Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"This might sound stupid..."

I was always nervous about raising my hand in class.  I second guessed what I was about to say, right until the moment that the teacher called on me to speak.  This was no exception when, in fourth grade, Mrs. B, a woman who was notorious for squelching students’ confidence and curiosity, pointed to my raised hand and said with audible annoyance,  “What, Sarah.”  Her genuine disinterest in my answer was clear as day.  Given her affect, I’m surprised I didn’t withdraw with a preemptive, “Never mind…” but for some reason, that day I didn’t.

 We had been learning about geography, and the subject at hand was a region known as Mesa Verde.  Mrs. B was describing the region as a plateau and pointed out how dry and arid it was.  I listened to her words, glanced at my textbook, looked at one of the illustrations, thought, thought some more, and recalled what I had learned from a visiting Spanish teacher earlier.  Mesa.  Verde.  Mesa (table).  Verde (green.)  Sometimes, when ideas percolate and questions bubble up, you feel something physical.  I did that day.  I think that’s why I kept my hand in the air even as she exuded not just apathy, but unmistakable disinterest.

 “What, Sarah,” she said with her eyelids half-closed.  When called upon to speak, I said, “This might sound stupid, but… we’ve learned that ‘mesa verde’ means ‘green table’ in Spanish.  The book shows that this region is a plateau (flat, like a table-top) and extremely dry (the opposite of green).  Is it possible that at one time, this region was lush and much better suited for the growth of crops and plants and trees?  Is it possible that that’s why the natives called it ‘Green Table’ at the time?  And what we see now is different because the planet has changed?”

 “Sarah, that. is. just. dumb.”

 That was her response, verbatim.

I felt completely deflated.  I don’t think I spoke up for quite some time after that.  Sadly, I think that was her goal.

 Exactly thirty years have passed since I asked that question and received that answer.  And I’ve never forgotten what she said, how she said it, or how she made me feel. 

 But what a gift.  

 I am an educator now, and as I have learned about the impact of teachers, the real goals of learning, the signs that our work is working… have I come to appreciate profoundly a thoughtful question from a student who is even attempting to make some connections.

 I know now that my question then wasn’t stupid at all.  I also know that even if I had been mistaken, I was on a path of inquiry, and that alone merits encouragement and support.

 Nowadays I consider myself lucky whenever one of my students generates a question that shows thought, connection, and relevance to the big picture.  I know I need to do better at designing my instruction so that more of these productive questions emerge.  I know that should one of my students preface a question with, “This might sound stupid…” I should put an end to such self-deprecation immediately.  And I know that such details as the look on my face, the tone of my voice, the intent with which I listen, can make or break a spirit.

Many parents believe Mrs. B was in the wrong profession or simply stayed too long.  I don’t know her whole story, but if I had the chance now, I’d listen.  If only to model what students deserve.  And since I can’t change the past, I’ll just have to be the person I needed in that classroom that day.  The smile, the nod, the nudge to think further… the person who knows that the world needs better questions and more people who generate them.  And the person who knows that teachers have the power to inspire others because of or in spite of their actions.  I choose the former.  What about you?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Learning that lives online lives on.

In 2013, a friend shared on Facebook his family's June ritual of "the annual burning of school papers."

As a former student, I can empathize with the simultaneous feelings of exasperation, catharsis, and celebration.  And yet, as a current educator and learner, I can't help but feel sad about this sight.  School, education, learning... shouldn't and doesn't have to be this way.

My thoughts today are the result of having been able to attend EdTechTeacher's Boston iPad Summit this past week.  In addition to connecting again with some wonderfully dedicated educators (and running into my hero, David McCullough, on Newbury Street), I was reminded of the myriad ways we can use current technologies to motivate and engage students creatively in unprecedented fashion.  Today's students can seek out and identify real-world problems and work to create actual solutions that are shared with a wide -- potentially global -- audience.  Learners can welcome feedback from peers worldwide who care about their work.  Students' efforts don't have to be solely subjected to the exclamation point-laden, red-pen scribblings of the adult in the front of the room.  

In the words of social studies teacher and presenter, Shawn McCusker, "The destination of a student's work should not be a pile."  Amen.  Not a pile on a teacher's desk and certainly not a pile of ashes.

This I've come to know: Learning that lives online lives on.  And whenever possible and meaningful, I believe we as educators should do what we can to direct it there.

As illustration, I learned on Thursday that one of Shawn McCusker's students developed this video to demonstrate her understanding of Industrial Revolution philosophers:  

Impressive work.  As you might imagine, this video soon garnered a number of hits.  Motivated by her growing audience and impact, the student asked her teacher if she could keep working on the project.  "Please may I keep working on this..."  About how many flammable worksheets has a student made this request?  Fewish, I would guess.

To date, this student's video project has gotten more than 60,000 hits.  And it continues to be a top Google search result for the topic, even above Wikipedia.  Though Shawn now teaches at a different school, his former student still contacts him each time her video reaches a new milestone.  Her work, and I hope her love of learning, is living on.

I share these thoughts not to bash one medium over another; a thought-provoking question written on a piece of paper or a whiteboard (or a stone tablet) can be a powerful catalyst for inquiry.  And yet, I'm realizing when it comes to learning how much the destination can affect the journey. 

I am in my sixth year of teaching a technology course for ninth graders that I developed from scratch, and I'm still seeking to improve it.  At every turn, I hope I can better design my students' learning so that what's ignited is their imagination year-round instead of their work come June.  And I hope that any previous fireplace rituals are replaced by fireside showcases of the efforts in which they take pride.  

And there should be s'mores.  Because, well, they're delicious.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A far-away reminder

Back in 2010, I was in a small restaurant in the tiny town of Port Douglas, Australia, and I noticed this plate hanging on the wall. The bartender told me he had served Bill Clinton there on September 11, 2001, and shortly after signing this plate as a keepsake for the restaurant, Clinton's phone rang, and he and his team abruptly departed. I looked at that signature for some time and was reminded of the profound global impact of that day. And as somber an anniversary as this is, I'm looking forward to meeting with my students today. They were one year old when the attacks happened. And I want to be sure they grasp why this simple white plate on the other side of the planet would stop someone in their tracks.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Priceless Discovery

Every year I introduce my students to the StoryCorps project.  Diving into a treasure trove of recordings of everyday people sharing stories of love, loss, struggle, humor, and wisdom is a joy and one of the most powerful catalysts for empathy development I've found.  I challenge my students to listen, to connect, and to reflect on the media used and how it impacts each message.

I invite my students to share the stories that moved them, and as a culminating project, our class creates our own StoryCorps site.  We have fun, we open up, and we learn more about each other than we thought we could.  I've always sensed that my students appreciate this experience, but a recent tweet from a young woman I taught four years ago brought some validation.

I "Favorited" it. If only for the awesome new job title.
As time marches on, I find that sites like StoryCorps and the Library of Congress's American Memory Project prove to be priceless teaching resources.  As many of us find ourselves texting more and sometimes talking less, there is something incredibly powerful in actively appreciating the human voice.  I have felt this for years.  But never more so than a few weeks ago when I found a broken cassette in a shoebox in my own basement.

Given the countless number of mix tapes I accumulated during my childhood, I'm surprised this particular cassette even caught my attention.  But it did.  It was nearly unmarked, but there on the faded label was my late mom's unmistakable penmanship.  There were just a few numbers written; they were first three years of my life.

Even with an awareness that it might just be blank, I was as eager to listen to it as I was disappointed to realize it was unplayable in its current condition.  I wondered who might be able to try to salvage it.  So, I took to Google.  Sure enough, I found hope.

After some online research and a reassuring phone call to audio engineer, Mark Lyon, in Santa Rosa, CA, I mailed the tape off, with extra bubble wrap and a tracking number that I held onto tightly.  Two weeks later, back in my hands was that tape.  Fixed and digitized on a disc.  My hands shaking a little, I pressed play.

For the first time since she passed away thirteen years ago, I heard my mom's voice.  It turns out that for years, she had kept a tape recorder handy and captured us "talking" to one another.  Baby sounds, singing, a play-by-play of my then three year-old brother trying to take over my playpen.  An interview with my great-grandmother, who shared through contained laughter that growing up with three brothers, she "had to learn how to fight... and [has] never stopped."

Tears.  Happy, grateful ones.  And many of them.

If I could find words to describe how it felt to hear her voice again, I would, but I can't.  At least for now.

What a gift that I will take great strides to preserve, cherish, and share with anyone who loved her.  What a privilege to have the means to restore old voices and capture new ones today with relative ease.  I hope we can find a way not to take that completely for granted.  I'd love to hear what my students have to say about that.

I can't help but wonder if there's any more lost media of my loved ones in an attic or a basement somewhere.  Guess what I'll be doing this holiday at Dad's house.  In the meantime, I am immeasurably thankful for this gem, for the connection it has just strengthened, and for the joy that it brings to me.  Most of all, I am thankful for the story that my mom started and which I have the privilege to help continue.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Tell Them First

Below is the speech I gave this evening at the opening ceremony of our school year.

Good evening. For those of you who don’t know me yet, my name is Sarah Edson. This is my fifth year at Walker’s, and I am an educator, advisor, and the Dean of Academic Technology here. If you’re wondering what that title means, it means I help the school to figure out the awesomely creative uses of apps and the Web to make teaching and learning even better. It also means that I remind students as often as it takes that SnapChats don’t actually disappear. They don’t. (And not just with screenshots.) If you’re in Ninth Grade Seminar, I’ll show you. Hey, even if you’re not in the ninth grade, I’ll show you. And the offer extends to teachers, as well... you SnapChat troublemakers. So, SnapChats don’t disappear. Consider this your first of many reminders. Anyway, it is great to see you and to join you in kicking off a new year.

Now, I know there are a lot of mixed feelings about being back in school. Some of you have become bored and a little bit stir-crazy as of late, you’ve been driving your families nuts, and you are psyched to be back with the people with whom you’re going to have so much fun this year. Others of you, I know for a fact, are utterly bummed that summer is over. You can’t stop tweeting about it either. After all, what’s there not to love about summer vacation… when every day is a dress-down day and sleep-ins are often the norm. It’s hard to beat that. But we’re here. And, whether you’re feeling it or not right now, it’s a good thing.

Still, for some of you, being here, you may be feeling a little bit nervous. For new students, things just aren’t familiar yet, and understandably that can leave you feeling somewhat uneasy. For returning students, you may have a particularly challenging year ahead. APs. College apps. A mailbox that just won’t open. New subjects, teachers, and classmates. A determined goal to make varsity. Well, I’m here to tell you, that even as a grown-up (allegedly) I can relate...

Some who know me know that I suffer from ridiculous stage fright. Really. Irrational, hands-shaking, completely senseless stage fright. In fact, when Mr. Brock suggested that I speak to you all of you, I wanted to sit him down and say, “Stephen. Brock. Dunn. What are you doing to me? I thought you were my friend. I will get you back for this.” [I kid, of course...  This is an honor.] But I’ve always had this annoying phobia. Growing up, I studied classical ballet pretty seriously. (I know, ballet is a genius pick for someone with incurable stage fright...) From the ages of 5-18, my parents generously drove me into the Boston Ballet studios for lessons 5-6 days a week. I worked hard. But come performance time, like clockwork… I would pace. I’d get light-headed. And no matter how many practice hours I’d put in, I would be riddled with self-doubt. But my mom did something quite brilliant, though incredibly simple. Like many parents, for my performances, she and my dad were nice enough to get me flowers. And always my favorite: peach-colored roses. But my mom, quite deliberately, would give me my flowers first. Hours or even days before I performed. Because she wanted me to know that no matter what happened out on the stage -- whether I nailed the choreography or fell flat on my behind, she was proud. Proud of my willingness to take on a challenge and face my fears. And, regardless of what took place, after I finished, she’d be on her feet clapping louder than anyone (even if no one else was clapping). And you know what? It worked. Every time. Knowing that I had that unconditional immovable support -- that put me at ease, which of course… helped me to perform even better. Simple. Brilliant. That was my mom.

I still think of that smart, caring move on her part and its impact to this day. Flowers first. Tell her before how proud you are. And when stage fright creeps in again, even now, I also remember to keep things in perspective and not to take myself too seriously. For example, some of you have seen two framed black-and-white photos I keep in my office of my mom giving the speech of her life at the tender age of 17.

She was called to speak about the promise and potential of young women in Washington D.C. in front of then President Lyndon Johnson, First Lady Ladybird Johnson, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Harold Wilson. … No big deal. Just your everyday, average audience. Combatting her own stage fright, she stood there, with unmistakable poise and grace, and she knocked the speech out of the ballpark.

In fact, my mom’s speech had such an impact, after she finished, as President Johnson escorted her back to her seat, he leaned in and said to her, “I wish you could write all my speeches.” The President of the United States said that to her. When she was 17. Not a bad confidence boost. I don’t know for sure, but I would put money on the fact that her parents, my grandparents, let her know beforehand just how proud they were.

So, I look at those images daily, and whenever nerves start to set in about some speech or performance or anything, I think to myself, “Really, Edson? You’re worrying about this? Are the leaders of the free world going to be there in the front row? No? Then you’re good. It’s gonna be fine.” (Mind you, I don’t actually talk to myself… that’s just my inner monologue.)

So, here we are, on the brink of a new year, waiting in the wings. For any of you who feel even an ounce of nerves, please know I can empathize. Many of us can. But I want you to know you have a pretty awesome support system, not just in your families, but in everyone who is sitting here today. Your friends (current and future), your teachers, your coaches, your advisors and dorm parents… We all have your back… as Nan Flanagan has said so eloquently about this, her alma mater: “At Walker’s, you know they have your back... whether what you need is a push or someone to help break a fall.”

As the year gets underway and challenges arise, and they surely will -- in the classroom, on the fields, in the studios, on Dogswood Day, anywhere in your lives, remind yourself that you have what it takes to face those challenges. You do. And, no matter what happens, you will never be without support from all of us. Before, during, and after.

So, to everyone, from the class of 2020 to this year’s senior class of 2014… Have a great year. Good luck. Make us proud. But more importantly, know that you already have.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hear Me Out

CC image on Flickr by Michael
I've been thinking about voice a lot lately.  It's a theme relevant to our current political climate, our culture's love affair with televised singing competitions, and the exponential growth of social media.  As an educator who focuses greatly on digital citizenship, I regularly reflect with my students on today's Web and the ways that our voices resonate through it.  But lately, I've been pondering a particular distinction: the difference between making noise and making our voices heard.

We all know that there’s no shortage of channels through which we can all make noise on the Web.  Indeed some of that noise is downright depressing.  And I'm not just talking about bad karaoke.  Online exchanges run the gamut -- from vapid to amusing to insightful to combative, condescending, or cruel.  But, in the noisy worldwide cafe that is today’s Web, we need to empower our students to find, refine, and effectively utilize their voice for good.  This is easier said than done, however.  For while the mechanics of publishing one's words are growing simpler by the day, the challenge of effectively conveying one's message remains.

Hopefully as educators we embody the motto of the StoryCorps project: Every voice matters.  But despite the increase in opportunities to express ourselves, we should also recognize how challenging it can feel to actually do so.  Making a point online can feel like trying to speak up in the middle of Times Square at its busiest.  And you might observe that those who manage to find a captive audience, at least momentarily, are The Naked Cowboy, David Blaine encasing himself in ice, or the group of fanatics shouting about Armageddon.  Surrounded by attention seekers and a perpetual din, it can sometimes feel like your voice hardly matters at all.

I think we need to pay attention to this.

The vast reach of today's social Web is only going to continue to expand.  If we're going to succeed at nurturing the next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs, and activists, today's students need to develop strong, clear voices.  And they need to recognize that that strength doesn't derive from any decibel level, font size, or quantity of exclamation points.  It comes from the power of the words they construct, the media they use, the personal connections they leverage, their capacity for empathy, and the patience they may need as social filters push good ideas upward.

Refining one's voice is a lifelong process.  It can be frustrating, hilarious, humbling, and rewarding.  It requires feedback, engagement, reflection, and the ability to listen well.  It is a process we should model for and share with our students.  Because our voices do matter -- including and especially the ones we may hear the least.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Little Wonder

This academic year is going to be an especially challenging one.  We're launching a school-wide 1:1 iPad program.  We're transitioning to e-books and working further to embrace digital workflows and significantly reduce printing campus-wide.  We're upgrading our network to be able to support not just iPads but all laptops, smart phones, and desktop computers.  We're continuing to encourage our faculty members, administrators, and students to create and leverage a PLN.  We're transforming the way our faculty and students learn with and from one another.  We're inviting family members to connect with these experiences both in person and virtually.

Along with a wealth of powerful new learning opportunities, I know we're going to encounter hurdles, growing pains, and moments (mobs?) of resistance.  Acutely aware of the challenges ahead, I logged into my email this morning to find this note from my seventy-one year-old dad.  Darnit if it didn't make me well up.

Subject: Little Wonder

When I think about students going to school, I recall how you wanted to go to the "Rumble Room" and then set up your own classroom and "read" a story to the dolls and stuffed animals. I remember how we took you to visit Saint John's Nursery School and you walked in without ever looking back. I especially remembered how you worked hard at being the best student you could be. It wasn't easy and you worked very hard, but you were intent on succeeding. It comes as no surprise that you became an innovative educator with a love of teaching matched only by your love of learning.  

Here's hoping I don't lose sight of what my father sees so clearly.  Here's hoping when heading in new directions, even when things don't seem to be going smoothly, I can forge ahead without looking back. Here's hoping I don't forget to thank my dad for instilling in me the gifts, courage, and humor that have gotten me this far.

Here's hoping those little wonders never fade.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Take note

"History is still in the making right here and I want you to see all sides of it."
~General Robert Eichelberger to his wife, Emmaline
9 September, 1945

I work in ed-tech.  My school is embracing tablets, mobile technology, and e-books.  And I'll be the first in line to extol the virtues of connecting students to the wealth of learning resources, both digital and human, that are available via the Web.  But I was reminded today of the treasures that can still be found on the printed page -- in ink -- that if we're careful enough to notice, may take us down a path of discovery we might otherwise miss.

On this Memorial Day, I opened up a published copy of letters written by my great uncle, Robert Eichelberger, a four-star general in the U.S. Army, to his wife during World War II.  I had ordered the copy through Amazon and was initially pleased at the good condition in which the used book arrived.  As I flipped through the pages, I noticed some underlining and some notes in the margins.  For a brief moment, I was slightly disappointed that the pages were marked up.  It was as if I sat down to let my uncle tell me a story, and someone was talking in the background.  I wanted to shoosh him... until I began to listen.

I've written about my uncle before.  He was second in command to General Douglas MacArthur, was superintendent of West Point when Pearl Harbor was attacked, made the cover of Time Magazine, and was recommended for the Medal of Honor.  I never tired of hearing my dad talk about his interactions with him or of reading the telegrams and letters he sent home.  He served humbly and honorably and despite extraordinary leadership, gained little fame.  He may not have become a household name, and part of that was due to his boss's ego, but he had some extraordinary stories to tell.  And here I was about to be a captive audience to his wisdom once again.

But there were those marks.  The words "See memoirs," a check mark, some squiggly lines, then...

"I was there... In fact I was wounded on that operation."
I've never been able to raise one eyebrow on purpose, but my right one shot up.  I continued reading.

"I was with him"
It hit me that the book I was holding, the edition I somewhat randomly selected online, was held and annotated by my uncle's contemporary, another eyewitness to history -- both my family's and the world's.  For me, this book just easily tripled in value.

Who was this reader?  What did he experience?  What had he lived through, and what impact did reading my uncle's correspondence have on him?

"I'm one of them"
These questions... the clues that invite you to keep going... this is why I love history.  And not the sequence-of-events-summarized-on-a-timeline-kind of history.  The layers-of-stories-and-voices-and-mysteries-that-we-have-the-privilege-to-explore kind of history.

I now wonder not only about the stories from this era but about the stories of this book itself.  I want to trace its path not just to the hands of the man who wrote it, but those who wrote in it.  I am not sure how far I'll get, but I have enough to begin a journey, and I'll go as far as I can.

What I do know is that the journey of a book is a story unto itself.  And I wonder what will be lost, as well as gained, as we print less and download more.

I wonder in what direction digital annotations will take us.  Crowd-sourcing and digitally connecting those with questions to those with answers will surely continue to help us examine and learn from the past.  However, in my quest to fill my virtual bookshelves and project the directions that electronic publishing is taking us, I want to remember to take stock.  I believe in the power of shiny new e-books.  But I also want to be sure that new, popular, and bold never eclipse quieter, enduring, and layered value.

In thinking about my students, I couldn't agree more with my uncle's words:  "History is still in the making... and I want you to see all sides of it."  I just hope I can lead my students in recognizing and appreciating those different sides and the media of their origin.  I hope I can help them take note of what they may find in the margins.  The paths of learning they may then forge could be some of the most valuable, intriguing, and rewarding of their lives.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

I'm Feeling Lucky

If you Google "Google's offices," you get all sorts of images that will more than likely make you sigh about your own workspace.  You see Legos, ping pong tables, comfy chairs, scooters, bright colors, video games, and lots and lots of food -- the antithesis of the life-sapping fluorescent sterility you find in so many environments.  On Friday I got to see Google's New York City headquarters in person, and my expectations were actually surpassed.  The building itself is breathtakingly expansive, and the space inside is invigorating.  The people, not surprisingly, are in good spirits, and with the levity that pervades, you might forget for a moment what seriously powerful work is taking place.  For the few hours I was there, I very deliberately soaked in the energy, took note of the details, and couldn't help but wonder, "How might these elements apply to other places of learning?"

My time to explore was relatively brief, but a few key themes emerged as potential ingredients for a place of inspiration, challenge, and love of one's work.

Play matters

Google's office embodies the mantra of MIT's Media Lab: "Lifelong Kindergarten."  Around every corner there are places to play, tinker, design, build, and experiment.  There are bins of Legos, expansive table tops, boxes of Mr. Potato Head, chess boards, a ball pit, pool tables, slides, and a multi-user gaming system complete with a big screen TV.  And when walking is too pedestrian or inefficient, one can grab a scooter to move from room to room.  A skeptic might wonder how in such an environment any work gets done.  However, research shows us how important play is beyond mere "fun." Play is practical, essential to problem solving, and an application of curiosity and imagination.  And in addition to many other benefits, it fuels a healthy morale.  What leader of learners wouldn't want more of this for his or her community?   Unfortunately, as students advance grade levels, play often seems to disappear.  The rigor of more advanced curricula becomes synonymous with stress, and the value placed on play disintegrates as the prospect of college looms.   What if we could take a lesson from Google and science and find ways to help our young adults play more as they learn?

Reflection breeds creation

Lining Google's hallways are computers of the past: an original Macintosh, an Apple II, even an old Atari complete with joystick.  Passing them you literally witness an evolution in thinking, design, and performance and you're at once awed, entertained, and inspired by how far technology has come.  This display then leads into collaborative spaces where Googlers are challenged to create their next best thing. The spectrum from reflection to creation is seamless, and employees gain perspective on how they stand poised to make their contribution to this great timeline.  How valuable it would be if our students could experience something similar.  How meaningful it is when they can envision and reflect on what came before them and then harness the motivation and tools to create and share what their intellect and interactions compel them to.

Comfort counts

Core to Google's success is its steadfast focus on the user experience.  An unusable interface, an unsightly design, or an ineffective tool will quickly be abandoned, perhaps even resented.  Google's office designers seem to grasp this truth on many levels.  To do good work that meets people's needs requires people whose own needs are met.  A space suited to herd cattle into restrictive spaces that tax the body and mind is poised to result in sub-optimal work and team members eager to jump ship.  On the contrary, spaces that comfort and support, with parts that can move and adapt, and make inhabitants feel welcome, valued, and wanted may just produce wonders.  You see these latter elements everywhere you look at Google.  I imagine that those who dwell in that space cannot help but feel valued and are therefore inclined to pass that experience on through their work.  I have to wonder, how comfortable are our learners?  How valued does their learning space (and the people in them) make them feel?  How many learners may feel eager to jump ship, and what can we do about that?

Google's offices are exceptional, and large revenue streams play a big part in that.  But I believe that the vision and values of Google's spaces are ones from which every school can learn.

a Google employee's tweet
I left the New York headquarters feeling lucky to have been there, and I hope I can do my part so that students leave school with the very same feeling.

Monday, January 31, 2011

"Hope is a good thing"

CC image on Flickr by Gilderic
In the last 90 days, I have been fortunate enough to step out of my own learning environment and participate in two exceptional events focused on education and innovation.  At the Hathaway Brown Education Innovation Summit in Cleveland, OH and Educon 2.3 in Philadelphia, PA, I was able to connect with passionate, dedicated, and wise educators who at once feel restless and hopeful about today's schools and learners.  The conversations at both conferences were diverse and compelling, addressing topics ranging from project-based learning and professional development to media literacies and empathy.  Amidst the many rich discussions emerged a particularly striking theme: how much our physical learning environments matter.

In all of my efforts to focus on my students, I've realized that I've zoomed in a bit too far.  Of course, I want to keep my community's learners at the center of our conversations, our planning, and our actions, but I cannot let that determined focus blur their surroundings.  It is a simple but profound truth that our environments shape us and can dramatically affect our capacity to thrive.  Relationships are and should be the core of any learning community, but the walls that surround us, the light that we let in, the sounds we generate, the connections we allow, and the energy that we nurture or repress can make or break a life.

In his keynote at the HB Summit, Bill Strickland reminded us, "If you build world-class facilities, you will get world-class students.  If you build prisons, you'll get prisoners."  One would think such a simple message would be self-evident, almost unnecessary to articulate, but its importance should not be underestimated.  As architects Ray Bordwell and Peter Brown shared with participants of their Educon conversation on Innovations in 21st Century Learning Spacesresearch shows what an impact such elements as daylight, acoustics, air quality, color, ergonomics, space allocation, and mobility have on student learning, self-esteem, and health.  We all want to help develop world-class learners, brimming with passion, ambition, courage, hope, creativity, integrity, resourcefulness, and the capacity to thrive amid freedom rather than get lost in it.  And yet, too many of us find ourselves immersed in environments marked by stoicism, constraint, deprivation, and atrophy.  It is a crime in and of itself that one can even draw comparisons between contemporary schools and prisons.  No wonder so many of us feel restless.

Pondering the unfortunate capacity for a learning institution ultimately to "institutionalize" its inhabitants, two images from one of my favorite movies come to mind.  In The Shawshank Redemption, two former inmates of the prison are portrayed riding a bus after their release.  Their posture is shown but for a few seconds, but each pose speaks volumes.  First, Brooks Hadley is shown riding the bus to his new job bagging groceries, gripping the bar in front of him, as he was accustomed to doing for the fifty years that bars confined him.
Brooks emerged from his half-century "rehabilitation" to find a world completely unlike the one in which he was forced to remain.  The pace, challenges, and freedom were completely unfamiliar, and Brooks found himself yearning for a past to which he couldn't return.  His friends reflect on the power of the building's walls and recognize that Brooks had become "institutionalized."  The character known as Red explains,
The man's been in here fifty years... This is all he knows. In here, he's an important man. He's an educated man. Outside, he's nothin'... These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized.  
Indeed Brooks grew to depend on those walls and that artificial environment, and sadly, we watch as Brooks loses hope and is unable to cope.

In contrast, Red, also a long-term inhabitant of Shawshank, manages not to succumb to the same forces that crippled Brooks.  As Red rides a bus as a newly freed man, he is depicted resting by an open window, taking in the air and the sun, gazing ahead, clinging not to a bar but to hope.
It becomes clear that those walls left their mark on Red, but they did not take his life.  And with relief, we watch as Red is able to thrive.

Knowing the risks of institutionalization and the qualities the next generation needs to forge ahead, how can we apply the wisdom of Bill Strickland and the visionary architects who are designing learning spaces that help nurture world-class learners?  How can we effect positive change in the environments in which our students dwell?  How can we work to ensure that our schools not only better align with real life but are real life?  How can we create communities that poise each learner to leave our schools with a posture of empowerment and optimism?  These are the kinds of pressing issues that passionate educators are tackling together with the belief that our learning institutions can do better.  Ask those who have participated in events such as Educon, and most will attest to the power of such gatherings to energize, invigorate, and restore our faith in one another and our students.

No wonder so many of us still have hope.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Your Place in the Race

A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they're capable of understanding.
Steve Prefontaine

It wasn't that long ago that women were denied entry into distance running races.  Despite records of women having completed marathons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prior to 1968 women were not allowed to compete.  Many believed that females simply weren't fit for such athletic feats.  And so, decade after decade, officials declared that women had no place in the race.

This didn't stop women from running, of course.  There's an almost primal drive that compels some humans to move, to push, and to explore.  Despite my love for my comfy chair, blankets, and lap dog, I feel that drive.  I run to think, to quiet my thinking, to let out stress, to see the world, to appreciate nature, to feel alive.  I race myself, I cheer on others, and I love going further than I've ever gone before.  I simply can't fathom being told I'm not cut out for the challenge.

Just nine years before I was born, a determined young woman decided to show the world that despite policy, her place was not on the sidelines.  On April 19, 1967, Kathrine Switzer entered the all-male Boston Marathon, having signed up with just her initials.  That cold, rainy morning, with three male friends at her side and significant training under her belt, she stepped onto the starting line.  Off they went.  Word spread quickly that a woman had infiltrated, and though fellow runners supported her effort, race director Jock Semple made it his goal to remove her.

Boston, April 19, 1967,  photo courtesy of AP/Wideworld Photo via
Several miles into the race, having caught up on a truck, Semple lunged for Switzer, attempting to pull her off the course and yelling, "Get the hell out of my race and give me that race number."  Fortunately, two things occurred: Switzer's friends sprang into action, and a photographer captured the scene.  While one of Kathrine's friends struggled to loosen Semple's grip, Kathrine's 235-pound boyfriend, Tom, channeled his inner hockey player and cross-checked the old man.  Semple went flying.  Momentarily concerned for his well-being, Tom looked to Kathrine and said but three words: "Run like hell."  And that she did.

Kathrine finished the Boston Marathon.  She completed the distance in four hours and twenty minutes.  And yet her finish was just the beginning.  Her efforts, and the media attention from that race, helped compel the running community to officially recognize women as endurance athletes and welcome their participation.  Kathrine went on to run 35 marathons, winning the women's division of New York in 1974, and achieving a personal best of 2:51 in Boston the following year.  Two hours and fifty one minutes.  Were I to quit my job, train full time, tie on roller skates and a jet pack, I couldn't touch that time.  It's that good.

Thankfully, I've never experienced the kind of discrimination Switzer and her contemporaries did.  Though a few years ago, I did encounter an older gentleman who saw me on the starting line of a long-distance winter trail race and asked me if I was in the wrong location.  The short course began on the other side of the hill.  I told him I was indeed in the right place and smiled quietly as I passed him at the halfway mark.  He never caught up.  I did applaud him as he crossed the finish line, though the hot chocolate I was holding made it difficult.

I share Switzer's story with my students each year, as there are too many life lessons from it not to.  I ask them to ponder the courage it took Switzer and other pioneers to challenge the status quo.  I ask them to think about what might have happened if the photographer had not captured the interaction between Semple, Switzer, and her peers.  I ask them if such photos were captured and published today, how the Web would likely affect policy change.  I ask them if anyone has ever conveyed to them, directly or indirectly, that for some event or activity, they were better suited for the sidelines.

I wish I could be there to cross-check anything that attempts to hold my students back.  But I know I can't.  So instead I hope to help them discover how determination, hard work, and a good team of supporters can get them through just about anything in life.  And I hope they come to know that no matter what "race" their passion drives them to, nobody can tell them that they don't belong.  I want every one of my students to know that from now on I've got her back, and I'll be that little voice in her heart telling her to run like hell.