A New Year. Multi-Tasking. My Peach Cobbler. Connections. Hidden Figures.

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A New Year.

The opening of a school year creates the same fluttering inside me as occurred on the first day of the first year I attended school. I remember that year, first grade because there was no kindergarten, helping my mother pack my metal lunch box, obsessively snapping a 3-ring binder filled with fresh Blue Horse lined paper, and filling a wooden pencil case with sharpened #2 pencils. The scent of learning has changed but tonight I feel the same tension created by a desire to sustain both the slower pace of summer balanced with the pull to again experience a first day of school. Today in the grocery store, the day before all the teachers return to schools in my district, I was asked if I was ready for a new school year. I replied, “Of course. School just isn’t school without kids and teachers in the building.” Summer is beautiful. School is even more so.

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 Multi-tasking.

As I consider this next first day of school, a precursor first day with all teachers walking through our doors a week ahead of our young people, I am checking my email on the phone, writing this post on my laptop, and watching a semi-final 1500 meter women’s race. It’s hard to even remember the first days before mobile devices – days when everything was written out longhand, when the TV was still a small box catching signals from an antenna perched on the roof’s ridge, and the landline phone hung on the kitchen wall, its compressed cord tethering me to a limited area in the room. Some friends express nostalgia for those days but I don’t think many would give up their microwaves, on demand digital television, smart devices, or online apps even as we sometimes yearn for a slower pace and fewer intrusions from the digital world. At new teacher academy last week almost no hands went up from 140+ new teachers when I asked them if they could identify a reel film case – even fewer than just a year ago. Soon there will be no educators left in schools who can remember threading film through a projector – maybe just a few middle aged educators, once students who watched long ago teachers struggling to show documentary films found in film cans such as this.

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My Peach Cobbler.

Earlier this evening, I peeled a large bag of peaches thinking I would make my 95 year-old-mother’s peach cobbler recipe. I pulled the index card written in her flowing script from an old tin recipe box given to me before I left for college. It lives on a shelf in an even more ancient pie safe in my kitchen. Self-rising flour? None of that in my cannisters  so I immediately googled “how to make self-rising flour” and the answer popped up. Two hours later I slid the cobbler out of the oven. Old tech. New tech. Tools matter. Problem-solving usually depends upon them.

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Connections.

Time is more precious than gold. I think of the countless hours of practice, practice, practice in which Olympic athletes engage as I watch a British male gymnast take the lead with a tenth of a point. Many in the audience film him on floor exercises with their phones. It won’t be long before footage is posted in some version of YouTube, GIFs, or Vines even as the IOC works to get unauthorized images and footage taken down.  At the same time, I watch my twitter feed light up with retweets of an article delineating why homework is not a particularly good use of time, especially in elementary school. People’s beliefs drive opinions for and against homework (most RTs are against.) I read comments about homework building self discipline and rebuttals from those who see it as a compliance-driven exercise. It’s a lively conversation but civil. I like that. Educators are in general a very polite group even as they exchange perspectives. They tend to listen. They ask questions. They share. Today these connected educators make sense of a topic which continues to create conflict among teaching peers, parents, and students old enough to hold an opinion. The world is connected as it has never before been. Communication is not limited to face-to-face communities. Instead, communication happens everywhere all the time – it’s a global network unlike anything ever seen before in human history.

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 Hidden Figures. (The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped the United States Win the Space Race)

Tonight I am inspired by Olympic athletes.  Most of all though, I am inspired by stories of young black women who in the 1940s and 50s became “human computers in skirts” for NASA. Who knew? Men went into space because of these women’s calculations. It’s a story worth knowing, sharing, and celebrating even as we educators bemoan the math performance gaps of today. I am reminded that we choose to define and limit the possibilities of what children are capable of accomplishing.  The narrative of Kathryn Johnson challenges us to do better by at-risk children in today’s classrooms. We have come a long way since the days of the segregated world she experienced in Hampton, Virginia. We still have work to do.

 

Getting to Yes

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Have you ever agreed to something and then wondered if it was the smartest thing you ever did?

That happened to me last spring. A colleague shared with me that a group of middle school kids was on a mission to reimagine the dining experience in their cafeteria which I thought was a fabulous idea. After all institutional cafeteria settings aren’t typically the most human-centered community spaces in our schools. I imagined the kids designing and building booths in their relatively new maker space, maybe putting a few plants around and placing posters or student art work on the walls. Instead, I began to see images pop up on Twitter and Instagram that caused me to wonder what I’d agreed to support.

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When I checked in with colleague @irasocol who was working with architect Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop and our middle schoolers, I heard they’d decided what they REALLY needed was not dining booths but rather tree houses, and not one but two tree houses. Rolling tree houses, no less.

I didn’t see tree houses coming.

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else has ever thought.” — Albert Einstein

If we want a culture of contagious creativity, we have to get ourselves to yes. Sometimes that’s not so easy. This was one of those times for me.  But, I immediately did what I advise others to do and said yes – as long as the tree house didn’t get too tall- say 8 foot or so. I decided I better visit.

I imagine you are thinking, “Pam, get yourself to yes all you want to on cafeteria tree houses, but not me.” But go with me through this – you see I’ve been there saying to myself “just say no.”

Getting ourselves to yes is a lifetime challenge in education when our urge is NOT to say “what if” instead we are quick to go to “yea but or just plain no” and the conversation ends there.  Fortunately, a mentor early in my career said to me that if a young person or a teacher comes to you with an idea, say yes. If you don’t, they will leave your office and tell ten others that you said no. More importantly, those ten will ask why bother coming to you when they have an idea they want to make happen.

alexprojectHere’s what I discovered when I visited the cafeteria. Middle schoolers were scrambling all over the tree houses. I could only think  that maybe this getting to yes philosophy does have limits. Then I stepped back to observe the kids working under Alex Gilliam’s watchful eye. They were a diverse mix representing all the demographics of their tiny middle school. But what really caught my attention was their joy in designing and building, using saws, and drills, and hammers like pros.

I talked with the principal and discovered that several of the kids climbing the structure with great care were kids who weren’t always the most successful in class. I heard from a teacher about his reflection that the kids were learning to use complex math competencies that some thought were beyond their skill level. I stepped back and thought this may be the best story ever to define getting myself to yes on a proposal that challenges every radar beep from my superintendent’s antenna.

I work as superintendent in a school district that is learning to get to yes  – from teachers to principals to learners. Last summer, watching the evening news, a story popped up that caught my attention illustrating our trust in students when we say yes. It was one of our high school students in the woods sharing a summer project. As I listened I smiled to realize that this project was the perfect example of the contagious creativity that emerges when we say yes and unleash the potential of young people.

 

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Iyoade in maker space

Iyaode, high school student and budding engineer, had approached a mentor teacher to share a challenge she wanted to solve; how to engage middle school girls to understand the possibilities of engineering.  His response to her? Why not?

She  wanted to gather some high school friends and offer a summer engineering camp for middle school girls. The solution she designed? A bridge-building summer camp in which her team and the middle school girls designed a bridge, hauled construction tools and lumber into the woods, and built a bridge over a creek along a walking trail in our community. That night, as I watched middle school girl builders and realized that the power of yes to encourage creativity in our schools had spread well beyond my office doors. 

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Julian with his drones

In my district, creativity abounds and we believe that getting to yes is step one in the process of redesigning every nook and cranny of 20th century schooling. It doesn’t matter whether I walk into a library maker space and find Julian  working on a drone or flying one in the gym. Or, I wander into a former computer lab turned into a music studio and get the chance to listen to Grace performing and recording original music.

Our schools are different because of educators who are getting to yes. Our kids have 3-D printed prosthetic solutions for peers with handicaps and prototyped a portable MRI.

Teens such Nyghee, Courtney, Josiah, Emily, and Obed have choreographed their own dance numbers and directed musicals that challenge their peers to think. They’ve posted their performances to YouTube and shared face-to-face with live audiences. Others like James have posted original music online to share with authentic audiences all over the world. 

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Memphis cast members on stage

This work happens in formal and informal learning spaces because we encourage passing on the power of saying yes to creativity – and when we do we find that creativity becomes contagious, spreading from person to person, classroom to classroom, school to school across our district.

So, why should we all work on getting ourselves to yes? Unless we can get ourselves to yes, the next steps in the change process won’t matter.

 

Getting ourselves to yes keeps kids coming back to school every day to pursue their own passions in learning for a lifetime.

Getting ourselves to yes embodies an open atmosphere of creative design to address grand learning challenges that can be solved together by adults and children alike.

And, getting ourselves to yes means that collaborative communities get the chance to reimagine what it means to educate young people for life, not for school.

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Middle School Fitness Center “not a gym”

Our schools now have maker and hacker spaces, learning commons, design studios and wonder lounges, spark spaces and fitness centers, genius bars and mechatronics labs, music construction spaces and dance studios. We’ve taken down walls  and removed lockers literally and figuratively.

 

And, with each redesign we learn that imagining education differently means our young people no longer must check creativity when they enter our schoolhouse doors.

Today, when I visit the tree house cafeteria, I find kids perched high above or below working on writing and projects or eating and listening to music with friends during a lunch break. The kids in this school have gone on to build beautiful seating for outdoor spaces in their schools. And, I have no idea what they might want to do next but I am sure they have no issue with bringing their ideas forward.

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There’s no secret sauce or recipe for getting ourselves to yes. Yet, it’s the cheapest but most powerful strategy we have in our tool belt to encourage fresh and creative ideas.

Why not try it?  Just remember to take a deep breath.

After all, sometime soon someone is going to ask you about building their own version of a tree house.

Be ready.

Just say yes.

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

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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:

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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?

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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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Walking on Air: Remembering Seamus Heaney

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And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air …. I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible.”

Seamus Heaney’s lecture to the Nobel Foundation recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1995

I woke up at 3 a.m. and in the early morn I could almost hear Seamus Heaney reading “Death of a Naturalist” on a YouTube video, perhaps preserved for all time. I’d driven down one of the old roads of Virginia the day before, a road that reminded me of another Heaney line from “The Wood Road.” In the dark, I turned to my phone and tweeted out the line with an image I’d captured from the side of a gravelled lane.

woodroadHow many times in the lives of humans do we connect moments together in the night only to figure out why in the light of day?  What compels the subconscious to make sense of that which is important to us when the conscious forgets?  When I opened an RSS news feed from Ireland mid-morning I knew why Heaney had slipped his voice into my night dreams. Today. August 30, 2014. The first anniversary of his death.

I’m reminded on this anniversary that it is a poet’s words that make the content and context of humanity accessible to us all. Poets make meaning for us – the artistry of converting image to word.

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

(from “Exposure”, 1975)

Poets solve conundrums and, like mathematicians, they subtract the extraneous and leave the essential, the perfectly constructed theorem on the blackboard. They notice the world; quantum word mechanics who machine together patterns of space and time.

He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

(from “Clearances”, 1986)

Poets create lines of code, a complexity of action no less sophisticated than the work of a great programmer.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

(“Postscript”,1996)

And, poets seek to understand as philosophers, seeking unknown answers to questions asked.

….  Where had we come from, what was this kingdom
We knew we’d been restored to? (from “Leaving Going, 1993)

Why cherish the words of poets in a time when we educators are told it’s far more important to focus today’s children on informational texts than poetry?

I am no poet. I studied science. I taught science. My love of science has shaped my interests and my perspectives on education. At the same time, I know we humans have always reflected the importance of  the cultural spaces we inhabit. Cave paintings under flickering firelight, images created on walls before poetic word.  The ancient language of Beowulf,  spoken aloud by Seamus Heaney as poetry was intended to be shared. NPR’s anthology of rap  and fifth grader ‘Savannah‘ who wrote “Waiting in the Dark” so many years ago in the school where I was principal.

Why poetry in 2014? Poets explore the richness of what makes us human, placing words perfectly into the air for us to hear.

Poets link the disciplines of learning. Poets evoke the faces around us. Poets remind us we humans are more than the training manuals and research texts that some would say define us in this century.

Heaney’s poetry did all of that for us.

 

 

 

Unhurrying the Hurried Educator: A Convo about Personal Learning and Passion

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My first iPh*ne reconnected me with a love of photography that I’d abandoned at some point. Perhaps it was because I had become so consumed with my professional work. Or, maybe it simply reflected the difficulty of having a camera with me when I had moments I wanted to capture. However, when I discovered the pretty decent quality of my embedded phone camera, I became somewhat compulsive about grabbing photo opps both inside the schools I walk routinely, as well as reconnecting with the built and natural world.

Photo-sharing inside flickr, instagram, and Pinterest offers the chance to share photos with others and build a different kind of PLN that is image, not text-based. I know I’m a better photographer today as a result of reflective interaction inside global photo PLNs. I also believe a rediscovered passion for photography has positively impacted me professionally. Use of my own photos inside my blogs and in professional media reminds me that pursuing learning outside my profession also adds value within it.

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Recently, Steve Hargadon spent time with a small group of educators in the community where I live. The conversation led me to reflect on the value of photography in my life.

For over an hour, we chatted about education, from Virginia to Nepal. At some point, we ventured onto the topic of personal interests and passion. We began to explore the narrative of what interests us beyond our profession. Where do we find personal sources of learning passion in our own lives? What do we enjoy personally as learners? What are we drawn to do outside of our day (and night) jobs as educators? Why should we connect with a personal passion for learning beyond work -whether it’s gardening or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity?

a rake lies in on the red clay in front of the tomato plant

Steve wondered with us how our own personal learning pursuits and passions help us as educators to both recharge ourselves as well as to elicit similar learning passions from young people we serve and colleagues with whom we work. He shared his own personal interests, including building a PLN of people around the world who live with Vitiligo, a pigment disease experienced by Michael Jackson – and Steve. Some in the room that day shared their personal interests. One administrator described his love for Emily Dickinson poetry and his own poet’s alter ego as Dickinson’s “third cousin, twice removed”, Emmett Dickinson. Another described a passion for cooking. Someone else whispered, “I garden.” Some simply listened.

After Steve moved on to his next stop in his wayfarer world, I began to reflect further on our conversation. I was reminded of something Karen Olivo, youthful Broadway star from the Tony-winning show In the Heights, shared on Skype last spring with our local high school cast who were about to perform In the Heights. She commented to them that being an artist is “a way of life, not just a job.” She spoke to her own passion for what she does.

I think most educators feel that way, also. Sometimes it’s hard for us to separate our lives and personal learning passions from our profession. For example, our young people performances of In The Heights caught fire on stage because of the passion and love of performance their drama teacher brings with her to work every day.

Ms. Olivo shared her personal story of rehearsing, finally performing day and night for months, and, at some point, choosing to work through significant illness because the cast was counting on her. A young performer in the room asked her what she did to stay focused day in and out during the show’s run. She responded when people were sitting out there beyond the lights expecting her to deliver, she was compelled to bring her best to each beloved moment she spent on stage. Ms. Olivo sounded just the way many educators do about their work, too.

IMG_1035Yet, I fear even as we cherish the passion we find inside our own profession, it’s a life that also consumes us. We often don’t take time to step away and reflect on what else is important to us outside of the walls of our classrooms and administrative offices. We begin to miss the vicissitudes of life around us as we move in and out of the boxes we call school, day after day. In doing so, we disconnect from our early passions – whether in pursuing personal interests or igniting a love of learning in young people. We may forget what brought us to love learning ourselves and into the most important profession in the world. We may no longer see ourselves as learners with interests we want to pursue, too.

With Steve, we discussed that day how our own passions for poetry, photography, music, art, collecting, gaming, projects, sports, writing, drama reading, history, and so on can help us ignites interests, and ultimately, learning passions in others. The conversation centered upon the idea that as we pursue our own lifelong learning work, we become models of curiosity, inquiry, and motivation. While others may never share our interests, we can inspire them to find their own. When our own interests and passions become stories, then our stories can be shared to engage others in learning.

As we bring our own interests alive, we can connect dots for young people that lifelong learning isn’t something we do for grades, but rather because we love to learn in our own way, in our own time, about those things that intrigue and inspire us. Our personal interests also provide down time from the intensity of our day jobs. In our pursuits, we step away from being “hurried” educators, whether for an occasional few minutes, few hours, or few days. We renew and refresh our memories of what it means to take risks to learn something new, to stretch our own thinking and skills, and to find joy in the simple pleasures of doing what we love.

And, that’s good for us and it’s good for the people with whom we work as well as those we teach.

Art Stow: the Bagpiper Principal

Gratitude Past Due: Lessons on Culture… People… Determination

I often find myself awake in the early morning hours in front of a flickering screen searching for words to describe how I feel about micro-conversations in which we share, chat, discuss, and, with some predictability, argue about all things education on Twitter. Finding words is usually pretty easy for me. Getting them to stick to a page is quite a bit harder.

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Recently, in a room full of kindergarteners, I remembered words – not new words, not 21st century words, not ed-jargon words – but simply the words of the person who helped me understand that nothing holds more power than the voice of an educator who remembered across his own career that we are first teachers, no matter our position. Despite the premature loss of my first mentor, I still return to his words when the weight of this profession sits heavy.

Those of us in the tweet world are, in 140 characters or less, at any given moment political, social, educational, and emotional bedfellows, living in word-based relationships that occasionally verge on divorce or fickle love over the turn of a phrase that offends or reinforces. We bridge distance and time in a real-virtual world that sometimes draws me into a fleeting thought about the philosophical conundrum of materialism-dualism in our world. But then, I am pulled back to consider the issues of teacher quality, standardized testing, performance pay, grading scales, tenure, NCLB waivers and the like  … back to a place where, sometimes, I worry that I allow words inside the tweet world to create an identical magnitude of earthquake out of every issue in my stream.

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That’s when I ask myself, “Of all the things I can choose to spend time on and care about, what’s most important to the learners and educators I serve?”

And it is that question which has led over this winter break back to my first mentor and a bond that began on the first day of my teaching career and ended just four years ago when I was tapped to speak the eulogy voice of educators he had touched. He was a champion of the powerless, a fierce voice of passion on behalf of our profession, and a mentor who cut to the heart of what it means to be a leader, a teacher, and a learner. He might have been a TFAer if growing up today, but instead he entered the Peace Corps after his Ivy League school graduation; then dedicated a life to our profession. He taught me long ago to never give up on the hope our profession offers; and what I learned from him still helps me see beyond our issues, divides, and the current crises of my educational heart.

Lesson I:  You the leader set the tone for the culture in the school. Build and model a culture of learning, not punishment, for adults and the children you serve.

How can you create chaos in the first ten minutes of your teaching career? On my first day, I did just that. All you have to do is pull a snake out of a pillow case in a roomful of seventh graders, and say something like, “he won’t bite..”, then stand there with a black rat snake’s sharp teeth embedded in your hand, blood dripping to the floor.

With kids screaming, standing on tables and chairs, I knew in my heart “this will be my first and last day as a teacher.” Then the principal opened the door, never saying a word as I attempted to regain crowd control, and waited just long enough to know I was okay.  It was my first teachable moment with this mentor. I said to him later that day when we talked, “I thought you were going to fire me.” His response, “and how would that help you teach?” I laughed, he smiled, and in that moment we together launched my career in education.

Lesson II: Keep your door unconditionally open and be available to the people you serve. Relish the opportunity to help them find solutions to problems. In doing so, you both become part of the solution and not the problem.

He was the eternal optimist and where some people saw problems as rocks that could not be moved or surmounted, this mentor worked like water flowing in a river; always finding pathways over, under and around problems. There have been many times over the years when I knocked on his door, picked up the phone and called, or emailed after our pathways diverged. I still can hear his voice even now, a caring, but confronting, voice which did not brook escape from responsibility:

“So, are you going to spend your time admiring the problem or actually solve it?… Do you just want to ‘awfulize’ about this, or work it out? … You might as well spend your time rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic unless you are willing to really do something about this problem.”

Or, I might hear his favorite comment on who really owned the problem, “Pam, you can bring your monkey into my office – and I will pet your monkey – I will even feed your monkey, but when you leave – you need to take your monkey with you.”

Lesson III: Determination comes from inside people. It’s what keeps young people learning when adults move out of their space. It’s what moves adults to remain open to trying new ways of reaching a young person disconnected from learning. It emerges from passion, inspiration, and joy, the product of both hard work and serious play.

When he died, people wrote what became pages of stories and quotes remembered from their own experiences with my first mentor. In sharing those at his memorial service, we realized together that we all belonged to him as learners and him to us as teacher. It was a powerful moment to realize that we all had been gifted individually and collectively with the opportunity to grow careers grounded through his compassion and love for life and learning. We all paused that day for a moment of gratitude, past due.

“Our children are still developing into adults, they make mistakes, and our job is to make sure they learn from them and are not defeated by them.”

“Make decisions based on what is best for children, no matter what.”

This mentor, a master weaver, created a fabric of influential professional voices over time; facilitating many of us who worked with him to find our teaching voice, our leadership voice, and our personal voice in the service of young people. He articulated a powerful vision that all children (and educators) will learn, given enough time. He taught us that what’s important to learn transcends that which is simply rote, and, we must walk the walk of commitment to creating rich learning options for every child we serve. Every day he modeled unswerving passion for and gratitude to our profession; a lifelong choice for a man whose brilliance and resources allowed him the option of pursuing any career. In many ways, he was a leader before his time.

These lessons that I learned from him still frame the compelling work of teaching, learning, and leading and define a profession that must be about culture, people, and determination rather than issues that others outside the profession have defined for us. His words have evolved into my own words to share with a younger generation of educators and with colleagues who sometimes need to hear their work is important, valued, and that failure while sometimes painful is an important part of our own learning.

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The kindergarteners with whom I’ve spent time over the years surprise and delight me with their enthusiasm for all things learning, seeing themselves as growing up to become scientists, Olympic swimmers, artists, paleontologists, builders and, yes, even teachers. They are fearless in their pursuit of learning. When I think about all the “earthquake” twitter issues of seemingly great magnitude, it’s the kindergarteners who remind me of what’s most important in our work.

Tonight I am grateful in the screen-lit dark for five-year-olds who remind me of my mentor’s learning lessons for a lifetime, the most important of which is to make sure our young people leave us with a lifelong love of learning, a sense of belonging, and value for others, regardless of differences.

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In the Garden: Seeking and Finding Connections to Land, Air and Water

I spent some time yesterday reflecting upon a Connected Educators Month EdTechtalk: Teachers Teaching Teachers in which I participated last week with a diverse group of educational thinkers. Our conversation centered for me upon the critical importance of the interconnecting edu-ecosystems that we are building, one educator at a time. However, beyond the virtual connectivity that’s so essential to increasing the learning power of today’s youth, there’s another area of their connectivity I believe we’re neglecting.

a brown speckled buckeye butterfly on a pink coneflower

Fritillary butterfly on coneflower

Young people will face complex challenges in their adult futures- economically, politically, environmentally, and socially. Those challenges increasingly relate to the earth beneath our feet, the winds that blow across our continents and oceans, the temperatures that drive climate changes, and waters that sustain life. The Butterfly Effect governs the interactivity of seemingly chaotic systems across our world, far more than we ever thought when we first learned of Conrad Lorenz’s concept.

Connectivity is a given in the lives of our young people; allowing them to search, connect, communicate and create with others beyond the boundaries of physical communities, states – and nations. However, as we build virtual connectivity into learning spaces for all the right reasons,  in my opinion we must also reestablish a deep connectivity between children and the natural world so they can understand and process the deep environmental challenges of the coming decades. Indeed, their future may depend upon connectivity with each other and connectivity with the natural world- not either/or, but both.

The Earth’s natural spaces were the first learning spaces of humans, but our children are increasingly disconnected to those spaces. I first wrote the post below a couple of years ago while reflecting upon the importance of the natural world to learning. It feels even more relevant today. After a bit of editing, I decided to finally post it here.

Learning from the Garden

a rake lies in on the red clay in front of the tomato plant

The early morning work I do in the garden reminded me on this morning what challenge really means when your survival depends upon providing your own food. Each season on earth marks time in months, years, and centuries of peoples’ intensity of effort to simply eat. We middle-class Americans who can so easily pop down to a grocery or convenience store to pick up the most basic items of sustenance – milk, bread, meat, potatoes- or to a farmers’ market to select heirloom tomatoes grown locally, are mostly out of touch with the struggle of humankind to simply eat.  This morning I confronted the loss of summer food supply; damage from deer gone wild because of one forgotten disconnect of the electric fence – peppers and cucumbers eaten down to the stems; tomatoes showing the first sign of blossom rot; and squash bug eggs on the underside of my crookneck leaves. Kneeling in red clay, simmering in summer humidity, I reconnected with my grandfather- me as learner, him as teacher- and the important lessons to be taken from the land.

a white sand road leading to a white frame farmhouse

the road to home

I grew up on a farm and understand the agrarian calendar well. My suburban-raised son does not. I have continued, throughout the ever-increasing number of seasons of my life, the habit of planting each year what has become a smaller and less tidy garden space than those of my childhood.

My family farm became a learning tool as I traced my grandfather’s steps across sugar-sand fields in the low country, not too far inland from Charleston, along the slash of a river named the Edisto.

the Edisto river is a black water river with cypress trees on its banks

The Edisto

Those fields held lost riches of natives from the Woodland Culture and we often would pause, eyes caught by birdpoint, scribed pottery shard, or flint chip, slipping such treasure into a pocket to keep it safe. Near our river and fields, live oaks stood, relics of centuries past, their limbs spread to ground; drips of Spanish moss sheltering acid-rain etched marble, chiseled with names of those who followed the natives onto this land. Through his stories and observations, my grandfather taught me to appreciate the role of the water, the land, and the air in supporting the lives of people who had lived and continued to live on and off of that land.

All of these generations past depended upon the skills of those who understood the give and take of living off of the land. Each successive wave who inherited the soil, the water, and forests discovered how tenuous survival can be. I learned that from my grandfather. The seasons of my own gardens have been, I hope, a learning gift passed from my grandfather to me to my own son.

Unfortunately, droughts and hard rains come to the land these days in chaotic cycles that leave humans confounded by the patterns of nature. But, I know this. My tomato plants depend upon a steady state of water or they will develop blossom end-rot, falling from the vines slightly ripened, blackened, and unfit to eat. I learned from my grandfather how to avoid tomato rot– there are rules to follow if you know to do so. It’s such a simple thing in Virginia to increase water supply or add a bit of calcium to the diet of my tomatoes.

When I see the rot of tomatoes as I did this morning, I also think of my mother’s Irish Catholic ancestors who came to this country during the Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century. Today, we gardeners plant potatoes hybridized and resistant to the same killing blight that starved the Irish into an agonizing history of emigration and death. They had no such choice. When we pick up a bag of store-bought potatoes, we forget how close the relationship of land and people must be to those who depend upon it for survival. Today, we expect the potatoes to just be there.

abandoned stone hut in ireland in the mist

hut abandoned in Ireland mist

Although, like me, many Americans descend from ancestors who lived close to the land, and some who died because of the vagaries of nature and food supply, our industrial and technological relationship with food has removed us from understanding the role of the land in human ecology. Michael Pollan says that we don’t shop much around the edges of the supermarket- we shop on the inside lanes where the processed food is stacked. Whether it’s at home or school, our young people learn little about the connectivity of the natural environment to their lives. School lunches are an example of that.

4 red tomatoes on the vine

vine ripened

Today, these few rotten tomatoes, several pepper and cucumber plants damaged by the deer that plague my world, and droplets of golden eggs hidden under squash leaves led me to question what’s worthy to learn in a day and age of hyper-changing technologies in our world.How important is it for our young people to understand the relationships of land and food to their own survival; the patterns of weather, the food chains in which we figure, the shaping of cultures, politics and even religions, the ages through which civilizations pass, the migrations of peoples, and even the rise and fall of nations caused by our relationships with the natural world?

What do young people really need to know about stripped-down corn, packaged on Styrofoam and kept cool in the fresh vegetable bins? Or, the gulf shrimp on ice about which I overhead someone recently comment, “I’d rather not know where they came from”? What’s important to understand about the origins of sliced and diced tomatoes stacked neatly in cans on a grocery aisle? How do we communicate the value of good stewardship to relieve man-made stresses upon our environment? Why should we teach the connectedness and dependency of humanity upon the natural world for our very life’s breath and next meal? What’s worthy of learning when our children are often far removed from working the land? Why should we care about our children’s relationship to the land, air, and water around them?

High School Ecological studies of the pond

With global access we can find today’s media version of the Starving Times that decimated the 17th century Jamestown Settlement and 19th century Ireland. Far away from us, but perhaps closer than we think, humans live in starvation on the edge of death in the drought-weary world of West Africa. There, the peoples of Chad and Niger and six other countries eat leaves from trees and grain from ant hills to stave off death. Maybe as many as 15 million people face starvation in that region alone.The world’s population grows, the planet warms, and water shortages persist. And, our children take standardized tests that have little to do with learning how to find solutions to those critical problems.

We can write standards that cause us to learn the facts of the Potato Famine of the past and West Africa of today. We can measure that Virginia’s young people have learned what the Starving Times were in the first Anglo colony of America. That’s easy- 4 responses- choose one of the above.

However, this morning’s reflections cause me to ask if we want the kind of citizenry who can pose informed questions and craft informed perspectives about what went wrong in the recent mostly forgotten Gulf environmental disaster?* If so, what do we need to do to ensure we don’t create a future that looks like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?

Perhaps we simply begin, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, by connecting our children “back into the garden.” **

gardening with preschoolers

(*see @jasonflom on Edutopia for discussion group of educators on learning from Gulf Oil Spill)

(**see @paulallison for more about East-West School for International Studies Gardening Project in NYC)

(**see@timlauer for more about Lewis Elementary Gardening Project in Portland, Or)

(**see grow veggies for Quick Start– Albemarle school grow local projects)

(**see @traceysaxon for more about Sutherland Middle School’s garden to food to compost project)

(**see @cwd4H for more about Yancey Elementary School’s Veggie Village in Esmont, Va)