Sunday, March 24, 2013

Reflection after My First #isedchat Session

This past Thursday evening I took part in my first Twitter chat. Well, second actually; but the technically first one was very contained. The more recent one had more people--I remain unclear on just how many--and a few simultaneous threads. I enjoyed the experience, but I'm still figuring out what I think of it.

Overall, the experience reminded me of a great late night bull session in a dorm. It was a #isedchat, which means the participants were independent school people from around the country. So everyone was quite smart, passionate about education, and generally positive and optimistic, holding onto that youthful belief we can change the world for the better. They are committed enough to have been in this chat on a Thursday evening. Ideas and insights streamed into my feed, and I have found myself pondering many of the since then.

And I think that is where my frustration, albeit limited, may come from. Our topic was drive; several people had read an article on how being driven can lead to being disliked. The subject is a fascinating one, with myriad facets and layers. I kept wanting to dig more deeply into certain points, to explore them in ways that the medium simply doesn't allow for. So many comments were popping up in different threads related to the topic that I simply couldn't keep up, and some people seemed more able than I to move between them. (A bit of an aside: full marks to our moderators Bill Ivey, @bivey, and Kim Sivick, @ksivick, for their work in weaving those threads.)

That last notion raises a key point. I am not writing this as an anti-Twitter or anti-chat rant. In fact, I have become quite a fan of Twitter in general, particularly as I have learned how to use it better. Right now, though, I haven't figured out the whole chat deal. For example, in trying so hard to keep up, I often forgot to add the hashtag to my comments so they would appear in the right place. It may also be that a Twitter chat is simply not the best venue for me while being great for others. I also have to become more accepting of the limitations while stressing the benefits.

The experience has rekindled another one of my concerns about online life. Too often people can confuse quantity with quality. I'm not talking about the folks in this chat; I have no doubt they will reflect quite deeply on the topic. But I still find that so much of what I see in random browsing is superficial. I don't care that someone has hundreds of followers if his/her tweets don't provide quality. I try to make sure most of mine do. (And I have to admit I am proud when I gain a follower, disappointed when I lose one.) Similarly, I just don't understand how someone can follow hundreds and filter all the good stuff. I know people manage to do just that.

This raises a unique challenge for educators, one that is part of the shift taking place. We have to help young people--who, as Dana Boyd reminded us at annual convention, live public lives by default--to operate meaningfully in that realm when so many of us are just figuring it out ourselves. In many ways it necessitates that we be the adults, the ones with the aligned moral compasses, while maintaining the exploratory nature of youth. Personally, I find that a wonderful way to live.

That's why I am sure I will return for more Twitter chats, particularly those for #isedchat. Even if I never quite get it, I know I will learn other things from those folks. They prompt me to think, and that's the ultimate benefit.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Wheel

                 The wheel is turning and you can't slow down,
                 You can't let go and you can't hold on,
                 You can't go back and you can't stand still,
                  If the thunder don't get you then the lightning will.
                                                                        --Grateful Dead, "The Wheel"

     The cliched image is that of feeling as if one is caught on a hamster wheel, spinning faster and faster without moving forward. Lately I feel as if I can see the wheel moving forward in the distance, leaving me not stuck in one place but certainly falling further and further behind.
     I can identify numerous reasons for this feeling suddenly hitting me, although all have been building. I am reading How Children Succeed, months after many other school leaders have read and commented on it. Meanwhile, my Amazon wish list continues to lengthen. Twice someone has suggested to me we use a design thinking approach and I agreed, hoping I grasped the basics enough to keep up and learn as we went. Then comes the announcement that Google is going to shut down Reader, the rss aggregator that I have relied on to sort the rush of blog posts I like to scan. Yes, alternatives exist; it's just having to switch that causes the angst. I want to try various apps, I want to follow more people on Twitter, I want to blog about this and that. Meanwhile, we hear the calls for innovation and transformation and revolution.
     I'm not whining about this. (Well, maybe a bit.) Normally, I even thrive on this. I also support loads of changes for education. at the same time, for whatever the reasons I am feeling otherwise right now, it has provided some much needed reflection on leadership. If the torrent of things can overwhelm me at times despite my predilection, then I need to remain especially cognizant of how others may be feeling. I also wonder about some other points. When change occurs at Mach speed, what sticks? Do we maintain our core? How thoughtful are we through the process? Are some talented, dedicated people being swept aside and left behind?
     Educators and schools--everyone, really--must keep evolving. Perhaps now more than ever. Yet we also need careful discernment. The kind that can lead to wisdom. Otherwise, the wheel will keep spinning forward, but we may still feel trapped.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

More Art or More Science?

The first time I can recall engaging in the discussion was in the mid-90s. My wife and I were hosting a book club for about a dozen of our teaching colleagues. The book was The Elements of Teaching. I don't recall much about the book except that it delineated certain qualities and practices that all great teachers have. As great a debate as one could have about that notion, what I remember is a rousing discussion on whether teaching is more art or more science.

It's an argument I've reconsidered many times since then, and I can make quite a compelling case for either side. Overall, I still tend to lean quite a bit to the art side. That's not surprising, given my heavy humanities background. My primary reasoning is that the best teaching is highly personal, even idiosyncratic, and relational that some of remains mysterious and elusive. At the same time, every teacher can study effective practices, child development, and cognitive science, thus taking a more scientific approach.

Last week, while listening to one of our second teachers present at a PA meeting, a new thought occurred to me--one that, now seems rather obvious in some ways. Before I explain, I want to point out that I think the younger the student, the more artistry. Anyway, she was demonstrating what she can do with an iPad app called Storify. She can pull up all sorts of data on each student' reading, from the amount read in a period of time to annotations to words checked in the dictionary. This teacher is a veteran dedicated to professional development, and she gushed that finally she has the information necessary to truly individualize instruction. She is merging art and science.

Just as technology can empower students in amazing ways, it can also do so for teachers who embrace its possibilities. It's about more than finding resources on-line or building a robust PLN or blogging to deepen one's reflection. Those can matter greatly, of course. But they matter little if the teacher doesn't use them effectively to improve each student's learning, which is a basic professional imperative. I remain on the side of teaching as more art, but many of us would benefit from injecting some more science into the endeavor.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Need a New Word?

I can't recall exactly or find (no, not even via Google) the John Updike quotation I want. I read it many years ago in a collection of quotations from writers. So please pardon the paraphrasing. Updike compared a word to butter in the refrigerator in how it absorbs various smells and flavored from all the other contents. He reminds us that a word's real power lies in its connotation more than its denotation.
I start with Updike's wonderful metaphor because recently I have been thinking about the word teacher. It's a beautiful word, one which conjures notions of wisdom and sacrifice and love. Despite the problems with our larger educational system, for most teachers hold a revered place. Most of us can recall at least a teacher or two who inspired us in some special, intensely personal fashion. Many romanticize the role and thus the word. I hope that never changes.
Meanwhile, we hear and call for exciting changes in the way schools work. For my point here, the particular model doesn't matter. What does matter is that for meaningful innovation to occur in schools, we have to re-imagine the role of the teacher. In fact, we may even need a new word. After all, new ways of thinking require new words.
As stated above, I don't want to lose the positive aspects of how we think about the word teacher. I have written many times that powerful education is essentially a human, relational endeavor. I don't worry about that changing if we were to change the word we currently use for teachers. But finding the right word may fell foster how we think of the role.
Consider the traditional notion of teacher. Where do you see that person? What is that person doing? My guess is the person is at the front of the room, somehow in total control, perhaps lecturing or modeling. The person is the expert, the one who poses the questions and arbitrates the correctness of the answers, even when the idea may be totally subjective.or the person is drilling students in basic content and skills, perhaps in preparation for some sort of objective, perhaps even standardized, test.
But let's move beyond the worst of the cliches and consider aspects of the word itself. In typical fashion, dictionaries define teacher as one who teaches. Teach means "to impart knowledge of/to or skill in/to; give instruction in/to." It has the same root as token. I wonder if this suggests the idea of a teacher distributing tokens of knowledge. Notice how closely this resembles the description in the previous paragraph. In a modern education, one that empowers students in ways that prepares them for their futures rather than our pasts, is that the image of teacher we want.
Realistically, changing the multi-faceted suggestions of a word is incredibly different. To use Updike's analogy, it would be like trying to restore the original and pristine qualities of butter once it has absorbed things from the other foods. It's why I wonder about all this talk of making failure more acceptable, even desirable...but that is a different post for another time. Meanwhile, I wonder if we need a new word to replace teacher, one which captures how the role needs to change.
Let's consider some of the common replacements:
  • For some people, educator has become almost a synonym for teacher. Better choice, I think, given its roots in educare, "to lead." But the definition still rankles: "to develop the faculties and powers (of a person) by teaching, instruction, or schooling." Also, while I don't really agree, I remember a former colleague who always argued that teachers calling themselves educators sounds pretentious.
  • Facilitator has become more popular recently, and I like how it suggests the teacher setting up the students for optimal learning. I have some trouble with the word because of its sharing common etymology with facile. We shouldn't really be making things easier, should we?
  • Coach is another word with almost sacred connotations, particularly how we bestow the term in such respectful ways when we refer to someone in that position. It's up there with doctor and reverend/father. Depending on the sport and style, this might work. But too often a coach can be a control freak, and players are overly scripted in many sports.
  • Lately I have heard people use the term co-learner. That sounds nice, and teachers should be learning all the time, often with their students. But a teacher also must have a higher degree of knowledge and abilility that the students if he or she is to help them, and this term puts them on too equal a footing for my taste.
  • I have heard of a few other terms: guide, mentor, friend, supervisor, learning manager. I'm sure there are others. None of these strike the right chords. You can probably figure out why from previous comments.
Since none of these options seem to work well, I have allowed my thinking to put me in a position for which I lack much patience: complaining without a real solution to offer. I will have to keep thinking. I also would appreciate any suggestions. In the meantime, I will try to surround my butter with nothing but delicacies, those which truly nourish young people. Perhaps in time we won't need a new word, for all teachers will be what we need. What each kid needs.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Early Reflections on #NAISAC13

I am flying home from the 2013 NAIS Annual Conference. As usual, the best part was interacting with so many other committed folks--friends from the past and new ones for the future. The sessions were mixed, and I guess that also is to be expected. The conference was the last one under the extraordinary leadership of NAIS president Pat Bassett, who during his twelve years has broadened and deepened the conversation about independent school education in vital ways. So, with a nod to Pat, in this early reflection on #naisac13, I am wondering what I experienced that is "made to stick."
  • Jim Collins gave the opening keynote, and I was disappointed because I have read his work several times and heard him speak twice previously. His remarks contained no new broad strokes. But I reveled in the passionate and intensity of his delivery, a reminder of what we owe to an audience, whether it's a few folks or a few thousand. I also loved the self-deprecating story he told about himself, when he was told to "stop trying to be so interesting and try to be more interested." Powerful, sage advice.
  • I don't know how to explain just what Sekou Andrews did/does. A former English teacher, he is now a prize-winning slam poet who also is a motivational speaker. He combined humor, drama, imagery, personal experience, idealism, and subtle digs to craft majestically sweeping calls for us to take advantage of our freedom as independent schools.
  • Alexis Madrigal shared his story of first logging on to the Internet as a way of assuaging his loneliness in a small town where he had no friends and how it also satisfied his apparently insatiable curiosity about everything. He would hear points in school, then research them online that night; he expanded his learning in various directions while creating unique nodes of intersection. In many ways he embodies the way learning really works--and the way schools need to let it happen.
  • Tererai Trent is one of the most amazing people about whom I ever have heard. It's no wonder Oprah Winfrey calls her "my favorite guest ever." Born in a small African village with no electricity or running water, Tererai showed a thirst for learning but was not allowed to attend school because she is female. But she taught herself with her brother's books. Her father married her off at age eleven, and she had four children by age eighteen. An agent from Heiffer International helped her come to the United States, and Tererai first earned her GED...and eventually her doctorate. With Oprah's help, she has started a series of schools back around her village. Tererai epitomizes belief in the possibilities of education and chasing the dreams filled with one's meaning and purpose.
  • For years, I have lamented horrific use of PowerPoint slides to display endless text. Alas, it continues. So full marks to Kevin Ruth, who in his session on "Rethinking Leadership" utilized great slides, frequently with very compelling images to drive home his points. I suspect Kevin has studied Presentation Zen. More need to. Similar to what I said about Collins, it's part of honoring your audience, not to mention being more effective with your message.
  • In his session on difficult conversations, Michael Riera (head of Brentwood School in Los Angeles) used a metaphor I will embrace and utilize as leader of pre-k--8 school. He talked about how with lower school children, parents have the job of manager of their children. The kids need and love that. But in middle school, it becomes the child's job to fire his parents, who desperately want to hold on to the job.
  • As I have written in several places, for years I have struggled with the issue of meaningful metrics, particularly for middle school students. I have heard the CWRA is working on a middle school version, and that has promise. More immediately, I was thrilled to hear about the Mission Skills Assessment. It takes a triangular approach to measure growth in six areas essential for school and life: teamwork, resilience, creativity, curiosity, ethics, and time management. I plan to contact the Independent School Data Exchange and some of the twenty or so schools using it to learn more.
  • Duke professor Cathy Davidson gave a sweeping historical panorama of the last time education went through sweeping changes during the Industrial Revolution as part of,showing why revolution needs to happen now. Towards the end she offered five things that can be done now and aren't very hard. Davidson says we should: Rethink liberal arts as the start-up curriculum to develop resilient global citizens. Move from critical thinking to creative contribution. Make sure what we value is what we count. Find creative ways to model in-learning. Take institutional change personally. I have no argument with her list, but I do wonder about the level of difficulty since each marks a gigantic shift. Also, in some ways I prefer--and will use--another of her admonitions: we need to become a "culture of makers."
While those are individual points, together they represent a larger, truly encouraging notion. For several years now, the message has been the same about how we are in the 21st century and life is so different and so we have to change know the rest of the chorus. But something felt different this time. I seemed to hear more about how things are changing and not just how they should change. Finally, we seem to be embracing our independence and creating the schools young people really need. There remains pleny of work to be done, but perhaps that is why Pat Bassett feels he can step down now. To use another couple of metaphors from one of his favorite works, there are great people in the rights seats on the bus; and after twelve years the flywheel has built enough momentum that it will keep spinning faster and faster.