Friday, October 30, 2015

Make a Makerspace?

       Not surprisingly, a recent #isedchat on Twitter focused on makespaces. (I couldn't participate that night, and I haven't read the archive.) They are a hot topic right now, and many schools either have opened or are planning to open makerspaces, often with some very clever names. Here at St. John's we have a couple of rooms that we are thinking of doing something interesting with. Of course, some people have suggested a makerspace. Right now, it's "the thing" to do. Meanwhile, I take pause.
       That hesitation does not signal some anti-makerspace stance. Actually, I love the philosophy behind them--that hands-on, make-a-mess, take-chances sort of experiential learning. I love the active engagement of makerspaces. I love that they are places where kids do rather than get done. So I don't deliberative because of any pedagogical reasons. I just want us to take five or ten and think about a big question.
       Shouldn't the entire school be a makerspace? Either literally or metaphorically?
       Instead, we create isolated areas that can serve as an analogy for how we treat what amounts to making in many areas of the curriculum. Let's consider a typical English program. Students learn how to parse sentences and to analyze literature; much of their writing becomes formulaic literary analysis, particularly as they grow older. Writing a short story is an "alternative" activity; creative writing is often available primarily through electives, if at all. All kids should be doing creative writing. Similarly, in history students can use their research--primary and secondary--to write the traditional research paper but also to produce documentaries. In math and science students could build scale models and simple machines, both of which would reveal understanding. Indeed, I argue that such activities lead to deeper, longer-lasting learning. I believe it gives students a stronger grasp on key concepts and skills, along with keeping alive positive attitudes about learning. It's why I'm proud that at St. John's we already take such an approach in many areas and always seek to add more.
       In a larger sense, the current fascination with makerspaces captures some of the truly sticky challenges with education reform. Some will dismiss them as just the latest fad, convinced that one only need wait until it passes and the next new thing (which may have been the next new thing once before) comes along.At the other end of the spectrum are those who glom onto the newest shiny object, seeing it as the silver bullet. The majority stand somewhere in the middle, not voicing too much dissent or excitement, not becoming too upset as long as they don't have to change too much of what they do. To extend the analogy another way, these folks are okay as long as the newcomer knows its place and stays there.
       At the risk of seeming cynical, I have to ask: How are makerspaces any different than the computer labs of 20-25 years ago? What's next--maker carts? Of course, it's now more common for technology to be more ubiquitous throughout schools. The hope is the same for the idea of making. Yet questions remain about how much of a transformative effect digital technology has had on education, especially versus the possibilities it creates. Part of the problem is inertia; part of it is fear; part of it is how we think we can measure success.
       Some irony exists in that I suspect part of the reason the makerspace movement has gained momentum is in response to the rise and spread of technology. Perhaps we've realized that we may have turned too much over to virtual experience. Did we really believe a virtual dissection would be just as good as actually wielding the scalpel and slicing into a frog, formaldehyde blasting our nostrils? Once again we are reminded of the need for balance.
       So perhaps in a way it is all cyclical. But makerspaces are different than computer labs in a key way. Early on, part of the reason technology remained in labs was cost. Another was portability. The truths of economics and Moore's law let us overcome those obstacles. When it comes to makerspaces, particularly if we focus on the philosophy, we face no such hurdles. The biggest stumbling block--perhaps the only one--may be people's mindsets.
       So here at St. John's do I want to make a makerspace? Certainly. For now, if I can't think of anything better, I'll take a great room. But ultimately I want it to be our school.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Affirmation as ROI: Thoughts after College Family Weekend

       This past weekend my wife, son, and I visited my daughter for Family Weekend at Bryn Mawr College, where she is a first-year student. We had a wonderful time meeting her friends and their parents, attending events on campus, venturing into Philadelphia, savoring great food, and hearing her perform in her a capella group. It was, as the college hopes, a quite affirming experience. After all, like independent schools, colleges want the parents to feel pleased with their investment, perhaps even beginning to see some returns on it. Of course, I also was casting my eye on the experience as a head of school.
       Fittingly, tonight I will attend a presentation by Frank Bruni, author Where You Go Is Not Who'll You Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. I referenced this book in a post from last May, when I wrote about the process that led to Kate's opting to attend Bryn Mawr. I suspect the title gives any reader some idea of the highlights, so I won't reiterate them. Between these two experiences, I've been thinking quite a bit about this idea of affirmation. More particularly, just what is it we want affirmed?
       I've written plenty in the past about my thoughts on the entire idea of return on investment when it comes to education. For a moment, I'll set aside my idealism and acknowledge the realities of wanting your children to find jobs, make a salary that allows a certain quality of life, gain admission to quality schools. I feel them myself. But my angst increases when these become the essential measure of success, the terms often dictated by others. The educational process must be about the making of a life.
       Thus I want to twist Bruni's title a bit. The selection of a college is not who one will be. But it can have a tremendous influence, in ways good and bad. I want to focus on the best scenario. In that case where you go will determine who you will be for a simple reason: it will help a young person continue to grow into a better version of her- or himself. It won't change them, at least not their core. In fact, it will be more like a sculptor chipping away at the stone to find that beautiful statue already within. Professors won't teach students what to think, but how to think; and how to articulate their thoughts more powerfully. I find myself returning to a post I wrote over three years ago, titled "Less I, More R"

                So how does one know? What is the measure?                Your child.                Despite our wishes that every family choose us because of our mission, I wonder what percentage do. Besides, most of our mission statements contain the same generic, albeit aspirational rhetoric that remains very open to interpretation.  Ultimately, the hopes and dreams of a family are highly individualized. Each has different wishes and wants and needs. It’s highly personal and internal. Yet so often we look towards external measures for validation.                Instead, look at your child. Ask yourself if you see her or him developing in ways that match your values. For me, this means continually asking some big questions. Do they still love learning? Does their learning lead them to engage with the world? Are they becoming more independent? Are they positive and optimistic about their potential? Are they steadily becoming better versions of their unique selves?
I don't want to embarrass Kate by detailing how we've already seen this happening with her. In general, there is increased confidence and maturity and independence. Certainly that makes us feel affirmed.
       It's why the notion of "match" and "best fit" are so crucial in deciding upon a school. And no matter how excited any first-year student may be, surely doubts about something can creep in. But one thing I've realized is Bryn Mawr is very intentional in how they treat students. And in an opening assembly on move-in day, either President Kim Cassidy  or Dean of Admissions Peaches Valdes told the new students, "In our admissions office we don't make mistakes." From that moment through Family Weekend and I'm sure beyond, my daughter has felt affirmed. I'm confident other young women feel the same. While parental pride and satisfaction is certainly important, the young women feeling so as they enter adulthood is what really matters. There's the most valuable return on investment. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Re-Learning Learning: Infodoodling 101

       Surely by now you've been at a conference or workshop and seen someone creating those amazing graphic overviews. Just in case you haven't, here's an example on Jessica Lahey's talk at the recent Changing the Odds conference put on by the Momentous Institute:

(You can see more of them on the institute's blog in the two posts recapping the conference.)
       I've decided I want to learn how to do this. Well, more accurately, I want to gain some basic idea of how.
       Sure, part of the motivation comes from my thinking this is just incredibly cool. I mean, who wouldn't want to be able to do this? But there's more to it than that--even more than wanting an excuse to buy more Moleskin notebooks and a pail of Sharpies in a bunch of different colors. No, it's not just some middle-aged head of school's desperate attempt to regain whatever sense of hip I imagine I may have had.
       It's about re-experiencing a certain type of learning. I learn all the time. For me it's essential, sort of like hydration, even breathing. Part of why I love my job is that it forces me to keep learning and growing, to keep taking certain risks. Usually it occurs the way we like to imagine school happening, with pieces snapping like Legos onto those already in place. There's something so assuring about that little click.
       This new venture, though, is different. I feel completely out of my element. I'm one of those people who says I can't draw. I've taken notes a certain way for a long time. I want the results more quickly than is reasonable. I've grown frustrated with what I quickly deem failures, like the total block I hit while trying to typographize certain phrases. The entire project has prompted some serious doubt about whether I can do it, leading to some anxiety, making me wonder if I should even try...even though no one else is forcing me to do this.
       And that's a really good thing. It's a great reminder of how some, perhaps many, of our students may feel at any given moment.As a school leader I need to think about how teachers may feel when being bombarded with messages from about how they must change so much of what they do. Each time I do one of my little units, I can imagine my amygdala taunting, "I'm going to clog up every possible synapse and keep you from learning this stuff!"
       So I'm forging ahead in a manner that seems well-suited for effective learning. First and foremost, it's entirely self-motivated and of my own choosing. I've gathered strong resources based on others' recommendations. I take small steps forward, mini-lesson a day, trying not to take in too much at any one time. When I step back, I'm pleased with my crumbs of improvement already. Surely we can find ways to run classes and professional development that way, yes? Then we can revel in the process without so much angst about the product.
       Anyway, reality is, I probably never will be produce something like the example above. Or I might... I'll report back later in the school year. No matter what, I'm enjoying my perhaps quixotic journey into the world of infododdling. If I keep at it, I'll celebrate by buying those Sharpies. But never will I be mistaken for hip.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Parental Scare and Realization

       One of a school leader's top priorities--one I think many outsiders don't realize unless they really stop to think about it--is making sure a school is as safe a place as possible. From running routine drills to tightening up communications protocols to considering access points, we worry about it all the time. I spent much of my first few years as head particularly focused on such issues, and we had a board task force examine all our practices. We've made improvements in all areas. For instance, I swelled with pride when the fire alarm went off unexpectedly on one of the first days of school, meaning we hadn't practiced with the kids, and we emptied the building in around two minutes.  Of course, safety also refers to the atmosphere within the school. Children--none of us, really--learn when stressed. Negative emotions can hijack normal neurological functioning. Put these points together, and I like to think of it as climate control.
       Perhaps more than anything else, parents need to feel confident their children will be safe at school. In fact, surveys often point to this as a top factor in school choice. It's part of a school's sacred responsibility in the partnership. Recently this was driven home to me both as a head of school and as a parent.
       Surely anyone reading this blog knows about the shooting at an Oregon community college on October 1. It is just the latest in what we almost have come to expect, based on our lowered levels of shock and outrage. Fewer people likely know that the day after, someone posted on the same social media outlet as the Oregon shooter that a similar attack would take place at 1:00 CT on October 5 at "a university near Philadelphia."
       My daughter is a first-year student at Bryn Mawr College, right outside Philadelphia.
       We first learned about the threat when Kate forwarded us the college's communications to the students on Sunday evening. We talked to her that night; and, naturally, she was quite scared, especially about walking to her early morning work shift in the dining hall. We reassured her, checked in again in the morning, and monitored the Philly-area news. More than anything, I willed 1:00 to pass. It did, and we talked to Kate again. She was still unnerved, but she could laugh about how some construction noise had caused her and her roommate to hit the floor and hide. The college seemed to handle things very well. They communicated with the students about the situation their response and what to expect and what do if the nightmare came true. Extra counselors were available. Security was doubled and visible. Two of her professors cancelled classes, explaining they did not want to force students into making the choice of coming or not. Surely they understood where the students' thoughts would be. Tuesday morning Kate was still a bit on edge, but much better.*
       The temptation here is to jump on my soapbox. But I try not to become overtly political in my posts. Besides, if you're a regular reader, you could figure out where I stand on any issues related to this. And they were formed long before I had this more direct, immediate fear. There's not much I could add to the argument, and I think it's much, much more complicated than the "solutions" proffered would have one believe. In the meantime, from long distance the colleges--Bryn Mawr and others in the area--appeared to handle the situation as well as they could. All of us in schools are grappling the best we can in the face of this sad new reality.
       The experience made me face another reality. We learned about the situation from my daughter; we did not hear from the college, and their website did not have any information up early on. They had no obligation to inform us. I'm not angry about that. The fact is that now my child is a legal adult, the type that I'm very proud to see her becoming, What's harder to accept is the implication of all this--that I can protect her much less than I ever could.

*Tuesday morning brought another stretch of worry. While the larger threat seemed to have past, breaking news reported a man had pulled a gun at Philadelphia Community College. He was arrested, and the cause seemed to be a dispute between two people, with no ties to the other concern.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Processing #ChangingtheOdds Conference 2015

     Last Thursday and Friday I had the great fortune of attending the Momentous Institute's Changing the Odds Conference in Dallas. It's an amazing event, with perhaps the most stellar line-up of big-name presenters, as you'll see by the names sprinkled throughout this post. The theme was Chaos to Connection, and the program unfolded in a way that fit that perfectly. It also touched upon multiple aspects of education in a very holistic fashion--mind, body, and spirit.
     Any time I attend such an event, I like to spend some time reflecting and trying to integrate the pieces into a single big idea. With any luck, it won't be one of the more explicit ones. (You can read two such pieces after last year's event: one here and another here.) This this I was having some trouble coming up with anything even though so much of the experience has resonated with me. Then, on Saturday night, some friends invited us to see the musical Matilda. This morning the seeds of an idea began to sprout. This process post is an attempt to see how they grow.
     If you know the story of Matilda, based on the book by Roald Dahl, you may just want to skip to the next paragraph. Matilda is a little girl who is incredibly smart, so intelligent that a friend worries her brains will ooze out of her ears. Her intellect appears mainly through her voracious readings, and I won't tell you the other ways so that I don't ruin the story for anyone. Her parents are psychologically abusive, and she attends a hellacious school dominated by the bullying headmistress Agatha Trunchbull. She insists on strict rules and procedures and calls the children maggots; punishment is swift and brutal. Trunchbull refuses to see anything special in Matilda except that might be a threat in some way. The heroine is Miss Honey, Matilda's teacher, who overcomes her own fears to help Matilda.
     In some ways the connection to the conference is rather obvious, in that many of the speakers focused on helping students overcome trauma. The institute focuses heavily on social-emotional health of children; one goal is to help children learn how to help their glitter settle.
     But as I've been swirling my mental kaleidoscope, another idea has emerged. Yes, Matilda is an exceptional child. But an underlying message of the conference is that all people--especially all children--are exceptional. Thus I've discerned an unstated but loud cry for greater non-standardization of education. It's necessary for both individual development but also an educational system that serves everyone.
     The amazing Story Corps project led by David Isay reminded us how each individual has a powerful story. Those stories guide us, shape our perspectives, forge our character, and give us something powerful to contribute. We can learn from each other, We heard how blogger Glennon Doyle Melton survived the depths of her mental illness and now sees it as what enables her to inspire others. Paul Quinn college president Michael Sorrell told of how his near death from a cardiac event led him to become a better leader. All that makes sense when we think about how, as Daniel Pink illustrated, true motivation depends on autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Similarly, author of The Gift of Failure Jessica Lahey argued that children have to be able to discover on their own what they can and cannot do in creating their own checklists. None of this happens in a world of rows and worksheets and bubble tests. In fact, psychologist Lou Cozolino explained how the assembly line system of education can inhibit learning because of how the social brain works best.
     For me, this boils down to three key issues as identified by Sir Ken Robinson. He said it's a matter of considering conformity versus diversity; compliance versus creativity; and linear versus organic. I see the question as practically rhetorical. I say "practically" because the ideal remains so elusive for far too many young people. They lack opportunities, or their talents go unrecognized or are devalued. We spend too much time focused on what kids should do...and not enough allowing them to discover what they could do. We're too much about efficiency and quality control; any flaws must be immediately fixed. If they're extreme enough, we scrap that product. There are those fortunate few who drop out at some point and succeed anyways. We tend to glorify them and hold them out as examples of how school doesn't work for everyone. True enough. But we forget about the much greater number who end up struggling for the rest of their lives. Yes, the standard approach works well enough for the majority. But is that good enough? Don't we want more for each individual?
     That's why we don't just need teachers. As educators we need to see ourselves as what Kevin Carroll called catalysts. We have to be the agents that spark change--on our own little corners, in schools and systems, and for each child. Then each will feel valued and empowered. Rather than merely conform, they will live per some lyrics from Matilda's "When I Grow Up":

When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you need to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.
(When I grow up)
Doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
nothing will change!
It doesn't mean that everything is written for me.
If I think the ending is fixed already,
I might as well be saying
I think that it's OK!
Just because you find that life's not fair
When I grow up
Just because, I find myself in this story,
And that's not right!