Monday, July 30, 2012

To Tweet or Not to Tweet…

                Okay, so the self-query is nowhere near as deep as Hamlet’s soliloquy—but in some ways it feels as if it has been drawn out nearly as long.
                I’ve had a Twitter account for several years now, and I have followed assorted people for various amounts of time. During that time, I have sent a total of two tweets: one well over a year ago (I don’t recall what prompted me), and one this morning in gratitude to @JonathanMartin for having tweeted about one of my blog posts. (Read his wonderful 21k12 blog here.)
                I guess I just don’t get the whole Twitter thing. As I’ve followed some people on it, I’ve received very few tweets that I found valuable. Indeed, the only ones I pay that much attention to are the headlines from The Onion. To me, the stream becomes so much gibberish, too hard to wade through.
                Please understand that I am not slamming Twitter as a medium. I’m merely pointing out that it doesn’t seem to work well for me. Or at least I haven’t figured out how to make it work well for me.  But I want to.  Some nagging feeling keeps telling me that I’m missing out on something from which I could benefit. I also am starting to believe I should do this as part of my job.
                Two recent occurrences have me thinking about this more seriously. For some reason, last week I decided to clean up my Twitter account. I deleted some people who I was following, and I added some whose work I respect from other arenas. I added a picture and some slight biographical information to my profile. While doing all this, I saw the aforementioned tweet from Jonathan. Then, having no knowledge of this, my Director of Communications asked me this morning about Twitter and whether I had thought about using it.
                My reluctance is based on numerous factors, almost all circling around notions of what sort of tweeter I would like to be. And not be. So in no particular order, here are my misgivings:
·         I don’t want my tweets to be all about me and/or self-promotion, i.e. links to my blog posts (although those are okay provided they are not the total)
·         People don’t need my status updates. Besides, I have enough trouble keeping up with myself.
·         I don’t want to be an overtweeter, sending out multiple ones every day.
·         I often write to figure things out, and I can see myself thinking through an essay to try to arrive at a worthwhile tweet.
·         The character limit intimidates me. I have to adopt Tom Peters’ idea that it increases rhetorical discipline.
·         The entire endeavor strikes me as potentially overwhelming.
·         Sending out tweets just doesn’t feel like me.
If I’m going to do this, I have to believe my tweets will add to the conversation. Ultimately, I want them to operate like cerebral and/or emotional pinpricks.
                I still haven’t made up my mind, but I’m close. I guess it’s like swimming, and you have to go ahead and jump in. You could follow me @crottymark to see if and when I take the plunge.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Degrees of Control

It makes no sense to worry about things you have no control over because there's nothing you can do about them, and why worry about things you do control? The activity of worrying keeps you immobilized.
                                             --Wayne Dyer, American psychologist
I’ve been working on our professional development plans for the coming school year, and our primary focus will be preparation for becoming a 1:1 iPad school in the fall of 2013. Part of that has involved reviewing much of the research on technology integration I’ve done the past decade. Because I am so pro-technology and the reasons for this move are so obvious to me, I wanted to re-familiarize myself with concerns and fill in potential potholes. One of the recurring themes is that teachers shun technology because they worry about losing control over what kids are doing and learning.
I understand that. But I have a question. Just how much control do you believe you actually have over that?
As an example, I’ll use myself—well, the version of myself circa kindergarten through grad school and, truth be told, in certain meetings and presentations. I am very capable of letting my mind drift far from whatever the given topic is; indeed, I did so more often than not during most of my classes. That is, unless I had one of those wonderful teachers who engaged me in active learning projects. At other times, I went through the proper motions and caused no problems, so my teachers said I was doing just fine.
Now for a larger second question. Given the real goals of education in the fullest human sense, is such control really desirable? Not just now, not just regarding technology, but ever. As the Buddha wrote over two centuries ago, “To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one's family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one's own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.”

Friday, July 20, 2012

Thoughts Prompted by a Tribute

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email telling me that I should read Tanner Colby’s most recent book, Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America. I receive many unsolicited book recommendations, usually robo-generated based on my buying patterns. I ignore just about every single one. This one I didn’t, because it came from an educator at my first school, Episcopal School of Acadiana, where I taught Tanner Colby over 20 years ago. Along with this new work, Tanner has written numerous articles and best-selling biographies of John Belushi and Chris Farley. I had no idea.
There is more to the story, but first I have to praise this tremendous book. Tanner spins a tale that mixes his personal realizations with a much larger history in a way that forces introspection. The work is incredibly well-researched, with very human experiences set within a vast social context. It’s truly intelligent, insightful, and beautifully crafted. Tanner also strikes that delicate and elusive balance between pricking our consciences without being sanctimonious. He also manages to infuse appropriate humor into a difficult subject. I laughed aloud when he described Acadiana as “a more humid Ireland with better food.” I just devoured the book, so proud that the author was one of my former students. I must admit, I took special delight in noting how many of the different sentence patterns Tanner used that I had taught him.
Now, with a nod to Paul Harvey, here is the rest of the story. Why was I emailed about this book and not Tanner’s earlier work? At the end was the “Author’s Note.” It began:

Above my computer, I have posted a report card of mine from Lafayette’s Episcopal School of Acadiana, dated 10/25/86. In the comment section my sixth-grade English teacher, Mark Crotty, has written, “Whenever Tanner turns in something, he says something like, ‘This is great’ or ‘This is an A.’ Well, he needs to do more than say it; he needs to do it. Tanner certainly has the ability and the desire. Now he needs the drive.
Grade for the first quarter: C+.
I would first like to thank Mr. Crotty for my C+. Without him and a handful of other great teachers, I might still be an idiot. (289)
Wow. Just wow. I was floored. Honored. Humbled. Dumbfounded. It is so incredibly cool. I have to admit, I’ve read this passage over and over. And, yes, I’m bragging here in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable. Please forgive that, for there are larger points, ones for which you could change the teacher’s name and the message would still be worth stressing.
            As the philosopher Karl Japsers has written, how we respond to setbacks often determines the type of person we become. Rather than let that C+ become an excuse, Tanner used it for motivation. He developed resilience and grew in determination; it helped to steel him for the very difficult life of a writer. Dealing with setbacks also helps a person to grow in empathy, a quality Tanner reveals throughout the book.
            Along those same lines, while I like to think Tanner’s writing ability has deep roots in my class, he took away larger, more ambiguous lessons. On paper I was teaching him composition skills, such as sentence structure, paragraphing, mechanics, word choice, and supporting detail. Nowhere do I recall ever seeing a curriculum which delineated to not let a student remain an idiot. But it really is the goal, however tongue-in-cheek.
            That goal can manifest itself in any number of unforeseen ways, at any given time. Sometimes it’s early, such as when a child asks probing questions about life or when a teenager becomes passionate about a certain cause. Often it’s years down the road, when someone draws on their composite experiences to deal with the vagaries of life. That C+ which seems so tragic at the time could turn out to be a blessing.
            Finally, Tanner’s gracious tribute reminds me of what I want my children to experience in school, why I willingly write those massive tuition checks each year. Yes, I want them well educated in the traditional sense. But more than anything, I want them spending their days being influenced by as many great teachers as possible. (And truly great ones are rare.) No matter what my children end up doing as adults, whatever they take from those relationships is what will serve them best.
            Thank you very much, Tanner. I am not going to change that grade from sixth grade. But for your most recent work: A+.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Diversity and Individualism

I just returned from a five-day vacation in San Francisco. It is a fantastic city, and we packed an unbelievable amount of activity into our time there while also enjoying some great meals. We did all the usual tourist stuff along with some more unusual jaunts, and we enjoyed all of it. Of course, the best part is seeing your kids grow wide-eyed with excitement, whether while walking across the Golden Gate Bridge or stepping into a cell on Alcatraz or standing next to a thousand-year-old redwood in Muir Woods.

Since this was my third trip there, not much of it was new to me. but something struck me that I hadn't registered on previous trips. It's something to which I believe we must pay attention. Remove talk by tour guides, and I suspect I heard more talking in other languages than in English--and an amazing range of languages from around the globe. Arabic, German, Chinese, Spanish, Farsi, Korean, Italian, Urdu...I could list at least a dozen more. Yes, many of these were being spoken by tourists. But a great deal were being spoken by people clearly there on business.

It drove home to me how incredibly connected we have become, even beyond the now-cliched notion of the Internet joining us all (as massive and cool as that is). Schools have to embrace diversity in its deepest, most profound sense, somewhere far beyond the holidays and festivals and costumes. It's about more than speaking another language or respecting other cultures. It's about digging into them to see what lies at their core. That's where we find what brings us together in far more meaningful fashion than any differences. It's about our essential human-ness. It's about what drew us to that eclectic patch of Northern California.

Schools that still measure their success at diversity initiatives purely by demographics risk missing this deeper point. No matter what the numbers, a school must struggle with a more fundamental issue. Does the school take all those diverse people and funnel them down a certain line to become a certain product, or does the school let that diversity swirl in ways that can be messy but can bring unforeseen communal benefits while honoring each individual's unique potential?

And isn't the latter really the goal of a meaningful education?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Problem with Rules and Policy

             Imagine this question on a standardized test:
You are a lifeguard at a crowded beach. Suddenly you are alerted that a man is drowning. You see the man is in an area marked “Swim at own risk.” Policy says you should not leave your zone. Do you rescue the man?
               I’m not an anarchist, and I fully understand and appreciate the need for clear rules and policies. After all, I run a school. When I began in that role here, one of the first tasks we took on was to clean up the employee handbook and our board policy manual. It helps to create a degree of clarity and consistency and legal safety. As humans, we also draw some comfort from having such guidelines.
                This morning I came across the story of Tomas Lopez, a teen lifeguard near Miami. Recently Tomas became a hero when he saved the life of a drowning man. Then Tomas was fired. Why? He had gone past his assigned perimeter when he saved the drowning man. Now the city of Hallandale Beach has given him a key to the city, and the lifeguard company has offered him his job back. Tomas has decided to do something else. (full story)
                I can guess why the policy is in place: by vacating his area, Tomas created a lack of supervision and thus greater danger in his zone. But he determined that immediate, very real danger should override any potential danger. I can’t think of any reasonable argument against that. Tomas did what a lifeguard ultimately is there to do. Yet I’m sure policy also dictated the punishment for any violation, which means essentially that Tomas lost his job for doing his job.  It reminds me of one of those classic ethical dilemmas such as “If your child is starving, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread?”
                The problem with policies and rules is essentially one of user error.  On the front end, we try to craft policies that can cover every possibility that we can see, which is impossible and only reveals our myopia. On the back end, we feel the need to point to and enforce policy no matter what because, well, it’s policy. Then people become upset because, well, this care shows the problem with the policy. And so forth and so on…We want black and white in a Technicolor world.
                Once again we see why the more valuable lessons of an education can’t be captured on a fill-in-the-bubble test. They are about critical thinking, decision making, real-life application, and relationships.
                An A+ for Tomas Lopez.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Props to Tony Wagner

            Last night I started to read Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. I am not yet far enough into it to give a fair review, but I have to salute Wagner right away.

          In November 2010 I posted a piece titled “Reading--By Book or By Nook or By...?”. It was some musing on the future of the book and what it may become.

                With the encouragement and work of Robert Compton, Wagner’s book contains qr codes and hyperlinks that lead to videos which augment the text. If you are reading the hardback version, for instance, you can scan a code with your smartphone and watch a video. On an ereader, you can follow the links or purchase a version with the videos embedded. At least so far, the videos don’t really add that much depth, but it’s still quite cool and suggests great possibilities.

                I’ve been to plenty of conferences and presentations about innovation and teamwork and cooperative learning and brain-based, active learning and Socratic dialogue…all presented via the traditional lecture.

                We will see how this affects the reading experience. No matter what, Wagner deserves credit for practicing what he preaches.

Monday, July 2, 2012

¡Viva Espana! Leadership Lessons from La Furia Roja

                Yesterday Spain won the Euro 2012 football championship, beating Italy 4-0 in the final. With that, they force a discussion on whether they are the greatest team ever. After all, they are the first nation to win three major tournaments in a row, having won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. While I find such discussions interesting and will engage in a lively debate with my son when he returns from camp, that’s not my point here.
                Instead, I’m going to plant the seeds of a best-seller: ¡Viva Espana! Leadership Lessons from La Furia Roja: What the Spanish National Team Can Teach Us about Leadership and Winning Teams. (How do I trademark this?) Surely the blurbs will contain numerous puns involving the word goal. I think it’s a natural, given the subjects in this genre range from Jesus to Attila the Hun.
                Humor aside, I do believe Spain’s reign reminds me of many of the qualities I try to both embody and foster. That’s very natural given my long association with soccer, and I often credit much of my success to lessons learned as a player and coach. They are not earthshaking or profound, but perhaps this puts them in a new light. Here goes:
·         Teamwork—Create list of the top 100, or even 50, of the top players in the world, and numerous Spanish players would be on it. Iniesta, Xavi, Alonso, Silva, Fabregas, Casillas for sure. Sergio Ramos and Pique are world-class, Torres is fearsome when on his game, Juan Mata would start for many teams but is rooted to the bench, and Jordi Alba is a rising star. Yet Spain has a team concept unlike few others, based on the tiki-taka style. The origins of the term are unclear, but it’s said to refer to the precise ticking of a Swiss clock and the intricacies of how the pieces interact. In a gross oversimplification, the style is I-receive-the-ball, I-give-the-ball, I-move-to support. In a sense, teamwork is the core value.
·         Hard Work—To make the tiki-taka style work, players must work incredibly hard, moving all the time into space. That takes not only physical stamina but also mental exertion to be reading myriad intricacies of the match as they unfold. People marvel at how Spain possesses the ball, but I’ve also noted another amazing facet of their play which is rooted in pure toil. When Spain does lose the ball, unlike most teams who retreat and get a bit of a break while setting up the defense, they immediately pounce into a defensive mindset and chase down the ball. They apply suffocating pressure. You also can’t develop the amazing skill these players have without having put in countless hours of mind-numbing ballwork.
·         Simplicity—From when I could first understand soccer tactics, I have been taught it is a simple game, based on maintaining triangles. So often that becomes lost in more complicated strategies and the whirlwind of play. It’s a simple approach but maddeningly difficult to make happen. Yet Spain maintains this as their essential method of playing. Study them carefully, and you see that tiki-taka is really the constant reformation of triangles.
·         Adaptability—Spain’s all-time leading scorer, David Villa, could not play because of a serious knee injury. His natural replacement, Torres, has been in a long slump. Legendary defender and spiritual leader Carlos Puyol also could not play because of injury. What does coach Vicente del Bosque do? He plays a striker-less formation, with a false nine who really was more of a midfielder. He takes his normal right back, Ramos, and moves him to play central defense. When the team took the field, it was simply a matter of sticking to the core elements above. The triangles just took on different measurements.
·         Vision—The previous point also required vision in seeing how Spain could play the same way, just with some variations. But there is more to it than that. Frequently coaches try to force players into a certain, rigid system. del Bosque took the players he had for this tournament and figured out how to adapt the system to their gifts.
·         Humility—Before the semi-final, German players declared themselves the team to beat. They lost to Italy. Before the final, some Italian players said they believed they had Spain’s number. Meanwhile, Spanish players were giving interviews in which they expressed how fortunate they felt to be in the tournament again, hoped they would have a chance, et cetera. Humility also helps one keep focus and drive after successes.
·         Confidence—Perhaps we have become spoiled, but critics were saying that Spain had become “too boring” because of how much of their possession didn’t necessarily lead to clear chances. They did not consider that the possession is also defensive, based on the notion that the other team cannot score if it cannot get the ball. Other critics said that the striker-less formation would never work. del Bosque and Spain never wavered in their approach. After the opening match, they went a record 509 minutes without allowing a goal; and, ironically, the striker Torres ended up as top scorer despite playing only 189 of 570 minutes.
I’m not sure I actually have the makings of a book here; someone else might take that on. I know there will be dozens of clinics and videos on learning to play the Spanish way. They will have something in common with those leadership books and with how Spain plays soccer: making it seem so much easier than it really is.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Don't Mess with Texas! We'll Do It Ourselves

                I am not a native Texan, but I have lived here since 1990. It wasn’t a case in which, as a popular bumper sticker proclaims, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.” Like many people, I moved here for a job. But perhaps it was inevitable, as one of my early teen crushes was on a girl from Texas. Also, I guess I can claim some vicarious deep roots since I married a Texas girl whose family helped settle Dallas and who has relatives named on the wall of The Alamo.
                One of the qualities I like about Texas is its strong state pride. The state has a rich history, a wonderful variety of cultures and climates, and an independent streak as wide as the state itself. Several great colleges and universities, incredible medical institutions, thriving art scenes, cutting edge technology companies, quality people—I could go on and on about ways Texas defies the stereotypes.
                But then there is this. In its official 2012 platform, the Texas Republican Party includes this statement:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Yikes! At a time when creativity and innovation grow more critical—perhaps even basic—they have been reduced to a short-sighted political agenda. After enacting extreme budget cuts, the state now threatens to take giant steps towards having an educational system diametrically opposed to what students need in modern times.
                As if the revival of the TV series Dallas didn’t do enough to reinforce the stereotypes…