Category Archives: Leadership

Power, Privilege, & Pressure — Redux

When I wrote my Power, Privilege, & Pressure post two days ago, I was aware of Alton Sterling’s tragic death in Baton Rouge, but I was unaware that Philando Castile had also been shot to death, not far from my Minnesota home, on a street I drive at least once a week. If fact, on that street, a number of years ago, I too was pulled over for an illegal U-turn by a member of the Saint Anthony Police Department. I was given a warning, and other than the embarrassment of making an illegal turn directly in front of a police car, I had no mental or emotional concern for my own well being. But, then again, I am white (and male and heterosexual), so my unearned privilege and life experiences both served to reduce and eliminate any concerns I might have had.

I share all of that because moments after I published my previous post, I learned of Philando’s death. And, my sadness, anger, grief, and frustration have been weighing on me ever since. The turmoil, chaos, and horrific loss of life in Dallas only served to intensify all I was feeling. Everyone involved in anyway in all of this death and devastation has been, is, and will remain in my thoughts and prayers. But, I also know that seeking comfort from God cannot be where any of this ends — for me, or for our communities or country. The deaths, all of them — including the ever growing number of people of color who have been shot by law enforcement, are all profoundly tragic. And, like everyone (and I mean everyone) who has spoken out in any way in the midst of this, I do value, respect, and cherish the people who have become police officers and do their best to protect and serve. But, I also believe that the circumstances in Dallas are terribly for two reasons. Yes, the loss of the five officers and the wounding of the other seven is one of those reasons. But, of at least equal status, is the fact that the violence against the police has slammed the door on any potential conversations about the clear, national issue that the United States has with law enforcement officers killing people of color, particularly black men. All one needs to do is look at the vitriol exponentially exploding on social media that is attempting to blame the peaceful protest in Dallas for the violence against the police, or to blame President Obama for discussion the tragic realities of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths, or Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota who articulated what most (if not all) of us know to be true — Philando Castile would be alive today if he were a white man. The simple fact is that none of those things (or any of the other mean-spirited, outlandish accusations that are being hurled) is true.

Two things “caused” the horrible deaths of those Dallas police officers and the wounding of others. The first is that the Dallas police did their jobs. When gunfire erupted near the end of the peaceful, well run protest, the police officers did what they are trained to do; they ran toward the gunfire, told civilians to run to safety, and did their best to protect the innocent and themselves. Please note that I am not “blaming” the police for this awful situation. Police officers daily place their lives on the line for all of us, and particularly on the streets in Dallas, their action were brave and heroic. And, they lead to the deaths and wounding of officers. They had a choice. They could have run with the civilians and hid. If they had, there might have been fewer dead or wounded officers (we will never know), but I do feel safe in stating that more would likely be dead. Those five slain and seven wounded officers put themselves in harm’s way and made the ultimate sacrifice, doing the job they had sworn to do. The second “cause” was the decision and actions of a clearly disturbed individual who had decided that all police officers were to blame for the deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement. Micah Johnson, a member of the Army Reserve and a veteran who served one tour in Afghanistan, claimed, before being killed himself, that he had been planning his attack for some time as a personal protest against police violence. The discovery of bomb-making materials in his home would appear to bear that out. Clearly, Micah Johnson’s decision to attack members of the Dallas police force were calculated, terrifying, and painfully tragic. But, they were the actions of one individual — something that has been seen repeatedly in the history of the United States, particularly in the last fifteen years. The death and destruction that a single person can inflict, particularly one who is well-trained with weapons, is staggering. And, the police attack in Dallas is no different. We cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of that, or vitally necessary conversations about police interactions with people of color will continue to go unspoken and unheard.

In the wake of the Dallas police deaths and woundings, the situation is already becoming another sad example of political spin and rhetoric. We have to stop that for the good of our country, but more importantly for the common good. The anger, sadness, and frustration that so many people are feel is natural, but we need to work to move beyond that. And, those of us with power and privilege need to lead the way by setting aside our grief and pain. We need to reach out to our sisters and brothers of color and walk with them to break open the deep causes behind the slayings of so many people of color by those who should be protecting them. Honest conversations about race and privilege and oppression need to take place everywhere in U.S. society, but not just within police departments — they need to happen in schools, between neighbors, within companies, on buses, amid legislators, among strangers, etc. And, whenever possible, these conversations should be initiated by those who hold power and privilege in this culture. Until those of us who sit at the top of U.S. social pyramids wade into the conversations, little to no deep change will be possible. And, make no mistake, engaging in such conversations will be uncomfortable and difficult for those of us with power and privilege. Personally, I have been actively working to unpack my own power and privilege for the past twenty years. And, while I am proud of the growth I have experienced and the wisdom I have gained, I still have numerous moments when I indulge in my unearned privilege and when I struggle in honest conversations about privilege and power. But, if this country really does believe in equity, diversity, and justice, we have no choice. It is only through getting to know each other and growing in our empathy that we will ever become the country the United States aspires to be.

More than anything, those of us with privilege and power need to open the door to dialogue and then spend a lot of time listening and believing what our sisters and brothers have to tell us. The believing, in particular, is often difficult because one of “super whitey’s” myths is that our culture is “just” and “fair” (and that is underscored for those in privilege and power by life experiences that on the whole have been just that). A perfect example jumped out at me yesterday. While skimming comments for an article about Mark Hughes, the man falsely identified as a “suspect” by the Dallas police, I read a comment doubting that Mark Hughes and his brother had received thousands of death threats because Mark’s picture was tweeted by the Dallas police (even though Mark surrendered the rifle he was carrying the moment he learned police wanted to speak to him and turned himself into them). When I read Mark Hughes’ comment about the number of death threats, my immediate thought was that he probably had many more than “thousands.” He had been falsely labelled a suspect after 12 Dallas police officers were killed or shot and was carrying an AR-15 while dressed in a camo t-shirt. I can easily see tens of thousands of Dallas residents and stunned individuals around the U.S. and the world using Twitter to express to Mark Hughes, the man they thought had done the shooting, their desire to see him dead. But, for the commenter, the idea of even a few thousand people calling for someone’s death purely based on a Tweet seemed impossible, likely because if something like that were to happen, it would mean that the world is not the just and fair place the commenter had been led to believe it was. But, that is exactly the point. Perhaps the person making that comment was not “white,” but I doubt it. Those of us with privilege are programmed to strongly disbelief stories of gross injustices which is a great way for “super whitey” to maintain the status quo. If those in power do not believe the stories of the people who are oppressed, there is little reason to foment change, and those who are oppressed start to realize that there is little reason to keep sharing painful stories that are constantly dismissed. Because of that, those of us with privilege must listen and believe what is shared with us, regardless of our discomfort or our intrinsic desire to challenge situations that seem impossible to us. If we do not, dialogues will be undermined from the outset, and our sisters and brothers of color will have no reason to trust our desire for genuine change.

Finally, I must comment on the impact of social media in all of this (and not just because I am a technology coordinator whose blog focuses on teaching). Social media’s incredible power and impact has been highlighted throughout the terrible events of the past week. Whether it is the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile or the chaos of the sniper attack in Dallas, incredible and painful video and audio has been available to the entire world via the Internet. And, while that is not necessarily “new,” livestreaming the ongoing confrontation with a police officer after one’s boyfriend has been shot (revealing the eerie calm of a woman at gunpoint and the stressed, frightened tone of the officer holding the gun) most certainly is. The pace at which technology changes overwhelms even most ardent advocates of technology, and while I doubt anyone ever conceived of livestreaming as a way to document the injustice of a police officer’s actions, I am confident that it is not the last time such a video capture will arise. Given all of that, and the on-going backlash and blame-slinging that is dominating social media, it is more important than ever that we discuss openly both the impact that social media can have and how good communication and discourse (with or without technology) takes place. Schools, in particular, need to reexamine and explore how we are addressing micro-writing and what methods (if any) we are using to teach effective communication through charactered-limited messages. My guess is that most schools have nothing in place to address micro-writing, yet the reality is that it is not only the most common way in which students communicate, but also it is already one of the most dominant methods of communication for adults — personally and professionally. If we want our students to succeed, and our country and world to become a more honest and open place, we need to teach how to get our ideas and thoughts across clearly and concisely when we only have 140, or so, characters available (especially if a hashtag is warranted). Ironically, micro-writing is one component of the final ISTE 2016 post I intend to write soon (but more important material has obviously pushed it to the side for now).

I do know that I have written some “radical” things in this post, at least from the perspective of most people who do hold power and privilege, and I am certain that plenty of people will disagree with me or dismiss me outright. I certainly do not claim that I have all the “answers” (or, quite honestly, any answers at all), but I do know that our efforts as a society and country have not really “worked” up to this point, especially when it comes to healing the relationship and trust between law enforcement and communities of color. Something has to change, and that change has to happen at deep, fundamental levels. If not, we will all continue to witness and to grieve tragic, senseless deaths like the ones suffered by Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, as well as nightmarish violence like the attack on police in Dallas. While it is possible (and even likely) that those of us with privilege will continue to grieve an Alton Sterling or a Philando Castile, but then get back to our normal routine, the reality is much different for our sisters and brothers of color. Even something like a decision to order flags to half-mast for the deaths in Dallas carries a sting because even if the intent of that decision was nothing more than recognizing the national tragedy of all of the deaths this week, part of the impact remains focused on the reality that flags are only being lowered after white officers were killed, once again minimizing the deaths of two men of color. Again, to be clear, the intent of the decision was honorable, but any unintended impact also must be recognized. And, if one is a person with power and privilege, it is likely that she or he is already trying to mentally defend the intent of lowering the flags to half-staff. But, my reason for pointing something so emotionally charged is precisely to illustrate how quickly those of us with privilege can lose sight of our sisters and brothers who experience oppression on a daily, hourly, moment by moment basis. If we can step back and let go of our internal assumptions, try looking at the situation from the other side. In a 48 hour period, two men of color were killed by law enforcement officers under, at best, dubious circumstances. The President of the United States, himself, even ended his comments with these words:

“In the meantime, all Americans should recognize the anger, frustration, and grief that so many Americans are feeling — feelings that are being expressed in peaceful protests and vigils.  Michelle and I share those feelings. Rather than fall into a predictable pattern of division and political posturing, let’s reflect on what we can do better.  Let’s come together as a nation, and keep faith with one another, in order to ensure a future where all of our children know that their lives matter.”

How hard would it have been to asked that flags be lowered at that point? President Obama acknowledged that the two shootings were not isolated incidents. Instead, the decision to lower flags only came after police officers were slain when a lone gunman attacked police in Dallas with the intent to kill white officers. Recognizing that people of color feel a negative impact from that does not diminish the tribute to the officers. Instead, it is a moment of empathy and a recognition that the decision did cause pain, even though that pain was never intended. If those of us who hold power and privilege are not capable of extending ourselves empathetically over something as small as a flag at half-mast, then our road to healing and reconciliation is far longer than any of us can conceive.


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Filed under Education, Empathy, Injustice, Insights, Leadership, Oppression, Power, Privilege, Risk, Technology, Wisdom

Power, Privilege, & Pressure

My blog is about educational technology, technology integration, and sharing thoughts and insights about how to be effective with students and teachers, using technology as a tool to help transform what happens in classrooms (and during professional development). All of my posts for the past week have been about ISTE 2016, and I still have one more that I want to write, but as a member of many communities — educational technologists, educators, parents, Minnesotans, U.S. citizens, human beings — broader, far more fundamental topics must be raised.

While many of our world’s problems capture my attention each day, two blog posts I have read in the past week have pushed me to set aside my usual focus on technology. The first was a short, but insistent post by Dr. Scott McLeod on his Dangerously Irrelevant! blog: #educolor — The most important hashtag you’re probably not following. Scott is one of the first educational technologist and leadership specialists I ever encounter, and I hold him in high esteem. I was particularly struck by two things. First, Scott was taking the time to recognize how easy it is for discussions of technology and educational transformation to gloss over the reality that injustice based on race, gender, sexual preference, and so many other things are still a constant presence in our schools (and that we need to do something about that). Second, Scott was absolutely right that I was not following #educolor, so I started. Which lead me to the other blog post that has been the even more powerful reminder that promoting and discussing appropriate uses of technology need to take a back seat on a more frequent basis. Yesterday, I was privileged to read Shana V. White’s blog post: No offense… (which I came across specifically because I am now following #educolor). While the interaction described in Shana’s post made me frustrated, upset, and angry because of the way she was dismissed, it also made me uncomfortable because my silence on issues of privilege certainly played a role (albeit small) in helping to create a world where she could be dismissed. So, I am choosing to raise my voice now, in hopes that one day, Shana and others will no longer have to face inequitable situations at any level.

I am a white, heterosexual male which gives me a tremendous amount of unearned privilege and power, certainly globally, but even more so in the United States. And, I have a pressing responsibility to use my privilege and power to not only call attention to the inequity that has created (and continues to create) them, but also to openly challenge the institutional systems that perpetuate these injustices at all levels in our society. A brilliant woman, Dr. Heather Hackman (former professor at Saint Cloud State University and now full-time consultant on issues of diversity, equity, and social justice), regularly has groups with whom she works write out index cards, “What had I done today to fight…?” The word or words after “fight” are areas in which the individual has power and privilege — for me, they are racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Heather then asks the participants to post those index cards in a prominent place where they will be seen every day — bathroom mirror, car dashboard, desk, etc. The entire point of the exercise is to provide me, as a person who has been given undeserved power and privilege (because of the lighter tone of my skin, the presence of a Y-chromosome, a sexual preference for members of the opposite sex, etc), a daily call to action. People who are members of oppressed and underrepresented groups constantly have to work twice as hard (if not three or four or five times as hard) to garner the same respect, attention, professional deference, etc that is simply given to me — whether that is within the educational technology community, the larger community of educators as a whole, or the overall culture of U.S. society. If that system of injustice is ever going to be dismantled completely, I (and others) who have privilege must join our voices with our sisters and brothers who have always been at the forefront of these struggles for equity to ensure that all of us are afforded the respect and acceptance that we deserved based on our work and interactions, not some arbitrary physical or genetic trait, or our sexual preferences. And, people of privilege finally owning their unearned benefits and working to end them can never be seen as the “reason” for the eventual success of achieving equity — in fact, a claim like that only perpetuates the privilege itself. The people who are daily oppressed and underrepresented by “super whitey” (a Heather Hackman term that I quite enjoy) battle and struggle against issues of privilege and prejudice every single day — multiple times each day. They will be the reason our society and world achieves balance and equity; those of us with privilege need to raise our voices to lend strength and support — and to help loosen “super whitey’s” grip on the reins of power and privilege.

I do know that significant strides have been made in the United States in the past 150 years when it comes to issues of injustice and oppression, but one need to look no further than our current presidential campaign to know that racism, sexism, and homophobia are not only alive and well in the United States, but also that they are tolerated in frighteningly open and widespread ways. Privilege is “super whitey”‘s insidious way of luring even the most decent people down the road of intrinsic bias and prejudice. When the prevailing culture, its engrained norms, and its established institutions all subtly (and often not so subtly) underscore constantly that white, heterosexual men are “right” place to put trust and faith and responsibility, it can become easy to ignore the completely unfounded nature of those beliefs. And, when people who do fall into one or more of those privileged groups are challenged on the unjust nature of those rewards, it is significantly easier to let the guilt and shock become defensive righteousness than to admit that “merit” has been unfairly award for circumstances completely out of an individual’s control. But, that reality only makes it more important that people like me do challenge the injustice of privilege ourselves. I become a better, more balanced, more grounded individual when I do begin to recognize that my “luck” and “good fortune” that I have regularly experienced in school, at work, in daily interactions are partly (in not sometimes completely) influenced by unwarranted beliefs placed on me simply because of my skin tone, anatomical sex, and attraction to women. When I have a better sense of who I am and my true abilities, I am a better dad, husband, friend, brother, son, educator, friend, and person. There is no question about that. While I do want to afford far more opportunity and equity to my sisters and brothers who are oppressed as a result of my privilege, the reality is that my own mental health and emotional well being are best served by challenged my unearned privilege.

I feel incredibly blessed that I have been exposed to people and ideas over the past fifteen years that I have allowed me to start challenging my own privilege, but I also know, like so many of us who have been unfairly given these benefits in U.S. culture and society, that I have a long way to go. I should not need Scott McLeod, Shana V. White, or anyone else to remind me that I need to challenge my own privilege and the systems that have created it each and every day, but I do. And, because of that, I am tremendously grateful for communities and movements like EduColor and for people who are willing to share their stories and challenges. I do hope that this post and my actions in my daily life can help one (or more) other person who holds privilege and power in some capacity to recognize it and to challenge it. The future of education is vitally important to me, and I firmly believe that technology used wisely and appropriately as a tool is a vital key in creating student-centered learning steeped in pedagogy. But, none of that will matter, if our classrooms and our conferences and our large world remain a place where some of us are given benefits simply because we were born a certain way.

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Filed under Classroom, Education, Equity, Injustice, Insights, Leadership, Oppression, Power, Privilege, Risk, Wisdom

ISTE Ignites, Invites, & Incites

I will treasure many moments from my first ISTE conference, but perhaps the most spectacular (and the one from which I will be drawing ideas and inspiration for years to come) was the ISTE Ignite Session #2. An “ignite” session is a series of short presentations that happen one after another in a one hour time period. Ignite Session #2 at ISTE 2016 featured eleven speakers each with 5 minutes and 20 auto advancing slides. I had decided to attend because the format intrigued me and because I knew at least 2 of the speakers were excellent. What I was not prepared to experience was all eleven presenters dazzling the audience with a diverse array of topics that complemented each other and provided a powerful call to action that I found impossible to ignore.

Leading off the festivities was Carl Hooker, one of the speakers I had come to see. Dynamic, witty, and electric, Carl never fails to engage his audience in new and innovative ways. The Ignite session was no different, sauntering in the stage in sunglasses, he had us riveted with fascinating insight good teacher are good deejays. Playfully reflecting on his own experiences as DJOfftheHook, Carl had the audience laughing heartily as mixed his message beautifully, cross-fading between humorous observations with brilliant insights — a good deejay knows a variety of music is needed, a good teacher knows different students respond to different learning opportunities; a good deejay works to avoid the empty dance floor, a good teacher works to avoid a room of blank stares; a good deejay realizes tempos must vary from frenetically danceable to intimately slow, a good teacher realizes activities must vary from chaotically interactive to quietly reflective. Throughout his five minutes, Carl’s humor remained laced with his insistent insight that the most important thing for deejays and teachers is knowing and serving one’s client, for deejays the bride and groom, for teachers the students. The core message playing the students first and centering one’s curriculum on their needs resonated deeply for me and set the tone beautifully for the remaining fifty minutes.

Next up at the Ignite session was the equally dynamic and engaging Cathy Hunt, the other person I had come to see. Carl Hooker had need with humor and wit; Cathy Hunt plunged us into awe, appreciation, and adaptability. As I discussed extensively in my previous post — Art, Educational Enlightenment, & Inspiration — Cathy’s five minutes and twenty slides were filled with breathtakingly beautiful examples of stunning student artwork generated through the creative uses of technology. Gorgeous and glorious as the art work was, though, Cathy’s real purpose in sharing them and messy creative process that led to them was to make us realize that those student pieces were only possible when barriers were lowered and risks were taken. She stressed that the transition to transformational, student-centered education was not “safe,” nor was calm or orderly. But, Cathy also revealed that those risks are completely worth the discomfort and chaos because of the authentic and engaged student work that results from such experiences. At ten minutes and forty slides, the message of actively placing students at the center of any curricular effort was blazing through to us all.

As the third speaker took the stage, all I initially felt was empathy because who would ever want to be the person to follow both Carl Hooker and Cathy Hunt? Needless to say, Kunta Hutabarat needed no such empathy for he was more than up to the task. Best of all, while Carl Hooker is a nationally known speaker and the founder of the original iPadPalooza and Cathy Hunter is an internationally renowned art teacher, Kunta is a dad from Denver, and that is exactly how he started his speech, humbly and simply. But, what he had to share in his allowed five minutes was colossal and captivating. Kunta is one of five parents who started the Super Saturday program at Adams 12 Five Star Schools in the Denver area. Initially, the program had only those five parents and a handful of students, but in just a few years, Super Saturday had over forty parents involved, seventeen classes offered, and hundreds of students served. Most impressive, though, is that the event is completely organized by the parents who also teach all of the classes. Super Saturday provides the adults a chance to teach their passions and provides students the opportunity not only to learn, but also to witness adults engaging in activities they have enjoyed their entire lives. As impressive as the concept it, though, it was Kunta’s electric energy that enraptured the audience. Every word he spoke came from his core, and it was obviously clear that Super Saturday was transformative for everyone involved. The most poignant moment for me came when Kunta delivered his steps to creating our own Super Saturday programs: find interested parents, find a willing host school, turn the parents creativity loose. That was it. And, while part of me wanted more, I realized that the beauty in his directions was limiting “formal” school involvement as much as possible. The essence of become a more student-centered teacher or school is releasing one’s hold on content control, and Kunta was offering yet another innovative and exciting way to do just that. And, to underscore the brilliance of his message I will share one item that happened after I returned home.  The day after ISTE, I heaped on my principal a string of unending ideas from the conference. The only one that made her light up the moment I shared it was Super Saturday. Though removing a school’s input from Super Saturday’s course might feel frightening (and might lead to some “messy” moments, thank you, Cathy Hunt), the end product will be a thrilling, engaging, and amazing opportunity for students (and parents) to learn in new and unique ways. Even though Kunta’s time and focus were wildly different from Carl Hooker and Cathy Hunt, the essential theme was there — embrace change and let go.

As Kunta finished, my anticipation rose. We were only three speakers into Ignite Session #2, and my brain was already an inferno. It took only moments to recognize that the remaining forty minutes were only going to intensify that blaze. Melinda Kolk was the next to speak and the next to place transformational education front and center in our minds. Melinda’s 5 minutes were laser-focused on creativity, plain and simple (although creativity is anything but plain and simple). Her passion radiated from the stage, lifting us all as she told us to cultivate our own creativity if we want the same for our students — “believe you can, then let it go” was her challenge. And, then, she started to hit her stride. Melinda peppered the audience with an endless stream of ideas and aspirations — be open to new experiences, see beauty in chaos (and sit with the discomfort), value creativity AND celebrate diversity AND make time for both, help students stretch themselves be that in a maker space or on a blank page or through a digital screen, and always remember that it is about asking the questions (not finding the answers). Her words swirled around us as her paces and tempo increased, weaving the very world she wanted us to conceive where one starts with wonder and then imagines what fantastic things can be done. A place where our students can wander and then get to making (because construction is mandatory to build meaning). To round out her time, Melinda gave us a final litany to guide our journey: expect and reward creativity, celebrate effort (not only “success”), and make creativity a habit both for ourselves and for our students. And, then, as she informed us that it was time to “jump in,” Melinda was done, and we all took a breath while giddily reeling from her frenetic enthusiasm. But, even in the aftermath of her glorious frenzy, I once again felt the sessions underlying refrain — place students at the center and challenge what has always been.

In perfect counterpoint to Melinda, Caitlin McLemore came to the stage, urging us to embrace failure and to see its innate good. While the radical shift did produce a bit of mental whiplash, Caitlin’s calm and cheerful glee about the beauty of failing more than balanced the transition. Although Caitlin’s topic might sound glib to some, her tone was anything but that. Her earnest, genuine appeal to the audience drove home the depth of her belief in the need to teach students how to fail. As Caitlin unpack her position, the appeal of teaching failure became more obvious by the second. She stressed the importance of failure in learning resilience and how it gives one the “grit” to become a life-long learner with a growth mindset that sees “mistakes” as something “interesting.” Caitlin particularly underscored the importance of helping girls and young women learn to fail and to appreciate the wisdom gained in failure, especially when it comes to building their confidence and helping them pursue careers in STEM fields. She then shared the secret to “teaching” failure — the engineering design process/the scientific method. Get students to ask questions, lots of questions. Then, have them work to find answers to those questions. Next, have the students test their solutions and answers. When the testing ends, processing begins by having the students discuss and examine their results. Based on what they find, the entire process begins again. The iterative nature of this cycle drives home the vital nature of gaining greater insights from the things that go wrong and do not work. By going through the process repeatedly, student not only learn how to celebrate failure, but also they see how significantly all of those mistakes improve the final product. Caitlin did drive home that all of this needs to take place in a safe space. We must create environments that provide both comfort and confidence when the failures take place. And, she also challenged us to model failure for our students. As she wrapped up, I was reminded of a friend’s favorite saying, “There is dignity in risk.” Caitlin’s touting of failure resonated in the same way. The dignity that exists in risk is there because of the potential to fail. In a profession where so many of us are hyperaware of our actions because we never want to look weak or foolish in front of our students, Caitlin’s challenge to embrace failure is a tough message to sell, but like every other speaker in Ignite Session #2, she captured our hearts and heads with the clarity of her insights. And, once again, challenging the educational status quo for the good of student success provided a deep framework for her beliefs.

The sixth speaker took the audience in yet another direction as she encouraged us to embrace scannable technology and the concepts embedded in ACES. Monica Burns time and slides were also a decided shift for the audience because she grounded them in pragmatic, practical material — QR codes and augmented reality — things we could have walked out of the ballroom and started doing with students or each other immediately (heck, we each had a QR code on our badges). Rather than making Monica’s presentation mundane, though, the practicality of her ideas only heightened her ability to feed our interest and to stoke our desire to enact her beliefs. Monica highlighted the multitude of ways that QR codes and augmented reality apps can make ordinary lessons and activities extraordinary. By using those tools to connect videos, files, websites, audio clips, images, and anything that is “linkable” to daily classroom activities, a teacher can make even the daily 5, attendance, or the milk count a mysterious and unexpected adventure. Monica’s acronym ACES provided an easy way to remember how easily QR codes and augmented reality can transform any lesson or activity. The “A” is for the access that scannable technology provides. Within seconds a teacher can have students in an entirely different world, rather than writing a URL on the board and slogging through the inevitable typing errors, or even having to take the time to set up web clips on multiple devices. A QR code or an augmented reality app only need a quick scan and then the connection is flawless. The “C” is for a teacher’s ability to curate content through scannable technology. Material can be handpicked and individualized for every student or every resource, and no one is the wiser. The only person who knows where the QR code or augmented reality object leads is the user doing the scanning. The “E” is for both the teacher’s opportunity to embrace a wide array of content and the empowerment that is given to students through scannable technology. Because anything that has a link can be connected to a QR code or augmented reality object, the possibilities are endless. And, because it is so easy to set up scannable technology even primary students can eventually create their own. Both students and teachers are able to go well beyond the walls of their school building. Finally, the “S” comes from the incredible sharing that scannable technology allows. Student work can be brought to life and be made visible in a multitude of ways. The brilliance of Monica’s presentation was that its simplicity allowed every audience member to imagine her or his own possible uses for scannable technology. Her five short minutes ripped out into hours, even days, worth of ideas and approaches. And, even though Monica’s material was tangible and down to earth, it too rattled the cages of traditional teaching and moved students and their needs to the center of the educational world.

Following Monica’s tangible tools were the enormous possibilities that can result from two little words — what if. Debra Atchison used her presentation to share with us the stories behind edcamp Global and edcamp Global Classrooms, and how asking what if led to these two incredible events. Apparently, Debra’s colleague, Jaime Donally, came to her one day and ask, “What if we created our own edcamp?” Debra was open to the idea, and as they spoke, the question was posed, “What if we worked on the edcamp with the Central and Eastern European Schools Association?” Debra had been doing some work with them, and so a partnership was born. In the end, when all of the dust had settled, edcamp Global came into being — a 24-hour edcamp, involving people and groups literally around the world in 39 different countries, using a wide array of social media tools, and involving over 1800 educators. Needless to say, I was impressed by the power of Debra’s two little words. But, Debra had more to present. After the success of edcamp Global, she and Jaime asked those two words again, “What if we do the same thing with students?” Enter edcamp Global Classrooms. After presenting the ideas to others and soliciting help from all over the world, edcamp Global Classroom took place and involved 60 countries, 1200 classrooms, over 30,000 students and teachers, and in 9 different languages. Debra’s (and Jaime’s) impact and the power of those little words was readily apparent on the awed faces throughout the ballroom. Debra let us all know that the second annual edcamp Global would be taking place on July 29 and 30. She also issued us a challenge, what if we all joined in? Debra let us know that help would be provided to anyone interested in facilitating part of the edcamp Global. Clearly, Debra and Jaime are doing things that shatter the traditional paradigms of education. Not only are they creating edcamps — the antithesis of typical professional development in education — but also they are doing well outside the frame of their own community, or even country. It is also worth noting that like every other presenter, their ultimate focus turned out to be on finding ways to engage and to empower their students. Information about edcamp Global can be found at

Once again, I found myself wondering who had the misfortune to follow such a jaw-dropping presentation, and, once again, I was awed by the incredible things that the next speaker had to share. Brian Huang followed Debra on the stage, and he was more than up to the task of following the gargantuan entity that is edcamp Global. Brian shared with the audience his heavy involvement in the maker movement through his work at SparkFun Electronics and their Department of Education. The entire idea behind the maker movement is “let them build it; they will learn.” Brian’s experiences have shown him that making creates passionate, confident, self-reliant learners. And, he explained how easy it is to get started. At the core of much making is a piece of electronics called the arduino board, which was originally designed to allow artists to make interactive pieces of art, but because it is so easy to use and program, many makers use it to create innumerable things. While the “Maker Faire” is the culminating event for any maker community, it was imminently clear from Brian’s presentation that the Maker Faire is not the reason why making has such an impact. Rather, the success stems from the opportunity to create and to learn from that process. The tactile nature of the experience, coupled with its intellectual stimulation (and its lessons in failure, thank you, Caitlin McLemore), are what truly drive the movement. Brian even shared a story about a boy who clearly had a passion for making when Brian first met him a few years ago. The boy also showed an uncanny ability to use the arduino board in unique and creative ways. That boy is now 14, and after raising $45,000 in 3 days on KickStarter, he is the CEO of his own company Qtechknow that makes numerous variations on the arduino and actively helps others around the world becomes their own makers. Brian closed his presentation by showing impressive programmable light sculptures that students had not only made, but also had designed, created, and even machined pieces to use in them. He showed other pieces that had been created using 3D printers, cardboard, found materials, LED lights, and even old glue sticks. Finally, he should some of the creations of educators at ISTE 2016 who had joined SparkFun Electronics to truly appreciate what making has to offer. In the end, making is all about the arts and physical computing, and it is clearly both incredibly fun and incredibly educational. Before Brian left the stage, I was resolved that every classroom at my school will eventually have a maker space, especially because Brian had provided another, completely unique way to redefine learning by shifting the focus to students and by turning old beliefs and practices on their heads.

By this point in Ignite Session #2, I was convinced that things could not get more intense, and then Jaime Chanter started her presentation. Certainly other speakers had been a dominant presence on the stage, but no one took control of the room like Jaime did. Drawing the audience in with both her intensity and her humor, Jaime left us no choice but to recognize the desperate need for change and the importance of making our classrooms feel more like coffee shops. She opened by telling us that she was so excited for ISTE 2016 that she had driven from the East Coast with her six kids which drew hearty, but slightly uncomfortable, laughter. Jaime then made sure we knew that we were actually all under the spotlight by observing how often educators can feel good about the “comfortable space” they created by adding bean bag chair in the corner. With two questions, she proclaimed the kind of change she wants to see — Do you still do most of the talking? Do you still have a front of the room? While laughter rang throughout the ballroom, it was clear that everyone was just a bit less comfortable than they had been mere moments before, particularly when Jaime informed us that we all need to sit down and shut up. She then offered her vision of an ideal classroom (which really was remarkably like a coffee shop), one where students are given options and opportunities to learn and to do in ways that best suit them. One of the most memorable comments Jaime made was that when we are doing school right, our students should be complaining about going out to recess and having to leave for home. Some of her edgier ideas made me smile because I am a kindred spirit — we should brand our classrooms so students feel like they are part of something, devices should be out and on and actively used, e-reading should be practiced (and while a book frees great in one’s hands, get over it), allow gaming and let them create their own, and don’t block sites (instead, teach them to be responsible). While Jaime kept up her honest and glib tirade, a deeper truth kept rising to the surface — schools still feel uncomfortable and look very much like they did in the 1950s and 1960s. Educational reform and change are not only necessary, but also they are vital to allowing children to experience future success. Given the choice, where would each of us rather spend our time, at a relaxed and inviting coffee shop, or in an out-dated and outmoded classroom? I certainly know how Jaime and I would answer that question — which was the whole point of her message in the first place. In closing, Jaime reminded us that the best thing we could do for ourselves and for our students would be to do something that scares us every single day. In that discomfort, most of us will find the courage to make changes that will lead to student-centered learning and new ways of teaching.

Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk — The Danger of a Single Story, Katharine Hale followed Jaime’s intensity with a quiet resolve unlike anything else I had seen. Her quiet presence, coupled with her subject, spoke more loudly than the first nine speakers combined. Katharine’s message was simple, in our own way, we educators perpetuate a single story myth all our own. While we claim that every student’s story matters, in the end the focus still seems to be on achievement and “good” grades and “high” test scores. Those who do not fit that story are stunted to the side and labelled and, far too often, ignored. To Katharine’s credit she challenged herself to change that reality, and while piloting a one-to-one program in her classroom, she found away to make all her students’ stories matter and to help those students make positive changes to their stories. By selecting specific apps for each student, Katharine was able to guide all of her students to opportunities that celebrated and challenged them appropriately. If that sounds like a lot of work, it is, but the purpose of technology is not to make a teacher’s life easier. Well used educational technology should make a student’s educational experience richer and more fulfilling, and that is exactly what Katharine did. Her reserved demeanor hides a bold, fierce soul which she revealed not only in the story of her transformed classroom, but also when she threw down the guttiest gauntlet I saw at ISTE. Katharine warned the audience to beware of “story repeaters” — technologies that might seem helpful, but actual cause a student’s story to be diminished once again. For her examples, she named 2 incredibly popular tools — Kahoot! and Quizlet. Kahoot! is a browser-based, rapid response question format that teachers and students adore. So, for Katharine to challenges is preeminent status was amazing, but she was also correct. While Kahoot! is wonderful for a majority of students, those who process more slowly are at a decided disadvantage whenever the Kahoot! theme music starts playing. Quizlet is an app that provides a flashcard-like experience, allowing students and teachers to create their own sets, as well as the ability to download thousands of card sets created by others. Like Kahoot! it is an impress tool, but not for everyone. Some students will be trapped by repetitive nature of Quizlet, stunting their ability to use the information in a larger, more meaningful context. After delivering her warning, Katharine provided a spectacular example of why it is so important to know students at a deeper level. One of her charges struggled mightily with spelling, but rather than simply throw some spelling apps at him, Katharine realized that they would only trap this student in his current story. Instead, she had the student message her every time he struggled with his work, and she showed him how to use the auto-correct functions built into his device to recognize and to learn from the spelling errors he was making. Not only did his spelling improve, but he passed his state language exam for the first time. While the one-to-one technology enabled this positive change to happen, the causal agent was Katharine and her knowledge of the boy. She was able to tailor a solution for him and for all of her students. Yes, that means a lot of hard work, but the pay off is completely worth it — celebrating and positively changing the story of every student. Katharine’s presentation was a pause that allow the audience to finally catch its collective breath, but it also carried a far greater impact because it was so subtle and sublime. On top of all of that, though, the theme remained — students at the center and radical shifts from established paradigms. Katharine Hale might look like a typical, conservative elementary teacher, but clearly she is a rebel to the core.

Closing out the amazing experience that Ignite Session #2 had become was Michelle Bourgeois, a veteran teacher who has been innovating and integrating for thirty years. While it might seem more appropriate to some that a younger, hipper teacher would be asked to close such a dynamic series of presentations, nothing could be further from the truth. Michelle was the perfect person. Her focus on “wonder” provided a glorious end to a truly remarkable hour. Michelle started by talking about the two Erics she had in class during her first year as a teacher. One was a bright, eager student who wanted to be a scientist. The other was an older boy who had been held back 3 times and was clearly growing more disillusioned with what school had to offer. With the arrival of some classroom computers, Michelle saw the opportunity to make her classroom into a place of “wonder” — not some magical land where she would save her students, but rather a safe space where all of her students could learn to appreciate and be curious about all of the mysteries that the world had to offer. By doing that, she provided both Erics (and all of her students) the ability to control their own education, to pursue topics and ideas that got them excited — and, subsequently led to those students learning far more than they would have if she had forced them to learn from a predetermined set of lessons. Now, thirty years later, Michelle watches for wonder everywhere she goes, and she finds in numerous places. Some of her examples were the Kindergarten teacher who keeps wonder alive with play — filling her room with physical ramps, while also having students experiment with ramp apps on devices; the 3rd grade teacher who keeps wonder alive by having her students journal using blogs; and the art teacher would keeps wonder alive by having students use selfies and QR codes to create a portrait hallway that the entire school appreciates. Her challenge to us, and really the challenge issued by all eleven speakers, was to push for wonder in our own classrooms: to build opportunities for wonder, to go beyond the ordinary in our lessons and our expectations, to allow technology to open new worlds of wonder that previously would have been impossible, to fill our students’ worlds with wonder every single day. Michelle offered this quote from Rachel Carson to remind the audience that wonder always needs a mentor, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” Wonder needs to be nurtured and shared and appreciated; that is our role as educators. Finally, Michelle closed with these words from Robert Fulghum, “Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody
really knows how or why, but we are all like that.” Learning to embrace the unknown and to revel in the questions are some of the greatest gifts we can give to our students. Like everyone else during the session, Michelle, in completely unique and different ways, had driven home how important it is that we all move students to the center of our educational visions and that we work to transform and redefine what school is and how school works.

ISTE 2016 was remarkable for me on a multitude of levels, and I know that I will still be unpacking and processing and learning from my experiences (all of them) until ISTE 2017 and beyond. But, in the Four Seasons Ballroom of the Colorado Convention Center from 4-5 PM on Tuesday, June 28 something magical happened — at least it did for me. Certainly, the Ignite model (eleven speakers, five minutes each, twenty auto-advancing slides) had something to do with it (and I will most certainly be looking for ways to work that into some PD opportunity at my school). And, the fact that all eleven presenters were skilled and talented orators and educators needs to be factored in. I would love to tell the world that I want to be each and everyone of them when I grow up, but that would be a lie for 3 reasons — first, I am older than most of them; second, I am fairly pleased with who I already am; and third, I actually am hoping that I never do “grow up” (and I would guess that more than a few of the Ignite speakers feel the same way). But, even taking into account all of those other things, a synergy took place that shifted that entire hour into the realm of wonder. How else do I explain spending over 5000 words and countless hours on this blog all to rekindle a small spark of the inferno that was ISTE Ignite Session #2? Or, that fact that I will spend countless more hours replaying moments of the session whenever I am seeking inspiration or looking to deepen my own commitment to dynamic, engaged, student-centered, authentic educational experiences? I feel remarkably blessed to have present for this stellar convergence, and I know that I will hold it up as one of my defining inspirations for the rest of my life as an educator. I hope that I have done some level of justice to the event, but even if I did not, I am glad to share even a glimmer of what I witnessed. And, writing about it only deepens my resolve to continue working for the educational reforms that we all crave and that ran through each of the eleven presentations.

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Filed under Classroom, Collaboration, Digital Art, Education, Excitement, Insights, ISTE, Leadership, Risk, Student-centered, Technology

Inspiration, Investment, & ISTE

I have had such good intentions to write regularly for this blog, only to have far to many distractions pull me in other directions. But, I am thrilled to be writing my first post in well over two years because I have just finish four incredible days at ISTE 2016. The conference was jaw-droppingly amazing (and completely overwhelming). Imagine 14,500 passionate, enthusiastic educators who are actively seeking more engaging and authentic ways to bring technology into student and teacher lives descending on Denver, CO for 5 days of intense sharing, seeking, and searching. Truly mere words cannot harness intensity and excitement of the experience. In no uncertain terms, the future of education was being hatched and conceived in every single moment. To be a part of it is absolutely a blessing.

And, sad as I am that the conference has ended, I cannot wait to start sharing the ideas, insights, wisdom, and wonder that I gleaned from my experiences and encounters. I will do my best to share some of the most astounding items over the next few days. But, one of the most fundamental realizations for me is that I need to begin sorting through my own beliefs, approaches, and growth. Thus, I need to invest myself in making this blog a reality, not just a good intention. I look forward to sharing the things that catch my eye as I build my own knowledge and develop my personal learning network (PLN). I also cannot wait to offer up the successes and the failures that happen at my school — processing and exploring what can be learned from all of it. I hope there are some folks out there who will join me on this journey, and I hope their voices will be raised as well.

This first post back is a short one, but I promise some incredible, mind-blowing items in the days to come (with links to truly brilliant material shared by the fantastic presenters I got to enjoy at ISTE 2016).

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Principal Power a Priority

In the past few years, educational institutions are finally getting to see data demonstrating how much impact technology, and specifically one-to-one programs (where every student has a device that she or he brings home at night), are having in schools. The most comprehensive of these has been Project RED which studied and surveyed 1,000 schools across the United States. One of the most telling discoveries that they made is that one-to-one programs have almost no discernible impact for a school, unless at least 4 of 9 key implementation factors are in place. And, when at least 4 of those 9 factors are in place, the school significantly outperforms all other schools.

Of those 9 key implementation factors, however, none is more important that visible, active championing of the one-to-one program by the school’s administration, particularly the principal. Having witnessed that reality personally at three different schools, I agree with their findings 100%. I worked for over 20 years at a high school, and spent a significant amount of my time over my second decade there advocating for a one-to-one program. When the school finally did implement one, I watched as it completely ignored all of the Project RED findings. Most frustrating was that the school’s leadership not only failed to champion the use of technology (placing that responsibility solely on the shoulders of an understaffed technology department), but also the principal chose instead to actively champion the position that no teacher would ever be forced to use technology. Needless to say, the school will soon be entering its 3rd year of their one-to-one program, and while some teachers have done miraculous things with technology, other still never use it in their classrooms. As a result, some students constantly use their devices to improve their educations, while others simply use their device to improve their high scores and to tweet their latest purchase.

In contrast to that experience, I have seen the impact technology can have when the principal does actively champion its use. I started the past school year at a Catholic grade school as their technology integration specialist, and my principal brought my there specifically with the mindset that we would work towards a one-to-one program in the middle school. Unfortunately, Catholic grade schools function at the whim of their Pastors, and the Pastor at that school was determined to see our principal fail, so we were blocked at every turn as we attempted to move toward a one-to-one program. But, even with that opposition, I was able to significantly increase the use of technology in all of the classrooms, both within the middle school and in K-5 classrooms. Because the faculty knew that the principal was moving the school toward a one-to-one program, each teacher had an impetus to do more with technology. Certainly, some were extremely resistant to adding technology, but I never had to force anyone to do it. Instead, we let each teacher move at her or his own pace, and when a teacher did want to try something, I went out of my way to assist that person and to make the process as smooth as possible. As a result of that, teachers clearly gained confidence in their own abilities as the school year progressed. Sadly, the negative actions of the Pastor and his staff drove the principal out of the school, and I began to seek actively employment elsewhere because I knew that whoever the new principal would be that individual would not be nearly as supportive of integrating technology.

Fortunately for me, I found a new job as the technology coordinator at a different Catholic grade school, and I was able to start there before the end of this past school year. At this school too, I was brought in with the idea that I would move them towards a middle school one-to-one program. The difference at this school, though, is that I was seen as the final piece of the puzzle, rather than having to build the case from the ground up. My new school had been actively discussing a one-to-one program for 2 years before I arrived on the scene. But, once again, the primary reason for those discussions was the active, vocal championing of technology by the principal. As a result of her advocacy and enthusiasm, the entire staff has been open to finding new ways to integrate technology into all of the classrooms. And, even though I did not start at the school until the last week of March, the school is making tremendous technology additions to its K-5 classrooms and will be one-to-one in its middle school when school begins this fall. Certainly, my presence played a role in making the decision to move forward, but the primary reason we are able to do this is the outspoken support and enthusiasm of my principal.

Project RED’s study and continuing work, as well as other research begin done in technology integration, provide excellent guidance and insight for the use and integration of technology into classrooms, but I firmly believe that any technology venture, and especially a one-to-one program, is doomed unless the school’s principal is an outspoken supporter of the idea. Without her or his backing, teachers simply do not feel the same level of responsibility and commitment to the changes. Certainly, some teachers will fully embrace the opportunity to build more technology into their daily classroom interactions. But, there are far more teachers who will be on the fence and will need a nudge to pursue new classroom activities. And, there will always be a small group who will resist technology integration even if the principal is an advocate. The only thing that will get those individuals to explore ways to use the added technology is implicit and explicit expectations from the school’s top administrator. Otherwise, those teachers will no motivation to chance what has always worked for them in the classroom. In the end, innovation and creativity with the technology will come from teachers, but the initial push to add technology and to move to a one-to-one program has to have clear and obvious support from the school’s principal.

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Filed under Classroom, Insights, Integration, Leadership, One-to-one, Technology