What Are You Building?

Post for Leadership Day 2010

My Essential Question for Leaders in Education:

“How will you teach your students and teachers to build relationships?”

On it’s surface, the question may not seem directly related to technology, but hopefully you recognize that it is a key component to every student’s education. If we can build relationships with people, ideas, and groups of people, then our opportunities to learn something new (or to teach someone something new) multiply greatly.

Essentially, every piece of great technology is about relationships between people and ideas. The telegraph helped people to communicate across large distances. TNT was supposed to help people build bridges and destroy barriers. The Department of Defense’s ARPANet was designed to achieve greater coordinated efforts and intelligence sharing, and eventually–with Al Gore’s help–became our Internet.

Our ultimate job as educators, whether we are in a classroom or down the hall from one, is to build relationships. I believe that relationships are the key to learning anything, and learning is tied into everything we do in education.

As leaders in education, we must have and express the need to have a strong relationship with learning new things. Marzano calls the relationship with continual learning “fluid intelligence” and says it’s required for success in any area.

What else can we fit under the umbrella of continual learning and relationship building? What term can we apply to cover these committments we hold as educational leaders? I suggest, “technology.”

Whether we use TNT or a telegraph, we need to learn how to use technology to break down the barriers of learning and relationships. How that’s done is not something I can prescribe to you from this blog; reading what I say is like picking up a brick and stacking it onto other things you’ve read, but there is no mortar without a relationship. Without a dialogue between you and I (or with someone else about what you’ve read) you’re just stacking up bricks, not building a relationship with an idea.

I urge you not to take in a list of ten great technologies to suggest to teachers and principals, not to go out and buy books X, Y, or Z, but ultimately to start a conversation about what you’re learning and with whom you’re connected to. Only from that seeking out of new knowledge–through whatever barrier reducing “technology” is available to you–will there be true benefit.

Because I Could Not Stop to Write

During my first year as a high school English teacher in the Midwest, I found reasons every day to question my decision. These challenges became a part of the reason I now love the job, but finding the right tool to overcome the challenge was not something prescribed in my college curriculum (at least not explicitly). One of the most unique challenges came not from the students, but from my own experiences as a reader. How was I supposed to keep up with all the reading? I had books to teach I had not read in years (or not at all), professional development texts being passed to me, and personal books I was dying to escape to–who had the time to take it all in?

I started to think back to the times in college when I was most successful during literature classes. Looking for patterns, scribblings, or whatever clues I could find, I found myself entrenched in old black and white bound journals of class notes. The pressures had changed since then; now I was on the other side of the desk. How could I respond differently and enact a new sense of literary authority while still being approachable? The question burned within me while I thumbed through round-cornered pages.

Eventually I realized the constant I wasn’t giving enough credit to, as a college reader, was writing. I wrote continually before, during, and after I read something for class. Any time I took in new information I had to process my thoughts, prior knowledge, and questions. Ah-ha! I wasn’t doing enough writing as a teacher; that has to be something helpful I’m missing. I stopped reading and searching right then and started writing something useful to solving my issue, a question:

How can reflective writing make you a better reader?

As an English teacher, I am always looking for more personal ways to plug myself into a new text. The most successful way to work within a piece of literature, be it a first read or a well-worn favorite, is to look in the mirror. I like to think about myself as a young boy on an adventure like Huckleberry Finn, imagine myself living in a distant and oppressive future like Winston Smith in “1984,” or even put myself in the shoes of a woman contemplating the meaning and impact of death like Emily Dickinson.

Because I could not stop to write, no words would come to me.

I made a pact with myself to write–to blog, more specifically–as regularly as possible. My goal was every week during the year I would write something about my practice in the classroom, texts I was exploring, and issues that were coming up within my school community. I made an arbitrary word-length which I didn’t end up sticking to very long, but it helped me get started. My posts ended up ranging from 300-1000 words each week and if I missed a week I double-posted the next.

Continuity. That was the answer to my question about reflective writing. It started to surface after a few weeks in a row of doing public writing. I wasn’t solving the mysteries of the universe, or even of my classroom, in each post, but I was starting to see a few threads unravel related to who I was as a teacher, reader, and writer.

More than the personal philosophical benefits writing was providing me as a reading teacher, I was starting to feel more nimble when discussing language arts with my students. I felt like the football coach who, after dropping a few pounds, was running laps on his players’ heels. My own practice as a writer was affecting my authority with students; they could perceive that I was more in tune with S.E. Hinton when I knew just exactly what character to suggest they profile for their project.

Before I started using writing to build upon my own understanding of teaching literature and reading, I was full of haste but going nowhere. Now, I can afford to take a more Dickinson-like tempo with my classes:

I slowly teach, I know no haste.
And I do put my pen
into labor, and leisure too
for I know I’m learning.

And now the first line of my poem is something a bit brighter. With my new perspective I can say comfortably, I don’t think Emily would mind my riffing on her already great words:

Because I Have to Stop to Write,
The World Kindly Stops for Me.