Sunday, August 31, 2014

Autodidacts Connecting Ironically

I am beginning a new tradition of starting my comments with Terry, damn you.


Terry, damn you, you've once again thwarted my plan to allow my brain to settle into a vegetative state this weekend.

"Jonny All Shorn"
Terry Elliott's Call and Response post to my comments about this post (ok, this is becoming a labyrinth) has raised my eyebrows, as well as renewed my challenge to myself this year to think differently. (And no, not Think Different.)

First, I have to say I am honored to have somehow sparked this Call and Response.  I respect Terry's pirate brain as much as I do his ability to shear sheep.  He has challenged my brain this summer like few have ever done, and for that I am grateful and greatful. And trying to keep up with him over the interwebz is a challenge in itself.

I love this meme he created and have been unknowingly but happily following its edict even though CLMOOC has been over for a few weeks: "I will play with my friends in the CLMOOC sandbox once a week."

In my comments on Terry's post, I expressed my concerns about trying to get entrenched faculty into the mode of taking risks, failing and reflecting.  How do you connect with those who wallow in their disconnectedness while bemoaning their lack of support and their perception of the uselessness of Professional Development sessions?  I spend a lot of time thinking about this, but here's what Terry said:

"All I can say is that there are different connecting strokes for different folks and that sometimes the key is not obvious and often counterfactual and even accidental.  Keep watching.  Maybe it all boils down to shared Precious Moments (you know the ones I mean).

Let me say that I can't stand am not a fan of Precious Moments. I am more of a "this is a rock I found in a creek" kind of memento-keeper.But I am also a sappy, corny, prone-to-gushing kind of teacher when I am moved.  The teachers on my team this year have caused me to gush at their amazingness, and my students often move me to happy tears.  So for the other teachers, the frustrating ones, I need to look beyond the obvious, as Terry said, and use "What-If" thinking.  What if we tricked them into connecting.  What if we pretended they had already connected.  What if I worked on the [seemingly false] assumption they they DID want to connect in an authentic way.  Would I serendipitously stumble over a surprise connection?  Even one?  If there is one thing Terry has taught me this summer, it's that every single connection has value.

I then asked Terry, how do you conceptualize a liquid syllabus to students and teachers (Michelle Pacansky-Brock's idea that "a course syllabus could transform into a content experience that students really wanted to look at and engage with, as opposed to resource we dictated they "must read.")?  Terry happily deflected me toward Sonya Huber's Shadow Syllabus,which I am now in adoration of, and then threw out the amazing video RSA by Manuel Lima,  The Power of Networks, which traces the emerging awareness that interconnections, webs, and networks comprise most systems in the world, from the neurons in a mouse's brain to the structure of galaxies.  Lima ends by expressing that we need to "create outbound ties [with which we can] learn from other disparate areas....use network thinking...there's immense benefit that can come from this networked outlook of the world itself."

The teacher in me realizes that in order to conceptualize this in a public school, not a college, we would need examples, examples, examples.  But these don't exist; this concept is too new, this moving toward what Terry called "a simulated ecology where there are a very few initial rules that are allowed to emerge as they will."  Public schools are wired with rules, ingrained with a hundred years of "we've always done it this way." While the leadership at my school is the OPPOSITE of this, thank goodness, we still have hangers-on of what they call tradition and I call bullshit. So, no extant examples of liquid syllabi for the most part (how does one hold liquid, anyway?).  But Terry makes the point - just start somewhere: "Perhaps as you try to implement change with your teachers you need to provide a very simple process to execute. Then you will want to have that process be integrated into existing processes. Finally, you will want that to lead to personal and perhaps idiosyncratic innnovation. Most kaizen practitioners don’t include innovation as part of kaizen. They leave that to the technocrats, but I think that teachers need to be technocrats, aka edupunks."  

Ambitious. But I will throw some paint at the wall, a la Jackson Pollock, and see what meaning can be made of it.

Just start somewhere.

I have in my head this utopia of willing autodidacts in which everyone is curious and motivated to connect and learn about networked thinking.  Everyone dives in and tries it (or maybe tiptoes in), everyone feels the scary vulnerability of publicly sharing, then everyone feels the validation of getting real-world feedback and connection. I WANT TO MAKE THAT HAPPEN.

Our new t-shirt motto: Fail Loudly and Carry a Big Stick (via Terry)

But also - Autodidacts Connecting Ironically.

Thanks (again), Terry.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

How do I teach kids of all colors about #Ferguson?

My great-great grandmother

I am white.  Even though my great-great grandmother was a person of color, I can't claim to understand what it is like to be disenfranchised because of my race.

My father was a civil rights advocate.  He was the editor of the Star Democrat newspaper in Easton, MD in the late 60's and was the first editor to force a change in the policy that forbid the printing of photos of African-Americans in the paper.  He attended an historically Black church.

I state these things not as a liberal pedigree but because it is my history.  I grew up thinking and talking about race.  In spite of this, I have no answers right now. Maybe no one does.  Surely no one does. But tomorrow morning, kids of all colors will walk into my school, ready to talk, and willing to express their emotions.

How does a white teacher teach kids of color about Ferguson?  We will start the school year with 22 students.  20 of them are kids of color.  18 of them are boys of color.  By year's end, our rolls will have grown to 30+ students, as kids of all colors are expelled from their home schools and make their way to my school, an alternative school.

So the issues are compounded.  These are kids who have been in trouble.  They are already angry. They have already been targeted.  They have complex lives, have made bad choices, and many have already been involved with the criminal justice system.  On a "normal" day, I fear for them.  They are frustrated, frustrating, sometimes learning disabled, emotionally disabled, abandoned, traumatized.  But also smart, creative, beautiful and energetic.

On these days, far from "normal" days, as Ferguson and other protests about race and the police light up my screen, I am terrified for them. I want to teach them all - white, Black, Hispanic - how to protect themselves, how to make good choices, but also how to protest and make change happen.  I want them to first seek to understand.  I want to show them this video.

Much of this is not necessarily my place.  But I feel the weight of in loco parentis.  I hear the law when it states that "educators...have the duty to act like the parent when protecting students from foreseeable harm."  I understand that the intent of the law is not that I teach about political dangers. But I see foreseeable harm in so many places.  Do I ignore it and put a myopic lens on Common Core State Standards?  I have always thought educators should present both sides of issues and let students make up their own minds.  And I know it's not that simple.

Can I do this, present both sides, in the current minefield, with wounds literally so fresh and so painful?

This article shows that teachers will be pressured to mitigate the issues: "In many ways, the recent chaos in Ferguson is perfect fodder for high school discussions about the judicial system, civil disobedience, racial divides and the role of media. But in the Edwardsville School District, teachers in the middle and high schools have been told by principals to 'change the subject and refocus the students' whenever Ferguson comes up."

Is this prudence or misdirection or censorship?

Teachers like this one aren't making this issue any easier.

But these teachers are inspiring the country: "School is out for many Ferguson students, but teachers are still holding classes at local public libraries." And this one raised $130,000 for Ferguson students.

What is the purpose of education, and therefore, my purpose as a teacher?  Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in his Morehouse College Student Paper, "Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate." And Jonathan Cohen in an article for the ASCD has described the purpose of education as being "to support children in developing the skills, the knowledge, and the dispositions that will allow them to be responsible, contributing members of their community—their democratically-informed community."

All of this rattles around in my head as I move toward the first day of school tomorrow.

Life is messy and beautiful and painful.  People do great things and horrid things.  Can I show my students of all colors this bloody, broken kaleidoscope in a fair and balanced way?  Should I try? Can we piece it together?

Either way, we'll all be there tomorrow.  Ready, set, go.

Post Script - TedTalk worth watching: The Danger of Silence

Friday, August 22, 2014

Why Would I Take a Higher-Ed Connected Course?

Why would a middle school teacher of alternative education join a Connected Course aimed at higher ed?

My students come to me after many failures.  Let me rephrase that - after many, many, many failures.  These failures include failure to thrive, failure academically, failure behaviorally, failure of their systems of support, and even failure of their own minds, in the case of our most impaired students.

Historically, my school had tried to re-create the environment of the students' home schools in an attempt to "retrain" them to fit in.  But in the past five years, new leadership has reframed our middle school.  It was made clear to us that what was happening in the students' home schools was not working - so why try to re-create an environment of failure?  We were challenged to think differently.  I did some research and proposed that our middle school transition to Project-Based Learning and more incorporation of Social-Emotional Learning practices.  Several of us also went to training at the International Institute for Restorative Practices in order to learn how to facilitate daily Community Circles.  I also read Peacemaking Circles and Urban Youth, a great resource. 

This year will be year 3 for our PBL initiatives.  We have had some successes and some failures, and are ready to move to the next level for our students by embracing GAFE and SAMR (both district-level initiatives) while still maintaining our commitment to authentic projects, real-world connections and SEL.  (I mean, what's a new school year without some new Education Acronyms??).

Our students love technology - for the most part.  While I don't embrace the term "digital native," I will accept the fact that our students have grown up with levels of tech that we never even thought possible when we were twelve.  However, while they are comfortable with tech, they are not often adept with technology as a tool for deeper learning.  And we have seen in the past two years a sort of tech weariness in our students.  They have asked for more board games, chess club, hands-on "Makes."  

This past summer, I participated in Making Learning Connected, #CLMOOC.  This class was enriching and refreshing and energizing! It melded new technology tools with hands-on Makes, collaboration, feedback and CONNECTION.  These are all concepts that my students need.  And, in my opinion, these are concepts that my students may thrive on.   We plan to incorporate Connected Learning into our PBL model this year.  But it is my hope that in the #connectedcourses class, I will learn how to create successful connected learning experiences that will work in our middle school program.

Because doing whatever it takes to help them be successful is what it's really about.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sense of #Play

Once again, Kim Douillard has given us a fun photo challenge for this week.  Sometimes, as Kim says here,  we need to be reminded to include and celebrate play in our lives.

For me, play has changed over the past ten years.  Age has helped me to have a greater appreciation of tiny moments of play;  chronic pain from compressed nerves throughout my body (and for which no doctor can figure out the origin) has corraled me into calmer and geographically closer forms of play.

Of course, I play with this guy a lot - 18 months old and a complete teenager.

I play by growing things.  I have jumped into gardening since turning 50 - seeing things grow because I have nurtured them is intrinsically rewarding. I check on the sprouts daily and am always excited to see the green tendrils of growth.  This week I am trying a new experiment - growing veggies indoors.  So far these peas are looking good!  My daughter is a farmer at heart and works at an organic market, so we share our love of fresh, healthy food.

I play by doodling - the bright colors make me happy.
And by listening to music, like the amazing artist Brandi Carlile:
Save Part of Yourself for Me.

When I am able, and as much as I am able, I play outdoors.  This is a from a hiking trip I took with my daughter, to Berkeley Springs, WV.

I play by nurturing bees.  I worry that so many colonies have died.  I celebrate every bee I see and I grow things that will help them to thrive. This butterfly bush is right outside my front door and is a haven for honeybees and bumblebees.  I watch for them like a mother hen.

I play by cooking!  I love roasting vegetables with olive oil and spices. I eat a huge bowl of them almost daily.  Here I have purple potatoes, sweet onions, green kale and cauliflower, the "before roasting" shot.

I play by "Making" multimedia projects. Participating in #CLMOOC encouraged me to try new things and play with tools I had not used before, such as PicMonkey.

I take photos on my walks, which are meditational and exhilarating at the same time.  I crave being outside, and if I don't get enough outdoor "play" time, my brain doesn't like it.

In the tree trunk I saw a face.  In the top right shot, I saw a Woolly Mammoth, and in the bottom right I saw pure beauty.

Thanks again, Kim, for the inspiration!  My hope for this school year is to incorporate as much play and reflection with my students as possible.

Monday, August 4, 2014


I sit decadently on my deck each night and eat the newest freshest peas right off the vine. To heck with acid rain, 
this is my version of organic. 
Nothing has ever tasted better. I made this food.
I chase it with a beer.

I grow things now.  I never used to.  I can't get past the addictive nature of creating something from a seed, food I can actually eat.  In my kitchen are jars of seeds, sprouts in pans, little tiny tendrils of nutrition.  I fend off the apocalypse for one more day.  Surely with these seeds, I can survive a while longer.  They are my mid-life babies, my menopausal offspring. They surround me with green when the world feels bloody gray and hopeless.

My deck is my sanctuary, my neighborhood not the best, the boards under my feet warped and worn, my grass not always trimmed the way the HOA would like, this is middle class, make no bones about it.  The cops who visit the courts don't see the irony of all of the "being in court" but they come here often anyway.  They are our entertainment through the windows as the crazy neighbor screams illogical nonsense at her boyfriend and child.  I am grateful for police diligence but allow myself to watch the craziness, that was me once, long ago, so I see both sides. 

I sit and listen, I feed my birds, I thrill in the bright yellow finches, the mischievous chickadees, the tiny chipping sparrows with itty bitty rooster combs that pop up at odd times.  
Right now it's fledgeling time; adolescent birds holler and beg their way through the day while patient parents feed them the seeds they could easily get for themselves. I like these mom and dad birds, the way they shield their children from the eventual reality for as long as possible.  

A robin has laid two clutches in my shed this summer, on top of a humane trap I used for catching baby stray cats. I love this irony as well, she chose the perfect spot, no predator can reach her chicklets.  She lets me see them, I anthropomorphize enough to think she trusts me. 

Here's my morning - feed the cats, make tea, grab a book, go check on the garden.  Examine each leaf while wearing reading glasses.  Add food to bird feeder. Sit on deck and read for as long as possible before life calls.

I have no hot tub, no expensive trips, but I can see the mountains from my deck, and things are growing.  Everywhere I look, I see green.  My neighbor cut my grass the other day.  My other neighbor offered me steamed crabs over the fence.  My neighbors are all colors, shapes and sizes. Make no bones about it, this is middle class.  Life is good. I choose this.