Thursday, December 18, 2014

Single Tweet Spurs Big Thoughts

Last week I was reminded of just how awesome Twitter can be. I follow Tom Peters, the famous business writer. I'm honored he follows back; and he's even replied to, re-tweeted and favorited a few of my tweets. On this day he was wound up about email and sending out several mini-rants on email etiquette. I replied that I often write email I wish I could send in Word so I don't accidentally send it, then write the more appropriate one. He replies and re-tweets. Over the next twenty minutes or so I'm in a conversation with him and people from South Africa, Dubai, India, England, and various U.S cities. They were people from various professions, from financial advisors to tech consultants to a Wall Street Journal reporter. Pretty darned cool!
The reminders go deeper than that. After all, that story can be reduced to a rather simple and oft-repeated notion: that now it's so easy to connect to anyone in meaningful, purposeful ways. Indeed so, and really quite amazing. We've even reached the point where we've stopped realizing just how signficant this is. Yet while we take it for granted, schools have yet to harness the full potential of this. Yes, many are doing more with different types of connections and blended learning and social media. But how much has it changed school as usual? That question is borderline rhetorical, except that I think it begs many others, beginning with "Should it?" and "How?" and "Why?" Any regular readers know my answers. The point is that the possibilities should be driving us to ask such questions continually.
That becomes quite philosophical. As much as I like to swirl around in pedagogical ether, since that Twitter experience I've found myself thinking about something more practical. The exchange dealt with email etiquette, and one point early on was that in many ways we are the sum of our emails. (You could substitute tweets, posts, et cetera for emails.) So in many ways it was about digital citizenship and how it plays out in two distinct yet overlapping realms. First, how do we treat others? Many people find it easy to hide behide the anonymity of the screen and a cryptic user name, spewing vitriole they likely would not say to someone in person. Even if the people know each other, something about it being on-line empowers--if that is the right word--people to express things in a manner they normally wouldn't. I think it's a matter of physical and psycholgical distance. We have no face, no voice, no body as we do on the phone or in person. Becasue of that, we are less likely to consider the impact of our words on others. The inverse, however, holds true in that the recipient is forming a very strong impression of the deliverer and creating a distinct persona of that person. Hence we have the second area: What is the online persona we are creating? As much as we might wish otherwise, the reality is that our online and "real world" selves are not separate beings, as much as we may try to keep them distinct. Analogously, while someone may try to separate her personal and professional lives, together they form the whole person. Schools must be very intentional in realizing this and in helping students understand this.
That is very practical in that it involves essential knowledge and skills for the world today and the foreseeable future. Yet it also speaks to a broader philosophical view. During and after the Twitter chat, I found myself reflecting on my practices and what they say about me. Not just in email, but other parts of my life. What are my actions saying? How, to use the Quaker saying, does my life speak? I believe that's what a meaningful education is for. It helps young people struggle with the answers to such questions. They also need to do so in conjuction with what's happening in the world around them. To grapple with what local, regional, national, and world events say about humanity and about themselves. That's how they find solid footing and a place in the world rather than drift along aimlessly. It determines the quality of our relationships in ways that go far beyond email.
I know I've rambled in this post, and I hope it makes sense. Maybe there are bits and pieces of something slightly profund. I know I've written and said much of this previously, and others have done so better than I have here. But reminders never hurt.
And to think it all began with a simple Tweet.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Classic Whateverness #3

     As we approach the end of the year, the time has come for another post in "Classic Whateverness" mode--those times when I do some mental de-cluttering. In these posts I rather randomly, though perhaps with some stream-of-consciousness logic flowing beneath the surface, briefly share thought which haven't grown into full posts. (Previous such posts: the first one; the second one.)

Whatever one may think about the Brown and Garner controversies, they capture why schools must have good digital literacy programs. We saw the best and worst of social media in action ... Speaking of these cases, really tests the ability to teach how to think, not what to think. Always was proud when students told me they couldn't really tell my stance on an issue ... When a school does not address such events in some fashion, we fail. We allow students' education to exist in a vacuum rather than have a larger purpose. Indeed, we even signal that it doesn't really matter in a larger societal context ... If teachers are to be judged on their students' standardized test scores, how far up the chain should we assign such responsibility? ... Not sure where I saw this, but love it: Why emphasize standardized testing unless you want standardized kids? ... Been thinking about what I would choose if I had to select a single word for what I want school to be. Current favorite is inspiring like how all-encompassing it feels ... I keep seeing the argument for changing certain practices in schools as "That's not how the real world works" or "Adults don't have to do that in their work." I understand that thinking and often agree. But we're talking about school and kids--not miniature adults. That was the thinking behind child labor over a century ago ... Along those same lines, that's one reason schools are not going extinct any time soon: the adults need something to do with the kids during the day ... I've decided I don't like how so many use the term "grit" for another reason: something that is gritty is abrasive and wears down whatever it's rubbing against. I much prefer determination, perseverance, or resilience. They seem more in line with my educational philosophy of steady growth in the face of regular, appropriate challenge ... Besides the complexities of human nature, two other things make working with teachers hard. They are accustomed to being the most knowledgeable (though not necessarily smartest) person in the room most of the time. They also spend so much of their time telling people what's wrong with something and how to fix it ... Has any school had as much giant, public stress as the University of Virginia over the past year--the board-president imbroglio, high-profile murder of a student, and now the apparently false story about rape on campus ... I saw an interesting note in a news article regarding a Plano, TX, ruling about equal rights for LGBQT people. Those opposed voiced their concerns via email; those in favor mainly used social media. There have to be some other demographics that align with this ... If I were truly brave--and I mean really, truly brave--and less of a realist, I'd eliminate grades. They inevitably frustrate everyone in some way, and I think they do more than anything else to obscure what learning should be about ... I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the inverse relationship between responsibility/supposed "power" and control. Seems the more of the latter you have, the less of the former you actually have. And I think that's necessary for effective leadership--that one doesn't try to control but instead empowers ... Fewer posts are showing up in my blog aggregator. I wonder if blogging is dying out, and maybe not so slowly ... Hmmm. So could/should each bit in here have been a tweet? ... I hope that's not true about blogging. I love the meditative quality of great posts. I can't recall the source, but some famous author once said, "I'm not sure what I think until I write it." ... So now I wonder: Should some  of these become full posts rather than pellets among scattershooting?

Monday, December 1, 2014

RIP Mark Strand--Inspiration for the Blog's Title

     Mark Strand died this past Saturday. If you don't know why I'm writing about that, scroll down and look at the bottom right corner of the blog's template. You'll see his poem that serves as the inspiration for the name of this blog. Of only slightly larger claims to fame were his being named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990 and winning the Pulitzer in 1999.
     I've loved the poem "Keeping Things Whole" since the first time I read it, which was in the early 1980s when I stumbled across it in a collection of modern American verse. It has stuck with me, although I'm not sure I truly understand it except in that loose deconstructionist way which allows one to bring whatever meaning one wants to a work. However, my reasons for naming the blog after the poem seem consistent with other themes in his work. His death prompts me to write this post, which I've thought about doing many times in response to the question some have asked: Why did you name the blog To Keep Things Whole?
     The most basic and general (and certainly most true) is, as any regular reader knows, an affirmation of my belief in holistic education. Yes, I value the life of the mind; some would say I spent way too much time in my own head. Yet I assert that we must develop all parts of ourselves and our students. If we don't, we cede something essentially human about ourselves. We are not, to paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, simply brains whose bodies are solely a means of transport. Along with the physical, we have all the facets of the psyche (however one wishes to identify them).
     As an educator, I've always striven to pull together pieces that become increasingly fragmented as students proceed through school. We separate more and more, when we should be connecting more broadly and more deeply. The overwhelming majority of the world are not academic specialists and have no intent of becoming such, but we organize schools that way. I think we assume, perhaps with interjections of hope, that students will coalesce all their disparate experiences into a coherent understanding of something. Just what that something is, I'm often unclear. So now, as a school leader, I try to keep things whole by helping a group of strong, smart, talented, independent people come together under a vision. I have to go where necessary, and use all sorts of ways, to move us in that direction.
     And, as the world changes and we contemplate our students' futures--and how schools must both maintain and evolve--we "all have reasons for moving." The process should be continuous, never-ending. All Strand's poems echo this notion. In his obituary, The New York Times calls him "hauntingly meditative" as he contemplates the expansive nature of the self and its relationship with the larger world. The poem thus becomes a metaphor for what we should want our students to learn, perhaps above all else: that learning must never cease, lest we cease to be wholly human.