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.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

You Gotta Make a Mess to Make Progress

Time for a remodeling update!!  For those new readers, we are remodeling 15 classrooms, our Multi-Purpose Room (performance and gathering space), Art Department and several academic centers.  In a classic portrayal of "you gotta make a mess to make progress"... we've definitely been making a mess!

Main Hallway

Classrooms were taken down to studs and cement.  New electrical wiring, new HDMI and ethernet, new HVAC, new ceiling grid, tiles, flooring are installed or about to be installed.  Materials are staged in the hallway for installation.  Projectors, screens, TV's and desktops will be moved with furniture in later weeks.

We are reaching the precarious stage where it looks like we are behind schedule.  We aren't... but appearances belie realities.  It's a time of frustration with the mess, weariness with the random power outages/alarms and panic that the Fall Semester is rapidly approaching and the chairs haven't been delivered.
As with all disruption... the propensity for "what if..." could out pace the vision.  Here is where faith lives.

I've written before on the symbolic and material meanings of physical space. Classrooms hold symbolic value (right or wrong) in American culture as the entry point of equality.  Education is the vehicle to success and prosperity... the classroom is portrayed as the idyllic innocence of childhood and the path to success.  And yet, just like libraries, classrooms have material functions to provide... testing, discussion, writing, lecture, viewing, reading... all those activities that are a part of "education".  I have to wonder:

  • Can learning happen without chairs? 
  • Can success occur if the paint isn't dry?  
  • Can discussion happen without a projector? 

 I would argue YES to all the above.  Physical space can influence, inspire and enhance... but ultimately relationship, human relationship, is what binds us and facilitates growth.

But this is a post about renovating classroom space!  So... living within individual symbolic and material context, our old excuses to validate stasis are becoming obsolete. Furniture doesn't have to stay in neat rows to symbolize orderly teaching.  Students can project and share from personal devices - sharing their findings from their personal location.  This shifts the material practice to student-centered activities and away from teacher-centered lecture.  Suddenly we find ourselves with limitless possibility... on the cutting edge (if not bleeding edge) of educational practice to support student learning.  Exciting and daunting at the same time because our symbolic and material expectations of school are intentionally unsteady.

It's a little messy around here.  This amount of physical disruption is going to cause some dissonance.  The work of redefining the symbolic and material understanding of the classroom is a time for relationship -  listening, dialogue and patience... and maybe some Windex and ibuprofen.  Classes begin here August 12th... Prayers are welcome.  Visitors are welcome in October or so when the paint is dry.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hello Blog... It's Been a While

Permit me a moment of reflection... and to just start writing again.  I’ve been learning how to be an Assistant Principal these past few months.  While I do not pretend that I know it all, I’d say I am at a healthy 38% “got a handle on this thing”!  I am coming up for air and thought it was time to jot down some reflections.

Looking through my Leadership Seminars journal (shameless JSEA pandering) over the past months, a couple of themes recur as I make the transition from ed tech to whole school context:

  • Ghastly Emotional Scenes (GES) happen.  The trick is not to get caught up in the drama.  
  • Be careful of the Eye of Mordor Syndrome.  Running one’s cursory glance over the land to settle with razor focus on one unsuspecting soul.  Not fair to anyone to have an overwhelmed administrator suddenly focus and get in the way.  Trust and relationship builds success.
  • At the same time, don’t isolate yourself.  Trust and relationship builds success.
  • Accept tension.  Tension is not bad.  Tension reminds us that students, teachers, curriculum, wellness are not an “All or Nothing” to be fixed, solved or fired.  
  • It does not all have to happen today.  
  • Be yourself – I am still an introvert.  I am still pastoral in my leadership style. @JDferries still annoys me from 3 feet away….

In her book “Seven Sacred Pauses”  author Macrina Wiederkehr writes  for morning prayer, “…May I live with the kind of presence that enables others to feel at home.”   In the daily rush and muck of administrative life this has been my prayer most mornings (outside of frantic Help Me! intercessions to varied saints). 
After that – the rest falls into place.

Happy June to All!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Virtual Learning Days and the Winter of '14

 On a cold day in mid-February, The Indiana Department of Education opened applications for their Distance Virtual Learning program.  The application qualifies schools to request Virtual Learning Days to cover closures due to inclement weather.  On February 26, I received the official word that Brebeuf Jesuit was approved for the IDOE Inclement Weather Virtual Learning Option.  In plain words – if we had to close due to snow we could officially take school online and it would count for our mandated 180 days.

In my ideal world, we were going to have at least 9 - 10 months of dialogue, reflection and pilot lessons with the idea of hosting a Virtual Learning Day.  I am most comfortable working in collaborative process which takes a little time.  For better or worse, Mother Nature appeared to have great confidence that we did not need that much time…. Weather predictions for a major snow event began even as I read our approval email.


Brebeuf Jesuit is well positioned to hit the ground on a Virtual Learning Day.  Our faculty have been 1:1 with tablet based PC’s since 2006.  We've been cloud-based with an LMS since the same time.  Two years ago we went 1:1 across the whole learning community with our Bring Your Own Technology initiative (see any previous post).  We are a Google Apps for Education school.  Teachers and students are very comfortable in cloud-based environments. And as you might have read in my previous post, we had experimented most of this brutal winter with keeping the learning moving forward in virtual environments.

But a five day turn around was going to put us to the test on how flexible we really are.  So what happened?  

 Experience – A Timeline 

Wednesday, Feb 26th….
Receive notice from IDOE that we are approved for Virtual Learning Days. 

I sent out message to faculty and staff announcing our participation in the program.  In consult with Principal, we come up with an outline of expectations.  This was all done by email. 

The email read in part: 
If we would need to take an Virtual Learning Day yet this year, the IDOE is well aware of our infrastructure, access processes and teacher talents in online learning activities.   However, I will need to submit evidence of student virtual learning.  I am requesting the following:

1.       Edline as Home base
a.       Only for classes that would meet the day of Virtual Learning
b.      Announce Virtual Learning objectives by 8:30am the day of school closure via Edline News item on your class page. 
c.       Link any videos, handouts, readings, planned Twitter chats, Google Hangouts, etc. to that News announcement with clear directions of what student is responsible to complete/prepare/produce.
d.      Our future weather closure notice will include directions for parents and students to check Edline for Virtual Learning instructions.
2.       Secondary sites such as Twitter or G+ Community are fine but make sure the News item on Edline is posted first.   This will clearly articulate learning goals to students and parents AND make it easy for me to collect evidence to submit to IDOE.
3.       Be prepared to send me a sample of student work after the Virtual Learning Day.  The IDOE will request evidence of “time on task or learning growth”.   

Reflection:  Email is less than ideal… especially in this case as the winter storm was already being heavily discussed.  On reflection, my excitement to share information took over. More face to face conversation, even in the hallway was needed.

Here’s the thing though… almost immediate the brainstorming started to fly. 

Thursday February 27- Friday February 28

Utilizing YouTube video, online discussion forums, readings, flip videos, Twitter, Edmodo, Google Docs and many other resources… the 27th and 28th  I spent reading lesson plans, talking on the phone and in the hallway…faculty collaborated...ideas were thrown around...

An Ed Tech Newsletter was created to give further samples to clarify expectations. 

Saturday March 1- Sunday March 2

I watch as News items were posted on class pages in the LMS as requested….we were ready…

Monday, March 3rd

It failed to snow.

Credit: Bill Watterson 

Okay, to be fair, Indianapolis received 2.7 inches of snow.  Which is not nearly enough to cancel school.   Feeling a little let down, but grateful for a day of face to face interaction, we had a normal instructional day on Monday.  For as Kevin O'Brien, SJ writes in his article The Classroom as Holy Ground:

In Jesuit education, teaching is not just about disseminating information and teaching career skills.  In the vision of Ignatius and other religious educators, teaching is a vocation, a mission and a labor of love...That love reveals itself primarily in the relationship between teacher and student.

Still, I learned a lot over the past week about Virtual Learning Days (beside how wicked awesome the faculty and students are at Brebeuf). 

Clear expectations are key…. Whether faculty time, assignment scope or student responsibility. 
  • Consider recommended “office hours” to narrow time online expectations for teachers.  This also gives students the security that they will receive prompt attention for their questions.
  • Consider how much is enough.  The idea of a Virtual Learning Day is not to dump 12 hours of busy work in the lap of the students.  Reflect realistically on would occur during face to face class time.
  • And yes, students are responsible for the work.  You can hold them to the usual standards of assignment completion.
 Communicate to the entire community
  • We were on a time crunch – but still communicated out via our Learning Management System, weekly online newsletter, email and face to face.  Now that we have some time… we’ll be even better.
  • Ed Tech Newsletter (follow this link to entire newsletter)

 Look at other school’s sites
Has your school tried a Virtual Learning Day?  Add your reflections below in the comments... what worked?  what didn't?  The idea of the Snow Day has changed forever with the Winter of '14.  No longer are schools going to consider weather the end of learning.  But let's do it intentionally, with clear expectations, clear purpose, in right relationship ... and safe at home.