Thursday, December 19, 2013

In the movie, City Slickers, the rugged, no-nonsense character of Curly (Jack Palance) asks Mitch (Billy Crystal) if he knows the “secret to life.” Mitch quickly admits that he doesn’t and asks Curly to tell him the secret. Curly, holds up one of his index fingers and tells him, “It’s one thing.” Still confused, Mitch asks Curly “What’s the one thing?”

Curly, looks intently at Mitch and says, “That’s what you got to figure out.”

When I was a senior in high school, our basketball team won sectional for the first time. This was before class basketball in Indiana. Accomplishing this milestone turned the small town of Ferdinand into New Orleans during Mardi Gras. The entire town erupted with people dancing and celebrating in the streets into the early morning. Local restaurants and bars rolled food and drinks literally onto the center line of the main street next to the only stoplight in the town. The players stood perched high up on fire trunks like celebrities at the Macy’s parade. The entire scene was rather shocking, a little insane, but loads of fun. All of this because we won a few basketball games.

This was 23 years ago and I’ve not seen anything quite like it since. Sure, I’ve seen larger parades and bigger parties and I’ve certainly had more personally rewarding moments in my life than that night. (Tonya, if you’re reading, don’t worry our wedding night and the birth of the girls still nudges out the sectional win.) But there was something truly remarkable about such a relatively trivial event that unleashed spontaneous celebrations and joy that was collectively felt that night. It’s tempting to dissect the team and examine the winning qualities, but I think that actually completely misses the point.

The secret to the success was that there was no secret of what was successful. The secret to success was one thing. Everyone wanted to win sectional. The team always strived to play their best and took pride in displaying good sportsmanship. But we all knew that we wouldn’t really be satisfied, until the team was cutting down the nets after a sectional win. And the goal of winning sectional wasn’t just in the hearts and minds of the players and coaches. Every parent and just about every community member was equally hungry for a sectional win. So, once the final horn blew, with our team up by a few points, the entire crowd raced to the floor. After the players received their piece of the net, fans followed taking their turn on the ladder to also get a piece.

My role on the team was playing the character Macho Man Randy Savage (actually, I wanted to include the mascot name, so I called myself the “Ranger Savage.”) You see, I was cut from the basketball team my junior year. But, I still wanted to win sectional my senior year. So, during my senior year, with the help of some friends, I organized and led some WWE-style Championship Wrestling skit that included breakable boards, a chainsaw, Hulk Hogan (an English teacher willing to get out of the box), and one of our seniors, who was a state-champion wrestler who entered the ring on a cable and pulley that went from the top bleachers to the center of the ring. Our little WWE event that started out as a skit during a pep session became “The Main Event” that was opened for public the night before sectional to build enthusiasm for the entire community.

Yes, it was ridiculous. But, man… I want to cut down the nets again. No, I’m not wanting to go back to the glory days of high school. But I miss the power of having such a tangible goal that people can’t help but high five each other in uncontrollable celebration when the goal is reached. Certainly sports have all the right ingredients giving cause for celebration: hard work, sacrifice, individual accountability, group accountability, trust, fans, and… (here comes the secret sauce) a collective, very clear, focused goal (or to use Curly’s words: “One thing.”)

I’m fortunate to either lead or be a member of some pretty amazing teams with passionate, talented people. I find the work that I do both challenging and rewarding. Although there are nights that I feel like we may face a losing season, the majority of the time I take pride in seeing the improvement that we made and feel successful in what we’ve accomplished. But, seeing our team get better or win a few games just isn’t the same as cutting down the nets. We’ve certainly taken moments to celebrate the completion of a difficult project or positive results of our hard work. But, that celebration usually consists of donuts and some coffee, or perhaps an extended lunch, but we quickly re-focus and are faced with the next task, project, or challenge.

I get it. Life isn’t sports. I’ve never entered any place of work by busting through a hoop to the cheers of a deafening crowd and pulsating music with spotlights following me as I hand out secret elbow bumps to my office workers. And, I’m only guessing that even the best teams in any industry probably don’t charge each other in excitement and joy, tumbling to the floor forming a human pyramid in their conference rooms when they reach their goals. But surely we can do better.

So I’ve been asking myself… What would make the technology department at Danville Schools enthusiastically pump their fist in the air, cause teachers to do a happy dance in the workroom, and make administrators jubilantly jump out of their chairs with pride? What is it that inspires us? What is it that unites us and brings us clarity and focus? What not only reminds us why we are in education, but offers concrete evidence that the work we are doing is making a difference and that even some of the most difficult challenges can be overcome when we work together. I’m increasingly convinced that there’s really only one thing that keeps us from working together to our fullest potential and collectively celebrating like sports stars.

So, what is that one thing? That’s what we have to figure out.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ahh, yes, the holiday season is upon us. The time of the year where my kids argue relentlessly about whose turn it is to hold the iPad in back of the car, my in-laws debate all topics ranging from politics to school reform, and my family reflects on the great mysteries of life - like why our pre-lit Christmas tree refuses to light. Also, between my threats to pull the car over, my political and school reform rants, and my wrestling with christmas lights, I do often reflect on my blessings. I think about how lucky I am to have my health, my home, Tonya and the girls, and - yes - my job. I realize that it’s not just the work itself that I find rewarding. I find great joy in being surrounded with the wonderful people that I get to work with every day: in my office, the administrative team, the teachers, staff, and students, but certainly last by not least the technology department that I have the pleasure of leading.

So, before the tryptophan begins to numb my body, I want to share 3 qualities of the technology department that make me thankful. In doing so, I also hope to initiate thought and conversation about what qualities in general makes a good IT department.

#1 -- I am thankful that the tech staff cares.

If you met any of the Danville technology staff members, they may not initially strike you initially as the warm and cuddly type. And, I can't say that we sit around watching Lifetime TV until we break into sentimental sobs. But, spend any time at all with any of them, and there will be no mistaking their caring hearts and genuine pride in the work they do. They take it personal when network performance isn't at it's peak, when there is a delay in getting an iPad updated, when there is glitch with our SIS, or a training doesn't go as well as planned. And, it's really not a carrot or stick that keeps them doing their very best day in and day out. Certainly, our teachers kind and appreciative nature makes it easier to keep a bounce in their steps. But even on the bad days, they are constantly thinking and working to make things better for our students and staff.

#2 -- I am thankful that the tech staff is curious.

I think the secret of being "good with technology" is being curious about technology. No one ever knows all there is to know about technology. If anyone even pretends that they do, I certainly don't want that person on my team. Although I am generally a fan of technical certifications and formal education, my tech staff excels because they are always hungry to learn something new and they continue to sharpen their skills at becoming better learners on a daily basis. So, when a new, unpredictable problem arises, they don't just sit back scratching their heads saying that's never happened. They turn to Google, online tech forums, and professional colleagues to learn more about the issue and then quickly dissect, isolate, and ultimately resolve the problem. Even when we face the tough sporadic, random problem that is hard to isolate, their curiosity keeps them persistently chipping away at the problem until they do find the answer. Being curious just doesn't strengthen their ability to fix what is broken; it keeps them searching for new and better ways to be more efficient in their processes and more effective in serving our stakeholders.

#3 -- I am thankful that they are different.
During Halloween one of my tech staff came to work completely dressed in a pink, furry, bunny suit. Another tech staff member had to look away at the mere sight of seeing the other person in the suit. One member of the staff will perfect a spreadsheet - taking the time to add nice soft color schemes and various font styles to make it easier to read. Another would be content to share the same report in plain text in notepad. One challenges me to be less controlling of what technology teachers and students can bring to school. Another challenges me to be more controlling to limit problems and liabilities. These different personalities, perspectives, and opinions make our team stronger. They disagree with me and each other without being disagreeable. So, in the end, I find us all laughing with (not at) the picture of a big pink bunny working on iPads, while equally laughing with the person that must turn his head away from the site. We can vigorously discuss how to handle a situation and quickly hear the pros, cons, challenges, and opportunities that will surface depending on the path we take. This open honesty better prepares us regardless of the path that is chosen. And in the end, even if the conversations become animated, I am confident that we will still go enjoy lunch together and the team will stick together to make the best of the chosen path.

So, Danville Tech Team, thank you for all that you do! Thank you for caring, for being curious, and - yes - for being different. I appreciate your amazing talent and effort that you regularly give each day. So, in honor of the hard work that you and all the good techs out there that serve others with compassion and competence, I decree the last Thursday of the month in November a national holiday.

Happy Techsgiving Day!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I came home the other day to an all too familiar scene: Anna Mae and Lizzie had several papers scattered across the floor of the living room. Another “project” in progress. I could only speculate what the activity was that they might have concocted this time. A game of hopscotch? A paper snow storm? A new obstacle course? Perhaps tracings of some princesses whose names I still have failed to learn? Instead what I found was something unexpected - something I had never seen them create before: Halloween drawings--and they were actually good.

There was a drawing of a cute little cat, a drawing of a witch on a broom, a skull and crossbones, a scary ghost, a happy ghost, a flummoxed ghost (ok that’s my interpretation), a skeleton, two drawings of jack o’ lanterns - one accented with a cat lurking in the background. I asked who drew the pictures. When asking the question, I wasn’t just being goofy (this time). I really was genuinely curious.

Anna Mae quickly responded with a proud grin, “I did.”

Although I wish this was the story of a young, emerging, modern-day daVinci, it’s not. It’s really a personal reminder to me of some simple art supplies of third graders: paper, pencil, crayons, markers…

...and YouTube.

You see, after seeing the drawings, I went through a series of questions trying to better understand how this “talent” could have possibly manifested itself. She said she didn’t trace them and that no one helped her draw them - or as she put it, “Well, I didn’t get help from a ‘real’ person.” And then she unveiled her secret weapons: Google and YouTube. She explained in great detail that she needed some Halloween decorations for her bedroom and wanted to have some good drawings. So, she searched “how to draw halloween pictures” and apparently found a series of YouTube videos, picked ones that were within her ability and ones that she thought would go well in her room and started drawing. In about 45 minutes she had 11 drawings complete.

I remember as a young child breaking open a fresh little plastic container of watercolor paints on our kitchen table draped in newspaper -- positioning myself so I was in the line of sight with the TV off in the corner of the living room. My “art instructor” at that time, was the classic Bob Ross, painting a “happy little tree” on PBS. Bob, made it look so simple. Dip a little green, a little brown, a little dab here, a slight swirl with the brush, feather it out a bit, and - voila! - a gorgeous tree would emerge on his canvas. And after trying to mimic his exact move, I would look down at my paper to always find…. a mossy splattering of random circles that looked more like a swamp than a tree.

So, I had Bob Ross in my day. Anna Mae and Lizzie have YouTube. Although there was something magical in the way that Bob made a beautiful tree appear in plain site from splattered paint, I’m only guessing that others may have also struggled to follow along with his lessons. Anna Mae and Lizzie, on the other hand, simply tap their fingers on a screen next to them to pick from thousands of videos (including Bob Ross by the way) to get the artist they like with the drawing they want at the level they need when they need it.

But, in all that is different, something remains unchanged. You see, the real secret behind Anna Mae’s Halloween drawings isn’t YouTube; it’s her interest in drawing and art in general that was cultivated by “real” people in her life, especially her art teachers. Anna Mae beams when she talks about the time she made stain-glassed ornaments last school year with Ms. Pourcho and was so proud of the fact that she was recognized by Mrs. Albright as the “Grade 3 Outstanding Art Student of the Day.” For me personally, my “difference-maker” was my high school art teacher Mrs. Berry, a free-thinking spirit that somehow convinced me, a left-brained, concrete-sequential, sports-nut to end up taking four years of art in high school.

Although my trees still look like swamps, Mrs. Berry gave me an appreciation of art and genuine love of the creative process. So, although we live in a time when our students have access to tools for “do-it-yourself learning”, the next daVinci will not be because of YouTube. It will be because of teachers like Ms. Pourcho, Mrs. Albright, and Mrs. Berry that continue to cultivate student current talents and awaken new ones.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A square is a rectangle. This is the statement that I found myself explaining -- actually passionately defending -- with my 6-year old (Lizzie) and 8-year-old (Anna Mae) a few nights ago when straying off topic from Lizzie’s math homework. A rectangle has four sides and four right angles. So, any polygon (or using Lizzie’s language: a shape that has no holes and no curvy sides) with exactly four sides and four right angles must be a rectangle. Ergo, a square is rectangle. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I rest my case.

I know what you’re thinking. No one likes a math nerd (especially one that pretends he’s Matlock) and isn’t this just some technical nuance of language that will only confuse my daughters that are simply learning the properties of basic shapes? Sadly, I have to concede: you’re probably right on all accounts. But, really it’s a lesson that goes deeper than geometric properties. It’s a lesson on mathematical reasoning, on problem solving, on logic - on starting with a few rules or assumptions and building a whole world of conclusions. So when I saw the window of opportunity for spreading my love of logic to my daughters open slightly, I dove through head first.

Tucked away in your head somewhere is the memory of learning about postulates and theorems in high school geometry. Postulates are the basic assumptions which are simply accepted as true. For example, postulate one states that a straight line segment can be drawn joining any two points. This very same postulate was scribbled on some papyrus by Old Man Euclid in 300 BC. (He probably preferred to just be called Euclid back then.) Euclid also included four other postulates and five axioms or “common notions.” The basic truths or assumptions are the seeds from which enormous mathematical forests grew. Using only a few basic assumptions, philosophers and mathematicians were able to conclude a few more things, which allowed them to prove something else, which in turn allowed us to determine another thing, opening the door for the next generation to form the next conclusion, and so on. It’s like a Rube Goldberg machine that just keeps propelling the next act. A marble rolls down a ramp that strikes a domino which falls onto a switch that lights a match that causes air to fill a balloon… Only the mathematical machine never comes to an end - with each stunt becoming more complex than the one before.

If you’ve ever even stacked dominos in a row, you know that each domino is completely reliant on the one that precedes it. The same is true of logic. Place one domino a little out of position and the dominos that follow will remain standing. Introduce faulty logic along your path of mathematical discovery and everything that follows is erroneous. This is why I love math and why I want my girls love to math. For me, it’s never been about algorithms or contrived steps that march you from point A to D. It’s about knowing that you have a bag of tools - tricks really - that if applied accurately and appropriately, allow you to discover your next destination. Mathematicians don’t just solve problems; they uncover opportunities.

Reasoning and logic also teaches us of the importance of knowing that the beliefs that we hold are rooted in some basic assumptions that we each individually hold to be true. Time and time again, we’ve learned that what seems obvious and certain based on our individual perspectives do not fit the perspective of others, the believes of the next generation, or even the facts that we’ve yet to discover.

Galileo and a few other scientists before him had the courage to question that the Earth was the center of the universe. Albert Einstein challenged some of Isaac Newton’s assumptions and showed that of Newton’s Laws of Motion were only approximately correct, falling apart when objects approached the speed of light. Euclid’s very own fifth postulate became quite the controversial topic for nearly 20 centuries. (You know how mathematicians like to find fodder.) The postulate said something like: “At most one line can be drawn through any point not on a given line parallel to the given line in a plane.” There was much debate about whether or not this really needed to be included as a postulate. It wasn’t that mathematicians necessarily thought of it as a concept that didn’t hold true, it’s just that they thought it was really unneeded; that his other basic assumptions (or postulates) basically had him covered. (In modern time, think of it as using unnecessary or redundant lines of code resulting in bloated, slower software.) Well, they were wrong. In fact, the more they tried to prove that it wasn’t needed, the more interesting things became. It was finally around the 19th century that entire branches of geometry - that use a different fifth postulate - became accepted as plausible alternatives giving shape to non-Euclidean geometries like elliptical geometry and hyperbolic geometry.

So, logic teaches us that a square is a rectangle. It also teaches us animals in the air likely have wings and that it’s wise to wear a jacket when we see snow on the ground. But, logic also teaches us that our conclusions are based on some definitions or assumptions. Logic reminds us that in every argument or nearly everything we hold to be true, there are assumptions. Mathematics and logic teaches us not just on how to build on our assumptions to form a stronger argument; it forces us to acknowledge the vulnerabilities of our thoughts and respect the positions of others. And, that is a lesson I want my kids to know.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

I thought that it was only fitting to begin this blog with the first article that I wrote in our district newsletter outlining the case of why we were beginning an iPad 1:1 implementation in 2010. The article attempts to highlight a few technological advances that are changing the skills required of our students and the importance of empowering students to chase their curiosity. Likewise, the article provides a quick backdrop of some of my beliefs that shape the theme of this blog - to encourage all of us (not just students) to keep finding new questions and better answers.

June 2010: Why Change?
My oldest daughter, Anna, will be starting kindergarten this year. Over the last couple of years, like most curious preschoolers, Anna has asked me an endless list of questions: “How far is the Sun from the Earth? Why do bees sting? If one giant stood on another giant, could the top one touch the moon? How do you make ice cream? What is war? Why are fireworks so loud? What causes cancer?” I’m sure every parent has experienced the insatiable curiosity of their own child. I still remember searching the library card catalog as a child and flipping through microfiche as a college student to find answers to my own questions. Anna, on the other hand, will never even hear the term “card catalog” or “microfiche.” To help answer many of her questions, she and I turned to Google and various websites. A post on Facebook and a link to a YouTube video guided us through how to make homemade ice cream. A Skype conversation with my dad who served in the military helped answer the question of war for my daughter. Unfortunately, her desire to know the cause of cancer currently is still unfilled.

These experiences remind me of the natural curiosity that all kids possess and that the tools that my daughter will use in her schooling will be – should be – very different than the tools that I used two decades ago when I graduated from high school. She, and her generation, will need to be better equipped to use tools like Google, YouTube, and yes, even Facebook, effectively and responsibly. Already today, our students live in a digitally-connected world outside of school that includes texting, social networking, virtual realities, and online games.

Google is currently attempting to scan and digitize more than 50 million books from five of the largest libraries in the world. Amazon is now selling more electronic books than hardcover versions. Apple iPad owners have downloaded over five million books in just the last two months. Facebook now has more active accounts than the entire US population. Approximately 24 hours of video footage is being uploaded to YouTube every minute. Just imagine the changes that Anna and her classmates, the class of 2023, will see during the next 13 years.

These changes surrounding our children will certainly require them to have a different set of skills than what was required just a decade ago. Anna’s future boss may not expect her to know the capital of Maine, but will expect her to know how to quickly find the answer. Our future graduates must not be equipped with just the three R’s, but must be equipped with 21st-century skills of problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and technological literacy – skills that don’t necessarily come from reading a chapter in their current textbooks. They will need to be able to quickly and accurately find answers to questions, synthesize information, communicate and collaborate with colleagues not just in their own office, but with a global community of colleagues and customers.

We as educators, parents, and community members need to acknowledge that these forces and changes are real and embrace the challenge of helping students responsibly navigate their positive uses. With this in mind, our district is trying to make a transformation to “Digital Instruction,” in which each student is issued some type of Internet device, such as a small laptop, netbook, iPad, or digital tablet. During the 2009-10 school year, we piloted this idea with a handful of classes (one in grade 6; the others at the high school). Over the course of the next year, with the help of parents and community members, our district will investigate funding sources and the details and logistics of how to make this a reality for more of our students.

Admittedly, this initiative won’t be easy. There is no denying the scope of this project and the challenges that it presents. This will require a change in policies, habits, and methods by everyone. There will be mistakes, growing pains, and adjustments that need to be made. Teachers, administrators, parents, and community members will need to work together to make it a success. I know there will be some that believe that the challenges and risks of such an endeavor are too great. I contend that the risks of not embarking on this journey are even greater.

As Anna begins school this year, I have tried to brace myself for the inevitable passing of time that will likely tick by as quickly as the last five years. Although I know her interests and personality are bound to change over the course of the next 13 years, I hope she keeps her curiosity and hunger for learning. That desire to learn and the ability to think and learn on their own are perhaps the greatest gifts we can give our students. Teachers and parents will still be the most influential force in sparking that curiosity. The device is just another tool of learning – one that helps students find their answers. But, providing this device to students opens the doors to powerful, new opportunities. If together we can figure this out and keep our students inquisitive and searching for answers, I know they will not just be successful in school, but in life. Who knows - maybe someday one of them can solve the question about cancer that Anna’s daddy wasn't able to answer.

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