Do We Want To Design Rides, or Do We Want to Create Imagineers?

Zipper ride at night

Had a check in call with my friends in the Compose Our World project recently. That’s the 9th grade curriculum project I’m working on, and not writing about enough. After our first year of exploring PBL and SEL as concepts to guide and shape 9th grade language arts curriculum, we’re beginning to decide what we want our curriculum for students and teachers to maybe look like.1

As we’re struggling with how to put the pieces together, we’re also slogging through some really big questions about what we want for the learners and the teachers in this project.

Do we want to create really incredible learning experiences, ones that teachers can bring their students to year after year and find success with? At some level, yes, it’s great to make things that are powerful learning tools or experiences, and that can be used more than once by teachers in their classrooms. But maybe creating better tools for learners to rely on isn’t the best thing we could do in this work.

Maybe instead we should be helping people to build their own really powerful learning experiences.

Because Antero is involved in this work, and he’s always thinking about games, and he’s always sending me really interesting resources on how gamers design experiences, Imagineers got brought into the conversation.

When designing curriculum, do we want to be Imagineers, or do we want to be developing Imagineers? That’s the question. And it’s never as simple as either, or2 , but I suspect long time readers of this blog will know which way I want things to lean towards.

How about you?

  1. Before we iterate through another round and change most everything. That’s how design works. []
  2. Nor are rides always the best metaphor for learning experiences – because frequently the best learning happens on detours, or when we take the experience off the tracks. []
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#PLA2016: Sherry Turkle and the Power of Conversation

Turkle notes  pla 2016

This morning at PLA, I heard Sherry Turkle speak on her current research into conversation, a continuation of her work on exploring what happens to people mediated by, through and with technology.  It was a useful talk – lots of stuff worth remembering in there.  

I was struck by her emphasis on empathy and intimacy, and I share her concern about people building robots to replace people without considering what’s getting replaced1 . Technology isn’t a replacement for empathy, intimacy, or conversation, she says, and I agree. 

Some hurried thoughts on the talk, written in between morning sessions, are below.

Writing Is Conversation, Too

At the beginning of her talk, Turkle setup a dichotomy of email versus face to face conversation. She used an example of office hours where students come to visit versus her students’ preference to write, and receive, “perfect emails.” I didn’t care for the example, though I understood what she was trying to say – that the edited and perfect life is a preference for many, that anything but our best polished self isn’t worth sharing or communicating. It felt like she was dissing writing.

The problem was that I don’t think she allowed for the possibility that writing, via email or text or pen and ink or any other format IS a conversation tool.  A darn good one.

There’s a reason to pause while constructing a thought, either as a sentence or as a spoken statement – and the delivery of one’s self, in intimate and empathy building ways, is just as valid when done via a letter, a postcard, an email, a text, or whatever instead of a face to face conversation. Intimacy and empathy can certainly be fostered via written exchanges.

The need for people to be people with each other isn’t about the modality of our interaction – it’s about the intentionality we put into it. And, of course she knows and believes this, otherwise she wouldn’t write books – the only way to spread her message would be face to face, a return to a pre-literate culture. And I don’t think that’s consistent with her messages, essential messages, at all.

I want teachers and students and library people and pretty much everybody to spend more time thinking about what’s on their mind, and writing/speaking/typing it in some way to someone else. But I don’t want folks to confuse the method of delivery of a message with the value of the message itself.  Email isn’t evil – but it can be used to send plenty of evil. Texts aren’t the devil – but the devil sure knows how to text. You get the idea. And can extend the idea to any place where writing can be shared among people. The platforms aren’t necessary the problem – it’s what we do – and don’t do – with them that matters2

One point I’ve missed mentioning is the notion of the edited life versus the messy life. The messy bits, she argued, are where learning and love and intimacy and empathy happen. She’s right about that – but I’d push to say that plenty of the messy can and does happen not face to face but via writing and other ways of communicating. I hope she allows for that in her thinking, and that we will allow for that in the learning experiences and spaces we create for ourselves and others. I’ve often referred to this space as “first draft thinking.” I want folks to share their early drafts often, and I think this is one reason why. There’s power in the rawness of the early thinking. We learn from the pushback that happens after we start saying things.

Technology Isn’t The Problem with Attention and Empathy – Mindlessness Is

A recurring theme of Turkle’s talk was that phones and folks’ use of them were somehow causing the problem of loss of empathy.  That’s not quite right. It’s the mindlessness of phone and technology use that causes the loss of our personness. We need to not respond mindlessly to that – but to be intentional about how we engage with technology. So don’t blame the phone, and don’t ban the phone. (A common school reaction.) Instead, work to build ways to help people manage their technology, and to pause and allow time for reflection about how, when and where to use it. 

If you’ve a quiet area that’s intended for reflection, perhaps a shoebox on the table for temporary device storage is a good idea. A local fast food restaurant makes quarantine boxes available for devices at their restaurant. I think they call them “family time” boxes, intended for device storage during the meal. That’s a killer idea, one that I will implement at my house for dinner time soon.

We Have To Be Intentional About What We Want to Be/Make/Experience

It’s not enough to be less mindless – we have to be more mindful. 

A bigger theme of her talk is that we have to be mindful and intentional about what we want our worlds to look like, and how we want to be in them. There’s a place for solitude, she argued, in helping us to figure that out. We have to know ourselves in order to be able to share those selves with others. Yep. She says the best line in her book is: “Technology can make us forget what we know about life.” And I mostly agree – but I’d push a bit and say that one of the big problems with the way that we interact with each other is that we don’t take time to consider what we actually DO know about life, or what we want to know more about. 

And we certainly, at least in formal learning situations, are far too quick to decide for others what they know about life, and what that means for them. We’ve got to look after each other better. 

After hearing this talk, I’m certainly off to get a copy of her latest book. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you’ve gotten into it already. Tell me about it in the comments. 

  1. I also wonder if the replacement, if it’s “good enough,” can actually lead to more empathy and intimacy for people – but that’s a different blog post. Likely about Turing tests. []
  2. That’s not to say that the way we build these platforms isn’t important, too, but again, that’s a different post. []
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New Pathways to Leadership – A Design Challenge within the NWP

I’m writing this weekend from the New Pathways Design Challenge meeting, an add-on meeting to the National Writing Project’s Spring Meeting in Washington, D.C.

It’s the third stool to the Building New Pathways work I’m involved in with the NWP, where I’m co-facilitating a team thinking hard about micro credentials that might be useful for thinking about what experiences people need to have to be a “writing project leader.” 

Twelve local writing project sites have received small grants to help them approach the practical problems of reaching new folks in their service areas, and connecting those folks to writing project experiences. They’ll be designing in a big hurry, and the badges team and the knowledge base teams are hoping that we can provide resources and support while getting some on the ground feedback on our pieces of the work. Their designs will be pitched at the NWP Annual Meeting in November, and many of those designs will turn into actual work with teachers not yet in the NWP network.1

Today is all about the twelve teams thinking through the work ahead and learning more about each member of the cohort and their hopes for their designing, prototyping and tinkering. 

I’m facilitating some discussion of their plans, moving from proposals to bigger visions for what leadership in the National Writing Project might look like in the future. What an honor to get to dream big with teachers and teachers of teachers who want to create better opportunities for the students and teachers that they serve.

What a responsibility to attempt to steward the network that has done so much for me so that it’s there for the next folks who are coming along to teach my children, and theirs. 

I sure hope there’s room in your world to dream big for the teachers and students that you serve. I sure hope there continue to be opportunities to remember that things don’t have to be as they are, and that we can all do better. 

  1. Boy, I wish everybody that wanted to be was in the NWP network.  The network is better with more voices, and new voices. []
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Me, #nwpleads, and 2 Metaphors for NWP Leadership

The Greatest American Hero (13948198067)
I’m working this week from Austin, Texas, where I’m at the Building New Pathways event with the National Writing Project. One of my more interesting consulting projects right now is working on this project, a deep dive into how we build and sustain new pathways for leadership development in the local sites, and the national network, of the National Writing Project. I’m co-facilitating a piece of this work, with my emphasis on helping to think through how we can identify and help others to identify and build the attributes that are essential for NWP leaders.

We’re defining “NWP leaders” broadly. Earlier today, Executive Director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl asked us to think of NWP leaders as those who are entitled to do work in the name of the Writing Project.

We’ve talked about many things, and you should follow along if you’re able and interested. There’s a Yammer group where much of the conversation and work so far is being collected and discussed, and the conversation is on Twitter as well under the hashtag #nwpleads.

I’ve thought a lot these last few weeks of what we hold to be the essential characteristics of “National Writing Project people.” For some, this means people who have been through the traditional entry point for NWP Teacher Consultants – the Invitational Summer Institute. For others, it means people who have glommed onto, into, or through projects sponsored or inspired by NWP principles, people and ideas.

I’m struggling with how to think about what an “NWP leader” is, how we know, and how one can enter into thinking of themselves or others in such terms. Jim Gray is heavily on my mind. So is the notion of what’s the “minimum viable NWP leader.” And metaphors abound as I try to think about these things. Is NWP leadership, NWP-ness, something that is learned? Lived? Experienced? Grown? Developed? Inoculated?1

Plenty of questions, and as this is a project I’m committed to for the next couple of years, I’m certain the blog will become a scratchpad for many of them. But right now, I want to get down some thinking about two metaphors in particular that are helping me think through leadership pathways and how we might recognize – or help others to recognize – what an “NWP leader” is.

The Greatest American Hero

I loved the TV show The Greatest American Hero when I was a little kid. I remember tying a blanket around my neck and “flying” around the living room while Joey Scarbury’s theme played from the 45 my parents bought me spinning on my record player. If you don’t know the premise of the show, it’s about a guy who is given a costume by some aliens. The costume gives him access to a wide collection of abilities and powers – super strength, flight, invisibility, telekinesis, etc. The only problem is, that the guy, who happens to be a special education teacher (at least when the show begins), doesn’t know how to make the suit work. And the manual, which the aliens gave him, is lost. So the normal guy is able to adopt a mantle, a superhero identity, but he’s never quite sure which powers he has, and which ones he will be able to draw upon, until he finds himself in a moment of need. Frequently, he’s able to call up the powers and abilities he needs. But not always. And sometimes, the abilities he expects to use to get him through a moment of crisis aren’t the ones that ultimately help him solve the problem.

Other times, the suit itself isn’t the thing that helps the teacher to be the hero.

Why in the world does this story work as a metaphor for me for leadership in the NWP? Here’re a few reasons:2

  1. The hero is the hero because he decides to be. No one forces Mr. H. to put on the costume. He chooses to, because he feels an obligation to adopt the identity of the hero, to help when he can, because that’s his theory of action in the world. Teachers and NWP leaders do similar things. They see a need and adopt a stance that says, yeah, I can do this.
  2. The costume is part of the identity – but it’s up to the wearer to choose the abilities that emerge from the chosen identity.
  3. There’s nothing “special” about Mr. H., except that he chooses to be the hero, or the leader. Others can wear the costume, can assume the identity of “super” or “hero” or “leader.” The power is partly in the costume, but it’s also in choosing to put it on. We can all choose to wear the costume, or to pick up tools. It’s what we do after we’ve chosen to do something that things get interesting.
  4. Even with the suit, things can get messy. The powers don’t always work, or work in the way we intend them to.
  5. You’re not a hero, or a leader, even with great power or amazing tools, unless you choose to be. And you can still choose to lead without access to the costume or the tools.

D&D Character Sheet (for an NWP-er)

Another way to think about the capacities and attributes of leaders in the NWP is to think about a character sheet for a role-playing game. What is “NWP leader,” but a role one has chosen to adopt? And when it comes to characters in role-playing games, it’s helpful to think about attributes that are necessary for all, but can exist in differing levels or degrees. All D&D characters have strength and agility – but each character starts with a different number for these abilities. Wizards are often smarter than warriors. But warriors are stronger than wizards. And even once we’ve chosen a class or character type, we can choose to specialize. Maybe we adopt the identity of a rogue. And we want to be good at lockpicking or stealth. So we choose to adopt those abilities through training and/or experience. And those abilities grow over time. But we can’t choose all of the abilities. In D&D, choosing one character type may open or close doors on the types of experiences that we adopt and/or can grow.

And in a good D&D adventure, it’s not one character facing the adventure – it’s a party. A group of players has to have several different character types to be successful. You need a tank who can take lots of damage, and a healer or two to help recover. Maybe that thief to pick some locks. And a ranger who can see in the dark. It’s not that you need all the types in all the situations. You pick your party sometimes through chance, and other times through intentional selection of roles and attributes that you believe will be helpful in the adventure you’re about to face.

But you’ve got to have a party. You’ve got to have a network.3

In both metaphors, there’s lots to consider to help me think through both what it takes to be an “NWP leader,” as well as lots of problems. Metaphors will only take you so far. But they can be helpful lenses for thinking through what’s bedrock, as Nicole Mirra has been calling core NWP leader attributes. What are the core attributes that every NWP leader has to have to be a member of the NWP “tribe?”
And what are the ones that you want distributed throughout the network, but not necessarily embedded deeply in every member? What are the skills and attributes and pathways that folks might want to dig into as they grow as characters in the network? What pathways do you want to emphasize? What skills and attributes do you want to nurture and develop in the network, but allow individuals to choose to develop for themselves or their parties?

What do you believe makes an “NWP leader” or a “teacher leader” either of those things? How do you know, how can you “prove” it, and how might we share that knowledge with others?

  1. All of these seem viable metaphors in some way. []
  2. And for my purpose here, let’s use “hero” and “leader” synonymously, even though I prefer models of servant leadership to ego-driven, “hero” leaders who save the day. But leadership and saving the day, moving the ball, etc., are often the same thing. []
  3. And, in the case of D&D, someone else builds the character sheet template that the gamers use as a tool. And then the DM and the players create the game together – so things get complicated quickly, and the rules on paper are only useful until they aren’t. That’s when good players improvise. []
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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. []
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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.

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“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. []
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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.

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Let’s Hack School: A Recent Talk at CSU

Earlier this week, I had the honor of giving a talk in the CSU Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life speaker series. With my time, shared below, I talked about some of our work around professional learning and agency, as well as some of my thinking on the essential actions/literacies/habits that should be in our schools. I probably tried to cram too much into a fast talk, but I think it got some thinking going, which was my goal in the first place1. Below is a Google Hangout video of the talk, and below that is the slide deck from the talk, which is rather hard to see in the video.

I’d love to hear your response to these ideas and where and when you’re fitting in make/hack/play in your teaching and learning.

Thanks so much to Antero and Cindy and the CSU Writing Project for having me out as a part of a really great series.2

The talk starts at nine minutes into the recording.


  1. I’m certain there’s a workshop or two in this talk, specifically around helping folks design learning spaces with certain attributes in mind. I’m tinkering now with building a thinking tool to embody the slider stuff I get into near the end. Get in touch if this is something you’d like to know more about. []
  2. PS – Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, the Executive Director of the National Writing Project, is speaking on April 7th as a part of the same series. You should go if you can. More info on the CSUWP’s website. []
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Here I Go Again

Earlier today, I sat in on a meeting of the St. Vrain Blended Libraries Action Research Group. That’s a big name, but the group is a group of teacher librarians, school and district folks, and administrators who are rethinking the role of the library in our 21st Century schools. They’re standing up an action research project and a prototyping and design process around their explorations, and will be sharing their work as they go.

The conversation this morning was infectious. A suggestion about space led to talk about task and inquiry about the way that students will ultimately use the spaces that these dedicated professionals want to design and fiddle with. The excitement was visible.

I was reminded that this work was another generation or iteration of the work that my colleague Michelle and I started together quite a while back as we set out to redefine what it meant to “do instructional technology” in the St. Vrain Valley School District. It felt good to know that our hard work lives on in conversations like this one. I really enjoyed watching a colleague who was once a participant in that professional learning environment shine as a facilitator in the group.

And this meeting seemed the right push for me to tell you about a transition I’m making right now.

On May 1st, pending some logistical and contractual details, I’ll be leaving the St. Vrain Valley School District to become the IT manager of a public library district here in Colorado. I’ll be managing a great team of folks to support the information infrastructures of a wicked progressive library. I’ll also keep my hands in some curriculum projects and some other educational partnerships.

Somebody told me, when I made the announcement to some current co-workers, that I’d really enjoy “switching careers.” I pushed back on that. I’ve been in the learning business for fourteen years now, be it in schools, libraries and community spaces, public, private, or otherwise. Now, as I head to a public library, I’m heading to a new sort of classroom, and students who all have chosen to do some learning.

That should be pretty darn fun.

I’m looking forward to the move. I hope those of you who read my blog, my teachers and co-learners, will continue to follow along. As I said when I left the classroom:

I’m kind of counting on you.  This blog and the connections that I’ve made through it are a big reason why I’ve learned enough to be a viable candidate for this job.  In some ways, this space is my own personal professional development school.  As I get acclimated to my new position, I’ll probably be asking lots of questions and seeking information and guidance.

So here I go again. Here we go again. Let’s go figure out the next great thing.1

  1. If you’re interested in a position as an Instructional Technology Coordinator, there’s one open. Go get it. Great organization. Seriously. []
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