Winter Reflections on Time , Technology, Teaching, and Star Trek

A wake up call from a changing workforce ..

film containerThis past August , I pulled 4–5 old tech items out of a bag at our New Teacher Academy as part of a welcome message to educators joining our learning community.

I really shouldn’t have been startled when a first-year teacher born in 1993 didn’t recognize a film reel canister. The tech I took for granted as a young teacher had long since vanished by the time he was born.

This younger generation who just started teaching this school year laughed with me as I held high my VHS tape,(the demise of VHS sales)  a Walkman disc-player (how the iPod shifted a market), and an old Blockbuster card (for more on how Blockbuster failed to have vision to see Netflix coming) I’d found squirreled away in my now 28-year old son’s vacant bedroom. Then,  I asked one young teacher to open a case for a floppy disk.  When he struggled with that task, I realized we had moved past my decades-long educational career in a few moments of pulling old tech from a canvas bag.

The tools of the relatively recent past were museum artifacts to many in the room. I couldn’t even begin to explain the intricacies of my struggle to thread a film reel leader through the projector necessary to show Donald in Math Magic Land to an impatient audience of children in 1978.

My experience sharing old tech with novice teachers reminded me of a late night twitter exchange with an English teacher sharing his frustration in trying to describe a pocket watch to kids reading a classic set in the 1800s.

It’s hard to make sense of tools that are no longer relevant to the world our young learners live in and increasingly a new generation of educators …

Technology transitions have always seemed a bit magical as generations of new tools have made their way into schools. It seemed that one day the smell of mimeograph fluid permeated the air in the teachers’ work room where I once worked as a first year teacher and the next day I found myself watching paper copies shoot out of a photocopier; a transition from creating purple duplicator stencils to filling paper trays in the new “Xerox” machine.

As young baby boomer educators we marveled when first introduced to Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 computers that ran on cassette tape players.

And when  Jobs’ and Wozniak’s Apple II computers were introduced in schools, the potential in the beige cases wowed us just as the challenge of learning to use this new tool intimidated us. I didn’t know then that we couldn’t begin to envision the even more complex changes still to come:

10 TEXT:HOME

20 ?”HELLO WORLD”

In Slow Motion: From Pencils to Word Processors ….

pencilsWe moved forward into the 21st century but the 20th century learning model still dominated, reinforced by the school standardization movement embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Even though tech tools changed workplaces, homes, and entertainment, not much changed in mainstream education. The pencil remained our 1:1 device of choice. Interactive White Boards replaced the chalk board but as a tool used primarily by teachers. Laptop carts replaced more primitive desktop labs but mostly were used as a tool of consumption not production. LCD projectors replaced overhead projectors and the strange and wonderful science fiction of the Internet, laptops, and mobile devices jumped off the screen from Star Trek into mainstream America.

“every now and then a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything…” Steve Jobs, 2007

As technology innovation accelerated, the world became accessible and transportable; first as Blackberries in the pockets of business people and then pretty much around the globe everyone owned a smart phone. Tech communication accelerated — social media, YouTube, an app for everything. Some in K-12 and higher education began not just talking about virtual learning but also making it happen. 1:1 initiatives put laptops in the hands of all learners in some school districts. The advent of Bring Your Own Device allowed kids to connect at school with personally owned tech. Drives became thumb-sized storehouses. Then, the portable thumb became the ubiquitous cloud.

techkidNow consider some teachers and professors who remain in front of the class, lecturing from the dominant teaching walls. Phones ring in backpacks. Text messages are sent under desks. Facebook is open on screens (if allowed). Boredom today shifts learners of all ages from daydreaming, fidgeting and staring into space to actively transporting out of class with their own personal devices. Sound, video and text move them elsewhere at what can seem like Star Trek Warp Speed.

The teacher of the ’80s who once was challenged to compete with Sesame Street is now  today’s educator challenged with holding attention in the face of online gaming, instant social connectivity, goofy cat YT videos, and millions of apps. Kids are the most powered-up generation that the world has ever seen and the tech keeps coming.

What does it all mean when it comes to learning?

library studio musicians

library studio musicians

It’s good news for our profession that young people value being together as learners and spending time with adults who care about them and offer interesting and relevant paths to learning. Kids today still like stories, hands-on activities, projects, music, movement, games, discussions, and challenging collaborative work that speaks to questions and curiosity — the pedagogical basics of excellent teaching across time.

However, when bored from being seated and expected to listen for far too long, learners drift as they/we always have. Today their choices of drift often take them to tech that provides different paths to dreaming than the doodling or staring out the window of their parents’ generation. The upside is that teachers still matter to kids even as they appreciate being active learners in our classrooms using the high-tech we provide or they bring – along with books, uni-fix cubes, microscopes, paintbrushes and so on.

Technology today gives learners the world.

writing8Tech tools create access. Tech tools provide new avenues for communication. Tech tools allow research to occur anywhere, anytime. Tech tools extend the act of creating. Tech learning tools of this century are as exciting to them as the more primitive technologies of the 20th century were to their parents.

The possibilities of what learners can do today as they search, connect, communicate and make are endless. The potential of technologies to power up learning sets the stage for teachers to create opportunities that take advantage of resources in ways that were science fiction until recently.

Tech tools do not replace people in kids’ lives.

IMG_4750Yet… tech tools don’t check eyes for understanding. Tech tools don’t respond with emotion to a kid sharing a tough situation or experiencing the sheer joy of learning something new. Tech tools don’t design for learning that excites and engages and moves with the flow of a community of learners.

Teachers do all those things and so much more when they go back go the roots of engaging pedagogy.

Relationships, Learning Agency, and Opportunities Matter …

So, every year when I greet new teachers, the important words are about relationships, being open to learning, sustaining efficacy, and challenging learners with access to the best learning experiences we can offer.

Today on almost New Year’s Eve 2015, I go back to where I began the 2015-16 school year  —purposefully  pulling old tech out of a canvas bag as a starting point to engage new teachers who also are still learners despite their role change. Why? Because a wise teacher told me before I started my first day teaching, “your job is to get kids excited about learning. Do that the first day — and every day after and kids will love learning in your class.”

Learning tools, whether high or low tech, are no more or less important than when I started teaching. They augment our teaching and our students’ learning. No matter their computing speed, the fastest devices today do not replace teachers who set up opportunities for powerful learning and community-building each day, even as they grow and develop their own expertise over their careers.

Tools change over time. The best teachers do as well. That was my message to new teachers in August 2015 and the one I reflect on as we enter 2016.

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The Power of Image and Lifelong Learning

Cameras interest me —

the science of converting the real into image and the art of seeing image in the real.

My grandfather loved cameras.. he claimed that he once had taken pictures for a newspaper but I never believed him. But — he did have boxes and boxes of stained, brittle, and faded black and white or yellowed snapshots stuffed in crannies and drawers throughout his well-used farm house.

My grandfather, a maker (1889–1983)

I didn’t realize that photography might have meant more to him than simple documentation of family until I found photos he’d made of rocket launches at Cape Canaveral and late 60’s lunar walks. After he died, I sat on the floor cradling his photos. Why would this man who was born in the days of horse-drawn vehicles be so taken with space flight?

Man on the Moon by C.S. Ridge (1969 taken on his 12″ b&w TV set

Today I understand that the brain is a living camera, taking its own snapshots and creating portrait, landscape, and still life images of the world in which we live. Our physical cameras serve as technology facilitators of our neural efforts to remember images that fade over time. As I look back through my own photo binders, I touch older images of my mother as a young woman in a halter top. My father, the athlete swinging a driver over his right shoulder. My grandfather seated on his favorite horse, Rocket.

In my own aging world, I have long abandoned my manual SLR and shifted to using my iPh*ne as my camera. My photos reside in its memory and on Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram. Today, my digital images don’t fade away, but I do sometimes miss the capability to shift printed images in my hand and reminisce about a trip to Ireland or my son’s college graduation. It’s why I occasionally lay old photos out on the coffee table because sometimes I like to revisit the “low tech” memories of my own youth even as I hunt in tiers of computer files for recent digital images I want to look at on this night.

Times change. Technology changes. But even in my own nostalgia, I know my grandfather would have loved a phone with a camera built into it. He would have been amazed and delighted at the wonder of it all, this technology we take for granted at our fingertips today.  He was infatuated with how things work and with the scientific advances during his long life.

I think he would be disappointed that we don’t attend enough to the technology advances in our own lives or simply take for granted what humans a few decades ago could only imagine in a Star Trek episode.

My grandfather only finished eighth grade but he modeled what it means to be a learner for a lifetime – his infatuation with cameras and moon shots reminds me of that every time I touch those images.

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And for more on cool cameras of the past, check out this camera collection…

Cameras of John Kratz at Flickr

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To Write is to Make: Reflecting on Paul Oh’s Words

I read a Medium post yesterday morning, “Writing as Making” written by Paul Oh. Paul is a favorite educator and one of my earliest connectors (@poh) on twitter. He serves as a Senior Program Associate for the National Writing Project. As always, Paul’s voice causes me to reflect on our work in schools to create authentic experiences that help young people make meaning as they develop a sense of their own voices and agency in their own learning.

This past week as I’ve walked schools newly open for the ’15-16 school year, I’ve observed children of all ages finding paths to learning through writing. I’ve seen children already writing individually or in shared experiences by choice and by design. I’ve noticed children belly writing on the floor, perched on couches, chairs, or standing at tables – most often choosing to not just sit rigidly at a desk when given a choice. I even walked a nature trail on the third day of school with fifth graders who paused on their own to note-make and sketch as they observed cardinal flowers, stinging nettles, sycamore leaves, bag worms, and beetles. I’ve witnessed a variety of writing tools in the hands of children, deliberately chosen depending upon the task at hand.

writing1When children have choices in how they physically orient in space, in the tools they use, and the words they select to represent their own thinking, their writing comes alive through the process of moving words from inside to outside of themselves. Teachers with writing process expertise listen and look for entry points to help illuminate next steps with children to increase their expressive complexity as they learn to write and write to learn.

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Even as we value the importance of writing, a principal asked this question recently. “Why do our youngest children write so freely and with excitement, yet seem to disengage as writers as they move up through the grades?”

writing5writing14I wonder if we’ve moved so far afield  from why humans became writers in the first place that we’ve forgotten that writing was invented as a timeless communication tool for making and sharing truth, ideas, beauty, stories … rhyme.

Today in our standardized world of education, test prep writing work and writing tests contrive a kind of writing that lacks purpose and meaning to children. In such a world, children who begin school as curious language learners lose their earliest sense of voice when made to over and over practice writing designed to teach them to perform well on tests.

Yet, we all know teachers with expertise who intensively study how to facilitate writing15children to develop more complex and authentic writing. They know writing begins inside a person as a reflective exploration of experiences, interests, and questions. They believe writing can be joyful for children and adults alike. They value that children have something important to say and share with others – from their classmates to the world outside their school doors. Such teachers listen and look for entry points to help illuminate next steps to increase children’s expressive complexity in using language as they learn to write and write to learn in a variety of forms of media – including digital connectors.

writing19This morning, reflecting on the best of writing teachers I’ve known across decades brought me back to Paul’s premise of “writing as making.” And, his words led me to reflect on the question of “why do we humans write?”

Here’s my response with a twist on his post.

Writing is Making .. It’s a reflection of our capability  to capture the stories, images, and artifacts we make — and it happens today through old tech such as pen and ink and #2 pencils and new tech including phone note-making apps, trans-disciplinary media, and Google everything. Writing helps us makes meaning: who we are, our questions, what challenges us, our accomplishments, our I-searches to inquire, discover, and explore curiosities, and our potential to change ourselves, our communities, the world. Writing makes our ideas, information, and imagination come alive for and with others in whatever ways we choose to search, connect, communicate and make.

SPES-japanese-garden

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The Pendulum or the Butterfly

“If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Governor George Romney to the Michigan Legislature (9/20/63)

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Floor time project work

What compels us? Pulls us? Catalyzes us? Connects us? Who are we and what are we doing in this profession? In this public sector? In this institution we call school? Why do some of us keep coming back, day after day, year after year, decade after decade until we look back and realize that we accomplished something called a career; even as we watched others go silently into the night across those years?

Why do some of us keep pulling ourselves up and off the floor of the ring to continue on to the next round, in spite of our bruises and the blood we spill?

What binds us together? What pulls us apart?

Blog posts, twitter conversations, backchanneling and #chat discussions center the language of out of mainstream educators, parents, and even young people who attempt to answer these questions.  Social media capture the cadence of our conversation with the sometimes painful, sometimes achingly beautiful words and images of a poet even as others of us debate with impassioned, but crisp, political analysis.

We question whether we continue on another swing of our own perverse Newtonian pendulum. Or, is it possible social media lifts the quantum butterfly whose beating wings shift air currents across this nation, creating a learning world that we could never have envisioned in isolation of each other?

Still more of a back channel than a mainstream educational movement, those in the global communication network of educators still mostly watch from the outside as the next sentence is being written by politicians to frame American education.  We know well the drafting, revision, and editing processes in which our communities, our states, and nation now engage. We understand how mainstream media, political positions, new policy, new legislation, budget deliberations, and public hearings give voice to those who attempt to define the some; the all of us. Those with decades in education have seen this before. We know what the swing of the pendulum means inside schools.

However, in parallel universes, today two conversations exist.

One, a voice exploring the meaning of words like passion, joy, drive, inspiration, learning, democracy. The other, a voice of market share, big data, votes, rules, money, incentives, brand placement, and rhetoric.

butterfly10clockThe intersection of these voices juxtaposes the choices between the pendulum or the butterfly.

Both objects of motion- one coldly inanimate, the other joyfully alive.

One defined by the freedom to move at will. The other by  external control.

One mechanized. The other, part of the ecosystem.

In most ways, the current story of public education still represents our commitment to Newtonian physics, the classical mechanization of the factory school pendulum that many still hold dear.

But, in the back channel, our quantum butterfly wings unfold; with each pump of fluid we weigh our potential to take flight. It is here that we consider how learning becomes dynamic, active, deep, and vivid.

So, what will give lift to voices in the back channel? Will it be new legislation, policy, funding, political voices? I think not.

Instead, we must design education anew by generating an ever-increasing number of educators who believe in a mission to create spaces of inspiration for learners and learning. However, it will take more than 1 or 10 percent of us speaking the poetic and analytical voices of passion, joy, and drive to create spaces in which young people and educators can thrive in these 21st century days.

tower builders

To accomplish such a vision, it must become one of lift, influence, and power that creates a front channel for our voices. We need our best educational technologists, our courageous leaders, our creative geniuses across America’s communities to create the front channel we must become. It’s our job, and our time, to increase the inspiration quotient for public education in every community in this nation.

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For if not us, who? If not now, when?

Otherwise, we must accept again the next push of the educational pendulum and forget the potential of the butterfly’s flight.

butterflyonthistle

 Postscript:

( I wrote the first draft of this post in 2012. I felt then as if public education was in a downward spiral in which learning had become defined as being about passing tests and prepping for tests alone. Few questioned the standardization of every curricula, the loss of inquiry as an anchor for engaged thinking, the subtraction of hands-on learning from the academic curricula, the loss of play, story, and movement by design as a path to learning for our youngest children, and removal of course options from arts to physical education to shop class. Reduction or elimination of libraries, recess, club time, and field trips seemed to go without question.

Today, I am more optimistic that an awakening occurs. When I watch the movie Most Likely to Succeed, read Learn or Die, or listen to educators such as Yong Zhao speak to a different vision for learning, I know something is changing. It’s occurring in the social media conversations of educators everywhere. It’s found in a groundswell of big conference themes that focus on children as learners, not as data points. Even politicians challenge status quo assumptions about elevating national and state standardization expectations over the choices of local communities.

Some might say we are at crossroads in 2015. I see it as more of a chance to define education in this century not just a reform of the last century’s schools but a turning point transformation, indeed a contemporary Renaissance fueled by intersections of trans-disciplinary content with new contexts for learning. Because of our knowledge, tools, and communication networks, we have the potential to create learning opportunities that have never before been available in human history.)

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Connectivity, Connections, and Connectedness #iste2015 #satchat

SATnewjSaturday morning, #satchat entered my room live from #iste2015 in Philadelphia…

I was still in couch-based PD mode although the crowd was gathering in Philadelphia already and I hoped to soon connect face-to-face with friends and colleagues there. Some I know from past “in the room” interactions. Others I’ve only met in social media. However, through the power of my home wifi connectivity, coupled with past connections I’ve made in the twitter PLN, I feel as if I already know many from the PLN even if we have never met face to face.

In fact, I learned about this phenomenon at the first ISTE conference I attended. I was overwhelmed with the numbers, the offerings, the opportunities. I felt lost until I landed with the @writingproject team who were hosting an offsite opportunity to write collectively inside a Google doc. I felt welcomed by Bud Hunt (@budtheteacher) and Paul Oh (@poh)from the National Writing Project and others who were working to build together a digital narrative of learning that day. That moment shifted me into a reflective pause about the power of the PLN to be something more than just a casual exchange of resources.

This experience soon after entering the world of the PLN in Twitter circa 2009 (thanks to @paulawhite)  cemented for me that today’s connectivity opportunities come when people value the connection of relationships and take the time to sustain personal and professional connectedness. I began in 2009 to watch teachers inside my school district connecting with educators from around the world and I realized that the district I led was becoming more of an educational agora and less of a walled garden as each new member journeyed into social media. I even wrote about my observations of how twitter tore down my district’s walls in EdSurge.

In my reflective pauses over the years, I have come to believe….

Tool Users

Middle School Tool Users

What we accomplish as humans – invent, design, make, build, engineer, construct, create, communicate, enact, learn- comes from our interactions together whether connecting face to face or in online communities. The power of community learning has always allowed us to connect and leverage our talents, capabilities and competencies to learn more brilliantly together than apart. We consult, share, learn, teach, mentor and apprentice in ways that have become so naturally a part of our DNA that we seldom stop to consider how much of our learning occurs outside of the mostly passive 20th environments we label as school.

The genius of humanity becomes amplified through our relationships – virtual or face to face…. 

techkidToday, we see the restoration of human-centered learning in our interactions online such as in #satchat, at pop-up learning cities such as #ISTE2015, and across classrooms being linked by current and #futureready initiatives to ensure that educators and our learners can take advantage of the world’s curricular resources.

Knowledge no longer belongs to a few sages. Libraries are no longer the source of static and limited physical learning artifacts. Much information – data, ideas, history, science, formulas – is freely distributed for often no more than the simple cost of taking the time to find it. Experts and expertise abound online.

The world is now as Pascal Finette says ” a global communication network” ….

IMG_4750We are all part of that whether we show up to meet, greet and hug each other in the same space or simply gather in virtual caves, around virtual campfires or connect and collaborate in virtual maker spaces.

 

 

 

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#ACPSCAI15 : How Might We Dare to Change the World for Others

Do You Have the Albemarle App on your phone?

iphone appHow Might We Design Learning Experiences With Our Students’ Voices In Mind?

How might we engage in Instructional Design That Matters?

How Might We Bring Learning Experiences Alive?

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Remembering a Teacher

This time of year always brings bittersweet memories as I reflect on another school year almost brought to closure – children’s school journeys ending in June’s transition to summer. Most years end with great joy, but I have for many years remembered one that did not.

I still can see tiny faces before me as if it was yesterday despite the passing of decades. They were kindergarteners lacking certainty as to why they were gathered on the rug with me, their principal, a teaching assistant and some of their parents, so early on a Monday morning.

japanese art ace_797213783_1173713953I remember this as the hardest of times when I had to share with these kindergarteners just before the end of the school year that their teacher had died in a car accident. What do you say about a man who chose to teach at age 40? A man with an undergraduate degree in biology from an Ivy League school and a masters in instrumental music from Julliard? A man who chose to go back  and get a second masters in early childhood education because he discovered working in the most important profession on earth was worth a career change even if the money wasn’t great? What do you say to children about a man who taught them to recognize at age five alligator jump rhythms in Blues tunes, to eat with chopsticks, to write down stories about their block cities and to sing and dance every day?

Some parents chose to keep their children home so they could share this sad news. Others wanted their children to hear about it at school. By lunchtime, the whole school community was in mourning. Children had tough questions for staff. Some teachers struggled more than others. Tears flowed off and on all day long. The counselor and I pitched in to give teachers breaks to grieve.

It was one tough day in my profession but as with all days it turned into the next and then the next. Sharp memories of that day faded to soft ones of him with children gathered in front of his rocking chair and a day his mother came to class to share her spinning wheel. I smile now at the memory of him coming to the office for help in the first few months of his career because his kindergarteners had “glued” themselves to the playground equipment and refused to come inside. At the time it was a bit frustrating but reminiscing this evening I can appreciate their creative approach to extending recess time.

japanesegardenThis teacher taught two years of kindergarten classes and student taught in my school before he died. His classes ran more like a design studio than even the typical child-centered kindergarten of that day and time. I think we might label his room today as a maker space – blocks everywhere, easels with paint always at the ready, kitchen and woodworking centers with one of those old-school record players spinning in the background. I never knew when I dropped by on my daily walkabouts whether children would be listening to Mozart or Count Basie. Literacy was embedded in books tied to his and his students’ interests – architecture, counting books, the world’s folktales, nonfiction picture reference books, and anything with a Caldecott Award.

That June he was working hard at becoming a teacher but still experiencing challenges despite far more maturity than the typical novice. I learned from him that transitioning to teaching is not as easy as career switchers sometimes think it will be. Sadly, he never had the chance to become the teacher he planned and wanted to become. I still grieve that chance unfulfilled.

I was reminded of him in a visit this past week to the school where he taught and its courtyard loSPES-japanese-gardenng ago redesigned as an Asian garden in his memory, a tribute from the children in his class.

Those children are all grown now, some with families of their own. Out of the nest years ago, they’ve spread far and wide even though a few have come back home to roost in classrooms of their own. Today, a different generation of children inhabit the school, its playgrounds, and natural areas.

We never know what children take away from us or how long our influence will be sustained within them. Yet, a  former student from this now long-deceased teacher’s class shared with me memories of kindergarten – a tall man reading stories, calling children to look at a block city, and walking with them along the nature trail. She still knew him by name.

Those rich memories of hers are ones I too still cherish about this man, his brief teaching career now lost in time as the summers of life come and go. Yet, in that brief time, he brought learning to children in unique ways I’ve rarely seen since.

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TreeHouses: A Middle School Design and Build Maker Project

treehouses

The Tree House Project

I love that middle school learners are quick to jump in and activate as learners when given a context for learning.

 They may float between being semi-adults and semi-children and are at times the most stable and fragile of people, but they are explorers of life – through relationships, humor, risk taking, movement, music, stories, design, technologies and community.

girlbuilder

Anyone can build

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had several occasions to watch middle school students working with each other and with teachers, parents, community members, their assistant principal and principal, and Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop fame.  Want kids to think mathematically, apply physical science principles, communicate effectively both verbally and non-verbally, work together and hold each other accountable for quality work?

Let them design and build tree houses – in the cafeteria – with power tools – and squares, measuring tapes, hammers, glue and handsaws.  Let them prototype, test, research, deconstruct, and rebuild to get the structures right.

Listen to their ideas, their strategies, their solutions and let them try – fail – and then succeed.

Adolescents are both experimenters and traditionalists, taking lessons from adults around them about the importance of both ways of being.

waltonwork movinglog

Let them explore the woods to find the perfect tree for a log they need to bolster their tree house. They’ll problem-solve how to move a few hundred pounds of tree indoors.

Ask them questions and they’ll figure out how to be safe and also have fun as they climb high on the structure and hang off of it to drill screws into the wood, tightening each joint and snugging up boards in the platform as they build higher and higher.

They are fun learners to be around

parents and students

parents as partners

Need a crew to mobilize to bring a truckload of lumber inside the cafeteria? Turn it over to the kids and they’ll text up a crew in a matter of minutes. They’ll take selfies and cool pics of each other as they build. Then they’ll load their pics to Instagram and share their experiences with family, friends, and the world.

They’ll work through lunch. And, stay after school to keep working. They’ll even come back for a long evening of work to finish their tree house project and drag a few of their parents with them to help.

 Middle schoolers understand community as it has always been for us humans.

designteamThey’ll take care of each other. Some team up to cook a dinner meal of hotdogs and mac and cheese on their last “build and finish” night. Others remember to remind each other to “be careful” climbing all over the structure. Everyone helps pick up stray nails and put away sharp-edged tools.

They become team.

You can’t measure what these kids learned with a standardized test.

Maybe, as Alex says, they worry as much or more about being safe as their adult building counterparts. They certainly managed to take risks and stay safe while doing something that many adults worried about them doing.

TreeTable

TreeTable

They designed and built not one but two sturdy and whimsical tree houses for their cafeteria over two weeks. They built inventive tables and a bench or two. They finished the job – on time and on budget.

The Final Word ….

From the  Public Workshop Facebook page:

“I would like our ideas (tree houses) to go to other schools + spread it all around the world and I would really like to help others do it ….”

  – Alecia, grade 6 ‪#‎acps‬ #‎buildinghero‬

“Alecia was duly featured in a report on @nbc29 about our project w/Walton Middle School. The part about her wanting to help + train others to build their own ‪#‎treehouses‬ surprisingly got cut.

It was unprompted + awsm. Alecia rocks. http://www.nbc29.com/category/175568/video-landing-page…

– Alex Gilliam, Public Workshop #acps #buildinghero

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Public Workshop’s Alex Gilliam

Tool Users

Tool Users

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Learning Made Accessible = Life As Opportunity

The Journey

I have to admit that five years ago, I didn’t, in general, use the terms access, accessible, or accessibility as a frame for beliefs about learning. Of course, as with most educators, I’ve been quick to embed phrases such as learning for all, eliminating achievement gaps, and opening the door for all learners into my language.Today, I’m shifting how I think about what accessible learning for all actually looks like as my district adopts practices of Universal Design for Learning as applicable to all learners.

For example, at a recent start-up edu weekend (#cvilleedu) co-sponsored by my school district, a physically handicapped teen showed up with an idea to create a virtual math keyboard to make inputting math problem responses into devices easier than using a standard keyboard – a solution not just for physically handicapped learners but also the able-bodied. She worked all weekend with a team to build her idea into a working prototype. From young people like her and adults who are helping to integrate UDL as a learning pathway, I’ve come to realize that every time we create a new accessibility pathway to learning, we all have the potential to benefit.

I began to define the concept of access over twenty years ago through the lenses of a close colleague. She was a Jedi Knight for creation of an inclusionary community in the elementary school where we worked together in the early ‘90s. I was the principal. She was the teacher. A summary of what I learned from her? See special education children as – children. Back then, access was a term typically used to talk about special education kids being allowed to participate through adaptive PE or use communicative devices that seemed to function almost like Ouija boards to those of us on the outside looking in at special educators at work.

Soon after I was appointed principal, the entire staff gathered together during a series of school days – every teacher, every teaching assistant, the librarian, the custodian, cafeteria workers, the office staff, and me – to dig deep into what we valued for children in our learning community.  This wasn’t easy to do since we had to cover classes with substitutes and school volunteers. Today, given fiscal restraints and volunteer “rules”, this kind of work likely wouldn’t happen during the school day. I also had to get past that some people in the room questioned why certain “others” were there. It had felt important to me that any one whose work brought them in contact with children be present, so everyone had been asked to participate – every last one of us in the school. If inclusion was something we needed to explore for our children then we needed to begin as seeing every one of us adults as fully included in the discussion.

The Reflective Friend

The special education teacher (a woman whom I came to think of as a close reflective friend) and I had tangled a bit philosophically in a prior year over the “new” concept of neighborhood school placements of high needs special education students. She’d been a teacher of moderately and severely handicapped children in another school. Her class was being disbanded and kids were being placed in neighborhood schools. That didn’t make sense to me. I respected her expertise as a teacher, but worried she didn’t understand the impact of moving high needs students into schools where they would be “one of a kind.”  I think, in hindsight, a lot of us were just scared of children whose needs we didn’t believe we could meet.

After she came to work with me, I came to understand that she was a teacher not just of children, but also the adults with whom she worked. Over the years under her tutelage, I came to realize that each child is “one of a kind” and it’s the labels we assign that filter our capability to see children as individuals.

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Work can happen by orienting differently in space – How do we provide choice and comfort?

I will never forget one of those pivotal, epiphany moments in one of our more heated “vision” sessions that began to shape the concept of access differently for me. We were sitting in the crowded library of the rural elementary school where we worked, trying to incorporate something about the importance of community into our belief statements. This special education teacher stood up and with grace drew a simple circle on a flip chart sheet. She then drew a series of “X’s” inside the circle and then put one “X” outside the circle like this:

the inclusive community

Then, she asked us a question, “ Is Erin* inside our community circle or outside it?” Erin (pseudonym) was “moderately handicapped” according to all the state special education formulas. She was the first child with that label to attend our school and we reluctantly had placed her in a regular early childhood classroom because we couldn’t bear to isolate her from peers. Her voice was garbled, her processing limited, and she lacked all kinds of small and large muscle coordination. Parents of “regular ed” children questioned her presence in “our” school. We were all, I think, a bit afraid of, and for, her. The children seemed to be the only ones who saw her as just another kid in the classroom and, they ultimately became the best teachers of teachers about the value of an inclusionary community as a space in which to learn relationship skills for a lifetime.

But, that question, “ Is Erin inside our community circle or outside it?” stopped us all in our tracks. No one seemed to know what to say. The special education teacher stood there and the wait time stretched out. She was good with wait time. I knew that from watching her at work with kids.  Someone was going to have to fill the void of silence in the library and, I realized,  it would be up to me.

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Children build community naturally when adults believe in them and support that occurring.

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Relationships Matter.

I remember the next few moments as if it happened yesterday, even though it’s now been over twenty years ago. I first acknowledged how hard it was for adults, including me,  to make sense of this new neighborhood model for delivering special education services. Next, I spoke of the challenges of inclusion which we all felt had become another “buzz” word in the educational lexicon. Then, I looked at our soft-spoken custodian, a man of great compassion and wisdom. I saw him kneeling in the hall at the beginning of a school day beside a child, the  one whose “X” was outside the circle, helping her tie her shoe. When he looked the child in the eye, there seemed to be some sort of kinship there.

I thought about the fact that some in the room had questioned the custodian’s presence in our work and imagined he knew that as well. He represented, in some ways, another “X” outside the community circle. I had a mentor who believed that in our work we just have to stand up sometimes and say what we think is right even if we know others might not agree or question the rightness of it. The special education teacher had done so. I took a deep breath. It was my turn.

I stood and said something like this, “We all say we value community. As long as I’m here with you, I”ll do everything I can to make sure that everyone is an X inside our community circle. If any of us ever allow any child or adult to be placed outside the circle by our actions, then we can’t call ourselves a community, we are simply a group of people who show up to work every day. If that happens, we need to acknowledge that what we say we believe isn’t what we believe at all.” While it was no great speech, it was a first step in defining access and accessibility differently in my own mind, and within our school community. Because of  that teacher, we took on inclusion as a way of being. It was hard work, but it was the right thing to do.

Today, I’ve come to understand another evolution emerging in my understanding of accessibility. Accessibility applies to everyone, not just the Erins in our lives. We need to stop thinking about the concept of access as isolated to those with federally determined labels – Special Ed, 504, LEP, Title I, gifted, talented. We need to reboot our beliefs about access. And, it’s as true for adults as well as children.

Preferring Collaborative Time

When I recently asked adults with whom I work if they wanted to read a book together on a specific topic, they told  me they wanted options of titles. Some of them wanted a paper book. Others preferred to download a copy to an e-reader. Others didn’t want a book in any form, they wanted to watch a video, participate in a webinar, or take a class. Some of them wanted to get together for face to face discussions, others struggled with doing that. Some wanted to meet in school spaces, others preferred a local watering spot. Adults want accessible learning for themselves. Our kids need that, too.

finding  private reading space in the elementary library

finding private reading space in the elementary library

We adults simply mirror what our kids want and need as learners. They also have different preferences for how they access information. They, too, prefer different tools and different modes of input. They find comfort in different kinds of spaces for learning and in different configurations of interaction. Just like adults they can all benefit from adapting and flexing some of the time to fit into different learning situations. It strengthens them, and us, as learners and community members to do so.

But, if we expect any of us to learn well – regardless of our age – by sitting in the same way, using the same tools, and interacting when and how our teachers choose, then we will get the same learning results we’ve always gotten.  Some will attain great success, some will get by, and some won’t learn much at all. Some will love school, some will tolerate school, and some mostly will hate the experience. We’ll just maintain the faux nature of the Bell curve.

Kids Preferring the Floor

Teachers Preferring the Floor

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However, changing our viewpoint on access to the learning tools, environments, and experiences learners need for learning could, if implemented well, change the game regarding discipline, management, and learning performance by any measure. It also could change the game regarding motivation, drive, curiosity, interest, and commitment. I believe if we were to change the game, think of our jobs as providing universal accessibility, we’d achieve results beyond our wildest dreams; indeed a j-curve of learners who attain great success and love their spaces for learning for a lifetime.

tower builders

* a pseudonym

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Disruptive Innovation in Schools From Inside Out – Not Outside In

I’ve been thinking about disruptive innovation in schools. Disruptive innovation has evolved into a buzz phrase with superficial interpretations that can confuse understanding. First, its history. In 1997, Clayton Christensen coined the term to describe the concept’s application in the business sector and defined it in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

“Disruptive Innovation: The theory of disruptive innovation describes a process by which a product or service transforms an existing market by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability. – See more at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/key-concepts/#sthash.fVqlOlnb.dpuf” (Christensen Institute)

Here’s a few examples. The personal computer replaces mainframes. The cell phone replaces land lines. Online sellers replace department stores. And, a question.

IMG_0571Will maker work replace factory school work?

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Math class

In Disrupting Class, Christensen originally hypothesized the rise of online learning as being the big outside disruptor inside K-16 education, believing the exponential increase in virtual coursework would lead to replacement of a significant percentage of face-to-face classes over the next decade. Today, Christensen identifies blended learning models – a combination of virtual with bricks and mortar opportunities – as a key disruptive innovation occurring in schools.

However, I believe there’s more astir within the nature of disruptive innovation in education than simply the blending of technologies and the Internet with school and home to “personalize learning.” I see signs of a different form of disruptive innovation in schools, one grounded not in online coursework but rather in young people working together face-to-face as they search, connect, communicate and make to learn. My perspective is informed by teens who often share their value for the social nature of school communities as they learn with each other inside and outside school walls. I also hear it in their voices as they engage in the creativity processes inherent in making to learn and learning to make. How is this perspective being translated into schools?

The Learning Commons as Disruptive Innovation

Recent dynamic changes in how some libraries are used has shifted them to what now is labeled as the concept of the learning commons.

library studio musicians

Music Industry Studio in the library

For example,  high school librarians in the district where I work as well as in some other districts across the country are providing students with opportunities to do much more than sit silently, research or read virtually or otherwise. Progressive librarians are turning space into areas where students can search, connect, communicate and make throughout the school day and before and after school. A disruptive innovation result? Kids who never stepped into a library unless required to do so now choose to spend hours there.

Librarians who disrupt the concept of library have become hackers alongside students. They encourage slam poets, music makers, videographers, app developers, gamers and design thinkers to share space alongside more traditional readers and researchers. As a result, kids are finding each other and forming social communities for formal and informal learning inside the school’s walls.

ESOL students creating art in the library

ESOL students creating art in the library

What else happens when librarians hack library space? Circulation goes up. Students who never would have visited the library voluntarily do so. Teachers value the library as an active and thriving space for their classes to produce, develop and curate as users, not just consume content. Libraries pick up a “market share” of teachers and students who never before saw themselves as library users by choice.

 

Libraries in this change process have become far more than a source of static, pre-curated materials used by people in permanent “silent” mode.  Instead, these libraries represent an Agora, a marketplace of ideas, creativity, discovery, and interaction. As  libraries become a gathering space in schools, cultural changes reflect students’ value for formal and informal learning opportunities – only some of which may represent Christensen’s blended learning disruption. Instead, it’s the emerging communal nature of the library inside the school that’s disrupting learning – the evolution of shared and open spaces where young people come together as agents of collaborative learning.

“The Agora (/ˈæɡərə/; Ancient Greek: Ἀγορά Agorá) was a central spot in ancient Greek city-states. The literal meaning of the word is “gathering place” or “assembly”. The agora was the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. The Ancient Agora of Athens was the best-known example.” (Wikipedia)

 Makers Inside Schools Disruptively Innovate

Perkins+Wills interior designer works with 3rd graders on design thinking bedrooms

Perkins+Wills interior designer works with 3rd graders on design thinking bedrooms

Beyond libraries, what other ways are schools becoming sources of disruptive innovation? Teachers and librarians who see themselves as creatives, designers, inventors, and even entrepreneurs are building start-up cultures in their classrooms grounded in the “make to learn” movement.

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learner as teacher in elementary school

In classes with a maker mindset as Dale Dougherty of Make labels it, teachers and students redefine roles of teachers and learners as interchangeable. Students actively steer  their own learning as they work on projects, researching information they need in their “make to learn and learn to make” work using tools such as YouTube while seeking expertise found in interactive social media sites such as Twitter or Instagram. Students in maker-based learning environments begin to see learning as seamless, collaborative, and extended – not defined by other’s goals for them but by their own drive to learn.

 Freedom to Learn from the Inside Out

Educators who disruptively innovate the use of pedagogy, tools, and curricula through a maker-empowerment focus (Harvard Project Zero, Agency by Design) engage young people differently, reaching students who haven’t seen themselves as successful learners in traditional settings. These students may have silently resisted or even actively sabotaged school learning opportunities, regardless of their capability or background. From the maker-empowerment studies, students who experience passion, challenge and a chance to pursue their own learning interests are less likely to “drop out” emotionally and intellectually or to physically check out of school. Instead, “maker-empowered” learners build knowledge, competency and confidence through the relational support of teachers and peers. They come to see their potential to learn far more in school than educational standards prescribe.

The maker movement as disruptive innovation transcends the “personalized” options touted in blended learning or specialized environments such as charter schools. I’ve discovered a surprising number of makers in all kinds of spaces inside public schools once built to factory model specifications for the use of time, schedules, facilities, and learning resources. I’ve noticed middle schoolers taking apart a bike to figure out the physics of its design principles and observed teens repairing a compressor in a re-purposed audio-visual storeroom and using the library as a resource for finding the science, math, and technical knowledge and skills they need.

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compressor

These are signals that mainstream education is being disrupted by the spread of maker ed, a simultaneous challenge from inside school walls to both the 20th century factory school  and the 21st century virtual learning model. Maker education is a simple, accessible and affordable way to change the way our young people experience learning – and it’s far more compatible with how humans learn than the dominant teaching wall, desk in rows, bell schedule driven schoolwork of the 20th century.

Isn’t it about time? 

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