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.

131/365 Trust the Start

My new job has me thinking quite a bit about the flow of systems. For the majority of my career, I’ve been at one end of the educational system – in the classroom – working directly with students and other teachers to make learning and formal education better.

Now, I find myself somewhere in the middle of the system. I’m not in charge of anything, per se, at either end of the system. I support teachers and students and I support the leadership of the district. Sometimes (not often) that support looks drastically different.

I’ve found myself realizing and hoping for a specific string of trust to be enacted and embodied by the district.

It starts like this – Trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning.

From there, direct interactions should be set up in such a way to give them support they need to do what they feel they need to do to help kids. This would be at the principal level. From there, outside the schools, intermediate district personnel should move to support principals based on the assumption that they trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning.

If I believe that’s what principals believe, I’m going to be better at my job.

The same assumption is what I hope for those to whom I report. As I move through schools, help teachers and administrators learn and consider new practices, I hope that those in charge of me assume that I trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students growth and learning.

I want others to assume it in the system, and I want those others to assume that I believe it as well.

If we all operate from this believe, if we all trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning, a foundation is established on which we can build, improve and design pathways to even greater capacity.

Assuming teachers are doing all they can is not assuming that they are doing the absolute best, it is assuming that they are doing their absolute best in the moment, and that it can always be augmented.

If I work with a group of teachers to build capacity around some new tool or practice, approaching our time together from the assumption that they are doing all they can will result in conversations much more replete with respect, listening, and care than conversations based on the assumption they are slacking, skating, or faking their way through the school year.

I want the best for anyone who endeavors to add to the learning, understanding, and choices of students. The best way I can think of to support and work alongside these folks is to trust they are doing the best they can and move from there.

92/365 Teachers Should Probably be Readers

The same way that we must want for adults what we want for students, we must do as adults what we would like students to do.

Particularly – reading.

In the schools we need, teachers not only encourage literacy and learning, but they participate in it themselves as well.

Every school has one teacher who can point to the filing cabinet drawer when you walk into her room. “That drawer,” she will tell you, “has eighth grade in it.” Pointing to the other drawers, she will explain that the lesson plans and overheads for other years are all stocked away in the even that she be moved to teach another grade the next year.

Sadly, many schools have many versions of this teacher.

The high-tech version of this teacher can point to the flash drives with text files and powerpoints archived across grade levels.

Teachers must seek and engage in reading for the same reason we want our students to read – to find new ideas, challenge old ideas, and build on what they already know.

Admittedly, given the papers that need grading, the lessons that need planning, and the resources that need creating, picking up a book about teaching is not the sexiest of out-of-school activities. The right books, though, could mean finding new practices that alleviate the load of traditional teaching.

While toolkit books that preach this or that newest “best practice” can be helpful for a quick top-off when teachers are struggling to figure out how to make their next units of study interesting, they aren’t the best reading. These books are the paperback romance novels of the education world. They offer quick escapes from the problems of practice and don’t ask their audiences to think too much about what’s happening or why.

The education books worth the time it takes to read them, engage teachers in thinking about why and how they do what they do in their classrooms or other learning spaces. Like the best literature, they are complex, thought-provoking, and devoid of easy answers. Readers must also do the work. Dewey, Friere, Lawrence-Lightfoot, Holt, Dweck and many more present ideas about education and schools that ask us to evaluate our preconceptions and remain open to the new worlds they would have us create through out practice.

Admittedly, the time crunch mentioned above is a barrier to teacher reading in the same way the hyper-scheduled student struggles to find time to read anything other than the chapters assigned by his teachers.

Schools can help here:

  • Interested faculty can organize a reading group that meets regularly over a common planning period, after school, or during lunch.
  • In spaces where common interest cannot be mustered, teachers can turn to online spaces like goodreads.com for communities of readers, book suggestions, and conversations about what they read.
  • School leaders who understand the value of common language in building culture can ask faculties to study texts they’ve selected as speaking to the mission, values, and goals of a school in order for all concerned to build an understanding of the common vision of the space.
  • Ten minutes of every faculty meeting could be opened up to faculty members sharing pieces of something they’ve read in the interim since the last time everyone got together.

If we want schools to be temples built to the exchange of ideas, we must create the spaces necessary for those exchanges and we must be constantly working to access, synthesize, and consider new ideas. Reading, though not the only way to access these ideas, can be a strong gateway drug for learning.

66/365 Stop Hacking Things (If that’s What We’re Doing at All)

Image from the movie Hackers

My first hackers

Remember about a week ago when we could talk about “innovation” and be cool? Those were the days.

I’m not sure what the half-life of a buzzword in education is these days, but I’m thinking, as private companies start to catch up with the markets opened up by new media in education and their marketing departments start to push out more glossy 1-pagers at conferences, the life of an edubuzzword is likely to be diminished.

The next word on the chopping blog…er…block is likely to be hack. Look at the next conference program you’re handed and chances are some panel or another will be hacking curriculum, professional development, assessment, recess, technology, school lunches…

It’s as though education has been given a shiny new ax and been set free on language to hack as we please.

I don’t mind all this hacking. I’ve been known to profess doing a bit of it myself. What concerns me is that we might not be hacking when we say we’re hacking, and we might not be hacking what we say we’re hacking.

Such uses are bound to dillute the terms as we’ve diluted 2.0, read/write, next generation, and 21st century before.

I suppose, in an era when pundits, politicians, and other leading personalities bandy language around as though it has no meaning, such a carte blanch approach is to be expected.

I also understand the arbitrary nature of language. The word tree and an actual tree have no inherent connection. But, this fragility of vesiles should mean greater care in our use of them, not less.

Yes, hacking is a simple term, and no great harm will come from its dilution into its mass application outside of context and thoughtful use. When we do this to words, we dimish what they can do.

21st century barely made it to its namesake with any of its spirit intact. At this rate, we’ll be making the case for 45th century skills by 2025.

Hacking is a thing, and hackers do a thing. Saying we are hacking a subsection of education like classroom management when we mean questioning classroom management approaches, researching proven effective practices of classroom management, and developing plans for the implementation of those practices of classroom management misleads others about what we hope to accomplish and makes it more difficult to call hacking hacking when we truly intend to do it.

Language will change, and we will always ask words to do new things. Applying those words because doing so is in fashion is not engaging the full set of tools with which we are equipped. It is not even a race to the bottom. It is a race to the popular.

Class blogs should be open spaces


The walled discussion board almost feels normal at this point. As a tool, I can understand the use of a discussion board as a community builder and idea incubator. I’m a fan of those concepts.

I’m still calling wangdoodles when discussion boards are utilized for awkward or inauthentic purposes, but I can see their usefulness as an archive of correspondences for an online community. On SLA’s MOODLE install, all community members have access to a discussion forum that’s been live since the first year – SLA Talk. New freshmen are part of the fold, and their thoughts intermingle with those of the first graduating class when they were freshmen. It’s readable, documented institutional memory. An observer is just as likely to find a thread discussing student language use in the hallways as they are to find a debate about the latest movie release. It is a simple artifact of community online.

This semester, I’ve two courses implementing blogs as assignments.

For one course, a few students are assigned each week to post their thoughts on the reading leading up to that week’s class. Each other student is required to reply to one post per week with the option of passing on one week during the semester.

The posts have yet to be mentioned in class discussion.

In the other course, each person is encouraged to post weekly. The posts’ content might be related to the readings or simply to the topic for the week. No replies are required, and the posts are weekly referenced by the professor in discussion.

If blogging is to be required for a course, the latter instance comes closest to ideal practice – not required, but preferred; not for nothing, but tied to class.

In both instances, our class blogs live within the walled garden. The thoughts with which my classmates and I play will never find footing in a feed reader or enjoy comments from those who have reading lists contrary those chosen for us on our syllabi.

They should be public. Comments from anyone around the globe should be invited and commented. Our thoughts should mingle in the cyberether.

This is true for two reasons.

One, the refinement of thinking benefits from a plurality of opinions, and the Internet offers a cacophony that would challenge us to sculpt our thinking in ways we could not imagine.

Two, an open class blog asks participants to clear their throats and use their public voices while connected to a class setting in which they can find support when their voices are challenged. More than once, I’ve felt pushback when posting in this space. Early on, it was difficult to take. Sure, I wanted people to read what I posted, but how could they disagree with me?

Opening our blogs would give my classmates and I the chance to write with the training wheels of a cohort of support while enriching the experience by exposing us to the democracy of thinking on the web.

Walling a class blog runs the definite risk of students taking their opinions into the world untested and unprepared for criticism. It also robs them of the practice microphone a class blog could become.

Learning Grounds Episode 001: In which Megan discusses her learning, inclusion, and professional collaboration

For the first episode of the podcast we spent a cup of coffee with Harvard Graduate School of Education student Megan. Over the course of a grandé, we discussed Megan’s drive to implement a truer inclusion program for special needs students as well as the difficulties of professional collaboration when new teachers meet existing systems.


Things I Know 281 of 365: Schools should stop casually dating their teachers OR Why schools should be more like frats

Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, s’far as we know.

– Thornton Wilder, Our Town

The more readings I complete for my courses this semester, the more it seems that American school systems see their teachers as short-term boyfriends or girlfriends. They invest just enough to keep the relationship friendly and interesting, but not so much as to risk vulnerability should the relationship go south.

While I am tempted to criticize this line of thinking as jaded or cynical, I stop short of it. The transience feared by many districts and schools if they invest too heavily novice teachers’ professional development was exactly what took place in my own career. My school district in Sarasota, FL invested thousands of dollars in my professional development as part of a pilot 21st century learning initiative. A year after the training completed, I was recruited away to teach in Philadelphia. With me went Sarasota’s investment.

Perhaps the district should have required a commitment on the part of pilot participants that they would spend a minimum length of time in the district following program completion to limit attrition to other districts. Even this seems implausible. I had no plans of leaving Sarasota prior to admission to the project, and would gladly have signed such an agreement.

Instead of shifting admission and selection practices for professional development, schools should stop thinking of professional development as casually dating all of its teachers and look for a model that better serves its purposes.

While the idea of teams as described by Richard Hackman in his examination of what makes a great team serves as a possible alternative, it lacks a specificity many schools would require for high fidelity of implementation. I agree with Hackman’s assertion of the importance of setting the conditions in which it is likely a team will work effectively and reach desired goals, and in applying this thinking to schools, we must consider the expectations for team membership. Specifically, how do we build successful teams that account for and accept member transience rather than working to play the odds of building a team around those members seen as least likely to depart?

In this space, I offer collegiate fraternities and sororities as models for the way schools should begin to think about their team members and how to support them. Such institutions are built around an acceptance of high annual turnover, the need to constantly pass on institutional memory, and build unique cultures attractive to a multitude of applicants in a system awash in options. Additionally, fraternities and sororities maintain loose networks across the nation and honor their individual histories while shifting to maintain contemporary relevance.

These organizations meet each of Hackman’s conditions for team effectiveness, account for annual turnover and allow for adaptability. What’s more, they thrive on what Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink identify as the three kinds of knowledge most common to leaders in Sustainable Leadership – Inbound Knowledge, Insider Knowledge and Outbound Knowledge.

By engaging all of these knowledge types jointly, fraternities and sororities create the kind of stability, boundaries and adaptability Hackman describes and set the stage for reversing many of the negative trends in professional learning.

What I want to know is how this shift in paradigm could best be brought about. SLA gave me a fair bit of this feeling. Though not a teacher there anymore, I continue to feel connected to the school and the people. I continue to feel a sense of ownership and stewardship in a way I might have if I’d rushed a frat in college. If this is how SLA was designed, how can an existing school shift its culture to bring about those same feelings of belonging?

Things I Know 137 of 365: Conversations are excellent professional development

Change that eminates from teachers lasts until they find a better way.

– Roland Barthes

Continuing to tie up the year during SLA’s weekly professional development meetings, it was my Professional Learning Community’s turn to present what we learned during our independent study in the first semester.

My very small learning community consisted of Mark, a math teacher, and me. That’s it. Just two of us.

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t love learning with Mark in the first semester.

What began as a plan to find new tools and writings to bring to each meeting shifted into something more directly applicable – conversation.

Each time we met, Mark and I shared what we were doing in our classes and brainstormed ways in which technology could transform students’ learning into something more engaging, authentic and differentiated.

As Mark admitted, I’ve a bit more proficiency with tech and learning. Often, our conversations consisted of me learning about the math concepts he was teaching his students and then throwing out whatever ideas came to mind.

Because I realized math is Mark’s domain of understanding and had no qualms admitting my deficiencies in its instruction, I didn’t hold back my ideas, nor did I take offense when Mark dismissed an idea as impractical.

Had I paired up with another humanities teacher, my ideas might not have flowed so freely, and any negation might not have been so freely accepted.

When it came time to plan our presentation to the entire faculty, we experienced a moment of pseudo-panic. Had we been collecting and cataloging tools and articles throughout the semester as we planned, we would have been set. Read this, now try this, now plan a sample lesson, now share, now critique in small groups. It’s the unsweetened cereal of professional development.

When it came time for today’s presentation, we decided to share not only what we learned about the tools, but what we learned about process as well.

For us, learning had been social, collegial and immediate.

In the first five minutes, we gave an overview of our process.

Next, I asked each faculty member to think about where they would rate their comfort with technology in learning on a scale of 1-10.

“Now, use your fingers to show your number. Without talking, line up from highest to lowest.”

They did.

From their, we broke the line in half. The highest end of each half was paired with the highest end of the other half and they were broken into couples.

Then, down to business.

Laptops in tow, the lower numbers in each pair explained what they’re doing in their classrooms through the end of the year. The higher numbers listened, asked questions and then started brainstorming ideas on how tech could be better leveraged to help with learning.

Mark and I milled about the room.

At each table I stopped, a conversation similar to the conversations Mark and I had throughout the first semester was taking place.

After a few minutes, we paused, asked people to share what was going well and then gave a few more minute either to continue on their topics of discussion or to let those who had been brainstorming share what was going on in their classrooms.

For the finish, I asked the group what they noticed about the past 25 minutes that stood out to them:

  • People were working cross-disciplinarily. With one or two exceptions, each couple was made up of teachers from different disciplines.
  • People were talking one-on-one about their practice.
  • People were talking about things that could immediately affect classroom practice rather than living in the hypothetical.

We also talked about what could be done to continue this kind of conversation and collaboration. The thing that stuck the most was the idea of moving outside people’s normal routine to seek out the feedback of our peers.

That’s the key of it. In a structured, focused way, we asked people to move outside the routine of talking to those in their disciplines or the routine of curriculum design and have a one-on-one conversation about improving how they teach.

That should be the routine.