By definition, a generalist teacher is not an expert in any particular discipline. Fortunately, most of us are, and enrich our classrooms with our interests and passions. Unfortunately, the scope of a school year of inquiry stretches far beyond any one teacher’s expertise.
Excursions and guest speakers can make up the difference, and video communications technology makes it possible to bring experts into the classroom from anywhere.
Near the conclusion of a recent unit which focused significantly on advertising, it occurred to me that one of my friends, Adam Lisagor, is the founder and owner of Sandwich Video, one of today’s premier creative advertising organizations. It only took a few text messages and time zone conversions to have him on the big screen in the classroom.
To prepare students for the interview, we first viewed several of Adam’s videos, then set a home learning task to explore more. Then, I asked them to submit questions via an online form so that I could sort and select in a way that promoted a conversational mood. As questions were chosen, students approached the camera one at a time to speak with Adam. Not surprisingly, their questions were insightful and elicited excellent comments on persuasion, honesty, and creativity.
Data has been an undercurrent in my teaching since my first classroom in 2007. Of course, in that year, I struggled to gather data and there was virtually no chance of utilizing much of it to inform and enrich instructional planning. For good or ill, data is not essential to the survival of a first year teacher.
Each year after, I slowly improved, including a variety of experiments like the one shared in the post Student Empowerment | COETAIL final project. I tried different forms, organizers, notebooks, etc, until finally unveiling an integrated digital system last year. I shared it as a presenter at the GAFE Summit 2016 in Kobe, Japan, and used it for the school year to publish students’ ongoing assessment data, and other key information such as website usernames and passwords, directly to them as web pages. After celebrating and discussing the system, I felt that it was terribly unsatisfying.
Inspiration came in the form of media such as Jack Norris’ keynote presentation from Strata + Hadoop World in San Francisco, Let’s Get Real: Acting on Data in Real Time, embedded below.
The concept of ‘data agility’ through converged data and processing appealed to me because what I sought a tool which would organize all assessment data in a way that could be searched, shared, and analyzed. Over the years I had been introduced to many ‘tracking systems’, only to discover that they were utterly unmanageable at scale. Ticking boxes on scope and sequence documents or highlighting learning objectives almost arbitrarily seemed like a show at best. In fact, a colleague who shared such a system with me admitted that at the end of a term, due to a lack of hard data, he would simply choose outcomes to highlight on every student’s document regardless of their actual progress or learning. To quote Mr Norris, I wanted my data to ‘get real’.
‘Small data observes the details or small clues that uncover large trends. The idea is that by honing in on the elements that make up relationships and narratives in schools, education can be enriched.’ The Edvocate
What I wanted to do was bring transparency to the relationships between myself, students, parents, and administrators. Further readings within the big data and data science trends likeData Quality Should Be Everyone’s Job by Thomas C Redman directed my attention toward the purpose for the data. Before data is collected, it should already have a purpose, and that purpose dictates the design of the collection, publishing, and analysis tools.
The next piece of the design puzzle was my school’s Assessment Handbook. In it were the categories, criteria, and descriptors on top of which my system would function.
Utilizing a system of Google Sheets, data is entered and student progress viewed in potentially real time, depending on the efficiency of my data entry. As we began using the system I shared a video, Tour of your data book, embedded below, which illustrates the details of the user experience much better than I can describe in words.
This system has been remarkably effective and unlike last year, I only plan to make minor tweaks, especially to the user interface. Feedback from students and parents revealed, as I expected, that there are too many graphs and that it’s difficult to know which are more or less important.
Another feature I plan to add is a Google Form which mirrors the data entry document which would allow teaching assistants, specialists, and even parents or students themselves to contribute data to the system.
But the more thought and consideration I put into it, the more it seemed appropriate to write a more formal article to reflect on and share my creative process. I have always been frustrated with my creative output, and a self study was long overdue.
To begin my analysis, I reflected on my feelings. Sometimes I feel creative. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I feel motivated. Sometimes I don’t. I sketched a graph to represent these poles.
Next, I considered which activities seemed to align with different conditions. When I feel highly creative and highly motivated, it’s difficult to stop myself from creative work. However, when I feel neither creative nor motivated, even simple editing or organizing feels like a significant accomplishment. But is my creativity at the mercy of my feelings? Do my moods really dictate my output? That’s when I decided to get really geeky and gather some actual data by creating a Google Form for myself which I keep open in a tab on my smartphone web browser.
Over the past few weeks, I have diligently assessed my activities, resulting in some interesting data.
Mostly, I am curious to analyze these data to discover patterns. Do I follow my feelings logically? Do my activities influence my feelings? Am I wasting my most creative opportunities? As this self assessment continues, I took some time to explore my creative history…
The muse is not a fairy
My first and most important lesson in creativity came from Jack Grapes, founder of the Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective. In a writers’ workshop session, he described how it was a mistake to believe that creative inspiration is a phenomenon that ‘happens’ to us. He instructed us to follow a creative routine: Write at a certain time each day. By doing this, we would train our minds to think during thinking time and write during writing time. Ignore spontaneous inspiration that leads to pulling over to the side of the road to jot down an idea you ‘don’t want to forget’. If the idea isn’t good enough to remember, it’s not good enough to drop everything to write down. Trust that the vast complexity of our brains will cooperate.
Jon Caliguiri, an old friend, also an alum of Jack’s writing courses, and long time creative collaborator responded to my post by sharing his Song of the Month Challenge:
‘I agree! Almost 3 years ago, a friend and I committed to writing and recording a song a month each. We’ve been doing it consistently for that time and I haven’t missed a month aside from the “furlough” months we take off every year to reedit and tweak things. It’s been the greatest experience and has helped my songwriting and recording immensely. It’s like a book club for rock and roll.’
Connecting with others in my creative work has always been a weak point for me. I don’t accept critique particularly well. I respond to critique terribly. I take great pride in my work, but ironically not enough to share with confidence. Often, my products are not shared until they are finished and my focus and energy have moved on to a new project. Perhaps the brilliance of Jon’s project is that it’s a concrete commitment, not a nebulous goal. What he’s making is not necessarily as important as his engagement in the process. The product flows from the process, and the quality of the songs he has produced is clearly increasing as a result of his commitment. Jon’s comments reminded me of a quote by Duke Ellington which I also referenced in the post, Exhibition: PBL To The Max!: ‘I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.’
Arguably, the most important element of creativity is discipline. While I was studying music at The New School, my piano teacher, LeeAnne Ledgerwood, shared an important video which I published and commented on in the post, Bill Evans – Creative Process and Self Teaching. In the video, Bill insists that honesty and commitment are crucial to building creative fluency. An analytical approach that systematically builds skills lays the foundation for creative expression.
The more I reflect, the more the solution is clear. I need to set aside a time to practice creativity. As a teacher, father, and husband, that time can only be five o’clock in the morning. This wouldn’t be the first time to follow such a masochistic schedule, as I described in the post No Sleep November, but the purpose is quite different, more personal, and permanent. Can I drag myself out of bed that early every day? Or perhaps a better question is ‘how?’ Nobody else is going to do it for me. Optimistic, the short video by CHris Jimenez, provides a succinct guide that is helpful for me.
Perhaps if I can focus on going to bed well, I’ll be on my way to meeting the first goal of waking up in a good mood. There have been two great graphics on creative routines published recently: The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People and When Genius Slept, both based on Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Another resource worth exploring further is This Emotional Lifeguide to Creativity by PBS. These are all great for entertainment and even inspiration. They may even lead to increased motivation. But they won’t finish a novel or My String Quartet. The only way to achieve those goals is through discipline to commit to a regular work time and to muster the courage to share my works in progress early and often.
Composing is whistling in the park. Arranging is solving a puzzle. Editing is carpal tunnel syndrome.
Twitter is alive with Connectors. They utilize the platform for collaborative sensemaking. They begin conversations in tweets that extend to other platforms, media, and into the physical world. They share resources and blog posts liberally and constantly invite others into their learning experiences.
It’s true that Twitter is a convenient and simple platform for connecting with other teachers. Indeed, I consider many of my connections there as friends and anticipate someday meeting face to face. However, when I was following over 900 people, I had no idea who most of them were. No doubt they are passionate connected educators like me, but how would I ever know if it was only by chance that I was able to read their posts or follow their links? Why was I following them, anyway?!? And the simple answer is that I followed them because they followed me. I craved ‘followers’ and feared that they would unfollow me if I didn’t follow back. The situation became worse when quasi celebrities and marketers began following me. How exciting it was to be ‘followed’ by someone with hundreds of thousands of ‘followers’! Their tweets clogged my stream until it was obviously impossible to follow them at all. Every trip through the Twitterverse became cacophony. Unmanageable chaos reigned as motivational speakers mingled with online marketing ‘gurus’.
My family, friends, colleagues, and mentors were lost in the fray. At the same time, I was reminded of the work of Adam Grant by the post and podcast, Adam Grant on Givers, Takers, Matchers and Fakers. Was I giving anything by following so many people on Twitter? I certainly wasn’t giving attention. By all accounts I was a matcher but that’s not want I want to be.
I didn’t want to unfollow ‘the fray’ for fear of losing followers. I was thinking computationally. I was thinking like a promoter.
Promotors use social media to promote brands, products, and themselves. Everyone on Twitter is a promoter to some degree, but the more analysis I did, the more I recognized the patterns and strategies that are pure promotion. The most glaring example of promotion on Twitter is done through hashtags. A Twitter user who always includes in their posts a hashtag related to a particular brand or product is a promoter. Promoters study and strategize to mask their intent, for example by automating direct messages to new followers or retweeting, although I have observed that they almost always retweet from other promoters.
In years of Twittering, I have observed that all users can be located on a continuum with Connectors on one side and Promoters on the other. To explore this concept, I created the Twitter: Connectors v Promoters document embedded below to compare.
As a collaborative sensemaking activity, I invite you to add items based on your own experiences on Twitter.
All twitter users are at times more or less ‘connectors’ and ‘promoters’, and I don’t mean to imply judgment, rather analysis and reflection.
What Connectors consistently show, and Promoters desperately fake, is authenticity.
My situation demanded an authenticity check. My loved ones, collaborators, and mentors deserve my attention. I was surprised and bolstered in my mission by a tweet and post by William Chamberlain during my deliberations.
To foster community on social networks, I must participate as a community member. The graphic below from The six types of Twitter conversations by Pew Research Center provided models which helped me to understand the nature of my connections.
I didn’t want to continue my inauthentic participation in my ‘community’, but I also didn’t want to lose the connections I had made over the years. The solution was lists. I conducted a complete audit of my entire network and sorted everyone according to a system of lists that seems to work.
My first and smallest Twitter list is my PLCommunity. Members of this list are people with whom I regularly interact, who share stimulating and high quality content, and whom I trust to participate as community members when called to action. I follow all of them in my main feed and assume a level of responsibility for accepting their invitations and following up on their posts. [2015.03.23 I decided to delete the PLCommunity list and simply consider the members of my PLNetwork whom I follow and with whom I regularly interact as my Personal/Professional Learning Community.]
Next is my PLNetwork. These are mostly educators around the world who share stimulating content and demonstrate commitment to connected learning, but whom I wouldn’t consider part of my community.
Finally, I sort all of my connected learning network into individuals and organizations by geography and created an Extended Global Network which contains almost everyone I have ever interacted with on Twitter.
In my post, Don’t be a node. Be a nexus., I encourage myself and others to be active, independent, and dynamic in their online networks. For me, this starts from unfollowing hundreds of people so that I can give attention to my community. To quote Sherry Turkle from The Flight From Conversation, ‘look up, look at one another, and let’s start the conversation.’
I believe that I learned more in 2014 than in any year of my life since Kindergarten. A close second would have to have been 2001, during which I lived in New York City, studied composition with the great Ludmila Ulehla, and experienced the terror of ‘9/11’, or 1996, when I graduated from high school and spent my first semester of college studying abroad in Nepal. The past year was the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Horse, and I, being born in the Year of the Horse, sought to make it a year of work. I set my professional goal for the second half of the 2013-2014 school year to learn and practice as much as possible about Project Based Learning, self directed learning, and self determined learning in order to best facilitate my sixth grade class’ culminating Exhibition. To that end, I participated in the Deeper Learning MOOC and Macromedia University Design Thinking MOOC. With that learning as inspiration, I have been inquiring into and blogging about PBL, project management, and design thinking in education using the label ‘LX Design‘.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck in September of 2014 when my father died. It happened unexpectedly just two weeks after my family and I returned home to Japan from a trip to my hometown in California to introduce our two year old son to his grandfather and other family and friends.
It was a devastating way to start a school year, and a bitter way to end what was otherwise a sweet summer.
Visiting California after being away for four years provided many lessons in perspective through reflecting on familiar sights and experiences from a new point of view. It was also a chance to practice using the Visual Supply Co photo editing and sharing tools. I began sharing my attempts at artistic photography there on my VSCO Grid as well as following the feeds professional and highly skilled photographers. Of course, people have shared bazillions of vacation photographs via social media, but my goal was to find opportunities to create and share meaningful art through my experiences. Finding moments to express myself as a travel, food, landscape, and artistic photographer, however amateur, was fun and enriched my travels by allowing me to enjoy and reflect more deeply.
During the trip, I entertained on the idea of Connected Living as an application or generalization of Connected Learning. One of my desires as a teacher and learner is to obscure the artificial boundaries that exist between formal and informal learning, ‘school’ and ‘real life’. Such distinctions between digital connection and analog, ‘face to face’ connections should also be blurred. Sometimes, I am discovering, not shooting a picture to share on Instagram is infinitely more profound than doing so.
Relocating the muse
This New Year marks the tenth year in a row that I have resolved to finish a piece of music. At the conclusion of 2013, it was my string quartet. I have the first several measures of dozens of pieces, but they are all merely sketches in a notebook.
It’s not surprising. In the past ten years I have started a family and a career.
However, this year it is an especially solemn resolution to make in the shadow of my father’s death. One of my planned projects for years has been to publish arrangements of ‘Songs My Father Sang’, of which my jazz big band arrangement of Streets of Laredo is technically the first and regrettably the only.
Indeed, wrestling myself away from my smartphone might be just the signal my muse needs to come around to visit me again. I certainly have support from my connected learning friends and especially Brent Bedford, creator of the International Society for Fugues, who has been doing his best to inspire and motivate me to get out behind the woodshed! I hope he knows how much his efforts are appreciated. 2014 was a year of work. 2015 should be a year of fun. That’s my resolution.
A keen observer will notice that I haven’t exactly followed the assignment here. Rather than revising a unit of instruction to attempt to redefine learning, my goal is to utilize educational technology to empower students to redefine their own learning. In a sense, I am reimagining every unit I teach. I started by trying to revise a single unit, but every change I made toward increasing student choice, voice, and agency, resulted in thinking less about deciding what I wanted students to do, and more about how I was going to document and curate what they would decide to do. A class wiki was needed first to act as a home base. In theory, it contains and organizes links to every online resource and tool we use in class. The link is jiesgradefiveandsix2014-15.wikispaces.com, and it’s the only link you will find in this post because it leads to a page containing links to everything my class does online, including our Inquiry Tasks Organizer.
The Inquiry Tasks Organizer is the hub of our inquiries and assessments. The public ‘class’ organizer feeds private organizers for each students, to which they add links to their learning artifacts and self assessment rubrics. Over the course of the school year, this document will be used to empower students to take more control of the direction of their learning by providing a flexible and agile model for documentation and reflection.
Currently, our inquiries and tasks are quite structured, but as the students become more fluent inquirers, more freedom will be transferred to them without changing any essential procedures. This ‘Project Management’ aspect of my COETAIL final project, creating an interface that can maximize agency and transparency in the classroom, is an inquiry I look forward to pursuing further along a design process in which all participants’ experiences are documented and utilized to inform ongoing iterations.
This ‘Design Thinking’ approach to classroom planning ensures that a unit is never ‘finished’, and that refinement and revision are designed in rather than being added or changed later.
The student experience thus far has been mixed. Some students enjoy the freedom that this approach affords, yet might be too easily distracted from relevant inquiries. Some are reluctant to let go of the traditional models of instruction, either our of confusion or lack of experience as independent learners.
Consequently, the full potential of this project has yet to be realized. That’s great, because it is evidence to me that the project is working. Surely if students could easily adapt and thrive, it would imply that the learning environment hadn’t changed much and certainly wasn’t redefined.
Learning won’t be redefined in one unit, but in the ongoing cycle of innovation and reflection that connected learning communities like COETAIL encourage and promote.
I ‘leveled up’ last month when my video presentation for the K12 Online Conference on Trust and Transparency in passion driven learning was published. Please follow the link to view it and refer to my post, Trust and Transparency, for a transcript and links.
I don’t know which is scarier: That people would watch my presentation or that nobody would watch it. Regardless of how I felt about it, people did indeed watch it, and a few even took a minute to share on Twitter!
Their kindness and encouragement are deeply appreciated.
Partially out of being too busy, but mostly out of trepidation, I procrastinated making my video for far too long. I had a lot to say, and pored over the script for weeks. On the weekend before it was due, I was suffering from a minor head cold. After all, I ended up setting my laptop on a chair and sitting, cross legged, to simply read the script in front of the camera. I did manage to splice in some still photos and screenshots, providing a bit of ‘multi’ to the media.
I have to say I’m rather disappointed with the result. It’s a blog post read aloud without much of the appeal that a video can have.
I think my message was good and clear, but as I reflect on what I like about other people’s videos, it’s their natural mood that captures my attention. Formality is boring! A video recording of a presentation is fine documentation, but a video can be much more dynamic and personal.
The next video
As it turns out, I’m currently preparing a new video, my COETAIL Final Project. The work of the project is finished, but needs to be presented and summarized in a video. Once again, I’ve procrastinated liberally. However, that’s not necessarily negative. I think this video needs a more improvised, informal, and reflective mood. I’ve worked hard on the project, and now I should feel that it time to relax and ramble on camera to share my thoughts.