That Kindling Moment

In my Learning2 Talk this April, one idea I wanted to share was the notion of seeing the school year as a campfire. In keeping with this vision, I wanted teachers to see themselves as kindling bearers rather than feeling perpetually pressured to be torch bearers.  Often schools have ideas needing just a bit more fuel, sometimes our fire needs a touch more tinder.

webhamster Campfire

It is easy to get lost in our own goals year after year.  It is important for the culture of our schools to look out for dimming flames. We should seek opportunities to be the spark that other ideas need.  I recently found the phenomenal blog of Katie Martin. In her post “Culture is Everything,” she drives this idea home. If you’ve been lucky to have worked at a school where the culture is a motivating force, you’ll quickly agree with what Martin has to say about the efforts we need to take in grooming the culture of our shared campus.

We know that kids (and adults) learn better when learning has an authentic purpose, subjects are integrated, and the learner has agency and choice in the process.  Because of this, project-based learning is BIG right now and rightly so.  You might wonder–Is there professional learning to support PBL? Are there programs that provide resources? Are there models that teachers can see and use? The answer to all of these questions is yes. Yes, you can provide all of these things and support teachers in the process to develop great projects, and you should, but it’s not enough.

I have seen some amazing examples of how project-based learning changes how kids learn in school when educators embrace integrated, authentic ways of learning in school but I have also seen these ideal methods added on to traditional schooling that rarely changes how kids learn. If the culture doesn’t foster creativity, risk-taking and innovation, project-based learning (or any transformative initiative) can easily become another thing added on a teacher’s plate. In education we tend to focus on the programs, procedures and policies. When, in reality, the culture is what will truly empower teachers to make a meaningful impact on student outcomes.

What if you saw every week as yet another opportunity to shape the culture at your school?

What would you do? With whom would you want to sculpt?

Whether you see it that way or not, the reality is, week after week we are all doing something to define the culture we work and live in.

Last week, one of my colleagues, Valerie, took action.  Today, I am so incredibly thrilled to be hosting a second chat via #TeacherBookClub.  Our esteemed guest, George Couros, is going to join us on Twitter to share some of the wisdom behind his incredible book. Valerie (a budding innovator herself), really took to what Couros has to say in his text.  So much so, that she created a beautiful visual notes poster capturing some of her favorite key ideas:

At our Friday staff meeting, Valerie stood up, referenced her poster and advocated for attending the Twitter chat.  But that’s not the most amazing thing she did.  The action she took which was a ‘cultural shift’ a-ha moment happened next.  Valerie said, “If you want to learn about Twitter you can ask…” and she pointed to a lovely sampling of colleagues around the room.  She advocated for advocates.

“Leaders don’t create more followers, they create more leaders.” – Tom Peters

When we take the time to connect educators with other educators, when we show that a shared vision is coming into focus through our collective lenses, we are making our culture palpable.

Juan Salmoral Feeling
Juan Salmoral


What Valerie did in that #kindling moment was rev the engine Seth Godin describes in his post: The possibility of optimism (the optimism of possibility)

As soon as we realize that there is a difference between right now and what might happen next, we can move ourselves to the posture of possibility, to the self-fulfilling engine of optimism.

Which #kindling moment made the culture at your school palpable this month?

Horizons versus boundaries.

It’s been four years since Sonya terBorg published her phenomenal free eBook “Imagine A School”.

As a member of the #teamSonya fanclub I’ve passed her text onto as many colleagues as possible.  Why? Because Sonya’s work reminds each and every one of us that it is our responsibility to keep wondering about what the future of education could be.

Sonya’s work is seeded in what Seth Godin mused in his manifesto ‘Stop Stealing Dreams‘:

If school’s function is to create the workers we need to fuel our economy, we
need to change school, because the workers we need have changed as well.
The mission used to be to create homogenized, obedient, satisfied workers and pliant, eager consumers.
No longer.

As of this very moment, May 24th 2016: what is the function of school?

To answer this question, you need to look at where the majority of your school’s focus goes, and question how your academic calendar is organized.  Go to your calendar and highlight the weeks dedicated to formal timed exams. Highlight the official revision weeks.  How many days now stare back at you in fluorescent yellow?

Now highlight the number of weeks spent in mixed year levels, with students mentoring other students.

Now highlight the weeks spent on service learning projects.

Now highlight the weeks spent on mindfulness, and developing empathy.

If you are lucky, your school might have the same number of weeks highlighted for exams as they do mentoring, serving their community, and learning to become a more caring member of society.  But is that the message we really want to send students, that empathy and testing are equals?

In a world where students can write for a global audience, book clubs can span continents, and a mystery Skype session can develop more curious global citizens, are individual tests even relevant anymore?

In a Forbes post already two years old, a list of ‘Future Ready Skills’ suggests the answer to that question is ‘no.’

If your staff had the power to pioneer a new prototype for educating societies, would testing be a part of your new vision?

Martin Gommel Will you come ?
Martin Gommel
Will you come ?


Jonathan Lash, director of the World Resources Institute has taken some pretty rad steps in a new direction, check out his full (re)vision for schools via The Washington Post piece What one college discovered when it stopped accepting SAT/ACT scores:

We completely dropped standardized tests from our application as part of our new mission-driven admissions strategy, distinct from the “test-optional” policy that hundreds of colleges now follow. If we reduce education to the outcomes of a test, the only incentive for schools and students to innovate is in the form of improving test-taking and scores. Teaching to a test becomes stifling for teachers and students, far from the inspiring, adaptive education which most benefits students. Our greatly accelerating world needs graduates who are trained to address tough situations with innovation, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and a capacity for mobilizing collaboration and cooperation.

What happened when Lash did this?

• Class diversity increased to 31% students of color, the most diverse in our history, up from 21% two years ago.

• The percentage of students who are the first-generation from their family to attend college rose from 10% to 18% in this year’s class.

I think we can take this model a few steps further.  Isn’t it time to seriously reconsider whether or not we need grades at all?  Students have the tools and the means to generate authentic portfolios.  Students have access to projects in ways we never dreamed possible a decade ago.

What if projects and portfolios were our narrators, rather than numbers and letters?

“The Case Against Grades” by Michael Thomsen unpacks the possibilities sprouting up in forward-thinking spaces:

Free schools have taken the gradeless structure even further, treating the school as an open space where students are not only allowed to self-direct but are given equal responsibility in the organization and rule-making of the school itself. The Summerhill School in England is one of the most recognizable and longest-running, founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill. Summerhill is built around the idea of creating stable, happy, and compassionate humans capable of filling any role in society—a janitor being no less a success than a doctor. In place of dedicated courses, students are free to follow their own interests while teachers observe and nudge them toward new ways of thinking about what they’re drawn to. Students with an interest in cooking, for instance, might learn the basics of chemistry by way of thickening a sauce. Those drawn to playing soccer might learn to improve their game with some fundamental principles of Newtonian physics.

Report cards put learning in a false context.

If a reimagined school truly believes that education is (in the wise words of Sam Seaborn) a silver bullet, why are we spending so much energy on measuring, if we could be investigating better approaches to mentoring the future change-makers of the world?

Melissa Harris-Perry says this best in her Washington Post opinion piece:

Without grades, we would be forced to offer detailed, critical assessments of our students’ strengths and weaknesses, both to them and to future schools and employers. We would need to pay closer attention to their process and their progress rather than just their final products.

In an interview with German philosopher and author Richard David Precht, via The Financialist, we are reminded of the limitations of grades:

A child’s personal development is more important than acquiring a certain body of knowledge over the course of a school year, and that can’t be captured in numbers. For example, I was good at gymnastics as a child. Jumping over a beam was easier for me than for an overweight classmate, so if he managed to do it, his achievement was greater than mine. Grades aren’t very helpful in measuring accomplishments like that. A written evaluation at the end of the school year might be the best approach.

As part of #teacherappreciationweek, one of my 9th grade bloggers reflected on a poignant moment years back. Please see her full post available here.

She came up to me and my mum, and she said “Wow, she should be journalist” And now, when I look back, I think of how she didn’t have to say that, she didn’t have to bother saying anything, but she did, and it made my day. And since then, everytime I present anything, I think of that.

That 9th grade blogger reminds me that instead of spending so much time telling students where they are on an isolated exam, we should be looking out at their horizon together, having a conversation about where they could go.

Paolo horizon

FLICKR, have I told you lately, that I love your CC images?

Featured above:

Martin Gommel

Will you come ?



Stop building fences.

Jerry Kane is spot on in his TED talk.  What we think we know about social media is already old news.  The world of social media is evolving.  You’ve heard that already.  So why are we having the same old conversations?  Why haven’t we evolved beyond the fence?

What’s the fence?

* Discouraging social media inside of ‘school time.’

* Thinking of our online selves as somehow different from our actual selves

* Focusing on the dangers of social media and ignoring the potential success to be had

*Dictating how social media ‘should be’ used and avoiding an open conversation about possibilities

*Teachers only talking to teachers and administrators about social media

How do we move forward?

“There is no such thing as social media,”- Jerry Kane

Kane’s point wants us to think of the entire world wide web as a social space.  He’s right.

The way we build, navigate, and understand information is a social process.  That has been my experience far prior to my first profile picture.

The myth that certain teachers cannot teach social media skills is bogus.  All teachers are believers of collaborative learning, otherwise they wouldn’t be a part of a social institution.

“Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late.”
Seth Godin

We need to change the way we think about ‘digital citizenship.’  Do you think you can offer your students something in terms of being more thoughtful towards other people?  Good, then offer it.

The technology, the gadgetry is always secondary.  The humanity is the priority.

If you teach your students to think of online behavior as secondary to behavior, they will buy that myth.

If you teach your students to be mindful regardless of the space, you will have a different mindset entirely.

Here’s more insight from Seth Godin:

“People don’t believe what you tell them.
They rarely believe what you show them.
They often believe what their friends tell them.
They always believe what they tell themselves.”
Seth Godin

Give students the space to reflect on what they are telling themselves about themselves online.  Who is reflected back to them through their online persona?  Chances are that is the exact same message they tell themselves first thing in the morning.

Have a conversation with your class about their ‘self-talk.’  How do we tell ourselves about who we think we are?

“If you are deliberately trying to create a future that feels safe, you will willfully ignore the future that is likely.”
Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

We build fences in our schools because we are fearful we will make mistakes.  Will we have missteps on and offline?  Of course we will.  Mistakes are not avoided because we construct blockades.  There is a limit to what Brene Brown describes above as armor. Brown mentions a huge empathy deficit in the world of 2015.  What if we asked our staff, students, and leadership to start to see social media as the means to do something about that deficit? What if we started to think about social media as part of the solution, and not only the source of the problem?

Photo Credit: ianqui via Compfight cc

Let’s be vulnerable enough to tell our students that we worry they will hurt themselves, that they might hurt someone else.  That is a much more sincere conversation starter than a policy. Rules are never as effective as authentic conversations are.  Talk first, policy drafts come second.  Assume students want to do the right thing.  Assume your staff can handle the occasional misstep.  Create more conversations.

One year ago, I asked the group of student council leaders at my former school to use social media to better communicate their mission.  I assumed they would rise to the challenge of open inquiry.  What do you think, did they meet that challenge?