Everything Is Cool When You’re Part Of A Team

I am an educator by trade, though I have been a learner and a leader all of my life. Years ago, I wrote a blog post called Learning to Lead Learning Since 1979 that goes into this topic in more depth, though I think the sentiment comes through just fine in my personal mission statement. My purpose, as I see it: to cultivate communities of learners and learning by connecting with people, bringing shape to ideas, and seeking to understand.

Thankfully at this point in time, I have found myself professionally tied to a merry band of travelers who each seem to share at least a modicum of that mission in his or her own heart and mind. Together, we canvas the country seeking to be the learning partners that educators and school districts deserve as they venture into the unexplored reaches of their professional identities. In this team, I feel that I have found my tribe. We embody the feeling of a family- a feeling that I experienced to some extent in my previous career points, though has been amplified with this group in recent months to levels unexperienced to date.

That said, within the construct of this job I get the opportunity to visit cities all across these United States, and usually do so all by my lonesome. While I am traveling independently, I do interact with countless numbers of people while on the journey. In those travels, I have noticed that I tend to operate in slightly strange ways. At least strange relative to your average person.

A Vinyl Sticker With Big Black Letters

Mr Glasses Visitor

I am always a visitor, everywhere I go. I find myself walking through downtown streets and across suburban highways, meandering, seemingly aimlessly, because I can. I am a visitor here- I am not permanent. I end up in conversations with strangers, listening for the soul of the city while also attempting to help that person know that they have a friend for today- someone who will listen and help them find that they can in fact take that next step (terrifying as it may be). I do all of this because if I start the trip as a visitor everywhere I go, I need to end with that new place feeling like home. if I have to be away from my home in order to serve as this learning partner, then I figure I might as well try to help home feel like it came with me.

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I had another realization that has come to hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been talking with one of my teammates about my way of being and the various people I have met along the way, and as I shared she sat in silence on the other end of the phone. When she finally did speak, her first words were, “Wow. THAT is why we need you on our team, because we do not have anyone else like you on it.” (Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, my response: “That’s the beauty of it- we do not have anybody like anybody on our team. That’s what makes us a good team.”)

Her response got me thinking. Not even my teammates- those who “get it” more than any other due to our shared experiences out in the field- not even they necessarily understand my way of being. I felt as if I needed a way of communicating the why of my approach to life such that it could be understood- not only by them, but also a little bit better by me.

The More We Work Together, The Happier We’ll Be

Teacher Leader In You

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I found these words:

Imagine for a moment that one day, you decided to live as if every person you have ever met or will ever meet is on your team. You are here for them, they are here for you, and we are all moving forward together in the same direction for a common purpose. How might that mindset change the way in which you live your life from that day forward?

What I realized is, this is how I live. This is what I do. It resonated so closely with my own experiences, and like a lens brought everything into focus.

Imagine for a moment that it was true, that everyone was on your team. That would include Stephanie, a waitress in North Carolina who is 5 months pregnant with her first child, and her boyfriend, whose name I can’t remember though is no less central to the next steps within their family unit. If they were on my team, I would want to help them process their excitements and their fears about this huge step in their life. If they were on my team, I would want them to embrace the size and scope of this step. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how much their lives are going to change, and take steps from here on out that would help them prepare a world for that new little boy in which he will be successful. I have never been brave enough to consider taking a similar leap, so I applaud anyone who is willing and able to do so, so long as they take the responsibility of that leap as seriously as it is. While I will never meet them again, I hope that one evening’s conversation proves to be a helpful one for that new life entering the world and the parents that will help to grow it.

If everyone was on your team, that would include a team of researchers on a business retreat that I just happened to walk by one evening. They were sitting in a 25-person circle out on a restaurant’s patio, enjoying each other’s company as one whole after a hard day’s work. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how special it is that they elected to circle up as one whole versus sitting separately in several small groups, as such a way of being promotes team unity in ways unimaginable without it. It’s a rarity I do not often see, and if they’re able to name it, then they can replicate it. While I will never meet them again, I hope they keep on making circles of conversation from here on out.

If everyone was on your team, that would include Linda, a customer service representative for the airline of my flight for my very first event as a full-time employee, which was cancelled due to a mechanical malfunction. In talking with my boss about how to go about rescheduling the flight, he referenced the concept of “my fault, their fault, and God’s fault,” meaning that a mechanical failure is “their fault” and as such they need to do everything in their power to make it right. His direction to me: “Give them the business.” (And rereading it, I do not think he meant that I should buy more tickets.)

But if everyone is on your team, how do you “give them the business” in a way that is not destructive while also getting the outcomes you seek? Thankfully, Linda picked up the phone and asked how she could help me. I told Linda what I needed in no uncertain terms, “Linda, I am looking for a teammate and a partner. I had a flight cancelled tonight due to mechanical failure, and I desperately need to have my wheels down in Chicago by tomorrow morning for this professional learning session. Will you be that teammate?”

She jumped onto the team with open arms.

What she found was that the earliest trip out of Richmond left by 10:30am the next day, landing eventually in Chicago by 2pm CDT. My response to Linda: “I think you misunderstood me. I never said I needed to leave Richmond. I said that I needed wheels down in Chicago. I’m talking planes, trains, and automobiles here- if you can get me a flight, I can get to that flight.”

Her response: “Oh! That changes everything- let me see what I can do.”

We found a flight out of Reagan International in Washington DC that was scheduled to leave by 5am the next morning. With it being only a 2-hour drive, and current local time of 10:30pm, I had plenty of time to make it there before the flight. (Unfortunately, a 12am traffic jam on 95 North delayed me pretty significantly, and after gassing up the rental I only just barely made it in time. I will say that DC at 3:30am is beautiful- the memorial for Iwo Jima has never looked so breathtaking.)

Linda was a fantastic teammate. And if she were on my team, I would want those who work with her to know the lengths she went through to help me such that we could reinforce that behavior. So I made sure to fill out the survey at the end. It’s a small gesture, I know- but it’s the thought that counts.

The number of customer service representatives I have since been able to help in that way (because of their dedication to helping me) is moderately staggering. One night, I had been struggling to get access to my bank login and password in order to print out some statements, and finally decided to call customer service. The teammate on the other end of the line (ironically also named Linda- what is it with people named Linda and their willingness to help?) stayed on the line with me at 1:30am CDT for over an hour trying to figure out the issue. Once we finally got it figured out, I asked if there was any way I could be as helpful to her as she had been to me, to which she responded that I could share my thoughts with her supervisor. I did so happily and with fervor, even with it being almost 3am by that time.

These people are all on my team. We are here to help each other move forward, and as I come to embrace that role, I realize that it will take a constant level of personal vigilance to ensure that I continue to make decisions in my life such that I can continue to serve in this way.

What’s amazing to me- none of the stories above about the people I’ve met and joined on my team include any of the incredible educators I have had the privilege to serve. I could tell stories about them for days- I am blessed to have played a small part in their professional journeys, as they have played a large part in mine. They are by default part of my extended family, which grows exponentially by the week. Of course, that level of commitment to service isn’t really all that strange, and frankly I have plenty of real estate to tell those stories in the context that they deserve in order to help others learn from those practices.

This way of thinking was highly influenced by one of my former and forever teammates- a lead coach who has since taken a role as a site-based leader. When I elected to take on this role full-time starting last year, she asked me, “Where will you find your team?” Knowing that being part of a team was important to me, she worried that being out all on my lonesome would end up causing some level of angst. Little did she know the mindset that would emerge as a result.

My Mission, Should I Choose To Accept It

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Spider-Man is one of my many personal influences. My dad used to end each day with me by reading a few pages of a comic as a bedtime story, so I always tell kids that Spider-Man taught me how to read. And if they’re kindergartners, they say, “Mr Glasses…you know Spider-Man?” #kidssaythedarnedestthings

That said, Spider-Man also taught me and everyone else something important- that with great power comes great responsibility.

I do think (as my teammate mentioned) that I have a gift. A gift for connecting with people. A gift for bringing shape to ideas. A gift for seeking to understand. And I think I also have the responsibility to use that gift in service of others in order to cultivate communities of learning. That responsibility brings with it the importance of ensuring that every choice I make in my personal and professional life is also in service of that mission. To do otherwise could potentially cause irreparable harm that would derail that mission, and that mission is far too important to run off track.

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#ProTips From A Year On The Road

It has been a long, long time since I’ve posted to this blog. Far too long.

In taking on a new role as a team member with Advanced Learning Partnerships over this past year, I have been doing a lot of partnering, a lot of advancing, and, of course, a lot of learning. So much learning in fact that most of my reflection has been of the total internal variety– lots of light coming in, and much of it has been absorbed so as to advance my own understanding instead of reflected in order to advance us all.

That internal reflection stops today. It’s time to  get it out.

As the year comes to a close, it seemed fitting to share some stories through a list of #ProTips, an inside joke we have in our profession for the comment made just before a small but extremely useful piece of information is shared (usually one that has been right in front of you all along).

The audience I had in mind is my former and forever teammates, the Lead Coach crew in Albemarle County to whom I wrote my last post last year. I have a slide deck that I’ll finish and share with them (and you) someday, but for now these #ProTips seemed ready to get out of my head and into ours.

#ProTips from a Year on the Road

Drive carefully. You’ve never seen humidity until you’ve seen it near the gulf in Houston. Seriously- sometimes it’s like swimming where you walk. One night during a fog advisory I couldn’t see the traffic lights until they were right in front of me.

Get there early. If you want to get barbecue in Austin before they run out of the supply for the day, you’d better get there early. And surprisingly enough, they don’t really do coleslaw.

It’s a long way to Childersburg. Talladega Superspeedway isn’t the only mega-sized road in the county of the same name. In a district with 17 schools and 7500 students, the 760-square-mile span makes a drive to Yancey feel like a hop, skip, and a jump away. And if your plane happens to get grounded in Birmingham, a 10-hour drive home can feel both endless and freeing at the same time.

There are perks of being a traveler. If you’re going to be on the road a lot, find your brands of choice and stick to them. The points add up, and the perks are generally worth it. And if a hotel has morning breakfast and evening socials built into the cost of the room, go back there the next time you visit.

It’s either my fault, their fault, or God’s fault. It turns out there are three reasons for travel delays when it comes to missed airline connections. Until the writing of this post, I’d had several instances of two of the three. Well, now I’ve had all three. Turns out you probably shouldn’t try to rest your eyes outside the gate of your flight if it’s a redeye leaving at 11pm Pacific time, as it just may well leave without you. Man, sleeping overnight in airports sucks.

Kids are kids, no matter where you go. Kindergartners in South Texas talk with no filter, hug your leg without thinking about it, and give you funny nicknames like Mr. Glasses. Even in Phoenix’s 100-degree “dry” heat, 6th graders come to class smiling and drenched in sweat from running around way too much during PE. And like so many, high schoolers in Chicago are way too cool for school- unless of course you tell them you remembered meeting them in one of their classes and noticed the incredible work they were doing, and then they brim with pride. Kids are kids, and they’re why we do what we do in service of their learning and their future.

Teachers are teachers, no matter where you go. While they may use different words, teachers everywhere have the same stressors, the same sources of excitement, the same motivations for growth. There are incredible educators all over this country dedicated to pushing themselves in order to affect the lives of young people- they remind me of the dedicated teachers I strived to serve alongside with you in Albemarle each day.

Leaders are leaders, no matter where you go. They have way too much on their plates, often because they don’t want to burden others with it. They have the same competing concerns for people and for production, the degree of each of which drives their approach to leading. And above all, they desperately want to do a good job on behalf of the communities they serve. I feel blessed to be able to try to do a small part to help them keep the main thing the main thing.

Teams makes all the difference. I had forgotten about the Forming and Storming we did all those years ago as a seminal Lead Coach team before we started our Norming and Performing together. The successes we experienced lulled me into believing that things had always run so smoothly. My new team has undergone various moments of growing pains over the year, each of which takes me back to those early days when we as a Lead Coach team didn’t yet know how each other worked, let alone how we worked as one entity. On the flip side, my new team members and I have hit more than our fair share of strides that remind me to time spent running with each of you. Hope things are progressing in your new team endeavors as well- definitely miss the times around the table and in the circle together, though also loving my new team very much.

There really is no place like home. This one needs no story- it pretty much says it all. I try to make every new city I visit feel a little bit more like home by the time I leave, though it is never a substitute for the real thing.

Here’s to a ton more #ProTips in the weeks and months to come. Thanks for learning with me.

 

Smartphones, Inquiry, and Falconry: The Role of Technology in Supporting Science Education

(Note: This post is an approximation of the welcome speech I gave as part of the Supporting Science Inquiry With Technology Conference, a partnership between Learning Forward VA, VASCD, VAST, VSTE, and VSUP offered in Albemarle County, Virginia on July 24, 2014. Check out the accompanying presentation created with Haiku Deck.)

In considering how to get the ball rolling during a conference focused on supporting science inquiry using technology, this question came to mind: What is technology’s role in science education?

Technology in science education

I recently heard a stand-up bit by a comedian named Pete Holmes about “having Google in your pocket” that encapsulates exactly where I think we as educators tend to misstep. While I recognize that I’m painting with a broad brush, I would contend that many in the educational setting have a propensity to think of technology’s role as a highway to the internet, which students can then use as a place to get answers:

To borrow from Holmes’ bit, use of technology in this way means “there’s no time for wonder or mystery…the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not knowing.” I don’t know about you, but a sense of curiosity and wonder is pretty high on my list of science education’s most valuable outcomes, so I’m not too keen on letting it get trampled if I don’t have to.

So I guess it stands to reason that my personal stance is to eschew technology’s role as “the sole provider of immediate answers.” If that’s not it, than what is? In order to answer this question fully, we have to start from the other end of the conversation. Instead of considering the tools, let’s consider the purpose: what do we believe about science education and what it should cause?

Inquiry in science education

As a big proponent of inquiry as a central pillar of an ideal science education, I refer back to one of my favorite definitions of the concept, written by Dr. Randy Bell in this NSTA article about Simplifying Inquiry Instruction:

Simplifying Inquiry InstructionThere’s something about this definition that is so simple and yet so powerful that I refer back to it often when centering myself on what to look for in science education. Unpacking the definition, what does it say?

  • Learning is a process.
  • Our students need to be active learners engaged in that process.
  • Our students need to ask research questions.
  • Our students need to answer research questions.
  • Our students need to analyze data to answer those questions.

So simple, and yet so many implications.

Full disclosure: Randy Bell was my advisor while attending UVA’s Curry School of Education. There’s a story about Dr. Bell that years later I recognize as having a huge impact on me as an educator, and it also also seems to apply to this conversation about the role of technology in science education.

Randy Bell (photo: “Curry Professor Helps Charlottesville Teachers Hone Science Skills,” Curry School of Education)

While Dr. Bell had comprehensive experience in working in all of the sciences from an educational perspective, he tended toward a “critter-focused” lens when it came to his passions. He would always point out a variety of facets of life science around us, especially when it came to hawks.

On each of the trips that our cohort group would take across the state for conferences and field studies, he would point out every one of the animals that was flying these central Virginia skies. “Look- a red-tailed hawk!” he would point and exclaim, as we chuckled and shrugged in reply. As I was a physics education major, “critters” were not exactly one of my passions, so it was only years later that I began to appreciate what I learned as a result of his interest.

You see, Dr. Bell had a pet hawk, and I always thought that was pretty strange.

I found out that Dr. Bell was a card-carrying falconer, which meant (or so I thought) that he kept hawks that he captured as “pets” at his house. While it helped me to understand his recognition of the red-tailed hawks as they soared above our heads, knowing this about Dr. Bell also made me think he was taking the whole “science guy” identity to an unnecessary new level. At its root, I guess I just thought that a hawk was one strange pet to keep.

Upwards of a decade later, I got the chance to have a longer conversation with Dr. Bell about the concept of being a falconer. I found out that in his mind, the role wasn’t really about keeping the animal as a pet, nor was it just about having an interesting “science guy” hobby. Being a falconer for him was more about serving as a trusting partner with the hawks in order to meet their life needs and ultimately help them survive.

Falconry as a metaphor for education

Many falconers, he explained, capture younger birds of prey in the late summer / early fall who have not yet fully developed their hunting skills. During the colder winter months, the falconer keeps the bird safe from the elements, while also helping it develop these important life skills. When falconers take these birds out into the wild, they’re not just doing it to have a good time- they are bringing the birds out in order to rustle up prey that the bird can eat. Ultimately, it is a partnership between the young bird and the falconer.

During trips into the wild, the falconer’s job is to find places where “food” for these birds might be living: small rodents, amphibians, insects, things like that. By rustling around in piles of leaves and brush, the falconer “flushes out the game” by moving some of the ground cover that might be obscuring these small animals. Once the would-be prey emerges from its hiding spot, the hawk spots it, catches it, and eats it.

Randy Bell with an American Kestrel, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, January 20, 2006 (from http://george.loper.org/trends/2006/Jan/961.html)

Over the course of their partnership, the falconer and falcon repeat these trips together, helping the bird develop both its strength and its hunting skills. As the bird builds its capacity for self-sufficiency, it then learns to live independent of the falconer, and eventually flies back out into the wild. Ultimately, without the falconer’s assistance, the hawk may not have survived the winter. In fact, research shows that up to 60% of juvenile raptors do not make it through their first winter.

Once I finally understood the role of the falconer, Dr. Bell’s interest in the animal finally made sense to me. It wasn’t being a “science guy” that made him into a falconer- it was being an educator.

This image of the falconer flushing out game for the hawk learning to fly reminds me of the role of the teacher in science education, with one key exception. It’s not game we as science educators are flushing out: it’s understanding.

Our job is to try to identify what it is that obscures understanding for our learners. With our questions, we poke and prod at the barriers and obstacles that cover up students’ understanding until one of those questions is able to force the “would-be prey” out from its hiding place. Consequently, the developing learner can now see the understanding, which allows them to catch it and swallow it whole.

Over the course of a relationship together with a trusted educator, the student starts to learn how to uncover that understanding for themselves. In their metaphorical spring, they fly away, now skilled enough and strong enough to hunt for understanding on their own.

Now that I have recognized this approach to teaching and learning, I can’t help but see that it surrounds me. It’s central to the tutorial process within the AVID system for learning, within which I have found myself as a tutor trainer and district supporter. It’s central to the process of instructional coaching, within which I have found myself as a model designer and “coach of coaches”. And as it relates to this context, it’s central to inquiry-based learning in science instruction, within which I have found myself as a “lead learner” and district team facilitator. When I think about the metaphor through that lens, it looks to me as if Dr. Bell has been a falconer in many more ways than just that literal card-carrying sense.

Technology in science education…redux

So how does this story help to answer the original question: What is technology’s role in science education?

If science education is, at its heart, an active learning process where students answer research questions through data analysis, then technology needs to serve as a tool to help in all aspects of that process. Not just access to others’ discoveries, but also to tools that help us make new discoveries. Not just in the providence of answers, but also in development of wonder. Technology needs to help our students to ask better questions. Technology needs to help our students plan and conduct investigations. Technology needs to help our students evaluate and communicate information. And of course, technology needs to help our students construct explanations.

To borrow the falconry metaphor, these tools need to help our students become better hunters, and not just do all of the hunting for them. Using the tools to circumvent the learning process means that those students may not be equipped to survive those metaphorical winter months on their own.

Discordant Metronomes & Connected Educators

Learning in order to lead learning again, this time by exploring a really freaky phenomenon.

I recently ran across a fascinating video (aptly tagged in the category This Is Awesome) of 32 discordant metronomes achieving synchrony in just under 4 minutes. Check it out:

Is that not incredible? My favorite part is the one hold-out on the bottom right, most visible around the 2:07 mark. Eventually, even that single outlier comes into phase with the rest of the group.

The key to this transformation (as highlighted in the referenced article) is the surface on which the metronomes rest. The board as a foundation appears quite rigid and static- though if that were the case, the metronomes would remain out of phase with each other. A closer look reveals that the board in this example is flexible, free to move with the rhythm of the system. As each metronome swings from side to side, the board acts as an “energetic intermediary” that facilitates transfer across the system. It is only because of the flexible surface of connection that this alignment of individuals can occur.

What Is It That Brings Us Together?

Most of the posts containing this video have explored the science behind it. While EXTREMELY tempting, that’s already been done, so I’ll refrain. (For those curious, check out this video by physicist Adam Micolich, this post from CBS News, and this article by professor Jim Panteleone of the University of Alaska-Anchorage.)

I was drawn instead to the role of interconnectedness in bringing about organizational change. Watching this video makes me wonder, what are the various ways that groups of individuals are connected such that they can reinforce each others’ patterns of behavior? For school leaders: if these metronomes represent our teachers, what are the “energetic intermediaries” that help them move together as one?

So far, I’ve come up with three that stand out to me:

Mission: Educators are first and foremost passionate about helping kids learn. All nuance aside, developing quality learning experiences for all students is the common bond that connects us all within the profession. When we as individuals allow ourselves the opportunity to reflect on our practices through the mirror of this core belief, those practices that do not align with this mission become more apparent (and are more likely to change). Those acting in isolation of this mission could swing on indefinitely without a reconnection to this common purpose.

Social Networks: Educators are also human, which means that we are social creatures. As we connect with others through a variety of social networks, we are more likely to align to those around us. These networks (whether built through online social media tools like twitter and Pinterest or via in-person connections across a hallway or building) allow individuals to engage in the cyclic process of sharing their own practices and learning from others. By staying connected, we become more aligned, and behave more like one system.

Leadership: This phenomenon encapsulates how I view the role of school leader as being first and foremost a connector. The school leader connects the individuals within a team, school, or district in support of their efforts, much like the floor in this video example both supports and connects these individual pendulums. Some takeaways for me:

  • The system began as a discordant group of individuals, as disconnected parts of a system often do.
  • A rigid, unresponsive figurehead allows individuals to continue in chaotic discordance, much like the static table would have done for the pendulums. This inflexibility limits the power of the leader’s connection.
  • In contrast, a leader who listens to the individuals within the system, reflects shared elements of those individuals’ practices and behaviors, and moves in reinforcing harmony in accordance with those practices can be the true connector that to help otherwise isolated individuals to learn from each other.
  • This kind of responsive connection slowly but surely brings about system-wide alignment, so long as we have the patience, flexibility, and perseverance to allow it to emerge.

This video ultimately reminds me of NBA coach Phil Jackson and his view of leadership (from his fantastic book, Sacred Hoops):

The wise leader is of service: receptive, yielding, following. The group member’s vibration dominates and leads, while the leader follows. But soon it is the member’s consciousness which is transformed. It is the job of the leader to be aware of the group member’s process; it is the need of the group member to be received and paid attention to. Both get what they need, if the leader has the wisdom to serve and follow.

School leaders: Where do you see yourself in this example? Where do you see your school or district? In what ways do you transfer energy from individual to individual throughout the system, and in what ways do you prevent that transfer? What does it looks like when your group members’ vibrations dominate and lead while you follow, and how might that process lead to successful alignment?

Please share your successes and challenges in the comments. We just happen to be on the verge of Connected Educators Month, a time that the US Department of Education has identified for us to celebrate “online communities of practice and networks in education.” Your story might just be that one nudge of reinforcing energy that will help those of us connected together through the “energetic intermediary” of the blogosphere to grow together as more successful leaders in the future.

Navigating the Neural Superhighway

I recently had a guest post published on Edutopia’s Brain-Based Learning blog, inspired by some reflection on practices that were impacting my own learning at the time of writing. A short excerpt:

As students learn something new, electric or chemical signals move from neuron to neuron, traversing a route between locations in the brain. Like a tourist turning on unfamiliar city streets, these signals cross synapses to form a path that eventually connects the source to its destination. While identifying a route is slow going at first, students’ brains eventually make these connections, and learning begins.

Even after establishing a route, a student’s development of an optimal pathway takes time. Aside from leading them along the same path over and over again, how can we speed up our students’ navigation of neural pathways? What follows is a proposal for three actions that I believe can have a huge effect on accelerating student learning.

What I learned most from researching while writing: what the brain is actually does while we’re sleeping. It’s fascinating.

What’s funny is, the opposite is true.

My story: I tend to write late at night, often during bouts of sleeplessness. I found that when I had something particular I was trying to understand, I would read / write / draw / think about it deeply (usually at some ungodly hour). Once things started to get ‘jumbled,’ I would go to sleep, setting an alarm to awaken me within 30-90 minutes. I noticed that when I awoke, everything was clear. Everything made sense. So I would write. And write. And write. Until I got stuck again. Once arriving to that “stuck” place, I would take another nap. And the cycle continued, until either I was finished writing or the sun came up, whichever came first. After doing a little research, I now understand is that while sleeping, my brain was clearing out / breaking down the less-used pathways, while the stronger network connecting my most recent thoughts remained strong.

This and so much more, all from trying to learn about my own learning. Hope you enjoy the rest of the post!

Row, Row, Row Your Boats

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This week, teachers and staff in my school division took a breath from the daily grind for Making Connections, the annual home-grown professional development conference where we come together to learn with and from each other. As this news story highlights, a quarter of our district’s teachers put together over 200 unique learning opportunities where our community of learners could continue to grow.

The conference itself could not come at a better time of year. While the graph below refers specifically to a beginning teacher’s well-chronicled experience during her first year on the job, in many ways it reflects each of us as educators on our yearly journey.

Phases

The end of October has signaled the end of the 1st quarter, the end of the first laps on the long race that is our school year. Like many distance swimmers, we likely put a lot of energy into those first laps. As well as things have turned out up to now, there are still three times as many laps left to go. Where will we get the energy to finish the race?

I am reminded of a quote from a colleague I overheard several years ago, and think about every year at this time:

I used to hate the idea of countywide conference days as they approached. I always felt like I had so much I needed to do instead. But once I got there, I would see my friends from other schools and connect with them about things I was trying to figure out. By the end, I always had a great time: It gave me a chance to breathe.

The fact is, if the graph above holds true, many educators may be drowning (figuratively speaking) as the quarter comes to a close. Times like Making Connections become an opportunity to row your folks ashore. These development opportunities and similarly large chunks of time and resources are “rescue boats” that a school district can row out into the surf, getting close enough so that those who are struggling to stay afloat can grab hold. Of course, there is only so much room around the boat’s edge for people to grasp – the only way that we can all make it to safety is to connect to each other while those closest to the boat hold tight.

I appreciated the opportunity to make connections today. I thank those who were willing to reach out with the stories of their learning, and I look forward to many more reconnections over the next laps of the race. I am especially thankful to be part of a school division who recognizes the importance of rowing out the boats, right on time.

The Search for a Silver Bullet

Imagine a problem that faces you. Perhaps a cohort of your students don’t seem to be learning. Maybe averaged grades just don’t “add up” in your head. Maybe you get high scores at golf (which is not a good thing, by the way). Whatever the problem may be, we often approach the solution in the same way: we search for a silver bullet.

Off we go, on the search for that perfect fix. Maybe it’s a shiny program, the latest fad of an instructional strategy, a newly minted technology. We scour the web, we call on colleagues, we look everywhere for that singular solution that will make our problem disappear.

Pretty soon, we find something that we are sure will do the trick. “This is it,” we think as we unwrap the proverbial box. “This is what we have been looking for all this time.” And we try it. We start the new program, we unveil the new technology. We get it in everyone’s hands. We go all in. And we watch. And we wait.

And it doesn’t work. Even with the program in place, the problem is still there, staring us in the face.

Why doesn’t the silver bullet work? The whole premise of silver bullets goes back to stories of heroes defending themselves against scary monsters like werewolves and witches. The silver bullet is the werewolf’s solitary weakness, the one weapon that can vanquish it from existence. Everything and everyone has a weakness – I guess the thinking is that we can find the right tool, if we look hard enough for it. Right?

In the world of computing, folks like Fred Brooks argue that there are no silver bullets. They argue that that there is an essential level of complexity of some issues that cannot be tackled with simple solutions. Doing a Google search for “no silver bullet” reveals 600,000 stories that mirror the idea, from America’s tax reform to Bermuda’s energy supply to Australia’s aging workforce.

While I understand the argument being made, I don’t agree with the idiom being used to explain it, as it hasn’t helped to change behavior. The thing is, there are silver bullets. They exist. You can buy them from an ammunition shop if you were so inclined. The issue is that complex issues cannot be eliminated with silver bullets.

Why? Because complex issues are not werewolves. Because werewolves do not exist.

Werewolf

Werewolves – those creatures of lore, born from the full moon, roaming the day as men and the night as monsters – are but one in a legion of ghouls that have grown from our fear. A camper in the woods hears a loud nearby howl under a full moon? Must be a werewolf. A child laying in bed sees movement in the dark corner of the room? Has to be the Bogeyman. A night driver has a large, furry-looking “something-I’ve-never-seen-before” run in front of her car? Bigfoot, obviously.

They make for incredibly entertaining and suspenseful stories. Fortunately for us, they are stories of fiction. The myths of monsters can be traced back to an active imagination in those times where someone is confronted with something they were either too inexperienced, too afraid, or too intimidated to explore. Movement in the corner of the room? Likely a shadow. The big furry thing? Could have been anything – lots of variables at play when driving at night. That howl in the woods? Probably a regular old wolf.

And silver bullets are simply not the cure for these issues. Imagine taking a silver bullet to what you thought was a werewolf, but was actually a shadow. Shooting at a shadow makes holes in your walls, your windows, and potentially your neighbors! Silver bullets do not fix problems: they make problems. Instead of spending our time searching for silver bullets, we need to spend our time understanding the werewolf.

Silver bullets don’t work because they are misaligned to the issue at hand. We don’t need quick fix-it answers. What we need is to understand the problem, to explore the unknown and describe the issues we find as specifically as possible. See a movement in a dark corner? Don’t pull out a gun – pull out a flashlight. Look. Listen. Explore. Get more objective data about the state of things, and let that data help you identify your needs. Then let those specific needs help to define your next steps.

What often keeps us from exploring this unknown is fear, the same fear that invented the werewolf in the first place. What happens when we look under the bed – what if we see something we do not want to see? What will we need to do about what we find once we see it? This fear is what keeps us looking to fix problems from afar, and keeps us away from building solutions from within. It is far less intimidating to find a simpler and more distanced solution – like a silver bullet – that we can apply from afar.

The solution to all of this fear? Go learn. Turn on the light. Open the closet door. Look under the bed. Go into those places that you fear the most, and explore the unknown until you know exactly what needs to be done.

The other folks may be right in that there are no silver bullets, that nothing but hard work and dedicated focus can solve our problems. While I agree, I’ll also posit that it’s more impactful to recognize that there are no werewolves, and that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And the silver bullet for overcoming fear? To face fear head on.