Swirling the Blog Reader

During my first week on sabbatical at Unboundary, I have come to love the term and practice of “swirling.” I will explain swirling in more detail in an upcoming blog post entitled “Riffs, Swirls, and Boards.” This morning, though, I swirled my blog reader. I used recommendations from a few colleagues to do so – two of the three colleagues I have never met in person.

After deleting about 10 blogs from my reader, I added about 10 new blogs (new to me) from the following sources.

I am excited to see what this swirl will bring to my thinking and learning. I am looking forward to identifying new boundaries to unboundary.

Have you swirled your reading recently?

Shouldn’t Practice Mimic the Game?

During my life, I have participated pretty heavily in sports. Play is fun and a great way to learn. I have dabbled in all kinds of sports. As I grew up, I played a lot of soccer. Not surprisingly, preparing to play soccer involved a great deal of playing the actual game. Sure, we drilled, but the drills were just micro-parts of the whole game. In late high school, I migrated to triathlon. While I certainly lifted weights and participated in stretching and plyometrics, most of my training involved actually doing long hours of swimming, biking, and running. Practicing was direct application and immersion in the sports. On “brick” days, I actually combined two, and sometimes all three, of the sub-sports with transitions so that practice immitated an actual triathlon. Practice was a virtual mimic of the game/event for which I was preparing. Is school, in its traditional format, a virtual mimic of the game/event for which we are preparing students?

My school’s mission states that we are preparing students for college and for life. I have a pretty good idea of what college is like. I have been to several as an undergrad, a post-grad, and a graduate student. My experiences at those colleges was fairly similar to my experiences as a student in K-12 school. The formats, structures, and cultures were similar. By “life” I think we mean “work” to a considerable degree. For many of one’s waking hours of life are spent working. During the past 20 years, I have spent my career working in schools, but I have never really worked in the “business” world. As an undergrad, I trained as an economist and as a marketing-management scientist. But that’s not the same as really living the business-world life that most of our students will enter after college. How do we know that we are preparing students for the “life” part of our mission? Are you reading as much as I am that business leaders indicate that students are not so well-prepared for the work-life realities? Could it be that the the practice is not a close enough mimic of the game? Is this why UVa Med School is striving to make practice more like the actual game?

In the past three days at Unboundary, I believe I have been given a rare gift as an educator. I have immersed myself in the “business world.” I will continue to do so for several weeks. While one, short sortee into the business world makes me no expert, I do have a new perspective than many career educators don’t really get to experience. I feel like I have been able to discern another data point on the life-education graph, and doing so allows me potentially to draw a line of better fit from school to college to life.

Moreover, in the past three days, I have seen in my mind’s eye the replaying of several influencial videos that I have written about and shared in previous blog posts. Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA video has come to mind countless times. The Buck Institute videos about project-based learning, and the ongoing conversation that Jonathan Martin and I are having, come to mind. Steve Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” – both the TED talk and the RSA video – come to mind. Kiran Bir Sethi’s Riverside School comes to mind. Edutopia’s videos on High Tech High and other immersive learning environments come to mind.

Maybe more than anything, I feel empowered to continue refining and revising the Synergy 8 course. For those who are new to this blog, Synergy 8 is a new course that Jill Gough and I co-facilitate for 8th graders at Westminster. This fall, Synergy 8 experienced it’s pilot semester. In short, the course is…

  • Based on The Falconer by Grant Lichtman
  • Non-departmentalized and integrated in nature (we combine content and skills from the various departmental domains)
  • Project-based and problem-based
  • Steeped in high-level communication and presentation
  • Focused on community issue identification and solution
  • Learner-centered

Watching a team of three Unboundary pros working on a pitch, presentation and workshop design has been like watching the game or event that we are preparing Synergy 8 students to play in our practice sessions. It has been like looking in a mirror to study our form and muscle memory. It has been like preparing for life. Not “like”…it has been preparing for life.


Time Travel & Closing the Swashbuckling Gap

For the past two mornings, I have taken my 6-year old son to school. So, of course, my 4-year old son wanted me to drive him to school one morning. Today was the morning. But my youngest doesn’t have to be at preschool until 8:45, so we played!

As I finished dressing, JT asked if we could play pirates with his Fisher-Price Imaginext. He loves to play pirates with this set of toys. At first, we were very historically pure. Then, a problem arose for JT, and he must have reasoned that Spiderman was the right tool for the issue. Without missing a beat, Spiderman entered the scene. Then, air travel became a necessity for the scenario. No problem. JT requisitioned a modern-day airplane from another Imaginext set. Of course, he saw no problem with this mix-it-up mentality.

I am a bit saddened to think that JT will experience the departmentalization of thinking when he enters “real school.” If listening to teachers and students today is any indicator, this division of cognition may be inevitable (I hope it’s not!). I repeatedly hear students utter, “This is math class. Why do we have to write?” Or, “This isn’t English class, so does spelling and grammar count?” This happens with teachers, too. “I am just reading for content. The English teachers can deal with all that comma and semicolon stuff.” Or, “I am a math teacher. I am not a writer.” How dare we impose such boundaries on the human imagination and capacities of thinking. JT is a swashbuckler who sees no problems with inserting a 1965 Chevy Impala into a pirate scene – even if the figurines don’t stand a chance of fitting in the vehicle. And he wasted no time justifying the mashup with the excuse of time travel. He just mixed up the tools that he needed to use for the scenario that his imagination was making real.

Yesterday, I spent day 2 of my sabbatical at Unboundary, where I am interning at this amazing strategic studio. At 9:15, the Traffic Director (what a cool title!) informed me that there would be a 10:30 meeting for a project team working on a pitch proposal to a company considering three bids for brand positioning. I spent the next 4.5 hours with this swashbuckling trio, and I feel like I gained an entire semester’s worth of learning in a half a work day.

Throughout the work session, the team utilized powerful brainstorming by storyboarding on a tack-board wall. Disciplines that we would separate and segregate in schools were seemlessly engaged. No one uttered stuff like, “I am not a writer, so you’ll have to take it from here.” When drawings and sketches were needed, they were added to the cards and wall. Mistakes, errors, and failures were expected and taken for granted because they were prototyping – it’s just part of real work. No one handed them a text-book-style, neat-and-clean problem to solve. They began by defining the issue to be addressed. They identified the “problem” and worked to collectively reach a workable solution to the problem. They noted extractions they would need to make from previous and existing work – other projects. No one ever said, “that will never work.” But they did push certain ideas aside and rearrange the wall when a more exciting idea emerged. They encouraged me to participate and contribute rather than just sit, observe, and listen. They treated me like a co-pilot, not just a passenger along for the ride. They made me feel like a we. There was no sage on the stage, but there were mutual guides on the side. When creative obstacles emerged, they…joked. Metaphorically, in my opinion, they were mixing it up and mashing it up like my son JT. Consequently, new insights and possibilities emerged. When they needed to…they ate. The creative brain needs food, and there were no bells signaling that it was time for lunch. But they knew they needed brain food, as well as Brain Food. When a reasonable stopping place was located, they asked for evaluation and feedback from the Executive Director of Creative Intelligence. This trusted source never said, “Good job.” His feedback was precise, specific, detailed, and thought-provoking. There was no grade, but there was loads of assessment. Self-assessment and evaluation by the team all day long, and macro-assessment from the EDCI.

While I know I am overgeneralizing, I wonder about the gap that exists between my son’s natural mode of play and the seemingly natural way to work after college. Of course, there are parts of school that model and mimic childhood play and adult work (play?). But they are not enough. Education is about drawing out what is already there. It is like a sculptor revealing what lies within the chunk of stone. School seems too industrial, too assembly line, too departmentalized. School seems too content-delivery oriented rather than reveal-what-is-already-there oriented.

This morning, I completed my second read of Seth Godin’s Tribes. On page 137 of the hardback, Godin quotes Einstein, who said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Godin continues:

Leaders create things that didn’t exist before. They do this by giving the tribe a vision of something that could happen, but hasn’t (yet). You can’t manage without knowledge. You can’t lead without imagination.

Creativity should not be segregated to art classes and fiction writing. Imagination should know no bounds. We need to unboundary the lines between departmentalized subjects. We need to combine pirate ships, Spiderman, 1965 Chevy Impalas, airplanes…English, math, science, and history. If it requires time travel, so be it. We need to lead. We need to close the swashbuckling gap.

An Air Horn, No Bells, An Egg, and a Morgue

Today, I felt uncomfortable – not the kind of uncomfortable that makes you squirm but, rather, the kind of uncomfortable that makes your senses more alert and stretches you so you can really learn. Since I graduated from undergraduate school nearly 20 years ago, I have worked as a teacher. I am comfortable in schools. Today, I officially began my sabbatical by working at Unboundary. While most, if not all, of my school colleagues were enjoying the first weekday of spring break, I was choosing to venture into a different office than the one to which I am accustomed. My desired rest involved learning in new ways.

After dropping my oldest son at school (a real luxury and pleasure), I found a coffee house on 5th street so that I could peruse some reading and calm my anxious excitement. When I arrived at Unboundary early, I sat in my truck nervous about what the day would bring. A bit before nine, I tried to go inside, but the gates and doors were locked, so I returned to the safeness of the truck. Soon a familiar face gained entry, so I tried again. A brief orientation made me feel very welcome, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I would have a place of my own in which to nest. Still, I felt aimless. What was I supposed to be doing? When was the bell going to ring and signal that action was just around the corner? Doesn’t every office have bells? How else do they know when to switch activities? Doesn’t anything worth doing fit perfectly into 55 minutes?

Thank goodness for the airhorn that called us to the Monday morning staff meeting. Now here was a ritual I could relate to. In the Junior High, we have Monday Morning Meeting in the multipurpose room (now renamed the Oglesby Room). All 80 faculty and staff and the 559 students assemble to say the Pledge, hear announcements, take attendance, and celebrate a few community successes. At Unboundary, we assembled for the “UnWeekly” – the pre-briefing for the week which detailed the people, the projects, and the tasks that would require the collective efforts and attentions of the team. While it may sound silly, I had to keep my jaw from dropping – the slide deck for the UnWeekly was gorgeous. Design and elegance permeated even the staff meeting slide show. Yet there was no stiffness. In the first minutes of interaction, I sensed that this is a team that knows the essence of their work and clothes itself in the familiarity of doing even the routine with style and significance.

Image from Flickr - Tod Martin (All Rights Reserved by Unboundary)

Really, I was the highlight of the UnWeekly. Well, just for JJ, one of the dogs who comfortably roams the office. He loves me. But JJ was simply foreshadowing for how the bipeds of Unboundary would set out to include me in conversations, impromptu meetings, and pre-established work sessions. When educational leaders outside Westminster come to meet with me at school, I am thrilled for the interactions and exchanges, but I twitch a tiny bit because I know my work pace and rhythm will be slowed. What am I in such a hurry about? Is it the bells that have conditioned me? I did not want to be “in the way” at Unboundary and unecessarily slow the familiar beat of their work. Throughout the day, however, all made me feel a valuable listener and contributor.

At 11:00 a.m., I was pulled into a meeting of five, including a member who participated by video-call from Dallas. The purpose of the meeting was to plan further the approach the team would utilize for an upcoming client presentation. We met at “the morgue.” The morgue is a set of polished metal tables on rollers at which various collaborations occur. All at once, I was living in a microcosm of “21st century learning environments” that most schools are wrestling to understand. I think the space is named due to the metal tables, but the name is perfectly suited because I think “individuals die here.” None of the team members seemed to think for a time with a math mind, then an English mind, then an art mind. No, each used the normal brain function of integrated thinking. And they thought as a team. Not one of them seemed to wait for the moment to throw in his or her great idea that he or she had been impatiently waiting to contribute. Rather, the thinking was weaved together as the team members worked for a mutual goal. Of course, they each brought their unique skills to the table, but the threads braided together instead of remaining discernably individual.

Not long after, as I waited at the egg (another collaboration magnet) for the next meeting to plan for a “Brain Food” (a topic that deserves its own post), I traded stories with the Executive Director for Creative Intelligence. I need more reflection and conversation to do justice to our exchange, but I discovered comfort in the possibility that our jobs could be strikingly similar (if I do mine well). We both work vigorously to digest valuable information about our industries and to point others to the potential and possibilites that such information holds. And at the same time, we are pointed in various, invaluable directions by our teammates.

Throughout the day, I experienced moments of thoughtful preparation for TEDxAtlanta. I found joy in setting up folding chairs in the TEDx Dome – those chairs bring form to the space…form that hints at the brainspa which is about to happen on March 15. Having visted colleseums in Italy and France, I heard the sounds of long gone history in those forums. In the TEDx Dome, I could practically feel the impulses of future axons and dendrites firing and wiring.

At the close of day one, I worked with a team of two who labored ably over word choice and sentence fluency as they sculpted a small set of sentences to contain a wealth of purpose and meaning. For some time, they had reduced a 1500 word essay into its essence as four sentences, and the duo was traversing a bridge into thinking about the words and phrases visually as images that could translate to a powerful web presense.

As I sit here typing, I feel I have done no real justice to my day. I have missed details and important interactions disguised as quick pop-ins to my work space. I have inadequately tried to describe emotion and cognition. I have stitched patches, when really the work I witnessed today was a tapestry. Yet, all the words above point to a critical reality for me – one I will try to show better in future opportunities.

I know a single day in one organization does not a trend or pattern make, but I believe that Unboundary taught me an invaluable lesson in significance today. After seven years of fairly intense study about the need for “schools of the future,” I think living at Unboundary for a few hours brought the study to life. My text book lessons were transformed by experience today. I was able to see and participate in an environment for which we should be preparing our students. “For college and for life” can be found somewhere in the missions of most schools. I hypothesize that the 21st century education movement is not happening nearly fast enough.  Unboundary was pouring over with integrated thinking, creativity, teamwork, project-based learning, and relevance. Not once did they mention a client’s bottom line or profit. Countless times they mentioned a company’s significance – even their own. They are working to make a difference. They are working to guide clients to their significant purpose in the world – so that they can address the challenges of our world and make a difference.

And schools need to prepare young people for such work.

Prayer, Purpose, and PBL

This morning, at the monthly PAWS (Parents Association of the Westminster Schools), I was fortunate enough to give an opening prayer and a brief presentation on my upcoming sabbatical (March 5 – April 11). A web-post version of my slide deck (Power Point) can be accessed below for those who could not attend or for those who might be interested from beyond the immediate Westminster community. Of course, I spoke during the slide presentation, so the slides are not meant to be stand-alone resources.

Many thanks to PAWS and Katrina Newton for allowing me the time with you at your meeting. I highly value the partnership between school and home, and I thank PAWS for all it does to support learning at Westminster.

Additionally, I am forever grateful to Westminster and Unboundary for allowing me to experience such an incredible sabbatical opportunity.