Me, #nwpleads, and 2 Metaphors for NWP Leadership

The Greatest American Hero (13948198067)
I’m working this week from Austin, Texas, where I’m at the Building New Pathways event with the National Writing Project. One of my more interesting consulting projects right now is working on this project, a deep dive into how we build and sustain new pathways for leadership development in the local sites, and the national network, of the National Writing Project. I’m co-facilitating a piece of this work, with my emphasis on helping to think through how we can identify and help others to identify and build the attributes that are essential for NWP leaders.

We’re defining “NWP leaders” broadly. Earlier today, Executive Director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl asked us to think of NWP leaders as those who are entitled to do work in the name of the Writing Project.

We’ve talked about many things, and you should follow along if you’re able and interested. There’s a Yammer group where much of the conversation and work so far is being collected and discussed, and the conversation is on Twitter as well under the hashtag #nwpleads.

I’ve thought a lot these last few weeks of what we hold to be the essential characteristics of “National Writing Project people.” For some, this means people who have been through the traditional entry point for NWP Teacher Consultants – the Invitational Summer Institute. For others, it means people who have glommed onto, into, or through projects sponsored or inspired by NWP principles, people and ideas.

I’m struggling with how to think about what an “NWP leader” is, how we know, and how one can enter into thinking of themselves or others in such terms. Jim Gray is heavily on my mind. So is the notion of what’s the “minimum viable NWP leader.” And metaphors abound as I try to think about these things. Is NWP leadership, NWP-ness, something that is learned? Lived? Experienced? Grown? Developed? Inoculated?1

Plenty of questions, and as this is a project I’m committed to for the next couple of years, I’m certain the blog will become a scratchpad for many of them. But right now, I want to get down some thinking about two metaphors in particular that are helping me think through leadership pathways and how we might recognize – or help others to recognize – what an “NWP leader” is.

The Greatest American Hero

I loved the TV show The Greatest American Hero when I was a little kid. I remember tying a blanket around my neck and “flying” around the living room while Joey Scarbury’s theme played from the 45 my parents bought me spinning on my record player. If you don’t know the premise of the show, it’s about a guy who is given a costume by some aliens. The costume gives him access to a wide collection of abilities and powers – super strength, flight, invisibility, telekinesis, etc. The only problem is, that the guy, who happens to be a special education teacher (at least when the show begins), doesn’t know how to make the suit work. And the manual, which the aliens gave him, is lost. So the normal guy is able to adopt a mantle, a superhero identity, but he’s never quite sure which powers he has, and which ones he will be able to draw upon, until he finds himself in a moment of need. Frequently, he’s able to call up the powers and abilities he needs. But not always. And sometimes, the abilities he expects to use to get him through a moment of crisis aren’t the ones that ultimately help him solve the problem.

Other times, the suit itself isn’t the thing that helps the teacher to be the hero.

Why in the world does this story work as a metaphor for me for leadership in the NWP? Here’re a few reasons:2

  1. The hero is the hero because he decides to be. No one forces Mr. H. to put on the costume. He chooses to, because he feels an obligation to adopt the identity of the hero, to help when he can, because that’s his theory of action in the world. Teachers and NWP leaders do similar things. They see a need and adopt a stance that says, yeah, I can do this.
  2. The costume is part of the identity – but it’s up to the wearer to choose the abilities that emerge from the chosen identity.
  3. There’s nothing “special” about Mr. H., except that he chooses to be the hero, or the leader. Others can wear the costume, can assume the identity of “super” or “hero” or “leader.” The power is partly in the costume, but it’s also in choosing to put it on. We can all choose to wear the costume, or to pick up tools. It’s what we do after we’ve chosen to do something that things get interesting.
  4. Even with the suit, things can get messy. The powers don’t always work, or work in the way we intend them to.
  5. You’re not a hero, or a leader, even with great power or amazing tools, unless you choose to be. And you can still choose to lead without access to the costume or the tools.

D&D Character Sheet (for an NWP-er)

Another way to think about the capacities and attributes of leaders in the NWP is to think about a character sheet for a role-playing game. What is “NWP leader,” but a role one has chosen to adopt? And when it comes to characters in role-playing games, it’s helpful to think about attributes that are necessary for all, but can exist in differing levels or degrees. All D&D characters have strength and agility – but each character starts with a different number for these abilities. Wizards are often smarter than warriors. But warriors are stronger than wizards. And even once we’ve chosen a class or character type, we can choose to specialize. Maybe we adopt the identity of a rogue. And we want to be good at lockpicking or stealth. So we choose to adopt those abilities through training and/or experience. And those abilities grow over time. But we can’t choose all of the abilities. In D&D, choosing one character type may open or close doors on the types of experiences that we adopt and/or can grow.

And in a good D&D adventure, it’s not one character facing the adventure – it’s a party. A group of players has to have several different character types to be successful. You need a tank who can take lots of damage, and a healer or two to help recover. Maybe that thief to pick some locks. And a ranger who can see in the dark. It’s not that you need all the types in all the situations. You pick your party sometimes through chance, and other times through intentional selection of roles and attributes that you believe will be helpful in the adventure you’re about to face.

But you’ve got to have a party. You’ve got to have a network.3

In both metaphors, there’s lots to consider to help me think through both what it takes to be an “NWP leader,” as well as lots of problems. Metaphors will only take you so far. But they can be helpful lenses for thinking through what’s bedrock, as Nicole Mirra has been calling core NWP leader attributes. What are the core attributes that every NWP leader has to have to be a member of the NWP “tribe?”
And what are the ones that you want distributed throughout the network, but not necessarily embedded deeply in every member? What are the skills and attributes and pathways that folks might want to dig into as they grow as characters in the network? What pathways do you want to emphasize? What skills and attributes do you want to nurture and develop in the network, but allow individuals to choose to develop for themselves or their parties?

What do you believe makes an “NWP leader” or a “teacher leader” either of those things? How do you know, how can you “prove” it, and how might we share that knowledge with others?

  1. All of these seem viable metaphors in some way. []
  2. And for my purpose here, let’s use “hero” and “leader” synonymously, even though I prefer models of servant leadership to ego-driven, “hero” leaders who save the day. But leadership and saving the day, moving the ball, etc., are often the same thing. []
  3. And, in the case of D&D, someone else builds the character sheet template that the gamers use as a tool. And then the DM and the players create the game together – so things get complicated quickly, and the rules on paper are only useful until they aren’t. That’s when good players improvise. []

What’s This Digital Writing Stuff, Anyway?

It is better to prevent evil, when can, than to attempt to cure it.I’m speaking tomorrow with my wife’s college course for preservice teachers on the teaching of writing. I’m the featured expert on “digital writing.”

Whatever that is.

Over the last week, the students in the course have been jotting some questions and thoughts down on a Google doc in preparation for the session. I basically asked what it was they wanted to know about, because we have an hour to talk about what I’ve spent an awful lot of the last ten years of my live worrying and working on.

And as I’m prepping for just what I want to leave them with in the fifty five minutes, minus announcements and time for whatever else will come up tomorrow, I’m thinking hard about just what it is about “digital writing” that’s worth wondering and worrying about amidst the eight hundred thousand other odd things rolling around in a teacher’s mind as they begin a career of working with young people.

As I sketched out some ideas and a plan of action on a pad of paper with a freshly inked fountain pen, I was reminded that someone’s new toy is always someone else’s essential tool. And vice versa.

It’s not the digital of digital writing that matters. It’s the writing.

We’ve1 always been fumbling with whatever we’ve had available to us to use to communicate with each other, and to leave a mark beyond ourselves. The exploration of tools for communication beyond our voices in a crowded room is a five thousand year old pursuit. Paint. Sticks. Pencils. Cursors. Whatever we can get our hands on – we’ll write with it.

It’s rather silly sometimes to pretend that it’s only in the last five years or so any of that fumbling and reaching has actually changed the nature of the game. But that’s what we do. Every five years or so.

The nature of the game is that it’s always been changing, and teachers have always been fighting to make sure that we all use the same tools the right way, or that we only use the tools in the ways that the folks who teach the tools are comfortable with. Today’s “digital” is yesterday’s “ink” is tomorrow’s “3d2”.

William Alcott was a teacher in the 1840s who I often point people to when they get stuck on how different right now is from any other time in human history3. He wrote an engaging book on the integration into instruction of a new and modern technology of his time – the blackboard.  It’s worth your time.

He opens the book with fine advice for anyone seeking the answers to how best to teach digital writing today:

Should the teacher who takes up these “Exercises,” attend to the suggestions I have made both in this preface, and in several of the chapters, and instead of following, mechanically, the methods which are pointed out, attend rather to the principles of which these exercises are intended as illustrations, and thus be led to form his own plans and methods, my object will be far more perfectly accomplished than if he should transfer its scanty exercises to the black board, and there let the matter end. . . . Hardly any mistake could be greater than for the teacher, who should take up a book like this, to adopt its various methods without reference to existing circumstances.

Our contexts matter, folks. The why and what and whom we are writing for. That doesn’t change when there’s a tablet, a stylus, a camera, a keyboard or a piece of chalk in play as the primary writing tool. The differences with those tools are matters of technique. Matters we’d all be better off taking up once we’ve actually gotten serious about making sure our classrooms are places of deep creation, revision, and sharing.

So write on, with whatever you’ve got, is what I’ll say to those preservice teachers. Write and explore writing environments with your students. Play with lots of tools and toys and make the one that work for you your own. But try hard to figure out why the others don’t work for you – and who they might work for. And don’t bother teaching students how to write unless you’re writing yourself.

Maybe it’d be easier to just tell them to get to work on their Twitter accounts instead.

  1. The collective, societal we of all the people, ever. []
  2. Maybe. But probably something else. We are bad at predictions, too. []
  3. All the times have been more different than any other time in human history. Ours is a rich and fascinating tapestry, made no less extraordinary or fascinating by the fact that our shared sameness is actually the change we swear is different. []

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. []

If You Never Try to Be Brave, It Certainly Won’t Happen

On a conference call today.

Heard that some of the participants on a project I’m working on are waiting to see what the entire scope of the project needs to look like before they jump in and try something new in their classrooms.

The problem is, that we’ve recruited these participants for this project because they’re pretty darned good teachers.  We trust their judgment and their ability to take what they’ve done and fiddle with it, possibly even drastically change it up, in response to some of the ideas we’re experimenting and playing with. We also trust that their judgment and professionalism will help them to make good decisions when it comes to classroom changes.

In fact, we’re certain the entire project will fail if these participants, ninth grade teachers in northern Colorado, don’t take some risks in their classroom.

Tinkering with the seating arrangements, this isn’t.

It pains me that the climate in schools is so risk-averse and so anti-teacher that teachers who are really good at what they do are also hesitant to lean in to something different – for so many reasons.

And I can see myself in these teachers, as I think about projects where I’m not doing much at the moment, waiting for something else to happen before I make an attempt to try something new, big, or different. Or I’m just not willing to face the resistance to change, from administrative, social, or political forces.

And I want to remind those teachers, and myself, that you can’t ever be brave if you’re not in a place where bravery is required.

I want to remind myself of this:

So what of all the talk of what might happen, of mistakes that could be made, of errors and missteps and failures imagined?  It might be, just might be, that when we give folks opportunity to do well, to dream big, to step forward and offer something big, bigger than we knew we could, to dream hard for something better and more beautiful than we knew we could be, well, maybe we can.

We’re all struggling the best we can to do right by children, and the conflict sometimes is not because we don’t all want to succeed, but it’s because we’re afraid we might.  And when we stumble, it’s not because we don’t mean well, but because we get stuck on the way to greatness.  Distracted, even.

But we can do hard things. Of course we can do hard things.  Look at how far we’ve come.

That’s what I’ll bet on. On hope. The hope that we can be better. Let’s do good. Let’s bet on someone being great.

And let’s let that someone be us.

If you don’t ever face the scary things, you can’t ever work on being brave.  And being brave, even just a little bit and even just a little of the time, is so important.

So, to you, and to me – Let’s try.


“The System Won’t Let Me”

System Lock
System Lock by Yuri Samoilov

The other day, I pulled up to a fast-food joint, trying to grab a quick bite.1

I ordered the value meal2, but I quit drinking soda a year or so ago, so I asked if I could just have water. I didn’t mind getting charged for it, I told the disembodied voice out my car window, I just wanted to not have a soda.  Could they please, I asked, just put water in the cup?

The gentleman at the other end of the speaker wasn’t able to help me.  When I made the initial request, he got quiet, and I heard the electronic beep of buttons pushing, and then he told me that he couldn’t not give me a soda.

The system, he said, wouldn’t let him do otherwise.

The system.

I argued this for a minute or two.  Could you type in “Sprite” or something, but just, you know, fill the cup up with water?  Or just put water in a cup and hand it to me with the burrito and tots?

Nope.  The system just wouldn’t allow it.

Being someone who can’t support systems that won’t let folks do things, I drove off without making a purchase.

As I think now about the beginning of a new school year, the first one in fifteen years I’m experiencing as an observer, I’m wondering about the systems you might find yourselves in.

Do you work, promote, or build systems – in your classroom, school district, or organization – that allow for choice and change?  Or do you work, promote or build systems that are lockstep systems, systems predetermined to know the answers that resist and/or require participants in them to remain locked in?  Does your system, instead of your judgment, shape all the interactions that occur within it?  When can the system be overridden, and how often do you do so?

And if you are in a system that’s locked down and doesn’t allow for change or choice, how are you going to resist or challenge that system this school year?

How will you teach your students to resist such systems, too?

I’m asking for me, but I’m also asking for my children.  I don’t ever want them to find themselves in a situation where they can’t do something they might like to do because “the system won’t allow it.” Worse yet, I can’t fathom them becoming people who are bound from doing what’s right or better or good because they feel stuck inside a “system” that’s beyond their control.

And I suspect you don’t want that for your students or children, either.

  1. Okay.  It was a Sonic.  I really, really like breakfast burritos, and I can get one there pretty much any hour of the day.  Eggs and bacon is the “fast food” I eat these days. []
  2. Because tater tots. []

The Podcast: Future Ready?

Last month, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address for The Future Ready Summit in Denver.  Ben recorded the audio, and was kind enough to share it with me.

So I’m sharing it with you.

Direct Link to Audio

Not sure if it’ll translate without the visuals – so the slides are below if you’re curious.


Stop Filling Pails

The number of people who believe that education is simply pouring facts into children, whether those children like it or not, is astounding to me.

We won’t serve children better by buying better funnels for those facts, or better shovels for those facts, or better containers for those facts once we get them into the children.

Admiring the hoses, shovels, and funnels is certainly not a productive way to improve learning for children, nor do fancy shovels make the process any better for the children involved.  Fancy tools used for terrible pursuits are a tremendous waste of resources.

We won’t serve society((Or the children.)) better by making sure the students sit more quietly, obediently, or patiently while we shovel, pour, or toss those facts, either.1

That is not what education is, should be, or could be.

Not even close.

  1. And children reacting negatively to having their time wasted is not the fault of the children, nor should it be used to justify more pouring or shoveling. []

“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. []

A Library Is Somewhere You Can Take Things Home to Explore

Earlier today, I enjoyed reading Barry Joseph’s piece at DML about a digital pen that’s changing the experience at one metro museum.  But what really struck me was how he framed the difference between a museum and a library, and what that framing said about what a library is.  In talking about his experience, he wrote:

As I walked through the exhibit, I found that I was experiencing a museum in a totally new way. When I visit a museum, I am often collecting information or inspiration. I know I won’t remember the details, but the feeling will linger in my bones. But now, with the Pen, the museum has also turned into a library or sorts. I am collecting information and inspiration I can explore later, at home. 

You should read the whole piece, but think with me here for a minute:  Is what makes a library a library is that you can take stuff away, if at least for a little while?  Is the definition of a library a place where you can collect “information and inspiration (you) can explore later, at home”?

I like that idea very much.