Monday, May 2, 2016

Old School Discernment in the Digital Age

I get asked a lot about decision making in my job.  As an assistant principal, I can go from hiring to student conduct to event set up to state reports in a matter of 10 minutes.  While I am in no ways a perfect decision-maker, I have learned a few things over the years and most recently in Ignatian Leadership Seminars.  This post is built off a webinar I recent gave via the ISTE Connects Professional Learning Series (ISTE members can find the free webinar here – sorry about the pay wall folks). 

Old school discernment holds up quite well in the digital age.  While we may be making decisions about 1:1 programs, 3D printing, virtual reality or interactive screens, the process of decision-making via discernment holds.  As a Jesuit educator, discernment for me comes out of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. The elements of Ignatian Discernment are:
  • A choice between two or more “goods” - discernment requires smart options 
  • The process is dynamic - discernment requires freedom of action and reflection
  • Feelings matter – trust those feelings of excitement, fear, calm, anxiety
So what does this look like in a 21st century example?  In 2009, the technology team at Brebeuf Jesuit began to discern what a 1:1 program at the school would look like.  Feel free to peruse old posts on this blog as to the details – but in a nutshell:

  • No matter what was chosen (Bring Your Own Technology, single-platform, continuation of carts) the priority was the student learning experience.  The choices could all work – and indeed had in many schools.
  • The discernment process ended up taking 2 years.  The time was filled with conversation, surveys, workshops and pilot programs.  At times, one option would outweigh another and the school created “what if we….” trials to see the real life experience of a choice.  Reflection allowed us to choose what was best for our students.
  • Oh the feelings – anxiety, resistance, enthusiasm, excitement were all handled respectfully.  The whys behind the feelings were considered. Many a digital aged initiative has failed because administration did not respect or address the feelings of those affected by the change.
So big picture discernment is about the choice between good choices, accepting a dynamic experience and attention to feelings.  What does the process look like in the details of digital age decision making? 

For me, the process looks something like this:

Phase One – Setting the Context
  • Identify the need to be addressed as concretely as possible
  • Gather all necessary information – data, interviews, sample products  
At this point, the team has a stated decision based on a need for change, choices between goods and is ready to move into an experiential phase. The catch here is detachment.  Change-makers must remain open to options and remain flexible at this phase.  Attaching oneself to any single choice will derail the process.

Phase Two – Experience
  • Evaluate advantages and disadvantages of choices – this may involve pilot programs, test groups, visiting another school. 
  • Test reasoning with self and others - now is the time to play with alternatives.  “What if we….”  “What would our school look like if….?”  If you have a school board or colleagues in the field, ask them to review your plan.
Again, remaining detached is key.  At this point, you may see “camps” in your decision-making team.  People start to become attached to a side and may stop listening.  The team leader should feel comfortable reminding the group to remain detached.

Phase Three – Deciding to Decide
  • Make a tentative decisions – For thee record not making a decision at this time is in fact a decision.  Maybe the context and experience phases have shown it’s not a good time to change.  That is an acceptable decision.  Some tentative decisions are easy – the best choice has made itself clear along the way.  Sometimes the tentative decision is fraught with anxiety.  Listen to that anxiety.
  • Live with the tentative decision for a set period of time.  This is the infamous “let’s sleep on it” stage.  What feeling arise in the decision?  If anxiety – why?  Are the reasons a deal breaker or feelings that can be lived with?  If excitement – why?  How does the team transfer that excitement to a larger group?
  • Finally, confirm the decision even if the team is not 100% on board.  Consensus is tricky business, but if the discernment process has been given time, consideration and detachment the group is ready to move.
Thankfully, good decisions show some signs along the way.  A good decision leads to movement.  When the team starts easily talking about next steps and the fun of the process, you are on the right track.  A sometimes difficult criterion in strong hierarchical groups is discernment made in freedom.  Good decisions happen outside of mandates, fear or reactive situations.  A good decision involves all affected by change.  All voices feel heard along the way, even if the decision was not made in their favor.  Finally, a good decision spirals a school to deeper knowledge.

For Brebeuf Jesuit, our 1:1 BYOT decision quickly engaged faculty and students in the possibilities it opened up.  Because 1:1 grew out of student and classroom needs, the ownership was in the hands of the learners, those who would use the technology day after day.  And over the years, this one decision has guided us in curriculum review, classroom redesign and new teaching practices.  We’ve learned a lot!  And grew as a learning community.

This is a rather long post so thanks for sticking with me!  More posts to come as I continue to gather ideas on pitfalls to avoid and conversation starters.  As always, comments welcome below!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Cura Personlis in Unexpected Places

It’s state reporting season in Indiana these days.  As a private school offering the Indiana State diploma and accepting voucher funding, we are responsible to collect, format and report various data points regarding students, faculty and course offerings.  I have written before of my feelings about big data… my feelings haven’t changed.  The lesson in frustration of state data reports is still strongly in favor of “data is only as good as the human inputting it” … but this week, I have to admit, something rather remarkable occurred.

You all can read ad nauseam about the woes of the ISTEP exams in Indiana.  Last week, I was working on the TL report (or Testing Label report for those of you not in the know).  Data requested includes students with testing accommodations/special needs.  None of this is particularly interesting… but the data collection method turned a corner of cura personalis I did not expect or anticipate.  I called a meeting of Academic Counselors and Learning Center Faculty to fill out the spreadsheet.  We ended up talking about each individual student needing accommodations, updating one another with recent evaluations, checking in on student who may need additional care and generally enjoying one another as professional educators.  This process took all of 25 minutes – but the outcome was way beyond another spreadsheet. The conversation, dare I say colloquy, created in the group a companionship for the benefit of the young people in our care.  The conversation created a companionship for students as individuals, in light of care and consideration for their lived potential. 

In 2007, Fr. General Kolvenbach gave a speech on cura personalis (care of the person) where he calls the listener to “that which leads us ‘more’ to the end for which we are created”.   If as educators, we truly answer the call to develop men and women for and with others, shouldn’t we too find those moments for others in our daily roles in the trenches?  Times where we are surprisingly present for another – even in state data reporting.  The awe and wonder for once directed at moments of connection and not the spreadsheet on the screen.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Information Commons: Our Mess is DONE (sort of...)

It’s been a busy time of remodeling, curriculum development and faculty formation!  And in all the kerfuffle of life, I never got around to following up on our Mess and Progress in creating our Information Commons.  So here goes…  

As of Friday, November 6th, the last piece of lighting was installed and the Information Commons is officially complete.  Students, faculty, alumni and families have been enjoying the space since we opened in late August.  Rather than bore you readers with the details of incomplete cabinetry, back-ordered furniture and misspelled wall art… I thought I would frame this post in light of the happy surprises this project has created.

Zoning works!  We planned our space in light of retail design theory which calls for loud spaces up front with spaces becoming quieter and more personal as the user moves deeper into the space.  So our collaborative tables are near the door, small group tables are nestled within the shelving and personal seating is furthest back near the windows.  Adult presence is most dense in the front of the space – IT Helpdesk and 360 degree reference desk included.  Our surprise lies in the student understanding of zoning.  Our librarians were very intentional in explaining (during class visits, opening tours and continued supervision) the rationale for the zones, purposes and expectations.  Students immediate react with “Oh, that makes sense!” and use the zones appropriately.  Now our physical space reflects our academic learning objective that “students will assess their learning need – evaluate resources available – use the resources appropriately”. 

Sound proof glass to create the quiet study room works!  We chose to glass off the quietest section of the Information Commons.  This created a physical and mental transition from the chattier areas of the space.  Our surveys indicated 48% of the students still required a classic, quiet study space.  The happy surprise has been that students completely own this space.  No adult has yet to need to monitor the space… the students monitor and respect the purpose.  Personal ownership is key to our success. 

Students like to create their own spaces… and will move furniture around appropriately to create great spaces.  We put almost every piece of furniture on wheels.  As students live in the space, we all recognize what works and what doesn’t.  Students have great ideas on how to better create THEIR learning environment.  Having flexible furniture allows for the space to grow, meeting student needs.

Existing features are highlighted.  I can’t tell you how many times people ask me when we put in the skylights.  I have to answer “Ummmm 1986."  The windows and skylights have been in the space for over 30 years… yet prior physical layout, dark paint and walls obscured these features.  By opening the space and brightening the paint and carpet the existing features really pop.  As we enter the dark days of winter, the Information Commons is now the most popular space in the building in part because of its wonderful lighting.

So 2015 has been a great experience in terms of space… and the next step is really looking at the work flow.  Part of our Ignatian process is to reflect on experience.  We have experienced the Information Commons as a physical space for three months.  Now it is time to reflect on how we use the space, how work flow is impacted and how instruction can be modified.  In some ways, a new mess for new progress.  I am looking at Work Flow Analysis research and structures to help facilitate conversation and reflection.   I'll keep you all posted...

Oh - and recently JD and I presented at the Treasure Mountain Research Retreat at The Ohio State University. We talked a lot about allowing for student voice in design. If you are interested in seeing those slides just follow the hyperlink.

 Presentation Link

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Mission and the Message

I have had the privilege of traveling to several educational conferences the past 3 weeks.  I am working through several observations rattling around in my brain so I figured it was time to start blogging again.

In listening to educators in a variety of settings this summer, I continue to be surprised by the anger I encounter.  Anger particularly aimed at 1:1 technology programs, but occasionally aimed at other initiatives such as curriculum review and evaluation systems.  Admittedly, I am not strong on the feelings… but the intensity of the emotional reaction of some surprised me.  These were educators of all age levels, public – private schools, K-20… I tried to move past the “WTH response” and really listen.  What I heard….

Anger happens when Mission is lost in the Message…

I was in a session on, of all things, Ignatian Burnout (when one of your foundational prayers reads “to fight and not to head the wounds… to toil and not to seek for rest”– burnout takes on a whole new level) when the conversation once again turned to technology in the classroom.  A teacher passionately argued that students were being harmed by technology.  Others jumped in (including me) and the emotions started to run a little high… the teacher arguing harm left the room, clearly frustrated.  I caught up with him later in the conference (because I am a 9 on the Enneagram and must peace-make).  Turns out, it’s not technology that is the problem.   I finally heard his real concern – that by relying so heavily on messaging the school’s 1:1 program the foundational message of Ignatian Mission was (in his opinion) being silenced. 

This is a real issue.  How we talk about our schools can act to define the reality of the school.  Communication scholars refer to this as socially constructed reality through communication.  As I have written before, ultimately the symbolic meanings placed on spaces, texts or mission is in the mind of those receiving the message.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that …

In cases where mission and identity is seemingly overshadowed by contradictory messages, feelings of hurt, anger and confusion can arise.  In the story above, as the only words being offered to socially construct the meaning of “school” were technology, 1:1, iPads… the teacher felt the entire focus of the school was shifting from the 450 year old tradition of Ignatian education.  The teacher felt threatened which led to a feeling of isolation which led to anger and eventually a relationship out of balance.

Being in “right relationship” is charism applicable to all settings.  In schools, we often hear of failures of relationship – particularly between faculty and administration (transparency anyone?).  Related to mission and the message, this is a two-fold issue.  One is an issue of leadership.  A significant danger of leadership is losing site of the message.  Who we are as articulated by mission and core values is critical.  When this message is diluted by a series of initiative jargon (IB, 1:1, STEM, PBL, Inquiry Learning, Merit Pay) we run the danger of creating harm in our learning communities.  The second is an issue of listening with good will.  When we stop active listening to each other (which includes questioning) then words become weapons.   I was surprised when the teacher told me I was the first administrator to “really listen” to his concerns.  Mind you, we had a 15 minute conversation during a coffee break – hardly an in-depth heart-to-heart.  At the same time, the teacher admitted this was the first instance of him really listening to an administrator.   Listening with good will is a powerful experience.

There are a many initiatives in our schools, large and small.  Forward movement requires a certain level of restlessness… and there is nothing bad about a little imbalance.  However, we must keep in mind our mission as we craft our message.  Words can hurt.  Words can also define, excite and motivate.  Remember the mission – the core values of your school – and frame growth in terms of that mission.   How we talk about our schools constructs the reality of the day to day experience – and our schools are only stronger with strong foundations.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Birds of a Feather Presentation...ISTE 2015

Thought to share the presentation for this afternoon.  Looking forward to conversation...what happens after 1:1?  Trust me, the fun is just beginning.

I am fascinated by narrow views of technology in education and would like to pull back our lens to the broader visioning school leaders should be practicing in the 21st century.  Ole Jensen (Discourse Analysis and Sociospatial Transformation Processes. School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape) argues any planning process as a consideration of the “relationship between the material practices and the symbolic meaning that social agents attach to their spatial environments…” For me, this means that the tension between material practices (the day to day doings of a school) and the symbolism we attach (the sacred cows) effects how we arrange our environments.  Unfortunately, most 1:1 planning and implementation only looks at the technology infrastructure.  What about all the other material and symbolic meanings of “school”.  I’d like to discuss how considering the Physical, Virtual and Cultural elements of our schools how this broader lens might make 1:1 implementations more valuable for all learners.

The catch in bringing K-12 education into the 21st century can partially be attributed to how many of us still attach our own experiences to “school” – sitting in rows, teacher at the front handing out content, students sitting passively.  But do we adults let our own symbolism influence how the space functions for a young visitor?  Do we realty embrace innovations that allow us to move beyond our four walls?  Will we be ready for the changes 1:1 will bring to school culture and what might those be?

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Teacher Resource Center (aka TRC)... Every School Should Have One

I was reminded this morning by the fabulous Nancy Caramanico that we talk a lot about our Teacher Resource Center (TRC) but have never really explained what it is and why it was created.  Well... nothing like a request :-)

I wish I could say that the idea of a playground for faculty (what we would call a MakerSpace in 2014) was all well thought out and planned.  But it wasn't.  The space was original made to house a special collection library from the Liberty Fund and function as a reading room for adults.  Admittedly, JD and I saw a bit broader application to the space - and we acted on it as soon as possible.  Of course, the Liberty Fund collection is still present in the room.

Panoramic shot of TRC during tech week

In keeping with our Ignatian foundation, the TRC is a space for faculty and staff to experience and reflect on practices.  This can be as formal as an after school Ignatian Themes formation class or as informal as doughnut Thursdays.  The space is across the hall from the current library and will be remodeled as part of our Information Commons.  Visitors find comfortable/flexible furniture, web meeting software, a 3D printer,
complete set-up of classroom Extron system to experience and many print/electronic/human resources.  We also have a Keurig coffee maker and snacks (usually - Social Studies is quite the group of hunter/gathers and often clean us out).  Basically, anything a teacher would want to try before going into the classroom - we have the space to play.

Beyond space is the human relationship element.  In the picture above, you'll see three doors.  The door at 3:00 is my office.  While I moved into that office as Director of Faculty Development... I stayed when my responsibilities broadened out to Assistant Principal.  Why?  I like being close to the action of information services... I have more casual conversations about curriculum, technology integration and the values of DC over Marvel comics than I would if I had moved to the administrative suite.  For me, the relationships fostered by my location, and the ability to sit and have a cup of coffee with a colleague, trump anything else.

The door at 1:00 goes to the hall and the library.  The proximity to the library, and future integration into the Information Commons, highlights our resolve that learning, research and reflection is not just for students.  Students see adults engaged in new experiences, collaborating or working quietly... great modeling!

The door at 9:00 leads to IT offices.  Of course - you want to be close to the troubleshooters!   And yes, that is JD's mess about 7:30.  As I said in previous post, you have to make a mess to make progress and JD is the living image.


Our 1:1 BYOT program was thought up, piloted, reflected on and implemented in the TRC.  From everything to chalk-talks to Tech Petting Zoos to department Boot Camps... we did it all in the TRC.  I strongly suggest anyone even considering a 1:1 or major technology or curricular shift create a TRC - a safe space for conversation and trial experiences.

What I did not anticipate is the organic conversations and connections made in the space.  Teachers meet in the TRC as grade level teams because the furniture allows for easy collaboration.  Cross-curricular discussions start up daily over the coffee maker.  Even students have been invited in to teach adults
how 3D printing can be used in the classroom (this will change with renovations as students will have their own MakerSpace in the Information Commons).  The space is used beyond any one technology initiative... discussion of curriculum, policy, evaluation process and assessments, architectural design, summer camps, athletics ... it all takes place in the TRC!

Key Elements

  • Flexible furniture!  You'll want to re-arrange space for large/small, formal/informal groups as well as individual work spaces.
  • The room cannot be on the meeting room schedule. We protect the space for organic experiences by keeping it off the Outlook room schedule.  
  • Everything in the classroom is present and available for faculty to try.  The TRC was a safe place this summer as we trained, practiced and reflected on the new Extron system installed in all classrooms.  This ensured on Day 1 that faculty were ready to go.
  • Don't forget print resources... some folks still like to curl up with a print book on curriculum design or classroom management and that's okay.  We cater to all users.
  • Quick access to people who can help.  In our case, the proximity to IT, Librarians and Administrators has made for quick actions to identified challenges (small and large).
  • And coffee really does help...

In the new space, the TRC will be a little smaller.  It's okay...really.  Through experience we have learned that the room is best used for small groups or 1 on 1 troubleshooting/brainstorming.  An intimate space for personalized support.  All the doors and offices stay put so the human side will not change.  Plus we'll have a great new space outside the door for collaboration with others!  

So that's the TRC in a nutshell, Nancy :-)  Glad you asked!!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

So How's the Mess and Progress?

The summer of 2014 began our three year renovation project, the product of our successful capitol campaign “Leading the Way”.  Our 1960’s cinder-block rectangle was over-due for a make-over of academic spaces.  Photos and reflections of the 2014 summer mess are posted on the previous blog post “You Gotta Make a Mess to Make Progress”.  The summer of 2015 will see complete renovations to the Library, Computer Science and IT creating an Information Commons.  Full renovations will finalize in 2016.  We are making a tremendous mess to make progress.

Many schools contact us to ask how we go about such large scale change with seemingly little drama.  The answer is always the same, pay attention to context.  In the case of the classrooms, we went to teachers and asked:  What do you need for teaching and learning today? Tomorrow? In 5 years?  AND we went to students and asked the same questions.  Our community is full of bright, innovative minds and the information we gathered directed our decision-making.  I cannot say this enough – by taking the needs of the community as the framework for change… the only way to move is forward.

So what do the rooms look like?  Flexibility is key.  The furniture moves, multi-screen displays eliminate blind spots and ceiling mounted audio enhancement systems ensure all senses are covered.  We are an X:1 BYOT school (all students bring a device for learning of their choice… most bring 2-3).  We use a Barco Clickshare system to share screens of personal devices.  A Lumens Ladibug document camera ensures 3D objects can also be shares, photographed or video captured.  Each room as its own access point (cinder block walls are a…. well you know).  A wall mounted Extron system ensures inputs are functional and not available gremlins to play with the wiring (ask your Tech Director about wiring gremlins if you are not familiar with the species).

New Floor Plan 
The Information Commons is our next large scale academic space to address.  In conversations with students and faculty we identified similar needs as the classroom… flexibility; collaborative and independent spaces; teaching and research tools for formal and informal experiences; and a comfortable place to sit in silence.  Like the classroom, the material practices of “library” still need to happen (material circulation teaching, computer use) but the core change in symbolic meaning really drives the renovations… collaborative learning.  So we’re opening up the space, adding small group study rooms, a maker-space, and open concept reference desk to facilitate information instruction and lots of different kinds of furniture.  Should be exciting.

Artist Drawing of Open Concept Reference Desk and Collaborative Spaces

Changes to the physical spaces dramatically change what happens in those spaces.  Instead of quiet rows of passive students, we experience much more dynamic learning experiences.  Wander our halls and you will see a lot of movement, hear noisy discussions and witness students and faculty experiencing academic content in rich, affective ways. As an evaluating administrator, I have the joy of spending my days in our classrooms.  I have observed backchannel discussion on one screen while a movie plays on another.  I have observed increased use of Harkness Table discussions.  Students easily work in dialogue pairs and then shift back share-out with larger class.  Students share their own multimedia creations from their devices in the classroom.  Our librarians are already moving from traditional structures with their new Embedded Librarian program, lessening of restrictions on noise and they even gave up an office space to give students a collaborative, private room.  Brebeuf is engaged.

We'll keep posting as the dust flies.