Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Power of Daydreaming

My son was in 1st grade when he came home from school full of excitement.  “MOM!  Today I learned how to dream with my eyes open!!!” To William, the ability to dream anytime/anywhere was the educational highlight of his short life.  He started middle school two weeks ago and so far – he’s still daydreaming and growing in his imagination.

Today on #CatholicEdChat, a thread began on daydreaming.  Admittedly, I overslept (is there such a thing after the first week of school??) and missed most of the thread. But it got me thinking about the power of daydreaming.  Then this happened:

Thus inspired (and renewed by 11 straight hours of sleep) the tweet encouraged me put fingers to keyboard for a quick, rainy day blog post.

St. Ignatius believed in the power of daydreaming.  He used words like imagination, reflection and contemplation.  In his development of The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius challenges the retreatant to imagine “the labors of the journey to Bethlehem, the struggles of finding a shelter, the poverty, the thirst, the hunger, the cold, the insults that meet the arrival of God-with-us.” (a great post on this topic can be found at here). He knew that daydreaming gave us time to change, grow and identify our desires.  More modern educational theorists such as Dewey, Piaget, Egan and Montessori write on cognitive and social growth in imaginative play/study/work.  Our imagination is where learning turns into understanding.  

For me as a Jesuit educator, reflection is where I take all my experiences of the day, allowing them to swirl around my understanding of the world and either fall into place or be discarded.  My daydreams are where I stop inputting new information and begin to play, reflect, mix and match the sounds, images, feelings and actions of the day.  It’s where the pieces fall together.

So why do we criticize students for daydreaming?  Why do we block windows so students will focus on learning?  Why do we cram our teaching with words and more words?  Why must every moment of the school day be scheduled and planned?  Over 20 years ago, Brebeuf Jesuit took the still radical approach of creating Personal Responsibility Time (PRTs) into the school day.  These are 15-40 minute blocks of time for students to take responsibility for their learning.  Some study, some meet with teachers, some play intramural sports, meet as a club or throw a Frisbee around... some sit and stare out the window.  And officially, the earth still spins on its axis.  Students can and should have moments all their own during the school day.

As the new school year begins, I challenge us all to offer times for daydreaming to our students.  And while you are at it, find a little time for yourself to take a breath and let your mind wander.  Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”  Words to dream by.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Competition Pitfall in Discernment vs Decision-Making

Whew!  Didn't expect two months between posts :-)  The good news is I slowed down at work, turned my phone to mute on weekends and actually took some time off this summer.  New faculty/staff orientation is next week, classes start August 11th and today is a day for blogging!

I work in a private school which accepts students from all over the Indianapolis area.  8th grade students and families have a wide array of strong options for public and private schooling in our community.  My own family traveled the path of educational choice when our eldest was an 8th grader.  It was a wild ride for my husband and I since we were raised in much smaller communities with one choice - the local public high school.  I recognize the arguments for choice in education - but choice does add a sense of competition among our schools.  For me, competition is a pitfall of discernment.  It interrupts the process discussed in my previous post and places barriers to the open exploration of ideas.

Discernment vs Decision-Making

In a brief, over-simplistic nutshell, decision making occurs when context understanding and reflection is over-looked.  Decision-making happens quickly.  Discernment takes time.  Decision-making is often from above, by those with little to no relationship with the people affected.  Discernment is relational - it takes place in dialogue with those affected.  Decision-making occurs without reflection (I personally use the term prayer but am using reflection for the secular audience).  Discernment occurs in time spent in reflection, reviewing feelings toward options and sitting with feelings of a choice made.  Decision-makings assumes a good choice and a bad choice.  Discernment assumes all choices are good but one may better lead to growth. And ultimately discernment is about growth toward a deeper relationship with God/Truth/Students. Discernment is about fulfillment. Competition leads to decision-making.  Collaboration leads to discernment.

How Competition Creates Barriers

In Phase One, competition taints the context setting process.  Ideally, discernment begins in a balanced understanding of the needs of an individual or in this case school community.  "Well, High School West is doing it so we have to in order to attract students" is not context.  Context is the social, racial, emotional, historical, economic, gender, mission-focused foundation of the unique school community.  The moment a school cannot identify their context - their unique place in the educational system - discernment fails and decision-making occurs.  Competition assumes comparison to defeat the other - not movement toward fulfillment of personal gifts.

In Phases Two and Three, the main threat of competition is its influence on experiences via fear of failure.  A school will not consider all options open if competition is fierce - whatever the prize.  Educators complain that students will not take risks for fear of a lower grade but how many of us administrators do not try innovative approaches for fear of market rejection?   Administrators will second-guess themselves for days - eventually putting off any forward movement because of doubt.  Paralyzing the process of discernment.


Collaboration encourages sharing to strengthen the larger community as opposed to defeating the other.  Collaboration assumes all in community can and should grow.  Collaboration hopes for individual strengths to contribute to improvement for all.  I would agree collaboration across schools supports discernment in all areas mentioned above: by taking time, occurring in dialogue, attention to emotions and assumption of good.  An example of school community collaboration landed in my email this morning.  A neighboring (and to be honest - main competitor for enrollment) asked several of us if we would like to collaborate in a professional development opportunity.  They wanted to commission a well known, national speaker on tough conversations and wondered if we would all like to split the cost and learn together.  The resounding YES was cried by all.  Here is a great first step in discernment via collaboration.  We all have unique context - but are willing to work together for an experience that may (or may not) meet a need felt throughout our schools.

To wrap up my afternoon wandering thoughts...

As this new school year begins, keep asking yourself if you are decision-making via competition or discerning via collaboration.  Sometimes decision-making is called for but visioning and leading requires much more time in discernment.  I mentioned on Twitter today that innovation happens in times of reflection and quiet.  We administrators don't get a lot of that kind of time... but we must find ways to make time for discernment if we want our schools to move forward in support of our students and families.

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?