Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Installing Your Personal Updates

Every day we have a messages on our devices that we need to update something: an app, a piece of software or the operating system. We make one of three choices. We auto-install our updates. We manually install our updates, or we ignore our updates. This everyday event happens with little or no thought. There is little in the way of updates by design. Unfortunately, I would imagine that this is the same for our lives. As we grow as people, leaders, parents, friends, and more, there is little intentionality to installing our updates. I know that I'm operating at a much lower version of myself that I should be, and I'm operating at a much lower version of myself that those around me deserve.

In the peace and calm of Colorado (I'm extremely blessed to have a beautiful home in Silverthorne to reside this week), I am working on installing my updates as I want to become better today than I was yesterday.

My updates are revolving around the following questions.

  • How can God play a greater role in my life? 
  • How can I create more time for my children?
  • In what ways, can I make love a verb in my life?
  • How can I infuse more empathy into my leadership?
  • In what ways, can I become a stronger teammate?
  • What steps would I need to take to grow my level of fitness?
  • How can you do more to provide experiences and opportunities to all learners?
I'm ready to upload many of the answers to these questions, but I know that as soon as an update is installed, new bugs are found, and the next version needs to be in the works.

What are you doing about your personal updates?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Reflection Shorts- Martin Institute- Year Two

I kept telling my wife that I didn't belong on the presenter scheduler, and that I was the least intellectually capable person that they asked to present. I'm pretty sure that I'm still correct on that, but I was honored to be in a group of learners and presenters that are actually doing so many things for education. I was inspired by the work of so many hard working people.

PDS in Memphis was a perfect setting for this event again as the ethic of hard work oozes from this school, and it is coupled with a humble and gentle attitude that is welcoming for all. Another key takeaway for me at the Martin Institute Summer Conference was that there little ego in the room. Humble, servant leadership was on display everywhere, and the presenters found a rhythm and network together that seem forged over years and not hours. Bravo to Grant Lichtman and company for the vision for making this happen.

My presentation was successful, but it wasn't overly attended. I try to remain true to the concept that those who are supposed to be in the room are in the room, but it is hard to watch more traditional sit and get sessions continue to maintain their volume at conference. It makes me wonder whether adult learners only give lip service to the idea that they want a more active learning environment for professional development. Are these opportunities still too far outside people's comfort zones? In addition, do we need to have layers of professional development that are based on time for implementation? For example, on today's agenda are sessions that you will leave with something that you can use in one week. Tomorrow's agenda includes only sessions that are ideas that will take a semester or more to begin to implementation. The draw to  sessions that are useful tomorrow is often to great to pull people into thinking-only spaces when they have the choice between the two.

In my presentation, I actually asked the participants to be involved in a short challenge that had them leave the room assigned for our learning, gather information, synthesize ideas, and present to the others in the room. It was real learner-centered learning, and it allowed the participants to experience learning in a way that students would experience their assignments. The participants really enjoyed the fresh nature of the learning, and my hope is to bring another iteration of this type of presentation to my next opportunity. There was a lot for me to learn and I'm failing forward into another space.

The Martin vision continue to be to take the best people with deep passion surrounding the very best practices in education and scale learning as quickly as it makes sense to all that are ready to explore it. I look forward to being on this journey moving forward.

During my sessions, I asked the learners in the room to reflect on a few questions, and I wanted to include those here as not to lose their wisdom.

What learning would you like to experience?

  • Hiking Appalachian Trail
  • Learning to Play the Guitar
  • Graphic Design/Media and Software Development
  • More Culminating Events
  • Learning what it's like to live in a new country
  • Learning more about Networking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Writing and obtaining grant money for technology needs
  • How to become a beekeeper
  • Experience the Holy Land
What "glue" does Education for Sustainability provide kids?
  • It creates problem solvers.
  • It plays on kids' strengths as team members
  • Greater Connectivity Community which engenders the ability to appreciate different people's situation and create a more accepting environment
  • Building an Improved Collaborative Environment among learners
  • Gives students a global perspective
  • Provides knowledge of the world needs
  • Gives students a global perspective in solar energy irrigation
  • That our experiences are just as important as our learning
  • Schools work with communities
  • Opportunity for more culminating events
What if....
  • School systems made this kind of learning as easy as falling off a log
  • All students had laptops
  • Schools incorporated active learning into every class. 
  • Educators made an effort to learn more abut schools and communities in our area.
  • Students voiced their opinions about possible improvements to their school
  • Students had more choices in their learning
  • Students had world travel experiences and appreciated other cultures
  • Students experienced life in other areas of the country
  • Students experienced life on minimum wage
  • Students had whatever they wanted to learn or college-choice like classes
  • We developed a "safe" forest for our students.
  • We did more community service.
  • We rearranged the school day/ course schedule that allowed kids to engage in research topics similar to what we did today?
  • The senior trip would a student led mission trip to a poor country year after year.
  • The 10th grade bible students trip was to the Holy Land

Reflection Shorts 2- #fuse13

Near the end of the second day of #fuse13, my brain was really struggling to focus, so I started a whiteboard doodle to keep me on track. It is sort of funny what emerges for me as I listen, process, and create in the same arc of learning. During this time, I spent some moments trying to connect the work of systems thinking to design thinking looking for connections and overlaps. I found myself thinking about the ladder of inference in systems thinking that calls on us to look beyond tasks and assumption to the underlying mental models of the situation. I believe the discover and empathy phases of design thinking ask the same from us. Are we stuck on the surface? Can we solve bigger and more issues by going deeper.

In this thought space, I also wandered into the ideas that as we look to maximize the engagement of all students that each student will have their own natural flow to their daily engagement which creates no rhythm for a classroom designed to function at peak performance only when all learners are engaged at the same level. Our learning at #fuse13 stressed the importance of both task and maintenance (the art of tending to group needs), and every individual is ebbing and flowing through their needs in these two areas. Because of this, our schools need a greater awareness to this situation as well as a dynamic learning environment that can meet the task and maintenance needs of all learners at the same time.

A lot of conversation surrounding building a better first week of school for learners (this was the design challenge) surrounded minimizing anxiety in our students as they enter a new transition. On my doodle, I found three interconnected circles surrounding connectedness, loneliness, and belonging. They seem to overlap and have their own unique nature, but they seem to be at the root of some of the foundational work necessary for our schools to reach peak performance. They are actually essential to grow adult learners as well. The struggles of loneliness creep into my work a lot, and my professional learning network and events like #Fuse13 help to shield me from the emotional beast that comes with a hovering cloud of loneliness.

Finally, it's not about you; it's about me. The Seinfeld reference clicked in for me as I charted the ideas about how below the line between group task and group maintenance lies the structures, group, interpersonal, and finally the individual reasons why groups aren't in the flow. I too often associate issues in group dynamics with a person's decision in a moment, but it truly is more layered and the structures that we establish, the traditions and rituals of a space, and the interconnectedness of life between people in the group play huge roles in making things work.

Reflection Shorts-#Fuse13

I've been lurking around the edges of design thinking for about a year, listening, wondering, and envisioning how it could weave its way into the fabric of the learning networks that I lead, but it took a leap of faith in regards to time and space to really begin my journey into this space. The folks at Mount Vernon Schools did an excellent job of creating an event that maximized energy, relationships, and learning. It was by far the best professional development for my soul this year, and it will be great to return to my new position with some additional tools for using design thinking in my new role. Though the district may not be ready to leap with me, I'll be ready when they are. My two biggest takeaways are that design thinking shifts the focus from the solutions that are wanted by the designers to the solutions that are needed by those you serve. Education is filled with solutions crafted with no empathy for students. What do they want? What do they need? What needs do that truly have? The second is that design thinking validates the idea that we must trust the process. Process matters as it allows the learning to unfold in mysterious ways, organically and with serendipity. I hope to fold this concept into #edcampSTL in the spring, and maybe some of my new allies will make the trip to lead this process for us. Finally, I had a lot of fun, got to be silly, laugh, play with friends, and truly release some of the anxiety of the year. I'm a bit of a tsunami in those spaces, but it was so good for the soul.

Here is the unconscious stream of ideas that came from the reflection at the end of day two of #fuse 13.
Food Truck

Monday, June 10, 2013

From #micon12 to #micon13

It is incredible that only a year has passed since I first walked onto the campus of the PDS in Memphis for the Martin Institute Summer Conference during the summer of 2012. Having no sense of what to expect, I walked into one of the most diverse and welcoming conference that I have ever attended, and I am incredibly excited to be back for year two. Phillip Cummings, teacher at PDS and friend, talked with me at edcampBHAM about the possibly of coming to Memphis and presenting my work for #micon12. This was our first face-to-face visit (lots of Twitter conversations), and he was welcoming me to his town and into his home for a summer conference. This is Southern hospitality, but it is also the ethic of the conference.

It is a chance for real people to have real conversations, and build real allies for the work that we do for kids. During that conference, I met Bo Adams and Jill Gough, more passionate educators, working to doing learning the right way. The momentum built, and over the last year, I have had Grant Lichtman visit my school, Pam Moran chatting with me about my family on Instagram, and I've sharing conversation with Will Richardson about his Raising Modern Learners initiative. It was just a year ago that I shook the hand of the gentle giant that is John Hunter, and had great conversations with Cliff Mims, Laura Dearman, and Paul Wood. Beginning tomorrow evening, I get to experience the true energy of education with new friends and many current allies, and I couldn't be more excited. The best little big conference in Mid-South is set to begin again.

Life for me has been quite bumpy this year, but it feels centering to be back in the center of the education universe and in a place where folks are dedicated to doing education the right way. The Martin Institute seems ready to grow deeper roots in Memphis as it reaches out to new places in the future. If the hopeful, inclusion nature of learning that comes each year from this conference can grow and scale, then by all means, let it out of the box. There is a loose set of connections ready to support the ecosystem of inquiry in education that lives here. It is incredible to think that so much can happen in 365 days. We can do so much for kids in just one year. We have to believe that it is possible, and we have to allow the positive energy of education in infect us through great learning spaces that are made possible by the vision of the Martins, and the hard work of the Martin Institute.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Permeable Schools- A Case Study

The concept of allowing students to truly learn outside of the boundaries of the classroom, while allowing the community to grow and learn from being within the ecosystem of the school seemed natural for a school built on the metaphor of School as Expedition. Each day the best learners, both adult and student, are on a learning expedition, experiencing their learning through a total commitment of energy, senses, and brain power to the opportunities to grow that are in front of them.

To replicate this in a school, it requires a culture of learning based on the idea that schools are living, breathing systems that requires delicate tending to all of the parts. It also requires a deep passion for innovation, taking positive risks for kids, and looking at the structures, protocols and requirements of "big education" as only a starting point upon which true excellence is built. The example below is of a permeable school in action. It provides a glimpse into the deep learning that is possible when all of the adults in a learning space are missional to grand learning that possible through experiences and high levels of engagement.

It was the summer of 2011, and I received an e-mail from a teacher that contained a link to a local news story about a design competition that was set to take place during the fall of the next school year. He said it would be an incredible way to expand the mission of our work with honeybees throughout the St. Louis area. (We had approximately 100,000 honeybees in our hives, and he was looking to grow our community involvement as well as the interest in the community on raising bees.) As a leader, my initial response was, "YES", this could have a great impact on our work. The wheels were set in motion.

All good ideas have a great starting place from which everyone involved can get excited, but the best ideas are tended to by a group of thinkers that sideline egos to grow the ideas into something even better. This is what happened for the project surrounding the design competition for the Pruitt Igoe Site.

In the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe was the largest federal housing project in the United States. It was designed to eliminate the swath of horizontal ghetto in Saint Louis and manage poverty in a brand new way. By the 1970s, this experiment had failed, and the housing project was imploded. The site has become an urban forest in Saint Louis for 40+ years, a symbolic cemetery for so many of the social justice issues in our urban centers throughout the country.

In August, I approached our teacher of the gifted and talented about taking on a huge learning idea in the fall surrounding this project. She was new to the position, and she was looking to reshape the way that her students constructed their learning and made meaning. This seemed like a perfect way for her to begin the experiment. At the same time that the design competition was launched, a documentary was being produced surrounding the history of Pruitt-Igoe. This movie, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, became the launching point for the learning surrounding this project. The interviews and visuals from the documentary hooked the students into the project that they would embark on over the next six months. They had the opportunity to meet the artist that created the documentary, ask him questions, and use him as a resource during the learning. In addition, the students were given a tour of the Pruitt-Igoe site by the individuals behind the design competition. They walked through the spaces where the stories of the movie had been told, got to experience how nature reclaims spaces, and began envisioning what could be.

Upon returning to the classroom, the students formed learning groups that explored elements of Pruitt-Igoe. These eight groups looked at issues like: urban planning, poverty, architecture, and sustainable building and began to build a knowledge base that they could connect with the project. There mission was to write  an essay that would encapsulate their learning to other students, parents, and community as well as build a video story that could express the synthesis of their learning from this experience.

The next aspect of this project brought fresh ideas and resources into the learning. Eight of the students involved with the project traveled to Milwaukee to visit the Urban Ecology Center. Our friends at the Urban Ecology Center told the story about urban renewal in Riverside Park, a space similar to our project site. Students began to wonder and think about whether the concept of an Urban Ecology Center in Saint Louis was the right fit for the Pruitt Igoe site. The beauty of this work was that the teacher allowed ideas and discussion to flow. The students talked about whether this was the right piece of renewal for this space in this time. They also talked about how to remember the history of the space without reopening wounds. They talked about what the right amount of sustainable practices for the site were, and they grew passionate about their favorite parts of the concept. Over the winter months, the background learning and the site visit to Milwaukee were now influencing the design of the new site.

It was time to introduce our local architecture firm into the project. Chiodini and Associates volunteered to work with our students. They helped them learn the design process of going from ideas to competition submission. It was incredible to watch this firm listen to our students, value their opinions, and help them capture the heart of their work in drawings and displays. The March deadline was approaching, and it seemed like there was too much left to complete, but with the passion of the teacher, the energy of the students, and great partners, the submission to the design competition was made.

The students used their learning to start the sharing process. First they talked to students, then to parents at the school, and finally, they posted their work for all to see. The project beautifully captured the elements that maximize engagement. Students had choice in how they expressed their learning. Students had voice in the project, crafting ideas and stepping into difficult conversations about social justice and poverty. The students had multiple authentic audiences, and the students knew that the project was for a good cause.

There was no magical happy ending. They didn't win the design competition. They didn't change the fact that a big developer bought the site before the competition was even over, and they didn't have their learning go viral via video.

The students though completed an incredible learning experience that they will return to in their learning journey; they did feel the passion of learning, and they did have a good time. The students were able to move beyond the walls of the classroom, and their learning multiplied.  The community partners from the Urban Ecology Center, to the documentary creators, to the architecture partners, to our friends that toured us at the Pruitt-Igoe Site all experienced education at its best. Their mental models about what kids can do were stretched, and they experienced a counter-narrative about education that exposed the simplistic falsehood  that our education system is failing.

One project. One year. Many changed forever.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Engaging Parents in the Learning Process

Some of the most challenging and rewarding times as an educator surround developing genuine ties with families.  Though these are difficult waters to navigate, all of us need to develop the courage to initiate, foster, and preserve family relationships. Families who have a home-school partnership are deeply knowledgeable about their child's strengths and weaknesses.  They have children with higher grades and test scores, more regular attendance at school, and better life-long social skills. A successful recipe for developing effective home-school partnerships often comes from the right combination of the following ideas.

Demonstrate a Caring Attitude:


Every parent sends the best child they can to school each day. When communicating with parents, it is important to articulate a culture of caring, demonstrating empathy for each child and their family.  Parents who believe their child is well cared for not only academically, but physically and socially, are more apt to build a trusting relationship with the teacher.

Flexible, Open Communication:


Communicate through multiple means to engage parents in the learning process.  No longer is communicating through required conferences and traditional newsletters an adequate or effective way to communicate. Engage parents in an ongoing dialogue about their child's academic progress and behavior at school through e-mail, social media, written notes, phone calls, and home visits. Parents care about their child's progress, and the more transparent the process, the more trust that can develop between the school and home.  

Results Oriented:  


Frequent, focused communication that is solution-oriented is more successful than placing daily calls to tell the parent about the child's misbehavior.  Recognizing the strengths of children, believing in children, and seeking a path of success for children builds healthy partnerships.

Safe Environment


Beyond building a trusting and caring relationship between parents and teachers, communicate that school is a safe place both emotionally and physically for every child in the building. Share the positive stories that emerge from the school each day. No success story is too small to share with a family. Families need to read about the success of their child, their class, and their school. Telling these stories regularly allows parents to define their own reality regarding school safety rather than rely on the skewed media representation that can distort their perception.

Clear Expectations


Clearly communicate classroom-based expectations for students and adults in order to nurture relationships ripe with trust.  Make sure that parents are aware of grading systems, rubrics, due dates, and guidelines as this helps parents to support the school in times when their child may work contrary to their potential at home.

Tips to Help Children


Parenting decisions are often puzzling.  The reality is that most parents are making decisions about education based on their prior knowledge and personal school experiences. Help parents by serving as a parenting coach and provide families ideas that can create success in the classroom as well as in their home. Building this capacity in parents benefits the child for years to come.


This post was co-authored by Dr. Melissa Nixon, Director of Title I, Guilford County Schools, Greensboro, NC

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Thinning the Walls, Building Permeable Schools

This post originally appeared on the Phi Delta Kappan blog, Change Agents, with the title, "Education Leader Robert Dillon Explains How He Turns the Community into a Classroom for Young Adults." The original can be found at: http://pdkintl.org/blogs/change-agents/education-leader-robert-dillon-explains-how-he-turns-the-community-into-a-classroom-for-young-adults/

PDK, PLT and FEA members are making a mark in education in a number of ways. We recently spoke with one of these “change agents” — Robert Dillon, the current Director of Technology and Innovation at the Affton School District. Here is how he is making a difference.

PDK:  You have developed a strong focus on expeditionary learning at your school. What is expeditionary learning? Please share details.

Dillon: It’s learning from the community around you. It’s about taking your students to the local chocolate factory to learn about the chemistry of making chocolate or bringing students to the local grocery store to learn about food labeling. It’s also taking kids to national parks and to research facilities. We’ve taken our eighth graders to Dauphin Island, Alabama to learn from oceanographers on a research vessel.

PDK: Why is this kind of learning important?

It gets students excited about learning and it strengthens the relationship between teachers and students. Once teachers have a deeper relationship with students, students are more willing to stick out their necks and ask questions, even in front of their peers. Remember, getting middle school kids to open up and ask questions and engage in learning is half the battle.

PDK: Say a school wants to try out expeditionary learning. What is the first step?

Simply take a look at your curricula and pull out something that you know students could learn better by doing the thing itself. For example, if your school has a unit on “rocks and gems” then take students to a place where they can take a rock hammer to rocks.

PDK: Can you share another example of expeditionary learning at your school?

Our 7th grade science teachers teach a simple machines unit. Students learn about fulcrums, pulleys, and mechanical advantage. We are fortunate to have an educational tree climber in our community and so we invite him to the wooded area outside our school. He gets our kids up in the trees with self-belaying tree harnesses and shows them how to belay down the trees. So our kids are 40 feet up in a tree, learning about simple machines and mechanical advantage! When they get to do something this cool and engaging, students remember what they’ve learned and they now have a shared learning experience that they can build from.

PDK: What else have you learned about how to engage students and motivate them?

Dillon: If we educators do a few key things, we can unleash some awesome stuff in our students. Those things are: giving students a choice and a voice in their own learning and giving them an opportunity to take what they’ve learned and apply it to a larger neighborhood or community project. Finally, we need to give students an authentic audience. That means that mayors and city council members and community organizations look at student projects and student work. If we do this, we can help our students become better citizens, as well as better students.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Martin Institute- Permeable Schools Challenge

On June 12 and 13, I have the opportunity to facilitate a discussion around the learning that comes from the permeable classroom. In a permeable classroom, schools use their community and beyond to learn by using the resources, inspiration, and environment beyond the walls of the classroom to generate learning experiences that can't be replicated in the school house. This larger space of learning provides opportunities for passion-based learning, systems thinking, and much more. In addition, schools with an ethic surrounding the "permeable school" look for ways for the community to enter their learning space for growth, collaboration, and partnership.

The beginning of this experience for the learners at the Martin Institute will be an active challenge that takes them out of the learning space and onto the campus where the conference is being held. It is truly a different way to learn and experience at a conference. If you are attending the conference, I hope that you choose to join me for either my morning session 10-12 a.m. on Tuesday or my afternoon session from 1-3 p.m. on Wednesday. You can also follow and contribute using the hashtag #micon13

Below are the guidelines for the challenge set for the participants.

You are set for a micro-experience of the learning that comes from the permeable classroom. The challenge will last 60 minutes. At the end of 60 minutes, your team will be presenting for three minutes to persuade the group surrounding your wisdom collected over the course of the journey.

This experience is about the concept of sustainability. Defined broadly, sustainability in schools and community is about justice, specifically how we can be more socially just, economically, and environmentally just as citizens, leaders, and stewards.

There are three locations listed in the room. (These will be longitude and latitude.) Each is a location that your team needs to visit to gather information for your presentation. At each location, take ONE index card. The things/ideas/concepts on your three index cards are the contents of your presentation that is due in 60 minutes.

Location One: N 35 degrees 07.465  W 89 Degrees 55.817
Location Two N 35 degrees 07.434  W 89 Degrees 55.826
Location Three N 35 degrees 07.423  W 89 Degrees 55.787

The guiding question for each presentation is this.
How are items listed on your cards related in a way that speaks to an issue of sustainability as defined above?

The contents of your presentation must include at least:
5 photos
1 video
2 named experts beyond your team that have added to your presentation
2 physical artifacts that contribute to your persuasive message

All of us will have an opportunity to listen to the presentations, reflect on the experience, and begin to think about how these types of experiences can be enrich our classrooms and schools in the fall.

Questions for Reflection:
Reflection is a process allows us to "decelerate education." It is one of the processes we use to deliberately slow the pace down so that we are learning and processing deeply, not quickly and shallowly. 

1. What value comes from permeable classrooms?
2. What "glue" does education for sustainability provide for students?
3. How could we have expanded, adapted, or enhanced this experience?
4. How can this connect to best practices that you already using?

In addition, here are some resources for continuing the work after the conference.

Great video from the folks at Triangle Learning about their desire to build an innovative middle school in the research triangle. Could generate great staff conversation.

Should student expect to learn in ways that are exemplified by permeable schools? This video describes the high expectations that students should have for their school.

Connecting kids to their community allows them to realize that school isn't about preparing for life, but it is a space to contribute to the life and community around them. Quest2Matter is an incredible endeavour by friends, innovator, and thinker Angela Maiers. Here are few more details.

Permeable schools are also looking for ways to infuse technology into the learning as it helps to maximize the engagement of all students, but the key is finding the balance between Green Time and Screen Time. (Page 48). See how one school is doing this here.

Finally, permeable schools in a globally connected society are looking for ways to provide students will opportunities to grow beyond the national borders. A fresh idea in this area involved the Global Learning Exchange. This initiative is designed for schools to use the art and passion of students surrounding digital storytelling to produce videos that will enhance the lives of students learning in Central America. This project is looking for schools in the fall to joining them in this mission. Finally, the use of Kiva, a microlending organization, has transformed a number of classroom, so that they can feel the power of permeability in their learning.