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.  


Let’s Hack School: A Recent Talk at CSU

Earlier this week, I had the honor of giving a talk in the CSU Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life speaker series. With my time, shared below, I talked about some of our work around professional learning and agency, as well as some of my thinking on the essential actions/literacies/habits that should be in our schools. I probably tried to cram too much into a fast talk, but I think it got some thinking going, which was my goal in the first place1. Below is a Google Hangout video of the talk, and below that is the slide deck from the talk, which is rather hard to see in the video.

I’d love to hear your response to these ideas and where and when you’re fitting in make/hack/play in your teaching and learning.

Thanks so much to Antero and Cindy and the CSU Writing Project for having me out as a part of a really great series.2

The talk starts at nine minutes into the recording.

  1. I’m certain there’s a workshop or two in this talk, specifically around helping folks design learning spaces with certain attributes in mind. I’m tinkering now with building a thinking tool to embody the slider stuff I get into near the end. Get in touch if this is something you’d like to know more about. []
  2. PS – Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, the Executive Director of the National Writing Project, is speaking on April 7th as a part of the same series. You should go if you can. More info on the CSUWP’s website. []

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. []

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?


Trusting People, Who “Will Do Dumb Things,” to Make Their Own Decisions

I haven’t read A Place Called School.  Yet.  But it’s one of those books that comes up when I talk to and listen to and read folks who talk, listen and write about what schools are and what they might yet be.  And this piece on its author, John Goodlad, who died earlier this month, helped me remember that I need to get that book on my reading list.  Here’s the choice bit:

 The project convinced Mr. Goodlad that education reformers cannot simply take a successful education innovation and ‘install’ it in a new school, he told Education Week shortly after A Place Called School was published. ‘Several years ago,’ he said, ‘I gave a talk in Beverly Hills to a very sophisticated, bright audience. It was on the dynamics of educational change and the change processes. After it was all finished, the first question was, ‘All right, can you tell us what it is you’re supposed to do to bring about change?’ ‘And I’d just finished,’ he continued. ‘This woman didn’t even begin to grasp the notion of what it’s like for people to empower others to make their own decisions, how that requires trust, and that people will do dumb things. What she was looking for was: Tell me, one-two-three, how to do it. And there are no one-two-threes.’ 

“There are no one-two-threes.”  A hard, but humbling, reminder from someone who paid close attention to schools and education for most of a century.  Better still was the list of criteria for meaningful change:

  • empowering others to make their own decisions
  • building trust
  • allowing people to make mistakes and, from time to time, “do dumb things”

I’m so cool with that list.  Wish I saw more efforts focused on those things.  On my mind of late: How do we help to build good structures for people who need structures to help them learn how not to need other people’s structures1?  How do we build schools and classrooms and learning experiences like that? I wonder if some of that answers are in that book I need to read.   

  1. Okay, this has been on my mind for most of my career. []

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. []