On Skinned Knees & Lessons Learned

It’s skinned knee season in our home, with two girls riding bikes of the two and four-wheeled variety, and a third toddling along just behind – ready for far more than she’s capable of.

And I’m not one to stop someone who’s trying to make progress, even if that progress might be dangerous.

So we’ve been through lots and lots of boxes of Band-Aids for hurts both real and imagined. And we’re quick to wash out wounds and make sure that we keep them looked after.

But no matter how well we wash and watch, some of them are going to leave permanent marks. Like the time Ani discovered that you can’t make a ninety-degree turn on a bike. Or the time that Teagan realized, in a most unfortunate way, that you cannot stop a tricycle like Fred Flintstone could stop his car.1 Quinn forgets, sometimes, about “down.” She’s still kind of new.

Each of those moments hurts. But hurt can have an upside. In fact, some would tell you that hurt, or pain, has an evolutionary advantage. It tells us when we hit a limit of some kind.

And those marks will help them remember the stories of the injuries one day. They’ll proudly show the little scars and blemishes that never quite go back to normal and explain that they rode a bike early, or took a chance on a curb or wrestled with a cat or went head over handlebars in a moment of panic.

But hurt, like fear, well, it just hurts. And to know someone you love is hurting is the worst kind of pain, a pain of helplessness and empathy and doubt.

Oh, how I wish I had a suit of Nerf and armor that I could force my children to wear when they go out into the world, or want to wrestle that cat. To be able to ensure the safety of my children, be they walking to school or traversing a steep hiking trail along the edge of a narrow cliff, would make my sleep come much easier.

But I don’t. And the marks and memories would be hard to accumulate from inside an impenetrable shell of foam. I also suspect it’d be mighty difficult to hear with all that Nerf so close to one’s ears.

There are plenty of days I want to say “Today, let’s stay here, where cars and cats and cliffs and sticks and stones and words can’t hurt us.” But I can’t. Because that’d be parental malpractice. As a dad, it’s my job to listen and bandage and help my children to be brave, to not stop when it’d be a whole lot easier and may well hurt a great deal less and be more safe to just stay still. Being brave? It’s important. And I hate it. Oh, there are days I very much dislike that job.

As a teacher, that’s my job, too.

I hope you’ve got a kit full of peroxide and Band-Aids with you as you take your charges out into the world. I hope you, and they, are being very brave.

  1. Of course, Teagan would have no clue who Fred Flintstone is. Or was. Whatever. But I do find it interesting that “Flintstone” is in my Web browser’s dictionary. []

On Being Afraid

On Friday, Converge did a quite nice write up of some of our district’s work with technology. I found it to be a splendid piece. Specifically, a large portion of the article featured some of the work we’ve been doing with the Digital Learning Collaborative. If you need a one sentence summary of that work, well, Paige does a fine job:

It was awesome and scary for some to be in charge of their learning.

I think that pretty much sums up what I’m seeing with regards to the way that we’re asking teachers in the DLC to take control of their own learning. It is scary for many of our teachers to take control. And it is awesome, delightful even, when it happens.

More often than I’d like in the DLC, the teachers that we’re working with, and we work with the leaders of the teams, folks identified as teacher leaders in their schools, so chew on that a bit, are afraid, or unwilling, or unable, to take control of their own learning. These teachers, quite fine and thoughtful people, are often waiting for Michelle or I to tell them what’s worth learning and/or doing. That’s troublesome1.

This is mostly a rhetorical question, but I’d encourage you to consider it anyway – what’s happened to teachers and teaching that it’s so difficult for teachers to feel they have agency enough to follow their own lines of inquiry and learning?

And why in the world is that okay?

  1. And the word “troublesome” is quite the understatement, I think. []

In Good Hands

One of the honors and privileges of my current position is that I get to work with some really smart people.  I mean wise folks.  The folks I want my children to learn with and from.

And I get the opportunity, from time to time, to see these smart folks in action. This year, on the first day of school, MIchelle and Kyle and I took a lap around the district and happened to wander by Kevin’s classroom a few minutes into his year.

And, boy, was he in the zone.  Already.  Inside a few minutes.

He was  introducing reading notebooks to his students when we happened by.  We were approaching the classroom, no appointment, just saying hi, when we heard him say this:

We are going to have thoughts as we read, and it’ll be good for us to write those down so we don’t forget them.

And so we turned around and kept right on walking. Kevin’s students didn’t need us to interfere with some very serious exploration of what it means to be a reader, writer and thinker.  Nope.  Anything we might’ve done in that situation would’ve been an interruption. They were in quite capable hands.

Of course, the more I think about that one sentence, the more I think it sums up so much of what I think school should be – people exploring thoughtfulness. Thoughtfully.

And I am grateful for folks like Kevin, who works with 4th graders, because I know that they are well served because he is there exploring their thinking with them.

If your school year’s just getting going, I sure hope that you are reading something interesting, and asking your students to, and that you’re all pausing from time to time to write something that you’re thinking about down.

And if you’re not – why aren’t you?


Safe Places & What Is Yet To Come

I had the opportunity earlier this week to sit in on a conversation with teacher librarians and other media staff during a kickoff event to start the school year. We were sharing some lunch and talking about our hopes for the year – specifically, we were discussing how we will be working to build libraries that are places of community.

That’s a fine thing to be discussing.

One media staffer said that it was important to her that her library be a safe place, a place where students could expect to be sheltered from, well, the stuff that can be unsafe about a school.

And that was a good hope. Lots of head nodding. Lots of talk of sitting in circles and making things and libraries as spaces where crafts were made, and stories were read and books were explored and questions were asked. And often answered.

And I thought that was good. They spoke of love without using the word. What could be wrong with that?

And, at the same time, I started to get angry.

See, many of these library folk that I visited with the other day were facing new challenges as library folk. Some were in the library alone, whereas before they were a part of a team. Others were entering into roles as clerks in the absence of a full teacher librarian1. As we seek ways to save money in our school district, we have had to make hard choices about whether to staff classrooms or libraries. These are not easy choices.

But when such kind and thoughtful people advocate for such important spaces as school libraries, well, I feel like maybe they shouldn’t have to fight so hard.

A project I’ve been loosely following is asking folks right now to think of libraries as enchanted spaces, and of libraries as verbs. And I will think this year of this round table of library folk, dreaming of spaces where children find love and security and story and words and literacy. Spaces and places where the skeletons of dreams receive flesh and animation from books and pictures and websites and exploring and wondering and discovery. And I am enchanted.

And I am enraged.

This week, our state courts are hearing the case of a large coalition of school districts arguing that the state of Colorado is not meeting its constitutional mandate to provide a proper education for the children of the state. And our Governor, while supportive of the intent of the lawsuit, is concerned that it might succeed, because of what that might do to the state budget.

What might not investing in enchanting spaces and people do to the state? That we have to have this argument in court suggests we’ve all lost.

On the same day that I got to have lunch with our library types, our school board president addressed the library group and talked about some of the research that he conducts in his day job. He studies institutions and public policy and, well, people. It’s fascinating work.

He mentioned during his talk that while it makes sense to consider the points and arguments that would lead to rational loyalty towards institutions one would value, folks don’t fight for rational loyalty. They fight for, and will work to save, protect and defend, the places and institutions with which they have emotional attachments. And I want our schools to be places of emotional attachment in the best possible way. Places of pride and hope and joy and love and respect and kindness and the best of what we might could be.

We are, after all, beings of emotion and then ration, rather than the other way ’round. No matter how hard we might wish otherwise.2

And I wonder how to go after the emotional jugulars rather than the heels of rationality. As one who pretends rationality, I wonder about the best way to do this. And I remember the teacher who called across the parking lot to me the other day to tell me that she might have lost her way, that she might not know what’s worth talking about or spending time on lately.

And I know what she means sometimes.

And I write tonight because I don’t know if I’ve lost my way or not, either. But I seek enchantment. And safety. And hope. And think they’re within reach.

And I remember a kid with glasses too big on a face too small in pants too tight with friends too far between who needed a quiet place to read where no names were called and the books and the stories could keep coming. And I remember the library folk who made sure that I could focus on the dreams in the books rather than the whispered pokes from the jerks.

And I am enchanted anew.

And so I’ll keep reaching, and seeking. And I am eager to begin a new school year, to reach again with smart folks to try to be the best that we can be.

You come, too.

  1. It’s cheaper, you know, to staff a library with a clerk rather than a licensed teacher. But what, I wonder, does that savings really cost? []
  2. It’s true. Rationalize your love for the child that left a soggy mess in one of your shoes the other morning. The little girl who made you dance on the sidewalk with her. In front of all the neighbors. Simply because she could. You can’t rationalize that. You love her anyway. []

Thinking. Making. Learning.

This morning I had the opportunity to visit our school district’s Camp Innovation, a summer program for Kindergarten through second grade focused on engineering and exploration and inquiry.  In partnership with IBM, our district developed this two-week summer experience.  Here’s the formal description of the work:

Teams of students will work directly with IBM employees at the IBM facility, along with SVVSD educators and high school volunteers on important and relevant issues to building a Smarter Planet: transportation systems, water, cities/buildings, food, and energy. Each group will be facilitated by a SVVSD teacher, an IBM employee, and multiple SVVSD high school students who participate in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) or IB (International Baccalaureate Diploma) programs. At the end of the two week camp, project exhibitions will be shared with community audiences to culminate the experience.

My informal discription?  Students digging in, asking questions, and wondering about the world.  Then doing something about it.  It was fun to watch, even for a few minutes.  Students and facilitators and volunteers were moving around, making things, discussing options, and clearly engaged in very important work.

Below is a video describing the inquiry cycle that the Camp Innovation team, a group masterfully facilitated by Paige Gordon, worked to build into every aspect of the students’ experience.  As I was wandering and shooting pictures and exploring student creations and how they camp has transformed a wing of office space at IBM into a design and fab lab, I saw the cycle in action, on the walls, and in the work of the students.  I’m looking forward to seeing the students’ final projects, which will be shared in a community event at the end of the week.  Thankfully, the entire experience has been well-documented by our district communications team, specifically Matt Wiggins1, and you can get a feel for the camp and the events as those videos emerge ((You can catch them as they hit the Web if you’d like.)

One more thing – as I was exploring the students at work, other district administrators who were visiting were remarking that it was essential that we get ideas like “So what?” and “How are you going to personally get involved?” into our “regular, during the school year” classrooms.

And that’s a fine thing to remark on.  I look forward to their, and our, continued efforts to mix design and tinkering and inquiry into the daily culture of our classrooms.

Here are more of the photos I took during my short visit.  Take particular notice of the “Prototyping Lab,” a large space full of supplies.  I’ll have more to say on the lab in a future post.

  1. The original version of this post had Matt’s last name incorrect.  My apologies. []

“Interactions with Technology Should Be Playful.” (Yep.)

So I’m giving a short “setting the mood” talk today to a school that is up to some interesting work.  They’ll be spending the next couple of days working through some play and exploration around many of the tools available to them to help them in the work of teaching and learning.

And I’m supposed to say something clever and upbeat to get them started.  Which is a bit of a challenge.

Or, it was going to be, until I stumbled across a draft of a position paper by the National Association for the Education of Young Children on the role that technology can and should play in the learning and development of young children. I was prepared to be frustrated by their work, and I was so tickled to be wrong.

It’s a delightful read, painting a picture of what I believe learning can and should look like.  That it’s a technology document is almost of secondary importance.  I’d encourage you to give it a read.  But I can give you the gist of the document in these three statements taken from the text1:

We can learn lots from the situations of discovery and exploration that are the best of our early learning spaces.  Preschool.  Kindergarten.  A good library, theater, or museum.  The joy of discovery and wonder and budding curiosity.  The technologies that we use with children for learning should help us to amplify the best of us and to help us become better and wiser people.  It matters less what technologies we employ than it does that we are working thoughtfully and purposefully to create spaces for good learning.

And I hope I can convey that to the folks I’m speaking with today.


UPDATE:  Here are the slides from the talk.

  1. The text is from the position paper.  The pictures were taken by me of my children in two recent trips to the Denver Art Museum. I’m preparing to do some work with them and I’m excited by the learning spaces I’ve seen there on our recent visits. []

Determining Failure

I’m off again on a short vacation, but I couldn’t let this paragraph escape at least a word or two.  Over the weekend, Bill Gates was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.  From the piece:

One of the foundation’s main initial interests was schools with fewer students. In 2004 it announced that it would spend $100 million to open 20 small high schools in San Diego, Denver, New York City and elsewhere. Such schools, says Mr. Gates, were designed to—and did—promote less acting up in the classroom, better attendance and closer interaction with adults.


“But the overall impact of the intervention, particularly the measure we care most about—whether you go to college—it didn’t move the needle much,” he says. “Maybe 10% more kids, but it wasn’t dramatic. . . . We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.” Still, he adds, “we think small schools were a better deal for the kids who went to them.”

Now, there’s lots to say about the “success” or “failure” of the small schools work done by Gates and others.  And I know that Bill Gates has said that small schools offer more than just college readiness.  But I suppose what I’d like to contribute here, or at least to push back with, is something like this:

Perhaps the metrics used to evaluate the effort were the wrong metrics.  College attendance may not be the right way to measure whether or not small schools are good places for our children.  We might want to investigate some other metrics and see how they tell us about the experience of students in smaller schools.  I’d wonder about things like safety.  Or the knowledge that students in a small school are members of a cohesive and human community.  Were these students well looked after and mentored by grown ups who genuinely cared for them?  Were they engaged in work that was meaningful and purposeful?  Did what they did each day matter?

You can say those schools failed – but let’s make sure we know what your criteria are. The more someone1  is pushing to tell me what counts as a “good school,” the more I’m finding I’m willing to say –

Hang on.  Wait.  What do we want our schools to be?

And just what do you mean by failure?

I think those’re some of the kinds of questions that the folks who are organizing the Save Our Schools March are asking.

If I could be, I’d be there in Washington DC as they congregate to push for change. Perhaps you will be.  Take good notes.

  1. “Like Bill Gates,” I want to say, but it’s not about him.  Like anyone who wants to tell you what’s working or what’s not.  Dig deeper.  Ask more. []

Leave A Little Love for Them

I’ve been teaching an awful lot of Google Mail and Calendar classes lately, as my school district is moving into its new email platform1.  And I mention during these classes that students will have email next year.  In fact, it’s one of the big advantages for us – student email, somebody in the IT department figured, would cost us, at a minimum $500,000 – $600,000 to handle licenses and other odds and ends under our old system.

And the response to that’s been pretty positive.  We said when we started that we’d be offering email for secondary students only.  And then the elementary teachers started asking for mail for younger students.  Eagerly.  And we’re thinking about it and talking about how to make that work.

But I have to remind folks during the training that, even though the younger students are in the universal directory, and have access to Google Docs and other tools and services, they can’t yet access their email2.  So if you send a younger student an email, they won’t get it for several years.

It was when I said this out loud today, not the first time I’ve said it, but the first time I was struck by what that might mean, that I realized that there might be a feature in there.

Suppose that when these students do get to access their email boxes, they’ve a few important notes written by people who care for them waiting during their email orientation.  We could, if we wanted to, use the dormant email accounts of younger students in our district as a sort of time capsule for sending good stuff their way ahead of time.

I see plenty of reasons why the messages might never be read, or get lost among the clutter of notifications and odds and ends and whatnot that will also be waiting for those students when their mail’s turned on.  But wouldn’t it be neat to send care packages to the future versions of our students today?  Quick notes and longer messages of moments where they chose well, or were worthy of a moment’s pause.  An occasional picture or two or a piece of work that really, really stood out, perhaps?

It’s likely wishful thinking3 , but I suspect the sending of the messages, received or not, would be a useful and productive pause for each of us.  A time to honor the students our children are, and the people they may well be.  It couldn’t hurt to take a moment to write down a few words to a child.

And I like the idea that sometime in the future, a student in the middle of a moment of doubt would stumble upon a note from a time when they did something well, or worth doing, or worth sharing.  I like that perhaps they might get a chance to remember.

I say yes.  That’s worth doing.  Let’s make our digital spaces just as warm and inviting and kind as our physical ones.  ((And let’s make sure our physical spaces are warm and inviting and kind, too.)) Of course, our students who’ll have email access today, well, I suspect they wouldn’t mind a kind note or two, either.

So let’s get right on that, okay? If you’ve five minutes this week, jot a note, electronic or otherwise, to a student who’s up to something interesting.  Make their day.  And mean it.((And, if you’d like to write to your future self, there are certainly services that you can use to do that.  Try it out.))

  1. Google Apps for Education.  We’re excited about it. []
  2. We have it shut down for them by policy. []
  3. And perhaps overly optimistic.  I suspect some people who stumble across this post will worry about the fact that they’d be communicating with a student, that the communication might be dangerous because of future litigation.  To those folks, I’d say something like: let’s not let the worst of us eclipse the best of what we might be.  Choose your words carefully, but don’t stop being a good person.  Good and kind and thoughtful people are necessary when there are so many not good folks, or so many folks trying to prey upon our worst fears.  The best way to battle a bully is, of course, to provide a compelling model of better behavior. []

Love as an Essential Element of School Design

I’m about to head off the grid for a week or two, with only brief glimpses of online things.  It’s that time of year and I need a break – and I’m celebrating an anniversary with Ms. the Teacher – our tenth. A good time to pause and reflect – on many things.

But, before I go, I wanted to leave myself a note about something I wanted to think more about when I returned – and it’s this:

Larissa was responding to a question about it not being “normal” to find places, specifically schools, where love is the reigning paradigm1.  She said, plainly and rightly, that maybe love should be the norm.


And that’s worth fighting for.  That’s worth doing.  I like that new normal.  Bunches.  And didn’t want to forget as I slip off into vacation mode.

So get started on that while I’m gone.  Okay?

  1. My words, not hers or the questioners. You can listen to the entire conversation, which was streamed and recorded, when it’s shared via Teachers Teaching Teachers over at EdTechTalk in a little while. []

#ISTE11: On Longitudinal Web Presences for Writing, Learning, Being

I had the opportunity to hear Paul Allison, one of my favorite teachers, talk at length about his work with Youth Voices yesterday. Usually, Paul’s asking about others’ work, or showcasing the work he’s doing – but not talking about the thinking behind the work. And I like it when he does so. I hope he’d do that more.

He said that the pedagogical and philosophical1 recipe for Youth Voices was something like:

  • James Beane and his work on breaking down the curriculum barriers and asking good questions
  • plus Paulo Friere’s thinking on asking learners to look for generative themes
  • with a dash of Peter Elbow who reminds us of the power of making things through free writing.

I need to return to all three of those folks and dig back in to some of their thinking.

But he said something, off the cuff, that I thought was really important. He mentioned that he’d been in the Youth Voices work for eight years2, and that students who started in tenth grade were able, in eleventh and twelfth, to return to the space and pick up where they left off. They didn’t have to learn a new space, and their work from previous years was right there.

That’s powerful and important and worth unpacking a little bit. Teachers who are using interesting technology with their students find themselves too often in the setup and infrastructure business – and that’s fine sometimes. But not every time or every lesson or every year.

One of the reasons I went to work for an IT department was because I wanted to help make spaces that had a life beyond one classroom. A student shouldn’t create one blog to suit the needs of every teacher that asks for work to occur in such spaces. Students create short term tools for what should be long term work, and they find themselves create blogs every time they start to do interesting work. The assumption becomes that the work they’re doing in these temporary spaces is throwaway work. When the unit, semester, or year ends, the space dies and the student is asked to create the next one.

That’s not how it should work.

What I love about Paul’s work, and the work of other folks who are thinking about the long game of educational spaces where work lives and breathes and mingles with other work, is that they’re building what I call3 longitudinal Web presences. Spaces where the portfolio happens as the collection grows. Places where the stuff a student made yesterday and the stuff a student makes today will be around for a student to add to tomorrow. Places that don’t die every few months or are subject to Teacher A or B’s personal web tool preference.

When Karl or Michelle or I talk about digital learning ecologies, or Paul talks about Youth Voices, I think that’s what we’re talking about. Teachers shouldn’t have to be in the creation and infrastructure business all the time. Nor should they be helping kids to cram important work into temporary places.

If you’re a tech director or a CIO, I hope you’re thinking about how to create these spaces. I also hope you’re thinking about how to help students return to them over time and to think through what they’ve made and how it resonates, or doesn’t, as they expand their knowledge and experience. In St. Vrain, we’ve built a few tools that help with this, but we’re nowhere close to figuring it out.

We do, know, though, and have been charged by our school board, that we are stewards of the work our students produce. That’s an important word – the IT department is responsible for looking after the students’ work. We’ve got to make sure it’s well taken care of and preserved and saved until they leave our care. And that they can take it with them when they go.

That’s what a portfolio should be. That’s worth making. Thoughtfully.4 I continue to be inspired and pushed by the work of folks like Paul who are building places of learning that last on the Web.

  1. My words, not his []
  2. Eight years. How many writing spaces do you have that last six months. Learning, folks, is a marathon. []
  3. Probably incorrectly, but playing with words is fun. []
  4. Sometimes, the curbs matter and the making of the containers are essential, in no small part because the traffic on the road and the stuff in the boxes is precious and worth looking after. The road needs to last for a long, long time. []