On Constraints, Road Maps, and Driving Directions

1601 De Bry and de Veer Map of Nova Zembla and the Northeast Passage Geographicus NovaZembla debry 1601

I’m working this weekend with the Compose Our World project, and we’re digging in hard to the curricular units that we proposed we’d develop in that work.

As we do so, we’re struggling with notions of when to allow for choice and when to constrain it.  Constraints aren’t evil – they can be quite helpful and useful for limiting the possibilities and allowing for actual, reasonable responses from teachers and students to the events, habits and practices of the classroom.  Wide open choice for everyone on everything isn’t necessary helpful.1

One way that’s productive in thinking about constraints that are helpful and still provide for choice is the metaphor of road maps. The decisions we make that constrain possibilities are those that create the universe, or the map, where a project or learning experience can occur. We might choose a single town, or a county. Maybe a state or an ocean. And anything outside the boundary of that particular map is, well, out of bounds. When we constrain a learning experience, we hand students a map, and help them see where, at least for the moment, the boundaries are.

The territory left open on the map is available for exploration. Students can pick a path or feature or two (or three or four) and venture off to explore in more depth.

But we don’t help our students if, after providing the map, we also give them the turn by turn directions to get them from point A to point B. If we do that, then why provide a map at all?

When you’re engaging in project work with students, teachers, and colleagues, make sure that you’re thinking hard about what constraints matter in your project, and then build them in. But if a constraint doesn’t matter, isn’t important, or gets in the way of your instructional objectives, then don’t implement it. Don’t rope off a path that might be the one that is the one the folks you’re working with and for most want to take.

Let at least some choices matter. But only the ones that need to.

  1. Frequent readers here know that I believe that choice is essential for agency and investment, but I don’t believe that everything should be open for choosing all the time. That way leads to madness. []

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. []

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. []

“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. []

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.


On Coaching and Choice

We’re reading Unmistakable Impact by Jim Knight together as a large team at work.  This is the third post in my series on that reading and reflection.

This month’s chapter is on coaching, both the role of the coach and the practices and habits an instructional coach can use to make a difference in his or her work.   As someone who’s often in a coaching role, I found the broad strokes of the chapter useful, both as reminder and as a bit of a challenge for thinking through.  

What are instructional coaches, according to Knight?  Well, they’re folks who “partner with teachers to help them incorporate research-based practices into their teaching.” Also, the “partner with teachers to help them incorporate instructional practices into their teaching.” (Kindle location 1837)

The thread of choice was woven through the chapter for me, too.  Here’re some choice1 quotes: 

If a coach and teacher come together as equal partners, the teacher must have choices.  Partners don’t do the choosing for each other.  In coaching, this means, most fundamentally, that teachers have a choice about whether or not they want to work with a coach. . . . choice does not mean that teachers can choose to not participate in professional meaning.  No professional can choose to be unprofessional. (1872)

When professionals are told what to do and when and how to do it, with no room for their individual thoughts, that is a spiritual death experience.(1900)

And this, though not directly about choice, seems particularly relevant to my thinking about coaching and the choices that coaches should make:

When coaches focus on capacity building, there are tasks they do not do.  Usually coaches do not sub when teachers are away, do administrivia, or work directly with students except in the service of the larger goal of promoting teacher growth.  Certainly, there are occasions when these general guidelines are ignored.  Just as a principal may be forced to sub if there in no other alternative, so might a coach.  However, this should occur very rarely. (1978)

A little later in the chapter, Knight points to some data that suggests that the coaches he has studied often report that they spend only between 10 and 25 percent of their time as “coaches” instead of the fill in tasks he describes above.  That’s troubling to me because either instructional coaches are making pretty terrible choices about how to spend their time, or (and I think this is much more likely) they are not in the place to choose how to spend that time to begin with.  While they should be advocates for choice for the teachers they work with, their own choices are quite limited.  

That leads me to my larger reflection on this chapter, which is that I find that the role of an instructional coach and the role of a classroom teacher are really quite similar, or should be.  The job of a teacher shouldn’t be to force change on a student, nor a coach to force change on a teacher.  It’s a partnership.  The whole endeavor of learning, as I see it, should be the development of agency in the individual.  And perhaps the problem of instructional leaders choosing to put their coaches in places of fill in is one of a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a teacher/coach.  And that fundamental misunderstanding isn’t simply a misunderstanding in the mind of the leader – it’s a deeply cultural mess that we’re in because what we think “teaching” looks like isn’t really what good teaching looks like.

When a teacher is “teaching,”2 what is happening?  Does “teaching” mean the teacher is speaking?  I bet for most of us, that’s the first thought that pops into our heads.  But it shouldn’t be.  What about when a teacher is “listening?” Or “pausing?”  Or waiting patiently while monitoring a classroom writing assignment3?  I think much of what we consider “best practice” in teaching and what we think of when we think of a teacher “teaching” just don’t line up in our heads and hearts as they should.  

And so sometimes we make serious errors in judgment about what a teacher is or isn’t doing.  

I think about all of my friends and colleagues who are wicked nervous about new evaluations in Colorado and other places, and I understand some of their dilemma.  Whenever a principal came into my room to observe, I wanted to be doing something awesome so that they “saw me teaching.”   The problem is, no one learns much in a room when I’m doing all the talking.  The real learning happens when I turn students loose on a concept or problem or task.  But me monitoring a roomful of excited and engaged students isn’t what I wanted my principal to see – because it wasn’t “awesome teaching.”  Except that it was. 

Other teachers I know reschedule their thoughtfully planned lessons and timelines around evaluations so that the principal sees them “in action.”  That’s a problem, because the thoughtful planning and scheduling was done intentionally, for good reason.  And the change is for a crummy, “observing a thing changes it” sort of reason.  

This is a ramble, and only a little bit about coaching now, but that said, let me return to my role as an instructional coach for a second.  Sometimes, the best way I can be helpful to a teacher is to say nothing.  To do nothing.  To sit very quietly and let the words that just were spoken roll back over the speaker. Choosing to respond is a choice.  It’s often what “good teaching” looks like.  But choosing not to respond is also a choice, and should be honored more often.  

Because that’s better teaching, and better coaching, too. 



  1. Ahem. []
  2. Or a coach “coaching.” I’ll be using these terms interchangeably for the rest of this post. []
  3. Better still would be writing alongside the writing students. []

Come to the Grand Opening of the Discovery Center for Make/Hack/Play

I’m excited to announce that we’ll be kicking off our programming and opening the doors of the Discovery Center for Make/Hack/Play at Spark! Discovery Preschool on Saturday, September 14th, from 10am to 2 pm here in Frederick, Colorado.  If you’re in the neighborhood, you should come make something and bring your family.  Admission is free – and there’s plenty to play with.

I’d love to see you there.  And I love that this idea is becoming a real place.  Now to build the community . . .


Screen Shot 2013 09 06 at 8 14 33 AMScreen Shot 2013 09 06 at 8 14 50 AM


Oh, the Humanity

Professional learning that dehumanizes its participants carries the seeds of its own failure. When a select few do the thinking for others, when people are forced to comply with outside pressure with little or no input, when teachers asking genuine questions are labeled resistors, when leaders act without a true understanding of teachers’ day-to-day classroom experiences, those dehumanizing practices severely damage teacher morale. And when teachers feel disillusioned by the professional learning they experience, their disappointment, hurt, and unhappiness surface in the classroom and inevitably damage the very children they are there to educate and inspire. – Jim Knight, Unmistakable Impact, Kindle location 385

In the first chapter of the book that some of my colleagues and I are reading together, quoted above, Jim Knight lays out the idea that one of the core concepts for a truly great school is that we must build schools that are human, and that respect the humanity of the people serving them and served by them. A discussion question we’re talking about in our book group this week asks us to consider how we move closer to learning communities that empower teachers to embrace proven teaching methods. While I’m hesitant to take a stance, just this minute, on “proven teaching methods,” I feel like I want to advocate right now for a stance in a learning community, professional or otherwise, that focuses on the humanity of all involved.

A humane learning community takes time to explore ideas before rushing to move forward. This takes, well, time, but it’s time well spent. You can move fast, with shared purpose, when time has been taken to ensure purposeful conversation has been a part of the community building.

A humane learning community is one where questions are honored and taken at face value, where the presupposition of positive intent is absolute and intentional by all in community together.

And a humane learning community is one where learning is modeled by all in the community, especially the leadership.

These things are difficult to do, to take time to learn, or to honor questions, or to explore purpose together. Modeling learning, in my experience, seems most difficult. But they matter. And they carry messages, whether done or undone, that will impact the efficacy of the community.

I’m looking forward to being in conversation with my colleagues about this text. If you’ve read the book, I’d be curious to know what you thought of it.


Don't Make It About the (Digital) Tools When You Want It To Be About the Learning

I was sitting in a meeting today with some administrators, and we were discussing what we were looking for when we were looking for the thoughtful use of technology to support learning. What, we wondered, does the thoughtful use of digital tools for learning look like?

And that’s a good question to spend some time on. It was a good conversation.

But why do we always wonder about “digital” tools?1 What about the analog ones?

What does the thoughtful use of pens and pencils to support learning look like? How about the thoughtful use of sticky notes and index cards? What does/can/should that look like?

Seems to me the push to understand and separate digital tools from the analog ones can often confuse the real issue, the meaty question that is really the point of talking about iDevices, or tablets, or touchpads or whatever.

And perhaps exploring more familiar tools can help us get to the bottom of that in a better way.

That question is, of course, “What does learning look like?”

How do you know?

Defend your answer.

  1. Certainly, in the particular conversation I was in today, it was specifically about some new digital stuff. It made sense for us to focus on the digital. At least a little. But I’m wondering more broadly here. []

Off to NCTE

I’m sitting at the airport this morning waiting for a flight to Las Vegas for the NCTE 2012 Annual Convention. I’m eager to be in conversation and community with friends and colleagues.

And I’m also excited to find my conference schedule a little lighter than in recent trips, which means I get to do something I don’t do as often as I’d like – I get to listen. While there, I’ll be listening specifically for folks reactions to Common Core implementation, the coming assessments, and how devices are or aren’t making their way into schools and classrooms.

What else should I be listening for? To whom should as be listening? I’d be interested in your thoughts.