My Commute to Work Has Changed a Bit

If, for some strange reason, you’re connected to me via social media, you may have noticed I’ve started checking in and posting pictures from Washington, D.C.

That is because I’ve moved. And, I’ve moved because I’ve accepted a ConnectED Fellowship in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.

If this seems a bit sudden, it’s because it has been. I wanted to post something more specific sooner than this, but I couln’t until everything was official today and I took the oath that I would defend the Constitution. If you think that wasn’t heavy, you’ve underestimated my belief in the Constitution.

This is a chance to do what I wanted to do when I left the classroom three years ago. I said I wanted to help make sure that folks with a spectrum of classroom experience were invloved in helping to craft the policies that shape public education, and I didn’t want to be a teacher who grew frustrated with policies he disagreed with without trying to help.

It is an exciting and humbling experience. It will require me to remember who I am and where I come from as well as to seek the counsel of those in whom I trust. Thank you, in advance, for that.

5 Links Friday: DIY Summer Camp Edition

It’s time for 5 Links Friday where I give you 5 links that have been burning a hole in my browser over the last week. As we barge into July, it seems pretty apparent that, like buying books, groceries, and therapy, you can get a pretty decent summer camp experience sitting in front of your screen. The five links below give varied and creative ways to stave off the summer whatdowedos and maybe learn something in the process.

As always, if you’ve got a link to share for some online edugoodness, post it in the comments.

Link 1 – Make, Play, Connect (Repeat)

The Mozilla and the National Writing Project, with support from the MacArthur Foundation, bring you the Summer to Make, Play & Connect. Driven by the principles of connected learning. this is a great platform with activities and a calendar of events. To help you find ways to, well, make, play & connect over the summer. To better understand the principles, check out the Connected Learning Alliance homepage.

Link 2 – A Code, Code Summer

Making the push for greater access to STEM learning more about practice than pomp, #YesWeCode brings this site for urban youth to connect with local coding organizations, coding mentors, and other top-notch resources for learning to code.

Link 3 – Learn to Lead for Learning

While edX has much more than education courses, I’m signed up for Richard Elmore’s Leading for Learning course, as I wrote earlier this week. The course is in its first week, and promises to be illuminating and challenging to what I think and why I think it. Come join in or take a look at the other edX offerings this summer.

Link 4 – DIY with a little Instructable help

If you’re looking for less guidance and more exploration, then you’ve got to bookmark the Instructables page. In the past, I’ve stopped by with some very pointed how-to questions, and that doesn’t stop me from browsing every once in a while for a what-now question.

Link 5 – Tell some stories…digitally

I love ds106 more than words can say. Around since 2010, the course is open, public and massive. The video above tells the story. As you think about building your summer, try here first, and be warned – it’s awesome.

Let’s honor the questions in the room

Finger face with a question

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” 
― Thomas PynchonGravity’s Rainbow

I called a store today to ask for a thing. It quickly became clear that this was the wrong store for the thing I was looking for. Usually, this would be the end of the conversation. It turned out not to be in this case.

“Well, what kind are you looking for?” the salesman on the other end of the line asked.

I explained in greater detail the doodad I was looking for, which, remember, we’d already established his store DID NOT HAVE.

“Hold on,” he said, “Let me take a look online.”

I waited a moment while he followed up on some leads. “Okay, here’s where you need to look,” he told me and then sent me on to a site with which he and his store were wholly unaffiliated with.

I thanked him for his time and attention to detail. Before we ended the conversation he told me to call back if those leads proved fruitless and he’d see what else he could do.

You, as I did, are probably flashing back to Macy’s and Gimbel’s. I want to take it a step further, because it’s been jangling around in my head as an important point to remember as we lead classrooms and professional learning.

The questions we’re there to answer may not be the questions those with whom we are working show up excited to ask.

It happened all the time for me as a student (at all levels). The teacher would introduce a topic of study and my brain would immediately begin generating questions sometimes ancillary, sometimes tertiary related to the topic. I would raise my hand, ask my question, and be greeted with a reply that told me I asked an interesting question, but that wasn’t the business of the day.

Eventually, I learned how to play school a little better. When a subject was introduced, I stifled the questions brewing from my own perspective and started to try to ask the question I thought the teacher or professor wanted me to ask. Sometimes, I knew the answers, but I’d learned that wasn’t so important to the teaching the teacher was there to do.

What the man on the phone reminded me today, and the lesson I hope to take with me the next time I work with a group, is that I’m there to help whomever I’m working with find answers to the questions that walk into the room. If we do that in our classrooms and staff meetings, then the other folks in the room – the ones walking in with the questions – might see our time together as that much more valuable.

To pass or to succeed?

The video above is part of the introduction to Leaders of Learning an edX course I started yesterday. I like Richard Elmore and was privileged enough to learn with him while I was completing my master’s.

I’m taking the course as a pause to refine my practice and thinking about leading in learning spaces and to better learn from those also in the course leading learning around the world.

I’ll likely talk more about the course in the weeks to come. I post about it today because of what Elmore says at the top of this video. It is a distinction between passing and succeeding, and it’s one I appreciate.

Amid trying to understand my thinking and feeling about grades in the classroom, I would start the year telling students they would earn a B in the course by completing the work before them. “Do that,” I’d say, “and the B is yours. If you want to earn an A, though, do it all and then a little bit more because you’re curious or because you’re proud of something you’ve created.”

It was a primative attempt at encouraging deeper inquiry using the only blunt instrument I could think of at the time – grades.

Elmore’s distinction asks those in the course to pause and consider what they want from the learning. If it’s a certificate, go for it. If it’s learning, go deeper.

I wonder how such a distinction might translate to a course that isn’t something students have entered by choice, but by compulsion. Would simply making the distinction regularly between passing and succeeding change students’ outlook on the work they were completing? Would wanting to encourage success lead teachers to shift their practices toward things with more inherent relevance to students?

I suppose it’s one of the questions with which I’ll wrestle over the next few weeks of the course.

Remembering ‘The Good Stuff’


Facebook Reading

Sometimes I think of all the times in this sweet life when I must have missed the affection I was being given. A friend calls this “standing knee-deep in the river and dying of thirst.”

- Robert Fulghum

I started packing for a move today. I hate packing, and I hate moving, so it’s a special kind of day when I get to be thinking about both.

The nice moment, though, is the special kind of reflection I forget is part of moving from one home to another. It’s the process of deciding what piece of the past, what belongings in the old house need to make the transition to the new house so that it might be the new home as well.

For me, in every move since I first became a classroom teacher, there is a manilla folder that gives me pause. It is similar to the memory boxes my mom kept for my sister and me as we were growing up.

It’s not labeled, and it’s outgrown what’s inside long ago. Still, a manilla folder is the right container.

If it had a label, it would simply be “The Good Stuff.”

This is a folder that holds the notes and fragments of teaching. There are letters from parents, drawings from students, notes passed in class. These aren’t all the piece of teaching.

The folder doesn’t hold any perfunctory Christmas cards clearly scribbled at the behest of a doting parent.

Instead, there’s the note from Kyle, whom I got to teach when he was in 8th grade. Toward the end of the year, Kyle and I had a handful of talks about how his group of friends was changing. He talked in the most nascent of ways about who he wanted to be in high school and beyond, and I held my tongue as much as I could because I knew he had to learn these lessons for himself.

Kyle’s note, scribbled in the scratch that belied the haste in which it was written is a simple, heartfelt thank you for simply being there and listening. I knew what it meant to me that Kyle was willing to work through his thinking aloud to me. It was this note, though, that let me know Kyle was also grateful for those conversations.

One card is written out in the experienced hand of a mother. I’d been able to teach her son three of his four years in high school. They had not been uneventful. His graduation was of the sort where those faculty in his orbit had looked at one another as he crossed the stage and traded a glance that said, “We made it.”

This mother’s note simply said she knew things had been trying and she was forever grateful for the time and care I’d shown her son.

The thing I remember most when I leaf through my file is that these notes arrived on my desk or in my mailbox as a result of no superhuman effort, no extraordinary circumstances. These came as a result of me doing my job and those most affected by that work taking the time to let me know they took notice and were grateful.

As much as these notes were a place of support at the end of days of teaching where the temptation was to give it all up to be a turnip farmer, they mean something else now. In my work supporting teachers, leaders, and learners, these notes and the things that led them to being are a reminder of the importance of taking time (just a few moments) to thank the people around me for the time and dedication they show when they do the work we do.

I love my file of good stuff. Even more, I love the idea that something I jot down might make its way into someone else’s good stuff.

Stocking our libraries with students

Brooklyn Art Library

“Harry — I think I’ve just understood something! I’ve got to go to the library!”
And she sprinted away, up the stairs.
What does she understand?” said Harry distractedly, still looking around, trying to tell where the voice had come from.
“Loads more than I do,” said Ron, shaking his head.
“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.” 
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

If we are to truly have conversations about students as publishers and have them consider copyright and what rights they want on the works they create, then there are other questions of infrastructure.

The main question, where can we put these things so that they will live on? Sometimes we think that they will be okay if they are put “online” as though the world is standing at their browsers waiting for a new student-produced video to watch.

It is not that we do not value student-produced content on the whole, but that we do not go seeking the fifth-grade research report about bees from four states or two districts away.

We have places for these things and the chance to imbue them with greater worth and an audience relevant to the places in which they were created – libraries.

One of the first questions I ask of potential digital content management systems is, “Can we catalog and feature student work in your system?” If not, move along.

As teachers increase the number of authentic learning experiences to which they introduce students, it’s going to be important that we not only capture that learning and reflection, but that we have a way of sharing it and cataloging it as well.

I work with middle and elementary schools where the younger students feed directly from the lower school to the upper school. As I work with teachers, I ask how their students are building resources and content for those who will come next.

This is obvious in Language Arts classrooms where students can write stories and create picture books for their elementary counterparts to be logged in the catalog systems of each school and accessible to students.

Less obvious might be the science report, the biography of locally-relevant historical figures, histories of businesses or farms within the city or town.

One of my favorite components of Howard Gardner’s definition of intelligence is the ability to create something of use or value to the culture to which a person belongs. Imagine a library with limited budget that can be stocked by the creations of students. Imagine the one student who has been tinkering on a novel or novella secretly who is given the chance to showcase his work across his school or an entire district.

If, as I’ve argued we ask students to consider how they want to copyright work they’ve released into the wild, then we should also create wild spaces where those works can graze and circulate widely.

Instead of a Teachers’ Declaration of Independence…

Dunlap Broadside [Declaration of Independence]


“No life is a waste,” the Blue Man said. “The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we’re alone.” 
― Mitch Albom

I was thinking yesterday about declarations. Specifically, those of independence. The urge was strong to write here about the need for a Teachers’ Declaration of Independence. It would be a bold document staking our claim and our beliefs in the sanctity and sovereignty of our classrooms and schools.

“These are places of learning,” it would shout in some in a powerful font, “and they will not incur invasions by outside influences or sayers of nay.” It would be a beauty to behold, and also, it would not be true.

We do not need a Teachers’ Declaration of Independence. We are not independent operators. Watching the sometimes evolving, sometime devolving situation in Philadelphia’s public schools, seeing the requirements placed on teachers exiting the university system, and watching as schools attempt to provide the best productivity possible under current and proposed FCC e-rate regulations all point to the idea that what happens in our schools and our classrooms is independent of nothing.

The above factors and myriad more are constantly raining down on all schools and teachers no matter their constitutions or pedagogies. We are interdependent on so many systems that to state otherwise would be a foolhardy foolhardy fallacy.

Instead, perhaps today is the perfect opportunity to wonder about what happens after the bounce of independence, when we look around and realize that we are enmeshed in the lives and workings of those around us.

When I work with schools and districts, this is a sentiment I try to engender first. “I will say some things, give some examples that you will like, and would love to try in your setting. Your gut, though, will have a ‘yeah but’ moment. You will think, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but here’s why it won’t work where I am…’”

The key to these moments is realizing we are interdependent operators and to shift the thinking to, “Yeah, that sounds great, and here’s how I would approach it given the nuances of where I work.”

This is interdependent thinking, and it opens the doors to what we see and understand as possible. It also moves toward building a way of thinking about students and co-workers that realizes the interdependent systems at play in their lives.

In my English classroom, students would come in for what I thought was going to be a great lesson, the looks on their faces and the words in their mouths would sometimes tell me that their thoughts were elsewhere. A physics project was bearing down on them and they were stressed and worried about meeting deadlines and understanding material.

By seeing things interdependently, I adjusted my plans. Would 20 minutes to discuss and work through physics be helpful to their abilities to focus on what we were doing in our classroom? Invariably, yes.

It was an approach that alleviated stress, helped pave the way for success elsewhere and set up our relationship as one that was responsive to needs and caring about how they were operating in the system we called school.

This is to say nothing about how what students left when they walked through the school’s doors was interdependently linked to whatever we asked, challenged, or hoped of them in our 8 hours together.

A declaration of independence is a beautiful thing. It allows for the understanding of individuals as individuals. A declaration of interdependence helps to frame one individual as connected to the individuals around him and to larger networks of individuals a state, a country, a world away. Surely, there’s room in the world for such thinking.

5 Links for the Week 7.3.14

Over at the work blog I started a series this last school year to collect and push out resources that might be worth the time and consideration of teachers who might happen by the blog. As that blog’s sleepy during the summer, I thought I might move the series here for a while. Assembled below are 5 Links that have gotten caught in my browser and won’t go away. I share them here in the hopes that I’ll be able to bring myself to close a couple tabs. If you have any suggestions for future 5 Links, leave them in the comments.

Link 1 – Maps just got a little googlier

Smarty Pins this new trivia game integrates Google Maps and gives players clues from a number of categories. You get your clue and you position your pin on the location you think the clue is referencing. My record number of questions thus far? Seven. I’m not proud, but I might be addicted.

Link 2 – Paper or Screen – Is one better?

The answer appears to be “Maybe.” This piece from by Julian Baggini pulls together some of the current research on the printed and eprinted pages and how they affect reading. Baggini writes, “Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing evidence that reading on screen or paper is better per se.” That said, how do we proceed with teaching reading?

Link 3 – Who’s paying your congressperson? has this piece about 16-year-old Nicholas Rubin who created a plugin which skins your webpage for lawmakers and then provides a fact sheet on where that public servant received their money. If I were a history or English teacher in a tech-enabled setting, this would be on my list of suggested plugins for students.

Link 4 – The Internet as a Public Utility(?)

The video above is from PBS Digital Studios, and I can’t seem to get enough of their content. Mike Rugnetta takes viewers through a 14-minute investigation of Net Neutrality and the “What ifs?” of it all. Well worth watching and keeping under your had to start class discussion, spark debate, encourage research, and help students be more thoughtful citizens.

Link 5 – Where hunger is

The map above, the Global Hunger Index map, is a powerful reminder of where we still need to work as a global community to help those who still do not have access to adequate nutrition. Oftentimes, we unleash maps and data on students without any clear connection to the real world, I could see this tool inspiring weeks of inquiry and investigation. Perhaps, it might even lead to student action.

The wrong way to think about copyright in the classroom

Copyright license choice

“Keep in mind that in the whole long tradition of storytelling, from Greek myths through Shakespeare through King Arthur and Robin Hood, this whole notion that you can’t tell stories about certain characters because someone else owns them is a very modern one – and to my mind, a very strange one.” 
― Michael MontoureSlices

We might just be teaching copyright wrong. Even those who regularly talk to their students about the importance of fair use, citing sources, and linking to original content are still missing the big ideas. They are still looking at copyright from a consumption model.

Salt-worthy teachers are talking to students about things like Creative Commons and explaining what it means when a content creator claims a specific kind of copyright for a given piece of work.

The boat we too often miss, though, is asking kids how they want to license the things they create. As the quality of what students can do with the tools in their hands increases, students are making things that have worth standalong projects or increased remixing and hacking potential.

If this is true, and the stuff that’s coming out of classrooms is high-quality, we owe it to our kids to ask them who they want to be as content producers and how they want the rest of the world to access their work.

For students blithely torrenting movies and other content from the web, the conversation can become quite different when asked if they want to freely release something they’ve spent time and energy creating. Do they want credit for their work? Do they want compensation?

Perhaps we are mum on this topic because we are worried about hte complicated possibilities of opening up the choices and opportunities that could arise if students start thinking about how they own their work.

Student A releases a report into the public domain. Student B realizes they can pull entire swaths of that report without being legally compelled to cite the source material. What, now, constitutes cheating? Plagiarism? Intellectual property?

This question and others like it are all the ways we should be introducing and learning copyright with our students. It’s ineffective and out-of-touch to teach only a consumption model of copyright. It ignores the productive, creative, prodigious work being done in our classrooms.

What kind of publishing do students want to perpetuate? How do they want to release their work into the wild? What is the difference between the access they want to provide others to their work and what access they expect to the work of others. Above all else, why?

We didn’t have control before

I’ve been spending a great deal of time with educators who are thinking about the changes that will be necessary once a greater saturation of technology is present in their schools and classrooms.

The most frequent topic under this umbrella – classroom management.

Principals and teachers are concerned over a lack of “control,” and that students will be distracted to greater extents now that devices are in their hands. Students will be distracted and engagement will flag, they worry.

Instead of doing what they are asked or expected to, many teachers worry students will do something else, something they choose.

These educators are correct. Faced with the choice to do school and learning as they always have versus an activity or piece of content of their choosing, students are likely to favor the latter.

I cannot blame them.

To prepare for this distraction and tension of control, schools are readying policies and school-wide language for students. They share it with parents who are equally concerned their children will stop paying attention and choose anything else over the prescribed curriculum and tasks.

Schools will tell students when they are allowed to have their devices out and when they are not. There will be signs in the classrooms that teachers can turn over or point to for clarification. Students who are repeatedly off-task will meet with restricted freedoms until they can show a greater ability to act in compliance.

I wish the answer they were giving was a different one. I wish when educators spoke to parents they made a different promise and instead said that they would be working to make their classrooms more interesting, responsive, spaces connected to students’ curiosities and questions. I wish they committed in faculty meetings, not to a common signal, but to a common agreement to be better at asking students to do things that matter in the moment.

We have been skating by in our classrooms. This was a hard truth I ran into head first when I started working in my first 1:1 environment, and my instinct was to intensify the ways in which I showed my students I was in control of their learning. It’s not an instinct of which I’m proud, but that’s often true of the novice learner.

Luckily, I had access to communities (online and physical) who shared both their practices and their thinking about interacting with students in well-saturated technological learning spaces. Following their lead and writing in this space as a place to reflect publicly, I came to realize holding tighter to control wasn’t in the interest of my students or my peace of mind.

Any shift so seismic as the introduction of connected devices to a classroom calls for a greater awareness of practice. We may turn toward that awareness or we may dig in more deeply to what we have always done and choose not to examine our practices and beliefs about learning.

My hope is that teachers and principals will choose to lean in to the conversations and reflections during this shift of opportunity and begin asking what they should stop doing and start doing, given the affordances of a shifting landscape.