral part of my professional life. I think of the countless teachers and administrators who blog and share their experiences and make me want to be better.

Right now we’re swimming upstream in a river of redundancy. We’re not clear how we’re going to join forces to completely revolutionize education for our students, but that begs the question- can we win the war before we win the battle?

Start with you. Your school. Your teachers. Your classrooms. Your students. Your community. And for heaven’s sake, SHARE what you are doing. Help us all become better at serving our kids.

What are your plans for reform? Share them on your blog, and don’t forget to post here: http://www.wallwisher.com/wall/BRR2010 . See all contributions here: http://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2010/10/29/ideas/

blueprint1

Now I know.

thinking

This post was written for November’s Project PLN: The Admin Issue.


I used to think students should sit in rows. (Made it harder for them to chit chat while I was imparting wisdom on them.) Now I know they should sit…stand…hang…together. (Makes it easier for them to talk and learn from one another.)

I used to think I needed to cite standards in my lesson plans. (This handy-dandy cheat sheet will help me quickly identify standard 2.1!) Now I know we should evaluate the standards, using them to guide instruction, yet allow students to pursue their passions. (What does this learning mean for you, children?)

I used to think my good ideas should stay in my classroom. (I worked hard developing those lessons!) Now I know more students will benefit from the expertise of teachers who share. (Collective genius. Sharing is caring.)

I used to think I never had enough time. (Lesson plans…grading papers…surviving…) Now I know it’s important to work smarter, not harder. (Make time for the things that matter most.)

I used to think a child who scored poorly on an assessment didn’t study hard enough. (They had a study guide one week in advance! What is the deal with that kid?) Now I know a student who doesn’t perform well on an assessment does not have the problem. (The teacher does.)

I used to think sitting down with a parent was scary. (They’re older than me! They’re parents, for crying out loud! What could I possibly know that they don’t?) Now I know talking with parents about their children is enlightening and meaningful. (Parents are tremendous assets to every school.)

I used to think in-services were an opportunity for me to address my staff about important issues. (If I’m going to wear a suit to work, I may as well stand up in front of you with this PowerPoint presentation!) Now I know that I am not comfortable spending 6 hours of the day leading professional development sessions in which teachers have little ownership. (Let them lead the way).

I used to think teacher supervision was something that happened to teachers. (Everything’s ship-shape in here. Sign on the dotted line). Now I know teacher supervision is something that happens for teachers. (I appreciate your strengths in these areas. Where can we find opportunities for improvement? I will support you.)

I used to think a child who did not follow the rules was non-compliant and clearly did not want to learn. (A rigid system of consequences will help students realize what is expected of them.) Now I know every child who demonstrates the need for behavioral supports deserves an arm around the shoulder and our relentless care. (Let’s problem solve this together.)

I used to think people who put their lives out there on Twitter were crazy people. (Okay, some of them are actually crazy people. Why would you write about what’s happening in your school?! What if your superintendent reads it?!) Now I know my involvement in social media is the most powerful professional development opportunity I’ve had in the past year. (Thank you, PLN.)

I used to think bragging about our accomplishments was pompous. (Ugh, will that teacher ever stop yapping about how great her students’ projects are?) Now I know celebrating our successes spreads good ideas like wildfire. (It ignites teaching and learning!)

I used to think I wanted to be a teacher. Now I know I was right.

And more so, now I know I want to be a learner.
(Always.)

The power of positivity.

Positive-Thinking

In the face of adversity, we make choices. We decide how and to what extent we will involve ourselves in tackling conflicts. There are organizational conflicts and personnel conflicts. Even personal ones. We can’t control how others will act. We can only control how we will respond to crises, changes, and situations.

There is nothing more disheartening to me than encountering “professionals” that let negativity dictate their interactions with students, colleagues, and parents. I am not immune to the fact that the demands placed on teachers are limitless. Administrators find themselves equally as burdened by mandates, changing directives, disgruntled parents and staff, finicky students, and the daily grind of what is the life of an administrator. Those of us that enjoy our work tend to thrive on these challenges; we enjoy brainstorming solutions and problem solving in order to improve our schools and learning experiences for students.

Enter the power of positivity. As administrators, we cannot expect our staff members to exude positivity without demonstrating this quality through our leadership. Kim Cameron of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship, the author of Positive Leadership, is a useful resource for this topic. While some of our schools focus on maintaining daily operations and remaining status quo (or are frankly just in survival mode), others are interested in taking learning to the next level for the entire organization. What formerly was good enough just isn’t good enough anymore. Cameron refers to this as positive deviancy, going beyond the norm in a positive direction, which will cause organizations to flourish, not just exist.

Consider this graphic that details how organizational strategies can be based on the positive:

PositiveStrategies-1yso61o

Focusing on the positives in these four domains: climate, meaning, communication, and relationships, will enable leaders to take the next step in supporting a flourishing organization. (Notice what is at the heart of all of these domains: people. We’re truly in the people business.)

It easier to creative a positive learning culture in a school experiencing success. The difficulties lie in times of adversity. When budgets are cut. When the pressure is on to perform. When children’s home lives aren’t ideal. When there is conflict among staff. When the administrative team isn’t supportive. When there aren’t enough resources.

We talk of reform and of change. So many in my PLN and school organization are dedicated to improving education for their students and children, yet each day we encounter others in our communities who continue to resist and thus dampen our efforts. We cannot stand for this negativity. We cannot tolerate excuses.

Instead, we must lead positively and support our colleagues along the way. What are some ways you’ve remained positive in your leadership efforts? How do you promote positivity in your organization? I’ve found these simple strategies to be successful:

  • Smile. Smile at people when you greet them. Smile when they say something amazing. Smile when they say something that exasperates you. If you give the impression that you are frustrated, upset, worried, etc., the people with whom you’re interacting will know it.
  • Keep a folder called “The Good.” I have two. One is in my desk drawer and it’s where I file the thank you cards, children’s artwork, letters from parents, note from staff…and the other is in my Outlook inbox where I store much of the same. At those times when I say to myself, “How can I keep up with the demands of this gig? Why do I do this?” I turn to the folders. And I read. And I smile. And I remember very clearly why I do this.
  • Don’t act unless it’s in the best interest of the children. Don’t speak it, say it, do it, unless it benefits kids. Don’t waste energy on things that don’t. Being negative takes more energy than it’s worth. Did you know that?
  • Address the negative. Just like teachers use planned ignoring rather skillfully in their classrooms with students, there are some instances of negativity within an organization that are best ignored. Others are not. When the negativity seeps into the everyday actions of teachers, thus impacting life for students, it is no longer okay. Work with people. Help them see how their negative influences are detrimental to learning and are holding back the organization from greater success.
  • Celebrate. Celebrate everything, particularly the small successes. Help everyone in your organization see the value in what they do. Create a culture where it’s okay to brag. Share! Don’t limit your celebrations to within your school walls- be sure everyone in your community knows how excited you are about your work with kids!

“If you will call your troubles experiences, and remember that every experience develops some latent force within you, you will grow vigorous and happy, however adverse your circumstances may seem to be.” -John Heywood