Are Schools Lost in Space?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the spaces we inhabit as teachers. In my classroom practice as well as my university classes, I keep coming back to the idea of intentional space and how we create it in our lives. Especially with younger students, teachers know there must be a place for everything and everything in its place. There are bins for picking up this kind of paper, boxes for returning that kind of paper, cups for creative materials, and so on and so forth. As teachers, I want us to start asking about our professional spaces within the school. Where do we have PD? Where do we plan? Where do we meet with colleagues to blow off steam or chat?

study spaceWhile possibly seeming pedestrian or even passive on their surface, each of these questions requires us to imagine our daily routines and habits. That shared starting point of “where do I go to do the things I do?” is one that prepares us for learning and practicing new things. In my experience, it is likely that the discussion about where we do things is swept aside rather quickly in conversation in favor of seemingly more pragmatic ones like “what are we doing?“. This is a mistake, I think. Creating a physical space (or a digital one) is the first step to creating mental space for ideas. If my colleagues and I want to expose ourselves to new ideas about teaching more regularly, than we must collaborate to make a place to house those ideas. Once we know where we can go together, be it a bulletin board or a blog, to post those ideas and questions, we will start to accept that we are permitted to improve and discuss those things.

When schools fail to create or identify these kinds of professional spaces, innovation can cease, and practices will begin to stagnate. To share one example, my school recently implemented a new early morning collaboration time each week. Every department was given a day of the week and 30 minutes (it’s better than nothing) before and during our homerooms to work on shared issues. When my department’s day finally came, we were excited and a little bit stressed. We knew carving out the time was an important step for administration to take, but there were new stresses to be concerned with that come any time you leave your art2

We made an agenda and made our way to the meeting room on our Thursday morning, excited to get some adult space to ourselves. We passed out some questions to discuss and dug right in. Not a minute later than we got comfortable with our coffee and notes, the announcements started. Our precious time and space was now polluted, put on pause, and our lips all pursed in frustration.

You can get a fair amount done in 30 minutes of time, and it offers the option of members coming to school a bit earlier if needed. However, when that’s interrupted by announcements that can’t be stopped, nearly everything gained by the space created is lost.The next week we found a new space to convene and the meeting moved forward with only muffled interference in the distance.

Learning to make new spaces is only the first step. Such spaces will bring challenges needing mitigation. The process is never fully complete either; that needs to be understood. Schools, teachers, and principals must all become adept at mastering the use of intentional space in the school and in time. The cycle of improvement must be continuous. Manipulating digital space needs to be added to that list also, as it is something many are not equipped to do. Start by recognizing and evaluating existing spaces: where are certain types of work done? Where are formal and informal conversations really taking place? And what is perceived by the staff as effective among each of those areas?
Starting there, educators can move forward with the knowledge that changes to the spaces around them will facilitate more positive change and allow for the free exchange of more information and inquiry.

So, what kinds of spaces do you see in use? What kinds of spaces are being created in your school?

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.

Is Your School Like a Glow Stick?

Originally post on the ERT website

While reading a post on The Student Affairs Collaborative, a blog on higher education, I got a very vivid image in my head. The title, Break the System to Remake the System, made me think of a glow stick instantly. I like this image analog for several reasons. First, I relate to the idea that what we need to shine, as schools, is already inside of us. To me, that’s an idea that just about every teacher already embraces. Yes, you need to hire well, but you’ll almost never be in a situation where you get to replace every teacher in a building; training and cultivation is the best answer to improvement.


How does a glow stick work? Well, if you’ve never been to a fair or theme park (or a rave I suppose) then you need to know about glow sticks. They are clear plastic tubes with two luminescent chemicals trapped inside, but separated by a thin artificial membrane. When you “break” the tube by holding it between your two hands and bending, you cause the chemicals to mix, thus causing a safe exocharmic(exuding excitement and entertainment) reaction which makes the stick glow fluorescent.

Now that I’ve made you relive a time when you were overwhelmed by large crowds of children wielding cheese-filled pretzels, I’ll get back to idea of education I’m trying to get at. The glow stick: you need to break it in order for it to work. Is public education the same? More specifically, what can we define as “breaking” education? Will Race to the Top “break” it? Did NCLB already break it (or will it be revealed as broken in 2014)? Will it break slowly over time or instantaneously? Are you risking breaking your school by providing new ideas? These are all questions worth considering.


I can’t pass up a good diagram. Haven’t you always wondered about glow sticks?

Second, if we do “break” education and all the evident faults and possible strengths are fluorescently illuminated for us, how do we act in response? Is there something contained within the action that broke it, or is it still external and unknown? Before I veer off into a metacognitive or philosophical cliff, I want to focus this topic into one coherent question:

What does a “broken” education system look like?

When any large change is brought about in a system, it could very easily be seen as broken in the pejorative sense of the word, because it is no longer preforming functions as it did previously. Change can be a scary thing if you fixate on the unknown; you have to  look inward and concentrate on what goodness is hiding inside your school that can’t be let out until you break the tube.
My answer to what a broken system looks like: noisy, shifting, luminescent, radiating light and energy. I want my school to have such energy and I want us to visibly share it with the world. We should hold our glow stick up to illuminate the darkness and understand that even though it will not last forever (a dying glow stick is a traumatic realization for a small child) we know how and why we must break another one if we expect to see.
I’m interested in hearing from you: Is your school like a glow stick? What is waiting to shine through? Is a system broken from outside forces or made from what’s inside?

Is Twitter Just Window Dressing?

Sometimes I wonder, there is a lot of content that gets repeated, retweeted, and passed around, but how much of it is actually read? Milton Ramirez’s tweet got me thinking (because I do try to reflect):


I’m sure any marketer or business person could tell you how wonderful Twitter and social media have been for their website traffic and ad revenue, but what should teachers care about traffic? Sure, it’s interesting (and even useful depending upon your role) to know who visits your website or blog, but those data don’t provide much value in and of themselves.

I’m wondering how much window-dressing is going on through social media. I consider myself very active. On a scale of 1-to-10, where 10 is the most active one can be healthfully online, I’d rank myself at an 8 or 9 on most days. The truth is, I’ve always been addicted to social interaction, feedback, and connecting with other people. They are what keep me fueled and on fire for life. What can be dangerous is when you lose yourself in something like that.

Twitter provides a rush of information and interaction like being in a big conference hall where anyone (experts and ed celebs included) can be reached. You get a nice little chill the first time you get “RT’d” and someone repeats the same message you sent out into the blue. The echo can make you feel validated, your name is stamped on it, others can see it, and it’s really real. However, the drive for building a following loses all value and authenticity if it is one based on numbers rather than people. If you just search for “social media expert” on Google, you’ll find a list of results amassed with keyword flailing marketers bound and determined to optimize themselves for search.

Teachers: we have to be different. We aren’t selling anything, not seeking “followers” but collaborators and fellow learners. Twitter can’t work if you try to make it about you. It must be about US. Soren Gordhammer of Mashable says in his post Zen and the Art of Twitter, “Give what you want to receive.” The simple advice for those who seek encouragement is to offer it rather than beg for it. The same is true of attention.

Titles Escape Me, Friends Don’t

As much of a tech-minded, Twitter-using, blog-reading, RSS-feeding kind of guy I am, I still have trouble calling people I’ve connected with online “friends.” There needs to be a word (besides the giggle-inducing “tweeps”) for our net connections–this is my cue to all of you out there to tell me if there is one I’m not mentioning.  Titles aside, over the past year or so since I’ve been actively building my PLN, I have connected with many great educators around the country and quite a few outside of it. One in particular, Connecticut-based middle school history teacher Paul Bogush, has made an impact on me consistently first through his blog and then on Twitter.

As a pre-service teacher, I felt continually frustrated by being cut-off from the profession for which I was preparing to enter. Yes, there were practicum requirements that got me into a classroom for a few hours every other semester, but largely my only experiences were with college professors and my peers. My real “education” was developing through correspondence with teachers whom I had met along the way. Some of my older friends were already teaching; I could sense their collective fear, exasperation, and occasional joy through their emails and Facebook statuses. It was nice to have my ear to the hive even distantly, but I felt that something was missing.

I didn’t know what it meant to be a teacher. When I was a chemistry student, It only took one day of lab on my own to understand the substance of what being a chemist involved. Education was proving to be more nebulous. What did teachers really do all day–or all Summer for that matter? What did teachers talk about when they were unsure of their plans? What I was missing was the connection to a community. The Education corpus academia was not exactly cohesive at Missouri State. We were scattered singles rather than a connected collective. I wish I would have found out earlier that

Teaching is all about community.

I believe learning is, as I’ve written many times on this site before, socially constructed. It takes other people to help build knowledge. Making connections with other people, therefore, is a vital step to learning. In my classroom, I try to encourage a relationship-building atmosphere, but I also need to connect to other teachers just as students need one another. I have good rapport with my fellow teachers because we’ve shared stories of success and failure with each other. The more ways that teachers can find to build community, the more powerful their knowledge base will be.

What aspects of community I don’t get in my school building and district meetings, I can find online through my PLN. Not all teachers are comfortable with the concept–some mistakenly think of it as only a trendy excuse to use expensive toys or waste of time “looking busy” in the guise of productivity. Twitter is very popular right now. The name buzzes around in our ears from our television and radio speakers, it jumps out from web pages and profile sidebars. Tweet tweet TWEET! I’m sure many of you are users, but I know there are just as many reading this that don’t “get it” and don’t care–that’s okay.

The most important thing you non-tweeters need to understand is this: regardless of what athletes and celebrities “tweet” about (I don’t care what Shaq and MC Hammer ate for lunch either), you can be assured there is a community of educators online at your beck-and-call if you choose to join in. After you’ve connected with a few people, typing a question into Twitter becomes like shouting out a window over a field where a bunch of teachers are eating lunch and playing kickball: you never know what will fly your way!


Sharing stories, commiserating, encouraging, suggesting new ideas, following conversation threads in new directions–these are all things you can do online through Twitter. Aren’t those all things you do with friends, colleagues? Titles escape me and I refuse to say “tweeps” out-loud, but I’ve read Paul‘s personal thoughts just about every day for nearly a year now and It sort of feels wrong to call him anything but “friend.”

Take a step out onto the ledge. Follow me. Find a friend.

Survey Sweeps! The Power of GoogleForms and your PLN

Recently, I discovered the wonderfully useful service that is GoogleForms. As a tech-enthusiast and long time Google user, I’m still not sure how I missed this in the past. Pursuing my first graduate degree means I need to take in large quantities of datum (I still think hard about the plurality of data every time I type it).

It's easy to make a new form

It's easy to make a new form

Awesome response viewing

Awesome response viewing

Over the past year or so, I have found absolutely incredible connections through my PLN on Twitter and Plurk. Usually I’m able to ask questions and get a few small conversations going, but mostly I end up joining larger conversations in the macroverse of social media. With GoogleForms, I have found a useful and simple way to ask pointed questions relevant to my interests in education.

Below, I’m posting links to several of my simple surveys about educational trends. Most only took a few minutes to write and post online. I was amazed at how quickly the responses piled up. A thank you in advance to anyone who fills out these surveys.

Diversity Survey

There are lots of custom form themes

There are lots of custom form themes

Collaboration Survey

I like these crazy block shapes, they are like bar graphs in the wild...

I like these crazy block shapes, they are like bar graphs in the wild...

Technology Survey

The arrow on this survey points down, down to business

The arrow on this survey points down, down to business

In a few weeks, I’ll post all the graphica, data, and selected input from the surveys (it’s all anonymous, so don’t worry about your name showing up, I have no way of knowing that when you take the survey).

Defining Literacy Today

While reading through my education-related feeds, I came to an interesting post on “The English Blog” written by Jeffery Hill. He teaches overseas and blogs about learning, writing, and speaking English. I do not deal as often with learners of English as a second language, but his post brought up an interesting point. His quote from a local radio program got me thinking:

“The ABCs are apparently no longer as easy as 1-2-3. Recent federal studies indicate that the average American teenager’s vocabulary is less than half that of the average teenager in the 1950s.”

This comment made me recount my recent lessons in English literacy through my undergraduate and graduate studies at Missouri State. Naturally, I read the post carefully a few times again and composed a response to outline my thinking:

“I think the valuable question we need to ask ourselves here is, “how important is knowing specific words to literacy?” Does knowing what “abscond” means help people to do business better? Does understanding what “ad hoc” means help you write a better poem or essay? Communication and composition are specific only to the environment that their authors occupy. People learn what they need to in order to accomplish their goals. If teens today know less words than their parents, then is it a crisis or a sign of shift in literacy? Maybe this generation is redifining the word.”

After I posted my reply, I sat back in thought. Did I really think that a lack of vocabulary represented a shift in literacy or was I simply playing devil’s advocate to this easy-to-accept commentary on the lazy youth and their social media addiction? What research could I find to support my statement?

I turned to E.D. Hirsch Jr. and his best-selling book on cultural literacy in America. In this book, he has lists of words, dates, and phrases that “literate” Americans should know. Do you know the significance of 1066 CE? How about absolute zero or amicus curiae? These are supposed to be common terms that Mr. Hirsch requires of you. Maybe you happen to know when the Battle of Hastings was because you were a history or an English major in college, or because you were on the quizbowl team in high school, but otherwise why should you know it?

Of course, I would tell you that learning about the importance of historical events would enrich your life. If you know that the Normans defeated the English in 1066, then you may come to learn that this military event changed the face of the English language forever. Many of the French words present in our vernacular today were introduced by good ol’ Billy Conqueror via the sword and arrow.

That being said, would you really say to someone who didn’t know the significance of this date, “I’m sorry, but you are illiterate” ? I hope not. What kind of message would that send to people? I think Hirsch has only the best intentions in mind as he writes that you should know what “aeschylus” means. He is saying that you should want to be smarter (and I agree). He says only 2/3 of our society (in America) is truly literate. Is there really a “network of information that all competent readers possess” or is literacy something more than common or shared knowledge?

I think that literacy has more to do with conveying and understanding ideas than with specific words, phrases, or concepts. If you don’t understand covalent bonding or absolute zero, but you can define curricum vitae and synecdohe, are you more or less literate than a person who can do the opposite? It sounds like the first person teaches science and the second English, but I would say neither are illiterate for having very specific gaps in their knowledge.

While it would be wonderful if we could count on every American to be able to discuss the importance of stereoisomers in optical science upon pulling out a pair of sunglasses, I don’t think it’s necessary to be considered literate. For most of the third of America that Hirsch sees as illiterate, I would imagine their chief concerns are more to do with basic needs than their intellect.

Hirsch has a lot of great data to back up his thoughts on literacy, and I agree with a lot of it, but he uses a lot of anecdotal evidence too, like in the introdcution. Ben Stein recalls his experiences with California high school students, claiming that in many years not one has ever been able to tell him the dates of any US war, any of the first ten presidents, or where Chicago is. I find that very hard to swallow. As a teacher in a sub-rural Missouri public high school, I could easily find ten students in five minutes who could answer all three of those things clearly.

There is validity to the arguments though. Students are pump and dumpers when it comes to reading, learning, and testing. Students usually can’t tell you who that World War I started in 1914, or 1917 for the US involvement, because they only chose to remember it for “the test.” It is the challenge of the teacher to help students build knowledge connections so retention of information is easier. I think Hirsch comes to this point as well, that of making connections. I think we’re starting on opposite ends of the same spectrum though. He gives a determined set of information that people need to digest to be literate–a product to be obtained–while I think the process is where literacy is built.