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.