Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

Archive for February, 2013

Friends Who Have Never Met

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My first digital story, created for #etmooc in tribute to #educoach: Friends Who Have Never Met

When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a novelist. I wrote short stories, poetry, and even a  children’s book. I played with words, wondered about adjectives, and imagined characters, plots, and settings. I lived in the universe of story.

My father encouraged me both to write and to come up with a “Plan B”. “Novelists,” he shared, “can rarely support themselves.” I considered becoming a journalist, even began my studies in journalism. And yet, somehow journalism didn’t quite work for me. Reporting on events others impacted was interesting, yet not how I wanted to spend my career.  Joyfully, I found my way to education, a place in which the stories are real and the stars are the students whose learning and life journeys we have the privilege to impact, support, influence, and perhaps even inspire. My work became engagement in the present and my stories faded to the background.

Signing up for #etmooc, a learning experience that for me feels like something between an on-line course and a network of learners exploring areas of interest, awakened my interest in story. We were asked to experiment with digital storytelling. I was nervous. While expressing myself in words flows for me, naturally utilizing a skill set developed honestly through hours upon hours of creative writing from the age of seven, I’ve never been particularly capable expressing myself visually.A snow day gave me the gift of time I needed. I turned to the #etmooc provided resources, sifting through. There were numerous project options touching on different skill-sets: defining and collecting, animating, creating, composing, visualizing, remixing, collaborating, and playing. Not surprisingly, the most compelling activity for me involved creating:

I dutifully reviewed Alan Levine’s excellent resources, tutorials, and examples. I followed his three step guide.

  1. Outline a Story Idea (He advised that for the purposes of this workshop, you need to think of a rather short concept that can use perhaps 4-8 images, text, maybe audio or music to bring a story to life on the web.)
  2. Find Some Media 
  3. Pick a Tool and Build Your Story 

And off I went, creating my first digital story ever. It is a rather straight-forward autobiographical tale, created in several hours on a snow day. I was quite nervous, yet persevered, had fun, and emerged intrigued by the potential of digital storytelling.

Global Conversations

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Collage of presenters at CO13: Connecting Online for Instruction and Learning Conference

Today was my two year anniversary on twitter and I was serendipitously honored to celebrate by presenting a course on Learning and Leading in Online Community about my work with YU2.0 for  the Connecting Online for Instruction and Learning Conference (co13). Learners included a lecturer at Wroclaw University of Technology in Poland, a teacher and researcher in Romania, an ESL teacher in Italy and an ESL teacher in the Philippines, a psychology teacher in Puerto Rico, a dance teacher in Massachusetts, an English teacher in Egypt, as well as learners in Nigeria, Argentina, England, Sweden, India, Senegal, and Australia. We joined together to discuss our learning and leadership in online community in a conversation I would not have dreamed possible two years ago when I tentatively ventured into the world of Professional Learning Networks (PLN’s) and online collaboration and engagement. 

I joined the conference as a learner with excitement, and as a teacher with humility, recognizing I would be speaking with individuals who have tremendous knowledge and experience. Through both the session I taught, or more aptly facilitated, and the sessions in which I participated as a learner, one primary big idea emerged for me – an idea which has similarly emerged for me in my current learning as part of #etmooc, a mooc (massive open online course) on educational technology and media. We must as professional learners own and personalize our learning. We must accept the role as “stars” of our own learning journey; just as we must, as educators, strive to empower our students to be the stars of their own learning journeys.

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Participant driven professional learning, and student-centered learning in schools represent a seemingly subtle, yet profound shift in learning today. There are no recipes, no clear paths, and no right or wrong ways to learn. There are possibilities and potential, actualized when we set our own learning goals, find guides to help us reach those goals, and remain open to shifts in the journey in directions we never imagined possible.

Two years ago I couldn’t imagine connecting in real time with educators from six of the seven continents (nobody participated in the session today from Antarctica, but you never know). I couldn’t imagine unconferences like edcamp in which experts and keynotes are eschewed and learners relish in learning with one another. I couldn’t imagine creating collaboratively with strangers who although we’ve never actually met, have become friends.

Personal Bests

The heroic human journey is to function as you are supposed to function, to achieve your personal best

George Sheehan, Personal Best,  Quoted by Jim Knight in High-Impact Instruction at the beginning of chapter one: Personal Bests


cc licensed image shared by flickr user ActiveSteve

cc licensed image shared by flickr user ActiveSteve

Several years ago in preparation for a school lockdown drill, a large, muscular, uniformed and armed police officer leading the drill shared that at 3 AM he can be downtown with the range of unsavory characters present and not be afraid. “But,” he revealed, “were you to leave me for a day in a room full of elementary school students, I’d be terrified. You guys are heroes.” We smiled and applauded, surprised and pleased by the recognition of the challenging, even heroic work of teachers. It’s not recognition often received.

Heroism is a topic that has long been of interest to me. For well over a decade, I’ve delved into biographies and research on the lives of Holocaust rescuers. I’ve been transformed as an educator and a parent by the insight that among the very few factors that distinguished these moral exemplars from others was the presence of an influential adult in their early lives who held the consistent expectation that they help others. Also vital was a community of individuals who supported their efforts. Works such as Samuel and Pearl Oliner’s Altruistic Personality and Eva Fogelman’s Conscience and Courage opened my eyes to the impact of modeling in specific ways on the development of individuals who later transcended tremendous adversity in order to help others. I also learned about the importance of a supportive community. Over the years I’ve grown to admire more and more, not only these exemplars, but also the parents, teachers, and other adults who guided them to develop into the remarkable individuals of character they became as well as the friends, family members, and colleagues who lent their practical and moral assistance, approval, and encouragement. I’ve come to hold in the highest esteem the heroism not only of the exemplars, but of the mentors and guides who supported them.

Beginning Jim Knight’s newest book High Impact Instruction as part of the February #educoach book chat, occurring Wednesday nights at 10 PM EST, I anticipated insight on learning and teaching. I hadn’t imagined that from the very first chapter my notions of heroism, happiness, meaning, struggle, discomfort, and tension would be so positively challenged. Could it be, as in George Sheehan’s quote shared above, that striving to achieve one’s personal best is the essence of the heroic human journey? I read the words, was moved, and wondered. I pondered and reflected.  While the answer for me remains “no”; aspiration for one’s personal best is not heroism, I have gained and expanded my thinking. For me, heroism is not about doing one’s best in any area of human achievement, but rather heroism is making a positive impact in the lives of others.

My thinking has been deepened by Sheehan’s perspective. Knight quotes Sheehan describing running as much more than exercise.

My end is not simple happiness. My need, drive, and desire is to achieve my full and complete self. If I do what I have come to do, if I create the life I was made for, then happiness will follow. (George Sheehan, Personal Best, 1989, p. 21; quoted by Jim Knight, High Impact Instruction, p. 2)

I embrace the notion that happiness follows the striving for one’s personal best. Even more, I embrace the notion that combining a meaningful act that has a positive impact on the lives of others such as teaching with striving to do one’s personal best can be both heroic and joyful. I imagine that the joy Jim Knight finds as a runner, striving to get better and achieve his personal best, energizes the heroic efforts in which he is engaged as a father of seven children (thanked in the books’ acknowledgements) and as an instructional coach of instructional coaches, helping to improve the quality of learning for so many students. I recognize the intersection of joy, heroism, and personal bests.

With perspective on heroism and happiness; we can broach the messier topics of school change efforts: the struggle, the uncomfortable, and being discontented. “It’s more comfortable not to try. But life is, or should be, a struggle: Comfort should make us uncomfortable; contentment should make us discontented.” (Sheehan, p.30, Quoted by Knight, p. 9). It’s not easy to stretch beyond our comfort zones. Knight sensitively shares, “For many of us, the journey toward a personal best, although highly attractive, can feel overwhelming, especially if we feel we are embarking on the journey all by ourselves.” (p.8) Seeing teacher resistance as a sense of being overwhelmed by the struggle enables us as colleagues, coaches, and supervisors to support one another to face the discomfort and to find within that struggle both joy and meaning.

Add tension to heroism, happiness, meaning, struggle and discomfort and the need for robust support alongside high expectations becomes ever more evident. Knight quotes Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (1990), saying:

The juxtapolisiton of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are realtive to what we want) generates what we call “creative tension”: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives. (Senge, p. 132, quoted by Knight, p. 9)

How might we reframe stress in schools in the context of creative tension which does not overwhelm but instead energizes? What are possible ways of responding sensitively to the complex emotions, including joy, meaning, discomfort, and tension, that  administrators, instructional coaches, teachers and students experience in the course of striving to achieve our personal bests? How can we support one another to constantly strive toward achieving our personal bests?

As we continue reading High-Impact Instruction, and as I strive to share my reflections on the reading, I hope to find together some  answers as well as many more questions. Looking forward to the learning!

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