Archive for the ‘Damian’s Favorites’ Category

Ten

This past week, tech journalists across the web celebrated the tenth birthday of the hashtag.  While they are ubiquitous across social networks now, the hashtag as we have come to know it originated, as have so many other major events and movements of the last decade, on Twitter:

Despite the fact that at that time I was a teacher on summer break, I consider that time period to be one of the most significant times in my career.  Having started experimenting with blogs, wikis, and many other emerging “Web 2.0” tools in my teaching in the year leading up to summer ’07, that summer was when I took my deep dive headfirst into the world of the read/write Web and social networking.  I, along with a cohort of other early adopter types, created a Twitter account, and very quickly we teachers, professors, and administrators began to find each other.

My Twitter timeline, ca. summer 2008

2007 was also the summer I started this blog; after some fits and starts throughout July, I finally pulled the trigger on both my Twitter account and my first blog post in early August.

At the risk of sounding cliche, it is truly amazing to look back and consider how much has changed.  At that time, my wife and I had both just turned 30, I was about to start my eighth (and what would be my final) year of teaching high school English, I was less than a year away from completing my graduate degree in school psychology, and I was still a relatively new father of a two-year-old, with one on the way.

In the years since, a lot has changed, both professionally and personally.  My six-year career in school psychology came and went, I started and finished a doctoral program in educational leadership, and I left the district in which I started my career for three jobs in two subsequent districts.  We turned 40 this year, and our children started 7th and 4th grade this week.  We will be the parents of a teenager this coming February.

But time marches on and change happens to us all.  What is really mindblowing to me is how my activities that summer have so permanently impacted my approach to my profession, and how the effects continue to this day.  Education can be a very isolating profession, even under the best of circumstances.  Connecting with other people through social media was novel and cool, but honestly, I had been doing that since my Bulletin Board Service (BBS) days in the early ’90s.  The concept was not new to me; actually, I think the familiarity of it was what made me so comfortable jumping in with both feet.

Where the true value was was the discussions and sharing of ideas, both through chats (Twitter) and in longer form, on our blogs, back when people still used to comment on them.  I know it can sound trite to hear, “Twitter is the best PD you’ll ever have!”, and I don’t entirely agree with that sentiment on its face, but for me, gaining access to such a vast multiplicity of perspectives, experiences, stories, and professional backgrounds through the people I met/meet there… I mean, how could that not change a person?  When I look back over a career that started in 2000, I really do see the summer of 2007 as a major demarcation.  Pre- and post-summer ’07 is my BCE and CE.

Perhaps I’m looking back through rose-tinted glasses, but it seems there was something different about it all back then.  Blogging – at least from classroom teachers and school administrators working in the trenches – has largely died off (I clearly just don’t know when to quit).  Real-time Twitter discussions that used to bring me fresh ideas and perspectives seem to me to have mostly devolved into individual or corporate self-promotion and banal, self-congratulatory chats rehashing the same topics and fluff phrases (a notable and most appreciated exception is #educolor).

I still find value in the network, I just use it differently now than I did a decade ago.  That’s as it should be, I think.  As nostalgic as I get for the “good old days”, I think it would be worse if I was doing the exact same things with social media a decade down the road.  That might be comforting and familiar, but it’s also stale.

Much of my Twitter activity now focuses on promoting happenings in my district (more broadcasting than interacting), and eyeballing my mentions, it seems that most of the interpersonal interaction I have on Twitter is between and among people I work with – sharing resources I believe will have a direct impact on their instruction and amplifying, retweeting, and otherwise promoting the great work of our staff.

Of course, people in my extended network still tweet interesting articles and resources from the web, and I love it when people tweet passages from books they’re reading.  Even an interesting title or book cover is enough to send me looking for more information; after all, I want to read what smarter people and better educators than me are reading.  It’s how I learn and grow, and the potential and promise of being more than what I currently am is what sucked me through this particular looking glass all those years ago in the first place.  Despite my misgivings and grievances, the benefits ultimately outweigh the drawbacks for me, and ten years and a quarter of my life on, I still wouldn’t give up those learning opportunities for anything.

ICYMI: My Faves 2014-2016

I tag each post on this blog with some categorical classification, and one I started using a few years ago is Damian’s Favorites – this tag represents what I feel are the best posts on this site (or at least the ones I wish got read more than the others).  Periodically I like to do “Best Of” recap posts; I did one in 2011 and one in 2014, so I figured I’m due.  Below are some of my favorite posts I’ve written since my last rerun post recap in September 2014:

Happy New Year, everyone; let’s make 2016-2017 the best one yet.

Arts Advisory Council: Year in Review & Looking Ahead

In my last post, I described the origins of my district’s Arts Advisory Council.  This post describes how the first year of implementation went and how things may change in the year to come.


The Past Year

We planned to meet a total of 5 times this past year; we actually met 4  – October, November, February, and May (I ended up having to cancel our April meeting due to PARCC preparations across the district).  The general structure looked like this:

  • October: Establishment of purpose, brainstorming goals for 2015-2016, set “mini-goals”/benchmarks to be achieved by next meeting.
  • November: Check in on progress toward goals, work in subcommittee as necessary, revisit mini-goals to be achieved by next meeting.
  • February: Same as November; also, I solicited feedback from staff on new district curriculum document format
  • May: Re-cap of goals achieved this year; preliminary discussion of goals for 2016-2017, including developing mission/vision for department aligned with district strategic plan

I need to stress that when I say “accountability”, I do NOT mean accountability to me.  There are no administrative consequences attached to achieving or not achieving goals set here; if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.  In this context, it is accountability to the group that matters, and we help each other meet the “mini-goals” along the way in order to get to the bigger goal at the end.

One major success to come out of the AAC was our spring Arts Festival at Lawrence High School, which our teachers resurrected this year after a few years of not doing it.  The AAC also sparked conversations between our intermediate, middle, and high school instrumental music teachers that got them collaborating on inter-building activities with students, with an eye toward retaining and recruiting students for the instrumental music program as they advance through the grades.  We also discussed other things we’d like to see happen with the program eventually; we weren’t able to do them all this year, but they’re up for discussion for 2016-2017.

It’s worth noting that while most of our time was spent on goals we collectively set, the AAC was also a good way for me to get feedback on initiatives that may not be exclusively arts-related (e.g., district curriculum documents) but that impact our department.  If I was a building principal, I might be able to address this with all my staff at once at a faculty meeting.  Since my staff are spread out across 7 buildings, the AAC is a chance for many of us to all be in the same physical location for a discussion.   Folks who do attend the meeting can then return to their respective buildings and speak with their art/music colleagues to share the discussion highlights and get their input as well.

Looking Ahead

In retrospect, you could say I got a little ahead of myself by implementing the AAC before we had a unified departmental mission and vision.  After all, if not for that, how do we prioritize and make informed decisions about how to grow the program?  I’ll concede that valid point, but I stand by my decision.  This year was experimental, and I said as much to my staff at the very first AAC meeting.  In the first year, I was more concerned with feeling out the format and seeing how folks would work within the structure.

So what’s next for Year Two?  In keeping with the spirit of things, that’s the council’s call, not mine alone.  Given my druthers, these are some things I’d like to see us improve upon in 2016-2017:

  • More art teachers represented.  I’m not sure why this was, but of the 10-11 regulars at the AAC meetings, only two were art teachers.  They did a great job, of course, but it definitely tilted our discussions toward the music end of things.  I plan to speak to more art teachers individually about joining the AAC and finding out if there are any barriers preventing them from attending, or if it’s just a question of priorities.
  • Develop an arts program mission & vision.  We spitballed this a bit at our May 2016 meeting, and my ‘mini-goal’ for this coming October is to create a first draft of each from the bullet point ideas we brainstormed.  The council will refine it from there and align it with the district’s five-year strategic plan that lasts until 2020.
  • Develop ‘ground rules’ for our meeting time.  This is more preventative than anything else, but I think it probably makes sense to establish some behavioral norms or expectations.  By and large we are a very mutually supportive group, but there are bound to be disagreements at some point.  I think having a mission and vision to refer to can help with some of that, but it’s probably worthwhile to have something to point to that outlines how we disagree with each other, and we need to have it in place before we actually need it, if that makes sense.  I think I need to bring this to the council to flesh out a bit more.
  • PD on how to make it better.  Once we collectively reflect as a council on how last year went and what the group wants to improve, I’d like to research more formal models of what we do to see if we can make it even better.  I like a lot of what I’ve seen of the World Cafe Method, and my friends Rich Wilson and Mike Ritzius are doing some wonderful things with Art of Hosting.  Undoubtedly, they would take issue with some of the language I use in these posts (I don’t have to “give teachers a voice” – they already have one; it’s not my place to give them one!), but that’s what I mean – I don’t even know what I don’t know, but I know there are organized models out there for this sort of work we’re doing, and if nothing else, it’s my responsibility to make sure that if we’re going to do it, we are going to do it well.  Mike and Rich offered an AoH workshop in Philly earlier this year that I couldn’t make, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled for future opportunities (and of course, bringing as many council members as I can with me).

Overall, I’m quite satisfied with our first year of the Arts Advisory Council, and am excited to see what it becomes in its second year.  I like the idea that we were able to adapt something that is typically used for decision making at the building level for use with our academic department, and I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has done this and is further along in the lifespan of their own committee and can give me some hints or advice.

Arts Advisory Council: Origins

In my last post, I spoke briefly about the Arts Advisory Council, a new initiative in my district aimed at K-12 program development in the arts.  I’ve alluded to it in several posts over the last year, but haven’t sat down to put metaphorical pen to paper until now.  This first post of two discusses where the idea came from and how I pitched it to my staff.

Oh, and happy ninth birthday to my blog!


Origins

The basis for the AAC came out of my dissertation research on distributed leadership.  My review of the literature found that some element of shared decision making was a hallmark of schools with positive cultures and climates and successful distributed leadership initiatives.  To vastly oversimplify for the sake of this blog post, including teachers and other non-administrative staff members in such initiatives lead to high degrees of trust and open lines of communication between teachers and administrators and high degrees of investment in implementation of school initiatives.  Assuming (!) these initiatives are tied to advancing the organizational mission or vision, the logic then goes that you’re more likely to have more people on board with moving together toward the goals of the organization.  Again, a VAST oversimplification, but if you want more details, click the link above and read my dissertation and check out the citations.

In addition to the lit review, I heard first-hand about similar shared decision-making structures put into place when I interviewed the administrators and staff members of two middle schools in the pseudonymous Wellbrook School District in Delaware.  While each school does it slightly differently, both schools use a committee structure comprised of not only teachers and administrators, but also secretaries, custodians, food services staff, and anyone else who wishes to contribute to the discussions at the table.  Any member is welcome to bring a topic for discussion to the group, and all ideas are given fair consideration and ‘kicked around’ from various viewpoints.

Of course, this research is all relevant to building level decision making; as a K-12 department supervisor who oversees the arts program across 7 different buildings, I have different issues and topics for consideration that could benefit from the same approaches outlined above.  Putting research aside for a moment, though: if I have 21 talented, dedicated teachers, all experts in their respective fields and grade levels, why would I not seek to harness their professional opinions and perspectives as I seek to grow the district arts program?  To think I could do it all myself – even if I wanted to – seems to me the height of hubris, arrogance, and ignorance.

I decided I wanted to adapt this idea to the departmental level and involve any K-12 fine/performing arts teachers who wished to participate.  Our first meeting was in October 2015.

Getting Off the Ground

I emailed my K-12 music, art, and drama teachers in September 2015 with a brief explanation of what I was planning, and when/where we would meet to discuss.  Of course, this wasn’t the first most of them had heard of the idea of the AAC.  I had also brought it up in personal conversations with many staff members around the district – as early as the end of the previous school year (2014-2015) – partially to feel them out as to their interest level and partially to sow the seeds so the email wouldn’t be the first they heard of it.

I made sure to hold the meeting during a pre-scheduled meeting time.  Staff who attended the AAC meeting would not be staying beyond the end of their contract day or going to any additional meetings; they were just meeting with me in lieu of their respective building faculty meetings.  Armed with enough coffee & donuts to feed a small army, I made my case for the AAC to about half of the district’s art, music, and drama teachers (plus a French teacher who, while not technically a teacher of the arts, directs the middle school musical.  She asked if she could join the meeting and I was only too happy to oblige).

In my explanation, I laid out four broad outcomes I hoped to see come from the experience:

  • Give teachers a voice in the direction and development of the district arts program, both curricular and extracurricular
  • Give teachers a forum to voice concerns and problem-solve with content area colleagues (many art & music teachers in our district are ‘singletons’ in their buildings and don’t have others in their subject specialty with whom to talk during the day)
  • Develop a forum for proposing new ideas and collaboratively fleshing them out, with the benefit of multiple grade level and subject area perspectives
  • Develop actionable plans with built-in accountability for bringing solutions and proposals to fruition

As I said in the meeting, I was happy to come up with ideas and initiatives on my own, but I knew that the collective wisdom, experience, and creativity in the room far outweighed anything I could hope to do on my own.  To their credit, my teachers didn’t need to be asked twice – they ran with it, and the brainstorming began that afternoon.

In my next post, I’ll speak to what the first year of implementation looked like and what changes we might make as we begin the second year of the Arts Advisory Council.

Deven Black

At the time of writing, I’m supposed to be researching school reform initiatives for a grad class assignment.  Instead, I’ve spent the last hour or two refreshing my Facebook and Twitter feeds, watching educators from around the country mourn the loss of Deven Black.

I came to know Deven, as I have so many other wonderful educators in my career, through our shared activity on Twitter.  When we first “met”, Deven was a special education teacher in NYC, and he and I had many conversations about education (special and otherwise); we would later co-moderate a weekly chat on Twitter geared toward special education issues, which we did fairly regularly for the better part of a year.  He struck me as an interesting and deeply thoughtful guy for many reasons, not the least of which was the route he took into teaching.  From his blog’s “About” page:

After a stellar career as a middle school student I dropped out of two different high schools and a college, all before I was 17. That started what has been a long-lasting and continually evolving interest in schooling.

I started teaching at age 50, after being a newspaper reporter, radio newsman and talk-show host, voice-over artist, political campaign operative, bartender, restaurant manager, advertising copywriter, and public relations person. Of these careers, teaching is the most difficult, lowest paying and most rewarding. It took a long time to figure out, but being a teacher is what I want to be when I grow up. Like that is ever going to happen.

His career path in education later took him into the role of a school librarian, and I remember the zeal with which he approached his new position at the time.  He was written up in the School Library Journal in 2013, and won the first Bammy award for school librarians later that year.

While the specifics of our many conversations have long since faded from my memory, what stays with me from Deven – and what continues to inform my own work – is how much kindness, humanity, and thoughtfulness matter in teaching.  In the day-to-day work, it’s easy to get frustrated by and hung up on things that are, in the greater sense, ultimately pretty trivial.  Sometimes we – children and adults alike – put other things ahead of kindness: bureaucracy, pedantic rules, paperwork, outdated notions of authority, whatever.  In the long run, though, none of it is as important as showing kids you care.

His perspective, to me, was that of the underdog.  That may not be exactly the right word, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that he often pushed back against popular notions or opinions; sort of a “But did you ever consider…?” in defense of whatever people were tut-tutting about in the “these kids today” vein.  I don’t know if that was influenced by his own experience with formal education (as noted above), but it seems possible.  Listening to him was so valuable to me in part because that was a very different perspective than my own, as someone who was always very compliant and good at “doing school” as a kid.  He helped me get more in touch with my own empathy and humanity, which was particularly helpful in my position as a school psychologist.

Even in casual conversation, Deven challenged my thinking in such a way that even after we had fallen out of touch, I would (and still do) ask myself from time to time, “What would Deven have to say about this?”  He is one of a few educators whose influence – unbeknownst to them – acts as my own internal Jiminy Cricket, constantly checking my assumptions and gut reactions and forcing me to reexamine stances, situations, conflicts, and resolutions from multiple perspectives.  It’s a fairly short list of people who actively influence my thinking on a regular basis like that, but Deven was most certainly on it.

The circumstances surrounding Deven’s death are, to be frank, shocking. Maybe delving into that is appropriate for a piece on how it might and should have been prevented, but there are far better ways to memorialize the man, which is why I haven’t linked to any news articles here.  There are better things you can read.

Go read Deven’s blog.  There’s nearly four years worth of his collected writings on education archived there.

Go read his Twitter feed.  It seems to have been hijacked by spam most recently, but scroll down to the tweets dated early 2014 or earlier to see the kinds of resources he shared and hard questions he posed.

Go read his interview with the School Library Journal and find out why they called him “Middle School Maverick.”

Go read ALA’s writeup on his Bammy award win.  Regardless of what you or I think of these awards, he was recognized by his peers as one of the best.  That has to mean something.

Go read his interview with Wide Awake Minds, wherein he discusses the value of failure, curiosity, and school (h/t Ira Socol for the link).

Go watch his 2012 talk at #140Edu, “How to make dropping out of school work for you” (h/t Kristin Hokanson for the link)

I only knew the man for 7 or 8 years.  I certainly didn’t know him as well as others did, and I only actually met him face-to-face once, but through his writing and our conversations, he has had a tremendous influence on me.  I will miss him.


Update, 29 Jan 16 6:00pm

As expected, the tributes to Deven from the many people he impacted are starting to roll in.  I’ll add them here as I come across them: