I’m Falling Behind My Questions

Racin' Snails 2

I long ago gave up on examining all the information available to me. I’m slowly coming to accept I haven’t the time or focus to examine all the information that interests me either. The piles of books littering my home and office along with the dozens of articles I’ve currently got open across multiple devices are evidence I might be more curious than I have time for.

When I started talking with and coaching educators on building a conceptual framework for managing information flow as they started to utilize digital tools, my advice was to focus on those topics about which they were most interested. Now, that reasoning only stands to serve intensely acurious individuals.

Every question I can pose has a corresponding rabbit whole waiting for me to jump. Each of those books and open articles is a map of where I intend to jump – later. I don’t know that later will ever come. Not for all of them.

I will never have time to read and consider the answers to all of my questions. They are too many and the sources of information more multitudinous still.

Faced with the question of how to deal with an overflow of information now, my answer is to focus on the answers you need in the moment, and decide if free time is worth dedicating to new information or reflecting on the learning you’ve already done.

Given the effect of a full cognitive load, the answer might be none of the above. Folks might opt to zone out and let information settle. As much as I love learning and swoon over inquiry, the infinite information stream also calls for quietly doing nothing of consequence so that I can better appreciate the consequences of those answers I decide are worth chasing.

I know all of this, and yet I still pick up more books for which I can’t conceive finding the time or open yet another collection of interesting browser tabs. Because, maybe, I’ll get around to it as soon as I’ve read everything else.

The Purpose of Writing

We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed. Frank Bidhart

When I was in university and going through some things, I wrote poetry. Not the poetry you’re thinking of – stream of consciousness poetry. Pages full of word after word poetry. My professor, to her credit, saw that those words and how they poured out of me were about more than whatever assignments she’d been giving. Whatever grades I earned in that class, they were about my ability to analyze the works of others and certainly nothing to do with what I’d created.

Whenever I’ve been in love, I’ve written poetry to the object of my affection. Hours have been spent agonizing over stanzas, couplets, and figurative language. In a few instances, those relationships inspired poetry from others. I got to come to an understanding of what I meant to another person in verse.

Throughout high school, I wrote a regular column for the local paper’s youth section. Some pieces were ridiculous attempts to replicate the humor I’d found in the columns of adult voices. Others worked to build a bridge between my high school experience and that of other students and adults who were reading. The ones I loved most started with a mindset of, “What if I try this?” Having that space and that audience made a huge difference in my sense of identity in high school.

I don’t remember much about college, but I remember working at the paper. I remember starting out as a reporter and scrapping for stories. I remember writing my first column and taking that job as seriously as I’d taken anything. I remember becoming editor-in-chief and feeling the responsibility of informing a campus. I remember telling my editors and reporters, “If every student on this campus can’t see themselves somewhere in each issue, then we’re not doing our job.” Different than my high school writing, this was writing with a responsibility I’d never felt before.

Now, my day gig gives me the opportunity to work with practitioners and experts from across the country to form guidance and material that pushes people to shift their thinking about how they form systems and processes of learning. I am asked on a regular basis to provide content that will inform policy and messaging at levels I’d never imagined being a part of. Getting things right has only mattered this much once before.

Writing project descriptions as a teacher was the most difficult writing I’ve ever done. Several years in, the biggest learning I did was asking students who’d had my classes before to read my plans and tell me where I’d screwed up. That writing wasn’t just to explain a thing to other people, but to help them move toward experiences that built on their understanding of the world. Getting things wrong meant they didn’t get to where I knew they could. Getting things right meant they completed projects beyond my imagining. I was writing for the approval of my students and their advancement. What could matter more?

I think you mean, “What are the purposes of writing?” No teacher could have anticipated the things that lead me to write so far in life, and I’ve learned I shouldn’t assume to know what will inspire me to put words to screen or page down the road.

What is the purpose of writing? All of them.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Coalition

2013 NYC Marathon

When I was a kid, I would take my assignments to my mom before I turned them in to my teachers. Somewhere around middle school, my reaction to her feedback shifted. I would get angry at her, argue with her feedback, and end the exchange with something akin to “Fine. Whatever.”

Eventually, she shifted tactics. I would bring her an assignment, ask her to review it, and then she would ask a simple question. “Do you want me to read this as you mom who is proud of everything you do, or do you want me to read this as your mom whose job it is to challenge you and help you grow?” When she first started positing this question, my answer was as you might expect, “I want the mom who is proud of me.”

As I started to understand the choice, I started to shift my answer. After working through a particularly troubling assignment, I realized it was challenging mom whose eyes and mind I needed on my work. I needed someone to help me see in the tall grass.

These two versions of my mom and the spectrum that runs between them represent the people in my coalition. In working to improve learning systems, I gravitate toward people who are doing the same work and are passionate about moving toward goals in the same way.

When I get to make a move, these are the people who see themselves in that move and offer some version of a high five. “We did it,” they seem to say. Proud mom.

At the same time, I am pulled to people who look at those moves and say, “Why that way? How could you have done that better?” They see a move and instantly begin to think about how I or we or they can make the next move better. Challenging mom.

Then there are all the coalition members who care about issues parallel to the issues to which I am devoting myself. If I am thinking about the role of a system of education and schools in helping people, I realize the need for other coalition members who are thinking specifically about institutional poverty and racism, healthcare for all, and eliminating food deserts. I see the intersection of my work with theirs, and they see the intersection of their work with mine. Sometimes we work together. Sometimes we must negotiate priorities and the distribution of limited resources.

Finally, there are the members of the loyal opposition. Often committed to the same purposes and goals, these are the people who answer plans and actions with, “Really?” Their skepticism comes from a place of care. If there is a limited number of moves to solve the puzzle, these are the allies who ask, “Are you sure you want to do that?” each time we reach for a piece.

Somewhere in this milieu a coalition is formed by a mixture of proud and challenging moms, parallel advocates, and the loyal opposition.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Queer Teacher

I never felt comfortable being queer and a teacher. From student teaching in Illinois to my first years in Florida to working at SLA – while vastly different in their levels of acceptance, none of them felt completely safe. None of them got to see all of who I was.

As much as I’m sure this was informed by growing up in a largely intolerant small, rural school, it wasn’t all that. It wasn’t all baggage. It was also knowing I needed to check when moving from one place to another to find out if I was part of a protected class in my new location. When I first got hired to work in Sarasota, my mom wrote an email with many exclamation marks saying she’d checked and that the county had banned discriminatory employment practices based on sexual orientation.

While I’d had no intention of walking into my principal’s office to say, “Here are the scope and sequence guidelines you asked for, and I’m gay,” it was good to know I couldn’t be summarily dismissed if she found out I’d been dating a guy.

Pause and think about that. By writing this post and outing myself here, I am eliminating the possibility of teaching in 28 states should some industrious principal start to google. Can you say the same about talking publicly about whom you date or marry? If so and you live on the LGBTQ spectrum, it’s not likely we will ever talk about it online. My sexual orientation isn’t listed in my Twitter profile or a part of my about.me listing. It’s not there because I don’t want possible intolerance to get in the way of a free exchange of ideas in the spaces I love. The thing is, though, if you’re straight, it’s only a free exchange of ideas for you, because I give up a part of who I am to connect with you.

I resent that in the same way I resent having to out myself to people when they assume I’m straight and ask if I have a girlfriend. Sometimes, the answer is simply “no” and I let the pitch fly by because I don’t want to have the conversation that starts with, “Oh, you don’t seem gay.” I reply “no” in those moments when my response would be, “You don’t seem like a heteronormative cliché, so we’ve both learned something today.”

In the vein of learning, I would love to have learned who among my teachers growing up identified as LGBTQ. More than that, it would have meant the world to me to hear a teacher say aloud that he or she was an ally, was accepting, wanted to be there for me if I needed to talk. Your safe space stickers on your doors or ally triangles were nice, and I needed to hear you say it out loud. I needed to hear you say something positive about people who were gay so that I, at the very least, knew you knew we existed.

I tried to do this in my classrooms. From talking about Ryan White so that kids knew HIV/AIDS weren’t synonymous with being queer, to choosing books that had gay characters who weren’t merely tokens or getting their heads bashed in for coming out – I tried to build an inclusive space.

I didn’t come out, though. I’m sorry for that. To any former students who could have benefited from me saying it explicitly, I am sorry I wasn’t ready. I’m sorry I let my resentment toward other people’s assumptions and my fear of repercussions keep me from being the role model I wanted to be. Hopefully, this post can still be some small help.

That’s why I’m writing this now, because straight people need help. So, let’s review some things straight people can do to be better people (cause most of you sure have the straight thing down).

Assume someone in the room is LGBTQ. This is different than assuming not everyone is straight.

Use inclusive language. Instead of asking a student if they are going to a social function with what someone of what you perceive to be of the opposite gender, ask if they’re planning on going with anyone or going at all.

Mention LGBTQ people in positive ways. Part of what took me so long to get right with being queer was having Matthew Shepherd as my main touchstone of what it meant to be gay. Think about the lesson implicit in a story about a person whose life came to mean something to people only after he’d been tied to a fence post, beaten, and left to freeze to death.

Call on your unions to champion equity. As I said, 28 states still allow for the dismissal of teachers based on sexuality. If their membership called for it, the teachers unions could at least make this part of the conversation in election cycles.

Out yourself. Give yourself a week of outing yourself as straight when you meet new people or in conversations with people you’ve known for a while but haven’t told you’re straight. If we have to do it, you should at least learn how awkward and annoying it feels.

Know that knowing one LGBTQ person isn’t knowing all or even many. I write this as one queer man, not on behalf of all. In the same way I don’t make assumptions about all members of group X when I meet them, don’t take meeting me or anyone else as having learned what there is to know about someone different from you.

Some people who have known me for a while might have read this post and be surprised or even hurt that we haven’t had this conversation before or that I didn’t explicitly come out to you. I suppose you’re going to have to work through that.

I Hate Little Buts

Cigarettes - I hate cigarettes, but it's so good. :)

One of the first rules of improv – the most important rule of improv – is to embody a sense of “Yes, and…” Chris and I wrote about it in our book, and this post served as the early draft of that chapter. Sit in a conversation with me for any decent span of time, and you’ll hear me say it. Sit a little longer, and you’ll hear me say it again. I can’t stop myself.

What you won’t know is how often I hear it in my head while I listen to others speak. A colleague in a brainstorming session in the office may respond to someone else’s idea, “Yes that’s a possibility, but here’s why it won’t work…” My brain, fills in the but with an and and begins to imagine where that brainstorm could have gone. It also wonders how the person with that initial idea heard the response. Did she hear what linguists say is actually happening when a but is deployed and process the response as actually not agreeing with her idea?

My Pavlovian response to the little buts sometimes gets me in trouble when I’m faced with a big but. A few weeks ago, when editing a piece of writing from a colleague, I went on a replacing rampage and suggested the removal of every but he’d used throughout the draft. Having satisfied my compulsion, I sent the draft back.

A day later, the next draft arrived in my inbox. All of the little but-to-and revisions had been accepted. Midway through the piece, a comment, “These ideas don’t go together. If I use and here, people are going to think I support the bad policy I mention first, and the more appropriate policy I pose after the but.” He was right. In my flurry of ands, I’d obsessed with form and ignored function.

The answer is moderation. Each of the other edits I’d made set a tone of unity of ideas. The new ands pulled concepts together and tore at false dichotomies. That last but, the one that stayed, wasn’t little. It was deployed to draw attention to why a common misconception needn’t be so in readers’ minds.

This is the danger of Pavlovian responses. We hear the bell ring, but nothing is in the dog bowl. In my instance, I’d become so accustomed to the frequent mindless use of language that I began mindlessly dismissing what they were saying. Not everything is a little but. Some buts are big and necessary. As is the case with so many words, when used without thought, buts used without thought can also start to be buts used without meaning.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Careful Where You Aim Your Mouth

022/365 Don't be swearing now!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not great at cursing. I’m probably better at it now than I was a few years ago. Maybe it means I’m smarter. No matter my prowess, I don’t enjoy swearing. I don’t want to either.

Maybe it’s because of how the words taste in my mouth that my opinion shifts when I meet people who enjoy that taste. This is similar to the involuntary opinions that form when I find out someone has a firearms collection. Sure, they could be keeping them around as a reminder of days gone by, and that doesn’t stop me from readying myself for when they decide to take aim at me.

All that said, I don’t know that there’s a word, phrase, or name I could never tolerate on its own. I’ve seen and performed enough comedy to know how a demeaning, demoralizing vulgarity in one person’s mouth can be a humanizing signal that we’re all in this together when expertly deployed.

Considering whether this is true, I’ve spent the last 15 minutes alone in my home reciting all of the worst words I can imagine. While many of them felt foreign as I said them, not one felt intolerable. Then, my dog jumped onto the couch beside me, and I started speaking profanities at her. I had to stop.

Words become weapons when directed at someone else rather than spoken into the ether. In my case, this applies to dogs as well. That’s where my tolerance ends. Yell the C-word straight toward the sky on the National Mall and I’ll walk on by. Turn a poisonous, “Stupid” at your 7 year old in a grocery store, and I’ll probably enter your conversation.

Words, like bullets, are all potential on their own. Load them and aim them at the defenseless, though, and you’ve made it my problem.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

…The Story of Who I Am

In the photograph is a young man with short light brown hair, blue eyes, and a tan. Around his neck he wears a ceramic medallion with his first name printed on it hanging from a length of twine. Aside from tan, his skin is smooth. Across his forehead are no squiggly creases drawn out by the smile he wears in the photograph. Along the outer edges of his upper lip and running to his nose, there are no smile lines. No crows feet appear at the corners of his eyes along with the smile, and beneath his eyes exist no hints that he might be getting much less sleep than is medically recommended.

I found the photo on the hard drive of a 10-year-old laptop I was resuscitating. Flipping through other pictures, there I was, smiling forward more than a decade.

For a second, I missed being him. He had fewer responsibilities, he’d seen less loss. It was only a flicker as I realized the lines and scars of time I wear now were made by the memories he didn’t know were coming. His best years of teaching were still ahead of him. The friends he held closest represented only a fraction of those whom he would call on when he found the loss in his future.

While the dimples were still on either side of his smile, he hadn’t yet smiled enough that those lines were deep enough to show his smile was his default in life.

My face carries the grief of loss – some uncontrollable, some by my own actions. I wear the age that comes from finding humor in as many moments as I can. The dark circles under my eyes remember to myself that I’m not yet halfway to the end of all this, and a few more naps would be appropriate.

I don’t quite know the man in the photograph. I envy him. He’s still on the way to meeting me.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

The Conversations I Want to Have

All to All

As of June 15, my contract on my day gig will be up, and I’ll need to find some other way to keep my dog fed. As much as I’ve been thinking about geography when grappling with what this change means, I’ve been thinking about what kinds of conversations I want to be in and which ones I want to leave behind. With five and a half months left on the calendar, I’m gaining clarity.

The conversations I most want to sustain and move forward are those around equity and purpose. The first means all equities. I want to talk about the kid in middle school who realizes he’s gay and can’t access educational and social experiences like teachers’ use of heteronormative language and not feeling comfortable asking his crush to the school dance. I want to talk about the fact that if most school leaders say they invited their honors or gifted and talented-labeled students to participate in a program then I can be almost certain they didn’t invite students of color. I want to talk about how students in rural schools don’t have the access to arts, cultural institutions, and educational opportunities their urban- and suburban-dwelling peers have every day. As many flavors of equity as we can bring to the table, that’s what I want.

In all of my grad school experiences, I have asked and searched for an answer to the same question to no avail, “What is the pedagogy and practice that drives this institution of learning?” Silence each time. I ask a similar question of principals and superintendents, “What are the three things we are working toward this year?” Silence (usually uncomfortable), and then a garbled answer.

Thus, I want to improve conversations of purpose. For any action, program, or scheme; I want to help make sure there’s an answer to “Why are we doing this?” Similarly, for all askings of “What are we going to do?” I want to help organizations and people look to their agreed upon purpose for helpful guidance. If you don’t know your mission statement, then it’s probably not your mission.

The conversations I’m willing to step away from are simple. Anything that starts with, “How can technology…” Technology should not drive the question. It should be considered as an answer to a possible problem, and it becomes boring to be in room after room and seen as a person who is there to bring up technology before he brings up people and relationships. In the conversations I’m seeking, I hope to enter fewer rooms with that presumed persona in the same way a master carpenter probably doesn’t want to be “that lady who loves talking about saws.”

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

A Prescription for Truly Alternative Medicines

Modern Medicine

Medicines and their Respective Ills (barring the availability of laughter)

  • Music – Best for soothing of soul in response to sadness, surplus energy, procrastination, lack of focus
  • Hugs – Best daily as preventative. Otherwise, good for lonesomeness, sadness, when untethered from humanity
  • Puppies – unconditional love deficiency
  • Cleaning – depletion of sense of control
  • Running – foggy brains, frustration with humanity, amnesia of place in world
  • Eating – imminent feelings of shortness of life
  • Binge Watching – lapse of interest
  • Diversion via Friend – world weariness, feelings of immense personal loss, breakups, grief

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Engaging in a Movement of Giving

Molnija 3601 watch movement macro

I’m active on Kiva, DonorsChoose, and HandUp. For the uninitiated, these are three micro-lending and micro-giving sites. Dedicated to people in the developing world, educators, and those experiencing homelessness and poverty, respectively, these sites and their cousins represent one of the most important and dramatic developments in technology in the last century.

Kiva LogoWe can give move our money to a specific impact immediately. That simple. When a borrower has repaid a Kiva loan, I immediately re-invest with another project based on my specific set of search criteria. When I see a teacher ask for a DonorsChoose grant and outline a pedagogical use that aligns with my practice, I move to support it and share across social media. When I see a recipient on HandUp on a path that could have been mine, I do what I can to make the difference they’re asking for.

And that’s the difference of these kinds of giving platforms, my money is doing specific work. In a better way than we usually mean it, my money equals speech. If I am going to give, I want to do it in a way that runs parallel to my values and these sites give me a much more direct route to ensuring that.

donorschoose logoI realize the drawbacks. For one, recipients of these loans, grants, and gifts need access and knowledge of the existence of these tools. Without someone to connect them with the platforms, they may never have the chance of getting the tools and resources that would make the difference.

Expanding the reach of these organizations is why tacking on that extra dollar or two to a donation to support administrative costs can be key. In the meantime, this is also why I don’t solely give through these three tools. General purpose charities and service remain important, and I make sure to do what I can to support them as well.HandUp logo

This isn’t perfect. It’s not going to move millions of people out of poverty, put other countries on more stable footing, or remove the barriers to teachers having the tools they need. Hopefully, though, while we continue to work against inequity and systemic poverty, these efforts can make an impact for those they touch.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.