School For Beginners

At my school we celebrated another first day for students on Monday. I say “celebrated” because that’s what much of the day felt like – a celebration. From most of what I saw, heard and experienced, there was a great deal of happiness. Returning students glad to see each other again, new students quickly finding friends and getting to know their teachers. Among my colleagues there seemed to be this giant collective exhale when we could finally get into our classrooms and do what we do best with students in the room.

To have a “First Day of School” year after year, now feels like a gift. I feel a sense of renewal: each day full of opportunities to change something for the better.  As I get older, I find that being the best holds little value for me any more. What I do enjoy, however, is that feeling of getting better. I could see it in my target kicking to my 8 yr old goalie son this summer. The more I kicked, the more accurate I became with both right and left. I noticed it in the way that I was able to contribute to our department’s conversation about useful apps we might try. It shows up in the way my colleague and I are able to navigate new collaborative territory as we team teach whole grade levels for a few days before our individual class schedules are set.

Getting better is also a lot more fun that agonizing over the title of “best.” Based on a recent conversation about teaching philosophy, I created a poster which I look forward to sharing with my students. Initially it had two parts: What I teach students and What I learn from students. Then I added an “essential question,” admittedly a little tongue-in-cheek. Here’s the outcome:

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Part of getting better will entail determining what awesomeness looks like for my students from PK through 5th grade. Make no mistake – they have ideas and will gladly share. My challenge will be to keep my teacher lady self flexible and sincere enough to welcome those ideas, particularly when they don’t readily align with my vision of “Elementary PE for the Ages.” For sure, being fair is harder than it looks.

In the meantime, my teacher lady self is working hard to get to bed on time, stay hydrated and remember her manners. Not yet best but always getting better.

What is an institution?

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These last few days I’ve been following the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute going on at Mary Washington University in Virginia. I tuned in first for  Tressie McMillan Cottom’s keynote on Monday and enjoyed a “hallway conversation” via Virtual Connecting with Tressie, Sean Michael Morris and Cathy Davidson and about 7 other virtual guests via Google Hangout. Since I’m following from my laptop in the living room surrounded by my very personal, yet significant clutter, I’ve been feeling pretty comfy, laid back, fully at ease.

In between sessions my mind has been very active, particularly at night. After Tressie’s talk I woke up thinking about institutions and money. There was one sentence near the end which kinda grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It came up while she was describing the actual mission of her department’s launch of a new degree program in Digital Sociology. She asked:

“How do I develop a space for critical learning while also giving my students the benefit of an institution?

That’s what I’m trying to do.

Institutions actually do still matter. They are one of the ways that we accrue resources.” (emphasis mine)

She explained that for marginalized folks who do not have equal access to resources, institutions are a pretty good place to be. This made sense to me and mirrored much of my experience both as a student and teacher. I have benefited from the prestige, stability and opportunities of the schools I attended as well as at the schools where I have worked. This thinking also lines up with my parents’ strong belief in and commitment to a variety of institutions including our church, all the schools my siblings and I attended, and other civic and religious organization in which my mother in particular was very active.

Institutions and resources, sure. Pooled resources, shared commitment attached to tangible things: buildings, events, property, furniture…

But something was still itching. I began thinking about now. About the culture we have now. Our very digital culture which is stored increasingly in a so-called “cloud,” the companies we create are no longer “built to last” in the sense that Jim Collins writes about it. Rather, companies are called, “start-ups” as if that’s all they will ever need to do – to get started (and wait to be bought). While we are told that everything is open for “disruption” increasingly we need to ask ourselves if this is indeed what we want. So when we talk about institutions – of learning, of social value, of prominence, of tradition, it’s easy to create the mental picture of the special building, the rooms inside it, the purposeful people who inhabit such spaces. We can even imagine the habits, rules, norms by which the institution may operate based on our experiences of various forms. We do not lack notions of what an institution is or can be.

Yet linking institutions to accruing resources reminds me of how institutions are often created with very specific hierarchies in mind. An order is specified and forms the basis for how the institution will be run. Of course, then, an institution’s original resource is power. Power to make the rules, set the tone, define the group, determine a focus. That seems important to understand. Especially as we speak of disrupting institutions of various forms, let us keep in mind for whom “disruption” is likely to produce wins and for whom it may well manifest the opposite. I find no reason to believe that the power supposedly unleashed in the act of “disrupting” the institution will be evenly or equitably distributed.  On the contrary, it seems far more probable that the power may grow or shrink and likely remain consolidated in the hands of the few.

Over a year ago I published a post entitled, “How Much Higher, Education?” in which I wondered aloud about the sustainability of higher education (particularly in the US)  in its current set up of exploding financial costs to students minus the guarantee of improved standard of living in the short, medium or long range. In that essay, I expressed this wish:

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Then that warning wisdom arrives: “Watch what you wish for because you might receive.”

Do I wish for my children and grandchildren to create institutions? Do I aim to create institutions? Let’s say this. As I participate – as a parent, alumna, employee, donor, board member – I am part of the process of sustaining and shaping the institutions to which I belong and in which I have been a member. The degree to which I exercise my influence in different contexts involves choice and self-awareness. Only when I recognize my role and acknowledge my power, can I actively decide to become a force for change or to preserve the status quo.

So when I clumsily asked Jesse Stommel, founder of Hybrid Pedagogy, during a differnt “hallway conversation” at the lab about Hybrid Pedagogy and its status as, or part of an institution, I think what I really wanted to ask and understand and explore was:

What is an institution?

How do we understand it? What do we mean by that term? Are you and I talking about the same thing? What happens when we add “digital” as a descriptor? What is different about digital institutions if they, in fact, exist?

My wish for my children and their children is perhaps not so much that they go on to create a lasting thing or things – rather I wish them ample resources in the form of opportunity, fortitude, empathy, and purpose to grow their dreams into realities they can enjoy and take pride in. And the question of what an institution is, isn’t, should or shouldn’t be can stay on the table for all of us to contemplate and respond to.

 

image via Pixabay.com CC0

Twitter Talk, Year 3

I want to talk a little bit about Twitter. I do this periodically in different forms and I am still learning as I go. And I want to address folks who are perhaps new to this thing and are perhaps weighing the costs and benefits of engaging.

Some thoughts from my previous posts strike me as still true and relevant. On the one hand, I am quick to extol the virtues of this non-stop stream of eclectic content. On the other hand, I wonder about some challenges of engagement including, but not limited to overwhelm and unanticipated negative exposure.

Here’s the stuff I appreciate about Twitter now:

  • My people. Yes, my people. Through this platform I have developed relationships that matter. I have met people who encourage, support and challenge me. Over time I have learned about their lives, their concerns, their joys and struggles. And I, in turn, have been able to share my own. Safely and authentically.  It’s worth underscoring those last two words, because they are not a given on Twitter or other social media channels. This fact reinforces my gratitude for the community I enjoy and prize.
  • I think it’s making me smarter. The more I read, comment, re-read, and dialogue with others, the more thoroughly I am forced to clarify my thinking and develop my own positions.  This is definitely good exercise for my brain and my social and intellectual development building stamina, strength, flexibility and power.
  • I have opened myself to the world in ways I never thought that I would. Increased and more varied reading has prompted me to write more, to reach a growing audience, to explore areas of interest which extend well beyond what I thought I knew. My work is intentionally visible and public. That fact surprises me even now.
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Visible and public – on purpose. ‘Author, Audience and Parts of Speech’

  • Twitter allows me to distribute my work more widely. I blog here on my personal space, I use Medium for other posts, I’ve become a publisher and editor and I tweet (@edifiedlistener). I specifically use Twitter to share my content and to boost writing and perspectives I consider valuable. These actions go hand in hand for me. Without the contributions of others, I would not be out here engaging.
  • I’ve learned to have more fun. It took me some time, but I’ve developed my use of humor in under 140 characters. I chat more back and forth with friends, have begun to incorporate the occasional GIF, and find myself literally laughing out loud while scrolling through my feed.
  • My use of Twitter is still quite primitive relative to others. For me there is just the platform. I don’t use an add-on organizer like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck yet. I have 1 or 2 lists which I don’t really use. I’m okay with that. Efficiency is not my point at this stage.
  • As my follower count has climbed, the currency of established significant relationships on the platform has also increased. Meeting more & new folks can be invigorating and potentially distracting. Maintaining significant relationships requires a special effort and, in a fast-paced forum such as Twitter, a certain degree of vigilance. Making wise choices about whom you engage and recognizing how they affect your energy becomes more important.
  • My connections on Twitter have opened doors I didn’t even know existed. Thanks to @EdSpeakersCo I had the opportunity to travel to Denver for ISTE 2016 to address affiliate conference organizers in a keynote smackdown. Conversations with fellow independent school bloggers led to an accepted workshop proposal for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference to be held in December 2016. In this respect, Twitter has done more for my professional and career development than Linked In ever could.

This list is longer than I anticipated. As much as I aim to resist the trap of jumping on a particular branding  bandwagon, it is not lost on me that with this post and others I have written specific to this single platform, I am fueling the corporate machinery that keeps it all going. This post ends up as a wonderful display of brand loyalty and customer enthusiasm; a textbook testimonial. I want to acknowledge that and my conflictedness over it.

Rather than offer advice, I prefer to share my experiences (overwhelmingly positive to date) and leave it to you to determine what this platform might have in store for you. I am writing this after 3 years of fairly steady engagement. I feel like my growth by all measures here has been organic and manageable. I’ve had time to adjust and expand my parameters of engagement. And that has felt healthy. Which is saying a lot considering that we’re talking about social media.

Come for the intellectual buffet, stay for the kittens:

 

 

Love and Hospitality at #ISTE2016

Today is my last day at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference. Home beckons. My 8 year old is finishing up his school year and our family’s summer plans can officially get underway. My stay here in Denver has been outstanding in so many ways. I will be leaving with a lot of gratitude in my heart for the wonderful friendships I have had affirmed and broadened.

 

 

 

I’ve never been a fan of the selfie and of the broadcast culture that it implies. And now after ISTE I will wonder if I have changed my stance because throughout my days here I have become a willing participant and in some cases instigator of a group or partner selfie. What shifted?

The numerous pictures that I have gladly shared in my Twitter timeline are expressions of joy in friendship, community, and presence. To be able to see myself in person alongside people who have welcomed me into this space with such encouragement and warmth means much more than I ever imagined. In those pictures I can identify love and that’s clearly the source of the shift.

I woke up thinking about hospitality because a great deal of my well being over these last few days has been dependent upon the quality of hospitality that I have experienced. I used AirBnB and my host has been over-the-top generous and kind. He even loaned me a bike and helmet to travel between home and the convention center. (His name is Bob and I’ll gladly share his info if you contact me!) This has given me a great opportunity to get to know a small part of the city, to get in a little exercise, to feel autonomous in my arrival and departure decision making and generally look pretty cool for toting around a helmet all day (like I might be a local! ;-))

Then there’s this other layer of hospitality going on. Think about it: I am at this ginormous convention essentially on my own. But I only felt that way for a hot minute which I uncharacteristically shared on Twitter.

And guess what happened! My Twitter pals in the UK and South Africa chimed in and sent me virtual hugs! Then, as if they had been summoned, (which I suppose they had been) two members of my tribe appeared directly in my path and we touched base. It was really just a moment of clarifying directions and intentions for the next couple of hours but it was exactly what I needed: confirmation that I belong, that I have buddies, allies, friends in this sea of individuals. Think, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

After that I was able to carry on with confidence and seek out learning opportunities which nourished my need to feel connected to others. My afternoon choices turned out to be perfect: a demoslam put on by a group of Colorado educators followed by the life- and work-affirming session on digital equity.

When I walk through the convention center alone and find myself wondering if or how I will ever find my tribe members again, I notice how many people, although sitting in close proximity to each other, are engaged with their devices and not with the people around them. I observe this and wonder: What is isolation? What is alienation? What is Fear of Missing Out? What is relaxation? What is regeneration? Who are we with our devices and who are we without?

I have no answers. I do realize, however, in my own case, that my overall conference experience has everything to do with the very real, more-than-a-series-of-clever-emojis-can-express love and hospitality. Love and hospitality. Love and hospitality.

So as I take in my final day onsite, I want to think about how I invite those two abstractions into being for others. How do I show hospitality in a conference setting of over 16000 people? How do I enact love in the midst of strangers?

This is the conference for the International Society for Technology in Education where we’re big on tools and leverage and achievement. Sure, those terms ring the necessary bells. Yet we know that in our classrooms and communities, positive transformation derives from other sources. We cannot build community without love. We cannot move from stranger to friend without extending some hospitality. Love and hospitality. We can make these happen: here at the ISTE conference, in the corridors, into our online spaces, all the way back home.

Notes from #ISTE2016

No kidding. Another #ISTE post!

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EdSpeakers trio at ISTE2016: @edifiedlistener, @ShellTerrell & @Regionalconsult

First, the excitement: I finally got to hug @ShellTerrell, @Sarahdateechur, @CoburnCori, @ShanaVWhite! On top of that I got to hang with @RegionalConsult (Juanita Hines), @mrhooker, James Kapptie as fellow keynoters. Here’s a periscope link of the ISTE Affiliate Keynote Smackdown.

So now that the nerve-wracking portion of my attendance has passed, I can take some time to step back and “observe my observations.”

I brought one book with me on this trip: (Yes, a real hold-in-your-hands, takes-up-space-in-your-carry-on book.) Researching Your Own practice: The Discipline of Noticing by John Mason (Routledge 2002) which was recommended to me by a Maths educator friend on Twitter, @dannytbrown. The author’s premise is that developing professionals, particularly teachers, rests on the understanding that “change is not something you can do to other people but something you do to yourself, following the maxim that ‘I cannot change others, but I can work at changing myself’.”

We have heard this idea expressed before. Yet Mason’s emphasis on the practice of noticing in all of its cognitive and emotional and physiological facets, provides a surprisingly compelling impetus to try the exercises, to test oneself and discover both the challenges and rewards of actively noticing.

So I am at #ISTE2016 and working on noticing.

This morning I sat down to sift through some of the flyers in my bag. There are several from (I’m guessing) the biggest sponsors alerting me to events and presentations supported by their companies in some way. There are some key official ISTE resources – maps, program, contact info. One thing which caught my particular attention was the raffle booklet for various vendor giveaways. Naturally, you fill out a stub with your essential contact info and your name is entered to win some fabulous object or service. This is a common tradeoff.

But leafing through this booklet, I was struck by the language in many of the blurbs referencing the sponsoring product or company.

“Set your teachers free with _____________! … Enjoy the flexibility of presenting lessons anywhere in the classroom and increase personalized learning.”

“The tools you need to be wired, inspired, charged and protected.”

“___________ harnesses the power of technology to empower, inspire and support schools with end-to-end ed-tech solutions.”

“Imagine idea sharing without barriers. Turn classrooms into interactive learning environments with __________. It’s the easiest way to get students connected and sharing ideas from any device. Smarter collaboration starts here.”

“________ helps teachers turn parents into partners by giving parents guidance and actionable suggestions, simplifying communications and activities management and making engagement fun.”

“…an online eLearning platform to help students improve skills in reading, writing, math, and science, access interactive prep for the SAT, ACT, AP …”

“Presenting an ultra easy standing desk solution…”

” _________ is one of the fastest growing education platforms that develops solutions aimed to enable educators, empower students and engage parents.”

“…Teachers have the ability to orchestrate and deliver content, work collaboratively and monitor student PCs.”

“Here’s your chance to teach 21st century skills to your students with the award-winning ______________.”

“In higher education you need to be able to work smarter and not harder. ___________ is redefining the way that administrators and educators coordinate and deliver great work.”

“The award winning ___________ is ideal for differentiated instruction, communication of school-wide initiatives and recognition of academic achievements.”

“____________, your leading provider of innovative, evidence-based instructional solutions and services, want to help you bring your lessons to life with the ___________!”

“…Students ‘learn by doing’ in a virtual environment where it is easy to undo mistakes and make changes with no material costs or clean up…”

“Technology charged learning starts here.”

I notice the language of magic: “turn into…” I notice the emphasis on ease, simplicity, and competitive advantage (i.e. “award winning, leading”). “Solutions” are prevalent as are high hopes for engagement, inspiration and communication.

This is what I noticed.

It is terribly exciting to be on site for this huge convergence of educator energies and passions. At the same time I am poked and prodded by the awareness that we are, above all, in a sales environment. As teachers, administrators, consultants and bloggers we are being wined and dined throughout the conference by industry representation currently giddy with investment dollars. It’s impossible to be here and not notice that.

This is also the point at which I acknowledge my distinct perspective as a participant-observer. I have come here on my own dime and am under no obligation to a school or district authority to account for the time spent here. I have the luxury and privilege to be able to browse, take-in, network and contribute at my leisure and level of comfort. While the atmosphere is tangibly celebratory, I know that there are many folks, vendors included, who are here and have business to attend to.

So I’ll work on my noticing skills and try to rein in my impulse to judge, judge, judge. #ISTE2016 is an amazing place to be, to learn, to become aware.

 

Getting My ISTE Groove On

First of all, friends, I never thought I’d be writing a real ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) post, let alone about planning to attend and participate. In many ways this feels a bit surreal. Now almost 4 years into my EduTwitter engagement, I’m going to that annual edtech gathering to try out a very new challenge: public speaking.

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(c)-Elena-Rachor

On the Saturday before the actual conference begins there is an all day meeting of ISTE affiliate organizers and part of their day is dedicated to previewing potential speakers through a “Keynote Smackdown.” I am one of 8 speakers who will be offering a 4-minute trailer of what I’d be like in front of a larger audience. I owe this opportunity to Shelly Sanchez (@ShellTerrell) and @EdSpeakersCo, who recommended that I apply to take part. While I casually completed the google form and checked the box stating that I could be onsite for the event, I never dreamed that I’d make the cut, not even knowing what the scope of the cut might be.

In late May, I got a message informing me that I had indeed been selected to present. Of course, I immediately confirmed I would come, once I recovered from the shock. So now I’m on my way to ISTE2016. With a purpose. With a huge opportunity. With the benefit of an enormously supportive community.

When I step on the stage and begin walking the audience through my special take on the world, although I will be physically in the singular, the world I represent is plural and includes all of you.

You are:

  • all the kind people who have interacted with me on Twitter and helped me sharpen, broaden and rethink my thinking.
  • all the generous people who have taken time to comment on this blog or on Medium to share your perspectives and nudge my own.
  • all the men and women who specifically have encouraged me to build tables of my own rather than looking for space at the tables of others and have joined me and celebrated with me at said tables.

I would not be going to ISTE or thinking about public speaking if you were not here providing purpose, opportunity and community day after day, year after year. So when I report back on how it was, what I saw, how it felt – expect to hear about real people: People I finally got to meet in person, people whom I admire, appreciate and value for how they have already contributed to my growth and understanding. I probably won’t be talking so much about tools or strategies, but I look forward to sharing insights gleaned from being around people who navigate the tech and social media spheres in healthy and inclusive ways.

It’s time to go pack my bags, review my talk, check the weather forecast, and above all, to say thanks to friends, family and colleagues for making this happen.

 

Field Day Lessons

At my school we have a field day tradition in the elementary. For the space of almost two hours the whole population, PK-5th grade is in motion, rotating through 16 activity stations and 2 rest stops. Students are grouped into multi-aged teams of about 15-17 children, led by 5th graders. This year and last year we also offered 5th graders the opportunity to pair up to lead the activity stations. That meant, explaining the game, helping teams break into smaller groups and supervising play. Adults at each of the stations provided support where needed but generally it was up to the 5th graders to run the events and manage their younger charges.

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Field Day favorite: Freight Truck! ©ais_elementary

All in all, this year’s field day was, in the eyes of most, a great success. Teachers praised the 5th grade leaders for their fortitude and patience and perseverance in their roles of responsibility. The giggles, smiles and shrieks of joy from the PK-4th grade students were testament to the fun they were having throughout the morning. And the 5th graders, once they were officially done and able to enjoy their ice cream treat in peace, seemed satisfied and pleased with their work.

All good, right?

Well…Actually…

When I walked around the 4 spaces where the games were in progress, I noticed that the 5th graders after about 30 minutes often looked like wilted sunflowers. The group leaders seemed to be more upbeat but after an hour, many of them appeared a bit harried and pensive, rather than wilted. Some of them were having a really good time some of the time, but the impression I gained was one of overwhelm, exhaustion and a bit of boredom; which, given their assignments, was fully understandable.

On the following morning I went to their respective classrooms and asked them for feedback on field day – what they thought went well and what they felt could be improved.

This turned out to be one of the best professional moves I ever made: I got schooled in the danger of placing faith in my adult assumptions over the genuine desires of kids. While lots of kids expressed pride in their achievement, their enthusiasm for the event was audibly muted. And listening to their specific feedback I understood why:

In response to the question “What would make field day better?” Here is what they said:

“The 5th graders should get a chance to go to all the stations and play afterwards.”

“The teachers should help us control the groups at the stations.”

“You should tell the younger kids to listen to the 5th graders.”

“The 4th graders should know that they have responsibilities, too.”

“We got kind of bored. It would be good if we could switch stations after a while.”

Of course! It dawned on me. We gave them heaps of responsibility, let them lead throughout, and they got tired, bored and felt a bit shortchanged in the fun department. As I was wrapping up my reflections with the kids, one of the 5th grader teachers added the fact that as the tasks came from us, the adults, and not from them, the 5th graders lacked the same level of investment.

All along, my colleagues and I had been working on the assumption that this is what our 5th graders wanted and needed – an authentic opportunity to lead and manage. While that my have been true for some, and of significant interest to many, what they also wanted and needed was the chance to have fun like the other kids; to enjoy responsibility mixed in with distinct phases of carefree play.

Lesson learned. Next year we’ll aim for a field day which incorporates more of what students tell us that they want and work to design an experience that remains big on fun and responsive to student leadership needs.

It feels strange to make this huge event seem like such a downer. It wasn’t. Truly, much fun was had on multiple fronts. Being mindful and aware that not all students experienced the day in the ways we adults anticipated they would strikes me as precisely the work that distinguishes us as the reflective practitioners we strive to be.