Category Archives: big picture

Junk Food, Brain Food, Soul Food

It’s a bright sunny day here in central New Jersey. Is your child sitting in front of a screen? And are you worried about it?

As parents, we have historically been conservative about our son’s screen time. He didn’t watch any television before he was two, and since our television lives in our basement, he has never really developed much of a taste for it. (“YouTube is funnier, anyway,” he says.) We don’t own a gaming system. But as he’s gotten older – he’s eleven now – our thinking has evolved. And we’ve begun to act on our belief that all screen time is not created equal.

Early on we felt an instinctive distinction between television and some kinds of computer time, just as my own parents made distinctions between public television and commercial television. When Mr. D. requested more TV time, we would ask, “Well, what is it you want to watch?” When he wanted time on the family desktop computer, we started asking, “What is it you want to do there?”

“What difference does it make?” he wanted to know.

Some television just feels like junk food, we said. You know those shows you didn’t plan to watch, but the show you wanted to watch turned out not to be on, and you’ve watched everything you had recorded, so you just end up sitting there, and you don’t even really like it that much, but it’s there, so you watch it?

“Oh yeah,” he said, excited by a sense of recognition, “and then you can’t even remember what you watched! Like Tuff Puppy!” (Here he made a disdainful face.)

Tuff Puppy

Exactly, we said. But sometimes you’re watching because you meant to, with an intent to learn. Or you’re tuning in for a big game, or because a friend told you about the best show ever. And that feels different. And you do all KINDS of different things on the computer, right?

This “what are you thinking/planning” question has since become a staple of our family conversations around screentime. And Mr. D has started to make the case that sometimes, his screen time is not only not in the junk food category, it’s actually in the brain food category.


Here’s Mr. D playing chess against the computer, and transcribing a piano piece he wants to learn to play. Both brain food, right?

Once we started leaning towards thinking about screen time in these more specific terms, then we started talking about lots of things in terms of whether they represented a brain workout or not, and which kind of workout was more challenging.

Card Games

Which of these card games represents more brain work? Three-handed poker or man-on-man tournament Magic the Gathering?


Which has got more of Mr. D’s neurons firing? Composing his own piece? Or playing a piece in a public recital?


Drawing from life with Grandpa? Or drawing from a YouTube video?

Mine Craft Strategy

And what’s going on with these boys as they prepare to debate Minecraft strategies? Does the presence of a friend make a difference? We’ve had some great conversations.

The easiest thing is to lay down a time limit, and sometimes we still do that.

But he sees us sitting in front of our screens for hours at a time, and unless we’re intentionally transparent about what we’re doing, he has no idea what portion of that time is noodling around vs. paying bills vs. writing haiku. So the advantage of the more engaged, situational, and collaborative assessment of when screen time is “worth it,” is that someday (we hope), he’ll be a savvy and ethical consumer, sharer, and producer of media.

Junk food and brain food, check. But what about soul food?

Soul Food

That’s Netflix on the couch on a Friday night, people.

(Backstory: A few months back Lisa Nielsen shared her thoughts about the most recent American Academy of Pediatrics policy recommendation on screen time for children. She asked me what I thought, and her query, in addition to Robert Kim‘s offer to share this with his readers, got me to put down my book, pic up my camera, and dedicate a little screen time to sharing out our current thoughts and practice. Would love to hear others’ thoughts!)

The Eyes Have It

Toucan eye by @Doug88888, on Flickr

As I was trying to help a colleague with a project recently, we fell into a conversation about the challenges of discerning which skill sets it’s worth putting in the time to learn.

We each could think of examples of things that we’d spent time learning that ultimately became obsolete, as well as things we’d learned that surprised us by becoming suddenly relevant in an unexpected way, sometimes a long time after the initial learning.

One of the areas that has historically had the most dependable “payoff” ratio for me has been working with images. I realized fairly early on in blogging that I would sometimes want to use someone else’s image as a “springboard” for what I wanted to say, and I also wanted to be able to use other people’s images responsibly, so I taught myself about Creative Commons.

When I learned that giant image files could really impede a site’s load time, I invested some time in learning the basics of file compression. (Thank you, Preview!)

And even though Picnik is gone, I feel as though the time I spent working with images there wasn’t wasted… it helped me make sense of sites like Lunapic and PicMonkey. It also helped develop in me the expectation that an alternative to Picnik had to be out there somewhere… sometimes what I learn is less about the “howto” and more about confidence that there is a tool out there to help me do what I want to do, and that I’ll be able to find it.

So… as much as I depend on my ability to write my way out of trouble, I’m feeling as though my self-directed professional development efforts going forward – at least in the near future – are likely to focus just as much on the visuals. Because so far, that has always ended up feeling like a worthwhile investment of my time.

What are some things you’re hoping to learn in the year ahead, and why have you chosen those things?

What’s for Dinner?

Hungry Giraffe

(Photo by Claire Brownlow)

At home, when I ask my family what they would like to eat for dinner, I’m actually asking them to do some of the work. Some days, figuring out what to cook is maybe as much work as doing the actual cooking.

I’m starting to understand that the same is true of my communications work. Telling our stories is work, for sure. But figuring out which stories to tell is probably just as much work. When my colleague Kevin Merges was working on improving our campus sustainability efforts, he asked folks to send him “anything and everything” that seemed like it might be relevant, and I think I understand now where he was coming from with that. I need to get as many community members here as possible to get into the habit of sharing with me their ideas about the stories we could and should be telling.



 (Thanks to Bill Gracey of  Flickr for use of this lovely, multi-faceted image.)

My new role within my school community is going to be multi-faceted.

I need to start with listening, and already in my first conversations with people outside the school’s community I can see that I’m going to need to to work on this. As someone who is rarely at a loss for words, I will need to find ways to make sure listening remains at the core of what I do. I will probably seek to find ways to continually reinforce the importance of that in my practice. It’s not just about telling the story — it’s about telling the right story — and there’s no way to do that consistently without listening.

Luckily, my “perch” in the Upper School puts me within easy range of most of that office’s walk-in traffic. Last week, as families were working through their back-to-school checklists, I heard a distinct undercurrent of anxiety.

Beginnings can be scary. Change is usually a challenge. The beginning of the school year brings our families and students new teachers, new routines, new classes, and, for 123 Rutgers Prep students this year, an entirely new SCHOOL! It’s all exciting, but it can definitely also generate anxiety. I have an idea for a media project that might help address that. I’m superstitious, so I don’t want to say more than that just now. But stay tuned.

So that’s the community-facing facet of my new work. Then there’s the work that is more directly related to my peers. On any given day, there are multiple people on this campus who represent our school to stakeholders and other interested parties. Together, we command a deep and impressive understanding of what makes this place “tick.” But we’re busy, and scattered across campus, and we can’t always connect with each other quickly. I want to work to somehow help enable our “hive mind” capabilities. A wiki, maybe? A Google Docs-based Brag Book? We’ll see. That’s the team facet.

And finally there’s me, standing at the bottom of a learning curve and looking straight up. For while there are ways in which I am especially well-suited to this work, there are some obvious, near-painful gaps. I need to get out of the Upper School. There are teachers here who I’ve never really had a conversation with and whose grade level I might be unsure of if I saw them in the Dining Commons. So that’s my very own personal facet of the work ahead. In the words of the Music Man’s immortal Harold Hill, “You gotta know the territory!”


Once upon a time, in a land not so far from ours, there lived a storyteller. She came from a small village, and loved to make the people there laugh. She also loved to learn, and so found herself drawn to schools. After attending school herself for many years, she moved on to helping several colleges tell their stories to would-be students. When she eventually had a child of her own, she moved over to a high school to work more closely with students. There she happily spent her days seeking out, listening to, and helping students discover and share their stories. Her students were young adults who were in the midst of discerning which stories they were meant to live, so both the stories and the learning were rich with promise.

One day, when she had been doing this counseling work for quite some time, a leader in her learning community asked her a thought-stirring question. “What would it take,” he began, “for you to find and tell stories on behalf of our entire community, in addition to doing that on behalf of individual learners?”

The storyteller was surprised by how quickly she was able to respond – she was something of a slow thinker, and friends had learned that her contributions would often come near the end of a conversation. “What would it take? I would have to work with fewer individual students!” she answered with a broad yet rueful grin, for she knew as well as he did that their school’s classes were growing in size. “Fewer students” was not going to happen any time soon.

But then, as sometimes happens in stories and in life, a way opened. A colleague who sought new challenges and greater opportunities for student connection was intrigued by the possibilities that taking on some students as counselees might represent for him. The idea of adding an already-trusted colleague to the counseling team made a shift in the storyteller’s responsibilities seem a less daunting prospect.

The more the storyteller thought about it, the more she began to feel that this new path was one that she was meant to take. The tools available for story sharing had developed so dramatically since she had first begun this work… wouldn’t it be wonderful to see what could be done now? And weren’t there untold stories within her current school community that she would be pleased to share, and that others might be delighted to discover?

So when the chance came, unbidden and still somewhat in need of shaping, she smiled again… and took it.

 New Business Card

Feeling the Shift

edcampIS | Seattle | March 2012
4×6 index cards + tape + locker wall = schedule!

Edcamps have changed how I think about conferences. On March 2nd, after attending (and presenting at) the NAIS Annual Conference in Seattle, I tacked on an additional day to my trip so that I could attend edcampIS. (The “IS” suffix stood for “Independent Schools.”)

Edcamps are as close to spontaneously-generated professional development as you can get; the session schedule depends on who shows up and what they’re thinking/ wondering about. Sarah Thomas (@teach2connect on Twitter) and I both thought that a session on Twitter for Newbies might make a good addition to the edcampIS schedule, so when she saw my Tweet on the subject, Sarah sought me out and asked if I might like to team up. “Would love to!” I said, and in fact I had been thinking about how much better a co-facilitated session would be, so… we went from following each other to meeting each other to running a session together in the space of less than an hour! (Big ups to Rachel Wente-Chaney, whose awesome Flickr photoset from the day provided the photos associated with this post.)

edcampIS | Seattle | March 2012
Sarah and I delightedly planning our session

So here’s the shift I’m feeling. The prospect of a full day’s worth of “sit and get”-style learning feels different (and less appealing) to me now that I have deeper understanding of the range of possibilities. (Clay Shirky predicted this years ago with his story of a four year old poking around behind a newly unboxed television. When the little girl was asked by her parents what she was doing, she explained, “Looking for the mouse.” She had an instinctive sense that any screen that shipped without an input device must be missing something. See Clay Shirky’s TED talk on Cognitive Surplus for more context on this.) With the edcamp movement growing by leaps and bounds, more and more of us are becoming “spoiled.” If my experience is any guide, exchanges that have historically been built solely around passive consumption are going to need to move towards offering at least some opportunities for meaningful exchange, contribution, or creation.

Lately, I’ve started to feel this shift not just in my orientation towards learning, but in my orientation towards “stuff.” I’ve been a somewhat reluctant participant in our consumption-oriented culture for as long as I can remember, but lately I’ve noticed being pulled towards buying things in a way that feels new to me. Except they’re not really things, so much as they are experiences, or at least things with some kind of social element. I’ve increased the size of my loan portfolio on Kiva. I’ve chipped in to support several projects on Kickstarter. In Lemonade Detroit and Gayby Baby, I’ve pitched in to support two different independent films on topics that are meaningful to me. And I’ve felt myself leaning towards looking for material goods on Etsy, where it seems more likely that the transaction will include at least some small element of human connection. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a big ol’ fan of the occasional Lands End shop-a-thon, and I was disappointed to miss out on my near-annual pilgrimage to the outlets in Flemington this spring. But I can feel my emotional engagement moving in a different direction.

Thinking about all this has suddenly brought to mind another true-life story that features a four year old… mine, this time. I was at home serving as Mr. D’s primary caregiver for the first three years of his life, so we spent a lot of time together. He was my little shadow… when I was in the living room, he was in the living room. If I was in the kitchen, he was in the kitchen. As I worked on meals, I would take out a few pots and let him bang happily about in what felt like a time-honored tradition. Then, as he approached his fourth birthday, he figured something out. The kitchen work I was doing resulted in FOOD. Why didn’t his? In what felt like the blink of an eye, our little man went from being perfectly happy taking lids off and putting them back on again to no longer deigning to do so. He wanted to help, and he was suddenly quite able to draw the distinction between “make work” and the real thing. I gave him lessons in how to safely wield a knife, and he never looked back.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Traditional conferences still have their uses. (I felt like I got a lot out of the NAIS annual conference, actually.) Retail shopping will continue to suck up a good-sized chunk of our take-home pay for the foreseeable future. And yet. I do feel a shift. Away from one-to-many “solutions” based on a presumption of consumption, and towards more human-shaped interactions that allow for or even require creativity, contribution, dialogue, sharing. I am less content than I was with the way things are… which more and more has begun to feel… like the way things were.

(Thanks for reading!
Would love to hear if you’re 
experiencing any shifts like this…)

NAIS in Seattle

(Creative Commons licensed image via Flickr)
The last time I attended the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual conference was when it was in NYC a few years back. This year, the conference was in Seattle, and the likelihood of my being able to take time away from work to travel so many miles from home during application-review season seemed somewhat remote. But then the session proposal that two of my colleagues and I pulled together was accepted, and suddenly the trip to Seattle became non-negotiable!
The NAIS annual conference is a “big picture event.” Many of the 4000 or so people who make the commitment to attend are entrusted with leadership roles within their school communities; heads of school, school trustees, deans of faculty, directors of development, that sort of thing. And blue blazers. Lots and lots of those.
The quality and range of the program offerings (the conference schedule booklet was 80 pages long!) was strong enough that session selection was a genuine challenge, with two of the sessions I would have been most interested in attending – Jonathan Martin‘s Schools of the Future Workshop, and Jamie Field Baker‘s session on Innovating the Strategic Plan – scheduled in the same time slot as our own! Thankfully, our session was well-attended and benefitted from the lively participation of some engaged and thoughtful people, which made it all seem worth it. It was also encouraging to have those moments of recognition, when a representative from another school talked about an initiative in an area that we’ve already made strides in, whether it was “the believing game,” campus-wide wireless access to the internet for both students and faculty, globalization, sustainability, or research-driven pedagogy.
I thought that NAIS President Pat Bassett did a great job of both mapping out a vision for NAIS (“We want the organization to serve as a hub and a resource for those schools working to innovate”), and challenging member schools to push themselves and acknowledge the ways in which the learning landscape has fundamentally changed. “Power used to depend upon restricted access to knowledge and information. Until about ten years ago. Now it’s all available… anytime, anywhere, to anyone w/ an internet connection.” He went on to cite some of the MacArthur Foundation’s research on learning shifts, including the following shifts (which in turn are reminiscent of David Warlick’s “Students vs. Learners” chart):

From knowing…to doing (project-based learning)

From teacher-centered… to student-centered

From the individual… to the team

From the consumption of info… to the construction of meaning

From schools… to networks (online peers & experts)

From single sourcing… to crowd sourcing

Pat’s tone, while generally positive, was tinged with concern; I got the sense that he feels schools which are unable to make these shifts run the risk of contracting a terminal case of irrelevancy.

Throughout the conference, I was struck by the implied tension between those who “get it” already, and those who are only just beginning to “get it.” In Chris Bigenho‘s great session with Jason Kern & Larry Kahn about running a TEDx Youth Day at a school, some of those drawn to the conversation seemed to despair of ever getting “the powers that be” at their schools to agree to such an energy-hungry commitment, in part because of the already existing constraints on student and faculty time.

In addition to my continuing to muse on the questions Mathieu Plourde has been wrestling with around how people are moved to change their learning practices, my two biggest “take-aways” from this conference were related to alignment and reflection. In a session entitled, “Who’s Really Teaching Our Kids? The Importance of Intentional School Cultures,” Ellen Taussig and Lucinda Lee Katz made a compelling case for the need for us to be intentional about school cultures, because a “default” culture is neither common nor intentional. “Alignment of culture across the entire organization is of vital importance. The clearer and stronger you are able to be, with multiple points of re-iteration, the stronger you’ll be as a community,” was the crux of their message, and of course it made me want to fly home and assess my own learning community’s level of cultural intentionality.
And reflection? We’ve moved into an era of flows, rather than stocks, of information and knowledge. (And here I’m riffing on ideas from Jerry Michalski‘s initial TummelVision conversation, where he in turn cites Mark Lesser‘s book, LESS: Accomplishing More By Doing Less.) The now-defunct print version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica was an inland sea; Wikipedia is a river. Comment streams on blogs are (usually) a trickle compared with Twitter’s raging torrent. Our 24-hour media landscape is now non-stop flow flow flow, and we carry it with us seemingly everywhere. This makes carving out spaces that are supportive of reflection that much more difficult… and that much more necessary. Reflection is an essential ingredient to the formation of new ideas (at least it is for me), as well a foundation of greater awareness. But we’re often too busy to reap those benefits.
How do we build spaces for reflection into our individual lives and into the culture of our communities? This is one of the big questions I brought home with me from Seattle. Next year, NAIS is coming to Philadelphia, and I hope many more members of my school community will be able to take advantage of the opportunity to swim in that particular sea. (Information on submitting a session proposal is here…)
(I didn’t even mention John Hunter’s amazing session
on The World Peace Game, which deserves a post all its own!
Luckily, Jonathan Martin has written just such a post.
Many thanks to our Head of School and Board of Trustees,
whose support made my attendance at this year’s conference possible.)

Are Ready for Your Closeup?

A friend recently asked if anyone had advice about preparing for a Skype interview. He was asking on behalf of an adult friend applying for an academic job, but I’m pulling together a response because it’s relevant to students embarking on a college search as well; an increasing number of schools include webcam-enabled interviews as an optional part of their college process. So, here are my ten tips:

1) Know as much going in as possible. Who will you be speaking with? Do they have any kind of digital presence that you could check out beforehand? What kind of time constraints are they working under?

2) Do a screen test. Fire up your webcam in the spot where you think you’ll be interviewing, and see what you think. If you know the platform you’ll be working with, get a friend to do a dry-run with you and give you feedback on both visuals and audio.

3) De-clutter. A bookshelf in the background? Not a bad idea. But remember that you want your interviewer to be focused on YOU, so you may want to “stage” the space behind you in the interests of that.

4) Dress to impress. You want to feel both snazzy and comfortable. If those two things don’t usually go together for you, take advantage of the limited view of your webcam… dress up above the waist, but as long as your feet are off-camera, go ahead and wear your fuzzy bunny slippers.

5) Give yourself something to look at. You’ll be tempted, as the interviewee, to look at the visual of the person you’re talking with. But in order for them to feel that, you have to look at the camera. Put a Post-It just above your camera with a note that says, “Look here,” to remind yourself.

6) Smile early and often. There’s all kinds of research out there about how we respond to smiles. It’s hardwired; make it work for you.

7) Plan for the 3 things you think you HAVE to say in the interview. Put another Post-It note up near the first one, and write yourself a little three-word reminder, e.g. “Mentor” “Service-Learning” “Philly.” Add a smiley face to the second Post-It. (See #3, above.)

8) Plan to listen actively. Think about what phrases you might use in order to draw your interviewer out. “You mentioned something earlier that got me thinking…”

9) Plan for the stumper. If you get asked a a question that is challenging for you, or that you didn’t expect, you’ll need to buy yourself a little time. Film yourself in that moment so you have a sense of what you look like when your wheels are turning.

10) Think about whether you might want to record yourself. You might find that it won’t all sink in on the first pass, and that you’d be grateful, when working on your thank-you note, to be able to refer to some of the points covered with greater specificity. (Thank-you notes are increasingly rare and a good way to stand out in a positive way.)

What did I miss? Got any tips to share?

(Added later: If it’s a “live and in person”
interview you’ve got coming up,
check out these great tips
from Carol Barash of Story to College fame.)

The Poppyseed Principle

(image via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license)

I used to work in an office that was just a few flights of stairs and courtyard away from a bagel place. Inevitably, then, on some rushed mornings, a bagel became my breakfast.

On one such day, I went into the bathroom down the hall from my office at about 4pm and was horrified to discover that I had a poppyseed stuck between two of my front teeth. It must have been there for hours!

At that moment, the Poppyseed Principle was born. Ever since then, if I see something that falls into the category of “I’d want someone to tell me,” in my life, I try to take a moment to give them a friendly, private (when possible) heads up. It has been an unexpectedly nice way to connect with people; folks have been invariably grateful.

And back in the office where it all began? I switched to sesame seed bagels!

Badge Learning Stories

I’m participating in a collaborative conversation about the possibilities of Mozilla’s proposed Open Badge project, and was inspired their call for imagined scenarios within our fields of interest. (Also inspired by Andy Duckworth‘s example; thanks again, Andy!) These two accounts are entirely fictitious, and are meant as an extended imagining of how these badges might play out. Enjoy!
Scene 1:
Carmen Pulido started taking piano lessons when she was seven, but taught herself to play the guitar. When the bass player for her fledgling garage band moved to South Carolina, Carmen started teaching herself bass. And shortly thereafter, as the Nilla Woofers ran through a song that sounded depressingly like their last one, she had an epiphany and realized that what she really needed was someone with a knack for arranging. “I bet there’s a badge for that!” said her tech-savvy friend and lyricist Gigi. So they hit up Facebook, and sure enough, the lead vocalist of a band they’d heard and liked on Radcast had an arranger badge posted in his public backpack. They clicked through to the issuing org, and discovered that of the 456 “Stave Master” badges posted that year, 23 were in New Jersey. Now all they had to do was post a badge-ad and start figuring who might be their best fit.
Scene 2:
Alan Brightman had developed a reputation for genius in the kitchen. His swimming teammates had credited his pre-meet power smoothies with at least one win. And whenever the going got tough — for example, when midterms rolled around — Alex’s response was to break out the measuring cups and bake up a storm. As Alex’s senior year of high school and its attendant stresses approached, he looked at his school’s elective course offerings and thought for the 100th time that what he really wanted to learn about was food. And then he noticed the paragraph on independent study, which had somehow never caught his eye before. “Any junior or senior student wishing to propose a course which would count as an independent study must first find a faculty member who is willing to serve as a mentor and sponsor to them for the duration of the semester in which the course is proposed.” Unfortunately, the application deadline was only two weeks away, and school wasn’t even in session yet. Alex remembered that when his friend Carl had been thinking about taking flying lessons last year, he had used the school’s Learning Community Portfolio portal to find an adult with a pilot’s license who he could reach out to with questions. Alex wondered if the faculty section of the Learning Community site would display the public badges of Upper School teachers. He logged in and started poking around, wishing that the search function was a little more intuitive. Okay, here was one teacher with a barbecue badge… kind of basic, but cause for hope… Alex kept scrolling…
In my work as an academic matchmaker, I work with some students who have not yet found their “tribes” as learners. For me, one of the exciting aspects of the Open Badge project is the possibilities for transparency.
“Transparency means showing others what’s going on inside so that people can be attracted to what you do.” Douglas Rushkoff,

Image credit: photo used via cc license; detail, someone worked REALLY HARD, by rocket ship)