Love and Innovation

Maybe it is because it is close to Christmas, and maybe it is because my dad has been on my mind so much lately, but I just needed to write the reflection below.

I love the “30 for 30″ series on ESPN, because they share powerful sport stories that go way beyond a game, and really touch the heart.  I don’t know if it was from “The Guru of Go” about Paul Westhead and the death of Hank Gathers, or if it was “Survive and Advance” about Jim Valvano, his NC State team, and ultimately his battle with cancer, but I heard about the importance of “love” in bringing people together and overcoming so many obstacles.  It made me think a lot about the term “love” and it’s role in schools and “innovation”.  Not “love” in the terms of relationships with a spouse, but that feeling of being truly cared for and caring for others.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the battle people are going through in their own lives, and how that impacts their work.  I love this quote attributed to Will Smith on the subject:

“Never underestimate the pain of a person, because in all honesty, everyone is struggling. Some people are better at hiding it than others.”

There are people that show up every single day, with a smile on their face and not only do great things, but lift others up as well.  This year I have seen one friend openly share their battle with depression, and another friend share that their spouse may have cancer, yet in both cases, not only did they both seemingly have a smile on their face, but they also lifted others up to become better.  Sometimes when people face the most adversity, the easier it is for them to show love to others.

I have also seen others openly struggle and show up every day.  I remember one teacher going through a very tough personal time, and although they did everything they could for their students, you could see the hurt in their heart.  The pain was there, but it was not enough to keep her away from helping others.  Maybe it was part of their calling, but maybe it is often the unconditional love from her students that kept her going each day.

I have been known to have my heart on my sleeve, and I remember when I lost my dog Shaq this year, having to speak to a large group of teachers the next day.  As tough as it was to talk to a large audience, I was honest with them, shared my loss, and when I was finished, I not only received a warm applause (that is the best way I can describe it) from them, but so many hugs from strangers.  It might not be “love” in the sense that we know it, but it was “love” in the way I felt it.  It not only made my work easier that day, but it pushed me to be better.  In a time when educators are asked to do so much every single day, and in many cases so much “extra” stuff that we never planned, feeling and giving love is crucial.

I was reminded of this quote today:

“Every single employee is someone’s son or daughter. Like a parent, a leader of a company is responsible for their precious lives.” Simon Sinek

Maybe I am being overly sentimental because of the time of the year, and maybe I am just exhausted (I am), but when people know they are cared and loved, they are going to go so much further and push themselves to do better things for kids.  That feeling of safety and belonging is crucial for innovation. Maybe I am way off base on my use of the term.

But then I see this…

Then I think of my good friend Tony who not only loves his job, but loves his school and his community, and from what I can tell, loves his students. Then you see what they share in return.

Maybe “love” is the wrong word.  Maybe it is something else. But in a time that educators are so often asked to go above and beyond what they are expected to do, especially in a job that can be so emotionally wearing, I think of the word “love” and the place it has in schools.  For our students, for our colleagues, and for ourselves.

In a profession that is so inherently human, there has to be something more than showing up and  “learning” every day.

To inspire meaningful change, you have to make a connection to the heart, before you make a connection to the mind.

Blog Launch Party (Reflections)

I was recently invited to speak to Mrs. Holden’s Class where they had their “Blog Launch Party“.  I spoke to them for a few minutes about my journey into blogging and the impact it has had on my learning and the opportunities that it has created.  It has been amazing what I have learned in the last four years through the process and I was honoured to share it with the class.

What happened after I talked to them was that all of the students commented on to each other’s blogs and they all learned from each other in the process.  It was a great way to get them excited and then rolling into the project.  Such a great idea (again) from Mrs. Holden’s class.

We even talked about my visit to the St. Louis Zoo since their class connected with them this year, so we sent them this selfie:

Hey @stlzoo…I was just with some of your fans here in #psd70. They wanted to say hi!

A photo posted by George Couros (@gcouros) on

Within minutes, the St. Louis Zoo, responded back and sent them a message from one of their friends:

It was a great activity and a great opportunity to learn from and with a class.  Thanks Mrs. Holden’s class for a great afternoon!

(If you have the opportunity to comment on some of the student blogs, they are listed on the right of the classroom blog.)

What do we lose?

 

“We must never assume that an appeal to the masses represents illiteracy. In fact, it implies a high degree of literacy. And in the new century, that increasingly means visual media.” Stephen Apkon

Greystone Centennial Middle School is hosting their fifth “Innovation Week” (if you want to learn more, connect with Jesse McLean on Twitter), where students suggest things they want to learn, create, make, during the week, and have time to explore and develop.  In the last week before holidays, it is amazing how engaged the learning is within the school.  It is a pretty powerful experience for students and it is a glimpse in what school could look like all of the time, not just  a couple of weeks.  From the work that is happening at the school, I know the experience has shaped and reshaped the learning that is happening year round.

As I walked around looking at what the students were doing, I saw one student using a program that I had never seen before called “Blender” in which he was designing a prototype for a car.  It kind of blew me away to see what he was doing and how he was doing it, because I guessed that no one showed him how to use the software before.  When I asked him how he learned to use it, he just simply replied with one word; “YouTube”.

I was quickly reminded of this Will Richardson quote:

I don’t disagree that a lot of professional development monies are wasted. And truth be told, teachers should be responsible for their own PD now. Kids wouldn’t wait for a blogging workshop. Adults shouldn’t either.

The student wanted to learn about the program, so he went and learned about the program.  This is not in this case, but in so many, whether it is learning how to play an instrument, do a dance, or build something new.  There is a ton of learning opportunities out there, they just might not all be related to the curriculum.  Is our job to teach students how to learn a curriculum, or our students how to learn?  Maybe it is more a combination of both, but more importantly, it is the latter.

I then started to think about how so many schools have blocked sites like YouTube because of all the “distractions” that are on the site.  I admit, I can get lost surfing the web and it is easy to get sucked into something totally different than what you first started looking for, but we lose so much when we take such a robust platform full of information away from our kids.

“Among the more than three billion videos watched each day on sites such as YouTube, there is undoubtedly a lot of garbage. But in what medium is there not?” Stephen Apkon

(As I wrote the above paragraph, I thought about how we have so many books in a library that are simply there for the pleasure of the reading, yet we wouldn’t pull out every novel and replace it with non-fiction, because we see reading is directly correlated to learning, whether it is for the purpose of school or not.  Is there a parallel to the videos we consume as well?)

I know that video sites can become a distraction, not only for kids, but adults as well.  It is rare that there are only positives with any form of technology and I wonder what we lose when we block sites like YouTube (and a myriad of other sites that have a lot to do with learning and maybe not so much to do with school), not only from the perspective of preparing kids for the world we all live in,  but also for the powerful learning that can take place. I can guarantee that if I looked hard enough today, I could have found a student using it and being totally off-task from what they were working on. It is obvious that still exists. But if we looked at sites like YouTube as a library filled with knowledge that we still have to teach our students to navigate, would schools still thinking about banning it from their students?

Sometimes it’s you…

Change is hard.

There is a lot going on not only in education, but the world, that can wear down on people. Doing the things we want to do and the things we actually do can be far apart.  Sometimes people can wear on us because they don’t agree with the direction we are going and can be easy to blame others.

But sometimes we need to step back and realize that a lot of times, it’s not them, it’s us. More specifically, it is me.  Life can be tough and it is easy to get worn down, and I have noticed that sometimes it is easy to sit back and focus on what others are doing that isn’t quite making the grade, but many of us tend to look at how we have been “wronged” as opposed to what we can do better ourselves.

This quote cannot be shared enough:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

When it is shared though, we often think about it in the context of others, not ourselves.  If we to look deeper into the quote, we often our fighting our own battles and have to not be so hard on ourselves, but also realize that we all have room to grow.

As this time of year can be so busy and overwhelming, so it is important to not be so tough on everyone else, but to also take care ourselves.

In a world that is extremely digital, we need humanity more than ever.

This is just going to be all over the place so I apologize in advance but this is writing to learn more than writing to share my learning.

Our world is awesome.

Technology allows us to do things that we could never do before.  We can video chat with people around the world simply, for a much cheaper rate than we could have called them years ago.  I have memories of my dad that I can relive over and over again, even after his passing. Every time we press “tweet” or “publish” it gets around the world instantly.  There is a power in our hands and in our pockets that we could not have imagined.  But with every step forward, we sometimes lose things along the way.

I can now call pretty much any services I have and I can get to anything I want through an automated machine that is often much quicker than any person I could talk to, yet when I get on the line, every single time, I press “0” immediately.  For all that technology gives us, I still want to talk to a person.

I love that I can do online banking, but I also love the interactions that I can still have in the bank.  That choice matters to me.  One time though, I distinctly remember going into the bank to make a deposit and being asked if I was interested in a tax-free savings account, followed by RRSP’s, and so on.  I saw the teller was not looking at mean and reading off their computer a list of questions that were suggested based on my financial situation. In my conversation with a person, I had been reduced to an algorithm.  When I actually called them out on this, they were embarrassed not only because of me saying something, but because their company put them in the situation in the first place. This example is crucial to the work that we do in education.

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, relationships will be the most important thing we do in schools.

I am guessing that some parents feel this same way when they call schools to report of the absence of their child.  Yes, the technology makes it convenient, but sometimes a person needs to talk, and sometimes they need to be heard.  The “tech” sometimes leaves them lacking the piece of mind that they needed from that phone call.  It is not simply about what is convenient, but sometimes what is needed.

Although I think technology is so crucial to our roles today, I think the more digital we are the more “human” our schools and leadership needs to become.  Sharing our stories and connecting through social media brings a lot in creating a human connection, but I still love the teacher that welcomes kids to their classroom every morning and has a conversation with them, or the principal who stands in the middle of the hallway to have conversations with kids about almost everything except for school.  Although things like supervision might seem like an “add-on” to our day, I started to look at it as an investment into people.  Talk to someone for ten minutes and take a sincere interest in their lives, and that ten minutes will come back to you exponentially.

There is something that we lose sometimes in our interactions on social media.  Many people (and rightfully so) do not share many aspects of their lives through what they share online.  For me, I share with people that the safest “guideline” to follow on social media is that you would not say anything online that you would not say to a group of kids.  Yet that doesn’t mean that people share their lives openly online, but what they are comfortable with other people that they may consider “strangers”.  You might not see the whole picture and there is so much more to a person than what they share online.

With a world that is increasingly digital, our “humanness” is more crucial than ever.  I am reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s speech in the “Great Dictator” in 1940, and how some elements of that speech from that movie made years ago are as relevant as ever.

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind.

We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery ,we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.

So with all the talk of technology, we just need to remember that there is so much more to schools and some of the best things in “20th Century Education” are just as relevant today.  If you are a school that does not focus on building relationships, you are on a faster road to irrelevance than one that doesn’t use technology.  In a world where information is easy to access and I can always find better content online than I can in school, the refocus on relationships is more crucial now than ever.

Embrace technology; it will provide people opportunities that we could have dreamed of when we were kids.  But just remember that people will always be the most important part of the education system.  As soon as we reduce everyone to a number or an avatar, we will have lost more than we could have ever gained.

Something’s Gotta Go…

I really had some great conversations at TIES in Minneapolis over the last couple of days, but one of them kind of stuck out to me.  We were talking about the “Hour of Code” and how popular (and important) it has become to many schools.  I think the power in this program is that it is not meant to only last an hour, but spark something more not only in kids, but schools.   It is definitely going to have many teachers thinking about ways they can implement coding as part of the work that they do in schools everyday, and I’m excited to see schools move forward with this.

But here is the problem…

There are only so many hours in the day.  The time frame of school from when I went in the 80’s, is the same time allotment that is given today.  So with every new thing that comes along, something has to go.

The first thing that many people debate about is “cursive”.  Some schools are getting rid of it, and some schools are trying to bring it back.  The debate should not be about cursive, but about what do our kids need now, and what will they need in the future.  Even when I went to school, there are many things that I learned that I do not use at all either on a consistent or semi-regular basis.  Yet I have many skills that make me a successful learner today; did my “schooling” play a role in that?  In some ways yes, and in some ways no.  That is the tough part of the conversation.

There are a lot of thoughts and questions that go into making these decisions, but one that should not be included is a feeling of nostalgia.  Schools should not teach something solely for the reason that we learned it as kids.  The world has changed, and with access to all of the information in the world, as well as people, schools have needed to change as well.  I don’t think should only be about what kids want to learn, but should have a balance of things that we know will be important, but also about providing them skills they will need in the future.  Schools should also provide opportunities to explore things that students might not necessarily want to explore on their own.

There are a lot of tough decisions that we have to make moving ahead in schools, but really, if we try to teach everything, do we develop a group of kids who become experts at nothing?

Here are two questions for you…

What do we teach now that we shouldn’t?

What don’t we teach now, that we should?

Change Is Happening

I was recently sitting with the awesome Nancy Kawaja Kalil (make sure you follow her on Twitter because she is awesome) at a conference in Ontario, and she shared the following picture with me:

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 5.52.56 PM

What I loved about this picture, is that it is the opposite of the narrative we have heard from many schools that believe shutting down is crucial to learning, where this picture says the opposite.  My assumption is that this school doesn’t use technology all of the time, nor does it have zero problems with technology use in school.  I am sure that, like in any school, things are not perfect.  But this picture shows to me a shift in mindset of an organization more than anything, which ultimately leads to growth and the creation of new ideas.

I sat and listened to Lisa Jones this year, talk about taking three years off for a maternity leave, and come back to school and see significant changes.  Wanting to push her own growth as not only a teacher, and a learner, she really shifted her focus on student learning, as opposed to her teaching.  It was a great story because it reminded me that every teacher wants to be better for kids, but there is always a lot on their plate.  Support is necessary to growth.

But the one thing that really stuck out to me from what she shared was her perspective on how much has changed in three years from someone who was out of the system, who has now returned.  If you really think about even the last three years in education, have you not seen a major shift with many organizations?  It is really hard to be around the same people or in the same building every day, and not realize how much education has grown, but if we were to take a step back, would we realize that a major shift is happening?

Although I think it is imperative that we continue to push, I also think it is important that we see that many educators and schools are not only wanting a better way for their students, but are creating it.  This is especially important to remember and recognize at a time when many teachers are either going into break or finishing school (depending on where you live) and they, like the students, are exhausted.

All great learning organizations see the need for growth, and realize that, like learning, it is a messy and non-linear process.  But they also recognize and acknowledge steps made by individuals and the group as a whole, that they have made towards something better.  This builds confidence and competence along the way.

No organization in our world is exempt from dealing with the constant of change, but if we all take a step back, there are many areas where we are getting better.  I think it is important to stop and acknowledge that along the way.

3 Ways Social Media Can Improve School Culture

I was having a great conversation the other day with a good friend, and she was sharing how many boards aren’t really worried about “social media” because they are needing to actually focus on improving their culture first.  I thought a lot about what she said, and to be honest, if you cannot have conversations with people in your own organization, Twitter is going to be the last thing in your mind.  That being said, I have seen a lot of school organizations use social media to actually improve their culture significantly.  It is not the only way, but if used in powerful ways, it definitely can have an overall impact on your school or district.

Here are three ways that I have seen an impact (although I encourage you to look at some of the responses on this tweet when I asked the question).

1.  Increased Visibility

In large boards (especially), it is tough for directors, superintendents, principals, etc., to actually physically be in all places at all times.  Visibility is an important part of leadership, and I love when I see leaders in schools or in classrooms, but social media actually allows you to not only see leaders in a different light, but also see their thought process.  Through tweets, blog posts, and more(Superintendent Chris Smeaton is a great example of this, although I could have chosen from a large lists of administrators), you get to see visible thinking of leaders, but also other aspects of their lives that make them more “human”.  If you are a superintendent, and you walked into one of your schools, and many of your teachers had no idea who you are, isn’t that kind of a problem?  Social media, used effectively, can help increase this visibility.

2.  Increased Accessibility

Now being more connected can have both a positive and negative impact on a person.  If you are connected to your device 24/7, that might be great for your school, but bad for your personal life (and health).  We have to be able to shut off.  That being said, when teachers can tap into one another and learn from each other,it not only improves learning, but it also builds relationships.  I have watched in my own school division, the difference in the past few years with the increased use of social media, a greater connection between staff from different schools when seeing each other in person, because the accessibility to one another online doesn’t replace face-to-face interactions, but can enhance them.  Teachers that connected online, have ended up meeting face-to-face to plan EdCamps, Innovation Week, and talk about a whole host of other things to help improve learning.  The accessibility to not only ideas, but one another, improves learning and relationships.  They are not mutually exclusive.

3. A Flattened Organization

I really believe in the idea in schools that everyone’s a teacher and everyone’s a learner, and that these roles are interchangeable throughout any and all days.  Watching great schools, I have seen superintendents learn from teachers, teachers learn from parents, principals learn from students, and any other combination you can think of within a school community.  As Chris Anderson would call this “crowd-accelerated innovation”, and it is so important to embrace this notion of learning from anyone and everyone, if we are going to improve the culture of our school’s.  When you work for an organization and you know that no matter what role you play, that your voice is valued, don’t you think that would have a significant impact on culture?

Concluding Thoughts

If you are looking at improve school culture, open learning is essential to our environments.  I don’t want to only know what the decisions are that are made, but about the people who are making them, and their thoughts behind these decisions.  That openness is crucial.  Only in an organization where voices are not only heard, but also valued, will you ever see significant improvements in school culture, and with the tools that we are provided in our world today, that pace of culture change can be significantly faster than it was without this same technology.

Digital Citizenship in the Time of “Instant Celebrity”

I have to admit it…I could watch Vine videos all day. I didn’t really think much of the “6 Second” service until I met Ray Ligaya. Ray was at a speaking event I had in Waterloo, Ontario, where I was talking about social media, where he was serving. We started talking about Twitter and he asked me if I had heard about Vine. I had but didn’t really think much of it, until he told me had hundreds of thousands of followers on the service. I started following him, and he has the typical videos that I would have made when I was his age, with a lot of potty humour, yet it appeals to a ton of people. He told me already that time that he had been “recognized” often because of his work through the service, so I was hooked, and started looking more and more at the service.

What I had noticed was that a lot of the popular Vine accounts were created by teenagers. Some of them dancers, some of them comedians, and some of them just sharing little aspects of their lives, in a compelling way. There is seemingly a little and a lot that can be created in 6 seconds which is creativity, even if it looks different than what we are used to seeing, and there is actually a lot of money being made from the serviceBrandon Bowen is a 16 year old who has seen tremendous success through using Vine (he has over a million followers on the service), but also still deals with a tremendous amount of bullying, yet has a tremendous sense of humour:

Talking about this with my friend Chris Wejr, he asked the question, “what would it be like to grow up as a kid today? This has to have some kind of impact.” The instant “celebrity” is something that many kids dreamed up as a kid but did not have the same opportunities that exist today, but with that, comes the down side. There are probably a lot of kids dealing with harassment online, nasty comments, and things I couldn’t even imagine.  “Alex from Target” had instant fame and he talked about the downside and the impact of his life. According to the story, it wasn’t even of his own doing (although there are reports that the story was made up), and now he has to deal with the impacts of being “famous” which, according to Nick Bilton, has had some huge negative consequences:

While Alex is clearly enjoying some of the attention, he and his family have also had to deal with more serious consequences of web fame. A crafty marketing firm, Breakr, tried to take credit for Alex’s rise. (Everyone the company claims it worked with, including Alex’s family and @auscalum, has denied ever hearing of Breakr.  In a report, BuzzFeed said that the company’s claims simply don’t add up.)

Thousands have taken to social media to call Alex names (including vulgarities) or fabricate stories about him being fired. Twitter is littered with posts that denigrate his looks (e.g., “Alex from Target is so damn ugly”) or spew envy at him (“Alex from Target is a nobody who doesn’t deserve fame”).

There have even been dozens of death threats on social media and in private messages (“Alex from target, I’ll find you and I will kill you”).

A Vine video of Liam Payne from One Direction tells a powerful story of fame in our world today where he is smiling for each “selfie” he takes with a fan, yet in the milliseconds in between pictures, you can seen the wear it has on him, even in complete adoration.

There are so many people who will come up to person and not ask their name, or want to have a question, yet will simply want a selfie, to say that they met that person. I really loved listening to Louis CK talk about how he actually refused to take pictures with fans but actually made them have a conversation, and the sheer disappointment that some of them had for actually having to talk to the celebrity.

This is not just kids mind you,but adults as well. Think about this…if you could meet a celebrity and talk to them for one minute without any of your friends ever being allowed to know, or could take a selfie with them to share with the world, which one would you take? I don’t think many people would have an answer.

So if we continue to talk about “digital citizenship” with our kids, I think the conversations have to evolve past solely focusing on “being safe” and cyberbullying (which are important but there is so much more to discuss), but also about the impact that this media can have on our lives, and how some would even say that it is making us “needier”. More and more kids are answering the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, with answers like “YouTube celebrity” or “Vine Star”. Too many, it is an easy step to fame that comes with many benefits (like a salary) at a young age, but also can easily turn to online harassment from many that can turn likes (or sometimes the lack of them) into anxiety. We don’t have to worry only about the psyche of a kid who doesn’t get the “likes” or is not “reshared”, but also the ones that do get the likes.

This is so complicated for so many reasons.

There are lots of questions that we need to ask in a world where a kid can create a life for themselves that we couldn’t create this quickly even ten years ago. But as with all learning, our understanding of “digital citizenship” has to continuously evolve and we need to continuously have conversations with our kids about this topic.

We have some tricky waters to navigate.

(If I could suggest a book to read on this topic that is extremely worth it, take a look at Danah Boyd’s “It’s Complicated; The Lives of Networked Teens”. It will definitely help with conversations in your classroom on this topic that go beyond “Don’t talk to strangers.”)

3 Questions To Shift the Focus to the Learner

The teacher evaluation process sometimes seems a little ridiculous.  For many boards, a principal will formally “visit” a teacher 2-3 times, and from those observations (and obviously some other observations throughout the school year), they will write an evaluation on that teacher.  As a new teacher, it is tough to feel comfortable with an administrator in the room so they often get “the show” which is not really reflective of what teaching and learning looks like in the classroom.  I did the same thing as a teacher. Those few observations didn’t really resemble what I did throughout the year, and it was often a reflection of what I thought my administrator wanted to see (kids quiet, sitting in rows, respectful of my dynamic up in the front teaching with my amazing lesson), not how I taught the majority of the year.  I don’t think my teaching was ever a “lie” during that time but often an exaggeration.  It is easy to get nervous during this process.

Although many boards still have to do the three observations, I think that the process needs to focus more on the learner.  For example, instead of telling someone how they taught based on those observations, I challenge administrators to ask the following questions:

What are you strong at?

Where do you need to improve?

What are some things that you are going to do to become a better educator?

The important part of this process is to really let the learner talk.  If the focus is on their teaching, then the learner should be the one sharing what they know.  If administrators started to do this, what would the “trickle-down effect” be in the classroom?  What if you asked the same questions of your students (modified for age level obviously)?  Would this not be the type of assessment that not only summarizes learning but actually an assessment to improve learning?

I would love to hear the practices for teacher evaluation that are happening in schools that go against the traditional model.  What do you got?