Studying identity through structured serendipity. My start to #identity in 2013. #CuratingPurpose

This morning, while attending “Walking with Lucy School,” I studied identity. I didn’t pre-intend to do so, specifically, but the opportunity presented itself because of structured serendipity. I have structured my podcast app with about a dozen different podcasts. Each morning, while walking my dog Lucy, I listen to the somewhat serendipitous collection called the “unplayed” playlist offered by the app.

This morning, the playlist looked like this –

  • The Moth, “A Dish Best Served Cold.” A young man finds something of a true identity for himself – albeit temporary – by searching for the person who committed identity theft with his credit card. I love that he found his identity by doggedly pursuing something that mattered mightily to him.
  • Radiolab, “Solid as a Rock.” Trying to get to the bottom of what makes stuff, the podcasters challenge the listener to consider that the most basic components of things are composed of mostly empty space. With physics, this short plays with our sense of what makes a thing a thing – it’s reality, perception, and identity. It reminded me of two blog posts that I had written, so I went back and read them – here and here.
  • 99% Invisible, “Episode 69- The Brief and Tumultuous Life of the New UC Logo.” Roman Mars and crew examine a metaphorical anecdote about resistance to change by exploring the visual-identity debacle that the University of California system has undergone recently. Among other lessons, I appreciate that there are levels of design investigated in this piece. Maybe most importantly, the transformation itself was poorly designed, and I learned a great deal relative to the work that I now do with educational change and transformation design.

Additionally, a fourth “class” became a part of my structured serendipity on identity this morning. During our walk, I decided to take a detour to my parents’ house. After all, my own identity was initially and powerfully formed by these incredible people. So, Lucy and I changed course and walked to my parents’ house. They were very surprised to see us, but I think they were incredibly pleased. In many ways, I was thanking them for my identity which they helped create. And I started the New Year by telling them Happy New Year in person. A great detour for identity.

All in all, I’d say this was a great way to start January 1, 2013. Now I feel well primed for my identity work in the New Year.

What “classes” and structured serendipity are you pursuing this year about your own identity? How might you help the learners at your school(s) explore their own identities? After all, as Sir Ken Robinson says, it’s about “How are you smart? Not – How smart are you?”


Bonus (and paradoxically the real meat)! A few reads archived on my Diigo that this walk made me re-read … and a TED talk:


[Note for further investigation: I thought my “class” this morning was pretty great. I learned a lot. I am inspired and motivated to learn further. Much of my motivation comes from the fact that I curated my own learning here. I collected the podcasts; I pursued the follow-up, related readings; I returned to a TED talk connected to what I was thinking relative to identity (to me Zander is talking more about identity and purpose than classical music).

In fact, part of my identity is defined by what I have chosen to open myself to this morning … by what to include here. How often do we use school to facilitate students pursuing their own identities? Not within the peripherals of school, but among the core functions and operations of school.

I am developing a new hypothesis – there is actually an 8th C of 21st C. Learning, namely “curation.” Perhaps the other 7 Cs largely depend on the practices of curation. Developing communication, creativity and innovation, critical thinking, etc. may all be connected through curatorial endeavors. And in school, the teachers typically do most of the curation. If When students are allowed to curate more of their school, then they will more likely develop the 7 Cs … as well as more of their own true identity. As they explore and discover “How am I smart? Not – How smart am I?”]

Be safe and teach them to drive!

Safety is paramount! Safety is really rule #1. As a parent and as a professional educator, I believe fervently that safety is critically important. Safety, precaution, and care come in many different forms. When my boys, now ages four and six, were infants, my wife and I “baby proofed” our house. We used stick-on pads around the brick-cornered hearth, plastic-insert caps for the electric outlets, etc. We essentially restricted use of these items and places. However, as our boys grow older, our precautions are taking different forms.

We are a family of water enthusiasts and boaters. We require that our boys wear life jackets when they ski, tube, and kayak. When I kayak, I wear a life jacket, and I use safe boating practices. I clip a safety whistle to my jacket, for example. For my kayak paddle, I even employ a leash so that the paddle cannot get away from me if I capsize or run into other trouble. I boat safely, and I teach my sons the critically important rules and expectations of boating safety. They see me utilize these safety practices, and they hear a lot from me about how to have fun in safe, appropriate ways. When they learn to drive, I imagine I will use similar processes, just as my parents did for me – from a perspective of experienced, wise use.

Engaging in social media and technology for the purposes of fun and education should follow a similar philosophy in my opinion. Just as I ready my boys for safe, responsible use of boats and water equipment, I believe we must ready our students for safe, responsible use of the Internet and social media spaces. When they are “too young,” we should even restrict their access to certain tools and places. However, as they reach a certain age, the best education is teaching and modeling wise, responsible use.

My school is forwarding a substantial technology shift for us: moving from PC to Apple, and moving closer toward 1:1. As we do so, a number of policies and foundational philosophies are becoming exposed, reconsidered, analyzed, and re-examined. That is a good thing! However, a few people seem to be allowing fear and media hype to cloud perspective. Let’s not be guilty of letting the 1% of bad overshadow the 99% of good…even though media tends to report 99% of the time on all that could go wrong. Think: chances of being in a plane crash vs number of safe journeys that happen everyday…and what media reports when a rare crash does occur. Same trend happens with regard to tech use (particularly with “social media”) among school-age learners.

Safety, of course, is paramount! Restricted access to particular services, sites, and domains for certain ages is certainly part of the equation. Nevertheless, deliberate teaching of digital citizenship is a MUST DO! In addition to those shared in the introduction to this post, a few other metaphors and analogies come to mind:

Driver Education

For safety’s sake, we would probably be safer (in the short run) to restrict driving until about age 22-25. But we don’t. We educate children how to drive. That education occurs each and every time they ride in a car with an adult, and it continues with drivers’ ed and preparation for a learner’s permit and a full license.

As adults, we teach teens how to drive by modeling for many years. Then, when the time nears for the teens driving themselves, we take a seat in the passenger position, and instruct them how to drive. We do this from a perspective of years of driving ourselves. Many times, my parents wished they had a set of pedals and a second steering wheel – if their body motions from the passenger seat were any indicator. My dad pumped an imaginary brake and grabbed the dashboard more than a few times. He cringed when I ground the gears learning to drive a stick shift. My dad and mom encouraged, fussed, hollered, and praised. But they never said, “You are not driving until you are much older!” They knew I was preparing to drive myself, and they prepared me for the real responsibility of driving as a good, careful citizen of the roads.

We do not give the car keys to 10 year olds. The example in this video would be ridiculous!

But we do give the car keys to 15 and 16 year olds. And they learn by doing. I believe responsible use of the Internet and social media should be similar. I do not believe 11 year olds should be using Facebook or Twitter. But by age 13, I think we should be teaching them how to drive – by modeling and instructing. By letting them learn by doing.

Freedom from Chemical Dependency

When I was an undergraduate, majoring in economics, I studied the economics and public policy of vice and substance use/abuse as one of my focus areas of application. Through the lenses of demand and supply models, I came to understand the critical importance of demand-side intervention for drug abuse. Because of the profit margins in drug sales (unfortunately), supply-side interventions fall short – there sadly seems to be an endless line of folks who become willing to sell and supply. Therefore, consumer education rises as a fundamental, primary strategy. People must know the dangers of what they are doing/might do if we hope to win the war on drugs…if we hope to curb demand of the bad stuff. Part of that education must include information and practice of how to achieve natural highs…if we hope to build demand for the good stuff.

Use of social media is similar. The tools and services are human dominated. A supply-side only restriction is doomed to failure in a market place with strong demand for the commodity. So we must educate our consumers. We must teach good use, model good use, practice good use, and advocate good use. We must enhance demand for positives and decrease demand for negative/harmful use.

A Number of Interesting and Excellent Resources

Articles abound on Internet safety and school-age children using tech tools such as social media. The articles tend to run a spectrum – from total restriction of use to teaching safe, responsible use. Here are a few:

Social Networking Policies for School Employees
By Christopher P. Stief, Fisher & Phillips, LLP (Philadelphia)

Kids Connecting With Adults Online
Teach students how to learn with adults from around the world.
January 2010 by Will Richardson

Why Parents Should Both Monitor And Empower Kids Using Social Media
From the Huffington Post by Tina Barseghian

For me, two of the most powerful resources are these next PLP (Powerful Learning Practice) posts. In brief, I think they both speak to us educators (including us parents, of course!) being prepared and PROACTIVE about learning and teaching wise, responsible use of technology tools – especially the exponentially growing category of social media spaces and applications. Forest Hills Elementary Schools is developing a purposeful, deliberate scope and sequence curriculum for instructing elementary students about the safe and SMART use of social media.

Thinking SMART about Digital Citizenship
By PLP team members from Forest Hills Elementary Schools

All Principals Should Be Tech Savvy
By Lyn Hilt

In the book, Communicating and Connecting with Social Media, authors Bill Ferriter, Jason Ramsden, and Eric Sheninger end the book this way:

Most importantly, though, social media tools are redefining the way your students are interacting with one another. In fact, three out of every four online teens are already using services like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to stay connected with one another (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith & Zickuhr, 2010). Isn’t it time that we worked to respect, rather than ridicule and ban, the spaces that our students are creating? Wouldn’t responsible teaching involve showing students how the social tools they have already embraced can be leveraged for learning – and couldn’t experimenting with new spaces for communication and professional development leave you better prepared to find ways to responsibly integrate social media into your building’s instructional practices?

Those are the kinds of powerful questions that are waiting for your answers! (73-74).


1. Let us adults model good, wise responsible use of the Internet and social media by engaging in these practices ourselves – let’s show kids the great ways these tools can be used for learning and positive engagement and change.

2. Let us adults empower students to learn to drive themselves, to boat safely and enjoy the water, and to understand the dangers, as well as the countless opportunities, that exist in the virtual, connected world.

It’s about learning!

Works Cited:

Ferriter, William M., Ramsden, Jason T., Sheninger, Eric C. Communicating and Connecting with Social Media. Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, IN: 2011.

NOTE: Thanks to @gcouros for the link to the YouTube video “Should Kids Be Driving Alone?”

The Essential Conversation

Parents and schools (teachers, administrators, staff, etc.) are members of the same team – partners – striving together for the same goal. The goal, I hope and trust, is to collaboratively guide and support our children/student-learners as they grow, develop, learn, fail, rise after failure, succeed, question, figure out life (as we do, too), and be and become themselves. I am thankful for the partnership that exists at Westminster. I know it is not this way at some schools, but we do work together here. Today, I hosted the third of three “Junior High Parents Parleys with the Principal.” We don’t always all agree – nor should we…what fun or challenge would that be – but we do listen to each other and value the other. Good conversation and team work happens.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, in 2003, published The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other. The title and the author alone are good motivation to read the wonderful piece. My purpose here today is not to pontificate on the book, but I wanted to use the title for this post and to recommend the read, so I include it here. My purpose is more to share about the parley today. About 120-140 parents attended the 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. event (we have a JH student population of 559, for reference). I am so appreciative of the parents who choose to attend and can attend. I realize that many cannot attend a middle-of-the-day event, and I imagine that many more want to be involved in the ongoing discussions about their children, school, and the intersection and spectra of the two.

My objective today (I am a teacher): facilitate conversation amongst parents about things on their hearts and minds concerning school. Usually, I spend a lot of time prepping a presentation – a Prezi, PowerPoint, videos, etc. Today, partly because of my recent sabbatical absence, I simply used a Q & A format. But I tried to model a “21st century way” of doing so.

  • People could raise hands and ask questions (or shout out, for that matter, if they preferred).
  • People could write a question or a topic on a notecard provided at the door (I am not sure anyone actually did this…I failed to collect any, although I did reference them twice and received no cards).
  • People could tweet if they wanted. The pre-decided hashtag was #jhparley (click on the hashtag at left if you want to see the tweets).
  • People could contribute to a Poll Everywhere web-doc if they wanted – by phone (text), (smart phone or other mobile technology), or tweet to poll. (Here is a screenshot example, and the full transcript can be accessed with the link beneath the screenshot.)

Full “live text wall” of poll everywhere results

After I did a short explanation of how people could use the Twitter hashtag and Poll Everywhere if they wanted, someone immediately asked if they could just raise their hand and ask aloud. “Of course,” I said, “but some people might not be as comfortable asking their question in a room of 130 people. Some know how to use Twitter and some don’t. People can use the cards and/or the Poll Everywhere. This is just like a classroom – we can enhance the conversation if more people have a way to join the conversation. We are all different, just like our kids. And on Twitter, if you wanted, you could continue the conversation after this is over. Some of you might want to try a ‘new’ way so that you can experiment in a safe place with the tools at your disposal and your children’s disposal. There are many ways to get a rich conversation happening for as many people as possible – people in the room and not in the room. We should leverage the tools we have so that more people can get involved. For those who could not come today, perhaps they might like to read the tweets of attendees. Or they could read the Poll Everywhere transcript later when I post it on my blog.” [Okay, this was not a direct quote, but it is what I tried to communicate, and what I hope to be communicating here and now.]

For parents just tuning in to today’s parley by way of this blog, here are a few samples of questions from the floor:

  • Is Synergy 8 a semester class or a year-long class? It was not clear on the registration card handed out Tuesday.
  • Do some students and teachers run to lunch?
  • Can we have a formal chess team in the JH?
  • Have you read the recent article about boys? Do you think that there is a negative trend for development of “good boys?”
  • What’s the real difference between regular math and honors math? If a student decides not to act on recommendation for honors, do they have a harder time getting into honors later?
  • Can we talk more about the changes in honors and awards at the end of the year? Here’s what I think about the changes…
  • Have the netbooks been a successful addition this year?

There were many more questions, and I answered most with additional input and thought from other parents in the room. The hope was for me not just to talk and parents to listen. And we took most questions from the poll, as well. An audience member tweeted some of the resources discussed in the meeting – an article in a newspaper, a link to a documentary film about schools, etc. I was so appreciative of this tweeter! I have tweet-messaged her to thank her! I wished for more tweeters, but perhaps people forgot to use the hashtag, or perhaps not many people are comfortable using that particular tool. It was ” a start” though. Just like a good conference has a hashtag, so did we! And two people – one other than me – used it! That’s a start.

The various technologies were NOT the point.

The CONVERSATION and DISCUSSION were the point…the objective!

In my opinion, though, the “21st century way” to facilitate this discussion was to provide and/or introduce ways for people to participate – so more people could participate and potentially connect with each other…and potentially use each other for resources so that we can collaboratively help and guide our children to grow and develop and learn. It’s about learning! Thanks parents for your partnership.

[Note: I decided to use these tools this morning. I set up the hashtag and Poll Everywhere at about 9:00 a.m. after a brainstorm on my way walking to work. I was thinking about how best to get more folks into the conversation, and I was wishing I could provide some sense of the meeting to people who could not attend. Then, I thought of Twitter and Poll Everywhere. Maybe next time, I will wear a mic and webcast for those interested! I love trying something new to provide more potential for learning and growth – mine and others’.]

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.

Interesting Follow Up on Summa Cum Laude

On Tuesday, February 22, I published a blog post (Junior High End-of-Year & JH Celebration 2010-11) announcing several changes to the end-of-year schedule for Junior High, including details about transitions from “JH Honors Day” to “JH Celebration.” On Tuesday, that post received 831 “hits” or views.

At the time of this writing, the post has received 958 views in total. However, not one viewer has left a comment on the post. (The comment listed is simply a tweet mentioning the post – a “ping back” of sorts.) Not even one viewer commented on agreement with or disdain for the decisions and changes. Over 1300 parents and educators were sent an email with a link to the post. Not one comment. I find that fascinating.

Nevertheless, I have received other forms of communication about the changes to Honors Day – now called Junior High Celebration. Approximately 55 people have communicated with me about the changes:

  • Overall, I would characterize the communications as mostly positive. About 40 contacts have expressed appreciation and agreement with the changes. About 5 contacts sought clarity about how summa cum caude is calculated. About ten contacts have expressed concern. I appreciate that people are using email, phone calls, and face-to-face opportunity to provide feedback. Some communications are more respectful and tactful than others, but I appreciate that people are communicating. Even if I disagree with what they communicate, I appreciate that they are communicating. If people don’t communicate, it is terribly challenging to know what folks are thinking and feeling.
  • Yesterday, however, one parent used the phrase that people are “up in arms” about the changes. This alarmed me and surprised me. I certainly don’t want people to be “up in arms.” What shocked me is that my “recon” tells a very different story.
    • Not one person left a comment on the blog.
    • Of the 55 communications I have received, about 40 have been positive and supportive of the changes.
    • None of the grade chairs have reported any upset or disagreeing parent communications.
    • Only one teacher has reported a conversation with a student who was concerned with the changes.
    • Two PAWS (Parents Association of the Westminster Schools) representatives have communicated to me that people are upset. From what they tell me, though, I feel like there is confusion about the summa cum laude decision.

Consequently, I want to try explaining the summa cum laude decision another way…

  • For as long as I have been at Westminster (16 years), we have designated an Honor Roll and a Merit List. Summa cum laude, in some ways, is simply an extention of this long-standing system.
    • To earn Merit List distinction, a student must maintain a GPA of 80 or higher, with no grade below 75.
    • To earn Honor Roll distinction, a student must maintain a GPA of 88 or higher, with no grade below 75. [During my time, this GPA requirement rose from 87 to 88 with virtually no challenges to the change.]
    • At the end of semester one, 480 students achieved Honor Roll. 56 achieved Merit List. 23 did not receive either distinction. This is a fairly typical spread. However, the change in policy last year to “no zeros” has had a slight effect.
    • During the year of discussions about honors and awards, teachers and parents and students communicated that the Honor Roll does not seem “discerning” enough. Many wanted a “third tier.”
    • To my knowledge, we have never had a strong parent objection to the existence of an Honor Roll/Merit List system based on GPA. There is some faculty concern about the existence of this system.
  • For as long as I have been at Westminster, Junior High Honors Day has recognized just 6 students (one from each grade and gender) for “Highest Academic Average.” In most cases, the difference between receiving this honor and “finishing second” has been caused by just hundredths of a point. And grading practices among teachers are not perfectly uniform. With the summa cum laude system, we can have multiple “valedictorians” from each grade and gender group. Just as with Honor Roll and Merit List, if you earn the grades – through hard work, solid assessment performance, diligent effort – then you are eligible for the distinction. The standard for achievement is clear and visible. It is no longer a behind-the-scenes, head-to-head competition for hundredths of a point. We have ended the sense of “there can only be one.” If we had had the summa cum laude tier last year, about 40 middle school students would have earned the honor.

Below is a simple poll. I hope you will take a few seconds to provide some feedback. [I will blog about the change in departmental awards ASAP.]