On Constraints, Road Maps, and Driving Directions

1601 De Bry and de Veer Map of Nova Zembla and the Northeast Passage Geographicus NovaZembla debry 1601

I’m working this weekend with the Compose Our World project, and we’re digging in hard to the curricular units that we proposed we’d develop in that work.

As we do so, we’re struggling with notions of when to allow for choice and when to constrain it.  Constraints aren’t evil – they can be quite helpful and useful for limiting the possibilities and allowing for actual, reasonable responses from teachers and students to the events, habits and practices of the classroom.  Wide open choice for everyone on everything isn’t necessary helpful.1

One way that’s productive in thinking about constraints that are helpful and still provide for choice is the metaphor of road maps. The decisions we make that constrain possibilities are those that create the universe, or the map, where a project or learning experience can occur. We might choose a single town, or a county. Maybe a state or an ocean. And anything outside the boundary of that particular map is, well, out of bounds. When we constrain a learning experience, we hand students a map, and help them see where, at least for the moment, the boundaries are.

The territory left open on the map is available for exploration. Students can pick a path or feature or two (or three or four) and venture off to explore in more depth.

But we don’t help our students if, after providing the map, we also give them the turn by turn directions to get them from point A to point B. If we do that, then why provide a map at all?

When you’re engaging in project work with students, teachers, and colleagues, make sure that you’re thinking hard about what constraints matter in your project, and then build them in. But if a constraint doesn’t matter, isn’t important, or gets in the way of your instructional objectives, then don’t implement it. Don’t rope off a path that might be the one that is the one the folks you’re working with and for most want to take.

Let at least some choices matter. But only the ones that need to.

  1. Frequent readers here know that I believe that choice is essential for agency and investment, but I don’t believe that everything should be open for choosing all the time. That way leads to madness. []

On Agency, and #whyIwrite

Earlier this evening, I had a conversation with a colleague who is thinking hard, very hard, about how to teach and perpetuate SEL1 principles in classrooms in deep and meaningful ways for children.

We ended up talking because I pushed a bit to ask that, as she creates resources to be used widely by Very Important People, she consider the importance of including teachers and the grown ups in schools.

If teachers and administrators don’t experience care and concern in the habits and practices of their work, I cannot fathom how they will be able to perpetuate those same habits and practices of care and concern with and for the children that they serve.

Our charge in the conversation was to generate some ideas about how to “operationalize social and emotional learning.” An important charge. So she needs to advocate and articulate discreet and specific actions, habits and practices that will lead to greater care, concern and recognition of the children in learning institutions.

As is often the case in such work, it’s difficult to turn theory, even the best ones, into actionable habits and practices in plain language. And when you don’t spell out the specifics, then wide dissemination of practice that leads to significant change is, well, difficult, to say the least.

We talked for a long while, and shared stories and ideas and experiences of how we want students and teachers to feel safe and looked after, but also about agency, a key term that’s emerging for her as essential in moving forward the idea that social and emotional learning practices must happen at school. It’s essential in my work, too. So I pushed for the conversation.

I’m not sure that I was helpful, but as Toby Ziegler reminded us once, sometimes, you’ve gotta preach to the choir – because that’s how you get them to sing.

Because it was productive and fertile and rich2 , I was ruminating over the conversation and the charge. And figured it’d be worth taking a moment to try to tease out some of the specifics that came up, and that maybe, just maybe, would help move her work forward. So I took to my notebook and made a list of the habits and practices I wanted to remember:
agency notes 1
agency notes 2
You probably can’t read my writing, but I’ll come back to this list at some point to take it further if I’m able.

Agency isn’t something you can give to someone else3. It isn’t something you can demand, require or mandate. It’s something, like a flower or a good relationship, that you can work to create the essential conditions for, and if you’re lucky, you might can watch blossom.

You can invite folks to engage. You can ask them to try. But you can’t force something to grow. You can’t mandate love. You can only work to create the essential conditions under which it could grow.

If anyone ever says they can “give” you or yours agency, then they’re mistaken.

But helping to build spaces where people can flourish is quite a delightful way to get to contribute to the rich tapestry of human experience. And such a great use of one’s potential.

And, as today is the National Day on Writing, it’s worth jotting some of these thoughts down. Because, friends, here’s the thing:

I want my schools and libraries, and my children’s schools and libraries, and your schools and libraries, to be places where everyone feels safe to explore and wonder and dream and play. I want the learning environments we create for teachers and students and everyone that might enter them to feel exciting and joyous and wondrous and safe.

I want the tech that I develop, implement and support to work to support people, and not the other way around. I want the fights to be clean and respectful and focused on building things and people up, instead of tearing anyone or anything down.

I don’t know if love and care, if genuine respect for young people, can scale. But I sure want to try. I want to work on that. And, at least in some small way, that’s what I am fortunate to get to try to do.

That’s why I get up in the morning. That’s why I go to work. That’s why I write.

And I want you to want that, too.

  1. That’s Social Emotional Learning, of course.  []
  2. Three words, as you might’ve noticed, that mean the same thing. []
  3. As I’ve said before. []

If You Never Try to Be Brave, It Certainly Won’t Happen

On a conference call today.

Heard that some of the participants on a project I’m working on are waiting to see what the entire scope of the project needs to look like before they jump in and try something new in their classrooms.

The problem is, that we’ve recruited these participants for this project because they’re pretty darned good teachers.  We trust their judgment and their ability to take what they’ve done and fiddle with it, possibly even drastically change it up, in response to some of the ideas we’re experimenting and playing with. We also trust that their judgment and professionalism will help them to make good decisions when it comes to classroom changes.

In fact, we’re certain the entire project will fail if these participants, ninth grade teachers in northern Colorado, don’t take some risks in their classroom.

Tinkering with the seating arrangements, this isn’t.

It pains me that the climate in schools is so risk-averse and so anti-teacher that teachers who are really good at what they do are also hesitant to lean in to something different – for so many reasons.

And I can see myself in these teachers, as I think about projects where I’m not doing much at the moment, waiting for something else to happen before I make an attempt to try something new, big, or different. Or I’m just not willing to face the resistance to change, from administrative, social, or political forces.

And I want to remind those teachers, and myself, that you can’t ever be brave if you’re not in a place where bravery is required.

I want to remind myself of this:

So what of all the talk of what might happen, of mistakes that could be made, of errors and missteps and failures imagined?  It might be, just might be, that when we give folks opportunity to do well, to dream big, to step forward and offer something big, bigger than we knew we could, to dream hard for something better and more beautiful than we knew we could be, well, maybe we can.

We’re all struggling the best we can to do right by children, and the conflict sometimes is not because we don’t all want to succeed, but it’s because we’re afraid we might.  And when we stumble, it’s not because we don’t mean well, but because we get stuck on the way to greatness.  Distracted, even.

But we can do hard things. Of course we can do hard things.  Look at how far we’ve come.

That’s what I’ll bet on. On hope. The hope that we can be better. Let’s do good. Let’s bet on someone being great.

And let’s let that someone be us.

If you don’t ever face the scary things, you can’t ever work on being brave.  And being brave, even just a little bit and even just a little of the time, is so important.

So, to you, and to me – Let’s try.


“The System Won’t Let Me”

System Lock

System Lock by Yuri Samoilov

The other day, I pulled up to a fast-food joint, trying to grab a quick bite.1

I ordered the value meal2, but I quit drinking soda a year or so ago, so I asked if I could just have water. I didn’t mind getting charged for it, I told the disembodied voice out my car window, I just wanted to not have a soda.  Could they please, I asked, just put water in the cup?

The gentleman at the other end of the speaker wasn’t able to help me.  When I made the initial request, he got quiet, and I heard the electronic beep of buttons pushing, and then he told me that he couldn’t not give me a soda.

The system, he said, wouldn’t let him do otherwise.

The system.

I argued this for a minute or two.  Could you type in “Sprite” or something, but just, you know, fill the cup up with water?  Or just put water in a cup and hand it to me with the burrito and tots?

Nope.  The system just wouldn’t allow it.

Being someone who can’t support systems that won’t let folks do things, I drove off without making a purchase.

As I think now about the beginning of a new school year, the first one in fifteen years I’m experiencing as an observer, I’m wondering about the systems you might find yourselves in.

Do you work, promote, or build systems – in your classroom, school district, or organization – that allow for choice and change?  Or do you work, promote or build systems that are lockstep systems, systems predetermined to know the answers that resist and/or require participants in them to remain locked in?  Does your system, instead of your judgment, shape all the interactions that occur within it?  When can the system be overridden, and how often do you do so?

And if you are in a system that’s locked down and doesn’t allow for change or choice, how are you going to resist or challenge that system this school year?

How will you teach your students to resist such systems, too?

I’m asking for me, but I’m also asking for my children.  I don’t ever want them to find themselves in a situation where they can’t do something they might like to do because “the system won’t allow it.” Worse yet, I can’t fathom them becoming people who are bound from doing what’s right or better or good because they feel stuck inside a “system” that’s beyond their control.

And I suspect you don’t want that for your students or children, either.

  1. Okay.  It was a Sonic.  I really, really like breakfast burritos, and I can get one there pretty much any hour of the day.  Eggs and bacon is the “fast food” I eat these days. []
  2. Because tater tots. []

The Podcast: Future Ready?

Last month, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address for The Future Ready Summit in Denver.  Ben recorded the audio, and was kind enough to share it with me.

So I’m sharing it with you.

Direct Link to Audio

Not sure if it’ll translate without the visuals – so the slides are below if you’re curious.


Stop Filling Pails

The number of people who believe that education is simply pouring facts into children, whether those children like it or not, is astounding to me.

We won’t serve children better by buying better funnels for those facts, or better shovels for those facts, or better containers for those facts once we get them into the children.

Admiring the hoses, shovels, and funnels is certainly not a productive way to improve learning for children, nor do fancy shovels make the process any better for the children involved.  Fancy tools used for terrible pursuits are a tremendous waste of resources.

We won’t serve society((Or the children.)) better by making sure the students sit more quietly, obediently, or patiently while we shovel, pour, or toss those facts, either.1

That is not what education is, should be, or could be.

Not even close.

  1. And children reacting negatively to having their time wasted is not the fault of the children, nor should it be used to justify more pouring or shoveling. []

“A Way of Caring”

Two things from today that intersected in a useful way:

Early this morning, a teammate noticed another group at the library had a big pile of work on their hands.  She asked my permission to help them.  Because the person who used to sit in my seat at the library valued keeping teams separate.  Their work is their work.  Ours is different.  That was the old message.

My teammate’s desire, when she saw a need, was to help fill it.  She wanted to make sure I was okay with that.

Boy, was I.

I encouraged her to always help someone on our big team, the entire library team, when she saw somewhere she could contribute.1

Also earlier today, Zac wrote a bit about what it means to be someone’s teacher after they finish your class.  Here’s the important piece:

That’s a world I want to live in, and it’s what I want to model. I want my students to know I’ll be here. I want them to see that as a way of caring for those around them.

As I grow into my new role as a manager of the work of others, that’s what I want, too – not to direct too much, or dictatorially, but to be someone who walks a walk that suggests that it matters more that we’re helpful, kind and considerate, rather than we’re the best team of the teams.

I don’t much care how many email hacks you know, or what browser extensions you’ve mastered, so long as you’re trying every day to be a kind and compassionate person.

Tech is simple compared to that.

Today, I started an email migration project, moving from one platform to another.  It’s going pretty well. But the work I’m proudest of this week is when my teammate knew that I’d be okay with helping, and that I’d give her permission to care.


  1. Her heart already pulled her there.  It’s too bad a former supervisor interfered with that inclination. []

A Library Is Somewhere You Can Take Things Home to Explore

Earlier today, I enjoyed reading Barry Joseph’s piece at DML about a digital pen that’s changing the experience at one metro museum.  But what really struck me was how he framed the difference between a museum and a library, and what that framing said about what a library is.  In talking about his experience, he wrote:

As I walked through the exhibit, I found that I was experiencing a museum in a totally new way. When I visit a museum, I am often collecting information or inspiration. I know I won’t remember the details, but the feeling will linger in my bones. But now, with the Pen, the museum has also turned into a library or sorts. I am collecting information and inspiration I can explore later, at home. 

You should read the whole piece, but think with me here for a minute:  Is what makes a library a library is that you can take stuff away, if at least for a little while?  Is the definition of a library a place where you can collect “information and inspiration (you) can explore later, at home”?

I like that idea very much.


“Let’s Find Out,” Writes Cogdog

Bud & cogdogI’d never really thought about it, but I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks ago, when Alan Levine said that he’d be in the area and we should meet up, that he and I had never been in the same place at the same time.

We know plenty of the same people, we play on intersecting online spaces.  He’s been a teacher and occasional collaborator of mine for nearly ten years. But we’d never been in the same physical space in a similar time window.

So yesterday we got to spend a few short minutes together.  Overdue.

He reminded me while we were talking about one of the things he found so great about writing.  He said1 that he enjoyed writing, that it was important for him to write, because as he sat down to write what he thought he wanted to say, he ended up discovering something better – that what he wanted to say wasn’t what he thought it would be.  For Alan, part of creating is discovering what he wants to say.

Love that.  Needed the reminder2.

I don’t know what the word is for being in the middle of a long digital conversation punctuated by short moments of physical interaction.  But it happens frequently enough in my work and world and life, that I really wish I had that word.  It’s pretty great.

Come back soon, Alan.  In the meantime, let’s keep barking.


  1. I think he said this.  He said it better than I’m writing it right now, but he was preaching gospel, so I wanted to try to capture it. []
  2. He also shared this killer collection of interactive documentaries that’s way too good for you not to spend some time with. I needed that, too. []

Nerd vs. Geek

We’re starting to revamp some of our technology help here at the library.  And we are expanding our maker-y programming, too.  To move us forward in both areas, we’re going to launch a nightly “Ask a _____” booth, where our technical team will be on the floor to demo things they’re experimenting with, as well as help people with drop in computer, ereader, and other technical assistance.  We’ll be leaning into and demonstrating our learning in a public way at the library.

But we’re having trouble with the name.  We want to own our passion for learning and exploring technology – and to label ourselves in a way that says we are really, really into the thoughtful application of this stuff.

So, does that make us nerds, geeks, or something else?  When you come to the library would you rather:

  1. Ask a nerd
  2. Ask a geek
  3. Ask a _______ (but what’s the something else?)

Inquiring minds want to know.  We launch the new program pretty much as soon as we know what to call it1.

  1. There’ll even be a Lucy-esque booth.  With a can for nickels, of course. []