“Let’s Find Out,” Writes Cogdog

Bud & cogdogI’d never really thought about it, but I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks ago, when Alan Levine said that he’d be in the area and we should meet up, that he and I had never been in the same place at the same time.

We know plenty of the same people, we play on intersecting online spaces.  He’s been a teacher and occasional collaborator of mine for nearly ten years. But we’d never been in the same physical space in a similar time window.

So yesterday we got to spend a few short minutes together.  Overdue.

He reminded me while we were talking about one of the things he found so great about writing.  He said1 that he enjoyed writing, that it was important for him to write, because as he sat down to write what he thought he wanted to say, he ended up discovering something better – that what he wanted to say wasn’t what he thought it would be.  For Alan, part of creating is discovering what he wants to say.

Love that.  Needed the reminder2.

I don’t know what the word is for being in the middle of a long digital conversation punctuated by short moments of physical interaction.  But it happens frequently enough in my work and world and life, that I really wish I had that word.  It’s pretty great.

Come back soon, Alan.  In the meantime, let’s keep barking.


  1. I think he said this.  He said it better than I’m writing it right now, but he was preaching gospel, so I wanted to try to capture it. []
  2. He also shared this killer collection of interactive documentaries that’s way too good for you not to spend some time with. I needed that, too. []

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. []


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

I highlighted an awful lot of chapter two of this book.  The chapter is a focus on partnerships – the necessary criteria for successful ones, what they look like, and some of how to be a good partner.  It’s tricky stuff, building a true partnership, particularly when issues of power come along.  It’s hard to be equal when you’re in fear of your job status due to the other person in your partnership.

A few choice passages (Kindle locations in italics):

What is needed for choice to flourish is a structure that reconciles freedom and form. (863)

The solution is to create structures that provide focus for human experiences, while respecting the autonomy of each individual. (864)

When leaders choose to do the thinking for teachers — by creating scripts, pacing guides, and step-by-step procedures to be followed blindly — they engage in short-term thinking.  pacing guides and similar prescriptions may lead to a quick bump in test scores, but the long-term impact can be disastrous. (946)

Every act of dialogue is a hopeful act, a sign that we believe a better future is possible.  When I listen to you, and you listen to me, there is the hope that we can create something new and better, that we can advance thought, and, through dialogue, a better tomorrow. (1034)

People who live out the principle of reciprocity approach others with humility, expecting to learn from them.  When we look at everyone else as a teacher and a learner, regardless of their credentials or years of experience, we will be delightfully surprised by new ideas, concepts, strategies, and passions. (1070)


As I look back on these saved passages, I realize that what I’m taking away from this reading on partnerships isn’t how I want to build partnerships, but rather how I want to prepare myself for them.

The chapter speaks of partnering being a choice – it’s important to me that the people I work with, be it in a class or training or meeting or long-term teaching situation, are there by their own choice, and, if that can’t be the case, that they can shape the experience to their benefit through the exercise of meaningful choices.  This is messy.  Sometimes, this principle of choice means that someone I’d like to work with simply won’t want to.  That’s a loss for both of us, but I can’t force a situation to my liking and simultaneously honor the other person or persons involved.  Giving people choice means also allowing them to choose something other than you or the work you find important.  That’s essential to remember.

It’s also important to remember that the best we can do for ourselves to prepare for a partnership opportunity – and most interactions with others are opportunities – is to approach those others as honestly and openly as one can.  A simple question, addressed as a learning opportunity for all involved, can be an invitation to further learning.

I think partnership thinking should also impact how leaders handle conflict and change.  When a decision I’m involved in will impact someone, I can do my best to prepare them for that impact.  Better yet, I can seek their input before they are impacted as a way of working to mitigate or even prevent a negative impact.  That’s a way to create a possible partnership out of a potentially negative situation.  I hope my leaders approach situations as potential partnerships, opportunities to bridge division, rather than opportunities for creating distance.

I think of past partnerships where events that ultimately affected me were handled far beyond my control and awareness, for no good reason other than the comfort and convenience of the leaders involved.  As a district representative, I don’t want to take an easy way out or around a potential problem or sticky situation.  That doesn’t honor the humanity of the others involved.

So preparing for partnership is largely, for me, about preparing myself to be kind and open and curious.   And approaching others as if they’re the same.  Because most likely, they are.

When you think about partnerships, and preparing yourself as a possible partner, what do you think about?


Love in a Time of Schooling

You ever have one of those days where you’re in a hurry to get out the door? Maybe you’re eager to take your son or daughter out on an amazing adventure. You’ve got zoo tickets, or there’s a baseball game, or a carnival or a new museum’s opening. And you’re tight on time, so you’ve got to get out the door? And someone can’t find their shoes?

So in your rush to get to the amazing thing you’ve got planned, what you actually have ended up communicating to your child – the person you’re doing this amazing thing for and with – is that they’re slow and forgetful and not so good at leaving the house on time? Because you’ve just got so much to do?1

Yeah. I think we do that at school, too, both literally and figuratively. In our race to the top to make sure that we leave no child behind with our innovative instruction, we sometimes forget the children are partners in the work – not folks to be acted upon. We make them feel small. We forget to be with them, and we end up doing some pretty mean things to them.

With the best, unfortunately, of intentions.

I mention that tonight because tomorrow I’ll be facilitating a workshop I’m calling “Love in a Time of Schooling.” Here’s the description of the session:

In a time when school often feels like it is being done to our students, rather than for and with them, there is value in considering some of the emotional aspects of the learning environments we are creating for our students. In classrooms and schools, looking after each other is an essential element of good teaching and learning. In short, we need to consider love and its place in our classrooms and lessons, our infrastructures and physical spaces. In this session, we will explore different ways of thinking about care for our fellow teachers and students, as well as consider ways to love, share love, and bring love in to modern schooling.

See, I think we mean very well as we’re working to impart important knowledge to our students, but we’re losing the true reason for all that knowledge work – we care for our students, and want them to be good and thoughtful people – and we’re in such a hurry to do that right, that we forget to build relationships.

This isn’t, by the way, something that we mean to do. Or that we just do to students, but I think that it’s certainly a problem. And some of what freaks me out about the latest and greatest from our ed-tech innovators and entrepreneurs is that they believe that they can further automate and teacher-proof the learning process. When exactly what we need to be doing instead is to be caring better for our students. And you don’t care with software. Or with an assessment. You care through being in a caring relationship with your students. If you’re an administrator, you care through being in a caring relationship with your staff. You model care, you demonstrate care, you engage in dialogue that suggests you care. And you help to point out the caring you see in and from others.

And so tomorrow, that’s what I want to explore. How, in a time of intense pressures, do we help to build schools and classrooms and departments of caring while helping to instill caring in our students? Seems to me that’s worth wondering about. As I’ve been prepping for the workshop, I’ve dug deep into The Challenge to Care in Schools by Nel Noddings. If you’ve not read it, it’s worth your time. Here’s a collection of quotes, if you’d like to get the flavor of the book.

I’m not an expert at care or caring or love. But I’m a student of plenty of folks who are, and I enjoy spending time with the ideas because they help me to be a better carer. These are lessons that resonate at work, at home, and in my interactions with the world. And they’re hard lessons to learn. But so worth the time. Caring isn’t content so much as it is stance. Relationship. Frame.

One of the best things about this workshop is that we’ll be at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, using their space as a mirror and a lens to explore how a space might be designed in a caring way. We’ll then turn our eyes to our own classrooms and organizations to consider how we promote caring relationships in our work.

I hope you’re finding ways to care and to instill love and care in your work. Would love to hear about your efforts in the comments.

  1. I am certainly guilty of this. I suspect I’m not the only one. []

You’ve Just Got to Play

I like this description of science very much:

Science is really about making models and about playing. Yes, playing. Playing isn’t just for kids, adults just get better toys. Look at the top image. This is a great example of playing. What is the goal of this paper-clip magnet interaction? There is no point except to play. That is still a great science experiment. I just wish grade level (and some college level) books would move away from defining things and stating pieces of science and focus on the playing part. Many science classes as they are taught now are like studying the different parts of a clarinet, but never playing any music.

How are you encouraging this playfulness in your work?


Play Is Hard Work, Part 1

In a series of posts, of which this is the first, I’d like to try to write my way through my thinking about play and love and culture and how I’ve been exploring those concepts lately.  In this post, I will attempt to give some background. Future posts in this series will attempt to move from that background into how that thinking, or at least my awareness of it, is coming to life in my work and experiences.  

I had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop at this year’s ITSC event in Portland that feels to me like an important shift in my work.  The session, which I wrote a description of in a hurry several months ago, but knew could be important, was an attempt to capture some of my thinking about the use of play to build culture.  I’m calling it “Play is Hard Work.”  Here’s how I described it when I hastily wrote that description:

Play should be the cornerstone of much of what we do with technology for teaching and learning. Heck, play should comprise a considerable chunk of all of our learning time. But what does play look like in a digital environment? How can we create playful spaces around serious topics? And are play and fun the same things?
In this session, we’ll privilege habits over tools and explore play and playfulness with whatever gadgets, gizmos and whatnots we have in our classrooms.

That description was just about right – but it missed something.  I realized as I was trying to build the session that I didn’t have the language, or the framework, to talk about what I meant by “play” and “playfulness.”

The dictionary helped.  Some.  Many online dictionaries have more than twenty different definitions of play, but this one, from the Definr definition, is most certainly the closest to what I was trying to get at:


Play, then, is finding freedom in the face of constraint.  Yes.  That’s getting towards the essence of what I find important in the term1.

Those definitions helped, but they weren’t enough.  I wanted to help folks have some experiences like the ones that we are having every week in our school district IT department – but I also wanted to connect what I saw/see happening in that culture to what I want to see happening in school culture in general.  I’d like folks to be more playful in most areas of their work and not work.  I’d like to play more as a parent, as a teacher, as a person.

And I think other people should be more playful, too.

But I don’t mean that everything is “fun.”  I think assuming that play must be fun is a bad, and likely dangerous, assumption.  I think you can play with really serious ideas and concepts.  I think you can play with hurt, in an attempt to restore community.  And it took months of reading and wondering and asking for me to find the language I needed to structure the workshop – I needed Michelle to hand me a book that has been her go to for a long time on the subject2.  Thankfully, she did.

I needed some of the language of improv.  My friend Zac has been living this language for a while in his teaching and his theater work, but I didn’t see it until I really started to look.

At school, or at least at teacher school, I remember that many folks told me that it was essential to build community in my classroom.  But it was always described in such a way that the idea was that you built it, and then you moved on to whatever it was you really wanted to do with your class – teach them English, or science, or whatever.

I’m more and more certain that you’re never actually done building community.  Community and culture are not just peripheral to teaching and learning – they’re how the teaching and the learning actually happen.  Some call this rhizomatic learning, or connectivism, but whatever you call it, teaching and learning are about building community.  Community of people, of ideas, of experience and activity.  Icky-feeling places, places we’d rather not be, don’t tend to be spaces where much learning happens3.  Maslow comes to mind – we can’t learn until we’re safe.  Playful cultures have to be safe cultures.  And safe cultures can be playful ones.

And the cultures and communities that you build around classroom cultures matter, too.  That’s something that I’ve been learning as a participant observer in my school district’s IT department.  Over the last two years, we’ve been going through a major culture shift, masterfully facilitated by my boss, Joe McBreen.

He came to a place where everyone worked really hard and mostly alone.4  He recognized that we needed to know each other to be better at our work.

Through a process of huddles, short weekly meetings centered on us as people and learners together, and not on our work, and creating learning opportunities for our department to be and to learn together, he began to shape our culture into more than it was, and to create for us a need to do our work together.  We are more playful as a unit, and it’s showing it the work we are doing elsewhere.

That story, and how I tried to create something similar in a room full of strangers, and why that matters, are the subjects of future posts in this series.

  1. Oddly, other definitions contradict that one that I find so essential.  And others still add flavor to the word.  It’s amazing, or troubling, that such a small word has so much baggage. []
  2. You should buy the book.  It’s a quick read – I read it in an hour – but it gave me the language I needed to talk about play and playfulness. []
  3. Of course, I think I’ve known this for a long time, but I’m at a place where I’m seeing implications beyond classrooms, and it’s never a bad idea to try to sketch this stuff out. []
  4. I don’t say this to knock the department as it was – it was good in lots of ways.  There was room to grow, though, which is one reason I went there almost five years ago now. []

Schooling That Isn't School-y

I sat in on a meeting today of the organizers of our school district’s Innovation Academy, a summer STEM enrichment program that’s a partnership between the district and IBM.1

The DLC will be embedding a teacher research group within the Innovation Academy and its planning in order to see if the work they’re doing, and that students and district staff are enthusiastic about, has something to teach us about how we can make positive change in the classroom.

During the meeting, two statements really caught my ear and got me thinking about the work ahead.

The first was a statement, made during the meeting and repeated by several folks in the conversation, that the goal of Innovation Academy was to create an environment that didn’t feel anything like school.  Both our district staff and our business partners felt this was important.  I find that both makes sense to me and is, well, rather odd.  That we’ve a shared understanding of school as something that isn’t conducive to learning is troubling, but I get where they’re coming from.

The other thing that caught my ear was a mention, in passing, by one of the IBM partners that during last year’s camp, he noticed that the younger students involved in the camp, Kindergarteners, were plenty able to think in creative and nontraditional ways.  That’s not quite how he said it, though.  He actually said that sometimes, the youngest students were the best able to be engaged in the work of the camp2.

If, of course, we are trying to build learning experiences that are not at all like school, then it makes sense that our least schooled students would be the best at them.  Of course, it’s also possible that the Kindergartners at Camp Innovation are students who’ve not yet had their imaginations stamped out by school.

I’m eager to begin the observational work of documenting what makes the Innovation Academy exciting and engaging for students and staff.  And also I’m looking forward to teacher researchers teasing out if they can fiddle with their classrooms in ways that make school less school-y.

There is something worth going after in the space between the school-y and the not so school-y.  I hope it’s a piece of the possible future of public schools.


  1. Last year, the project was called Camp Innovation.  Names change.  I like the camp metaphor, but it wasn’t my call. []
  2. And now academy. []

On Being Still in a Motion Medium

So I’ve been teaching facilitating provoking facilitating over in the new School of Ed at P2PU, and I’d say that it’s been going pretty well.

Or, as least, it seems to be.

But it’s a different sort of course than the ones I’ve been teaching in computer labs and hotel ballrooms and virtual meeting rooms and, even on occasion, classrooms these last few years.  Folks come if they want to.  When they want to.  For the reasons they want to.  Or they don’t.  The learning’s mostly in the hands of the learner.  Or it isn’t.

And I like it.  With some minor concerns.

To begin with, the conversations spread around the course are fascinating and insightful. I’m learning a great deal from participants about how they value writing and what they do in their classrooms as writers and teachers of writing.  I’m also learning more about the perceptions versus the realities of the Common Core State Standards.  Lots is already being done “because the standards say so” when, in fact, they do not1.

But this course carries no credit.  Or sticks.  Or carrots.  The course itself is the thing that either brings folks, or sends them seeking something more in terms of a credential or an attempt at recertification credit.  I’ve joked in the evening live sessions2 that I’ll offer “extra credit” for tasks completed.  While I’ve long believed that the exploration of interesting ideas and the creation of an environment designed to help with that exploration and some making of meaning is the job of a teacher, I’m finding that P2PU offers a fascinating space in which to operate.  It’s a space with ethos but little structure.  I’m building as I go.  And wondering, from time to time, if this course meets my general metric for success in all that I do as a teacher – is it useful?  Are people getting what they need from the course?

So how does one evaluate the effectiveness of such a space, a course with objectives but no requirement for participation?  Well, the squeaky wheel principle, in an online space, is often what gets attention.  Which is problematic in an online space when most of the course participants, participants in name only, are not making the textual equivalent of noise in an online space – they’re not writing in spaces where we can see them.

Lurking carries no proof.  To know someone’s on the other end of an Internet connection, they’ve got to do something.  Make some noise.  Publish a post.  Write a comment.  Something.3

Last night, via Twitter, I said that quiet, in an online space, isn’t proof of anything.  Someone might be listening/reading intently, and taking good notes, or they might have wandered away to something else.  So I’ve sent out some mid-course feedback surveys this week to see what a large percentage of quiet classmates are up to.  Of course, there again, if folks don’t respond, I don’t know that they’re not paying attention.  I just know they’re not writing back.

I’ve more to say about agency, learning, and why I like the P2PU model, but I’ll save it for a future post.

How do you track lurking?  Listening?  Do you need to?


  1. That’s one of many reasons I wanted our first course text to be the standards themselves. []
  2. You’re welcome to join in on those.  Check for more information and archives of past sessions. []
  3. Maybe, next to the “like” button, or the “+1” there should be a “lurk” button.  Or something. []