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, 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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I need you

In May of 2000, my mother, the greatest educator I've ever known, fell into a coma.  Rushing back from an education conference in Kentucky, I joined her hospital bedside and remained there every minute that I could.  It was unclear whether she'd open her eyes again, but I strove to connect with her as if she would.  I relied on every sense I could engage, enveloping the room with the music she loved, letting a cup of fresh Dunkin' Donuts coffee sit with its lid off, holding her hand, and telling her stories, such as that of my encounter with the guy in Harvard Square who was wearing tie-dyed pants and yelling angrily at a pigeon.  For days she was unresponsive, yet I kept that vigil.  And then, quietly, one afternoon, she awoke.

Those beautiful brown eyes met mine, and I experienced gratitude like never before.  She was unable to speak and too weak to write, but her eyes made it clear that she had a lot to say.  At that point, her hospital room was full; doctors, nurses, family, and friends had gathered around.  I saw in her eyes confusion, fear, love, and frustration all at once.  She wanted to ask questions, relay what she was experiencing, ask for help, and yet she couldn't.  Until she locked eyes with me, held up one hand, and began to sign.

When I was young, my mom had taught me the sign language alphabet.  No one close to us was deaf, but my mom always stressed the value and beauty of communication in all its forms.  And so, together, we learned each letter, and practiced sharing messages in public when we were out of earshot or unable to talk.  I always found it cool to have a special means of "talking," but I couldn't have imagined its significance one day.

In a moment, I became her voice.  She spelled out each word, and I shared it with the room.  She'd nod with relief once her message was received and smiled bigger each time she successfully expressed herself.  I was literally giddy, and the moment she spelled out "g-u-m," I ran to the gift shop and bought every flavor they had in stock.  She just shook her head and giggled.

Her health wavered over the subsequent weeks.  There were highs and lows, but it was three words that she scribbled on a piece of paper that profoundly impacted me.  With a weak hand resulting in a slightly lopsided "n," she wrote "I need you."  I haven't been the same person since.

This person who initially showed no response, who couldn't demonstrate to me what she could or couldn't understand, who was afraid and upset with her circumstances, ultimately found her method of connecting.  She let me know, in her own way, that my efforts were not wasted.  If I hadn't been paying attention, I might have missed it.

What a powerful lesson this experience has offered as an educator.  And I'm not one bit surprised.  After all, my mom had for years taught children, adolescents, and even adults in prison.  She had raised two teenagers, bombarding us with "I love you" no matter how much eye rolling or sighing ensued.  It mattered not whether our response was immediate, appreciative, or clear.  She sought to connect with her children and learners, whatever it took.

I can only imagine what beauty would transpire were my mom able to teach in a classroom of today, with diverse methods for communicating, sharing, and demonstrating understanding.  I would be in awe, I would be humbled, and I'd be taking notes furiously in an attempt to pass onto my own students a portion of her gift.

My mom passed away ten years ago this past Sunday.  And yet I find myself less saddled with grief and more inspired to continue learning from her.  I will continue to attempt to connect with each of my students, even in the face of unresponsiveness.  I will maintain hope.  I will celebrate each success.  And I will pay careful attention just in case I discover that a student, in her own way, has shown that she needs me.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Power of Flexibility

Flexibility, as displayed by water, is a sign of life. Rigidity, its opposite, is a sign of death.
~Anthony Lawlor
CC image on Flickr by Auntie K

As a former ballet dancer, a teacher, and a technologist, it dawned on me what incredible power there is in flexibility.  It's not uncommon to assume an easily movable object is a flimsy one.  People tread nervously across suspension bridges and balk at the thought of buying a camera tripod as silly-looking as this one. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize the ingenuity and inherent power in flexibility. Surveying many educational environments reveals that some of our most powerful assets as teachers and learners are, in fact, the most flexible ones.  These assets include the wires beneath our school grounds, the resources we find online, and most importantly, our very selves.

The first time I learned about fiber optics, my mind was blown.  Pondering the fact that this cutting-edge Internet connectivity not only offers unprecedented bandwidth but nearly limitless possibility for growth, is mind-blowing.  As the immortal Fisch-McLeod collaboration "Shift Happens" highlighted, fiber optics:
 pushes 10 trillion bits per second down one strand of fiber... [is] currently tripling about every 6 months and is expected to do so for at least the next 20 years.  The fiber is already there, they're just improving the switches on the ends.  Which means the marginal cost of these improvements is effectively $0.
And to think -- more and more places of learning are connecting to one another via this infrastructure that is robust and infinitely scalable.  As I said, "Whoa."

With more of these lightning-fast connections at our doorstep, we find ourselves within reach of some of the most powerful learning resources that have ever existed on Earth.  Simulations, animations, readings, publishing platforms, images, audio, video, discussion fora, and networks of experts and passionate learners abound.  The quantity of choices intimidates many.  However, the beauty of having so many choices, the beauty of digital media itself is its inherent flexibility and potential to serve all learners.  As CAST outlines in its Universal Design for Learning, digital media offers:
  1. multiple ways of presenting information and concepts
  2. multiple ways of expressing ourselves and demonstrating understanding, and
  3. multiple ways of becoming engaged with and motivated by the learning process

Think about that.  Learner differences, flawed assessments, and apathy can all find solutions within the flexibility of digital media.  That is power.

Now that we've reflected on the flexibility and capacity of our wires and media, how are we doing as educators and leaders?  How poised are we to grow, scale, and reach beyond our existing state?  What more can we do to ensure that schools' technology infrastructure and resources are not disproportionately more flexible and therefore powerful than their people?

Tradition and precedence are strong forces, and in any capacity, "stretching" is often unpopular.  It requires time and patience, both of which are a premium in our over-scheduled lives.  However, athletes, dancers, yogis, and the health conscious alike will attest to the fact that taking the time to stretch one's muscles has numerous benefits.  Stretching improves performance, allows for greater range of movement, prevents injuries, and aids in recovery from exertion.  And it feels good.  Why should we not make it a priority to improve our own flexibility as educators and learners at every available opportunity?

My "stretching" is my ongoing professional development.  I do a little each day on Twitter, Google, and Skype.  Whenever I can, I seek out chances for more extensive, intensive PD.  At each turn, my ideas multiply, my reach expands, and my willingness to lean into the momentum of these changing times fortifies my capacity to lead students in powerful learning and growth.

    Sunday, August 15, 2010

    "As You Want to See Us"

    John Hughes's cult classic, The Breakfast Club, ends beautifully in two ways: First, it employs the magical 80s fist pump.  Try as they may, no member of MTV's Jersey Shore can top it.

    Second, the movie closes with a simple letter from the students serving detention to their principal.  The letter reads as follows:
    Dear Mr. Vernon, We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong...but we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us... in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain... and an athlete... and a basket case... a princess... and a criminal.  Does that answer your question?  Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club
    It occurred to me how easy it is for some educators, especially at the start of a school year, to classify students based on first impressions, hearsay, a preliminary assessment, or a review of a learner's past transcripts.  Instead of September being a time of renewal, an opportunity to build upon one's strengths, tap into one's passions, and improve in areas of struggle, it can become the time when teachers set in red ink their diagnoses for the year: good writer; poor problem solver; prodigy; handful; average.

    It is normal to have first impressions; it is the job of an educator not to cling to them.  One incredible teacher of mine embodied this principle, and I remain grateful to him to this day.

    Charles Ozug taught high school English among a large and seasoned faculty, yet what made him remarkable was his determination not to let bias influence his assessments.  Unlike any teacher I'd had before, he insisted that students submit each assignment using a pseudonym.  Simply put, as he evaluated student work, he didn't want to know whose composition he was analyzing.  Each project was a clean slate, a chance for every student to put her best foot forward despite any previous impressions.  Of course, post-review, pseudonyms were reconciled with the class roster, and Mr. Ozug examined our individual progress.  He saw potential for improvement in all of us and made that known.  I never felt more respected or optimistic as a learner, and the positive trajectory that he set is still paying off today.  I strive to instill in my own students that sense of perpetual opportunity and renewal, all year long, regardless of what feedback they've received prior.

    In a twist of fate, fifteen years after my high school graduation, while preparing a lesson plan for my own class using the StoryCorps web site, I came across a recorded conversation by Charles Ozug.  In it, he spoke with his son, and shared the story of how a cardiac arrest left him with permanent brain damage.  Unable to create new memories, Mr. Ozug also lost nearly each memory of ever having taught.

    Needless to say, I was deeply saddened to learn that this extraordinary educator cannot recall the interactions he had with his students, nor the impact he had on our lives.  He who masterfully offered each project as a clean slate is now deprived of the gift of remembering.  Moved by this realization, I developed an unprecedented appreciation for memory and the power of recorded words.

    Consequently, I decided to write Mr. Ozug a letter, reminding him of the tremendous impact he had on my learning and how I work to pay it forward with my own students today.  That letter remains one of the most meaningful pieces of writing I've composed to date.  I know for a fact I wouldn't have had the courage to write anything like it had he not been my teacher.

    Come September, many educators will size up their students early on, forming a sense of who's who from all the evidence they have at bay.  Great educators, though, will archive those conclusions as drafts and present each challenge to students as an opportunity for revelation, free from bias.  Under these conditions, incredible academic and personal growth can occur.

    My hope is that more educators will not resort to viewing their students as they want to, "in the simplest terms, and the most convenient definitions."  My hope is that, as often as possible, students experience failure as a chance for recovery and advancement as momentum for further progress.  My hope is that, to the best of my ability, I can emulate Mr. Ozug's example and create positive memories of learning that will last a lifetime.  With the help of my colleagues far and near, and with a foundation set by an extraordinary high school English teacher, I know I have a chance.