the tale of 3 emails in a time of distance learning

A student emailed last night from a personal email account, so it took a moment for me to realize who’d sent it. I’d seen other emails from whatIwant@gmail.com* this year, so it just took a minute to attach a students’ face with his message. The note said that my office hours weren’t working for him.

“I have been working overnight from 8:00pm-6:00am and sleeping the rest of the morning waking up in the afternoon. This has been affecting me with my school work since I can’t attend the online classes. So I would just like to have a chance to communicate more personally so I can better understand…”

My students know by now that when they appeal to me for flexibility, my answer is always yes. The lines in the sand my younger self drew have all been scuffed out by experience with students who react to firm boundaries defiantly, and warm to learning invitations with slow reluctance and mistrust. The only way for either of us to win, I’ve come to realize, is for both of us to play the game.

I got two things from the email: First, I don’t need to look in Google Classroom for last weeks’ assignment. No big loss. Second, I get to talk to whatIwant@gmail.com about his job, the night shift, and how he’s doing with distance learning.

He may very well be confused about what I expect from class. If I remind him about Monday’s email, or the YouTube video I created to explain our assignment, or the instructions at the top of Google Classroom, he may thank me and get right on it.

I doubt that, though. I think the email explaining his new night shift is a substitute for the wisecracking that would accompany his many returns to class after extended absences. Sure, he cares about what we’re all doing and what I’ll ask of him, but he’s primarily interested that he still has a seat and a chance to pass. All year his sojourns away from school seemed to me like he was testing if he still belonged, like he’d intentionally strayed from his path toward graduation over and over again, like a hiker who has grown bored of the trail and decided to bushwhack. His confidence that he can find the trail again is always momentarily shaken when the trail isn’t where he expects it.

The conference we’ll have won’t be about the work he’s missing for me, it will be about the work that is feeding him and his family. If he’s doing well, he’ll tell me stories, however brief, punctuated with details meant to shock or amuse me. I’ll tell him, as I always do, that even when he was absent from class, he was still learning, and that what he has to say, or what he’s interested in writing is more valuable now than before. Our class is Humanities, after all, so the decisions of young people coming of age in an ever-changing world are our content. I’ll tell him about my work- what we’ve been doing in class- if he tells me about his, and the stories we tell will help us both make meaning of this strange time. As it turns out, the economy is open for whatIwant@gmail.com and me, two essential workers negotiating the terms of our continued collaboration.

*I changed this email to protect the identity of my student, but not much.


My email from KQED Education isn’t spam, it is a reminder that there are media makers of goodwill hoping to invite students from the margins into their ranks. Fittingly, the civic education they hope to impart to teachers and students will be a messy co-creation, in spite of the orderly application process the email presents.

Apply now to become a KQED Media Literacy Innovator
The education environment is changing rapidly, and you can take a leading role in supporting your colleagues. If you are an educator who is passionate about media-making, youth voice and civic engagement, click to learn more about our teacher ambassador program and how to apply.

A few years back, a close colleague and mentor of mine asked for feedback on the way she was using technology with her classes. Like me, she’d been a literacy coach for years, and her natural inclination was to ask for coaching and define the coaching interactions that she wanted, which was fine with me. What wasn’t fine with me was that she seemed to want me to structure, praise, and affirm her backward planning with out much investment in instructional change or teacher learning to accompany the students’ use of digital tools. I leaned on our friendship and pushed back. Instead of jumping right into a coaching cycle of co-planning and discussing student work, I showed her KQED’s web site. It invited students to explore and interrogate the media while they produced media at the same time it invited teachers to engage in networked learning. She argued playfully that I was refusing to coach her, and I argued playfully that the students’ learning with digital tools would be dependent on her learning with digital tools. Months later, she enthusiastically shared with me how well her free course on KQED Teach was going and said it was a good thing, too, since I’d refused to coach her.


My email from Khan Academy sits in my inbox as a reminder that while the critical thinking of ed tech theorists is vital to the evolution of learning tools and systems, that critical thinking won’t help my daughter with pre-algebra.

Just like empathy is at the heart of all great teaching, understanding your students’ experience is the foundation for confident remote teaching.That’s why Meaghan Pattani, our amazing Professional Learning Lead, is hosting a webinar tour of the student experience on Khan Academy on Thursday, April 23 at 5 PM ET / 2PM PT.

Last week, when her math teacher directed her to Khan Academy by way of Schoology, I had no concern for high minded arguments decrying the tyranny of the LMS, or explanations about how Sal Khan was one of four horsemen of the ed tech apocalypse. Nor was I concerned with what a math curriculum expert might say about the video tutorials at the bottom of the Khan Academy webpage. I only noticed that the math problem that stumped her now had a video at the bottom of the page.

Hailey’s reluctance with math is born from long experience with math in school, and the problems her teachers have been putting in Schoology all year go unfinished in class and are presented to Kelli and me after dinner, along with a disinterested shrug.

While I’m the family mathematician, Kelli helps as often as I do. She turns to Khan Academy for concept refreshers because her experiences with math in school all ended with nuns telling her to stop talking, or scolding her work ethic rather than addressing her confusion. When I’m called to help, Hailey and I transfer the problems from Schoology to our whiteboard easel before she and I take turns with dry erase markers.

Yesterday, the 11-minute Khan video reviewing slope meant less confusion for Hailey, it meant Kelli got to keep working, and it meant one less trip to the whiteboard for me. The person behind the voice on the video has my gratitude in these moments. As it turns out, ed tech theorists and math curriculum designers don’t help do dishes or walk dogs, either.

Not that Golden Gate

The Golden Gate Canyon State Park Visitor’s center parking lot overflowed with would be hikers coming to see the fall leaves before they’d all fallen, and the state park rangers complained over their radios about the crush of people parking where there was no parking and generally overwhelming accommodations at facilities and trailheads. A young boy bought fish food pellets from a vending machine in the hopes of luring fat trout out of hiding in the dark of reaches of a pond.

A short drive from the Visitor’s center, the Old Barn Knoll trailhead offered up a much coveted parking spot almost too easily, and I padded my way up Mule Deer trail which rose in a steady climb that gave me a view of Mountain Base Road and the valley below.

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An hour’s hike to the top of a broad shoulder of Tremont Mountain was all I had time for. When I reached the false summit, I poked around for a few minutes in search of a quiet seat with a good view. The aspen grove I found was carpeted with golden leaves, which half the trees had shed completely while the other half held gold in their boughs. The coldest noontime breeze of the year promised that the remaining leaves would not hold on long.

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I’d driven way longer than I’d planned to find a hiking spot so I’d been keeping an eye on the time as I hiked. Though I ori Continue reading “Not that Golden Gate”

Las Meninas of Picasso as a model of revision

The website for the Museu Picasso in Barcelona doesn’t load in my school, probably because it is a European website. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be too worrisome for me as I’m generally unconcerned with the work of Pablo Picasso in the planning and teaching of 11th grade English but a teaching idea Yemi Stembridge began to hatch as he stood in the museum studying masterpieces this last summer has me clicking back and forth between Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas and the abstract remixes of that masterpiece created by Picasso.

Stembridge stood in front of Picasso’s work and had epiphanies about how his own public schooling in New York left him with few memories of art class, and how the high cost of visiting a museum in America creates an experience gap for American students with limited means.

Las Meninas
Screenshot from Stembridge’s Tweet from July 15, 2018

Though we hadn’t made the trip to Spain, art teacher Alison Manciu and I wanted to tinker with this teaching idea because the series of works Picasso created based on Las Meninas by Velazquez suggested instructional ideas to us. Manciu imagined ways to help her students understand perspective and abstraction in her drawing class, and I thought the paintings could offer a new tact for presenting the revision process to high school writers.  For me, it is important to give writers a view of writing  in the real world, where adults who write professionally struggle with first drafts, and they embrace creative, personal processes to help them produce writing that has meaning and serves a personal purpose. In the hustle of English assignments and unit planning that sometimes shoehorns writing into grading windows and reading response tasks,  I can inadvertently give them the message that hurried revision of a written piece that amounts to polishing for a teacher audience is all there is.

The quote below begins to explain how my revision unit might gain inspiration from the art.

The series is made up of 58 works: 45 interpretations of the work Las Meninas by Velázquez (isolated figures, heads, groups of characters and interpretations of the whole), the 9 paintings of The pigeons (works about the dovecote and the views that he had from the studio of La Californie in Cannes where he painted the whole series), three landscapes and the portrait of Jacqueline. At the museum we also have the preparatory sketch that was subsequently donated to the museum and that doesn’t form part of the series itself, but it is fundamental for understanding it.

My planning and teaching will be inspired by great art, as well as what I learn in a bustling art classroom.  I’m observing for a week or two to see how Picasso’s Las Meninas pieces inform her teaching of abstraction and perspective. I’ll adapt some drawing lessons from the mini-unit on perspective and abstraction to launch my revision mini-unit. Also I’ll take photos, capture videos, and record conversation with students as they create art under the influence of Picasso’s abstractions. The media I gather will help me illustrate creative possibilities for the revision process.

Issues with research questionnaires

My interest in the Cynefin Framework grew out of my work as an instructional coach first, where I recognized the complexity of teaching reading and writing to diverse learners in classroom settings; and district technology coordinator second, where I saw the complexity of integrating educational technology in different school settings. It wasn’t until I worked at Rangeview High School in APS when Snowden’s criticism of surveys made sense to me. Our school principal, Ron Fay, would discuss with me the futility of trying to interpret results from the state of Colorado’s lengthy statistical Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey (TLCC).

When Snowden, in the clip above excerpted from his address, “How leaders change culture through small actions,” for Academi Wales, the public center in Wales for leadership and management excellence, picks apart all of the possible angles to answering one of IBM’s survey questions, I hear my principal’s frustration with the questions his teachers are asked to answer on the TLCC to assess the climate and culture of Rangeview High.

Snowden responds to the question, “Does your manager consult with you on a regular basis?” by pointing out the complex reality of the job he held at IBM.

“I’ve got several managers. Sometimes they consult me, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they should, sometimes they shouldn’t,” he says.

Similarly, teachers in Colorado are asked whether they agree with the statement, “Teachers are provided with informal feedback to improve their instruction.”

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Screenshot snapped in the 17-18 TLCC results for Rangeview High School.

At my school, this feedback might come from students, other teachers, instructional coaches, district support people, or administrators. While teachers are likely to assume the question is about administrative feedback, teachers work with administrators in a variety of settings and dialogue with them in ways that lead to feedback about their instruction. As with the question asked about IBM management, the reality of the school system renders the data generated by the question ambiguous if not meaningless. To make sense of why 65% of respondents answered positively to this question at my school, leaders first have to determine how teachers interpreted a vague question. When you consider that the survey has roughly 140 questions, many of which are similarly ambiguous, you realize that the data collected to measure teaching and learning conditions, far from being actionable, is just the beginning of a fact-finding mission for school leaders who want to develop actions steps to improve culture.

Dos and donts TELL

It is telling that along with the data, the state provides schools with multiple pages of do’s and don’ts so they won’t be tempted to treat this data as informative or actionable. My favorite cautions are pictured below.

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This screenshot comes from the article, “How to Read Your Report,” which appears on the Teaching and Learning Conditions section of the Colorado Department of Education’s website.

 

I’ve circled the “Do” statement that encourages school leaders to have conversations about the statistics the survey generates in order to develop action steps, as well as the “Don’t” statement that says that the data isn’t really meant to be used at the school level. It is clear that this data system isn’t designed to be actionable or have meaning that can be readily determined by stakeholders. Instead, it is a survey designed by data scientists which is best used for system wide analysis by those experts.

In my experience, this type of data is presented to classroom teachers and school leaders in contexts where they are likely to misinterpret the statistics within.

The benefit of gathering stories is that our skill at making meaning from them is developed over a lifetime of trading in stories. The data we collect using Cognitive Edge’s Sensemaker software generates statistics that add depth to stories rather than statistics in need of stories.

Story collections as culture data

In his address, “How leaders change culture through small actions,” for Academi Wales, the public center in Wales for leadership and management excellence, Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge describes how he gathers narrative data from patients and nurses in hospitals to develop what he calls a human sensor network. He refers to two sets of stories that emerge as The Patient’s Journey and The Nurse’s Journey.

I’ve excerpted the clip from his talk above because it might help school leaders who are beginning to gather stories envision potential collections that could emerge at their schools to promote deeper understanding of different stakeholders’ experiences. In the 2017-18 school year, I began to pilot Cognitive Edge’s Sensemaker software at Rangeview High School, where I collected a few hundred stories from students and teachers using the Culture SCAN survey. Since I was piloting the work, I would inevitably focus on how to introduce the survey to different groups of respondents, which involved thinking through how I would support them as they coded their stories using triangles and a sliding digital ball (pictured below).

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After writing and giving the story a title, a respondent interprets the story by moving a ball inside a triangle to illustrate qualities evident in their story.

A few times in the 2017-18 school year I had a chance to put stories together in collections to share them with colleagues and students. To do so, I would read through the data and look for multiple stories about the same general topics, then curate small collections that included an even balance of both negative and positive experiences. My cleanest examples were two sets of stories about broad categories: student conduct and school leadership. With these small collections in hand, I facilitated the next part of the process, which was to put the stories back in front of teachers, students, deans, and school leaders. As they read, I asked them (while pointing at the stories coded as positive by respondents), “How do we get more like this? And, (pointing at the negative stories),  as determined by respondents), “How do we get fewer like this?” On each occasion, because I was piloting a process, I was probably more attuned to how I was facilitating than I was to how people were responding. Still, despite being a little self-conscious about introducing this novel process, I was able to gauge how all of the different groups became engrossed in reading the stories I presented to them. Just as engrossing as reading the stories were the conversations about how we could create conditions that would lead to more positive and fewer negative stories at our school.

Hearing Snowden talk about the work he’s done in hospital systems, I’m struck by his use of the word “empowerment.” I think the engagement I see when teachers read the stories written by students, and by their colleagues, is a sign that this process of collecting, curating, and redistributing stories might lead to a greater sense of empowerment across our system. Certainly, when I challenge teachers with the task of imagining a few ways they, in their current roles, might take actions that would amplify the positive and dampen the negative in their workplace, the room buzzes and they immediately have ideas they can act on.

The notion of empowerment also reminds me that an important next step in this work for me is to invite others into to process of creating story collections. To help others see the potential in this process without burying them in spreadsheets full of stories I’ve done this on my own to this point, but I think there it will empower other leaders to see a “human sensor network” in its raw .csv file-view, and in the populated triangles that the associated Sensemaker Explorer app produces. While I’ve been delivering short collections of stories in an easy to read format, I want to empower others with the abstract nature of pages and pages of stories, despite their messiness and occasional mundanity. (Among some moving stories and occasional rough ones, our budding human sensor has also revealed less powerful stories like this: “I came to work last week and there was no paper in the copy room.”)

It is my hope that by inviting others into the spreadsheets of data this work generates, and into the process of creating collections, we can think together about the collections we want to stitch together that can support a better understanding of a school. In the way Snowden puts together The Patient’s Journey and The Nurse’s Journey, I can imagine a freshman’s journey, a new teacher’s journey, or department chair’s journey. I’m anxious to see where this work will go next but my hunch is that empowerment will come from inviting others into this process and asking them what potential they see.

Governing constraints, enabling constraints

In an address to Academi Wales, the public center in Wales for leadership and management excellence, Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge speaks about constraints in systems that force people to break rules, contrasted with constraints in systems that enable people to work responsively and develop novel practices.

The clip above is excerpted from that address. He explains how nurses in hospitals have to break rules in order to provide empathetic care. The nurses’ expertise in treating patients allows them to know which rules must be broken for the patient’s sake, while their familiarity with the hospital’s system allows them to know the real, presumably minor, consequences of this rule breaking.

This kind of story – over-controlling but out-of-touch boss duped by a savvy veteran employee- is told in organizations of all shapes and sizes and might be gratifying for workers to tell, however, Snowden explains that the hospital management isn’t necessarily incompetent, or mean spirited at all, just predisposed to leading complex systems with methods that leverage ordered processes.

He goes on to explain the difference between choatic systems and complex systems, both of which fall on the left side of Snowden’s Cynefin framework. He talks about his consulting work with governments, in which he asks the question, “How can we create enabling constraints which allow locally valid solutions to emerge?”

People use stories to envision action

When groups of stakeholders review stories written by their peers, we ask them how we can get more stories like the positive ones and fewer like the negative ones. I’ve shared story collections with teams of counselors, deans, early career teachers and more veteran teachers who serve as department chairs. It is never a surprise that all are inclined to identify the ways other groups can change their practices to improve the school system. Deans naturally suggest changes for teachers the same way teachers naturally suggest changes to administrative policies and practices. When, as a facilitative move, I ask each group to focus on how their group can impact stories, it is a kind of enabling constraint. Yes, people require a few reminders to think about how their groups can impact our system, but the suggestions they come up with soften and sound more reflective when they stop suggesting changes for others and begin envisioning actions steps they might take. Pressed to identify ways they can influence the stories we collect about student conduct, deans envision ways they can communicate with teachers differently, or act as mentors to new teachers. Similarly, teachers acknowledge that they can work with colleagues to make commitments about changes, and ask clarifying questions of administrators when they arise. All of this is easier when these stakeholders know that administrators, too, are reading the same set of stories and trying to identify ways they impact our system to amplify successes and dampen failures.

By asking them to focus on their own potential impact, groups are reminded of the importance of their roles. The facilitation relies on the positive presupposition that each group can contribute to improved school culture.

Knowledge management and enabling constraints

At Rangeview High School, I asked two different groups to reflect on two different school systems: student scheduling and college admissions testing, that are complex in nature with ordered and unordered properties. In informal conversations during which I took notes, I asked project leaders what went well and what needed to improve. With the counseling team, I asked them to review their own reflections about the arena scheduling process in order to determine how they might build on what was a successful first year with a student-centered approach to schedule building. With two stakeholders deeply involved in the school’s administration of the SAT, a large endeavor that intersects with all aspects of school leadership, they identified potential experiments from their own reflections on the past year’s work.

In both cases, the experts’ analysis can be presented back to them visualized across the domains of the Cynefin Framework. A dynamic aspect of knowledge management going forward using this approach is the way we can represent the complexity of these systems to involve more stakeholders, or to support the learning of newcomers to our school. Data that initially fit in a two column chart to identify what went well and what needed improvement, now better visualizes the complexity of the two projects. The local experts in the school help to identify which aspects of these projects are unordered. Instead of trying to bring order to them, we engage in inquiry using safe-to-fail experiments.

Now that both groups have thought critically about each project, it seems appropriate for school leaders to also engage in this process. Their vantage points in the system are surely different and they may see opportunity to experiment where a counselor or testing coordinator hasn’t. The Cynefin Framework school administrators build will be different based on those vantage points.

Snowden’s address challenges leaders to look at unordered aspects of their systems as potential experiments. How can we help stakeholders create enabling constraints that bring coherence to experiments while aligning organizational work to larger vision of supporting all students to navigating a path to fulfilling post-secondary work and learning?

Coyote Country

coyote signThere are trails all around my neighborhood here in the the southeast corner of Denver, the Highline Canal Trail and the Cherry Creek Trail, and along them there are all kinds of signs about the dangers of coyotes. When my oldest daughter was young she’d ask us to read each one whenever we passed one of these signs on a walk. As we explained to her why there were so many cautions posted, a look of worry crept across her face as she sat in her stroller. We tried not to stoke her fear but the facts we provided under questioning clearly caused coyotes to grow bigger and scarier in her imagination. Each time we read a sign she’d say, “We gotta watch out for ky-woe-tees!”

She’d ask about coyotes at bedtime. We would answer her questions patiently while reassuring her that the coyotes didn’t pose any threat to children in their beds. “They hunt rabbits and mice, Baby,” we’d say.

“That’s not what the signs say,” her expression said.

One day Hailey and I took a walk during a tranquil snowstorm and saw a coyote tramping through new snow at the bottom of the Highline Canal. We saw her from our perch on a bridge over the canal so we had something of an arial view of her thick winter coat, a mosaic of greys, browns and white. While she stared back at us. I whispered, “THERE’s a coyote.” Staring at the wild animal, Hailey was frozen in awe. It trotted a dozen yards or so before it looked back again, watching us watch her go. Her paws left a perfect track of prints at the bottom of the canal.

The rest of that walk we had a different kind of talk about coyotes. In the wake of such a peaceful sighting, Hailey needed to understand what that coyote was doing. We talked about how she had a den, probably in the canal, and how she hunted for rabbits, which are everywhere here. My daughter asked a blizzard of questions the way only a child under the age of 8 can while under the trance of a beautiful wild animal.

Years later, Hailey is almost a teenager and too cool to be awed by much of anything. Occasionally, when the subject of wild animals comes up, she’ll ask from the back seat if I remember the time we saw that coyote in the snow. We always share our recollection of that encounter and we exchange new memories of the moment. “Isn’t it strange,” I ask, “how it can sometimes feel so warm in a snowstorm, when there is no wind, just the slow descent of flakes all around?”

The coyote might be my spirit animal in that I, too, stalk the trails around here. Usually when I’m traipsing along them, I’m just hunting a little exercise and the peace of mind I can find along the creek. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for years now.  Whenever I bring up the subject of moving to a different part of town, my whole family erupts in revolt at the idea, which means these trails will be my territory for years to come. My own den, familiar and safe, will stay where it is not far from where the local coyotes bed. From time to time when I’m on a walk alone I’ll spot a solitary coyote, camouflaged and alert. They’re so beautiful, these subjects of nightmares and years of curiosity.