Do You Know That Song? Remembering My Time At Plan 9 Music

Tonight, I had the rare opportunity to reconnect with what felt like a former life: my days as a record store nerd. From 1999-2004, I worked part-time as a team member at Plan 9 Music, a local independent music store founded in Richmond, Virginia’s Carytown that grew satellite stores in Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Williamsburg, and Lynchburg. During my time as an employee at the store in Albemarle Square, I also took on the role of music journalist, reviewing albums, covering concerts, and crafting interview-based features for 9x, the store’s monthly music magazine.

Hardywood Plan 9 33-1/3 Black Vinyl StoutTonight, the locally-based chain celebrated its 33-1/3 year anniversary with a block party of sorts at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, an evening filled with four bands, DJs, and the unveiling of Hardywood’s Plan 9 33-1/3 Black Vinyl Stout to commemorate the occasion. Like many of the other jobs I have held, this one made its mark in my mind as a true family- a group of individuals brought together through space and time by a common love of music. (True to form, founder Jim Bland ensured that all of the current and former Plan 9 team members in attendance at the event came together for a “team picture” and a toast, blaring Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” as we parted ways. I will definitely add that photo to this post once it becomes available.)

I unfortunately arrived too late to enjoy one of the event’s activities I was most excited about. To start the day, Plan 9 invited attendees to bring in a special record they got at the store- their “desert island” disc, rarest, most weird, most embarrassing, whatever- and to share their story of their favorite Plan 9 experience. Given that the drive to Richmond gave me an opportunity to reflect, I had a song and a story all ready to share- which I will now share via this post.

Ironically, the song central to this story is a song that I have never actually heard. At least, not to my knowledge. To double the irony (as far as record store geekdom is concerned), the song itself does not give me much street cred. In fact, if I shared it without context with any of my former co-workers, I’d probably be the recipient of a pretty big groan, or at least an eye roll.

The song that sticks with me is a song by James Taylor.

Yes, you read that right. Not some under-the-radar band, or some little-known nugget of a song. James Taylor.

And here’s the story:

Aside from running the cash register, stocking merchandise, and keeping the place clean, one of our responsibilities at the store was to man the help desk and listening stations, a row of 5-disk CD players on which customers were welcomed to listen to any music before buying it. Those moments were largely filled with people walking to the desk with a CD of interest, where I would open it up (using that fancy method that left the factory seal across the top of the CD unbroken), place the album in the player, and press play. Would-be consumers would don their headphones and immerse themselves in their listening experience, and I would stand behind the counter knowing that they would probably walk away without purchasing the album in question.

One weekday evening, a middle-aged woman walked slowly to the help desk with a puzzled look on her face. She sought assistance in tracking down a particular song, not unlike many other people that wandered back to that section at the rear of the store. She told me that there was a song that her father used to play all the time when she was younger, a song by James Taylor that had something to do with a bird, or an eagle, or something about flying. She couldn’t remember the title or the words, but it was really important to her that she find the song. Since this was before the days of smartphones and wide access to the all-knowing Internet, we at Plan 9 were her only hope.

(Side note to those never having been in this situation before: this incomplete snippet of information was still significantly more than most tend to bring to such a song search. There’s a funny if not a little off-color post in which one record store clerk shares his chronicle of these kinds of requests, which I’d highly recommend if you’re looking for a laugh. But I digress.)

Armed with our tidbit of a clue, this customer and I walked together into the Pop/Rock section labeled “T”, and scanned through all of the song titles listed across the back of the multitude of James Taylor discs in stock. After looking over as many as a dozen different CDs, we found 3 or 4 contenders, and walked back to the listening station to see if any of those songs were that one song she was looking for. After 20 minutes of searching and skimming through the potential songs, we had not yet found it. Ready to give up, we nonetheless put the last of our contenders into the player and advanced to the song we thought might be the one. She put on the headphones, and pressed play.

The almost immediate progression in her facial expression- from exasperation, to hope, to happiness, to tears- told me everything I needed to know: we had found that one song.

As it turns out, this woman had just lost her father to a battle with a long-term illness, and she was looking for this song as one that she hoped would bring their family together during his memorial service. She had resigned herself to never finding the song, but thought that if she could find it anywhere, it would be at Plan 9. Sure enough, she found it. She gave me a tearful hug for helping her to find the song, bought the CD, and left the store with the memory of those moments with her father fresh in her mind.

These are the experiences I’ll remember most from my days at Plan 9.

Sure, I’ll remember the great album debates, the incredible yet little-known bands I found out about, and the musical horizons that were broadened as a result of my time there. And yes, I’ll remember the great people I had the chance to work with, the likes of which movies like Empire Records and High Fidelity almost capture (but not quite). No doubt that I will carry with me forever the excitement of interviewing international acts like Radiohead, Coldplay, and Wyclef Jean as a journalist for 9x, as well as the time during an in-store appearance that Bruce Hornsby recommended a hilariously inappropriate moniker for my as-yet-unnamed band. And there’s no way I could possibly forget the four distinct opportunities when I was able to do my best Rob Gordon impression and sell our store’s copy of The Beta Band’s The Three E.P.’s, which every time went just like this:

Me to a co-worker: I will now sell our copy of “The Three E.P.’s” by The Beta Band.

[Tony plays the record, starting with track 1, Dry The Rain.]

Customer: Who is this?

Me: The Beta Band.

Customer: It’s good.

Me: I know.

[Customer buys the record right out of the player. It’s seriously that good.]

Through all of those experiences, what I will remember most from my time at Plan 9 are those moments where I played a small part in connecting with people via the universal medium of music. As record store employees, we played a role that few others could at the time. We were the regional experts in exactly what people wanted to hear, in a day and age where there were no other outlets to track it down. The ubiquity of the smartphone may have since put that capability in everyone’s pocket, but what’s missing is the human connection that springs as a result. Call me old-fashioned, but while the combination of Google and Shazam might allow me to find almost anything I want to hear, neither holds a candle to the power of a connection to a person committed to helping me find that record I didn’t even know I was looking for.

I have no idea what happened with that woman. I like to think that she and her family were able to find some peace in her father’s passing via a shared moment with that song, and that the CD she bought that day has a place on her shelf that reminds her of the catharsis that she experienced that evening at Plan 9. Who knows: I may go on a hunt for that song now. While I’ll never know if I find it, I like to think that when I do, I’ll connect back to that moment when a woman I’ll never meet again asked me if I could help her find that one song, and the look on her face when we did just that.Photo Mar 07, 5 07 57 PM

Thanks for the memories, Plan 9. Here’s to hoping that we get the chance to celebrate years 45 and 78 together, too.

Update (March 8th, 2015): I did decide to go looking for that one song after writing this post, as it seemed appropriate to do so. As I scoured the internet armed with as much information as my former customer had given me that evening all that time ago, I came to a surprising conclusion:

It wasn’t James Taylor we were looking for at all. It was John Denver.

Scanning the song titles in James Taylor’s catalog, none of the names I saw reminded me of that night in the aisle. Looking through John Denver’s catalog instead, I was transported back to the search that night. The Eagle and the Hawk, Eagle and Horses (I’m Flying Again), Flight (The Higher We Fly), On the Wings of a Dream- these titles sounded much more familiar. These were the possible contenders that we hunted for together.

I had juxtaposed the two artists partially because I remember the aisle we stood in while scanning CDs- what I had forgotten was the direction we were facing. Pointed one way, we’d be in the Pop/Rock “T’s.” Facing the opposite direction, we’d have been in the Folk section, where John Denver’s music would have been found. While I don’t think I’ll ever know exactly which song it was that this customer was seeking (and ultimately found), at least I tracked down the ones we thought it might be.

I have waffled back and forth this morning on updating the post to “get the story right,” but realized that like so many other things in life, the story was more about the journey of looking for the song than the destination of finding it. Knowing that it was John Denver and not James Taylor does not change the story from that perspective.

Really, it’s almost too perfectly coincidental that in a post about finding that one song to connect with a fleeting memory of the past, I would misremember the artist that was central to the story. All that said, it feels important to leave it as originally written, so that one day I might run back across this post and remember that it’s not just customers who make mistakes about the key details defining that which they seek.

Connect, Commit, Contribute: Lessons on Leadership, Basketball Edition

Upon the passing of basketball icon Dean Smith Sunday morning, I have been reflecting on the impact that athletic coaches (specifically basketball coaches) have had on my own practice. While what I do for a living is “a totally different ballgame” than theirs, I noticed that I have pulled something from each of these leaders that I aspire to apply to my own work in leading learning.

Below are those 5 coaches, ordered chronologically by the time I noticed their effect on my own philosophy:

Mike Hardiman, Varina Rams and Varina Bulls

Coach Hardiman was the first coach I ever played for. As a 12-year old first trying out organized basketball, I lucked out into being drafted on his team. We were the Rams that year, and we won the championship of the league. Being that it was literally my first time playing “real” basketball, I spent most of the time watching (though I did get to play a fair amount).

In watching that year, I noticed that our team was uniquely different than that of our competitors. While our team was talented, no one player on our “starting five” was necessarily the best player on the court. Each, however, had the perfect skills to fit their role in what I later found out was a modified version of the Triangle Offense (which I have since learned a lot about from #2 on my list). All five of those players were on the league’s All-Star team that year, predominantly because of the WE BEFORE ME approach that Coach Hardiman instilled in us.

My role was relatively specific on that team. I could hit a pretty consistent jump shot from the corner, so Coach put me at our baseline forward position on offense. His suggestion? “If you get the ball here, and you’re open, square up and shoot it. You’ll knock it down, and it’ll be the best shot for us to score. Otherwise, keep moving the ball to swing the defense.” His confidence in me made me feel comfortable in playing the role that our team needed me to play.

Defensively, I played a forward in our 2-3 zone, charged first and foremost with the job of getting myself between the basket and my opponents every time a shot went up. Rebounding position was really important to Coach Hardiman- there was nothing less defensible than letting someone else beat you to the spot on the floor most likely to hold the other team to one shot.

Over the years, I played on three other teams under Coach Hardiman’s lead, eventually moving from that baseline forward position to a more versatile offside wing position. He saw me as a creative asset that could make the big baskets when our team needed it, so that’s what I became. While we made it deep in the playoffs every year and I made several All-Star teams of my own, it wasn’t necessarily that success that drove me and my teammates to come back every year: it was the way we felt when we were playing together. Coach Hardiman made us feel like anything was possible so long as we went after it together as a team.

Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers

Like most young men my age, I was a huge fan of the Chicago Bulls. HUGE. To illustrate that fact, I’ll make a confession: for upwards of 5 years, I made it a personal mission to wear some piece of clothing that declared to the world my dedication to the team.

Every day. For five years. By a kid living in Richmond, Virginia, 804 miles away from Midtown.

At the time, I attributed my affiliation to the team to an appreciation of Michael Jordan, and for good reason: he was my first favorite basketball player. I had followed him since the moment when I first opened a pack of Fleer basketball cards, flipped through the deck, and said, “Michael Jordan…I’ve heard of him. Isn’t he good?” I then watched the next Bulls game on TV and decided, “Yes. He’s good. He’s REALLY good.” My dad tells me that my fandom began when I saw his first big moment: the open jumper from the left wing when he hit “The Shot” against Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA Championships, but I really don’t remember all of that.

Of course, I was a huge fan of Jordan. What I learned years later was that I was actually a fan of Phil Jackson.

I loved watching the Bulls play. Every nationally televised game was a holiday in my house, one where everyone knew what I would be doing. (I still remember when our cable provider offered WGN- I’m shocked that I ever made it out of the house after that time.) But it wasn’t just Jordan: it was the team. Like my own Rams teams, I used to love all of the different roles that each of the Bulls played on the team. As incredible as Jordan was on the court, it was guys like Cliff Levingston that I appreciated most. “Good News” would provide a spark to the team with his hustle and energy, always keeping the team in good spirits. Every player on those teams had that kind of voice, that kind of story. Every player had a role.

Coach Jackson caused that WE BEFORE ME mentality with his approach to the game. He instilled a much more nuanced version of the Triangle Offense than Coach Hardiman had used, the similarities of which I did not notice until years later. Jordan used to call it an “equal opportunity” offense, one that kept every player in the flow of the game. While Jordan would often take over the reins as necessary (as one would expect the arguably greatest competitor in the history of the game might), some of the best moments in those historic runs took place when everyone on the team was involved (including this championship-winning three-pointer against the Suns in 1993, when all five players on the court touched the ball).

Those Bulls went on to win 6 championships in 8 years, after which time the team went its separate ways. Phil Jackson made his way to Hollywood, leading the LA Lakers to 5 more championships and 7 NBA Finals in his 11 seasons with the team. I’ve since read several of Jackson’s books (my favorites being Sacred Hoops and Eleven Rings), and what I’ve learned about the Zen Master is how much he values knowing his players, knowing their strengths, and knowing how he can support them not just as basketball players, but as human beings.

Julie Strong, Albemarle Patriots

During my early years as a teacher, I joined the coaching staff of the JV girls basketball team in the school I worked under the tutelage of a neighboring Government teacher seeking a partner in her efforts. She knew I liked basketball, and she knew that I liked teaching, and so I guess she thought I’d fit right in.

Over our three years together as a coaching staff, I no doubt learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of coaching a team from Coach Strong. She taught me a lot about situational offenses and full-court presses, about running practices and organizing plays in the huddle. But what I’ll carry with me the most was the time that we spent building individuals into a team.

Our first year together, we were in a unique position where several students who would generally play JV had been called up to varsity. That meant that several of our players were having their own first opportunity with organized basketball as a part of our team. We won one game all year that season, and few times in life have I been as proud. The same went for Coach Strong- it was the only losing season in her career as a coach, and you would have never known it from the pride she exuded in each player’s growth. That team rallied together and pushed each other to improve, and each grew tremendously over the year as a result. They could have given up at any time, but Coach Strong never gave up on them, and they never gave up on each other.

(That one win was by 20 points, which is significant given that many of the games that year never made it far past 20 points total. With each basket that fell, the team erupted in excitement. Coach Strong has the conscientious nature to talk with the opposing coach to ensure they knew this was their first win of the season, which helped smooth things over.)

What I remember most about those years: we built deep relationships with these athletes, not just as players but as people. Coach Strong helped me to see the importance of getting to know the whole child, not just the student in the classroom of the one subject you happen to teach. These connections outside of the classroom led to significant connections inside the classroom, generating some of the most personally meaningful and inspirational stories of my educational career.

Tony Bennett, University of Virginia

I have been collecting articles about Tony Bennett and UVA Basketball for the past 18 months or so, waiting for the right time to “unveil” them in a post about leadership and teamwork. Instead of doing a lot of writing, I’ll just drop those articles here, along with a few relevant quotes from the articles that reflect why I am so drawn to Coach Bennett’s approach. (Side note: I cannot wait to add many, many more.)

After winning the ACC Championship in 2014 (quoting Justin Anderson, who was quoting John Wooden):

Following UVA’s 2014’s exit from the NCAA Tournament (quoting Matt Norlander):

  • Some coaches are able to discover threads that tie men together through different motivations, and for whatever reason, they simply work in the macro. Honesty and earnestness is a part of it with some people, and Bennett is one of those guys.
  • He doesn’t do swift and pretty. His program projects reflect the way his teams play: slow, methodical, with purpose — and without arrogance or presumption.
  • Cavaliers basketball is now based on five pillars: unity, thankfulness, praise, humility and servanthood.

Describing UVA’s as-yet-unbeaten streak during the 2014-15 season (quoting Jeff White):

  • By the time the `Hoos took the court for practice…the latest polls were out, but there was no mention of the No. 2 ranking, and Bennett offered his players no extra praise.
  • On the ACC coaches’ teleconference early Monday afternoon, Bennett was asked about the national spotlight that’s now shining so brightly on his program: “It’s really irrelevant to how we play, what we do,” he said. “It just comes when you’ve won some games, and it’s there. I think the biggest thing is, whether the talk’s there or not…it’s how you process it, your young men, and what you do with it. But our job is to certainly be vigilant and say, `Hey, are we going to work?’ We always say, `Don’t believe the hype and all those things.’ “

Following this past week’s loss to Duke and the following wins against UNC and Louisville (quoting Tony Bennett):

  • After Saturday night’s 52-47 win over Louisville: “When you whip a donkey, it kicks… but when you whip a thoroughbred, it responds.”
  • “We learned some valuable lessons against Duke. After winning at Carolina, I didn’t want our guys to assume, ‘Oh, OK, we’re back on track.’ No, you’re going to have to scrap for everything. We played for each other and that’s our way. [I told them that] when we do that, I’ll take [this team] against most anybody.”

Update: Commenters’ response to Myron Medcalf’s argument that UVA’s style is bad for the game:

  • A sarcastic response from Christopher John Payne: “Myron’s right. Virginia’s bad for basketball. Also, carrots, apples and bananas are bad for food. We need more donuts, more Cap’n Crunch, more cheese puffs. Too bad Virginia just doesn’t get it, what with their outdated notions of teamwork, selflessness, and hard work.”
  • A rational response from Eugene Belitsky: “If you watch UVA play you’ll notice that UVA often tries to score at the end of the shot clock by choice, while their opponents throw up shots at the end of the shot clock by necessity. A shorter shot clock would mean more possessions but not necessarily more running. UVA, a team with a great per possession scoring differential, would be just fine.”
  • A hypothetical response from Matt Schiffler: “[This article’s] title if the situation were the same, but Duke and UVA were switched: ‘Duke’s unselfish, disciplined play: a new standard for college basketball?'”
  • A response to end all responses from Phillip Sabri:
    • “Virginia plays beautiful basketball. Team-oriented. Unselfish. They don’t sit on the ball on offense. They work for a good shot, the best shot. If they can get a fast break opportunity, they take it. A 90 to 70 game can be far uglier than anything you’ll see from UVA.”
    • “The pace of play is equally or more often than not dictated by how long it takes their opponents to get a shot off. Not infrequently the opposition throws up some last second desperation shot. It is a fantastically disciplined team that plays together.”
    • “Would you rather see a so-called Hall of Fame coach’s team run and gun, throw up lousy off-balance shots, and give up wide open looks or layups…or watch a team that truly loves to play together, [plays] for each other, maximizes their talents, and bests team after team that on paper has them beat?”
    • “There is an awful lot of Hoosier’s (as in Norman Dale and Jimmy Chitwood) in this UVA team–underdogs that come together and can defeat the so-called Goliaths of the sport using their 5 pillars of humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness. It is not ugly basketball. It is a beautiful thing.

Update: Chris Chase responding to critics who describe UVA’s play as bad for NCAAB, even with a 28-1 record:

  • What makes UVA Basketball so impressive? Slow, then quick, improvement. Tony Bennett has been there for six years. His record has improved every year – 15-16, 16-15, 22-10, 23-12, 30-7 and 28-1 (assuming they get to 30+ wins this year, which is a good bet).
  • What makes UVA Basketball so impressive? Defense, defense, defense. Virginia plays a ferocious pack-line defense…at times, it looks like UVA is playing six to five. They smother. (Here’s a great breakdown.) Why is that a bad thing? It’s more exciting than what 99% of NCAA teams do offensively. Watching good defense is watching good basketball.
  • What makes UVA Basketball so impressive? They’re blue collar, not blue chip. In the world of one-and-dones and John Calipari, UVA harkens back to the good ol’ days of college basketball. There are no one-and-dones. There are no McDonald’s All-Americans and no top NBA prospects. They’re as blue collar as a team playing in a state-of-the-art $131 million arena can be. UVA is what’s right with college basketball.

Dean Smith, University of North Carolina

Finally, I get to the man that inspired this post in the first place. Coach Smith’s place on this list shouldn’t be mistaken for not knowing who he was. I may have graduated a Wahoo, but I grew up a Tarheel. Some of it was my dad’s influence, some of it was Michael Jordan’s – as after watching Come Fly With Me surely close to a hundred times, it’d be hard not to have Coach Smith as a favorite coach.

No, Coach Smith is this far down the list because until now I have not spent a lot of time learning about him. He is this far down the list as a reminder that I still have much to learn from him, even if he has since passed.

What I know of him up to this point? He originated the Four Corners, which led to the adoption of the shot clock. He coached (almost) all of my favorite Tarheels, including Michael Jordan. He is famously credited with being the only person that could hold Jordan under 20 points per game. (Not even Father Time could do that, as Jordan did not have a single season in the NBA where he averaged less than 20 ppg, even with the Wizards.) He won a championship with that 1982 team, as well as another against Michigan and the Fab Five in the famed “Webber Called Time-Out!” game in 1993. He retired in 1997 with 879 wins, which at the time was the most in NCAA history. (He’s since been past by at least two others.) And he had an arena named after him: The Dean Dome, where I remember seeing a preseason game between the Bulls and Nets (which has its own story), as well as a regular season UNC game when I was visiting the university with a childhood friend.

That’s pretty much it. My knowledge of Dean Smith in a nutshell.

Even just after a cursory glance at his Wikipedia page and around Google, I’m learning (and remembering) more:

  • He is credited with the popularization of encouraging players who scored a basket to point to the teammate who passed them the ball, in honor of the passer’s selflessness. That’s so cool!
  • Also attributed to him: the practice of getting players to huddle at the free throw line before a foul shot. Never missing an opportunity to help the team get on the same page.
  • He instituted the practice of starting all his team’s seniors on the last home game of the season (“Senior Day”) as a way of honoring the contributions of the subs as well as the stars.
  • That last factoid reminded me of “Big Blue,” a practice where Coach Smith would bring in five new players off the bench (often walk-ons as opposed to the scholarship players) whenever he felt like the team needed some energy. It wasn’t a punitive measure for the “regulars,” but a sign that he trusted all of his players to do what was needed.
  • Someone posted Coach Smith’s recruitment letter of Michael Jordan, scanned into this story on FanSided. Such a small gesture, and yet such a huge one.
  • What’s even bigger: this article from the Huffington Post laying out 15 inspiring stories that prove he was more than just Michael Jordan’s coach. Chief among them: Smith’s push for racial integration throughout his career, his support of civil rights in general, and his “one firm rule” that he would drop anything if any of his players ever needed to talk to him, no matter how important it seemed.

I cannot wait to spend more time learning about the life and legacy of this man.

What I have learned so far

What I noticed in reflecting on these coaches is that their impact on me ultimately has very little to do with basketball. It’s a given that I’m a big basketball fan, that each was a coach of one of my favorite teams, and each was an incredible basketball coach at his or her core. All that being said, while each has a firm grasp on the X’s and O’s of the game, that’s not why they come to mind. I’m not that kind of coach anymore.

They resonate the most with me because they all placed an equally high value on their concern for people as they did on their concern for production.Photo Feb 09, 11 27 45 PM (1)

I first ran across this concept as a Managerial Grid model developed by Blake and Mouton back in the 1960s. While it’s gone through several phases in its life cycle, the essence remains true: the approach that gets people connected, committed, and contributing to a mission involves both a high concern for people as well as a high concern for production.

It’s not enough to push for production and expect greatness to happen, just as it’s not enough to care about people and expect anything more than sunshine and rainbows. Effective leaders must do both. And not both in an alternating fashion (which is described as a Paternalistic Style)- they must show high concern for both production and for people at the same time.

What are my own personal next steps to push myself toward embracing the Team style? Here are a few:

  • Help those I serve find where they fit, and vocalize the trust I have in them to succeed, just as Coach Hardiman did for me when I was just learning how to play.
  • Remember that “The road to freedom is a beautiful system,” as Coach Jackson once said in his Mindful Leadership practices. Help people identify clear structures within which they can work together seamlessly, which will allow their individual greatness to blossom to more than the sum of its parts.
  • Get to know people not as students, teachers, and administrators, but as people, as Coach Strong inspired me to do. Listen for those passions that make people’s eyes light up, and connect with them in order to learn from them.
  • Embody into everyday practice the five pillars that Coach Bennett has instilled: unity, thankfulness, praise, humility, and servanthood. Last week, my teammate used similar language: “The tension between unconscious competence and conscious competence? That’s humility.” Definitely something to reflect on.
  • Point to thank those who “pass the ball” such that it leads to success, as Coach Smith encouraged his players to do. Celebrate the selflessness of the team, and contribute to it by looking to pass to those who have the best shot available.
  • Commit to the mission, commit to the team, and contribute every day.

“For the strength in the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength in the Wolf is the Pack.”

PS Closing with that Rudyard Kipling quote felt just about right, until I realized that it indirectly sings the praises of crosstown rival NC State. No matter, it’s just a little too good to pass up.

RIP Coach Smith. Thanks for the memories, both old, new, and yet to be.

#Oneword at #sunchat: Top Tweet for January 2015

Reflection is a powerful tool- one that goes unwielded so often in the flurry of planning and doing that generally fills our busy days. I noticed that if I wanted to spend time harnessing that power, I would need to develop purposeful structures that would help to cause it to happen. To that end, I’m experimenting with this “Top Tweets” series.

Following the reflection gained by looking back at a year’s worth of tweets in 2014, I thought it might be interesting and helpful to increase the frequency of those reflections, to go back on a monthly basis and expanding on the ideas of the “top tweets” of each month. While the depth of “A Year In Review” can resurrect powerful ideas, I think I’d much prefer keeping these ideas at the forefront of my mind much more frequently.

Here is January’s top tweet:

#oneword Tagxedo for #sunchat – 1/4/15

Most every Sunday morning at 9AM ET, a group of passionate educators come together for #sunchat, a free-form educational chat moderated by New York educator Starr Sackstein. Ultimately inspired by the book One Word To Change Your Life (though more likely by the twitter zeitgeist, which was #oneword-ing all over the place at the time), Starr challenged each of us to choose and commit to one word that we hoped would embody the year to come, and to share it during the first #sunchat on 1/4/15 along with the hashtag #oneword:

I find these types of chats to be extremely energizing- especially those focused on springing forward into a new year. In the hour that followed, educators from around the world inspired me with their drive and enthusiasm around the practice of teaching and learning. By the end, I didn’t want it to stop, though I knew that it would have to if we were ever going to make our #oneword become reality.

Seeing the collection of tweets, I remembered a couple of different approaches to using word cloud generators as an artifact of learning, which I thought might be interesting to capture our #oneword posts. Thankfully, #sunchat is always full of motivational energy:

And so, the Tagxedo image of our #oneword discussion on #sunchat was born. PS If you’ve not used Tagxedo before, I’d recommend it- a word cloud generator similar in nature to Wordle, but with the added functionality of allowing you to customize more of the features (including the shape).

Side note: The #oneword strategy itself has been a rejuvenating one, both for me and for those with whom I work. My #oneword during this #sunchat was “reawaken,” which helps me remind myself that each day is a gift I need to embrace, and that there is a larger world outside of the short-term goals that govern my day-to-day life that I need to see. When I shared it, one chatter asked, “Have you been asleep?” My response: “In a metaphorical sense, I think maybe I have been.” Here’s to waking up in 2015!

Year In Review: My Most Popular Storifys of 2014

Inspired by Patrick Larkin‘s reminder from the “Blogger’s Rulebook” about the annual requirement to highlight the most-viewed posts of the year, it seemed appropriate to do the same here on Learning to Lead Learning. Sometimes there’s nothing better than looking back and reminding yourself of where you’ve been in order to figure out exactly where it is you might be going.

Earlier this month, I shared my 14 most retweeted and faved tweets of 2014 (as well as a post that shares how you can make your own list), and I’ll likely do a Year In Review post of the most-read posts of 2014 sometime later this week. For now though, I’ll focus on Storify.

2014’s Most Viewed Storifys

2014 might as well be known as “The Year of the Storify” for me, as it quickly became my go-to digital curation tool. If you haven’t used it, it’s a pretty powerful resource for collecting content from diverse media – twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Getty images, Flickr, and Instagram, among others. I tend to use the site whenever I’m collecting a variety of content sources, as I find its searchable drag-and-drop interface to be pretty easy to use.

Without further ado, here are the 10 most-viewed Storifys I created in 2014:

1) #EdLeader21 4th Annual Event – Atlanta 2014 (October) - This year’s EdLeader21 event focused on student voice, empathy in design thinking, learning spaces, and performance assessment as levers toward promoting the 4Cs. I’ll remember it fondly as a great reconnection with colleagues from across the USA, a valued “bi-coastal” collaborative presentation with teammates, and the time I almost won $5 from Steve Saunders for taking a selfie with 5 Seconds Of Summer.

2) More Important: Questions or Answers? (January) – A collection of contexts (predominantly from January 19th’s #sunchat) in which I asked educators to agree or disagree with the following statement: As teachers, having the right questions is more important than having the right answers. Seeing this post reminds me of the need to ask this question in more contexts, as well as the need to ask more questions.

An image from #ACPSCAI14 displaying the importance of focusing on both what students know and what they can do.

3) #PowerofPLN: The Power of a Personal Learning Network (published in July, most recently updated in November) – A collection of “Why Connect?” responses based on a serendipitously-timed trio of PD sessions. On July 9, 2014, Chad Smith in Gastonia NC, Kerri Williams at #EVSCREV14 in Evansville, IN, and I were all leading PD sessions around the power of professional learning networks, and engaging our PLNs in the session. This PD session was a reinvigorating one in many ways, and I still have many “next steps” to tend to based on what I learned from facilitating these sessions.

4) #ACPSCAI14: Changing Our Perspective When Assessing Student Work (June) – A collection of tweets, links, and posts shared during Albemarle County’s Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction (CAI) Institute, in which interdisciplinary teams across multiple grade levels collaboratively assessed student work as evidence of relative mastery of lifelong learning competencies. I promise: it was a LOT more fun than it may sound!

5) #PubPriBridge: The Inaugural Chat (January) – The archive of the inaugural #PubPriBridge chat, a connection of public & private school educators connecting to make a difference for the benefit of learners everywhere. Moderated by Peter Gow, it was a connection with Chris Thinnes from 2013’s EdLeader21 event that brought me to the discussion.

#ACPS selfie: MESA representatives cheesing with Del. David Toscano

6) AHS’s MESA at VMSC’s Programs That Work reception (January) – Director Jeff Prillaman and recent alum Eric Hahn represented Albemarle High School’s Math, Engineering, and Science Academy (MESA) as recipients of Virginia Math & Science Coalition’s Programs That Work award in Richmond, VA. So many of my favorite pictures are in here, including this selfie of all of us with Delegate David Toscano, and this painstakingly staged “physicsy” pic of the award.

7) #AVIDchat: Summer WICOR HW (June) - The archive of the June 25th #AVIDchat where educators came together to focus on ways of incorporating WICOR into their summer professional learning. The conversation was inspired by this post by Craig McKinney on AVID’s Adventures in College and Career Readiness blog.

8) 14 for ’14: My Top Tweets from 2014 (December) – The aforementioned reflection on “the year that’s been” by looking back through my most favorited & retweeted tweets of 2014. This post is a great collection of people & ideas focused on leadership, teaching, and learning.

9) #AVIDchat: Valuing WICOR process skills (February) – An archive of the February 5th #AVIDchat, inspired by @alyssa_ruther’s question: How do we help students value the WICOR process skills that they develop in the AVID elective?

10) My First Graphic Recording (August) – Tweets around the creation of a graphic recording of ACPS Superintendent Pam Moran‘s welcome message to Albemarle County Public School’s new teachers at New Teacher Academy 2014. This Storify includes tips on #graphicrecording from members of the #sketchnotes community like verbaltovisual’s Doug Neill, Sketchnotes Handbook author Mike Rohde, and noted graphic facilitator Rachel Smith.

That’s the year in a nutshell – thanks for everyone who has been a part of it!

How To: Curate a List of Your Year’s Top Tweets

Every year around the winter break, I seek to stop and pause, reflecting on a year that seems to have flown by even faster than the last. This year, I decided to do so by looking back at tweets. So much of the power of twitter is its “right now” immediacy that it’s easy to forget how looking at past tweets can remind us of what we have learned over the course of the year.

So I went back and remembered, collecting the tweets along with the memories around them in this Storify of my Top 14 Tweets of 2014. And with just a few easy steps, you can make a list of your own! There are probably easier automated ways to accomplish a similar task, but I prefer a certain level of customization in the process, or else for me it’s not quite reflection.

Here’s how I made mine:

1. Make the place where you will curate your list. I used Storify because of the ease with which it integrates tweets, links, and various other media from around the web. It’s pretty easy to use- click “New Story” and you’re ready to get started!

2. Find your top tweets. I used favstar‘s “Best Of” feature to find my most faved & retweeted tweets. While there are several other tools that do something similar, I found the favstar’s quick clicking when showing Favs & Retweets the easiest to use for this specific purpose. (Note: I’d recommend opening a new tab in your browser, with Storify in one tab and Favstar in another. This will make the process of curating tweets much easier.)

Screenshot 2014-12-24 09.25.123. Find the URLs of those tweets. I did so by copying and pasting key strings of words from the tweets shown on favstar into the twitter search engine. Finding the original tweets helped me remember the context of each of these tweets, which was a fun trip down memory lane. More importantly, clicking on “Details” also brought up the specific URL of each tweet, which is important for the next step.

Screenshot 2014-12-24 09.48.114. Add the tweet to your list. By copying and pasting the URL of the tweet into the “Embed URL” option on Storify’s wide array of media options, you will be given the option of embedding each of these tweets into your curated list of top tweets. It’s a little bit counter-intuitive, but the Embed URL option works much better in this instance than the Embed Tweet option because in my experience the twitter search engine on Storify only looks back 1 week into the past.

From there, add any flourishes, additional context, or memories that will help you remember the context of your learning long after 2014 has passed.

5. Publish and publicize your list. Once you’ve completed your list of top tweets, click Publish and it will be accessible to anyone on the web. What’s more, when connected with twitter you’re given the option to publicize the story on your tweet stream. I found that Notifying all of those who have been mentioned in these top tweets helped me to reconnect with some “tweeps” I hadn’t talked with in a while. Hopefully, they saw the shout-out as the “Thank You” it was intended to be.

So, to recap:

  1. Make a new post using Storify.
  2. Find a list of your top tweets using favstar.
  3. Get the URL for each of your top tweets on twitter.
  4. Embed the URL for each tweet into your Storify.
  5. Publish and publicize your list using Storify’s connection to twitter.

I hope you find as much benefit to the reflective pause that comes from looking back at your year that I did. Happy holidays to everyone out there in the PLN that makes learning together so rewarding. Here’s to the great learning opportunities that 2015 will provide!

O Captain My Captain: Lessons in Leadership from Derek Jeter

It’s official. After 20 years on the diamond, Yankee captain Derek Jeter has officially played his last Major League game. (Note that I didn’t say, “his last game in pinstripes,” as he’ll surely be back on the field for Old Timers’ Day one of these days.) We can all ask that he “say it ain’t so,” but it’s so.

That all being said, there’s a lot to learn about leadership from diving just a little bit into this one man’s career. It should go without saying, I guess…I mean, his nickname is The Captain, after all. And it must be true if Forbes has beaten me to the punch. I’ll leave a few of the easy ones alone for right now (e.g. Dive in head first, Be in the right place at the right time even if it’s not the right place to be, etc.) and focus on a couple that have jumped out at me over the last few weeks/months:

Sometimes you’re born with it: Joe Torre has told some great stories over the last few months about Derek Jeter, in particular his ever-present leadership skills as noted over the course of his career:
  • What will the Yankees miss most when Jeter is gone? “Leadership is [generally] something that has to be nurtured. It doesn’t happen right away. Derek was very unusual. Someone like Derek doesn’t come down the pike very often. To be at a young age very responsible and very comfortable in your own skin doesn’t happen very often.”
  • Joe Torre on Derek Jeter’s legacy: “He was a lot more mature at 21 than I was. That’s the one thing that hits me first. He had great parenting…he’s a remarkable human being. I used the one word, which is ‘trustworthy’ to describe him, based on the fact that everybody around him was better because of him and he’d always be there for them.”
  • During an interview during today’s game: “When did we start looking to Jeter for his leadership? Guys like Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, everyone- we started looking to him during the 1996 season – his rookie season.”

All of these stories remind me: each of us has to be the type of leader that we are. As much as leadership practices can be learned, it’s also something that’s a part of you- and so much of that success is just about being comfortable in your own skin.

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My dad and me nerding out at a NYY@BAL game this year. Yes, we’re wearing the same Jeter shirt. No, it wasn’t planned.

Every team member matters: On my own family’s visit to see Jeter’s “Farewell Tour,” my father shot this video capturing Jeter’s pre-game dugout ritual. In it, you see Jeter walk from one end of the dugout to the other, giving a fist-bump to each and every one of the players, coaches, and batboys prepping for the game. No one gets left out- I even see him try to “dap” the security guard at one point, though my guess is they’re generally supposed to avoid that kind of contact with the players (especially the visiting team).

What it shows me: it’s important to this leader that every member of the team get that show of support, that reminder that they’re all part of something bigger. Their captain is the one who connects them together.

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“Hate the Yankees, love the Captain.” –Trevor Przyuski (photo credit Jude Przyuski)

You might be The Captain, but it’s really about everybody else: A good friend of mine went on a baseball trip with his son in 2012 to see the Nationals play the Yankees. During the game, his son was able to take this photo to the right. According to my friend, Jeter “noticed [the young boy] with the camera, stopped, took off his helmet, and smiled – in the middle of the game.” Life is full of these little moments- I had one of my own with my childhood hero Michael Jordan at a pre-season Bulls’ game- and it’s incredible when these larger-than-life figures notice that you’re there, and that you’re connected.

That’s a huge lesson for leaders: Notice people. Stay connected. No matter how busy the world gets in your specific sphere, recognize that ultimately it’s not all about you and your experience- it’s about everyone else. These seemingly small connections on your own part may last a lifetime for all of those with whom you are connected.

Note: Published just a few weeks ago, this Gatorade ad pretty much summed up that same idea:

Find out what people are thinking: I ran across a series on MLB.com called “One Word For 2″, where they shared what amounts to a 360 evaluation on Jeter just by asking a simple question of players in the league: “What’s one word that comes to mind when you think of Derek Jeter?” I love that you can disaggregate responses from his teammates, from his opponents, and from alumni of the game. Their variety of responses tells you all you need to know about who this leader is and what he’s about.

This little post reminds me to consider how you’re known in the eyes of those around you, not just how you think you are. However you’re remembered in those people’s eyes, that’s ultimately how you’ll live on. I wrote a post once before about that concept called Gone, But Not Forgotten that might be an appropriately interesting reflective piece in the same vein.

Lessons from his last at-bat: Jeter’s last at-bats (both home and away) are tough acts to follow, but I’ll try:

  • It ain’t over ’til it’s over. You have to come through in the clutch. Over the course of Jeter’s career, he has come through when it counted for his team, and his last home at-bat was no exception.
  • It doesn’t have to be pretty. In his last home at-bat, Jeets hit a standard, run-of-the-mill single to right field. His last at-bat in Boston was even less picturesque: a real Baltimore chop that bounced off of home plate and stayed in play just long enough to allow him to reach first (and drive in a run). Neither were especially pretty, and both got the job done for the team.
  • It’s not about the accolades. Jeter took himself out of the game after that infield single, accepting the cheers that would follow his last moment on the field. What’s unique: exiting the game at that time left him with 149 hits for the year, which with one more hit would have tied him with Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Pete Rose for the most all-time seasons with 150 or more base hits. His response? “I’ve never played this game for numbers, so why start now?”
  • Everything ends, and everything begins anew. One of the most moving parts of the last home at-bat is the sight of the rest of the Core Four waiting alongside former manager Joe Torre for Jeter to join the fold. It moved me on a variety of levels, but I hadn’t landed on the full extent of why. I read that this Core Four had played together for 17 seasons. Through good times and bad. Through championships and early exits. Through it all, they are family. And seeing Jeter walk off that field into their arms meant that the days of that family on the field have officially come to an end, so that a new era can officially begin.

Those shared moments during the last at-bats reminded me of something a mentor of mine once said (and I’m paraphrasing): “Every once in a while, these special moments in time happen when everything and everyone just fits together. You get this level of collaboration and synergy that is so infectious and energizing, and you never want it to stop. And eventually, like everything, there comes a time when that moment passes. What’s powerful about it is, once you’ve experienced it, you’ll look for it everywhere you go, no matter where it is that you end up.”

What sticks with me is ultimately that’s a leader’s job: to shape the spaces for these potential moments of seeming perfection, and help people realize that moment and “seize the day” while it’s there. Here’s to hoping we can learn from Jeter’s example.

#RE2PECT.

Half Empty? Half Full? That’s Only Half The Story

Photo Sep 11, 10 37 46 PMIt’s the age-old “optimist or pessimist” question: do you see this glass as half-empty or half-full? As it turns out, there are a variety of ways to answer that question outside of the “either/or” choice provided, and that could tell you a lot more about how you (and those around you) perceive the world.

For instance, this website contains a collection of funny one-liners imagining different professions answering the question. An engineer might see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be, while an entrepreneur sees a glass undervalued by half its potential.

West Wing fans may remember White House speech writer (and noted grumpy-pants) Toby Ziegler’s passionate response: “Half-full, half-empty- can we at least agree it’s not full yet?”

And when I’m asked that question, I generally respond with a smarty-pants science guy answer: “You know, the glass is ENTIRELY full. It’s just half-filled with water, and half-filled with air!” #nerdalert, I know.

Those who know me (and have read other posts on this blog, like this one and this one) know that I think about organizational change a lot, specifically through a reasonable facsimile of Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation work. This metaphor recently came to mind, and I thought it might be interesting to consider how I would imagine five aforementioned “adopter types” responding to this question:

If you had this glass of water, what would you do with it?

  • The Daredevil: “We’ve got some water- let’s drink it! Or splash it! Or pour it on our heads! Or we could float something in it! Wait- AND WE’VE GOT A GLASS, TOO? Let’s see what we could do with that!”
  • The Early Adopter: “I say we drink the water so we can keep on pressing forward and be better hydrated. And I heard that guy over there talk about what he was going to do with the glass- I hadn’t thought of that as a resource. Once we finish our water, let’s keep the glass and fill it the next chance we get!”
  • The Pragmatist: “Well, let’s see. It’s looking like it’s half-empty…but it’s also half-full. What are we going to do with this water? I’m really not sure. I want to make sure I’m putting it to good use, so if I could see someone else use this water successfully, then I’d feel a lot better about doing anything with it.”
  • The Skeptic: “You know, it’s not really THAT much water. I mean, we could drink it, but then it would all be gone! I’m thinking we hold on to it- keep the water we have, and make sure we have it available when the time strikes. I’d hate to be in a situation where I really needed water and there was none to be had.”
  • The Cynic: “Wait…you call that A GLASS OF WATER? That’s NOTHING. And besides, I can’t believe someone would dirty an entire glass, drink a half of it, and then just leave the rest sitting out. What is their problem? I seriously do not understand why people can’t just well enough alone.”

It’s kind of funny to read in this context, but I really do think that this little vignette encapsulates the wide variety of perceptions that different people tend to have about the exact same reality in the face of potential change.

Writing this post was inspired by an Oscar Wilde quote: “What is a cynic? Someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” My contention is that change adoption types tends to correlate to their recognition of perceived value versus perceived cost. My thinking is that this continuum of adoption types follows a relatively linear progression that balances perceived value and perceive cost in a given situation:

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So, what does this all mean for leaders wrestling with organizational change?

  • Come to grips with your own lens. How do you tend to perceive the situations your organization faces? Are you more of a Daredevil, seeing only the value of change without any of the costs? Or perhaps more like the Skeptic, noticing many more of the costs from the outset? Understanding yourself may become a window into your own values when it comes to leading change, and could help you uncover potential blind spots you might not naturally see.
  • Incorporate the viewpoints of counter-perspectives into your own vision. It can be a challenge to let your inner voice be quiet enough to recognize the truths in what you hear in viewpoints opposing your ideas for change. That does not make these viewpoints any less valid. If you tend to see the “glass half full,” go find a Skeptic who easily sees inherent costs, and present them with your idea for change. Holes will be poked, no doubt. But these are holes that you can fill, which will make your plan much richer as a result.
  • Listen for the lens that others are using, and let it inform your communications. The better you can understand others, the more likely you know how to engage them in the change process. Know a Daredevil who always tends to “jump right in”? Recognize that they’ll jump right in (though be wary if they don’t, and ask them why they didn’t). Pragmatists, however, may need a model before they’ll consider changing- consider enrolling your Early Adopters to help you build one. And the Cynics? They may never enroll- not until the change no longer looks like a change.

When considering this post through another lens, a different kind of “change” came to mind: Which to choose, Heads or Tails? A quippy quote:

Let’s stop arguing “either/ors” of heads & tails and realize what we have is one coin. Then we can spend our time figuring out what that coin is worth.