Slow Thinking and Great Questions

“Close Your Eyes and Smile!”
Lisa Thuman & Liz Davis facilitating at EduCon2.4
(photo from Flickr, by Stephen Ransom, aka @ransomtech)

From David Jakes’ powerful “What if…” framing to Zac Chase‘s investigation of inquiry as a tool, questions ruled the day at EduCon 2.4 this year.

It was my third year attending live (the first year I had to attend virtually because I had a terrible cold), and once again I collected pre- and post-reflections from other attendees in a digital archive.

I attended great sessions again this year, most of which have already been reflected upon by someone else by now.

It occurred to me, while sitting in a fantastic session facilitated by Kirsten Olson, Chad Sansing, Christina Cantrill, and Paul Oh (via Skype) and thinking about contributing, that maybe part of the reason I like collecting others’ reflections on the experience is that I know it will take me a while to process my own reflections. That session was the first time I’ve ever “outed” myself as a slow thinker to a group of people. Later someone said to me, “You just need more processing time,” which I think might be true.

Since then, I’ve told several more people about my “drink deeply, process, then reflect transparently” pattern, and have had some great conversations come out of that. It felt like a risky admission the first time, but has felt less and less so with each subsequent re-telling. (You’d think I would have been able to predict this classic “coming out” pattern!)

Another thread I noticed running through the sessions this year at EduCon was the increasing emergence of the “how can we ask this of students if we’re not even willing to try it ourselves?” meme. I saw and hears more introspection on the part of educators about their roles… within their classrooms, their schools, and their learning communities.

Conferences like EduCon and the edcamps, coupled with Twitter, have changed how I think about thinking.

I’m more willing to share a thought that feels nascent and unformed, because I’ve seen others do so and been grateful for it. I’m much more interested in tapping into the genius of the room than I am in “standing and delivering” up at the front. (I’ve heard several people say that edcamp has “spoiled them” on traditional conferences… more on that in a future post.) I’m more aware than ever of who’s NOT in the room, partially because of the continuing challenge of inclusivity, and because I can always feel myself leaning in when someone is speaking from their individual, lived experience. And my inability to coax, cajole, or otherwise convince anyone from my current school community to join me at EduCon makes me wonder… about my own abilities as a leader, and about how many different guises resistance to change can take.

I continue to long for the opportunity to hear more student voices, and wonder how EduCon would feel if the call for conversations explicitly stated that proposals which included student perspectives would be given preference. (It’s a tribute to EduCon‘s focus on the idea of co-creation that I can even imagine such a thing; so many conferences seem to (rightly?) assume that students wouldn’t want to have anything to do with such an event.) And everywhere I go, sensitized as I am, I see and hear other people asking questions about who’s in the room:
So… I left EduCon determined to nudge my work in schools closer to something that feels like co-creation. And I came home feeling clearer about the fact that I am now more interested in asking great questions than in finding right answers. I find that I’m lifting others’ questions up for sharing more often as well. Questions like Bud Hunt’s, who in this post asked, “How do you build love and care into your systems and infrastructures and learning environments and experiences?” Or Shelley Wright’s, who recently asked, “What are you doing to fire up their curiosity, rather than just demanding their compliance?”

(I’m so pleased to be getting this post up!
It’s over a month since EduCon2.4 wound down.
I wonder if I’ll be the

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)

140edu Post-Conference Report

(photo by @ShellTerrell)

Earlier this month, two RPS students and I participated as panelists at the “140edu” conference in NYC. This conference was the brainchild of Jeff Pulver, an internet communications entrepeneur with a passion for connecting people and ideas, and Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the inquiry-based Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

The conference was a two-day event hosted at the 92nd Street Y, and the call for proposals included the following statement:

“The changes in the way we live our lives must create change in the way we teach and learn. The real-time web should create profound changes in the way we think about what, how and why students and teachers can do, create and communicate. The very nature of what we consider “school” should be radically different given the powerful reach of the communication tools our students have at their disposal. #140edu is dedicated to exploring and expanding that change.”

The best way to get a quick feel for the conference might be to take a look at the list of speakers. All sessions were designed to be introductory, and each clocked in at 15 minutes, max. I was pleased that my proposal to bring two students and talk about ways in which the internet and its affordances have enabled us to “change our default settings” as learners was accepted, and on Tuesday, August 2nd, I met Niki Kakarla and Mike Fedorochko in NYC after one brief in person planning conversation earlier. (John Miller attended the conference as well; it was so nice to connect with you there, John!)

Here’s the video from our session:



(I’ve put in a request to get my second “e” back.) smiley.gif

We DID get some good questions and comments, so I was a little disappointed that those didn’t make it into the video. Of the questions I remember, my favorite was, “Would you consider these students typical?”

To which I responded something like, “I absolutely consider these students typical in their passion and in their desire to do meaningful work. I think we all want to see ourselves as capable of making relevant contributions to our communities. But I think that Niki and Mike are probably ATYPICAL in the opportunities that have been given to them, and in the opportunities which they have created for themselves.”

I asked Niki and Mike if they would take a few minutes to share their thoughts as well…

Niki’s after-thoughts:

“Being a speaker at the 140edu conference as a student was an extraordinary experience for me. As an audience member, I was surrounded by a room full of brilliant people who were all open to each other’s ideas. As a speaker onstage, there were so many enthusiastic people waiting to hear what I had to say. After the conference I realized just how many people wanted to talk about our ideas and how to move forward with them. This was probably one of the coolest things I could have been a part of. I was able to network, learn about new ideas, and meet people from different backgrounds with different perspectives.”

Mike’s after-thoughts:

“Our group spoke at Jeff Pulver’s 140edu conference a few weeks ago to a crowd of wonderfully open-minded educators. Being one of the only real students at the conference was both refreshing and disappointing. On the one hand, I was given the opportunity to meet and pay thanks to the hundreds of extremely intelligent and committed individuals working to make the necessary changes in the way we approach education. On the other hand, the utter lack of student input and participation, even amongst such progressive and open-minded educators, was disappointing to say the least. As a rising senior, it’s tough for me to come back to Rutgers Prep for my final year and not be envious of the students who have been given the opportunity to learn organically in an environment like that of the much-lauded Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. It is my firm belief that our schools are forcing students to become risk averse, training students to theorize instead of apply, and disenfranchising creativity instead of empowering it. The reality of the situation is that schools, parents, governments, and many colleges are trying to quantify something that is sometimes extremely difficult to quantify. As teachers, I urge you to keep an open mind, experiment with newer and better methods, and recognize and work to mitigate as much as possible the frustration many students feel with their education. I have been extremely lucky to attend a school whose faculty are so incredibly committed, and I simply would not be in my current position without the dedication and influence of Rutgers Prep faculty members. Thank you.”

(Back to Shelley again.) I am grateful to have been able to attend and speak at this conference. Committing to presenting helped sharpen my thinking as I tried to figure out how to pull together something that the students and I could be proud to have shared. I’ve been exploring different conference structures over the past few years (I’m interested in the advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of “containers” for learning), and it was a treat to be a part of this intense, engaging, and multi-layered experience and conversation. I’ve put in a proposal to facilitate a conversation at another edu-themed conference this fall, and if I get the nod, based on the positive feedback we received at 140edu, I’ll try to once again include students.

(The recordings of the other talks from the 140edu conference are here.)

edcamp Philly 2011

All but the first of these photos were taken by my friend Scot Wittman (aka @mapographer); it was so great to have someone from my school community — and an actual photographer, no less! — with me at edcamp Philly this year!

I’ve become something of an unconference fangirl.

@mapographer halfway down the stairs
at edcamp Philly 2011

(Chalk helps folks know they’re in the right spot.)

(@kjarrett & co. welcoming folks)

Creating the schedule.

(@mbteach, facilitating)

(deciding on our next session;
plus me, in the yellow t-shirt, back left)

I am drawn to unconferences for some of the same reasons I am drawn to Quaker Meeting or a block party. I like the idea of creating a well-designed container for conversation and connection, without determining ahead of time exactly what those conversations will be about, or who will connect. More “hang out in the kitchen,” less “sit in your appointed seat in the formal dining room.”

I am also perpetually interested in the idea of what is required for these containers we create to feel genuinely inclusive. Watching Heather Gold’s recent talk on “Tools for Tummeling” at WordPress reminded me again of the power of acknowledgment. We all want to be seen and recognized for who we are. But inclusivity doesn’t just happen. Unconferences have a few structural elements which I believe lean in the direction of inclusivity. Unconferences typically have a non-hierarchical approach to planning and often recommend an explicit decoupling of interest from approval (just because I leave your session to check in on another one doesn’t mean that I think what you have to say isn’t valuable). These can make unconferences a better container for me than a more traditional conference structure. Unconferences have also helped me more clearly understand the elements of traditional conferences that DON’T work for me. (E.g. I’m supposed to know what I’m going to want to facilitate a conversation about nine months ahead of time?! And there won’t be any wireless access?! What?!)

I am very excited to attend an event next week being curated by Jeff Pulver of 140 Characters Conference fame. The testimonials about his past events are pretty compelling. I’m also still a little shocked that I’ll actually be speaking. And hoping my students and I can talk fast enough to leave room for some meaningful (if brief) connections with the other folks in the room.

(Our assigned time slot at 140edu
is at 3:45pm on Tuesday, August 2nd.
We’ll be talking about “Changing our ringtones:
going beyond ‘default’ as learners”
And they’re going to try to livestream it,
so do follow along at home
if you’re not able to make it to the 92nd Street “Y” in NYC.)

Students v. Learners

Like Scott McLeod, I am struck by the simplicity and depth of this chart from a post by David Warlick:



Relationship with educators

Students are employees, required to obediently follow instructions.

Learners are citizens with a vested interest in the learning society.

Relationship with other “Students”

Students are competitors

Learners are collaborators


Obligation: Students are culturally obliged to work for the teacher & for compensation (below)

Responsibility: Learners are motivated by an understood and realized “value” in their work, especially when it is valuable to others.


Institution defined grades and gateways to college (another institution) and a good job (another institution)

A sense of ongoing accomplishment that is not delivered but earned, and not symbolic but tangible and valuable — an investment.

Mode of Operation

Compliant, group-disciplined, objective-oriented, and trainable

Persevering, self-disciplined, group- and goal-oriented, resourceful, and learning in order to achieve rather than achieving learning.





..with packaged knowledge and tools for recording packaged knowledge — prescribed and paced learning

..with tools for exploring a networked variety of content, experimenting with that content, and discovering, concluding, and constructing knowledge — invented learning


Measuring what the student has learned.

Measuring what the learner can do with what has been learned.

Additional questions:

> What assumptions about where the young people in our learning communities fall on this chart do the adults in our communities make?

> What about parents?

> To what extent do we foster opportunities to share our pedagogical philosophies within learning communities?

> Have you undergone a personal transition from a “student” identity to a “learner” identity? If so, was that intentional? Accidental? Counter-cultural?

My Next Job

A friend with a knack for asking great questions
asked me recently what my next job would be.
My first thought may have been, “Do you know something I don’t know?” This was quickly followed by thinking, “I’m still learning new things doing this one!”
Then, trying to go “blue sky,” I talked about my desire to help make the hidden shared interests of community members visible. About my interest in creating opportunities for extended conversation. And wanting to be engaged in teaching our students about networked learning and empowered use of the intertubes.
But as I am something of a “slow-burn” thinker, it has taken me several weeks to come up with this fully-fledged description of my imagined next job. Or one of them, at least. 🙂
So here goes:
Shelley Krause is the lead curator of her school’s Learning Portfolios project. Used for assessment, reflection, and sharing of student & professional learning, Learning Portfolios were first used by the school’s art department and students applying to undertake independent study projects, and have since have become an integral part of the way in which the entire school comes together and moves forward as a learning community. Shelley’s responsibilities with the project include the following:
  • assist with the design and implementation of the “New To Us” learner intake process for new members of the school’s learning community
  • help coordinate the design and implementation of the school’s Learning Portfolio system
  • ensure the portability and continued availability of access to projects selected for Learning Portfolio inclusion
  • collaborate and guide team and departmental leaders in order to support portfolio-friendly curricular design
  • help design and support the processes through which teachers and students select work for inclusion in their professional and learner portfolios, respectively
  • keep up-to-date on current trends in ePortfolio design and use; serve as a resource to learners through scheduled portfolio consultations
  • teach an elective class in digital presence and networked learning or English
  • run periodic Portfolio 101 workshops for school parents
  • curate the school’s current and archival sets of public Learning Portfolios
  • confer with the school’s IT group about the evolving software, access, and storage needs of the Learning Portfolio program
(Sounds pretty great, right?
And you might want to check out
some of the portfolio sites I found
while researching this:
I’ll let you know
if/when it becomes a personal reality!)

Powerful Learning Experience: 4th Grade Poetry

Two years ago I got hooked on a project I had assigned myself. A teacher in my building has long led her students in an intensive exploration of the lives of the people living in Appalachia, culminating in student-led tours of all kinds of demonstrations of the depth of their understanding.

I signed up for one of the tours and was absolutely transfixed by the power of the children’s imagination. At about the same time, I had been seeing Google- and Slideshare-enabled embedded slide shows popping up in blogs I read. When I read the poems our fourth graders had written in the voices of the people they’d been studying, my immediate thought was for all the people who wouldn’t have a chance to marvel at their work, and this is what inspired what happened next.

The students had initially illustrated their poems with drawings, but these had not been converted into a digital format, so I set out to find images that would reflect the strength and deep engagement of the students’ language. This in turn led me on a whole exploration of issues of copyright and fair use in the digital age. Once I’d discovered the treasure trove that is the FSA/OWI federal photographic archive, I approached the classroom teacher with my desire to help share the students’ work with the wider world, and she helped me think through issues like parent permission and timeline.

Then I hit the internet. I dove into Google Docs and figured out how to generate an embeddable slideshow (not that difficult, as it turned out). I printed out a copy of each of the poems I’d been granted permission to share, and went image hunting. During this process, even though I wasn’t able to talk with the students themselves, I felt very much as if I was working collaboratively with them, since their words were providing the starting point for my research. Soon, I was completely taken over by the project. I got up early in the morning, I worked over my lunch hour, I saw images of coal towns in my mind’s eye as I was lying in bed at night.

There were some false-starts as I figured out how best to keep track of my research; early on, I found and then lost track of some great images because I hadn’t saved the url before moving on. I developed structures and procedures to help encourage more methodical record-keeping, and after a bit I got into a groove. I ask my students every year if they have area of interest or engagement that generates the state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed “flow,” a state in in which your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost. Working on this project was truly a “flow” situation for me.

What made this a powerful learning experience?
  • I was working at the edges of my knowledge
  • I was inspired by the “raw materials” I had to work with
  • There was a collaborative energy contributing to the project
  • A strong desire to help shine a light on others’ creative work
  • A relatively defined window of opportunity (I had my regular work to get back to!)
  • I was drawing on both my artistic and technical skills
  • I had the feeling that I had identified & was fulfilling an unmet need

(This is the last of three stories
of powerful personal learning that I wrote up
with an eye towards contributing
to Sam Chaltain’s Faces of Learning project.
You could, too.)

Powerful Learning Experience: Shakespeare

(image via Brian on Flickr)

In high school, after my best friend’s parents sent her away to boarding school and my parents didn’t, school became a pretty lonely scene for me. Not only because of her absence and my grappling with my lesbian identity in a pre- Gay-Straight Alliance world, but maybe even more so because I was a wanna-be intellectual in a population where, in a typical year, only about 40% of the graduating class would go on to attend a four-year college. Being engaged with the wider world of ideas landed me in a pretty small club. There were sometimes opportunities to take courses at an honors or Advanced Placement level, but it depended on interest and ability — my senior year, the AP English Literature course that I would have loved to take didn’t “run.” The rules of regular English let me test out of some of the units I could demonstrate mastery of, so Mrs. McLain found herself writing me pass after pass to the library, where I stumbled upon a video of a PBS special featuring a young Ian McKellen entitled, “Acting Shakespeare.” I was absolutely spellbound.

(image by Steve Granitz,
courtesy of WireImage)

I watched the video over the course of multiple days and then, when I’d reached the end, re-wound it and started again. I even created my own index of what scenes appeared at what point in the recording — effectively creating a “chapter selection” option in a pre-DVD world.

Somehow Mrs. McLain found out how I was spending my “release time,” and issued me a challenge — could I memorize some Shakespeare? She must have known by then that I have a positive orientation towards challenge — I said, “Sure.” It was the only time outside of drama classes that I’d ever been asked to memorize anything. For several weeks, then, I immersed myself in Shakespeare, watching the video during school hours, then scouring the plays at night for selections that I would want to memorize. Mrs. McLain was my spark and the ultimate audience for my memorized soliloquies, but she made sure to leave me plenty of room to make the work my own.

And to this day I can recite satisfying chunks of Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew.

What made this a powerful learning experience?

  • Again, a strong and warm connection to my teacher
  • a move from feeling isolated to feeling connected
  • a chance to revel in someone else’s mastery (Shakespeare AND McKellen!)
  • “opt-in” — this was essentially work I assigned myself
  • challenge
  • customization
  • immersion — I was spending time on this both in and out of school
  • resonance — during what was an emotional time for me personally, I was able to engage with art that had strong emotional content

(I am working on several of these stories
of powerful personal learning
with an eye towards contributing
to Sam Chaltain’s Faces of Learning project.
You could, too.)