Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Challenge of Stationery and Stillness: Reflections from the Third Week of Retirement

So already, don't be fooled by this photograph.* I'm not on vacation in some warm, tropical spot. But I am thinking that perhaps the best way to have avoided drowning in the contradictions and disequilibrium of the first weeks of retirement would have been to have walked out of the front door of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and to have headed directly to Logan Airport.  If I had embarked immediately on a three-week vacation, I would have been required only to be a tourist--to look at things, learn about things, navigate new locales; to sleep in beds that weren't my own (not to make my own bed and lie in it!); perhaps to understand how to use a new currency; to puzzle over exactly what it was that I had ordered and was now eating; to chill out with a new view--or multiple new views.  In my mind's eye, as I imagine this kind of a retirement beginning, there's a lot of sunshine and no snow, lots of sandals and no boots.

But that's not how I started retirement, so despite the still wondrous and welcome novelty of afternoons that unfold rather than gallop, I'm very aware of the challenges of adjusting to retirement.

During the first full week of my retirement, I acknowledged in a blog post that retirement would require me, in due time, to develop a new self-definition based on a yet-to-be-developed sense of purpose or direction. I also asserted that "constructing that new, purposeful identity prematurely would be a mistake," and that I was "feeling dedicated to not making decisions for the sake of eliminating uncertainty."

So here are the two challenges I'm facing as I try be guided by my pronouncement and my related aspiration:  the world and myself.

So many things that look stationary aren't still at all.  Take this stream that flows toward the Housatonic River often imperceptibly enough to seem still. This photo could easily make you think that you're looking at a shallow pond, not a tributary. But maybe there's such a thing as enough stillness. All around us, the world moves forward, giving and asking. Enough stillness could support enough reflection to inform a coherent if provisional response to that moving world.

I found this out last week when a former student teacher contacted me for a letter of reference.  No problem, I said. And suddenly my stationary problem became a stationery problem.  For the last ten years, I've written professional communications on Cambridge Rindge and Latin School letterhead that bore my name, title, and contact information. What letterhead now?  No problem, I thought.  Microsoft Word.  Stationery templates. No doubt I could find a template that I liked and insert my new professional information. Wasn't it just for this moment that, at the prompting of my good friend and mentor, CRLS' instructional technology support coach, I had created a new e-mail address specifically for post-CRLS professional communications?

I checked out the templates, found one I liked ("Formal Letter"), customized it a bit--and confronted the next problem:  what should I say I was? I experimented with several descriptions over the next couple of days. "Educational Consultant and Writer" earned a quick thumbs-down because I hadn't been paid to write anything since 1989.** "Educational Consultant and Blogger," my second attempt, was a little more acceptable:  I do have a blog; anyone can have a blog.  But in my experience as a school-based person, too many educational consultants had arrived with packaged if research-based solutions and stale anecdotes -- and with a tendency to talk at rather than listen to the educators whom they had been hired to help. Hoping to communicate my willingness to thinking flexibly with and across groups, frameworks, organizations, and schools of educational thought, I tried "Independent Educator and Blogger" next.  But I feared that "independent' might suggest a career spent working in independent private schools, not district public ones.
Finally I found an encapsulation that's good enough for now:  "Educator and Blogger." Since "educate" etymologically derives in part from "educere [meaning to] 'bring out, lead forth,'"*** "educator" seems the best term at the moment.  The most respectful, dignified forms of bringing out and leading forth always require the collaboration of the so-called leading and the so-called led if their common goal is empowering the led to direct their own learning and work with confidence, hope, and skill. That often means more listening than speaking, more discussing than presenting on the educator's part. No panaceas here; just thoughtful processes that embed materials, tools, and stories of change, ideally shared at the precise moments when they're most wanted and needed.

So as much as I'd felt the world was pushing me to define myself before I really wanted to, there was something liberating in choosing some labels for myself -- especially given that I can revise them in the months ahead.  As to the balance between "educator" and "blogger," who knows?

I generally seek certainty and clarity at moments when being open, flexible, comfortable with not yet knowing, even downright relaxed and completely distracted would be more helpful. I either want the answer, or I want to feel no pressure to have any answer. I've selected another Berkshires image (more evidence of the compulsion to know?) to orient me, to anchor me just enough. Here, pooled water and flowing water live side by side, parts of the same stream. There's no avoiding the overall flow or the periodic exchanges between the stationary and the moving. As a result, the reflecting pools are bright and still, but not stagnant.

*Screen shot adjacent to this text from http://moderndestinationweddings.com/UploadedFiles/lp_12_Sandals-Negril-Sandals-Cafe.jpg 
** In 1989, I received a small stipend for writing a column for a periodical called New York Teacher.
***Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=educate

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Deeper Learning MOOC: Personal Reflections as Week #4 Begins

So already, 7:00 tonight Eastern Standard Time, 4:00 Pacific Time, the Deeper Learning MOOC will offer its fourth live panel discussion, this one on the topic of student voice and choice.

So far the MOOC -- the Massive Open Online Course currently being offered by High Tech High, the M.I.T. Media Lab, and several other progressive partners -- is fascinating, overwhelming, and valuable.

Those of us who have signed on have now completed the first third of this free nine-week journey the course potentially offers to us.  I say this because we are not obligated to participate in every week or every activity of the course.  The course designers have encouraged us to participate only when and how our participation will align with our own interests, needs, and purposes.  

I signed up for the MOOC for four major reasons. 

First, all of the course's topics --  listed at the left -- interest me.  The MOOC is allowing me to re-assess and deepen my understandings of familiar topics and to enlarge my repertoire for putting them into practice. "Academic Mindsets" is a whole new area for me; "Deeper Learning for a wide range of students" always benefits from others' latest insights and experiences.

Second, many of my newly-former CRLS colleagues are taking this course, so we can be learning together without having to create the learning experience ourselves.

Third, I'm always curious about the way technology, particularly interactive technology, helps and hinders deep learning.  So this MOOC offers one more opportunity to think about that question. Not all online learning may be equally suited to eliminating global educational inequities, despite the hopes that accompany it. And does tweeting really help me learn, especially to learn deeply?

Fourth, and finally, I've been very curious about what it would be like to take a MOOC -- to participate in a course with -- if I judge the course enrollment by the number of people in the associated Google+ learning community -- 1701 other people.  This means that the number of people in the course is roughly the size of the student body of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the public high school from which I retired in late January.

Have you had the chance to hear and see Eric Whitacre's virtual choir sing his "Lux Aurumque"?  Just the idea of this choir reminds me of the admirable, generally effective, and ongoing efforts the designers and facilitators of this MOOC to make this course a coherent, focused, communal, yet personalized experience. There are definitely ensemble moments -- around panels and protocols -- for those who want and seek them, but there's also a great deal happening within smaller subgroups and for individuals exploring the resources and using the online communication tools the course recommends.  When all is said and done, we are a much larger group than Whitacre's 183-person choir, and we are not trying to merge our multiple voices into a single musical message under the baton of one conductor; nonetheless, we cherish the feeling of doing something together with intentionality and positive educational purpose.

So how's it been for me?  I'll begin with an anecdote that Tina Blythe, co-author  Looking Together at Student Work,** often shares at the beginning of face-to-face workshops.  As a young teacher attending a professional development workshop mandated for all members of her department, Tina noticed that a veteran colleague, an unofficial mentor, wasn't sharing in the general grumbling surrounding the required participation.  When Tina inquired about her colleague's more sanguine attitude, her colleague explained that she considered any professional learning experience worthwhile as long as it offered her one valuable takeaway -- a piece of driftwood. And she generally found her piece of driftwood.

So first about the valuable part of the MOOC. The great news is that the MOOC offers so much great driftwood to be gleaned, collected.  I've collected quite a number of pieces from the first three week's online sessions, provided resources, and associated online Google+ community.  I've  learned how various schools configure student and teacher time, particularly to support learning through internships. I've been reminded of the wide range of purposes for looking at the student work, not all of which have to do with deeper learning, and I've re-appreciated the degree to which ongoing teacher learning and ongoing student learning walk hand-in-hand. I've heard a number of stories of student experiences that took theoretical ideas and made them not only real, but intellectually and emotionally compelling to me. I expect this driftwood-gathering will continue.

Now for the overwhelming part of the MOOC. The challenge is -- and the problem is -- knowing how much valuable driftwood there must be out there -- and knowing full well that exploring every part of the beach is impossible. Sometimes I feel as if I'm on one of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula beaches where, in order to be safe, one needs to be fully aware of the collective power and movement of the many big, magnificent pieces of driftwood that are afloat. When that driftwood does deposit itself at least semi-temporarily on the shore, it never is as organized and centered as it is in the photo to the right, so it creates another set of navigational challenges.  All my way of saying I've had to remind myself that for the sake of my own learning, less driftwood is often more in an environment like this.  I need to stop; I need to focus on those one or two pieces of driftwood that seem to have a place in my learning at this moment.

And it's not just the driftwood that threatens to proliferate excessively.  The online Google+ communities are also numerous enough to potentially overload the "learning together" circuits.  While multiple ones of these seem interesting enough to join, my mind starts to get tangled at the thought of all the conversations, resources, connections. So I've been consciously reminding myself to pull back, pull back, to what's manageable.  I also remind myself of the various kinds of search functions available on Twitter and Google+ that might make these online places useful more specifically at a later time. I appreciate the course facilitators' gentle acknowledgments of the potential for overload and ongoing encouragement to avoid self-expectations that foster overload.

Now finally, for the fascinating part of the MOOC -- and that's the huge community of "us" who have signed on to take this course.  For how many of us are all, or almost all, of the deeper learning topics completely new?  For how many of us are most of the deeper learning topics somewhat familiar -- or very familiar? To what degree have we signed on primarily to connect with others who share our educational values? How many of us have been looking for a place to share our own thinking and work because we've been largely thinking alone -- or not daring to share our thinking in environments where it would be viewed as "not being with the program"?  Whenever I'm in any kind of online learning environment/community that's about educating for the present and the future, I always wonder about the degree to which participants feel comfortable questioning the value of the ideas that are being presented (vs. the how-to or history of those ideas), especially when so many others are expressing a great deal of excitement about them.

In general, I feel that there's only one inherent contradiction in this MOOC -- and I actually think it's an unavoidable contradiction, given that the course is designed as a multi-course banquet to nourish participants with -- or at least encourage them to taste -- some good ways to get started and/or to continue fostering deeper learning successfully. But here goes anyway.  

Again and again, we are reminded that taking risks, experimenting, and even failing are essential to deep learning -- but we keep hearing beautiful and very inspiring deep learning success narratives that sound more linear than I suspect they actually were.  I know that whole-group online time is limited, so every panelist cannot lay out the significant well-intended missteps along the deeper learning road or the improvised moves that saved the deeper learning day when things began to fall apart. But I would sure like to learn about moments when the plan needed to change significantly or a completely unanticipated significant learning resulted from a more circuitous path. I think such stories offer reassurance as well as inspiration to people daring to foster deeper learning, especially in schools that may be less focused on deeper learning. Perhaps MOOC participants could be encouraged to post about deeper-learning-generating "failures"?

Very much looking forward to Session #4 tonight, and very grateful to be participating in this MOOC! Still unsure what I think about the technology-deeper learning connection, but thus far I have gained so much to use and think about as an educator.

** Tina is a co-author of Teaching as Inquiry:  Asking Hard Questions to Improve Practice and Student Achievement and The Facilitator's Book of Questions:  Tools for Looking Together at Student and Teacher Work, and the primary author of The Teaching for Understanding Guide.
Organized Driftwood Photo:  <http://www.creativityfuse.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Gabo-2-driftwood-by-John-Dahlsen.jpg> 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Good Endings and Strange Beginnings: Snow Day Reflections on Retirement's First Days

So already, this morning at 4:45, I received that same robocall that the entire staff of the Cambridge Public Schools received:  No School Today, February 5.  Just more evidence that I'm squarely, firmly established only in retirement limbo -- not in retirement itself. The Information, Communication, and Technology Services Department has yet to delete me though I am no longer on the district's payroll.  While I was warned that my CPSD e-mail account would be disabled right after I officially exited the school for the last time (and stepped responsibility-free into the January sunshine, which was the part they didn't mention), I am very much still connected. There's a peculiar thrill that comes with seeing all those unread e-mails amassing and feeling no obligation or temptation to open and read them. I can't deny it:  sometimes I feel like Gregor Samsa's little sister in the last paragraph of The Metamorphosis*:  she too wanders into metaphorical and literal sunlight with a jubilant sense of relief that is deserved, and also heartless.

But, of course, today's there's no sunlight: just snow and more snow, and the occasional light tapping of sleet on the windowpane. Retirement limbo thus far is an alternation between the euphoria of mid-day sunshine and the begrudging acknowledgment of winter's ultimate claim on the world and the spirit. When the winter sun shines bright, as it did last Thursday in Johnson, Vermont on the day of Scott's Beauty and Darkness gallery talk, retirement beckons like an adventure; when winter's gray and white layer and proliferate, retirement feels like everything else feels:  thwarted, challenged, burdened, blank, pointless. 

My feelings are real, but my talk is a little silly: it is only Day 3, and Days 1 and  3 have boasted accumulating snow -- a lot of snowfall for one week even for New England. The truth is that I'm alternating between enjoying my new freedom (consciously needing to remind myself that I don't have to wake up at 5:15) and feeling strangely, uncomfortably untethered. Some years ago, my friend Diane Tabor, a former CRLS assistant  principal, remarked that retirement is like adolescence except that one has better skills for navigating it.  I can see the identity crisis looming on my personal horizon -- but I also have the adult wisdom to understand that constructing that new, purposeful identity prematurely would be a mistake, and I'm feeling dedicated to not making decisions for the sake of eliminating uncertainty. A couple of consecutive days of very good weather would probably go a long way to helping me embrace my freedom . . ..

But on a more positive note, I'm coming to understand why I left CRLS feeling primarily peaceful and positive, even though at a number of points in the last seven years I've felt disappointed, dismayed, dismissed, discouraged, unappreciated, sometimes even enraged. Scott's gallery show helped me understand why.  Exhibitions -- of paintings, of teacher learning -- make statements that their creators choose to make.  To exhibit is to assert oneself, to claim turf, to dare to think, to value unapologetically.  Exhibitions celebrate and empower.

At one of my lowest moments as a CRLS educator, one of my former principals, Ed Sarasin, gave me a piece of advice that became my survival mantra: "Be the educator you need to be." As my own beliefs about how best to improve teaching, deepen learning, and foster the achievement of all students diverged increasingly from those being both imposed on and cultivated within CRLS, I had one consistent outlet for following Ed's advice: the Project Zero/Making Learning Visible Project-supported Wednesday Afternoon Teacher Learning Group, the group of CRLS teachers who have met every two-to-three weeks for the past eight years (our group has core members and new members every year) -- and who annually create CRLS' exhibition of teacher learning. (The photo here shows the Teachers' Resource Center ready for an opening reception some years ago.) My role was to facilitate this group's ongoing inquiry into teaching and learning -- and to support the group's creation of our annual exhibition.  Every year, members of the group did right by one another as educators and human beings -- and also managed to share something of value with members of the CRLS faculty who chose to check out our exhibition.  Every year, I felt proud of who we were, how we worked together, and what we shared.  Hardly the stuff of anger and bitterness; more the stuff of love and authentic learning community.

Out of this work grew a particularly significant and defining personal teaching-and-learning experience. Re-assigned to teach one English class during the 2010-2011 school year, I finally could experiment with cultivating a "pedagogy of listening" in my own classroom. Carla Rinaldi describes the practices and principles  associated with a "pedagogy of listening" with passion and commitment in Making Learning Visible:  Children as Individual and Group Learners -- and they are the practices and principles that are dearest to my educator heart, the ones that I believe have the best chance of improving teaching, deepening learning, and fostering the achievement of all students because they refuse to define students and teachers by their "deficits" -- and insist on defining them as people rather than problems. The end result of my efforts was "Grappling with Greatness:  Negotiating Different Points of View in AP Literature," one of six learning portraits featured in Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Schools, written by Project Zero researchers Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardell, Melissa Rivard, and Daniel Wilson. I feel so honored and so validated by the inclusion of my work in this book.  And what fortuitous timing of the publication of this book -- practically on the eve of my retirement!

In fact, the Wednesday Afternoon Teacher Learning Group, has had the chance to go public with our work beyond CRLS on a several occasions -- at the Documentation Studio at Wheelock College, at the Project Zero Classroom summer institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, through an article Jennifer Hogue and I were invited to write for an issue of Theory into Practice,** as well as on the pages of Visible Learners.  Like Scott, we've had multiple opportunities to be creative and responsive, to push ourselves and support one another to take pedagogical risks, to wear our educator hearts on our sleeves, to feel the affirming sunlight that goes along with exhibition and the authentic dialogue, community, and growth that it promotes. 

The snow is still falling; and the skies are now darker than they are in this photograph. For me personally, retiring happily required more than feeling I had done right by the students in my care.  Given my professional development role, I needed to feel that the efforts and achievements of my colleagues -- my co-inquirers -- also were adequately explored, understood, and honored.  This kind of recognition and validation, which depends on open, deep, flexible looking and listening as well as on more conventional forms of program assessment, did not happen for the CRLS Instructional Support Coaches, another group of CRLS teacher-leaders with whom I worked closely over a number of years. That group has done and continues to do important, meaningful, seldom fully examined, and thus seldom fully understood and appreciated work in supporting teachers and students -- and this does make me sad.***  But the great work of the Wednesday Afternoon Teacher Learning Group was acknowledged, respected, and celebrated, thanks to Project Zero, and the Making Learning Visible Project in particular. Maybe everyone who retires should get to do an exhibition of precious, important work -- kind of like Scott's M.F.A. show.

** The article, "From Display to Documentation to Discourse:  The Challenge of Documentation in a High School," was published in the Winter 2010 issue.
***The rage exhausted itself a few years back.