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.

    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
    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.