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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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. 

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Trusting People, Who “Will Do Dumb Things,” to Make Their Own Decisions

I haven’t read A Place Called School.  Yet.  But it’s one of those books that comes up when I talk to and listen to and read folks who talk, listen and write about what schools are and what they might yet be.  And this piece on its author, John Goodlad, who died earlier this month, helped me remember that I need to get that book on my reading list.  Here’s the choice bit:

 The project convinced Mr. Goodlad that education reformers cannot simply take a successful education innovation and ‘install’ it in a new school, he told Education Week shortly after A Place Called School was published. ‘Several years ago,’ he said, ‘I gave a talk in Beverly Hills to a very sophisticated, bright audience. It was on the dynamics of educational change and the change processes. After it was all finished, the first question was, ‘All right, can you tell us what it is you’re supposed to do to bring about change?’ ‘And I’d just finished,’ he continued. ‘This woman didn’t even begin to grasp the notion of what it’s like for people to empower others to make their own decisions, how that requires trust, and that people will do dumb things. What she was looking for was: Tell me, one-two-three, how to do it. And there are no one-two-threes.’ 

“There are no one-two-threes.”  A hard, but humbling, reminder from someone who paid close attention to schools and education for most of a century.  Better still was the list of criteria for meaningful change:

  • empowering others to make their own decisions
  • building trust
  • allowing people to make mistakes and, from time to time, “do dumb things”

I’m so cool with that list.  Wish I saw more efforts focused on those things.  On my mind of late: How do we help to build good structures for people who need structures to help them learn how not to need other people’s structures1?  How do we build schools and classrooms and learning experiences like that? I wonder if some of that answers are in that book I need to read.   

  1. Okay, this has been on my mind for most of my career. []
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The Danger of “Good Enough”

Reply All is a new podcast I’ve been enjoying lately.  It’s a “show about the Internet.”  Their third episode featured Ethan Zuckerman, an Internet pioneer, apologizing for a very bad thing he did twenty years ago, a thing that really helped to shape the world we live in today. (9Or, at least, the Internet we live with today.))

You should listen to the whole episode – it’s not very long, and it’s embedded below.  And it’s good to know our collective Internet history.

Near the end of the episode, at about the 16 minute mark1, Ethan sums up something he’s learned from the story he’s just told.  Here’s what he says:

One of the things that I think I’ve learned in all of this is that “good enough” is a really serious problem. So, if you just flat out fail, right, if you do something and it just doesn’t work at all, you can look at it and say that was a fiasco, let’s do something really different.’ If you do something, and it kind of works – it works well enough to support what you were doing, it generates enough revenue to keep the lights on – you tend to get really attached to it, even if it was a pretty lousy solution.

“Good enough” hit me as a concept that gets in the way of, well, plenty of the work I’m doing lately.  Schools are, in many ways, “good enough.”  They’re limping along.  My family relationships?  “Good enough.”  The training I’m doing for my next race?  Heck, even my Angry Birds scores of late2 are “good enough.”

And I wonder what it is that pushes you, me, or anyone to move beyond good enough.  What are the factors and forces, aside from sheer will and determination and downright stubbornness, that will move a person or a group past “good enough” and towards “better than ever” or “continuous improvement” or “let’s nuke this whole thing and start over?”  How do we move organizations, and ourselves, beyond “good enough” in the places and situations where that matters most?

I’m cool if stubbornness is the right approach.  I just wonder if there’re better ways.

  1. 16:10 if you’re in a big hurry and don’t trust my transcription below. []
  2. Angry Birds Transformers?  Makes no sense – but such a fine way to remember my childhood fascination with robots that were cars.  AND robots. []
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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. []
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“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. []
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Connecting to What, Exactly?

Last week, Educating Modern Learners published a piece I wrote about some of my worries about online communities and students.  The piece is called What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Connectedness.  Here’s an excerpt:

I say often that the Internet isn’t good or bad. It’s a mirror of our best and worst selves. And we can be pretty wonderful sometimes.

Other times, we can be downright terrible.

When do we stand with our students and model how to resist bullies?   And how do we reconcile our desire to connect students to a world that is sometimes sick, twisted, and just plain mean?

How do we encourage educators and students to be brave and compassionate and firm with each other and strangers both online and off, and how do we support each other along the way?

I have no idea. But I have three daughters. And only so much time before they are potential contributors to online discourse.

Or only so much time before they are targets.

You can read the rest over at EML if you create an account.   You should.  They’re up to some good stuff.

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Don’t Talk Restrictions. Let’s Talk About Distraction.

Earlier this week, I was in conversation with an administrator in the district where I work.  She was asking some really good questions around some of the cultural issues she’s been seeing in her middle school which, like all of our middle schools, has just gone 1:1 iPad. At her school, she observed, many of the problems that have emerged as “iPad problems” are ultimately larger issues about behavior.  One stuck with me.

Lunch, it seems, is taking too long at the school.  A parent, too, had complained that their child hadn’t had an opportunity to eat at all one day.  The administrator has been investigating to see what’s going on.

Turns out a couple of things.  For one, some students are grabbing their lunches, taking trays to table, and then pushing food aside to focus on whatever they had on their iPad screen.  She didn’t elaborate, but I guess that sometimes that’s a game, other times a book or piece of reading.  But the iPad’s getting in the way of the meal, in a sense.

Another thing that’s happening is that some folks in the lunch lines are moving slowly, faces down on screens, and perhaps not paying attention to the questions from the staff serving food.  It takes longer to get through the lunch line, so lunch takes longer.1

She asked a colleague and I what she could do about that.  What, she wondered, might the consequences for this be?  How could we fix it?

I pushed a bit.  Because I don’t think distraction is necessarily a middle school problem.  Or an iPad problem.  Distraction, I think, is a culture problem.  Everybody’s distracted lately.  And there’s plenty of shiny, important stuff to be distracted by.  So possibly, instead of needing to develop consequences for behaviors resulting from distraction, her school needs to think about how to collectively discuss what to do about attention and a lack thereof.  She agreed.  I’m looking forward to seeing how she tackles the conversation.

Other middle schools in our system have decided that lunchtime isn’t device time, because the staff there wanted to value the role of face to face talk around a table with friends.  And recess.  Running around is pretty important sometimes, too.  Our district doesn’t have one answer for places like these, because school culture decisions should be made, appropriately, at the school level.

It’s not just middle schoolers who have problems managing their devices and attentions.  I’ve worked with, for, and in meetings with folks who aren’t there with us, but are somewhere else, checking email and other things.  In my home and work, sometimes, I’m present but absent, too.2

Howard Rheingold has been arguing for a while now that attention might be one of our most precious nonrenewable resources.  And he’s developed some good tools for helping folks to think through attention.  Focus will become more important as we continue to have more and more opportunities to learn about/from/through/with more and more things.  Our students, and the rest of us, need to be able to focus on the right stuff at the right time.3

Rather than label behaviors as “bad,” and attempting to correct them through punitive measures, shouldn’t we instead engage the cultures and deeper issues that these behaviors manifest?

I wonder how you’re helping to create conversation and attention to culture building in your schools and classrooms, and how we can all do a better job of managing our attention.

  1. This isn’t just an issue at her school.  I saw this post a little while back and was reminded of it.  Our devices and connections are sometimes getting in the way of, well, pretty much everything else. []
  2. A colleague this morning told me another story about a student who was waiting for class to begin at a different school.  The teacher hadn’t yet arrived and the student took a moment, while waiting in the hallway, to play a game.  A passing teacher, see the violation of the “Don’t use your iPad in the hallway” rule, confiscated the student’s iPad.  I wasn’t impressed with that response.  If that teacher has Candy Crush or Words with Friends on his or her phone, and has ever launched it between 8 and 5, well, I guess that a bit hypocritical. []
  3. And to be able to decide what counts as “the right stuff.” Teachers shouldn’t always be the people deciding what’s right for their students. []
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Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom

Screen Shot 2014 03 15 at 5 40 11 PMRecently, a project I spent some time on last spring and summer came to life. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom is now available for free download as a PDF or a 99 cent eBook via the Amazon Kindle store.  I’m biased, but I think you should take a peek.

The goal of the project was to put a face of specific examples from real classrooms on the Connected Learning principles.  Again, I’m biased, but I think if you read the text, and follow the links to the projects from Digital Is we focused on, I think you’ll get a sense that real, live teachers and students are engaging in some very dynamic work in classrooms right now.  They’re not waiting for someone to show the way.  I was particularly pleased to see so many examples of “teacher” and “student” shown in the text.  We all take turns with both of these roles.  That’s important to remember.  Gail, Mike, Adam, and Jenny, the teachers who wrote the examples I showcase in the chapter I worked on, were all my teachers on this project and I’m grateful for their contributions to my learning and this text. You will be, too.  So take a look already.

But other teachers, as well as plenty of non-teachers who make big pronouncements about schools and schooling, would benefit, too, from a glimpse of the work we reference. So share this with them, would you?

Last week, several of the other project editors visited for a webinar at Educator Innovator. That webinar is below.  Give it a listen.

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Follow Up to Today’s (Well, Okay, Yesterday’s) Blogging Conversation

It was a real treat to get to spend an hour in conversation with some of my blogging and writing teachers on Thursday.  We were assembled at Connected Learning TV by Jabiz to talk about student blogging.  I hope we get to have round two soon – there was plenty more to talk about.  Here’s the recording:

And a few further thoughts.  If I had to give my stump speech for blogging, the talking points would look something like this:

  • Blogging should be a habit, not a unit.  Multiple blogging units for students as they move through an institution makes for a really creepy digital graveyard of barely begun texts.  Better to build the habit early on and practice as you go.  Therefore . . .
  • Blogging should be buiit into the infrastructure of the learning institution, not up to the whims of a particular teacher or teachers.
  • Blogs can be really interesting containers – you can put pretty much any digital stuff into a blog that you’d ever want to – but they should also be playful playgroundy spaces.  Blogs are much better as places of play rather than places of expectation.
  • Of course, the thing about toys and choices is that sometimes you’ve got to be able to choose not to play at all.  Otherwise, you’re not really playing.  Well, you are, but you’re playing a game that isn’t blogging.  It’s called school.  And that game isn’t always all that fun to play.
I said during the webinar that I felt like the infrastructure that we build, support and maintain should feel more like an invitation than an obligation.  We should make spaces and places on the Web where we’d actually like to spend time, and we should be working to bring other folks in to the party.  I think that’s the kind of work that Jim and Alan do.  They play in public and invite others to play along.  I think that Jabiz does that in his classroom.
Maybe I’ve been forgetting to do that lately.

 

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