Want to cause change? Be a trim tab!

I apologize for the rerun this week, but this one is somewhat intentional. I’m giving a keynote today at a virtual conference on online teaching in K-12 schools and I draw on the concept of “being a trim tab” at the end of the presentation. The “trim tab” concept remains as one my favorite metaphors for modeling the behavior we want to see in others and in our institutions. Enjoy!

It’s hard to turn an ocean liner. By anyone’s definition, an ocean liner isn’t a particularly agile vessel. Displacing millions and millions of gallons of water, ocean liners are massive and awkward. They lumber through the water, barreling along on their predetermined paths undeterred by slight fluctuations in the ocean. But ocean liners do turn. They navigate successfully to dock at ports and to dodge the occasional iceberg. While they aren’t as agile as a speed boat, ocean liners change directions. It takes more time but ocean liners can be turned.

Most people would credit an ocean liner’s ability to change direction to the ship’s rudder. Not surprisingly, the rudder of an ocean is itself a massive object, standing stories and stories tall for larger vessels. But what turns the rudder? The easy explanation is that a steering wheel turns the rudder and the rudder changes the direction of the ship. Closer examination, however, reveals the structure and function of a much smaller and less well-known object: the trim tab. Simply put, a trim tab is small rudder connected to the larger rudder. Turning the steering wheel turns the trim tab, which builds the pressure to make the larger rudder move. It’s the trim tab that does the work. Though tiny in comparison to the larger rudder and to the ocean liner as a whole, the trim tab is the one that’s doing all of the work. The tiny trim tab deserves much of the credit in the changes in direction that an ocean liner experiences.

Lately, many people have come to expect big changes and disruptions organizationally and societally. They want to see programs and systems quickly and easily changed. But not every organization is a speed boat. Some are ocean liners and require trim tabs to help them change. Some organizations need pockets of innovators who work to make changes that will help the larger system change. They need people to act as trim tabs and help the larger organization change path.

Buckminster Fuller is one of the 20th Century’s greatest architects, inventors and innovators. Among his many achievements, Fuller is credited with the design of the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion map. Fuller passed away in 1983 and had the following simple phrase written on his headstone:

“Call me Trim Tab”

Fuller believed in the power of individuals and how the actions of a few could make great changes in larger systems and society. In an interview, Fuller explained his viewpoint:

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary—the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab.”

While it’s important for organizations to discuss becoming more agile and to examine weighty systems and processes, we also need to recognize the great changes that a few committed innovators can have to any larger organization. Acting as a trim tab, each of us can have an effect on the larger direction of our respective institutions. While the impact may not be apparent immediately, there’s power in the work of the individual.

My Summer Reading List

This is always one of my favorite posts of the year. Usually some time during the early summer months, I create a list of the books that I’m going to read that are going to help me grow as an educator, as a leader and as a person. Over the last few summers, I’ve tried to select a diverse list of books on a variety of topics to grow in a bunch of areas. This summer, however, I’m going to focus my energies on a single, critical topic facing our schools and our society.

1. How to Be an Antiracist (Kendi, 2019): While I listened to the audio version of this book a few months ago, I feel like I need to reread the book to help digest the strategies a little more so I can put them into practice in my classroom and in my life.

2. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism (DiAngelo, 2018) I saw Robin DiAngelo speak in February at a conference in Atlanta. At the time, DiAngelo directly challenged the audience to confront our roles as educators in the larger society. Interestingly, that presentation was a few weeks before the worldwide shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic and a few months before the protests in response to the George Floyd killing. I wonder how different her presentation would be today.

3. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Tatum, 2017) Tatum, a psychology scholar, was president of Spelman College until 2015 and revised this book to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its original publication in 1997. In an interview in Inside Higher Education, Tatum discussed how she tries to be optimistic in the face of so many societal challenges. “I work at maintaining my optimism because I believe that in times of darkness, we all need to generate more light. The epilogue is titled “Signs of Hope, Sites of Progress,” because we all need to remember that each of us can exercise the kind of inclusive leadership we need to interrupt the cycle of racism. With the collective hard work and effort of many, I still believe positive social change is possible.”

4. The History of Institutional Racism in U.S. Public Schools (DeFresne, 2018). I’m previewing this book as a possible text for a class I’ll be teaching this fall. While the book discusses some difficult topics that will challenge some of my students, I think the unique presentation may make some of the content more accessible. The author, Susan DuFresne, mixes art and research to educate the reader on the history of racism in schools.

5. Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States (Spring, 2016). This is another preview for my fall classes, but I’m excited to read this text. In the book, the author discusses different school polices imposed on marginalized groups in the United States and how those policies strip away family languages and cultures.

Summer Reading List 2019
Summer Reading List 2018
Summer Reading List 2017
Summer Reading List 2016
Summer Reading List 2015
Summer Reading List 2014

Fragility and Change

I love when I find other people who can capture what I’m thinking and feeling so much more eloquently than I ever could. Take Dr. Mark Denison, a researcher at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation. In a recent Radiolab podcast, Dr. Denison discussed how the coronavirus functioned and how his research was instrumental in developing the drug Remdesivir. Beyond the health impacts of the virus, however, Denison also discussed the pandemic’s overall influence on our society and how it’s forcing us to reevaluate our systems.

Outside of the virology, it’s telling us about the fragility of the global organism of human beings and our political, economic and social, financial, cultural systems and habits. Those are being probed by the virus as well. And we’re learning about how we’re all interweaved and interleaved, because its breaking each of those apart and making us view them individually.

That’s some pretty eloquent stuff there. And I think it’s pretty accurate. As we navigate this pandemic, we’re being forced to view our systems individually and we’re seeing how different aspects are lacking. In some cases, that has led to social upheaval and political unrest. As we view our systems, we’re learning about what matters as human beings. And that’s hopefully promoting action and initiating change.

While we see this playing out in political and economic ways, I also see it happening in education, too. I saw this firsthand in a class I’m currently teaching. The course is an online graduate class that examines the pedagogical implications of blended learning and one of the main readings is Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools by Horn and Staker (2015). I’ve taught this course two or three times over the last few summers and one of the early discussions in the class involves examining some of the benefits of blended learning. In the text, Horn and Staker outline four areas that can be positively impacted by blended learning: deeper learning, safe care, wraparound services and fun with friends and extracurricular activities. To get my students to apply these concepts a bit, I ask them to rank these four areas as to which they feel would be the most important in their schools and defend their position in a discussion board post. Over the last few iterations of the course, deeper learning was the consensus top choice among the students in the class. While they saw the other factors as being important too, the vast majority of students wanted to use blended learning as way to get students to dig deeper into the content.

But that was prior to COVID-19. This summer, the responses are much different. While a student or two has identified “deeper learning” as the most important factor for incorporating blended learning in their classes, the rest are seeing the other factors as being more important. Looking across most of my students’ lists, “safe care” appears at the top two of the rankings and they’re offering in depth explanations about the importance of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. More than one has written about embracing “Maslow before Bloom.” After decades of the educational pendulum swinging to higher standards and more standardized tests, the coronavirus has exposed the fragility of our educational systems and forced us to recalibrate our lenses. We’re learning (remembering?) that students can’t learn if their basic needs aren’t being met first.

I know this a small, anecdotal window into the larger educational system, but it shows how the broader conversation is shifting after the pandemic. Now we just have to find the will to promote action to initiate broader change.

Visions of Hell

I want to start this post by saying that I’m not really a fan of those trite sayings that simplify complex ideas into catchy witticisms. You know, something like:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Sayings like this might make a great T-shirt or a snarky meme, but they don’t really capture how complex things can be. I’m also sure if one were to look in the DSM-5 for the psychological classification of insanity they would actually find a different definition. But that’s not really the point of this post.

I heard another saying recently that has bored a hole into my brain and I’ve been mulling it around a bunch since hearing it. And I’m not a person who is typically prone to these sayings. But here goes…

The definition of hell is on your last day on Earth, the person you could have been meeting the person you’ve become

I’m not a really religious person so the concepts of heaven and hell aren’t ones the typically resonate with me. But for some reason, this quote has stuck around. I did some googling and the quote seems to be much more pervasive than I initially realized. While it was the first time I’ve heard it, the quote has been shared a ton of times on Twitter, Goodreads, and other places online. I’m sure someone somewhere is sporting a motivational T-shirt with it.

But, here’s where my brain has been going. Is there an educational version of this phrase? What does a vision of “hell” look like to an inspired, critically reflective educator? So, I did some workshopping. I started by replacing “person” with “teacher” to create something like…

The definition of hell is on your last day on Earth, the teacher you could have been meeting the teacher you’ve become

I’ve been teaching for 28 years and while my edited phrase is still moving, it loses some of the punch. So, I thought what could be a little more “hellish.” So, I tried:

The definition of hell is on your last day on Earth, the teacher you wanted to be at the start of your career meeting the teacher you’ve become

But again, this lacks some punch. I also recognize that people’s visions of teaching changes over the career. So, it might not actually be “hell” for every teacher. So, I went back to my mental drawing board and thought about hell some more. I thought about what we do as educators and what would torment me in the afterlife. So, here’s why I landed…

The definition of hell is on your last day on Earth, you meet all of the students you could have inspired and reached but didn’t

And that’s a vision of hell that is pretty terrifying to me.

Comfort Food

In times of emotional stress, many people run to comfort food. For some, it’s a big bowl of macaroni and cheese. For others, it may be a plate of chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven. For me, comfort food has always been a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of tomato soup. Regardless of the food, we seek out the foods that nourish us while also feeding our soul.

But what about professional stress? While I’m sure comfort food can help us navigate difficult professional times too, I find that returning to some foundational readings helps to comfort me. With this being such a challenging semester for so many of us, I thought I’d share a handful of quotes from one of my favorite “comfort reads” – Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. I’ve referenced Parker Palmer a bunch of times over the years and have used his quotes to support some of the points I was trying to make at the time. This week, I’m going to deviate from this a bit. I’m going to share a few Parker Palmer quotes and let you do the heavy lifting of finding meaning and comfort in them. Enjoy.

“Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique,- good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

“Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.”

“As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied: the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart—and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be.We became teachers for reasons of the heart, animated by a passion for some subject and for helping people to learn.”

“Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see: in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.”

“The personal can never be divorced from the professional. “We teach who we are” in times of darkness as well as light.”