I Can Learn From… And I Am…

Today, it happened again. It was the thousandth occasion where I found myself justifying reiterating just how powerful a tool social media has been in my growth as an educator, both professionally and personally. Sure, there have been times when I have felt out of balance or that I was operating too much in Carr’s Shallows without deeply or fully engaging as I might have in the past. But on the whole, my use of and engagement with social media has been an incredible vehicle for my learning journey of the past two years.

Recently, I’ve been struggling with the problems that doors, walls, and gates produce not only in the school where I work but also within the greater Atlanta community of private and public schools. Sure, those doors, walls, and gates do provide security and protection, but they are  also incredibly counterproductive as we seek to do the kind of innovative educational work that is required to move a school (or schools) into new 21st century territories.

So, in this world of social media (specifically blogging and micro-blogging via Twitter) devoid of doors, walls, and gates, I find that others are surprised (thus the thousand justifications and reiterations) about the impact of these online connections. Can this type of transparency be truly transformational? Yes, I believe it can, and…as I think about what I have learned (and how I have grown) even in the past month, I am acutely aware that I can learn from anyone, anywhere, and at any time. And I am better for it.

I can learn from John Burk, a high school physics teacher, even though I needed a tutor to successfully pass physics as a student. John’s blog post on why can’t physics class be more like the debate team has me wrestling with how to create similar “debate-type” experiences within the elementary setting where I work. And I am challenged.

I can learn from a blog post written by Melissa, a fifth grade student, who wrote about her dream of being an adventurist. This student’s words and aspirations (“I love my dream but I never talk about it because I’m afraid people will laugh. Not this time. I thought about it and I decided to speak what I was thinking and be my self around everyone. I hope you all do the same.”) relate, in a way, with a friend and colleague’s desire to deepen his dot connecting skills and be a synergist. From there, I am reminded of my visit and lunch last year with Robert Lang who showed Trinity students that he is so much more than just an origami artist. And then I read the comments on Melissa’s post from her current teacher, her former teacher, and an outside reader and educator (a Twitter connection of mine) who shares that “your writing makes me think of the types of writing people like Bear Grylls, Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, and others like them must have done when they were in 5th grade.” And I am inspired.

I can learn from the 184 project (modeled after Atlanta’s very own edu180atl project) and the plethora of student, teacher, and administrator reflections on learning shared by members of Parkland School Division in Alberta, Canada. Monday’s post, written by Alex who is a Grade 3 student at Forest Green School, forced me to think of the students at my school who are ready to be publishing their writing and sharing more openly. I reflect on how I might identify these students, collaborate with their teachers and parents, and allow them to be published writers at a young age…something I always yearned for at that age but wasn’t able to because of lack of technology. And I am motivated.

I can learn from my two friends who are teachers at a neighboring school who have taken on the challenge of redesigning a traditional English writing course for eighth grade students. Not only do I have the opportunity to read their students’ posts and thinking (and observe and comment upon any post if I so choose), but Peyten and Clark invite me into their thinking as teachers through the online spaces they maintain as educators (see here and here). As I have observed their approach to this class, I see how they are doing the difficult but important work (“Our role is not to teach them about environmental issues. It’s the (sometimes long, sometimes messy) process of writing and researching and thinking and discussing that will help them learn.”) of creating learners and thinkers and not just students and test takers. One of their student’s posts catches my eye in my oversubscribed Google Reader account (Marisa M’s post entitled GW…Still On the Wire), and I feel a sense of pride and appreciation for the students, the teachers, and the struggles that make this class an incredible example of 21st century teaching and learning. And I am encouraged in my own struggles.

And, finally, I can learn from a younger colleague who works just down the hall from me as an assistant teacher. Her first two posts on her blog, Sunday’s Story, give me insight into who she is as a person, educator, writer, and thinker. I now take extra time to engage her in conversation about things that matter to her, to me, to both of us. Her first two posts (Planting the Seeds and New Beginnings) are the catalyst for deeper collaboration and conversation. And I am reminded that it’s all about relationships.

In just a month, I am more acutely aware that I can learn from this world devoid of doors, walls, and gates. And I am a student again.

And I am better for it.

Character and Leadership Development

Next month, Thomas Lickona will speak at Trinity School. In preparation for his visit, I have been re-reading a book I read years ago by Lickona, Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility. The quote below opens Part I of the book which focuses on educating for both values and character:

As Aristotle taught, people do not naturally or spontaneously grow up to be morally excellent or practically wise. They become so, if at all, only as a result of a lifelong personal and community effort. -Jon Moline, “Classical Ideas about Moral Education” in Character Policy: An Emerging Issue

This morning, as I listened to two Trinity students speak to a large group of prospective parents at our first (of three) Open Houses, I was struck at how wise and confident these two students seemed to be. Their full speeches are below (and certainly worth watching). It seems like the constant refrain about “Trinity Kids” is that they are natural leaders…on their sports teams, in their churches, and once they graduate, at the schools they choose to attend. As I think about Trinity’s focus on developing leaders — both now and in the future — I was struck by Andrew and Matt’s words this morning:

Andrew, a Third Grader, made the connection between teamwork and leadership development. He certainly understands that the things he does at school are preparing him for his future and the world outside the school walls:

“At Trinity, we care for people, help each other, and work together.”

“I hope to be a good leader. I want to be responsible, open to suggestions, patient, persuavive, happy, and be able to make difficult decisions. That’s what I think makes a good leader.”

Matt, a member of Trinity’s Leadership Class, reflects on the fact that he is indeed a role model for the younger students, specifically those in his “Buddy Class.” He also talks about how his experiences at Trinity and his friendships have shaped him and will continue to affect him in the future:

“My education at Trinity has prepared me for this day, my next school, and for anything that will come my way.”

It’s pretty powerful to hear two students (whose combined age doesn’t quite equal that of a college graduate) express what Trinity School is all about:

Learning from a Legend

(This post is cross-posted on the Notes from the Leadership Team Blog on Trinity School’s Website.)

If you haven’t seen Steve Jobs’ 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford University, it’s worth watching. I find it interesting that Jobs, arguably one of the greatest innovators throughout history, spends very little time in his address talking about the products that made him famous. Instead, he reflects on process…specifically how personalized learning, failure, and perseverance were integral to his career and ultimately to the success of his company. In my mind, the legacy that Steve Jobs leaves for all of us is powerful: we must value and celebrate the process. We must try to relinquish our focus on product.

So what does this look like in education? In parenting? What might we all learn from Steve Jobs?

1. We can learn that personalizing learning matters.

“The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting…I loved it. And what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”

Jobs dropped out of Reed College after only six months and did so to pursue a personalized path to learning. Although he “dropped-out” of college, he spent his time “dropping-in” to classes like calligraphy. These classes, more aligned to his passions and strengths, allowed him to build a foundation for his future and even shaped the distinct typography that personal computers have today. What if Jobs didn’t possess the self-knowledge and confidence to chart his own path?

2. We can learn that failure shouldn’t be feared.

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me…It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Even though Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he started in his parents’ garage, he wasn’t deterred by failure. Instead, he saw failure as opportunity. He was able to reflect, connect-the-dots, and grow from what was a personally and professionally difficult time in his life. What if Jobs hadn’t possessed the ability to reflect and grow from seemingly insurmountable obstacles?

3. We can learn that perseverance is priceless.

“I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful-tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.”

Regardless of whether you are 5, 15, or 55, “sometimes life hits you on the head with a brick.” Jobs reminds us that it is our reaction to those setbacks which often determines our future. Jobs kept going, in part because he loved what he was doing, and also because he was used to overcoming setbacks. He learned perseverance by persevering and found many opportunities to practice. What if Jobs adopted a spirit of bitterness and resentment instead of a spirit of perseverance and optimism?

It’s tempting for all of us, as educators and as parents, to have a heightened focus on product. The B+ on the science test, the acceptances to secondary schools, the stickers on the behavior chart. However, at Trinity, our Mission Statement states that we aim “to create a community of learners in which each child can acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to achieve his or her unique potential.” That knowledge, the skills, and those attitudes are sometimes hard to quantify.

It’s certainly easier to display a math test with a 100% score on the refrigerator or reward children for finishing a certain number of chapter books, but how can we, just as Jobs reminded us in his Commencement Address, honor and celebrate our children’s processes of learning, of growing, and of becoming young people who will – at some point in the future – do great things? If we are always focused on the product or the “end-thing” (whatever that thing may be), we may overlook those very valuable moments of growth and development happening right before our eyes. These moments, all part of the learning process, often matter more than the end product. They are they moments which Jobs alluded to that shape character and more substantially impact a child’s life and journey toward realizing their unique potential.

What Do Students and Teachers Say about 21st Century Learning?

(This post is cross-posted on the Notes from the Leadership Team Blog on Trinity School’s Website.)

Last week, Heidi Hayes Jacobs spent two full days immersed in the learning community of Trinity School. She not only delivered presentations to faculty, staff, parents, and members of Trinity’s Board of Trustees, but she also facilitated book clubs and spent six hours examining the School’s social studies curriculum alongside a small group of faculty and administrators. Heidi’s book, Curriculum 21, focuses on upgrading curriculum to make schools places which prepare students for a changing world.

The last chapter of Curriculum 21, entitled “It Takes Some Getting Used To,” is appropriately named. Let the book’s final sentences sit with you for a while:

“If we accept that we need to prepare students for a vastly different future than we have known, then our understanding of the focus of education also needs to shift. This change will require a curriculum that provides individuals with the dispositions necessary to engage in lifelong learning. Simultaneously, our vision of the teacher’s role needs to shift from that of the information provider to one of a catalyst, model, coach, innovator, researcher, and collaborator with the learner throughout the learning process.”

So, how do we even define this new type of teaching and learning?

For me, I can walk through the halls of Trinity, popping into classrooms where rich, collaborative, thoughtful, and sometimes loud and messy learning is taking place and a definition begins to emerge. If all of us had the opportunity to take these “learning walks” through the ELD and ULD hallways, we’d certainly construct a variety of definitions.

After Heidi’s visit, I wondered what the children would say about this new type of learning and teaching. What would Trinity’s own faculty have to say? On Thursday and Friday of last week, I took my video camera each time I left my office in order to capture some student and teacher reflections on what makes a good 21st century teacher. What can we learn from the student and teacher responses?