Ten years…

This weekend marked an important 8 Blog anniversary. On November 17, 2009, I shared my first blog post on this space. Looking back at that original post, I’m actually sort of surprised that this whole project is still going after ten years. At the time, I was looking for a way to share different instructional technologies with my colleagues. But here we are, ten years later and I’m still posting. While the focus of my writing has changed a little over the years, my desire to continue writing and sharing remains.

Despite the change in focus, people are still reading. Earlier this year, the 8 Blog logged its 100,000 view. I don’t know if it’s the same reader coming back here over and over and over, or whether it’s a couple thousand loyal readers who come here weekly to sift through these musings to find something of value. Either way, thanks for sharing this decade long journey with me. I’m humbled by your support and readership.

Over the years, I’ve shared some of my motivations for blogging. Contributing weekly posts here has helped me hone my writing skills. It has also helped me work through ideas and interactions with colleagues. It also helps me have a conversation with people from around the world. Recently, however, I came across a quote that captures my intentions a little more.

In his book, The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom, Stephen Brookfield (2006) writes:

Teaching is not about charismatically charged individuals using the sheer force of their characters and personalities to wreak lifelong transformations in students’ lives. It’s about finding ways to promote the day-to-day, incremental gains that students make as they try to understand ideas, grasp concepts, assimilate knowledge and develop new skills. All the small things you do to make this happen for student represent the true story of teaching. Helping learning is what makes you truly heroic.” (p. 278)

I shared this quote with a colleague recently who said that this captures the essence of “selfless teaching.” That phrase has really lodged itself in my brain as I’ve reflected on this ten-year blogging journey. While Brookfield is talking about our roles as teachers in this quote, I can’t help think that he also captures how I see my role as a professional developer on campus and as a blogger out here on the interwebs. My posts are not going to “wreak lifelong transformations” on my readers. But that’s not really my intention, either. Instead, my hope is that a post here and there will help people see their roles as educators a little differently. Maybe it will help someone grasp some new concepts, make some incremental gain, or grow as teachers. I don’t think it makes this blog “truly heroic” or anything, but I’m hoping it helps you be a little more so.

To another ten years.

The Brass Ring

When I was a child, I remember going to the amusement park with my family. While I was excited to see the roller coasters, the Ferris Wheel, the Tilt-A-Whirl and the other rides, I have to admit that I was too frightened to venture on many of them. Maybe it stems from my fear of heights. Or maybe it comes from a hesitation to do something daring. Regardless of the originating emotions, I avoided riding on many of those amusement park rides as a child.

I say I avoided riding amusement park rides, but that’s not entirely true.  There was actually one ride that I always want to go on: the carousel. I know that’s it’s kind of a tame ride in comparison to rides like the Pirate Ship or the Scrambler, but the carousel was MY ride. I know some readers are probably losing some respect for me as they read about my tame choices for amusement park rides, but the carousel was my absolute favorite. Sure, the ride just goes round and round without changing speed much. And the painted ponies just slowly go up and down. But it’s more than that. My favorite part was the brass ring.

Since a lot of modern carousels don’t have brass rings anymore, let me explain. Older carousels had this mechanical arm that would suspend a brass ring just a little outside of riders’ reach. As riders passed that point, they would try to reach for the brass ring. To grab the ring, riders would have to lean off of the edge of the seat and reach really far to pull the brass ring from the arm. If someone was successful, the mechanical arm would replace it with a new one. During any carousel ride, ambitious riders could grab dozens of brass rings as the mechanical arm kept the brass rings coming.

As I think back to my childhood love of the carousel, I think about how the ride is a really good metaphor for teaching and for motivating learners. We provide learning targets for students (brass rings?) and if we do a good job of gauging students’ ability and interest, those targets can push the students outside of where they’re comfortable. They have to lean and grab and extend to reach the goal. They have to be daring and take chances.

Thinking back to my carousel-riding days, however, I can’t remember ever seeing someone fall off of a horse. While people may have had to anxiously reach beyond what they thought they could, they didn’t really fail. If someone wasn’t able to grab a brass ring on one turn, they could try again on the next turn. The mechanical arm kept offering more and more brass rings until the ride stopped.

And that’s another important lesson here. As teachers, we may want to make our classes more exciting than a carousel, but we have to remember to give our students lots of opportunities to reach our learning targets. We have to motivate them to reach beyond what they think is capable but also not have them reach so far that they fall off the horse. While I’m probably taking this metaphor beyond its utility, the real take-away is carousels are anything but tame.

Blind Review

If you’ve never served as a reviewer for a conference, you should. It’s honestly one of my favorite things to do. I know that may sound kind of nerdy, but I really love it. Depending on the conference, I’ll usually receive a list of conference proposals to review five or six months before the conference date. I’ll sift through all of them and do my best to provide a fair assessment and constructive feedback. It’s a time-consuming process, but also a labor of love. At least to me.

In the world of academia, peer review is often characterized as a service responsibility or as a scholarship endeavor. But it my eyes, reviewing conference proposals is a professional development one. By reviewing conference proposals, I’m learning and growing as a professional. When I review a conference proposal, it’s usually a “blind” process. That means that I have very little information about the proposers, their institution or their academic reputation or background. Sure, I’ll sometimes come across a proposal where the proposer has included so much information about their schools or their work that it’s painfully obvious who the proposer is. That’s usually rare, though. Instead, I’ll get a host of proposals written by anonymous people who could be absolutely anyone. They could be THE person who came up with the groundbreaking framework that I draw on all the time. Or they could be someone like me who’s trying to find their way in the world and hasn’t made a huge dent in the scholarly landscape, yet. Since it’s an anonymous process, the proposer could be almost anyone.

But that’s not really how I approach the proposals. Since I don’t know anything about the proposers, I try to imagine that they’re colleagues of mine and that they’re recommending books or research for me to read. As I review the proposals, I sit with a notepad and write down different articles to download or citations to remember. By the time I’ve reviewed a bunch of proposals, I’ll have a whole list of new things to read or new lenses to use to examine my work. It’s not to say that I’m some sort of sailboat who is going to change course because the wind is blowing in another direction. It’s just that there’s so much work being generated that it’s hard to keep up. Reviewing conference proposals is a great way for me to stay on top of things.

Late last week, I received a list of 45 proposals to review for a conference coming up in March. Over the next few weeks, I’ll work to be as an unbiased reviewer as possible and judge the proposals on their own merits. At the same time, I’ll be looking at how the content of the proposal can help me grow as a researcher and inform my role as an educator. While I’m sure many of the accepted proposals will be great presentations during the conference, for now, I’m finding great value in the contributions they’re making to my growth and development.

Back in the Saddle

After teaching mostly graduate and doctoral level classes for the last three years, I started a new undergraduate class last week. The class is a unique course in that it is taught in conjunction with a field placement. My students serve as “teacher interns” in a local school for three days a week and take classes on campus the other two days. While it helps my students bridge the gap between theory/research and practice, it does create some odd identity transitions for them. For several days of the week, they see themselves as teachers. For others, they have to transition to be a student again. With these shifts in identity, I’m sure it creates some dissonance for them. Teacher to student and then back again.

In a way, I’m experiencing similar dissonance. The class is an assessment course and I’m working to help my students develop a strong understanding of strategies for formative and summative assessment. Since this course is designed for beginning teachers, I’m trying to model best practices. In my mind, it’s not enough to talk about assessment strategies academically. I need to incorporate them in my lessons and then also discuss my objectives and instructional decision making. When I incorporate a technology into the class, I also unpack the affordances that lead to my choice to use that technology rather than another.

So, where does my sense of dissonance come from?  Some of it comes from the back and forth shifting that I have to navigate as a teacher and as a teacher educator. In class, I find myself talking about what’s going on in my “teacher brain” and asking students to put on their “teacher caps” or their “student caps” to help them oscillate between their dual identities and focuses. It’s dizzying at times to discuss content that they have to learn (as students) and then be able to apply (as teachers). My use of the “teacher cap” and “student cap” metaphors is an attempt to make this a little more real for them. Although I’ve used this strategy in the past with some success, the time away from teaching this class is making me remember how hard it is to shift this focus.

Another source of my dissonance is the modeling aspect that I’ve embraced. I don’t want to just “talk the talk” but “walk the walk,” too. This means demonstrating different assessment strategies and providing effective feedback. I’d like to think that I do this regularly but this class is reminding me that there are some strategies that I have been neglecting. I’ve been teaching the same handful of classes for the last few years and employing similar strategies with my students. Since I’m trying to act as a role model, it’s forcing me to confront some of these neglected strategies and put them into practice again.

It also is forcing me to reexamine some of the foundational readings that I’ve encountered over and over throughout my career. Working through these feelings of dissonance, I dug up a chapter titled On Becoming a Reflective Teacher that Grant and Zeichner wrote in 1984 and that I’ve read and re-read probably two dozen times. I found this little nugget that seems to capture my feelings.

(Teachers) have to break with the mechanical life, to overcome their own submergence in the habitual, even in what they conceive to be virtuous, and to ask the “why” with which all moral reasoning begins.” (p. 103)

By teaching this class again after a three-year hiatus, I’m in the midst of overcoming this “submergence in the habitual.” While it’s creating some personal dissonance, it’s helping to be more reflective and intentional with my pedagogical strategies. And that’s never a bad result.

Grant, C. A., & Zeichner, K. M. (1984). On becoming a reflective teacher. Preparing for reflective teaching, 103-114.

Remembering the yoin of our work

If you’re like me, you’re in the thick of it right now. I thought revisiting this post was timely.

As educators, we often hit a busy part of the semester where the individual tasks and responsibilities converge and create a confluence of work. We have midterm exams to grade, students’ papers to read, assignments to create and discussion board posts to read. We have classes to teach, students to advise, lessons to prepare, phone messages to return, emails to answer and meetings to plan. We have proposals to write, presentations to create, manuscripts to write.. . and… and the work just continues to grow.

For those of you who have stuck around through that mini-rant, let me explain. I really love what I do. I enjoy working with students and love all of the activities and responsibilities that come with this job. I even enjoy serving on committees. The real challenge is that we can get caught up in the machinations of our institutions and lose sight of the tremendous jobs we have and the powerful work we can do. When I think about teaching, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury writes:

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. 

It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

Teaching can be like gardening. Our work can last a lifetime. We can create powerful change in the students with whom we work and that change can last forever. Recently, a colleague shared the concept of yoin with me and I think it echoes the sentiment that Bradbury describes. Yoin is a Japanese term so I had to do a little hunting to get an accurate description of the word. I found a great definition in Howard Rheingold’s book They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words. The literal definition, Rheingold writes, “refers to the reverberations that continue for a long time after a well-cast bell is struck.” I think yoin can be a powerful metaphor for our work as educators and can also help to motivate us through the busiest times of our semesters. When we’re staring at the stack of papers and the ever-growing To-Do list, we need to remember the potential reverberations of our “well-cast bells.” We may not always hear the resonance but our jobs can make a difference that reverberates beyond the busiest todays and into the distant tomorrows.

Remembering the yoin of our work can also help us live positively in the moment. As we get busier and the stress builds, what emotions and memories do want to resonate with the students who show up at our door needing help? Or the colleagues who just stopped by with a few questions? Or the advisees who are checking in about an email they sent that morning? Each of our interactions, positive and negative, has the power to reverberate long into the future. How do you want your bell to ring?

Start with Thanks

“Call me Ishmael.”

This may surprise some people but those aren’t the first words to Moby Dick. If you were to find a copy of the book, you’d see written on the first pages the following “Thank you:”

“In Token Of My Admiration for his Genius,
This Book is Inscribed To

I share this because I’ve been doing some introspection and reflection over the last few days. Since this blog is where I usually turn to work through my thoughts, I’m here again. Thinking and writing. And starting with Melville’s less-than-famous “Thank you!”

Let me take a step back. All of this introspection comes from a huge misstep I made recently. Last week, I helped lead a presentation on educator ethics for about a hundred students. Since the presentation involved students from various programs across campus, a group of faculty came together weeks earlier to plan the whole event. We wanted to use video cases to drive the presentation so our group reviewed a bunch of different examples to situate the overall discussion in authentic, thought-provoking situations. It was truly a collaborative planning venture and the presentation was well received by students.

With all of the collaboration and positive response, you may be wondering “Where’s the misstep?” On the evening of the presentation, my co-presenter and I just jumped right in. Sure, we took a few minutes to introduce ourselves. But, we didn’t acknowledge the important contributions from the other faculty who had played a critical role in getting the whole event off the ground. To add further insult to this whole affair, our collaborators’ names weren’t included on any of the slides either. It’s like my co-presenter and I had rendered our collaborators absolutely invisible.

After the event, I realized my mistake, but by then, it was too late. Sure, I can send out an email thanking the collaborators or send “Thank You” notes. But when I had the opportunity to thank them publicly, I didn’t. When I had the chance to practice gratitude, I forgot. So, instead of saying “thank you,” I went around apologizing for the oversight.

But my misstep isn’t entirely the point of this post. Buried within this mea culpa is a larger plea, one that can help us create a more collaborative and supportive environment.

Start with thanks.

“Start with thanks” means we recognize the collaboration and the collegial support at the onset of any venture. “Start with thanks” means we acknowledge those who have helped us along the way. It means we make the invisible more visible.

Reflecting on this some more, I thought back to a podcast I heard a few months ago. David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, appeared on the NPR show On Point to discuss the “science of gratitude.” In the episode, DeSteno discussed the importance of saying “Thank You.”

In the short-term, you can kind of be selfish and be a bit of a jerk and you can profit. But over time, people are going to realize that you’re not a good partner to work with, you’re not someone they want to have around. And what beautiful evolutionary models have shown is that over time, people who show gratitude, who cooperate, who are trustworthy, who are generous have the best outcomes. Feeling this emotion helps ensure that we do the right thing.

Just like Herman Melville took a page from his epic tome to thank Nathaniel Hawthorne, we need to do the same with our colleagues and coworkers. But the results will have greater magnitude than just words on a page.  When we start with thanks, we can ensure that our colleagues and their work are more visible.


Counting what Counts

My daughter graduated from high school a few months ago. Her commencement ceremonies were an emotional celebration that a lot of family, friends and former teachers were able to attend. After the ceremony, I bumped into my daughter’s former fifth grade teacher who had worked with over forty students in the graduating class. Mrs. G had just completed her 25th year of teaching and I was excited to see her at the graduation ceremony.  Mrs. G was one of my daughter’s favorite elementary teachers and I always found her to be a creative and effective teacher. She was always student-centered and empathetic and was impressed that she had come to the ceremony to celebrate with her former students.

As we stood there talking for several minutes, Mrs. G dropped a bombshell. This would be her last year of teaching. After 25 years, she felt like it was time to retire and was ready to try something new. I thanked her for her service and congratulated her on her long career. Since she had been such an amazing teacher, I asked her if she would share some advice that I could pass along to the beginning teachers with whom I work. Here’s what she said:

“Teaching has changed so much since I started. It’s so data driven. And that’s not a bad thing. We have so much more data on student learning and that can really help to drive the types of ways we reach and teach our students. But there’s so much that isn’t represented in the numbers we have. We don’t measure student motivation. Or passion. We don’t capture their personalities or their humor. The numerical data is important, but it doesn’t tell the complete picture of who our students are. And that’s being lost. We’ve become so data driven that we’re not being student driven anymore.”

There’s a famous quote that’s been attributed to Albert Einstein that says, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” I think that’s important to remember as we interact with our students and as we create assignments and assessments to gauge their learning. There’s a lot of important data we can collect about our students that can drive our instruction. But we need to get a whole picture of the students with whom we work to really be “student driven.”

In a way, Mrs. G’s advice from her 25 years of teaching echo the strategies from Dr. Newton Miller that I shared a few months ago. Teaching is about creating positive experiences for our students and this means seeing through the numbers and recognizing the other meaningful data that counts.