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 www.kathrineswitzer.com
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.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Follow Me

Image embedded from Life.com
Sixty nine years ago today, my great great uncle received word of the attack on Pearl Harbor from a place that would change the course of history -- he was at his desk as Superintendent of West Point, the United States Military Academy.  His journey as a leader had just taken a pivotal turn, and the students and educators whom he was leading were about to face a challenge as profound and real as they come.  Others in his position might have issued orders, articulated objectives, conveyed words of inspiration, and returned to their desk.  Uncle Bob, however, chose instead to say, "Follow me."
Image embedded from Life.com
In the aftermath of the attack, Robert Eichelberger left for the Pacific and took command of the 8th Army. He led men into battle, digging into the trenches with them, and insisting that those around him call him by his first name.  "I'd just as soon you called me Bob," Time Magazine reported him saying to an aide.  Respect was never lost, and in fact, lives may have been saved, as an audible "General" could have drawn additional fire from the enemy.

Eichelberger's leadership produced extraordinary results.  His men seized the first Allied victory in the Pacific theatre at the Battle of Buna.  Though he was never one to accept praise, Uncle Bob went on to make the cover of Time Magazine, ascended to become second in command to General Douglas MacArthur, and ended up retiring as a four-star general.  Throughout his journey, he continued to lead others in learning, training, and advancement and attributed every accolade to those around him.

This humility originated from the little boy he once was, the youngest of four brothers, who was often labelled an "underdog" and whose own father doubted his capacity to be accepted by West Point as a cadet.  "I doubt you'll get in," he was told.  Imagine if he had heeded those words.

Try as I may, I can never fully wrap my mind around the experience of my relative both as an academic leader and as a military strategist.  That so many lives depended on him, that he led by example, developed other leaders so well, and was the first to face fire inspires me.  Time described his students recalling him as "full of discipline with good humor, given to stopping cadets for chats on the walks, endowed with the name-memory of a hotel clerk.  Behind his back they (like his staff) called him 'Uncle Bob.'" (Time Magazine, September 10, 1945)

I often think, especially as the Pearl Harbor anniversary returns, that if I can emulate in my own environment a minute fraction of my uncle's leadership capability, I will be thrilled.  To move beyond doubt and cynicism, to rise to challenges, to lead by example, to build trust and earn respect, to connect with those in your care with humor and humanity, to honor everyone who contributes to your team's progress, is to have learned from his example.

I will return to school tomorrow, and while it is a vastly different era and context from 1941, I will take to heart and put into action my uncle's lessons.  Whatever "battles" I face, whatever challenges cross my desk, I will rise to the occasion with conviction and if ever I feel inclined to tell others what they ought to be doing, I will reflect on my own actions and invite those who are willing to follow my lead.

Uncle Bob can be seen by General MacArthur at the 10-second mark

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"if you just dig"

CC image on Flickr by Zach Dischner
Dig within.  Within is the wellspring of Good; and it is always ready to bubble up, if you just dig.
Marcus Aurelius

Few would equate New England winters with a time of abundance and hope.  Frozen waters lay still, frost hardens the ground, and the sun's prolonged absence sends many bodies and spirits into hibernation.  In such harsh conditions, it hardly seems time to plant seeds, dig a well, or seek harvest of any kind.  Logic seems to tell us our efforts would be wasted.  Not now.  Save your energy.  Maybe later.  Who hasn't had this train of thought before?  And yet, one cold morning in February, 1985, in a suburb of Boston, a remarkable woman saw a need too great to let the season's conditions hold her back.  So, she ventured out with the few tools she had and a fierce determination to help sustain lives on whom winter was taking its toll.

Despite its proximity to several affluent communities, Hull, Massachusetts was experiencing economic hardship.  Many families struggled to put food on the table and keep warm.  School drop-out rates were disheartening, and businesses that once served as the lifeblood of this seaside community were forced to close their doors.  At the time, Hull seemed to lack fertile enough ground for much to take root.  But that didn't stop this woman on a mission.

Diane was not one to spot a problem and waste too much time talking about it.  And, so, she began collecting donations of food and clothing from neighbors and friends.  Her collections filled a single box at first, but it was a start.  And one, Diane insisted, was far better than none.

Diane then found a small storefront in Hull for lease, secured the space, and began transforming those donations into a food pantry and thrift shop.  She reached out to the community and engaged both those in need and those who could give.  She set up channels of communication and exchange and made this storefront the hub.  She called it Wellspring.  Families who were struggling to buy groceries and clothing found affordable resources and a steady supply of hope in the encouragement, counsel, and warmth of Diane and her volunteer staff.

In spite of its midwinter roots, Wellspring gained momentum and began to flow.  With Diane's vision and the enduring support and leadership of many staff, volunteers, partners, and community members, Wellspring continues to flourish and serve today.  Its services have expanded to include counseling, shelter from domestic violence, literacy programs, adult education, computer learning, career development, and continued sale of discounted books, meals, and household goods.  In 2002, the center's home expanded into a multi-storefront property.  And as a result of this organization, countless families have emerged from times of need, better positioned to thrive independently.  I don't think even Wellspring's founder could have imagined its reach or impact a quarter of a century later.

I also don't think Wellspring's founder could have imagined the lengths to which community members would go to support the cause.

Wellspring's Drowned Hogs, 2010
Every February, for fifteen years now, a group of hearty, brave souls known as the Drowned Hogs, have taken to the frigid waters of Nantasket Beach to raise money for Wellspring.  Each year they run in, some in costume, some in very little, while spectators gather along the shore.  Some choose to remain warm and dry and donate what they can.  Others dress up in banana costumes and viking hats and charge the waters with wild abandon, knowing the pledge sheets they've brought make the effort worthwhile.  And the magnificent thing is, they return in greater numbers every year.

And this past Tuesday, pro NFL running back, Kevin Faulk, returned to Wellspring for his third consecutive year to assist with the food bank, bringing a line of visitors and donors that went out the door.  Twenty five years after Wellspring opened with a handmade sign and a single box of donations, a pro football player appeared enthusiastically on the scene, ushering in new waves of support, resources, and hope.  Just imagine if in 1985 Diane had succumbed to winter's numbing forces and passed on the chance to dig.  I am so proud and so grateful that she didn't.

Now imagine your own environment and the needs that you identify on your journey.  What now?  As educators, we face some challenging circumstances and dilemmas: How many needs do we encounter that cause us to feel powerless?  How often does feeling powerless lead to passivity?  How many times are we faced with a dearth of resources?  How often does doubt prevail?  How can we overcome the perpetual feeling that it's not the right time to dig?

On the eve of another winter, I wish not to retreat into a slow rhythm of complacency.  I wish to be able to see seeds and visualize their growth.  I wish, despite cloud cover and layers of frost, to dig with determination, to nurture, and to let wellsprings bubble up.  I wish for the Drowned Hogs' screaming banana costume guy to silence any voices of doubt or procrastination.

Surely, no outcome is guaranteed, but no potential should remain untapped.  And life has shown me, through the works of my mom, that wonders may emerge, if you just dig.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

License to Learn

CC image on Flickr by Jaimito Cartero

The majority of students that I teach are going through a significant transformation in life: they're learning to drive.  Most of us can remember what a momentous shift it was moving from the passenger's seat into the driver's.  Some embrace the experience with great enthusiasm, while others are apprehensive and uncertain.  Many display a combination of all three.

The significance of this transition occurred to me recently when one of my students completed her in-class, inquiry-based assignment "early" and expressed boredom while sitting at her Web-connected computer, waiting for her classmates to catch up.  "Really?" I wondered.  Really.  I knew it was time to have a talk.

It occurred to me that this brilliant student is beyond capable of sustained inquiry.  She possess the aptitude and skills to unearth a myriad of answers, evidence, causes, illustrative examples, and derivative questions.  Yet, as a product of an "obey the authority and follow along" schooling model, she was accustomed to doing exactly as asked and then waiting for her next order.  In short, she was used to being a passenger, not a driver.

All that she lacked, I discovered, was permission for pursuit-- in essence, a license to learn.  I decided I could not meet with her again soon enough to begin helping her to understand that no matter what the assigned task, her learning need not have limits.  You may dig deeper.  You may look further.  Don't worry about where your peers are with this task.  Go as far as you can go.

Of course this incident also gave me pause to reflect on the questions I pose to my students.  How conducive to exploration are they?  How relevant and engaging are my learners likely to find them?  I feel I can always do better.

I am a huge history buff and for years have pored over the correspondence between the exquisitely expressive John and Abigail Adams.  One sentiment expressed by Mrs. Adams to her husband as the North American colonies faced a new possible reality of independence from their sovereign ruler read as follows:

"You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you an inactive spectator."
~ Abigail Adams to John Adams, 16 October 1774

Mrs. Adams was expressing her belief in the great potential of her husband's mind and her desire to see that mind in action.  Were I half as eloquent as Abigail, I would say the same thing to that "bored" student -- and to all of my students.  You ought not be inactive spectators in the classroom but rather active participants in pursuit of learning.  Know that you not only have my permission but my utmost support to seek, explore, push, challenge, connect, create, and share.  In past classes, worksheets may have had a final question, but your capacity for perpetual inquiry does not.

I know that one conversation with a student or class will not undo years of conditioning, but I hope that my dialogue, example, motivation, and influence will ignite a hunger for learning based on my student's passions.  I hope that with time I can extinguish any inclination for a computer-wielding student to say, "I'm done.  Now what?"  I want each one of my learners to know that they have a license to seek answers and questions as far as their mind will take them.

With this matter in mind, serendipitously, I tuned into the recent footage of the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners and dug up a t-shirt I bought during the semester that I lived in Santiago in the late 90s.

There it is, a message complementing the words of Mrs. Adams that I want to share with my kids.
I am right here with you.  Together, we will identify targeted destinations, and I will help you with suggested routes, tips, and fuel, but you are now in the driver's seat.  Buckle up, and go as far as you can go.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Digital Footprint PSA

I had just two minutes and a microphone.  Below is the message I shared with our Grades 6-12 students at assembly this morning.  Basic but important.

CC image on Flickr by HaoJan
I'm here to make a quick Public Service Announcement.  My intention is not to preach but rather to pass along some good advice.

Social media, which includes things like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are amazing things.  They let us connect and share on a level we've never been able to before in history.  With this power, though, comes a tendency sometimes to overshare and to share without forethought.  I want to draw your attention to this trend, and beyond reminding you of our school's rules, I want to be sure you don't lose sight of the big picture.  

As those of you who've taken my class know, college reps, recruiters, and employers are not just looking at your grades, essays, recommendations, and test scores; they're Googling you.  They're reviewing your digital footprint, that is, your representation on the Web and the collection of marks left by your use of social media.  Your comments, tweets, photos, videos, and status updates may affect their decision whether or not to offer you a place in their organization.  And because they're carefully examining all this, so should you.

Keep in mind, a digital footprint is not a bad thing.  On the contrary, it can be a great thing.  It can reflect your participation in athletics and the community, and it can showcase your talents, intelligence, creativity, and humor.  The good news is, you can manage and maintain your digital footprint and make it work in your favor.

So, this weekend, I encourage you to take a few minutes to explore and, if necessary, clean up your digital footprint.  Here are four steps to get you on your way:
  1. Google your name and any variations.  Be aware of your presence on the Web.  You don't want any surprises to arise during an interview down the road.  If you find something negative, talk to a teacher.  We'll help you.
  2. If you use social media, check your privacy settings.  Make sure they're updated and reflect your (and your family's) willingness to share.
  3. Review your friends list.  Refine it so that you're absolutely certain you're only sharing more personal ideas and items with those whom you know and trust and those who have your best interest at heart.
  4. Finally, even with privacy settings in place, think before you post, and post as if... Post as if your parents or guardians can see everything.  Post as if the Head of School can see everything.  Post as if an admission rep from the college of your dreams can see everything.  Because, technically, it's possible.  And while you might have forgotten that you posted some off-the-cuff remark, the Web hasn't.  And I don't want anyone in this room missing out on an incredible opportunity in life because you posted something when you were tired, bored, annoyed, or just not thinking.
If you'd like help managing your digital footprint, if you have any questions about use of social media or our school's guidelines around use of technology, don't hesitate to see me.  I'm here as a resource and an advocate for you.  Thanks.

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.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"He broke a rule, and I can't praise him enough for it."

CC image on Flickr by selva
Nine years ago my friend made a decision that saved his life.  He went against everything he'd been told for years, used his own judgment, and is alive today because of it.

Mike worked on one of the top floors of Tower 2 of the World Trade Center.  After the first tower was hit, he received word from upper management that there was no reason to panic and workers should return to their desks.  Mike's gut told him otherwise.  And so, at the risk of behaving as an insubordinate worker, Mike headed for the stairwell.  It had been drilled into his head, as it has been for many of us, that in case of emergency, you should take the stairs, not the elevator.  And so he began his descent.

The stairwell Mike entered was soon a crowded one in which the pace of movement was excruciatingly slow.  In more time than his instincts were comfortable with, he had only descended 20 stories.  More than 80 remained.  Remembering that there was an express elevator to the ground floor in one of the nearby lobbies, Mike stood immobile, with a decision before him.  He could do as he was told and remain in the stairwell, or gamble on the express exit.  Assessing the situation and using his judgment, he chose the latter.

Squeezing his way into the nearby lobby, Mike stood as close to an elevator door as he could get.  As people continued to pour in behind him, he soon found himself once again immobile and for a moment wondered if he had made the right decision.  And then he heard a ping.

The elevator doors in front of him opened, and Mike stepped forward.  As many as could entered, and down they went.  Mike made it out.

He's spoken little of what he saw, heard, and felt as he stepped outside.  I'm not surprised.  I can't imagine the challenge of working through those kinds of sensory memories.  And I can only hope that time has helped him heal.

I also can't imagine the panic his parents experienced as they watched the media coverage that day and went without word from their son for hours.  My father, an ordained minister, drove over to support and comfort Mike's family during this ordeal.  Mike's dad left his office and drove home as quickly as he could to join his wife.  Arriving there after my father had, I imagine the image of a priest sitting in his living room at least momentarily made Mike's dad fear the worst.

Eventually Mike reached a working phone and made the call to his family that so many waiting loved ones were praying for that day.  What emotions must have run through that home.

Weeks later Mike's mom spoke to the community, thanking them for their outpouring of love and made a point of commenting on her son's judgment that day.  "He didn't do what he'd been told," she said, both smiling and tearing up.  "He broke a rule, and I can't praise him enough for it."  Those words have stayed with me for years.

I can't begin to relate to what Mike and his family went through that day.  What I can take away, aside from the gratitude I feel for his survival, is the lesson offered in the value of judgment superseding policy and protocol.  If you haven't yet watched Barry Schwarz's TED Talk on "our loss of wisdom," you must.  He eloquently explains how "rules often fail us" and emphasizes the urgent need for all of us, especially educators, to apply "practical wisdom" in our everyday lives.  He argues that a wise person:
  • knows when and how to make "the exception to every rule"
  • knows when and how to improvise
  • knows how to use moral skills in pursuit of the right aims
  • is made and not born
Our world would be a better place with more wise people.  And we educators have the power to affect how much wisdom pervades our world.  I find that both daunting and overwhelmingly inspirational.

As I face this nascent academic year with my students, my hope is to help them develop their sense of judgment.  I hope I can help them discover both the value of rules and the occasions when our wisdom may justifiably compel us to break them.

Mike's story teaches us not that stairwells are less safe or that emergency procedures have no merit.  Instead, it illustrates how critical thinking, analysis, judgment, and courage can be our most powerful survival skills in life.  His story also teaches us how good fortune, whatever you believe its source to be, is something that we ought to actively appreciate daily.

And so, I am grateful that my friend is alive, that his family has peace, and that his story offers some profound life lessons.  And I'm grateful to be in a position where I can connect learners to those lessons.  It just so happens I was supposed to use a different lesson plan on Monday -- one without Mike's story, but I've decided... I think I'll break the rules.

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.

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010

    Tuning Out, Tuning In

    There is a movement sweeping road races these days that forces participants to part with an old friend -- one without which many runners think they can't function: their headphones.  More and more race officials are stamping their event with this logo, insisting that any runner caught with headphones will immediately be disqualified.
    logo from www.coolrunning.com
    To many, this seems harsh.  Even downright cruel.  Message boards abound with comments, such as, "But I ALWAYS run with my iPod!,"  "Um, I'll hit the wall without Bon Jovi," or "This simply isn't fair."

    This mindset is understandable.  Music is a huge motivator for many as they face physical and mental challenges.  It is for me.  Little gets me through time on a treadmill better than an adrenaline-fueled playlist.  However, out on the race course, in the real world, it is an entirely different game.

    There is something profound that happens during races, at least to those who will let it.  Powerful connections can be made.  Newbies can benefit from veterans, and vice versa.  Moments of struggle can be overcome by a few choice words from a supporter.  Friendships can be made.  And motivation can be permanently enhanced.

    Runners who venture out onto a race course with headphones isolate themselves.  As the ear buds go in, so does the focus.  And aside from the safety risk, the chance to connect with everything and everyone around you is greatly diminished.  Old habits of remaining isolated and insular may feel comfortable simply due to familiarity and routine, but there is a huge opportunity cost.  The connections one can make with fellow participants, organizers, volunteers, and spectators are not to be underestimated.

    As a runner and a teacher, I can't help but see the parallels in education.  With the start of a new school year on the horizon, we focus.  We warm up, we get pumped, we breathe deeply, we visualize success, we admit that we're simultaneously nervous and excited, and we brace ourselves for the sound of the starting bell.  In this moment of anticipation, the best thing we can do for ourselves and one another is remove any and all barriers that shift our focus entirely inward.  One powerful racing moment illustrates this truth to me like no other.

    While running my seventh marathon, I found myself making conversation with a first-timer.  Initially, he called out to me by my bib number.  "Hey... 2002... uh, this may sound weird, but you've been a great 'rabbit.'  I've been pacing you for the last ten miles, and this being my first full, it's been hugely helpful."  I had no idea I was helping anyone in any way with my own running, but inevitably I was pleased.  And I was excited for him.  I knew firsthand that he was in the midst of a life-changing experience.

    Around mile 25, my new friend, Ryan, admitted he was struggling.  I saw doubt in his eyes, and I could empathize.  I gave him a warm smile and shifted his focus from his pain.  Having run the course before, I pointed out a landmark ahead of us.  "You see that arch?  We go left there, and as soon we do, the finish line will be in sight.  You'll hear the crowds.  The sound is deafening, and the energy is tangible.  I hope you're ready to feel like a rock star, 'cause you're going to be."  He smiled, but his doubt didn't fully dissipate.  "I just... my legs... they're spent," he said.  "Ryan, I am not going to let you crash.  One foot in front of the other, that's all you have to do.  Step lightly, breathe deeply.  The end is in sight, and I will drag your ass across that finish line if that's what it takes."  Apparently the mental image of my petite frame lugging him down the finisher's chute was enough levity to give him a needed boost.  So, we turned the corner, and that gorgeous red finish line came into view.  Ryan and I shifted into fifth gear and finished strong.  I turned to him to shake his hand and say congratulations, but I barely got two syllables out.  Ryan gave me one of the biggest bear hugs I had ever received.  Those "spent" legs of his managed to lift me off the ground.  I hung there suspended for a few seconds and beamed.  I'll never forget it.  Nor will I forget the image of the watery eyes that he tried unsuccessfully to mask.  Or that expression of doubt that was eliminated from his face.  We, two perfect strangers, reached a goal that was enhanced by the simple fact that we connected.

    Had my headphones been on, I'm quite sure that connection and shared accomplishment simply wouldn't have happened.

    So many participants in the journey of learning are used to an insular experience; they fear, doubt, or simply lack awareness of the potential of connecting with others.  Anyone who has grasped the benefits of a Personal Learning Network (PLN), though, will attest to the exhilaration and reward of tuning out in order to tune it.  Whether you're aware of it or not, your actions may serve as inspiration to others.  A needed boost or dose of wisdom and perspective may be right there for the taking.  It's our choice whether we leverage this or not.

    Newbies and veterans alike: it's time to take the headphones off.  Speak out, share, inquire, inspire, challenge, support, and cheer.  The journey will be so much better for all of us because of it.

    Sunday, August 1, 2010


    2003 grad school reflection

    A few months before my fifth birthday, my family moved from Washington D.C. to the South Shore of Boston. Like any kid facing a move, I felt a little sad and somewhat apprehensive. In an attempt to lift my spirits, my mom told me we were moving into a “nifty” (her word) old house and that I’d have a very “special” room. Being the gullible little sheep that I was at five, my eyes grew wide, and I perked up. I didn’t really understand what she meant at the time, but for the moment I felt better. Within a couple of years, I would come to appreciate her description a great deal more. It turns out that a rather banal feature of that very “special” room in that “nifty” old house transformed my entire outlook on the subject of history: the floor.

    By age eight, I owned my first pair of tap shoes, and my parents’ one requirement was that I not tap in my bedroom. Aside from inducing headaches, I’d be scratching up the floorboards, which it turned out were original to the house – constructed in 1789. For some reason, this factoid began to fascinate me. I became fixated on my floor. I’d fall asleep at night wondering what sorts of shoes had scuffed the floor before mine, and furthermore, what were the people like who had worn those shoes? Did a girl my age ever live in this room? Did she also like to dance? Did she have a big brother like I did? I wanted to know. So one day I approached my parents with the reasonable request to “tear up the floorboards in my room” to see if anyone from the past 200 years had ever left a diary. My parents managed to contain their laughter and instead offered a compromise. They led me upstairs to the attic and let me rum amok.

    Our attic was a bit of a maze, with closets, wardrobes, various rooms, and lots of dark corners. As the house was a rectory, the many generations of residents before us had left countless items in boxes and on shelves. In the three years we had lived there, my parents hadn’t even had a chance to sift through everything themselves. So with flashlight in hand, acting as a mini-Indiana Jones, I began exploring the space. There I discovered old National Geographic magazines dating back to the late nineteenth century, a bottle of cough syrup from a pharmacy on Boylston Street in Boston from 1896, dusty (rather ugly) old paintings, and countless books. I also found old ginger ale bottles, a big sealed barrel, and a pile of chains in a corner. While the heat, dust, and sheer monotony of looking at “old stuff” might have driven away 99% of eight year-olds at that point, my imagination was running wild. What was in that barrel? Why was someone drinking cough syrup in an attic? What the heck were those chains used for? And once again, I found myself asking, is there any chance that someone left a diary amidst all of this so that I can learn their story?

    Well, I never did find a diary in that attic, or anywhere in that house, but I never did lose my curiosity to let people from the past tell me their story through their “stuff” and through their own words. Indeed I went on to complete a historical diary-based thesis my senior year in college. I also went on to develop a strong passion for studying the more personal side of history, connecting objects and primary sources to the people who created and used them. I went on to admire authors like David McCullough who successfully humanized historical figures through his research and writings. Finally, I went on to grad school with the hope of using technology to make history more engaging and accessible to students by connecting them with the images, sounds, and writings of different eras.

    It’s possible that I would have developed an appreciation for history no matter where I grew up. However, I am certain that that “nifty” old house and that very special room triggered a precious, unique fascination with history, and more specifically with the human experience. While here at HGSE, and hopefully in future endeavors, I hope to develop projects that will humanize history, bring its characters to life, and help students connect with the experience of living in the past.

    Monday, July 26, 2010

    Camp-Like Learning

    CC image by kcolwell via Flickr
    Working at a school without having summers off is a mixed bag. Watching my skin go from beige to ivory while my friends twitpic their beach-tastic adventures sends the Debbie Downer "wah-wah" on a loop in my head.  Nevertheless, I do get some precious downtime to work on curriculum, tech upgrades, PLN-building, and my own professional development, all in flip flops.  Additionally, the whines of "Ms. Edsonnnnnnnnn, the printer's out of tonerrrrrrrrrrrrrr" are reduced by nearly 92%.  But most relevant to this post, I have the opportunity to witness several camps in action throughout my school's campus.  And I have made some observations that got me thinking: Camp learning is different, and why can't its equivalent take place year round?

    Learning Sprawl
    First, I notice that kids are learning all over the place.  One quick glance reveals that learning is taking place in more places than on any average day from September to June.  Kids gather on the lawns, in hallways, the lobby, the auditorium, the computer labs, the gym, the dining hall, the athletic fields, down the road, and occasionally even in classrooms.  Sometimes the spaces are assigned, and sometimes the gatherings are spontaneous and organic.  And it is evident that in each of these places, the kids are engaged, productive, and enjoying their time.  It is a clear illustration of the simple fact that we tweet about daily: learning need not be confined by the bell schedule and classroom walls.

    Is it just me, or do kids naturally work more in teams at camp?  Whether during an assigned activity or a pick-up game of kick-ball, I've seen kids self-organize, appoint leaders, and support one another in setting and reaching goals in a way that at times seems almost stifled during the school year.  The summer view from my window seems like it ought to have the following subtitles: "Need I make it clearer, you dolt?  Learning is inherently social, kids are inclined to work together, and schools ought to nurture this more.  Way more."

    Peace of Mind
    The look on a typical kid's face in February is vastly different from her expression in July.  The arrival of summer lifts tremendous amounts of weight off of kids' shoulders, and they experience a delicious taste of freedom.  And yet, as I observe at these camps, that freedom ushers in entirely new learning experiences.  And not just cushy stuff.  The kids are discovering how to build robots, create sculptures, perform symphonies, solve complex math problems, write poetry, compose Chinese characters, and design rockets.  Their learning is, in fact, rocket science.  But the learners are laughing, giggling, sometimes downright squealing with delight.  And when their project falls apart or fizzles, there's more laughter, an occasional "Doh!" and forehead smack, and, due to natural kid-resiliency, they simply try again.  That, folks, is comfort with failure, enthusiasm for progress, and general peace of mind.  Shouldn't we want that in learners year round?

    With one more month of camp before the school's students return, I'm hoping to gain even more insight from the beauty of this summer learning, and with the help of my PLN, determine ways to nurture this during the academic year.  I also hope to sneak in a long weekend or two to get my skin back to beige, to replenish my own energy, and renew my sense of hope that it is possible to see more camp-like expressions around here mid-February.