Feb 05

Be Your Own Awesome – We Need More Awesome

I’ve noticed something lately.

There seem to be a lot of people in the education social media space who are defining what they are doing as being better than what other people are doing. Without naming names, I’ve seen too many instances lately of saying, “We’re great, and other people are less great than us.” And it hasn’t been framed in the space of “let’s discuss the relative merits of different educational ideas,” which is a conversation we still need to be having, but rather, as a way to elevate one’s own work at the expense of others.

And that is really too bad, because awesome is not a finite resource. In fact, the best of what all these amazing tools can mean is that we can share. We can make each other better by learning from what we do and building on each other’s work. But the spirit of collaboration and sharing necessary to do that kind of work is very difficult to do when others are treating the amount of awesome in the world as a zero-sum game.

If social media is a metaphor for our classroom, think about the kind of classroom we want… do we want the kind of classroom where students don’t share with one another because no one wants to give another classmate an advantage? Do we want the kind of classroom where, when grades are distributed, kids are saying, “I got a 93…” “Oh yeah, well I got a 94!!!” I don’t think we do. Those kinds of classes were toxic for too many kids, and the students who felt insecure about their abilities were made to feel worse.

Let’s have the humility necessary to celebrate our own successes without needing to tear down others when we do.

Because it’s my hope that we remember that we still need so much more awesome in the world of education than we currently have. And that every single school, teacher, student, district, conference, etc… that is able to do really amazing things is increasing the amount of awesome in the edu-space which is great. Every time someone shares something with an honest desire to share and learn, we all get a chance to learn and apply those lessons in our own spaces.

Let’s share with an open heart and an open mind. Let’s remember that there’s plenty of work to go around. Let’s remember that if the only way we can elevate ourselves is by belittling the work of others, any gains we may have made are illusory and fragile at best.

Let’s keep working to learn from each other and be as awesome as we can for the kids in all of our spaces. And let’s celebrate the awesome that others are doing, both where we live and all over the world.

We need more awesome.

 

Feb 04

#EduCon Reflection: What Ubiquitous, Necessary and Invisible Means

We’re now over a week past EduCon 2.7, and I’m still thinking a lot about what we saw this year.

What struck me was that this was the year that it really didn’t feel like an edu-tech conference at all – not because there wasn’t tech everywhere (Raghava KK said that it was the most tweeted conference he’d ever seen), but because it really wasn’t the thing we talked about much at all.

That’s what Ubiquitous, Necessary and Invisible can — and maybe even must — mean.

There’s no question in my mind that the schools we need much be technology rich. We have to make schools leverage the best of what we are and what we know. In the world we live in today, that means that we have to use the tools of the day – be they laptops, Chromebooks, smart phones, social media, Google Apps or anything else. But owning that the tools must be used is really only the very first baby step we have to take.

And once we’ve taken that baby step, we can ask the bigger and better questions that so very much need asking.

Those were the conversations I saw at EduCon – what will our classrooms and schools value? How can we make them more equitable places – especially in regard to issues of race, gender, class and sexuality? How can we ask hard questions about the world we live in and the world we hope our children will create? How can the work we do in schools help students become deeply thoughtful about the world around them? How can we empower them to believe in — and work toward — a vision of the world that is better than we have today? How do schools need to evolve to more authentically ask these questions?

And yes, how do we leverage the tools we have to do all of this better?

For eight years, we’ve tried to create a space where teachers can come together to talk about progressive pedagogy in a technology-rich environment. The eight years have seen incredible change in the world our schools inhabit – from Common Core to the rise of social media to a growing social justice movement to thousands of schools going 1:1 to unprecedented budget crisis in many districts across the country. With all of these changes, the conversations at EduCon have grown richer — and harder. Part of that is because there remains a critical mass of people who come every year, and who keep blogging and tweeting and talking, but also because there are more and more educators who have never been to EduCon before but who are looking for the difficult conversations, who are not settling for easy answers, and who know that it’s not enough just to look for edu-tech solutions, but rather are looking for the places and spaces where educators want to ask the harder questions.

The fact that we can create technology-rich spaces that aren’t about the tech but are about the next questions we have to ask is exciting to me. The fact that EduCon can be one of those spaces is tremendously humbling. The fact that these conversations will continue to happen far beyond the three days of the conference gives me hope.

See you all next year.

Jan 23

The Night Before

I’m going to bed as soon as I hit publish on this post.

I’m going to bed because in about 10 hours, hundreds of educators from all over the continent are going to be showing up at SLA for EduCon. EduCon is a special conference where educators from many different roles within the education world come together to dream big about what education can be. It is, as Ben Herold of EdWeek noted today a vendor-free space to talk about pedagogy.

It’s also a ton of work. EduCon is planned and run by SLA students, parents, teachers and me. The planning starts in August and ended tonight when we proof-read the program one… last… time. And this is our eighth year hosting the conference.

There are moments every year when I think to myself, “We can’t keep doing this.” But we do. And there are some really good reasons for it. So many attendees have told us that EduCon is one of their favorite professional learning of their year. And we at SLA learn a ton as well. It’s kind of wonderful to have an amazing PD experience with brilliant educators from all over the country right in your school. And yes, the conference raises important money for us every year that serves as the start of my fundraising every year as we try to stave off the Philadelphia budget cuts.

But the best reason for us to keep doing EduCon every year is watching the kids see themselves and their school as important voices in the national discussion about the future of education. This evening, as I was answering emails from attendees about the weather forecast, potential dinner spots, travel plans and what have you, dozens of SLA students were setting up classrooms, prepping coffee stations, running last-minute checks on the video feed and prepping their sessions. And I was listening as they talked about being proud of their school and the role it plays.

And that’s why we do it. Because our kids look at all of you who have come to learn with and from them and they realize that they really can help to change the world. EduCon is that moment for many of our students when they prove to themselves that they can be active, authentic agents in the world beyond their school.

As powerful as the learning all the educators will do over the next three days can be, for me, that lesson may be the powerful thing that any of us learn all weekend.

Thank you to all of the hundreds of students, teachers and parents who have worked tireless to prep for EduCon. Thank you to everyone who got in a car, train or plane to come learn with us this weekend. And thank you my co-chairs, Meenoo Rami, Amal Giknis, Julian Makarechi, Alisha Rothwell, Jasmin Gilliam and Zee Driggers for all the time you’ve spent. Thank you to the amazing Diana Laufenberg who came in this week and troubleshot everything so that the weekend would be awesome.

Welcome to EduCon everyone. Welcome to our school.

 

Mar 04

The Wisdom of the Room

This is related to EduCon, but it’s also just about pedagogy.

I was sitting in a session at SXSWedu where a panel of educators were talking about how they had achieved a new initiative for their school. It was an hour-long session, and really, after about ten or fifteen minutes, it was clear what they had done — it was cool — but after that, the panel quickly got into the weeds about some very specific details about their implementation. I was sitting next to a friend, and we were quietly challenging each other about how this idea could work in our schools. And I realized that what I wanted was the chance to sit and talk about that idea with a few folks around me – in short, I wanted a more “EduCon-y” session.

I wanted this group to challenge the folks in the room to think about how the idea would work in their worlds. I wanted to be able to consider the stumbling blocks to the idea. I wanted to be able to collaborate.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t ever a place for panel discussions – there is. If you follow my twitter stream, you’ll know that I was in seventh heaven watching Randi Weingarten, Peter Cunningham and Valerie Strauss debate assessment and accountability. But when you have an idea about how to make schools better, letting people have the discussion and debate and engage fully in the idea will greatly enhance the probability that those ideas will stay with the folks in the room… and even better… you greatly increase the probability that some really novel ways to think about the idea will come out.

When it comes to playing with ideas, we need to remember that the wisdom of the room is something that needs to be respected. And when it comes to our classrooms, we need to remember that honoring the wisdom of the room also — and importantly — is a powerful way to ensure that students will more willingly engage in the idea itself.

Aug 05

Thoughts for a New Administrator: Time

[I’m headed into my ninth year for working on SLA – one planning year, and this is the school’s eighth year. And while there is still a ton to learn about doing this job well, I thought that I might be reaching a point where the lessons I have learned might have something to offer to new administrators. Thus, this piece.]

There are a lot of challenges to moving from the teaching life to the administrative life. Some, I remember trying to anticipate – the idea of managing adults being the obvious one. But some I didn’t really think as much about – managing time. The rhythms of the life of a principal are very different from those of a teacher’s, both day-to-day and over time.

On the daily level, there’s the realization that your life is not dictated by the class schedule the same way everyone else’s is. And that takes getting used to. As a teacher, your professional life is based around your class schedule. As a principal, while it is important to be in the hallways during the change of classes, you get to choose when you do your walk-throughs, when you answer emails, and there’s no guarantee that your meetings will fit neatly into the class structure – in fact, there’s a pretty good chance they won’t.

For me, that meant learning a kind of time management discipline that wasn’t as necessary when I was in the classroom. I had to learn to budget my time during the day in a very different way. Goal setting and holding myself to deadlines meant that I didn’t waste time, and keeping track of what class periods I chose to be in classrooms meant that I got to see the school at different times. And for me, budgeting out lunch periods so that I could spend time with students and teachers as they needed me became really important.

On the larger level, a principal’s hardest times of the year aren’t always in line with a teacher’s. The end of the marking period grading crush was always hard for me, but as a principal, the weeks after report cards come out are more busy than the weeks before they come out. This meant that I had to make sure I paid attention to the energy levels of the folks around me, understanding that teachers and students often got tired at different times than I did. It meant learning how the administrative rhythm of the school went so that I could plan my own life accordingly. I’ve learned to block out almost every night of June for school, as there’s always some end of year event that I as the principal have to be at.

The best advice I’d give to a new administrator about time is to be aware of it. A principal’s life is unstructured, but very busy. Planning that time out, and being thoughtful about how to manage your time can mean the difference between being a pro-active leader or a reactive one.

 

Jun 26

Technology Transforms Pedagogy: ISTE Session

My ISTE session this year was Technology Transforms Pedagogy: Combining the Tools and the Vision. I didn’t want it to be the same as many of the workshops I have given in the past, but at the same time, I still believe what I believe, and so finding a new way to take people through some of these ideas was a challenge.

I’ve found, especially when I’m at a conference in a big hall, getting people to tackle prompts is a challenge. People don’t necessarily know each other, and the big hall isn’t really set up for conversations. But I also didn’t want to just talk at people for an hour.

I also have found that open-ended prompts can sometimes lead people into the weeds quickly. So I decided to try to put some constraints on how people were going to answer and leverage social media to  move the conversation. The prompts we used were all meant to be a series of ten-word answers that would / could serve to help people drill down to a simple statement of purpose while also given them the building blocks for larger answers later. For the folks who had Twitter, I asked them to tweet their answers to the #istetransforms hashtag.

From the feedback I received, people found it to be a powerful way to attack these ideas. The prompts we used were as follows:

  • Schools should help students become…
  • Technology helps me realize my vision by…
  • Technology means that I have to let go of…
  • [A system I employ] can now change in this way…
  • In 2013-14, learning can be…

And as a presenter, what I loved about it, is that it forced me to re-examine how I think about framing these issues, and the incredible stream of ideas that we were able to share and think through will provide me with plenty of things to think about as well.

The issues we face are, without a doubt, far too complex for ten words, but sometimes, working to simply delineate what we think and what we believe will help us figure out what the ideas, policies and systems that follow must be. Thanks to ISTE for a wonderful conference and for the ability to think through and deepen my understanding of what I believe.


 

Jun 06

SLA Takes Part in White House Hangout

President Obama announced his ConnectEd initiative today, calling for better access in schools for America’s children. After his speech, SLA students joined students from two elementary schools to talk about how we leverage technology in service of our way of learning.

I cannot begin to say how proud I am of the powerful, brave, thoughtful answers our students gave. These young men and women really did give people a vision of what can be. I am just honored to be their principal.

Enjoy.

Mar 14

Disrupt Disruption

With the publication of Disrupting Class in 2008, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn introduced the idea of “disruption” to the education world, and the effects have been… well… disrupting.

The people driving school policy, from the Race to the Top architects at the US Department of Education to the Gates Foundation to the venture capitalists at GSV Advisors are now rushing to disrupt schools, pushing a faster rate of change and an increasingly corporatization of “the education sector.” And in states and districts all over America, the disruption has occurred as funding has dried up, leading to layoffs, school closures, and profound instability in what has been for nearly 100 years, one of the more stable institutions in American culture – the school.

But why were we – the tech-savvy educators – so quick to fall in love with the idea of disruption as Christensen presented it? Behind the idea that technology was going to change our schools – it can, it should, it is – was a market-driven vision of school that opened the door to “disruption” as a positive force in education.

When was the last time any teacher thought that “disruption” was a positive force in a child’s life?

The time has come for us to retake the language of school reform. Words like “Disruption” and “Revolution” create a mind-set among reformers that make it o.k. to cut budgets, lay-off teachers, close schools, and – at root – implement high-speed, high-stakes changes without fully examining the worst consequences of their own ideas. After all, there’s usually a body count in revolutions, and “disruption” always makes people uncomfortable for a little while. And we have to stop thinking that’s o.k.

Moreover, revolutionaries and disrupters have little use for history and context, after all, what they are creating will be totally new, right? Why would a disrupter have to immerse themselves in the history of education when what they are creating is so techno-saavy and new that will be unlike anything we’ve seen before?

The point is this: Those who think that they can come in from the outside of educational systems and “disrupt” schools are engaging in a profound act of hubris, only rarely are the reformers the ones who fall when the reforms prove less than successful.

The kids do. The reformers go back to the world of business or onto their next cause. And they get to throw up their hands and say, “If *we* couldn’t fix our broken schools, it’s not our fault. It just means no one can save them.” And that, of course, only serves to reinforce the notion that we should just blow the whole thing up and start over anyway.

We can aspire to more than that.

What we want in our schools is not disruption, but evolution. Our schools cannot stay static, on this we can agree, but disruption and revolution are the wrong models. We want our schools to evolve. We need to grow, we need to take the best of what we have been and marry those ideas to the new world in which we live. The patterns of the growth of our educational systems should make sense along a logical path with as few “disruptions” as we can manage.

We owe it to all of the people – students, teachers, parents – who bring the best of themselves to the flawed system of school every day to make our systems of school better tomorrow than they are today. But we also owe it to those people to make that evolution as painless as possible so that the upheaval and “disruption” does not mean the loss of dignity and learning and care for the people who inhabit our schools.

Feb 17

Invisible

[I often say, “Technology must be ubiquitous, necessary and invisible.” I thought I’d take a little time to explore each item in that triptych. My first two posts were Ubiquitous and Necessary. Here is the third. — Chris]

Technology must be invisible.

In most schools, whenever the laptop cart is wheeled into a classroom, we say the kids are doing a “technology project.” But to say that is to miss the point. Just because a student uses a laptop or a tablet or some other piece of equipment that is new-ish to do their work does not mean they are doing a technology project.

It means they are doing their work.

We need to understand that until we stop fetishizing technology by making it the focal point of the work every time we pull it out of the closet, we will never move past the notion of “technology integration” to a place of “modern learning.”

The idea that technology must be invisible in school is simply this: Using technology to inquire, to create, to share, to research, to learn is not and should not be notable anymore. It should simply be a matter of course.

Using technology in school is not the point – learning is.

When technology becomes invisible, students take more ownership of their use of technology. When students use a combination of books, internet research and expert interviews to do a deep dive into a topic, technology is not the focus, research and inquiry are.

When a teacher says, “O.k. let’s get into our groups,” and one student opens up a Google Doc and three other students move their chairs, we can see a moment where the technology is not the focus, collaboration is.

When students are doing presentations, and rather than seeing thirty PowerPoint presentations, students use PowerPoint, Presi, videos and old-fashioned poster-board, but no matter what medium the presentation takes, students have a personal sense of aesthestic value and how to use a visual medium to communicate an idea, then technology is not the focus, presentation is.

That is how technology becomes invisible – when it becomes like the very oxygen we breathe. We don’t think about it every minute, but it is always there and always vital.

This doesn’t mean we never talk about technology, by the way. There are still moments when we learn about the technology itself, and that’s a good thing. Whether it is in a computer science class where students are learning to program, or it is in a technology infusion workshop where we help students to learn how to fully integrate the technology into their sense of themselves as a student and citizen, there are moments where we — student and teachers — make the invisible visible. That’s a good thing. Much like we have to be thoughtful about airflow when we build physical structures and machines, we should be thoughtful about technology when we build learning spaces and learning experiences. And both students and teachers should have moments of reflection of how the tools affect the learning. But there’s a big leap between understanding how the tool both is vital to and transformative to the work and making the work always about the tool.

When technology becomes invisible in a school, learning becomes the focus. That should always be our goal, regardless of the tools we use to get there.

Feb 15

Ubiquitous

[It’s not a bad idea to force yourself to unpack what you mean from time to time. I often say, “Technology must be ubiquitous, necessary and invisible.” I thought I’d take a little time to explore each item in that triptych. — Chris]

Technology must be ubiquitous.

Gregg Betheil of the New York City Department of Education talks about how we don’t send kids to the “pencil lab,” but that is how we treat technology. It sits in a special room or in a special cart, and we wheel it out when we have a specific task we want the kids to do with it.

That’s not good enough anymore.

SalinnaIt must be everywhere. 1:1 can no longer be optional. Today’s world is both analog and digital and in many moments it is both of those things at the same time. It cannot be seen as a luxury to provide students with  the digital tools of the modern world. And it is not okay to consider giving children a laptop as something that will preclude other profound instruments of learning. As Gary Stager said at the first EduCon, “We are the richest nation in the world we can provide our children with computer and a cello.”

And once we have provided students with the devices, we must make sure they don’t stay in the backpack. Ubiquitous technology means that they are pulled out in the hallways, they are used in lunchrooms, and they are used in classrooms. When technology is only something that is used when the teacher says so, it remains special, different and therefore not intrinsic to the learning that our kids do.

But when it is ubiquitous, it becomes a part of who we are and how we learn. That is the pathway to helping students understand the world in which they live. When it is ubiquitous, students learn how to put it away when they want to or they need to. When it is ubiquitous, it is no longer special. That is the moment when we stop worrying about integrating technology and start concerning ourselves with learning.