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. []

“A Way of Caring”

Two things from today that intersected in a useful way:

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

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

Boy, was I.

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

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

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

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

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

Tech is simple compared to that.

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


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

Be Less Hesitant

This post is a bit dated – found it in the drafts folder, dusted it off, and am sharing it now.. The request hasn’t left my mind since offered a couple of months ago.

I ended up have an unexpected visit with a mentor of mine yesterday.  It’d been a while since we’d talked and the visit was unexpected. At the end of our visit, I asked him if he had any words of wisdom to share.

No, that’s not right.  What I actually said was, “Is there anything I can do for you?” His answer wasn’t expected, but has been on my mind ever since.

What’d he say? Three words:

Be less hesitant.

For the last couple of years here and online in other spaces, I’ve been holding back a bit.  I don’t know exactly why, but certainly there are multiple reasons why I’m not as forthcoming online as I once was.

After almost ten years of blogging, it’s still hard, on a very regular basis, to push the publish button.  The what ifs always, ALWAYS, run through my head:

  • What if I’m not smart enough?
  • What if what I write makes people upset?
  • What if I’m not right?
  • What if this isn’t important?

They go on. And on. And on. And on.

We all need a good kick in the rear sometimes to be reminded that the struggle is the value in the thing. Especially this thing of writing and sharing about our practice in order to be be better teachers, better learners. Better people.

And I’ve always claimed that it’s the job of a writer to write things, not necessarily to decide if they’re the right things1.

Pushback sharpens arguments.  It clarifies positions.  Sometimes, even on the Internet, it can change minds.  And, in the case of the questions up above, maybe I need to be pushing back on me a little bit more.  The friction is a good thing.

So I’m trying very hard to get back to being less afraid to push publish, to silence the editors in my head that work so hard to silence me.  I’m trying to be less hesitant.


  1. Actually, I think I’ve argued that social media spaces are spaces where the poster should post what he or she wishes, and not worry so much about whether or not another person would want to continue to pay attention to them. But that’s probably another post.  Or series of posts. I might not be right about that.  Then again . . .wait. I’m being hesitant. []

In a Moment of Transition, A Challenge to Myself

When I left my last job, and the team of great people I got to call friends and colleagues, I left behind a note for them as the best possible way I could say some of what I wanted to end our professional relationship with.  Much of that note was for them, and has no place online, but some of the letter, a bit of “last advice,” was as much for me moving into my new position as it was for them staying on to do what I used to.  And I don’t want to forget what I said.  It was, for me, a challenge to myself.  

Transitions are special moments, moments where we seem to be granted a bit of pause, a bit less to do, and the opportunity to think deeply about what’s happened, and what’s yet to be.  The yet to be bit here is important.  Transitions are also special because there’s no set way to do the new things that are to come.  Habits don’t yet exist.  So I wanted some words by which to guide the new habit formation I’ve been doing for the last three weeks now, and hope to be fiddling with for the next several months.  Here’s what I suggested they remember to do and be, and here’s what I hoped for myself as I moved forward, too:

What follows is a little bit directed at you, but it’s also a reminder for me as I head into my next thing.  

Consider this my last request – if a departing colleague gets one.  It’s pretty simple, and it’s somebody else’s line, but it’s this:

Be excellent to each other.  In all you do.

By “excellent” I mean kind.  Fair.  Honest.  Open.  Patient.  Gentle.  Firm.  Hold each other to high standards.  Be brave.  Take turns being brave.  Help each other be brave when you can’t be yourselves.  Be tenacious.  When something matters, make sure it matters.   And when it doesn’t, please let it go, gracefully.  Serve one another, in big things and little things.  Especially little things – they’re practice for the big ones.  

By “each other” I mean, well, each other.  But I also mean everyone you come into contact with.  Especially the folks we serve.  I am guilty of being too quick to judge sometimes.  Some ideas won’t have merit.  Some products aren’t good for children.  But be big enough to be excellent to anyone who offers something your way.  

Basically, be the amazing teachers I know you to be. To all people and in all situations.  That’s what I wanted from this team when it was just me.  And then two.  Then three.  Now six.  And we’ve done pretty good so far.  I’ve stumbled.  We’ve all stumbled.  There are stumbles ahead.  But when we’re at our best, we’re excellent to each other.  If I’ve such a thing as a legacy here, I’d want it to be that.  

I don’t much care, in the grandest scheme of things, about technology chops.  Or about spreadsheets, TPS reports, or the odd other deliverables that can and often should get made in the course of one’s work.  If the being excellent happens, then the rest will come along. 
So my challenge to myself, as I dig deeper into my new work, is to do my best to be excellent to everybody I come across.  It’s a mighty challenge, one I’ll fail at often, but one worth taking a big swing at.  
And all my new habits, I hope, are aimed in that direction.
There’s more to say about my new role and my new work, and the incredible people I’m serving now, but that’s another post.  


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. 


Building (Better) Organizational Habits

I become more and more convinced each passing day that learning and culture are habit-based skills1. We either have healthy learning habits, or healthy cultures, or we don’t.

Any organization can improve its habits. But habit formation and cessation aren’t events. You don’t change habits in one-day workshops, or a summer conference. You change habits through long term, intentional planning and execution of the behaviors, choices and experiences that lead to better behaviors, choices and experiences. That lead to better habits.

Why do schools and organizations spend so much time on Band-Aids – one time shots at change – and/or the justification of the ability to not improve/change/grow?2

Denial? Doubt? Disbelief?

When does compliance and the convenience of comfort get in the way of changing the rules that perpetuate old, and maybe ineffective, behaviors and habits?

What are the long term structures, routines and expectations that you’re using to change the learning and culture habits in your spaces?

  1. Maybe skills isn’t the right word. But perhaps you know what I mean. []
  2. Why do people do that, I guess, is the same question. []

Suppose We Just Left Them Alone?

One thing that never seems to be in short supply in the learning organizations I work with is a steady stream of new priorities, initiatives, and programming.  There’s always an agenda, pet project, new idea, or something fresh, exciting, and game changing that’ll make all the difference for everybody in the organization.

I get it.  I do.  And I’ve created my fair share of acronyms and new work, work that didn’t start necessarily at the end of the old, but work that had to be squeezed into the mix of already happening stuff.

The thing is, there’s an awful lot of priorities established way high up that find their way down to classrooms, schools, and districts.  And each new one requires a change of some kind, a new emphasis on the one more thing that must get done.

But very, very rarely does the new push come with the requirement of stopping to do the things from the last great idea or priority that was really going to fix things.  So it’s not just that a school has to get better at something new, but it has to keep doing all the other stuff it was doing before.

So here’s my idea for the new initiative of 2015.1 How about we take a look at the 37 odd 1st priorities that have been established for our classrooms, schools, and districts, and just go ahead and cut at least a third of them.  33% of the stuff we used to do? Let’s not do it anymore.  If you must add something new to the plate after that, that’s fine – but you must cut a third of the old stuff first.

We can’t get better at new things, or the old things we’ve gotten crummy at while we’re working on the new things, if we don’t stop doing at least a few of the other things.  And deciding what we’re not going to do is a big ol’ step towards getting better at what we’re going to do instead.

So let’s get right on that.  What will you stop doing this year?

  1. Superintendents, you’re welcome to this one. []

Skating Along

Last month, I took my three daughters skating.  They’ve all been to the skating rink plenty of times, and are at different levels of skating expertise.  Ani and Teagan both motor along at their own paces, leaving their four-year-old sister, Quinn, and me behind as they skate it up to whatever loudly pulsating track is pounding through the speakers of the skate sound system.  Ani will even play some of the inevitable games that creep up during a perfectly fine all-skate, limbo-ing her way into the second or third round of competition.

Quinn skating

Quinn, though, until last month’s trip, had never put skates to feet.  Her idea of roller skating was playing in a big indoor jungle gym they’ve set up for the pre-skating crowd.  But it was time.

When my older daughters learned to skate, they pretty much just fell down.  A lot.  Until they figured out the mechanics of wheels on their feet and their centers of gravity.  Quinn had some new options.  In the picture to the left here, you can see the frame on wheels she used to help her find her way with a little less falling down.

And while she was trying out the skates and the helper contraption, she had a safe space on the skate floor, behind a row of colored barriers, set up for new skaters and their teachers.  Her sisters on the other side of the barrier could see her progressing and she could wave and smile as she scooted across the floor.

But the greatest thing about the divided skate floor was that she could see the “real” skating world she was learning to use.  She could get there at any time, and, in many ways, it was the same place she was skating in.  She was skating with everyone else, even though she was off to the side.

Quinn was immersed in a real-world learning experience – not separated from it.  She wasn’t in a special carpeted room that bore no resemblance to what skating was really like.  She grooved to the same music, heard the same announcements, and could smell the same pizza1.

I’m probably making too big a deal about it, but I find that lots of learning spaces don’t ever really resemble the environments where the learning gets put into practice.  The learning, too, doesn’t resemble the way that life or work or whatever the students are learning about is enacted in the “real world.2

I loved Quinn’s experience because she was immediately in control of her experience – she could lose the cage and leave the protected area whenever she wanted.  But it was also connected to the goal she set for herself – to skate like her sisters.  It wasn’t a walled garden.  It was the actual garden – she just had some extra tools to help her make sense of her experience and transition out of the training area.  I guess in a way she was in the garden with some hedges – but not walls or gates or anything exclusionary or separating.

If the learning you’re facilitating, or the learning space you’re facilitating it in, doesn’t resemble OR connect to the places or opportunities you’re attempting to connect your students to, then it seems to me that you’re doing it wrong.

How many contrived spaces do we build for students, spaces that don’t even approach the real world, much less connect to it?  What does it mean to build classrooms or learning spaces that connect, physically or otherwise, to the spaces we are teaching our students about?

Take a look at the picture below of Quinn gazing over the boundary between her classroom and the real world.  She’s curious and eager and ready to move beyond the barrier – when she is ready, that’s just what she’ll do3.

At least sometimes, learning should look like that.

A walled skating garden

  1. I’m not certain the pizza smell, as good as it was, was entirely necessary. []
  2. The mythical real world is a fascinating place for me.  It’s often invoked as a reason why an experience has to be terrible, or hard, or boring, or involve showing one’s work – but I’ve not found the “real world” to be necessarily boring or work-showing.  The “real world” is often what we make it to be, and can be pretty great. []
  3. And part of my job as her teacher there in that moment was to not push her too fast, but to provide some steady pressure. Her goal was to get out on the floor, not to muck about forever with the support structure. Knowing just how much pressure is the right amount is an area of my practice as a teacher AND a parent that I’m certain I’ll never quite master. []

Where’s Your Refrigerator?

A couple of years ago, when I was doing some regular work for an area art museum, my daughter, Ani, asked me if, on our next trip to visit the museum, it’d be okay if we took along some of her artwork to show the museum.

That was a tricky conversation we had to have then, about who gets to decide what hangs in museums for other folks to look at.  But it wasn’t hard for me to suggest to her that we can make our own display spaces whenever and wherever we have something we’re proud of, something we want other people to see.  And we have them at our house – the piano wire stretched along the back of our playroom, for one.  There’s always a fresh clothespin or two there for hanging the next made thing.  Our refrigerator is another, frequent home to excellently made things by our children.

Museums have, for the most part, embraced the idea that the stuff that visitors make or create is valuable.  They even have fancy names for it – “User Contributed Content” I’ve heard some of my museum-y friends call it.  But the stuff that the visitors make is not often given the same prominence of place as the stuff that the museum selected to hang.  That’s okay.  It’s their space.

What isn’t okay, at least to me, is how many students and grownups I meet who would say they don’t have anything to share, or to hang up for folks to look at because they’re proud of how they made it, or what it looked like when they finished.  They’re not making stuff.  And the stuff that they make by accident isn’t something they’re proud of.

IMG 7699

We should all have a refrigerator and a handful of magnets around and available for us to use to display our next creation.  We should all be creating regularly enough that we know we’ll have a “next creation.”  And it should be easy for us to find and see and respond to the refrigerators of the people we care the most about.

This blog turns ten years old right around now – I’m not sure of the exact date.  Since I started it, it’s been my fridge of sorts for posting stuff I’ve been wondering or thinking about, and some of the stuff I was proud of or wanted to share.  I go through different periods of activity here – I’ll write regularly for a while, then drift away for a bit.  Some of what I’m most proud of doesn’t make it here, because it shouldn’t be shared widely, or I don’t want it on the Internet, but plenty of it does.  And having the blog reminds me that I CAN share stuff, even if I don’t.

Even when I’m not writing here, though, I am thinking about what I might make next, and I know that I can create and make things whenever I’d like to.  That’s something that I don’t think plenty of capable people have – the knowledge that they’ll be making something in the future that I’ll want to share.  Even when I’m my most frustrated, I carry that little bit of hope, the hope that I’m not done yet, and there’s more that I can contribute.

“How can we make sure that everybody carries hope like that?” is something I’m wondering about as I start the second decade of my life as a blogger.

What’s on your fridge right now?  What’ll you put there next?  And where are the fridges that we need for sharing the stuff that won’t fit in other places?


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. []