Listening for quiet moments

[Think about it.]
Can you name that one book that you read in high school that changed the way you thought about the world? You probably read a lot of books in high school but for some reason this was the book that really stuck. Can you name it?

For me it was The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. It was the book that helped me to appreciate the world as it came to me, both the yin and the yang, as enriching, equally important complements. It was the book that made me understand how sentimental I am for words and what great power they have over me. It’s one of the few books that I re-read time and again.

Can you name the one album or song that changed your perspective when you were young? Beyond everything you heard on the radio, for some reason this was the album that was pivotal for you.

For me it was Kid A by Radiohead. My brother gave it to me as a birthday present, and although I really wanted to like it and think it was cool, it was mostly just weird at first. (Treefingers, anyone?) So I listened to it over and over, and as I started to appreciate new things about it, something dramatic happened: I discovered album liner notes. And record labels. And then opening acts and side projects. Kid A led me to OK Computer, the 1997 album by Radiohead that was regarded in some circles as the best album of the 1990s, and to Sigur Rós, the Icelandic band making atmospheric, beautiful music who toured with Radiohead in support of Kid A. Sigur Rós led me to Björk, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and múm (all Icelandic artists) and Constellation Records (a Canadian record label that shared a kindred spirit) and each of these bands led to half a dozen others. And of course each of those bands had their own opening acts, side projects, and liner notes too. I went from listening to music to being a fan of music. Seeing these connections was an ah-ha! moment that reshaped my relationship with music, and it continues to be a guiding metaphor in how I try to navigate a sea of new, yet somehow connected, ideas.

[Talk about it.]
What other experiences have changed your perspective: a moment of earthly humility while gazing through a telescope? A childhood insult whose sting took years to wear off? That conversation that allowed you to realize that your parents were actually people too?

I’m curious about the ways that our perspectives are shaped and how so many of these formative experiences exist only as personal, silent memories. How many people have touched me in lasting ways they don’t know? How many things have I said and forgotten, which are now quietly carried on by other people?  Continue reading

The medium is the message

To clarify the expectations for the graduating class of 2014:
One of the Latin students among you is expected to return to FCS some years from now to continue the FCS Latin teacher lineage. Doc taught Magistra. Doc and Magistra taught me. Now Doc, Magistra, and I have taught you. You have a few years to sort out the details; I expect to see one of you back here before we’re all retired and gone away.

As you are figuring out the logistics of who will come back and when, you can start thinking about this one in advance: you’ll need to decide what kind of a teacher you will be during Meeting for Worship. Will you be an eyes-closed teacher or an eyes-open teacher? I’ve tried a number of times to be an eyes-closed teacher — a Ms Novo, a Mr V, or a Mr Gruber — but I’m not. I’ve tried to be the kind of teacher who comes in to Meeting for Worship, sits up straight, closes his eyes, and does work. Those teachers rarely speak, so you rarely know what’s going through their minds… but you know that it’s something important. You can almost see the sweat forming on their brows. Utter concentration on their faces. No slouching, no fidgeting. Something meaningful is happening on the inside, and it’s taking all of their attention.

But when I try to close my eyes in Meeting for Worship, my brain starts to swirl around inside of my skull, the floor under my left foot starts rolling in one direction and the floor under my right foot rolls in another. Before I know it my head starts nodding and I realize, again, that I’m not meant to be an eyes-closed teacher.

But I would like to be an eyes-closed teacher because without saying anything at all, the eyes-closed teachers are sharing a message loud and clear: something important is at work in Meeting for Worship, it’s worthy of your attention, and it’s nothing that eyes can see. Some messages are expressed best without words.

The theme of the end of the school year is transformation. And as I think about that in the context of Meeting for Worship and this year’s graduating seniors, I can’t help but think of all of the messages I have learned from the seniors I have taught; I think about their messages, which are as unvoiced and unmistakable as a teacher closing his eyes, and how these messages have transformed me. The students who have grown along with me, matching me stride for stride in my journey being a teacher. The students who have taught me that this is the job I’m meant to do. The student who puts the “B” in my “BC.”

As much as I was tempted to stand up in their last Meeting for Worship and tell them — convince them — that they have transformed me, I’m sure that that transformational power has been the message behind every Meeting for Worship they’ve attended all along. That’s why we sit in silence. That’s what we’re listening for. Meeting for Worship is built upon the conviction that your truth has the power to make my reality a better place.

And so I didn’t need to stand up to share a message because the medium is the message. Every time I share my silence and my undivided attention with you, I am saying in the most deliberate way I know how: your truth has the power to transform my reality. So, please, I’m ready — stand up and speak. I’ll be listening.

To the seniors who will be graduating tomorrow: go out and speak your truth. Make the world a better place. There’s no one else who can do it quite the way you can.

Then make sure one of you comes back to teach Latin.

Potential energy and kinetic energy

Lisa Kay Solomon gave a talk at my school tonight about “designing meaningful conversations.” (Lisa, an alum, is back in Philadelphia for her high school reunion and recently published a book on the same topic.) She was a phenomenal presenter.  She framed her talk by looking at the lost opportunities of agenda-packed corporate meetings that bludgeon employees with endless PowerPoint presentations and dilute progress into action items that are little more than window dressings. While many of her examples were targeted at a corporate audience, the themes of creative leadership, of designing experiences rather than disseminating information, and of developing a safe environment for discovery all resonated with my approach to working with students.

Lisa, if you’re reading, I was the enthusiastic head-nodder in the fourth row.

But I didn’t realize the relative impact of her talk until I compared notes with two parents in the audience immediately afterwards. Both parents were fired up, ready to take Lisa’s ideas back to their offices and revitalize their next board meeting. They were energized to reexamine the linear rut of “progress” in their corporate culture that may not be progress at all.

And for a moment I was able to pause and take in the joy and the challenge of being a teacher:

Next month I get to hit the reset button.

Summer vacation arrives in exactly 30 days and already I’m thinking ahead to next year. When September rolls around, I get to redefine the culture of my classroom. Full stop. What other jobs allow for such a clean opportunity for iteration? In many ways my students are my colleagues — and when I start fresh every fall I am able to shape a new message and a new set of expectations for our shared workplace.

Then again, my colleagues are kids.

When given the right set of circumstances, kids and their imaginations are great at the kinds of conversations Lisa was describing. I see it all the time. And if you view the teacher as a user experience designer for the classroom, then the challenge of “developing safe environments for discovery” nicely captures what teachers do, day in and day out.

But kids are kids. Innovation with middle and high school students necessarily happens on a different scale from the professional world. Students don’t have degrees or experience (they’re kids!) and they don’t have careers to dedicate to the themes they wish to explore. (Their school day is divided 40-minute chunks and they already have too much homework.) Great ideas are often left in the lofty realm of imagination and never touch the cold asphalt of implementation and creativity. Just this year I saw plenty of meaningful conversations fail to turn into meaningful work.

So can the themes of Lisa’s talk still apply to my classroom? Can meaningful conversations turn into meaningful work by stoking a long-burning need for learning and growth?

Already I see my goals for next year:

  • to turn potential energy into kinetic energy
  • to leverage meaningful conversations into sustained climbs up the learning curve
  • to transform post-it notes and what-if questions into third, fourth, and fifth iterations of a single concept
  • to channel the buoyant force of powerful imagination into the sweaty, soot-covered hustle of creativity

Here’s the one post-it note I think I might keep within arm’s reach next year:


Grokking it

A few months ago I wrote about a learning trajectory that I have been riding for the last year or so. I ended with a few questions:

How can I help transform moments of formal and informal learning with my students into seedlings of curiosity that they, themselves, can nurture and grow?
How can I help students learn to sip from the internet’s firehose of information in a way that empowers them to have agency as capable, self-directed learners?
How can I develop the patience, intentionality, and resourcefulness in students that will equip them to build bridges to new territories of thought and walk across them at the same time?

Sounds exciting, right? I look forward to investing a lot of my professional future in answering these questions as best I can.

But I see that there is a way to fundamentally misinterpret these questions as a threat instead of an opportunity: if information is cheap does that mean that expertise is cheap too? Can a glut of information actually be a threat to knowing?

Grokking sounds like an ugly word
In some communities, “grokking it” means something along the lines of learning by intuition; “grokking” is not necessarily associated with depth of knowledge or attention to nuance. In his book, Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff provides an example of grokking vs. understanding through the lens of our society’s changing relationship with time itself. In one example, Rushkoff confesses that he “doesn’t know whether to be delighted or horrified” by a high school student who “already saw the world in fractal terms and assumed that being able to fully grasp one moment of Hamlet would mean that he had successfully ‘grokked’ the whole.” Rushkoff sympathizes by considering the student’s context: “Functioning in [our] world does require getting the ‘gist’ of things and moving on, recognizing patterns, and then inferring the rest.” While in this context grokking seems like a useful skill, the example makes it clear that grokking should not be conflated with real understanding.

Is that a lurking threat in our 21st century classrooms? Is a mix of grokking and Googling threatening to replace the value of developing a real depth of understanding?

Continue reading

Symbols on our skin

I went to church tonight and had a symbol of ashes placed on my forehead. But this post is not about church, religiosity, or my own theological perspective. Skip all of that. For the sake of this post, the ashes were just the catalyst for a thought experiment. (Especially if you find all of those philosophical questions hard to ignore in the context of religious symbols — you, in particular, please skip all of that baggage and keep reading.) This post is about choice, how easy it is for symbols to be misinterpreted, and privilege.

All of the context needed for now is to say that Ash Wednesday is a special day on the calendar for me; I marked it by attending the Presbyterian church I attend every Sunday; and at the church service tonight I chose to receive a symbolic smudge of ashes on my forehead. I’ll avoid any discussion of the traditional meaning of these things as well as my personal interpretation of them — all of which would only distract from my message right now. To that end maybe I’ll try phrasing it even more simply: tonight I chose to associate myself with a community of people by wearing a symbol on my skin. That’s pretty sterile, but hopefully it lays the groundwork for where I’m headed.

Here’s the thought experiment I want to focus on: if the service had been at 7:00 AM instead of 7:00 PM, I might not have chosen to receive that symbol.

I wouldn’t want to wear the symbol of ashes on my face throughout the day for fear of dealing with how people might react to it. Here are some of the potential reactions I’ve imagined:  Continue reading

From challenge to grad school at 250 W.P.H.

One year ago today I started blogging. I have written 19 posts containing a total of 16,404 words (not counting this post, my 20th). On average each post takes about 3.5 hours to write, proofread, re-write, re-proofread, and re-re-write.

Looking back
As I reflect on the time and effort I have invested in blogging this year, I am drawn to the very first words I wrote here: “Today I was challenged…” 

Thank you to everyone who has challenged me and has set the bar of expectations high for me to reach. Writing about ideas and engaging with each of you online and offline has been a tremendous experience for me to grow and to learn.

I decided to start this blog because I did not want to respond to that initial challenge (to develop an opinion about MOOCs and how they will affect the world of education) only to bury that opinion in the archives of Gmail; and now my ongoing goal of writing every month has only been possible because of the support and engagement of the people who have taken the time to read and discuss these ideas with me. Thank you!

Looking ahead
If each blog post takes me about 3.5 hours or so to write, then on average I write about 250 words per hour. But I am capable of typing somewhere around 100 words per minute. So most of my time writing blog posts is spent not writing anything at all. Most of my time is spent developing ideas and hunting for the right language to capture them. It has been a year of slowly, deliberately exploring ideas that fascinate me.

I have learned a lot through this process, and perhaps one of the most important lessons I have learned is how much I enjoy this process itself. It turns out that I really like spending a quiet Saturday morning questioning, reflecting, and writing. I have learned that taking the time to work through this process is in fact part of how I have fun.

My interest in this work has evolved to a point where now I plan to explore the questions that have filled this blog more formally: I have just been accepted to the Learning Science and Technologies program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education! The LST program focuses on “the intersection of collaboration, creativity, complexity, and computation.” I think I’d like to make this intersection my home address some day.

In one year of blogging I have gone from “Today I was challenged…” to becoming a graduate student. My future will certainly be busy — filled with teaching full-time, studying part-time, and hopefully still blogging sometimes — and I look forward to seeing where these new challenges will lead me in the years ahead.

Sipping from the firehose

Context: Information is cheap and is being generated at a rapidly accelerating rate. This abundance of information, and our constant access to it, is perhaps the most profound way that the internet is changing the world.

My questions: How does that affect my role as a teacher? How does that affect the stance I take with respect to my students, or the stance that my students take with respect to school? How does our new relationship to information affect our relationship to learning?

A story that illustrates my answer: A seedling of an idea has blossomed into an exciting learning trajectory for me over the past year. Retrace my steps with me to see the lessons I have learned.  Continue reading