Tie And Jeans

Archive for the tag “culture”

Creating Space for Success

It’s 12:40. There’s maybe 15 minutes left in class. The three closest projects to me are a student laying out measured 2×4’s to cut with a circular saw, another drilling angled holes into some laminated planks for an atatal, and the grisly disassembly DVD changer covers much of the floor. Somewhere outside my cone of vision there are 6 other projects, none of which (thankfully) are using a tool more dangerous than a soldering iron.

I turn around and see two young women, holding an untidy bundle of butcher paper, their project box and a can of spray primer.

One of the weirdest parts of teaching middle school is recognizing the places where your immediate adult presence is a part of the solution and where it’s part (often a large part) of the problem.

Sandy Snively, an incredibly generous and gifted mentor that I did not deserve, believed in the space teachers create by their absence. She taught me all of the best things that ever happened in my math classroom, one of which was to take a long walk, straight out of the classroom, during  tests.

“Is that honor code horse-pockey, or does it mean something?”

Students in her classes created an honor code together in the fall and signed their name to that same pledge on every test. Sandy knew that kids signed other honor codes, in classes where the teacher still prowled through rows of desks during the test, eyes peeled for a forbidden note card or furtive glance. Those honor codes were horse-pocky, and those teachers damaged their students with every circuit.

Adolescents observe their teachers closely to discover the meaning and value of their own actions. Sandy showed me that our students learn how valuable their words and commitments are by how adults respond to them. The prowling teachers told their students that honor codes are just words, a thing you bubble in and forget about, no more binding than a COPPA checkbox. Sandy told students that words matter, that we come together in community with principles above “what can I get away with?” Her faith in her students shone through every time she’d stroll out of the classroom to get a cup of tea, opening a space for their integrity to emerge.

I can see a dark gray mess through the window and hear lower school kids tromping through the halls towards lunch.

“Go. Tape down two feet of paper on all sides of the box, and try to get back in the building before class ends.”

There’s plenty that could go wrong with two 8th graders and a can of spray paint during the middle of the day. But chasing down every possible problem also ensures that I’ll fill up the space that these amazing young people need to discover, make, and thrive on their own.



* Sandy was a salty farm girl to the core, even in her middle school classroom. She never, ever, said horse-pockey.

Grades, Badges and Environments of Trust

This morning a colleague asked, innocently enough, “have you thought at all about learning badges?”


Nerd sniped!

Combine that simple question with Jim Groom’s great post about #ds106 ‘s unique place on the shifting cost/value curve of higher education, and it turns out that I’ve thought a lot about <obligatory> steenkin’ badgers </obligatory>, especially in the context of a brick & mortar school.

Badges are just hipster grades, right?

Pinball badges

Badges suggests a granularity and flexibility that’s distinct from traditional classroom grades, which are two entirely positive adjectives in my world. Couldn’t we replace the Devastator B+ with a sea of specific and useful Constructicon badges?

Photo Credit: Ramen Junkie

Photo Credit: mdverde

That view pushed me towards SBG years back, as I recognized how much information (how much feedback!) I was throwing away when I summed up the question by question analysis of my math tests into one lump score. Not only is there more value for a learner in 12 skill scores, there should be value for teachers, parents and observers as well. Finally, a better response for the parent conference rebuke, “They were a B+ student last year!” If grades describe a student’s understanding*,  then more granular grades yield a more nuanced view of that student’s skills and give enough information to teachers to build the right learning environment.

I really want to think that’s true. But to curb my runaway optimism, I look at how much energy schools spend vetting the information shared within our own organization (homogenized exams for all Algebra classes, annual placement exams, restricted course registration) and how little currency that information has for other organizations. I don’t know if an exponential increase in the number of grades would improve things.

The meaning/reliability of a badge is inversely proportional to the product of it’s scope, utility, and value.

At christmas, Jodi bought me a collection of neat nerd badges from Adafruit. While Adafruit has developed a collection of interesting learning resources for their products (and, tangentially, their badges), those exist as fascinating and elaborate backstory for a decorative product. I stitched the oscilloscope badge onto my bag after my first successful waveform reading, even though my Father’s Day scope looks very different. My Adafruit badges live on my bag, not my resume, sitting right next to the chibi Zangief for the exact same reasons. Do you like Street Fighter enough to recognize the Red Cyclone? Do you like oscilloscopes and 3D printers? We should be friends, and have a clubhouse and drink Sunny D!

Nerd Bag

I have a Daisy Girl Scout in my house, so I have a chance to award some badges as well. There’s a Girl Scout store where you can walk in and buy almost any badge. Girl Scouts have published expectations for how girls might earn each badge, increasingly so as the girls progress through the scouting system, but those are loose associations at best. The sash’s value as a record of learning and experience is derived entirely from the trust between troops and troop leaders. One of the things that enables this trust is the relatively low rewards that go along with most Girl Scout Badges. If a new girl moves into your troop, there’s no obvious incentive for her to forge a flair-laden sash. We accept those badges in good faith and, over time, will see how they relate to her actual interests and skills. For the Gold Award, which is big deal time for Girl Scouts, the standards are more stringent and communication between the girl, troop and council are extensive. A successful Gold Award project generates a meaningful and visible effect on individuals and communities. The strictures of the Gold Award program are scaffolding designed to help young women create something that should be impossible to hide. Any badge, even the Gold Award, should serve as a memento, not an affidavit.

There’s this great Open Badges Initiative  from Mozilla that’s approaching learning badges as a big picture social/technical infrastructure challenge. Their baseline goal, to allow individuals to maintain a “badge backpack” that documents their abilities and interests over time, sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s run by smart, approachable people pursuing a vision, building an  infrastructure for the next century of learning.

Any system that assigns score or delivers value will attract scams, spoofs, and bad actors over time. Whenever I think we’ve acclimatized to how that law interacts with high school grades, there’s another editorial page hubbub about the loss of the “gentleman’s C” or a news story about schools falsifying test results.  Not only does college admissions drive huge chunks of the high school experience, but the push for hyper GPA, continuous test prep, and specious extra-curriculars devalue the student behaviors that admissions metrics were designed to highlight.

Can you imagine how an open badge system would warp under those pressures?  Here, I brought it back from the future for you.  Entire subcultures dedicated to maximizing the utterly meaningless Xbox Gamerscore number, with all the factional disputes you might expect . True Achievements is like a “make them earn the A” professor, remapping the value of every Achievement so that the seriously dedicated can separate themselves from the pack.  (As full disclosure, here’s my TA profile.  I am not dedicated)

For gamers in that culture, people who “just play” games without boosting** seem completely irrational, like HS students who eschew SAT prep classes or elite travel soccer teams. In a world where every metric will be maximally exploited in direct proportion to it’s value, the points that don’t matter can matter a whole lot.

achievement badge

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the existence of Gamerscore invalidates Mozilla badges as a project or a product. Instead, I just want to highlight on the difference between a system that serves a small pool of trusted actors, and a truly open one, where participants at every level operate according to their own diverse (perverse?) incentives. I want to use Open Badges as a tool that deepens and gives context to the relationships within our school community, not as a transcript replacement.

Doug Belshaw, an Mozilla “evangel[ist] for Open Badges in Europe,” describes the badges as “metadata infused credentials.” If that’s going to work for schools, then we  need to get to work now on opportunities for our students to create meaningful, interesting bits of data that are badge ready! When students work in public, receive feedback in public, make mistakes and learn from then in public, then the metadata trail provided by the badge not only provides justification, but can serve as a window into the students’ entire portfolio.

Let the protocols simmer for a while. Let’s stay clear of commercial providers, eco-system hustlers and the noxious 1st-gen implementations that offer nothing more than a sickly gamified clown sweater stretched over the Common Core.

Photo credit: loren via wil wheaton

Photo credit: loren via wil wheaton

All that crap will just annoy human users and set up an even larger fight down the road, when everyone just remembers that “we tried badges and they sucked.”

If OBI develops and pays off, then any school with publicly accessible student portfolios will be able to layer badges over student work as easily as DS106 tags assignments. If OBI withers, if some Kahn/Pearson love child dominates the space and defines badges as gamified micro-grades, then your school will be even better off! Instead of forcing students’ rich learning experience through the PlayDoh pasta extruder, they’ll have built a whole universe of authentic, open, and inhabited portfolios. The tools you need to bring the heart of students’ learning experience onto the open web are literally free.

Badges can serve as markers of identity, reveal hidden interests or skills. Badges can spark surprising connections between individuals and organizations. Even as a marker of assessment, badges can serve to complicate our too-placid notion of what counts as learning or success.

But badges are only lenses that focus on different aspects of the community they serve. Obscure badges can’t create a learning environment that values and celebrates diverse experience. Badges can introduce the founders of Street Fighter Crochet club, but they won’t sustain it.

Many K12 schools are desperate for ways to signal the arrival of 21st century learning, and a augmenting grades with a collection of vector art badges can seem heaven sent. But schools committed to reshaping into hubs student-driven learning will ignore that temptation, eschew the PR bump and focus instead on helping faculty and students to learn, strive, fail, and grow on the public web. Without that library of authentic public learning experiences in readily linkable forms, badges will never be more than weak-sauce gamified crap.

* They don’t

** There’s some fascinating tidbits in boosting circles, surrounded by a vast see of depressing, base competitiveness and desire for identity and control. If you’re looking for further EDU comparisons, consider Microsoft’s mandate that all Xbox games come with a fixed number of Achievement points (100 for retail games), but set no standards for how they’re awarded to players.  Hence – Avatar: Burning Earth, a sub-mediocre piece of kids shovelware based the great animated series, notable only for the easily exploited Achievements.

Six years after relase, the 360 version of this utterly forgettable game fetches collectible prices on Ebay/Amazon while the identical PS2 version (with no achievement system) languishes under $5.  Does mean 1000 Gamerscore points has a market value of $25?

*** In my last round of reference searching, I discover that Bud posted a similar set of concerns two years back, with far more clarity. Of course he did!

What is your school built on?

I’m still processing educon and our Break The Bell session into coherent posts. One of the things that’s pushing me down this track is the flood of emails between the new friends and colleagues that I met this weekend at SLA.

While I still carry plenty of angst around meeting new people, I recognize the tremendous value that comes from having to explain your philosophy, pedagogy, learning narrative and goals on a hyper-compressed scale. It gives me a chance to restate and rediscover the beliefs at the core of my teaching practice.

One of those pillars is that a middle school without an Advisory program is probably doing more harm than good.

I personally believe that homeroom, Advisory or whatever you call it, is the beating heart of middle school. These are the hours set aside for a small group of adolescents and adults to learn with and about each other, to grow and adapt to one another’s presence. If that time is sacrosanct, dedicated to supporting and recognizing each adolescent as a member of the school community, respected and celebrated by all, then 90% of the middle school battle is won.

If it slides into an unlabeled study hall or a “relax and watch the YouTubes” time, then every class, every section, begins to teeter, kept aloft only by the teacher’s attitude, personality and commitment. Advisory forms the bedrock, the safety net of school culture. A healthy advisory is the place were a teenager who feels slighted, dismissed, insulted, ignored, will bring their hurt and look for solutions. Without that in place, their anger and disappointment will ferment in small social pockets, and explode through major disruptive behavior or distraught parents.

Here’s my quick test, assuming your school has a structure bell-laden schedule. Does it look like the advisory time was the central pillar around which the day formed, or like it was used as spackle to fill gaps and seams between important stuff?

Refining Assessments

On the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, our faculty met for 2 full days of assessment related PD. This wasn’t participatory bacon wrapped lesson planning. It was 16 hours of lecture and table notes, packaged curriculum and bullet points. While I  recognize the logistic realities that make giant scale whole group instruction like that an unavoidable reality, the format did not help the material.

Teachers often exhibit the same sorts of behaviors as their students would in similar situations. Middle school teachers if you sit amid a desk for six or eight hours 10 tend to lean a little snarky. But it’s interesting to note that snarky teachers (and students!) aren’t checked out, they’re just funneling their fidget impulse into a backchannel that yields immediate positive feedback from their peers.

In a really well-designed move the reflection for that for those PD days was put off for a couple weeks. So this morning, two weeks later by the calendar and a lifetime later according to the discontinuous internal teacher clock, were coming back into reflect on the experience and our thoughts on assessment. It’s a great move because I know all the snarky middle school teachers have been chewing and mulling over those ideas that entire time will come back together not as students watching the clock for the end of the day, but as educators ready  make better decisions for our classrooms and our students.

Do I have 16 hours worth of new wisdom? Probably not.  But I have a refinement of an earlier belief about how information access can reveal rich assessment, and a better sense of what practices teacher can iterate on to push them towards better assessments and stronger classrooms.  [The restatement ran long, so I’ll talk about the iterative practice angle tomorrow.]

I first started poking at this idea in a somnambulistic rant three years ago. That first form was just a floor, a cut off line for assessment strategies that have lost relevance in a information. This is a bit more nuanced, a floor and a ceiling for “kinda okay” assessment.

 At the minimum, an assessment must distinguish between a studied/prepared student working in information isolation (classic testing model) and an unprepared student with unfettered information access.

 A rich and well designed assessment reveals distinctions between an unprepared student with information access and a well prepared student with that same access.

I’ve had a number of uncomfortable conversations around that first principle, because it calls out many accepted teacher/classroom practices as wrong. It’s exactly the argument that teachers expect a tech person to make, full of bravado about how the internet has all the answers so students don’t need to learn anything. I honestly believe there’s more nuance than that, but it’s a fair cop.

We have tools that can graph any system of equations faster than any student, available on demand from any device. The floor criteria doesn’t say you can’t assess student’s ability to graph equations, rather that you also ask them to make judgments or extrapolations from that process beyond what Google or Wolfram Alpha yield.

I also want to point out that “prepared” included a lot of literacy skills that help students comprehend and tackle a given problem. My model for an unprepared student is a teacher from a different department in the same school. Without hearing a single minute of class experience, how well could I handle your history exam? If the class vocabulary is nothing more nuanced than the Wikipedia bullet points, then I have a pretty good chance of keeping up. If the question relies on meaningful work done throughout the term, then I’d need to churn through that cognitive backlog before even approaching the question.

That’s just the minimum we should expect from rich assessments, and I’ve struggled to articulate cross-curricular principles for truly great assessments. It’s easy enough to find specific examples, but those are great because the mode of assessment is so deeply tied to the subject matter. Build a line following robot from these components. Great, how would I do than in history?  Produce a museum exhibit from some subset of these items that tells a story about the historical individuals life, beliefs and society. Great, what does that look like for 7th grade Bio? Andrew Watt suggests trying to confirm some of Hooke’s observations with hand ground lenses and a USB microscope.  What about 12th grade Econ?  Dude, I don’t know yet!  We’re trying to build a Grimore for that stuff!

The criteria for rich assessments suggests that there needs to be skills brought into use during an assessment, rather than just information. The core must be some cognitive task that’s been practiced and refined through the duration of the course, which students have to apply in moderately novel context. Shawn is great at this stuff:  How much energy is in Mario’s fireball?  With information access but no skill practice, students will flounder and produce “naive” work. **  With practice and no information access, students produce shallow journeyman work, like an well structured AP Lit essay that doesn’t cite or analyze the text in question. When students have information access and practiced skills, there’s no ceiling to what they can accomplish.

The question I’m skirting in all of this is time. I can probably design a linear systems quiz that’s full of tricks and shortcuts so that a practiced student would be faster and more accurate than a naive google-bot.  What does that count as?  Building a robot from scratch is a nice idea, but that’s not a “exam” in any meaningful sense of the term. Time scale is what separates an assessment from a project, and I’m still unsure how that distinction changes the prompts and questions I’d use for either.

That’s not a perfect criteria, but it’s better than where I was before. Looking back at my teaching career, I’ve been really happy when I created assessments that managed to clear the floor criteria.  I think I’ve had a half dozen that found their legs and managed to reach the second criteria, and several of those were accidental creations. That’s a valuable sobering thought. Even with my best intentions, I can’t count on myself to create assessments with enough head room for well prepared internet-enabled students to truly shine. Since CMK, I’ve been using Gary’s good prompt guidelines to steer me though this process. Someday I hope to have a library of capstone assessments for all manner of subjects, each printed as a single sentence on a 3×5 card.

** Am I begging the question here? Can we qualitiativley identify naive work in respective disciplines? This is what I spend my time contemplating on mathmistakes.

Comments Suck, But Silence is Worse

I find it harder to have substantive public conversations now than at any point since my first BBS calls in 1990.

I feel trapped by the fragmented web and the asymptotic trendy of blog comments towards YouTube levels of nastiness. Here’s my current example. Audrey makes a great umbrella post about the trend of MakerEdu. HackEducation should be an obvious place for all stripes of teacher/makers to congregate, as should MakerEd. Instead substantive posts on both sites are relative ghosts towns.

When comments show up, they sit in solitude or lonely pairs, desperate for someone else at this party to pick up the thread. Gary Stager had a great post about walking the line between speaking truth to faddishness and becoming a crummudgeonly charichtacure. Four comments, from people I think are great educators (I’m making assumptions here, since no names link to their public identity), but no conversation.

I recognize that I’m part of the problem here. For every post that I comment on, there’s a half dozen that I star or retweet and then forget about. I’ve been chastened by the experience of checking back on abandoned comments, only being reminded of my “subscribe to comments” click when the post is discovered by spambots.

New bloggers crave comments; final unquestionable proof that someone is reading. But beyond a certain threshold, links and RTs paint more compelling picture of the reach of each post. The twitter community around hackeducation and MakerEd is far larger than the comment section indicates, but there’s no easy way to check on it. Comment sections on established blogs demand defensive attention more than anything else; nuke the spam, mute the troll threads, avoid the rage posts. In the odd chance a comment sparks a new thought, blog incentives clearly favor responding in a new post rather than in comments. The utopian version of this trend is a vast network of trackbacks, where the conversational thread bounces between individual blogs and every post adds new layers and insight to the discusson.

If any of you have found that network, please link me in.

Audrey posts, Andrew comments, Tim RTs, Rachel shares on G+, and there’s no visible conversation. It’s almost enough to make me pine for Maximus and WWIV.

Sample Size Insufficient

For years, my interview lecture for math jobs was about the number system. It was flexible, would fit well in almost any class, and generally involved enough fancy math word to impress administrators. The 20 minute lecture built up from troll counting to the natural numbers through the Real and Complex fields by pushing at the questions that a given system couldn’t answer and framing the next system as the extension to the previous rules that would give a label for what was previously unknowable.

It was also pretty funny, as math lectures go.

When I started interviewing for exclusively “tech” positions, I shifted to lessons about Conway’s Game of Life, finite state machines, and other bits of basic CS that we could tackle even in a classroom without computers. I have a deep, historic love of Conway , and that combination made sure that I could get any group of kids up and moving. Since I last interviewed with this lesson, I’ve found even more great examples of this format in the amazing CS Unplugged.

Sample lessons are a layered pantomime, where teachers are asked to build 20 minute scale models of the relationships and learning that we’d struggle to build over years. Being successful in these lessons often means convincing the adults in the room more than connecting with students.

Occasionally I break out in a sweat about what my next set of sample lessons will look like. I’ve given lots of thought to what a better interview  might look like, but I’m still stymied on how to express my current teaching goals into the traditional sample lesson. If a potential hire showed up with a backpack full of cardboard , does that make them the teacher equivalent of a prop comic? What about a truck? How do you model long-term engagement and student inquiry, processes that already strain against the 45 minute boundary, in a 20 minute teaser?

Makerspace Busywork

My daily challenge in our Makers group is cajoling 8th graders to face complexity honestly.

It took me a few years of teaching to realize that kids would fake “a-ha!” moments for me in class, either to force some confirmation response from me or just to end the conversation. In Makers, these are vocalized as “I know what’s wrong!” and often enacted by a grab for the soldering iron. Because when you’re actively using tools, then you don’t have to acknowledge the problems in your thinking and the flaws in your design. Just do stuff for a while, and then if it doesn’t work, you can shrug it off as a good try.  That mess of wire and PCB is just one of those “productive failures” Mr. Carle seems to love.


Except it’s not. It’s a stall and a con.


To be productive, you need to leave the “whoops!” moment with something new, some confirmation or new bit of knowledge that you lacked at the outset. When kids reach for tools out of frustration, they’re not bringing in a plan or hypothesis to test. They’re killing time, staging a performance for the class or themselves.

I want to temper the frustration and negativity that I hear in my own words but can’t seem to excise in-line. I go through that same process. I have shame/frustration built things. I ruined an Adafruit Game of Life kit one New Years Eve by smashing, and soldering, the DIP socket into place one hole off.  All I learned from that is “don’t solder after midnight on New Years.”

For the last year, I’ve focused much of maker-teacher energy on that moment after the last part is soldered into place and it doesn’t work. Let’s trace the circuit, let’s look for bad joints.  Let’s talk about how power is moving through this circuit.  Let’s look at the range of motion on this joint, let’s go back and compare this to to your original drawing. But I was focusing on the post-mortem out of my own skittishness, afraid that a corral of teacher-rules would just blunt enthusiasm.

But when the driving force behind the initial build isn’t passion or personal enthusiasm, when they’re just looking for *something* to do in the moment, then the post-mortem is too late.  They’ve been disconnected from the project throughout and haven’t paid enough attention in the build to allow for meaningful reflection.

In the weeks after MakerFaire Norfolk, I’ve pushed more on the preamble, pushed students to find a solid place from which to begin. It’s in this process, in what I sometimes fear is still arbitrary “process” requirements, that I’ve clearly seen their unwillingness to face a complex task. The call for “more MintyBoosts!” is never stronger than when the reed-switch falls off the longboard.

Maybe it’s different for other ages or working on different timescales. 50 minutes! You return to vex me yet again!

CMK Reflections: Fiefdoms and Revolutions

One of the best tricks for teachers to pull in any school is to build a class/program that, from the perspective of the institution, is completely useless. Build a bubble between all the places where students are forced to go. Provide them with opportunity and responsibility but no requirements. A space to celebrate their enthusiasm, encourage their accomplishments, but shield them from all external pressures.

Nice work, if you can get it.

Working within independent schools offers more opportunities to build these oasis, but it’s not automatic or perfect. I commiserated with another teacher at CMK about the joy and frustration of having a class that doesn’t count. It’s hard to see amazing student work be dismissed because “they just have fun in your class.” As if that wasn’t the point. As if that somehow invalidated their learning!

Once a teacher has slipped into their school’s Neverwhere or UnLunDun, it’s incredibly tempting to set up camp and stay off the grid for as long as possible. Not sure if there’s a pocket like this at your school? Look for the teacher who quietly spends out of pocket, and says stuff like “I would teach this for free.” The work is incredible, personal, and rewarding. Niche programs attract students who are excited, which naturally leads to students who thrive. Those relationships are powerful, and help weave a cult of personality around the teacher and the program. For independent schools with at-will employment contracts, anything that creates an impression that YOU are unique or irreplaceable has incredible value.

Last week, CMK reminded me of the real costs of teaching and learning beneath the radar.

When a course or topic becomes an exception, uniquely tied to a particular teacher, the whole school loses. What should have been the small start is forgotten behind closed classroom doors. The energy that could have fueled a broader revolution is sequestered away and dies in a fiefdom.

What Do You Read Before Breakfast?

The Red Queen believes 6 impossible things before breakfast. I’m a late riser, but I do try to read at least two or three things that I only barely understand every day.

Jordan’s write up about her quad-rotor project for MIT’s 6.115 is my favorite for this last week.

Her voice is conversational and freindly, but almost every paragraph sent me to the web for definitions or clarifications. There’s some cute baby gifs along the way, and a great payoff video watching the little babycoptor hover and stay level, but actually reading for content? That’s hard work.

For teachers at any level, it’s work that’s completely essential.

If we’re serious about bringing Maker Culture into K-12 schools, then teachers need to be ready to read a lot more writeup’s like Jordan’s, but often with less coherency and charm. Maker culture doesn’t comfortably fit inside the restricted polygon of teacher’s disciplines and comfort zones. Maker culture is fundametaly trans-disciplinary, and meaningful projects will push everyone to keep up.

For adults to support and grow a Maker culture, they need to be incredibly comfortable encountering material that’s outside their field and over their head, and then *digging in to it*. That’s diametrically opposed from what I often encounter as the traditional teacher platitudes reserved for students who delve deep into something new. “oh, wow! It’s so impressive that you’re learning about [X]. I could never do that.” Maker culture doesn’t have a lot of room for passive audience.

This is what “life-long learning” really looks like – a life spent frequently falling into deep pits of confusion. For teachers, it can remind us what it feels like to be a student encountering quadratics for the first time instead of simply reciting our trite mnemonics or reading off our bad-ass tatoos.

I'm not sure why PacMan loves quadratics, but it makes sense in my heart.

It also reminds us what real teaching success feels like. A great day isn’t when every kid recites the same facts in unison. A great day is when you’re ass-over-teakettle confused, blindsided by new ideas and inspired students.

I know that’s a unsettling place to be as a teacher. Personally, I’ll be practicing every morning, just to keep up.


It Looks Like All My Dreams

Tomorrow, Melissa and I are presenting the capstone of our Social Media for Educators series. It know, it’s a hackneyed and overly formal title, but we have a dozen teachers and faculty who’ve signed up for a 9am session a week AFTER students left. That fact alone suggests that the idea is compelling, and the jargon is probably clearer than our internal shorthand for the three classes – Twitter, Blog-Read, Blog-Write.

Last June, I accidentally coined “Make me a blog, nerd!” as a catchphrase during a similar prof-dev meeting, and that’s haunted me throughout the year. It gets at the central problem of commodified social media training, and at much tech-cented PD in general. A blog is not something you can simply make, much less something that the school nerd can make for you. A blog is just one outward facing pane for your holistic public identity. WordPress or Blogger will provide your a frame for that in 3 minutes. Defining, creating, filling in the space provided is work that will run through the rest of your career.

I recognize that’s a bit strident for a PD event, which is why we started small. As we discovered in our first session, Twitter reeks of triviality. Even more than Facebook, which many-to-most teachers have found useful for some level of social engagement, Twitter seemed to them to exist exclusively for vacuous celebrities and breakfast posts. Clearly, you could talk about anything on Twitter. Our challenge was suggesting that there’s merit to having a public conversation with a small group amid that din.

However, my secret goal was to lay the groundwork to help teachers form their holistic public identity. That’s not something you just waltz in to!

I know we’ll get questions tomorrow about school-blogging. A blog for the Lacrosse Team! A blog for the Service Program! A blog for College Counseling! While I’m convinced that a blog-esque CMS would probably be a better way for those groups to communicate with their audience, that’s just refining the tools and techniques for communication, even if it has comments and “share on twitter” buttons.

Blogging is always collaborative, an open partnership between one writer and the world. I choose to write and reflect in public, knowing that my mistakes will live alongside my insights. In return, the audience will serve as an extra steel with which to hone my thinking. Even when that audience consists of 12 anonymous pageviews, it will demand my best first draft but always leave room for me to learn, leave space to revise both my ideas and my expression.

A friend asked why more administrators don’t “really blog,” and I think that most of it comes down to the terms of that bargain. When I write from my honest self, from my experience and values as an educator, I have faith that the problems caused by my writing are worthwhile and essential parts of my continued learning and growth. If something causes a controversy or a stir, then it’s either correcting a part of myself that I should have examined earlier, or it’s reflecting a real difference in priorities and values.

Administrators are risk adverse out of necessity. Faith aside, blogging brings new risk that many see as unnecessary.

While I can sympathize with their predicament and understand that decision, here’s why I’ve personally come down on the other side. Whenever a teacher starts a new position, there’s a prolonged process where you fight to establish your identity as an individual over and above the demands of your contracted role. Now that I have a clear understanding of all the various things that thrill and delight me as a learner and educator, I want them to be the foremost pillar of my professional identity. Not only is my public blog 10x better than a single page resume for making those passions clear, it’s also the best tool I have to develop them now.

And, god forbid, if my next job is a classroom AP Calc, all textbooks and answer keys, no coding or making, then the blog becomes even more important. How does the 4th grade teacher connect with the HS robotics team? How does a AP US History teacher build a multi-age team to explore colonial cooking techniques? How will a school know to create your idiosyncratic dream job if they can’t learn about your dreams?

“My blog is me and I am it. My blog is where I like to be, and it looks like all my dreams.”

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