Faces of Learning

Last year around this time I was weeks into my first semester of teaching high school. I was in a specialized reading classroom in a medium-sized, sub-rural school and had planned to blog each week of my first year in order to track the journey. One of the more important things I wrote about was former teachers and my own experiences as a student. More than anyone besides my two parents, I owe thanks to former teachers like Gary Earl, Sharon Erikson, Tim Allshouse, Kent Rausch, Lisa Evans, and Margaret Weaver. In my journals, many entries have been rooted in my attempts to say “thank you” to teachers like them.

When I wrote “Formula for Success,” a little more than a year ago, I was just trying to put the next brick in my blogging wall. When I stumbled upon the “Rethink Learning Now” campaign website (which now redirects to its parent non-profit site) I saw a call to submit writing about experiences in learning. I can’t honestly remember what went through my head, but after browsing and reading through others’ stories, I pasted in the text of my most recent blog post.

Fast-forward to Spring of 2010. I had one semester of teaching under my belt, had been fortunate to go to two national conferences in Philadelphia and San Antonio, and was planning to move to Kansas City to teach at my current school in the urban core. Lots of changes, more writing done and posted to my blog, and lots of contacts made in online circles of teachers and writers. There had been a lot of unexpected surprises that year, but I wasn’t expecting to get this email from Sam Chaltain last Spring. My little blog post had been read and approved and would be included along with 49 other stories in a book–huh.

At this point, I had completely forgotten about the Rethink Learning Now campaign, my story, and I half-thought the email was a scam (sorry Sam) remembering the Who’s Who books which required people to pay money to publish their bio in a list somewhere. Boy was I wrong!

The book ended up being something more special than I imagined. Me? I thought. My story? Then Sam asked for my picture, which I later found on the cover–gasping at this would dramatically understate my shock. I’m still a bit dumbfounded by it; it still seems a little unreal. Like them or not, respect them or not, Steadman Graham, Al Franken, and Arne Duncan are all much more accomplished and public than I am and it’s strangely exciting to share the cover with them (my apologies to any other celebrities on the cover which I don’t recognize). I can’t wait to read their stories of learning.

Due out in February 2011, the book is going on tour to cities that represent its authors. I’m excited to say that Sam and the book will be joining me in Kansas City in March at a location to be determined in a partnership with the Greater Kansas City Writing Project and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Teacher, parents, principals, and anyone with a stake in education should consider coming to hear and share stories about defining moments in their education. More to come on the event in March.

In the meantime, EdCampKC, an open-source PD event, will feature a session where a fellow NWP teacher consultant Nicole Gaulden Watkins and I will be hosting a dialogue on sharing stories of learning. There will be opportunities to participate online as well as in person at the event. This will help to promote a larger conversation in the context of the national attention on education today.

I am very excited about this book, the events around the country it will be connected to, and how it will impact Kansas City communities of learning. I’ve sent correspondence to Mayor Mark Funkhouser in the hope of adding his story to the collection in addition to the mayors of Washington DC and Los Angeles.

Do you have a story about a learning experience you’d like to share? Post a comment here and contribute to this national effort to shape a vision of learning for the future.

Thankfully Struggling

The discussion at my school is frustrating at the moment, but I’m glad it’s happening. We’re very lucky to be the unique free, public, non-profit hybrid that we are. We have time every day as a staff to talk about our 85 students, our practice, and about what makes us tick. In the past, I’ve struggled to get any time to talk to other teachers or leaders (in my building). It was rare to sit down and really dig into an issue like, “Why do we take attendance?” or “Do we need grades to educate children?” These question are revolutionary and unwieldy enough in and of themselves, tossing them casually out into the arena of most groups of teachers elicits chaos at best, but maybe just intellectual indolence.

In our school, I’m so happy that we have the time to drop mice into these questions and watch them nose their toward an exit. Maybe we get a bit frantic while we’re trapped in dialogues like this, but their very presence and our willingness to engage in them, is unique and noteworthy.

When you have to face other people each day after a skirmish–read: tough conversation–you tend to go about that interaction differently than if you could just crawl back into your own corner of the school. You end up drawing many different things from the dialogue beyond who “won.” Too often in my previous experiences, there were clear winners and losers in the battle for time and attention in teacher meetings. People knew who had the power and what attitude would prevail; “rightness” was a matter of status quo, leverage, and pomp.

In my school this year, there’s the hope for benefiting from tough conversation. We have honest discussions about microcosmic events in teaching and learning. We STRUGGLE to learn why we do and don’t do certain things. No matter whose opinion dominates the discussion, there isn’t a lingering sense of competition, seniority, or eye-rolling.

Today, we had such a discussion. My blood pressure spiked. I had to dig deep to stay in the mix. Everyone was making volleys and bumping tough shots at one another, but fallen teammates were never left alone in the sand. We weren’t arguing because we each wanted to be committee chair, sponsor of X, Y, or Z, or some special kind of authority; we just wanted to figure out what would honestly help promote the most learning in our school building.

At the end of the day, we’re all teachers, learners, and strugglers in life. When we cease to strive for solutions to those toughest problems, we become impotent to make the changes necessary to grow the little learners and future teachers that we call “students.” So, is my school perfect? Far from it. Are we trying? As hard as possible, and as earnestly as we can.

On Being Alone

If you are at first lonely, be patient.

My “always-on” lifestyle is fun. I’m on Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, blogs, and myriad other social services that promote people sharing their stories and ideas in real-time. My iPhone is always on, my netbook is always charged in my saddlebag, and even my TV at home is connected to the Internet. In other words, I am only truly “alone” when I’m sleeping (even then, my wife and dog are there too).

I have wanted to spend time alone, but haven’t spent the effort necessary to seek out solitude. I tried to make a pledge during a summer fellowship with the National Writing Project in Kansas City to go acoustic; I wanted to go a week with no devices, only pen, paper, and face-to-face interaction. I promised myself I would honestly look at how and why I was so connected. What better time to be reflective than when I was being paid to think and write? Alas, I couldn’t bring myself to unplug. The addict came right back to the spacebar and motioned for another round.

I hadn’t reentered the memory of my failed endeavor until Tanya Davis yanked me by the collar and sat me down.

If your heart is bleeding, make the best of it.

I want to thank Paul Oh for sharing this poem on Facebook. It’s actually a bit strange when I think about it; the nature of the poem encourages just the opposite kind of action, but perhaps Paul knew this. Maybe he knew that overly connected people like me would need to see this. Whatever the reason, I’m going to make another attempt at an Internet fast. I’m not sure what it will look like yet or how long it will be, but I’m going to bookend it with this post and a reflection at its conclusion. While I’m still planning, I’m open to your suggestions.