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.

What if you could check out a rabbit? #nxtchp2011

What if library was a verb? What if librarian was concierge or coach or therapist? What if second graders and seniors used the library to build a dinosaur…together? What if the library was made up of yurts or kitchen islands or secret passageways? What if the library was a social buzzing place? What if the library could be every child’s academic advisor? What if the library could be every person’s therapist? What if library was school lobby? What if library was school hallway? What if library was school?

What if you were asked to design an agile ecosystem of wonder, care, creation, and exchange for the modern learner – and for society – and call that ecosystem library…what would it be?

As I reflect on my weekend of what ifs and whys and hows and let’s, I am struck by how the simple design process (with inspiration from Abraham Lincoln and also from the art of improvisation) allowed for a group of librarians, teachers, students, administrators, designers, futurists, and architects to turn into true educational visionaries. I’m struck by our ability to listen, imagine, and create not only a vision for the future of the K-12 library but also the future of learning.

In the coming weeks and months, all of the work from the weekend will be posted in one way or another on the Reimagine: Ed – Next Chapter site and will also be tagged with the #nxtchp2011 hashtag on Twitter.  Things like this video by Brian, Rebecca and Bo on the Library as Kitchen Island “Flash Cart” prototype (a response to designing the unquiet library) as well as the presentation by the group who hacked this Starbucks cup and turned it into Library as Yurt prototype (a response to designing the library as the park of possibilities) will continue to spur this weekend’s RE:ED group and others toward unlocking the next chapter of the K-12 library.

But this week, today even, as I returned to my school and to my office which is (interestingly) housed in the central hub of Trinity which is the Media Center, I was certainly thinking of both process and product. Sure, the ideas from the three design challenges (especially the one I tinkered with all weekend: What must K-12 libraries do to spur continual innovation and to make libraries the places and spaces our learners crave going forward?) surfaced. Yeah, today I daydreamed about  prototypes and products that were imagined, discussed, debated, and sketched on whiteboard walls, post-it notes, and on the back of cocktail napkins.

But…what will most directly affect my work this week and in the months to come has so much more to do with process than product. And if  libraries = learning = life, then what I learned from this weekend’s process is applicable from today until way past the time when my school re-imagines library as both a noun and a verb.

If the words to the right are words that matter (and I believe they do),

I see how they could infuse my work (and my life)

and shape my outlook (or even my destination)…

So, what do I need to do to get there? How do I need to grow? What can I learn to do better? Well, to start…

#1: (Learn to) Say “Yes, and…” — I was challenged early in the weekend by Zac Chase who taught us a few rules of improv, all of which I need some practice with both as mindsets and as statements. Two of the mindsets we were encouraged to adopt during the weekend — “My idea is good, and I like your idea better” in addition to “Yes, and…” — certainly shaped the conversations and propelled our ideas to higher level of creativity and risk. Simply saying Yes+And and not Yes+But (or even Yes+Yet) was a challenge for me. And it’s something I need to work on. Sure, playing Devil’s Advocate has its time and place, but this weekend I learned how much that role can kill innovation. According to the RE:ED folks, the Yes+And mentality allows everyone to “embrace a growth mindset, build on each other’s ideas, and celebrate new viewpoints and roles.” Pretty important to not stifle those things by a silly three letter conjunction.


#2: (Learn to) Love Creative Abrasion — I have always appreciated Peter Senge’s idea of creative tension and this weekend I learned that the design process has the potential to turn that tension into something closer to creative abrasion…and that’s actually a good thing.  Something I learned from Jeff Sharpe, who truly was more of a sherpa than facilitator this weekend, has to do with failure. The thing about the cutting room floor, he described, is that there’s great stuff on the  floor. And usually that great stuff is a result of a lot of messy learning. There were moments on Saturday (many, in fact) where the process seemed stalled, backwards, and frustratingly counterproductive…and even if that wasn’t the goal, it was the point. Lots of us were trying and failing and there were a number of ideas left on the floor…and it was up to the forces of the collaborative group to move individuals (me being one) to try harder and fail better. At one moment late on Saturday afternoon, I was ready to check-out, to leave for a run, and return the next morning with energy and a rested mind. I’m thankful for the model of my friend and colleague who felt the same frustration and was committed to staying through the process. Late on Saturday afternoon, we didn’t know what we were doing but we knew we could do it. We knew it was possible and we just had to figure it out. Sitting in the backwater eddy of creative tension (according to Bo Adams) or the hydraulic of creative abrasion (according to yours truly) allowed for us as individuals and as a collective group to get to the high level of creative success for the remainder of the weekend. We certainly ended the weekend sprinting with reckless abandon, grinning ear to ear, as Christian Long so beautifully described in less than 140 characters.

 

#3: (Learn to) Think of Ideas as Currency — The push of the weekend, articulated by the RE:ED Leadership Team and Provocateurs time and time again, consistently centered on the value of ideas and ideation. On Sunday, one design group envisioned Library as Market/Bazaar and explicitly stated that ideas and curiosity were the currency in this place. Interestingly, throughout the weekend, this was certainly the case as ideas, both large and small, were most valuable and held in high regard. More and more, I saw that ideas beget ideas. I was challenged in my own thinking…in our schools, do we honor ideas as valuable currency? Do we give ideas time to marinate or even allow for the ideation process to take place — failure and all? As design groups, we were allowed to create the learning spaces where ideas flourished. We had freedom. Tables became idea walls, chairs became office supplies, and we could get up, eat, drink, and go to the bathroom at will. We did not have to wait a bell to tell us where to go and what to do and we were allowed to sit in the backwater eddy for as long as we wanted or needed. A phrase like “I have a really wacky idea,” was met with smiles and exclamations, “Awesome! Good! Let’s hear it!” Even a “What if you could check out a rabbit?” idea was met with wide smiles and an exclamation, “What IF you could check out a rabbit!”

     

This weekend was one that was full of YesAnds, Creative Abrasion, and Ideas. It was a weekend about library as both noun and verb. It was a weekend of what ifs and collective reimagining of the future.

It was a weekend about libraries…about learning….and about life. 

Thanks to the RE:ED team for the experience and for the inspiration.

What’s the next “What if?”

Personalizing Learning I: Theory and Reality

In my mind, the theory of personalizing learning for students is simple: Connect with children on an individual level to learn about them in as many ways as possible; create opportunities for them to learn in ways which meet their varied needs and styles; allow for ample learning experiences with divergent paths in terms of process and product; assess for learning and of learning; push children to realize their unique potential as learners. The reality of doing that in a classroom with real-live students is, in a word, difficult. But that’s the idea, right? Connect…create…allow…assess…push. With learning as the focus…not teaching.

Sir Ken Robinson seems to agree (and apparently so does HH the Dalai Lama). As SKR urges schools to adopt personalized learning in both the article and throughout his most recent book, The Element, I’m wondering about the reality of it. Just as Will Richardson was weighed down by the question Seth Godin posed yesterday in a post entitled “Back to the Wrong School” (“Are we going to applaud, push or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable and mediocre factory-workers?”), I’m similarly weighed down. This transformation that SKR urges is great in theory. But quite a challenge in the classroom (no matter how large or small), in a school, and of course in a district, city, state, or national system of education which Godin explains, “churn(s) out millions of of workers who are trained to do 1925 labor.”

So, what do we do about that? Because I agree with Will on this one…

To answer his question…and SKR’s call to transform (not reform) education, I am motivated by “what we — at Trinity — are doing this year.” Since the approval of Trinity’s Strategic Vision in May 2008, we have been working to make personalizing learning a reality. The reality of doing that, of course, has taken years and will continue for many years to come. At Trinity, we say that personalized learning is tailoring education in ways that fulfill the unique potential of each student. The goal of personalizing learning is to enhance every child’s ability to become a responsible, productive, and compassionate member of the expanding global community.  A key assumption is that the more a child knows about his or her learning, the more he or she will thrive as a learner in and out of school.

Our first step in this process of personalizing…this disrupting and transforming…was a switch in our foreign language curriculum and instructional methods. The second, and much larger step, is the development of a learning profile and portfolio (a PLP) for all of our students from the three-year-olds to the sixth graders. You can read more about Trinity’s approach to personalizing learning in a blog post written last year by our Head of School, Stephen Kennedy.

The cool thing that struck me as I participated in today’s faculty meetings “launching” Phase II of this process (Phase III being that we’re “all in” with each child having a PLP), is that we are disrupting in a way that, initially, seems so passive.  Today we talked about the power of observation. I wished we had coined it “active observation” because that’s just what it is. How should we observe to make us more aware of each child in our class? What methods might we employ to notice in a way that leads to greater understanding of how to personalize learning for the students in the classroom? This kind of observing is certainly not a passive process…and without a deep level understanding of this piece, the larger goal of actually personalizing learning would not, in my opinion, be realized.

It was a powerful beginning to this second phase. And a powerful reminder to me. It’s one thing to say that we should be personalizing learning. It’s another thing to actually commit to doing so. So often we want to rush to action. To move from theory to reality swiftly. To fix. To do. To hire. To fire. As I sat amongst my colleagues and listened to them push one another to think differently about observation, I felt as though disruption was happening. That mindsets were being shifted. That the reality of personalizing learning, at least within the walls of Trinity School, is closer than it was last year. And that’s a good thing.


Connecting Globally

If you haven’t bookmarked the “Great Quotes about Learning & Change” Flickr Group, then you should do so. Right now. It’s a great place to find provocative images and quotes to use in conversations, presentations, and in personal reflections as well.

The site really is that good. This image is one of 706 currently in the group. Cool, huh?

So, I ran across this image today which is a perfect representation of my thoughts and reflections this weekend. Thinking of my Trinity colleagues who will be welcoming children into their classrooms on Wednesday, I began to reflect on my three years of teaching sixth grade at Trinity.  What would I do differently if I were heading back to the sixth grade classroom this year? The short answer: I would make sure that my students realized that they were entering into a classroom situated in the year 2011. Not one from the past…not even one from 2010. Even when I had a 1:1 tablet computing environment, I’m not totally sure that my classroom was as 21st century-ized as it should have been. It’s that whole “technology must serve pedagogy not the other way around” thing. In fact, if I were trying to gain some inspiration about making my classrooms 2011 ready, I’d certainly spend some time reflecting on the five axioms of EduCon, the above quote being axiom #3.

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members.
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen.
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate.
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

So, with those reflections swirling, I decided that my first step would be to find a way to make my classroom a globally connected one. It’s something that fits with each axiom above. Without a classroom to directly influence, I decided to reach out to my Trinity colleagues with three projects which look incredibly promising for the elementary ages. Within a few hours, I had heard from a handful of teachers who were interested in jumping in. In fact, our entire first grade team will be taking part in the Global Read Aloud Project this fall.

I thought I’d share my email here (and yes, I was lazy about the links!):

Dear Teachers,

Are you interested in exploring how to further the Mission of Trinity School and assist your students in becoming responsible, compassionate, and productive members of the expanding global community? There are so many ways to open your classroom to classrooms all over the USA and the world….and there are a number of Trinity teachers who are already doing just that thing!

I wanted to let you know of a few projects that I have discovered that seem to be manageable, interesting, and connected to Trinity curriculum. If you are interested in finding another project, I’m happy to point you in the right direction. There are so many resources out there and so many great projects, engaged teachers, and cool classrooms! I have included the top three that I’ve seen recently. If you would like to talk in greater depth, please let me know! Also, Marsha and Kara would be more than happy to chat and assist as well! It’d be our dream that there are so many globally connected projects happening at Trinity that Kara, Marsha, and I had our hands full with supporting you and your classes!

To Connecting Globally!

1. The Global Read Aloud Project: This project begins on September 19 (and lasts until October 14) and is geared to students in 1st – 3rd Grade (who will be reading Flat Stanley books) OR to students in 4th – 6th (who will be reading Tuck Everlasting).

2. Teddy Bears Around the World: This project has no timeline or deadline…it is geared to students in the Threes, Pre-K, or K.

3. Community Connections Project: This project has a deadline of February 2012 but it seems like it will be ongoing throughout the 2011-12 school year. This project seems to fit students in K – 3rd grade.