Category Archives: Understanding and Responding to the Larger Societal Context

Find the Awesome, Create the Awesome

Below is a visual from a cool site called Tweetping (tweetping.net) that shows all of the tweets at a given moment happening real time.

(The site is pretty neat to watch and this video is not as current as the website but hopefully you get the idea.)

I often show a video capture of this site, as to let people know that even though I am quite the optimist, I understand that at any point, in all of those tweets, there is horrible stuff being shared.

I know this and I get it.

What I really believe we need to do with our students, is not only help them find the awesome stuff, but to create it.

Jennifer Casa-Todd writes a great post on this topic, and shows how young people are using technology to make a positive impact on the lives of others:

Students use technology and social media to…

1.  empower others who have no voice
2.  address societal inequality
3.  promote important causes
4.  learn and share their learning
5.  be a more positive influence in the lives of others

And here are some great examples of kids doing this right now:

  • @ThatHannahAlper (Hannah Alper) uses social media to enpower and inspire–just check out her website, Call Me Hannah to see how she does this.  She is also a champion of environmental causes and just recently became a Youth Ambassador for Bystander Revolution, which is an organization taking a stand on bullying.
  • @Aidan_Aird, a 15 year old student in our District. created a website, Developing Innovations, “To inspire, celebrate and promote #STEM.”  Aird’s website states, “I realized there were lots of amazing kids out there working hard, creating and discovering amazing things. With them in mind, I created Developing Innovations…[which] has featured and celebrated over 65 young scientists from around the world on the website. There are so many hardworking young scientists out there that are trying to make a difference. By being featured on my website, they get the exposure they deserve and are encouraged to keep working hard. It is a place to celebrate their accomplishments and inspire other kids to follow in their footsteps.”
  • Jeremiah is a high school junior and creator of @westhighbros, a Twitter account that tweets compliments to friends and classmates.  Check out the video here. (shared by George Couros @gcouros)
  • Though Kid President (@Iamkidpresident)  gets a little help from Brad Montague, 10 yr-old Robby Novak definitely empowers others through his inspirational videos as well as his own story.  He is also a champion for important causes.  Currently, you can see him fighting child hunger by following the hashtag #hungerfreesummer or by checking out the video here.
  • Joshua ( @Joshua’s Heart) is a young man passionate about inspiring kindness in youth and stopping world hunger. Here is his keynote during the EduMatch Passion Pitch event hosted by @ShellTerrell and @SarahThomas found here.  More information about the great work he is doing can be found at  http://joshuasheart.org/

As Jennifer states in her post, it is easy to identify these kids as “outliers”, but our focus should be on making this the norm.

It is easy to complain that there is so much bad stuff online, so why not focus on teaching our students to inundate the web with the good?

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The One Guarantee

I recently received an email and was asked a question that I get all of the time.  With the promotion of students using social media, what do you if something goes wrong (meaning students swear or say something inappropriate)?

How I always answer this to give people piece of mind, is by saying, “The one thing that I can guarantee, 100%, is that something will go wrong at some point.  What is more important is how you handle it? Will you see this as a teachable moment or will you react and shut everything down?”

Obviously there are different levels of what could happen, but the idea that we shut something down because of our fears of what could happen, as opposed to looking at the possibilities of what we can do is really holding back of our students.  Anyone can write down inappropriate messages with a pencil, yet I have never seen a mass exodus of that tool in schools because of the fear of what could happen.

The best approach, is always a proactive one.  Working with students at a young age to understand the impact of what they share, both positive and negative, will only come from an understanding of using social media ourselves.  Fear often comes from a lack of knowledge, rarely an abundance.

I was reminded of this quote that I heard a student say this year, and feel it is relevant to this conversation.

“Social media is like water because it is everywhere in our life.  We can ignore it and watch kids drown, or we can teach kids how to swim.  Which way are you going to go?”

Understanding that in all learning, things go wrong and people make mistakes.  Guarding them from this doesn’t prepare them for the future, let alone the present.  We can no longer hold back students because of our fears of what could go wrong, but lead by focusing on what could go right.  The probability of something amazing and powerful happening increases tremendously when we focus on making the positive, as opposed to hiding from the possible negatives.

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3 Questions To Help Measure School “Success”

3 questions to Measure School -Success-

Yesterday I had a great conversation with a school district administrator about how we measure “student success”.  As I thought about this, one of the ideas that lingered in my mind is the difference between measuring student success, or measuring the impact of school and our organizations on success.

But then there is the word “success”.  What does being successful mean?  Many schools will share statistics regarding how many of their students go on to post-secondary, but if a student has a college degree but is unhappy, compared to a student that didn’t go to college and is, do we deem that a success?  The other part of this is what role did school play in this?  We state there are many factors outside of school that play in the success of a child, so would school be the sole reason a student goes to university?

The success of a school should not only be measured by what students do when they are there, but their impact on what they do after they leave.  We also have to realize that the word “success” is not necessarily one that we can define for our students.  As discussed with my colleagues, their impact on society also has to be a part of this.  You can make a lot of money, be happy, or both, but are you a positive contributing member of the community?  Again, this is not necessarily for a school to determine, but could be looked through the lens of the student.

As a survey to students after they leave school, here are three questions we could ask them to determine how we have done as schools, whether it is 1 to 100 years after the fact.

1. Do you consider yourself as a successful, contributing member to society?

2. Why did you give the answer above?

3. What impact do you think school had on your answers?

The answers will not be in nice and neat little packages, but they would tell us a lot about what our schools are doing.  These three questions would not only give us some powerful data, but the shortness of this survey leaves it more likely to be answered while compiling some powerful quantitative data.

These questions could be a good start, but I would love your thoughts.  How would we measure our impact on student success after they leave our schools? What questions would you ask?

P.S. This video below REALLY challenged my thinking on what being “successful” means. It would be a great video to discuss with staff and students and what schools are trying to do. Are we trying to replicate the same world we live in, or help our students to create something better?

Understanding and Removing Barriers

Grant Wiggins, a visionary education reformer who has made a tremendous impact now and will continue to do so even after his recent passing, and was one of the developers of “Understanding by Design” (with Jay McTighe), shared a powerful “guest” blog post of a learning coach mirroring two students for a day each in her school (it was later acknowledged to be written by Alexis Wiggins).  Here was the initial plan for the process from Alexis:

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

The post was telling as it shared how much Alexis struggled through the process of “being a student”, and it led her to the following three key takeaways:

    1. Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
    2. High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.
    3. You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

Now the point of sharing this is not to challenge the ideas that she shared (as this is from the perspective of her school at the time), but to think about the process.  This is not the norm for many students in schools around the world, but as leaders, how do we know this?  Do we often make assumptions in what is happening in our school, or do we actually experience something different?  One of the toughest groups to teach in the world is other teachers, and to go from that viewpoint, some of the expectations we have on our students, is not something we could handle for an hour, let alone, a full day.  The one quote from the blog post that really resonated for me, was when the student was asked about her perspective in class:

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, and how little of their learning they are directing or choosing.

Can you imagine going to a place every day where you felt your voice didn’t matter?  That part shook me.

The power of this post was not only in what was written by the author, but also the comments (there were 285 as of the time that I referenced this article and probably they will continue to receive more), that came from a variety of people, including students and educators.  The comments had a range of stories shared from personal experiences as a student, and struggles to accommodate something different as a teacher.  The reality of the learning environments that happen in our classrooms, are that they are not only created by the teacher, but the entire school.  If this is what school looks like for our students, what are we doing as leaders to help support to create something new?

The Impact of Our Decisions

One of my own thoughts as a central office administrator, was to be in our schools as much as often, to support our educators.  If you really love education, this can never happen enough, but I saw this as crucial to the work I was doing.  If my decisions had an impact on classrooms, then I better experience and see the impact of those decisions.

What I would often do is take my laptop and sit in a classroom in a school for anywhere between three to six hours, where I would get to the point that the teachers and students did not even notice I was there.  That way I could really see what their experiences looked like.  What I struggle with in our mobile world, is how reluctant we are to take our computers as leaders and do some of the administrative work in our classrooms?  I could answer my email a lot faster in my quiet office, but there are so many reasons why I would rather do it in the classroom.

What needs to be clear in this process is that I was not there to evaluate the teachers.  In fact, it was more to evaluate the environment that was created by the school district.  What I had noticed is how much “other stuff” teachers had to do, to make things work.  Whether it was going through an arduous logon process with students, or constant issues with WiFi, they looked less like teachers, and more like magicians.  From an IT department perspective, Internet is often “fast” and the logon process is quick, but times that by 20-30 students in a classroom (if you are lucky), and you have many frustrated educators that go above and beyond to create powerful learning opportunities for our students.

If we want “innovation” to happen in our schools, we have to be willing to sit in the environments where it is going to happen, and be able to not only discuss teaching and learning, but also do everything in our power to remove barriers from those that we serve.  One of the things that I have noticed in education is that we do not need “managers”, but we need “leaders”.

The truth is we need both.

We need leaders to have a vision of where we can go in our schools, but the “management” part is about making sure we have what we need to get there.  Stephen Covey (paraphrased) said that we manage things, but we lead people.  The educators that we serve, need the “things” to work if we truly want to create a “culture of innovation”, and support in creating an environment that we would truly want to be in as a learner ourselves.

Learning is Relational

Sitting in a session with Tracy Clark, about “A Posture of Experimentation“, she asked us to fill in the blanks on the following statement:

Trying something new is like ___________  because _________.

This was a great exercise in having the group think about, and embrace the opportunities for our own growth.

As I thought about it, it is easy to promote the ideas of others embracing their own personal growth, but as educators, both with our colleagues, and our students, do we create environments that are safe for this type of “experimentation”? For example, I walked into a classroom recently and saw the sign that stated, “Do it right the first time.”  This does not promote the mindset.  Although it is easy to criticize this quote, I honestly would have had the same mindset in my classroom as a teacher when I started in 1999. You often create, what you experience.  But the reality is that it is easy to say, “try something new”, without the work of creating an environment that is safe for this type of experimentation.  In education, this is not simply on one person or group, but about us as a whole.

Even this past week, I watched a Twitter account have their grammar corrected by someone (who was thankfully not an educator) online in a very blunt manner.  Was their grammar incorrect? Yes. Did it really matter? No.

Although I saw the tweet and the response and thought it was not the best way to use the medium, I did not know the person behind the account, until they showed up to my session.  They just happened to be a high school student who was actually crushed by the public correction.  Did this interaction, as small and little for one person, help create a mindset in another individual that was open to “taking risks”?  (I did end up tweeting everyone to follow that account and hopefully made them feel a little bit better!)

This happens online though, but I have seen the same interactions in classrooms and meetings as well.  Instead of seeking first to understand, we can often be quick to correct or squash the ideas and thoughts of others, instead of asking questions or seeking first to understand.  This is not about being “fluffy” and not challenging the ideas of others, or even our students, but it is about creating an environment where this feels safe, and is about helping others, not tearing them down.

Learning is relational. It is not simply a transfer of knowledge between two people or parties, so the connections and moments we have with each other are also crucial to growth. This safe environment is necessary if we want people to truly take risks.

Personalize, Not Standardize

I received the following question in one of my sessions today:

How do you engage the teachers and students who think it is “easier” to just do it (learning) on paper?

My response? Let them do it on paper.

The thing that is powerful about technology is the opportunity to personalize, not standardize. There are some really amazing things that you can do with a computer or mobile device, but the power is often more about the “choice” than the medium.  We have the opportunity to reach more students now than ever, not because of “technology”, but because of the options that we are now provided.

Below is one of the tweets from a session at the conference I was just recently at:

I talked to Jenny after, and she was obviously very comfortable using technology, but she chose to personalize a lot of her learning through paper and pen. That is what worked for her and that is what is important.  What is also necessary is that in her classroom, she creates the same opportunities for choice as well.

People like Sylvia Duckworth amaze me with their ability to draw and connect their learning in a way that is so appealing to many.  Her collection of SketchNotes that she creates and shares openly are absolutely amazing and not only appeal to her, but to so many others. She actually helped my learning by sharing a Sketchnote she created on the “8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset”.

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

Image created by @SylviaDuckworth

The idea that all learners need to use “tech” is not necessarily a step in the right direction. The opportunity to create learning experiences for yourself that are personally driven, as opposed to created for you by someone else, is one of the benefits that we need to really recognize in schools today.

I promise you that I will not take away your pen and paper to learn, if you let me use my computer to do the same. Deal?

If you have the choice, shouldn’t they?

As someone who often leads professional learning opportunities, it is always interesting to try to take notice of the little things that are happening in the room, and then some of the comments that are made regarding student learning and learning environments.

Lately I have noticed the variance of devices and tools that are used by adults in the room.  Although most people are working on either laptops, tablets, or smaller mobile devices (or often a combination of two to three of those things), you will still see several people using a notebook and pencil/pen.  A lot of times, it is not that they aren’t comfortable with using a device, they just prefer a pencil.  Sometimes I will talk with them in front of the larger group, and ask them if they think that I have a problem with them using a pencil, while promoting the use of digital tools?  They often look stunned that I would ask, but realize that I have no issue with what they decide to use.  What I do say though is that I would have an issue with them saying that a student could not use a device that worked for them.  It is not only about having access to a tool, but the choice that is allowed in the first place.

Sometimes a student will choose a pencil and sometimes they would prefer a mobile device, but do we allow them the same choice that we would want afforded to us? Yes, some students will totally be off task from what is happening in the classroom, but so are many adults, whether they are “engaged” or not.  It is not about making blanket rules, but seeing these opportunities as teachable moments, or understanding that all of our brains need a break.

Taking a kid’s pencil away because they used it in an inappropriate way rarely happens because many teachers see it as an inconvenience to themselves. When will we see taking mobile technology away from our students in the same light?

So even if students have the choice, do they have the option?  Schools out there will talk about how they have access to a few desktops in the classroom, or are able to bring in carts, but not necessarily using a BYOD model because they are worried about the inequity that it would bring.  What we need to do is aim for equity at the highest level instead of the lowest.  If you have several students in your classrooms that do not have access to their own technology on a consistent basis, how do you rethink your budget to provide something the have constant access to?  It will not be by replenishing your “computer lab”, but perhaps thinking differently about how that room could be used and how we could ended up getting more devices in the hands of more students.

One of the schools that I worked with in the past year decided to make their old computer lab into a “Starbucks” room that had different levels of seating and was much more of a welcoming learning environment than what the computer lab had been in years prior.  Not only did they go with mobile technology that could be at the point of instruction, they also created an environment that teachers in the school wanted to recreate in their own classrooms.  If you experience something better, you are more likely to implement something better.  This is what that school wanted to create in the “Starbucks” room.

What many schools have now and what many schools want are very different.  This is where the “innovator’s mindset” is crucial.  Expecting to do everything that you used to do in schools and now adding laptops or tablets is not a viable option.  It is not about doing more, but thinking different.  What is crucial though is thinking about how we, as adults, would hate not having the choice of what tools we use for learning, and thinking about how we can create those same opportunities for our students.  Is it okay in our world now for a student to only realize they love using a tablet for their learning once they leave school?  Schools need to not only help students learn, but also help them realize how they learn best.  That will make a much larger impact long past their time in our system.

It’s not always about the decision, but often about how the decision was made.

If you have read this blog before, you have known that I am repetitive on the notion that innovation starts with the question, “what is best for kids?”  We have to do our best to make this a focal point in our decision making, and although it seems redundant to say it so often, sometimes it is forgotten about in our work.

Many schools are pushing new technologies in their schools/districts, to really try to focus on helping students become successful in our world today.  The idea of moving forward, is important, and I think more now than ever, schools are trying to put the tools in place to support staff and students.  Yet I have noticed resistance in the “tools” that are being implemented, since the decisions are made are often from a “top-down” approach, as opposed to a focusing on a servant leadership perspective.

A colleague shared a story with me about two competing technologies that were discussed at a conference in sessions that followed each other.  One of the observations that he made in attending both sessions was that in one room, it was mostly IT department staff, and in the other session, it was mostly educators.  The disconnect between what educators want, and what is actually implemented, happens far too often in schools.

For example, having a suite of tools that central office suggests will be great for teachers, with little or no input from teachers and students is a top down approach that often irritates many educators, no matter how great the “suite” may be.  Learning should always be the primary focus, and then you figure out what technology would support that, not the other way around. You will never make all people happy, but not trying to make as many people as comfortable and empowered in the process as possible with decisions that directly impact teaching and learning, is not a good approach.

Consensus is not always necessary the answer, but a collaborative approach should be the standard.  It is especially hard to ask teachers that work with technology the most or serve in the professional learning of other educators to “champion” tools that they dislike or don’t believe in themselves, especially if they have had no input.  If you can’t get your “champions” excited, good luck with the reluctant learner. (By the way, if you ask for input, get it, and go the same way you were going to go in the first place, don’t waste the time of others.)

The best IT departments that I have worked with focus on questions that directly impact teaching and learning, and find answers in conjunctions with those on the “front lines” working directly with students. The model exudes servant leadership as they start with an empathetic mindset that helps to figure out what will make an impact on learning.  Our IT departments are experts and crucial leaders in creating better environments for our learners, yet is there a focus on implementing with a “top-down approach” or a “bottom up” mindset?  The best leaders remove barriers and unleash talent, not try to control it. The “decision” is often not the issue, but more often, it is the approach in how the “decision” was made.

Leadership is a tough position, where you will always disappoint someone, and sometimes tough decisions need to be made.  But if leaders aren’t open to listening, we often lose the people who would have been our biggest advocates.  As a leader, it is not about “your decision” or “my decision”, it is about making the “best decision”, and the more we know and the more we listen, the more likely we this will happen.

The Words on the Walls

As I walked into a school, I noticed a sign that something similar to, “For the safety of the school, please stop at the office to sign in.”  Immediately, I felt a tinge of anxiety as I wondered if something was there that would make the building unsafe, and I wondered if the students had ever felt the same.  Maybe most of them weren’t worried, but the sign shouldn’t evoke a feeling of the school being “unsafe”.

I remember listening to Martin Brokenleg earlier this year and he had mentioned this exact idea.  He said to think about the tone we set in the building when we have signs like this, compared to a message of, “We would love all visitors to come to the office so we can welcome you upon your arrival.”  The message was the same, but the difference in words sets a totally different tone once you enter the building.

There are so many little things around our building that we don’t notice and hence the importance of trying to look at things with fresh eyes. We encourage risk taking, yet I have seen signs in schools about the importance of not making mistakes.  Risk taking often comes with mistakes, so which one is it?  Saying something once in awhile is sometimes not as powerful as words on the wall that are there all of the time.

Do the words on the walls encourage a welcoming environment, a sense of community, and  opportunities for innovation? Or do they create a cold environment, that sometimes could pressure a fear of making mistakes, or sometimes even for one’s safety?  Ask your students, ask your community, and ask yourself.  What do the words on the walls tell you about the environment that you are trying to create?

P.S. If the words on the walls create a warm and welcoming environment, but your actions don’t, those words don’t matter either.  It is important to align the two.

You Don’t Have to Do it All

Voxer is something that is being brought up over and over again as a great way to collaborate with people all over the world and have deeper conversations.  I love reading posts like this one on “How School Leaders are Collaborating Over Voxer“, which I tweeted out last week.  What I noticed immediately was both people jumping in on how they use it, while also talking about wanting to explore it more.

What was my reaction? I shut it down.

When one of the people shared how they used it to listen to conversations on their way to work in the car, and I immediately felt overwhelmed with that thought.  My morning drive is filled with listening to music, or podcasts about ANYTHING other than education.  I have realized how I need that more than anything lately.

Here are two pictures that push my thinking.

The following is an image of a bunch of people at a concert that I took several years ago who are creating and sharing content to others all around the world.

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People look at this picture and many will say how kids are not “living in the moment”, or they are so connected to their devices that they are missing out on life.

Then I show this picture:

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Two points that I make here…the people in the second picture are actually not talking to anybody, where in the first picture, they are connecting with people, but it just looks different from what we have been accustomed to as adults.  The second point, which to me is more crucial, is how is that I am not really in a place to judge.  I look back at my time listening to music, reading a book, or going to the gym, and I actually love the solitude.  In fact, sitting in a coffee shop, listening to music and writing this post, is not only something that gives me the opportunity to reflect, but it also has some therapeutic aspects in the way it allows me to release my thoughts.  What is important is that I find what works for me and sometimes a personal learning network pushes people towards “group think”, where I need to find what works for me to become successful, at different points of the day.  That self-assessment and reflection is critical to people in our world today.

Do you have to do the same thing and ignore something like Voxer? Not at all.  The point of the “personal” in “personal learning network”, is that you make it what you want.  There are definite advantages of being on Voxer (this article talks about the power of podcasts for your brain, which many people have started using Voxer for), but as I see it, there are advantages of not being on it for myself as well.  Ignoring it at this point is what works for me.  Do I see educational uses of Vine? Absolutely.  But I also see it as a way to check out and watch ridiculous videos that are there for me to not think.  I need that and although I am extremely interested in the medium, I am trying to stop trying to “edufy” every social media site I see.  The appeal for social media in many cases was to have fun and sometimes I think that it is easy for myself to lose that initial idea and appeal that drew me to things like Facebook in the first place.

What I believe is that it is important to be in spaces that you can connect with other educators and grow as a teacher and a learner, but those spaces and the use of them, is up to the person. If you hang around in those different spaces, the best stuff will find you.  I have no doubt about that. But one of the NCTE 21st Century Literacies is to, “Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information”, and I wonder if sometimes “managing” them is by choosing not to be on them in the first place?

There is a lot of great information out there in the world, but in a world where we need to focus more and more on developing the “whole child”, if our entire life revolves around education all of the time, I am not sure we are modelling “appropriate use” ourselves.  Not using something is also part of the appropriate use as we move forward.  There will always be something “awesome”, but to try to use everything is not possible or helpful in the long term.