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.


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. []

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. []

If Public Isn’t an Option, Then It Isn’t a Choice

The title of this post will likely bug some folks because it’s a fairly obvious statement. Except I see plenty of teachers, well-meaning and kind-hearted every one, requiring students to post work they do in class online. Without exception or choice in the matter. 

They require this work to be posted publicly for a number of reasons, but they all seem to involve the power of authentic audience, and the sense that students putting their words in public will magically create citizens who get the power of civic discourse. 

The thing is, there’s nothing authentic about being forced to speak in public. 

No one attending a city council meeting is forced to speak during the meeting. Folks reading newspapers never find themselves compelled to write letters to the editor.  

The power of public is in the choosing of it. There’s no agency in required speech. 

Writing in public is hard. Really, really hard. And it requires a mix of bravery and determination and gumption and a sense that the words one is about to share are IMPORTANT.  It also requires the ability to walk away and abandon the words at any moment. 

You don’t just shout to the world because your teacher says you have to. Or you shouldn’t find yourself in that position, anyway. 

If you’re in the business of helping children develop their public voices, then I sure hope you’re giving them choices about when and how and what (and IF) to publish. And sometimes, “I choose not to post today,” is the most important choice you can offer. 

Otherwise, I’m thinking you’re doing it wrong. 


Allowing (And Accepting) Students' Choices Is Hard

One of the really difficult things about giving students meaningful choices is that they will sometimes make horrible ones.  This isn’t a school problem, so much, as it is a democracy problem.  And I’ve met plenty of people who don’t feel that all adults are able to make good choices, either.

People don’t always make the choices that we want them to.  But honoring freedom and liberty means that we allow them to make bad choices.  And we don’t stop folks from making choices just because we wish they would’ve made different ones.

I was reminded of this today as I was listening to a teacher lamenting the fact that some of his students sometimes don’t complete their schoolwork.

 In class or at home.  They just choose not to do the work.  It’s a struggle to figure out sometimes when to acknowledge and when to struggle with doing something about that.

There’s a school of thought in education that suggests we cannot allow a student to make the choice to not do things, to choose to fail.  This gets expressed in plenty of ways, but one of my least favorite of those is the ways that lock students into situations (lessons, projects, readings, or even devices) over which they have no meaningful control.

I don’t find myself aligned with that school of thought so much.  Real choices mean real consequences – but also they mean that we can’t undo the deal of every bad choice a student <ahem> chooses to make.

I noticed tonight that an Alfie Kohn essay I fawned over when I read it in English Journal four years ago was recently re-posted on the Answer Sheet.  The whole thing is worth your time (and related to the above), but here’s a choice bit:

The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools.  In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day — than do kindergarteners.  Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.

When parents ask, “What did you do in school today?”, kids often respond, “Nothing.”  Howard Gardner pointed out that they’re probably right, because “typically school is done to students.”[]  This sort of enforced passivity is particularly characteristic of classrooms where students are excluded from any role in shaping the curriculum, where they’re on the receiving end of lectures and questions, assignments and assessments.  One result is a conspicuous absence of critical, creative thinking – something that (irony alert!) the most controlling teachers are likely to blame on the students themselves, who are said to be irresponsible, unmotivated, apathetic, immature, and so on.  But the fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.

Conversely, students who have almost nothing to say about what happens in class are more likely to act out, tune out, burn out, or simply drop out.  Again, it takes some courage to face the fact that these responses are related to what we’re doing, or not doing.  And the same is true of my larger point in this essay:  A lack of opportunity to make decisions may well manifest itself in a lack of interest in reading and writing.  Were that our goal, our single best strategy might be to run a traditional teacher-centered, teacher–directed classroom.

If you only let1 students make choices where the stakes are irrelevant and the options are, too, then you’re not really in the choice business, are you?

  1. This notion of permission is tricky, too, isn’t it? Are we really the folks who control whether or not choice can occur in our classrooms?  I’m not so sure about that. []

When Programming Becomes Persuasion

It’s probably a month or two ago now that I was talking with my friend Ben about programming and some of the work that he’s exploring and that I’m involved in.

There’s a project in my school district, folks working to figure out how to encourage computer science as the “fourth r” alongside reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. We are looking to see where computer science and programming live in our district habits and practices while we encourage teachers to incorporate principles of CS into their daily work.

And Ben’s all over top of projects that seek to bring programming as a skill and a habit to students from early elementary through high school.

But if you know me, you know I spend a lot of time wondering what’s new about the new stuff, and why the foundations we’ve already said we value are insufficient to incorporate the flavor du jour, whether it’s apps or programming or STEM or whatever. Most of the new, I’m certain, is covered in what we claim to value already.1

In talking with Ben, I wasn’t quite able to articulate some of my beef with programming and computer science as a new collection of knowledge that we already emphasize and value. Let me see if I can do a better job here.

Alan Turing, more than fifty years ago, made a case for how and when we’ d know that computers were thoughtful. Instead of asking “Can we tell if computers can think?” he fiddled with the question a bit. His question was something like “If a computer is talking to us, and we can’t tell it’s a computer, then that computer is clever enough to be confused with a person.” 2

If the singularity is fast approaching, and if the computers we grow closer and closer to are able to both respond to and decipher voice commands, how far away from a time and place are we when programming (coordinating and sequencing a series of steps that leads a machine to perform some work we’ve asked it to do) is really not at all functionally different from us asking someone to step into the next room and bring us a glass of water (coordinating a person to perform some work we’ve asked them to do)?

Is programming a new task, one of teaching oneself to speak an entirely alien language? Or is it an old skill – one of persuasion? How about a hybrid – language learning and linear thinking? Are we better served to distract attention from these old skills we say we value, or to find room for the new stuff in the middle of the old we already have too little time to work with?

And is programming itself a transitional skill? How long before it’s truly a persuasive task, rather than a language one?

I dunno. But I do know that an “hour of code” is a tease and not a rich, fulfilling experience. And that “covering” programming isn’t really enough.

How are you finding room for the best of the old and new in your work? And do you find programming to be a new set of stuff, or more of the valuable old?

  1. The trick is that we claim in our words and creeds more than we honor with our time. That’s not an empty critique – it’s really hard to squeeze all the important stuff in. []
  2. He and others have done much more articulate and thoughtful work on the nature of intelligence, artificial or otherwise, but go with me on the gist of the idea. []

“Don’t Use the iPad Just to Use the iPad”

Tonight, we held our first in a series of informal meet ups intended to help build collegiality and shared expertise around being a 1:1 school district. Michelle named these events iPad Geekouts, or, for short, iGO.

During tonight’s event, I was responsible for facilitating some sharing and conversation around shifts and issues relating to technology and classroom management. In the group who came to the session was a seventh grader who is working on a design project intended to help the district think about our technology planning and implementation process from a student perspective1.
To close the session, I asked her to share some advice to the group about what she wished her teachers either would or wouldn’t do when it comes to technology in the classroom.
She thought for just a second before she said, and I’m quoting from memory:

Don’t use the iPad just to use the iPad. Have a purpose behind it. Have us use the technology to be interactive. Or to do something we couldn’t do without it. But not just because you want to say we used the iPads.

That’s pretty much the best advice ever. Our students can tell when we are faking it, so let’s make sure we’re not faking it.

How are you working to make sure that you’re using the right tools for the right jobs in your teaching and learning?

  1. I love that our CIO has enlisted a student group to provide intentional feedback on our process and implementation. []