Kenan Update: Top Ten Takeaways

This week marks the last time that I will probably see my cohort of Kenan Fellows until our program wraps up in the spring.  Naturally, I find myself reflecting on the entire experience thus far, and trying to sum up the benefits that I’ve seen.  It seems fitting to share these in the form of a “top ten” list, so here goes:

10. Shared experiences, like performances by eclectic musicians and bowling nights, can bond a group of people in unimaginable ways.

9. Truly dedicated teachers want to be criticized, and receive feedback.

8. In a world of nearly limitless opportunities for digital conversations, old-fashioned face-to-face meetings still have value… if planned properly.

7. There are many reasons, sometimes difficult to put into words, that accomplished educators choose to work in challenging environments.

6. The view of public education that many intelligent and thoughtful community members have is accurate.

5. The only way to change the view that the rest of the community has is by continuing to do our jobs in surprisingly effective ways.

4. This graph is almost always true:


3. This graph is also almost always true:


2. Being an effective teacher has very little to do with your use of technology.  I am one of the most tech-saavy teachers in this group, but I find myself learning much more from my more “analog-minded” counterparts than they do from me.

1. The term “fellow” is apt, because the most powerful part of this experience has been the fellowship with other passionate educators.  As one Kenan Fellow put it,

“Kenans are geeks about teaching.”

And being around others who share your innate desire to constantly improve and to find innovative ways to reach every child can only improve your practice.


In short, this has been one of the most subtly powerful experience of my professional life.  Think it’s something you’d like to try?  Go ahead.


The Value of Public Goods

I just returned from five days at the North Carolina Center for Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) as part of my Kenan Fellowship.  Being at NCCAT is one of those experiences that you can’t really appreciate until you’ve done it.  The entire facility, with campuses in the mountains of western NC and the Outer Banks on the eastern coast, serves one purpose: recognize the importance of our teachers by giving them a respite from the teaching world and providing meaningful learning opportunities with each other.

The experience reminded me of a recent episode of Planet Money (NPR’s fantastic financial news podcast) where the topic was public goods.  According to Charlie Wheelan, public policy professor at the University of Chicago, public goods are defined as those items that benefit many but provide no profit to a single individual or group, and whose use by one party doesn’t preclude their use by another, and that would likely not exist without government intervention.  They use examples like autopsies and lighthouses to demonstrate the ideas that public goods are the types of things that governments should be providing for the people. Even libertarians like me see the benefit.

It strikes me that services like NCCAT represent a new type of public good.  They clearly benefit everyone–through better teachers and better learning experiences for our children–and no one “uses” up this service (although there is limited capacity at any single seminar).  The impact on teachers is hard to ignore, based on personal anecdotes and letters of support found on their website.

Yet, in these economic times, it was NCCAT that the North Carolina General Assembly chose to gouge in their budget, despite pleas from the governor and academics from all of the major State universities.  I know that difficult decisions must be made, but teaching is already such an undervalued profession.

Without lighthouses, how will our young ships avoid the rocky reef?


Kenan Update: The Perfect Storm Approaches…

Well, it seems that participating in a “summer” experience is more difficult than I expected for this year-round teacher.  I am knee-deep in the stresses and chaos that come with the first few weeks of a new school year.  Layered on top of that is the expectation that I have rough drafts of my Kenan Fellowship lessons ready for our Summer Institute in about a week.  The icing on the cake, you ask?  I have to write a week’s worth of substitute plans for that week.

Some of my current insanity is self-induced–I decided to start my Chemistry unit with several mini-labs which require lots of prep–but mostly it is just a perfect storm of responsibility that I should have seen coming.

The bottom line?  I won’t be posting much for the next couple of weeks.  But, my fave guest blogger will have something for you later this week.  So, stay tuned!


Kenan Update: Networking and Expertise

I am currently in the midst of the “research” phase of my Kenan Fellowship in which one of my goals is to learn what makes a modern globally networked workplace tick.  I have been interacting (“reaching out” in the local lingo) with a variety of people both on this Cisco Systems campus and in other campuses around the world.  I’ve been able to use a lot of cool technology to do it, but the really impressive part is the people and the culture, not the tools.

What I’ve learned about Cisco Systems, which may be true for other 21st century companies, is that much of their business takes place in meetings.  Moreover, the purpose of the meetings is often to find the answer to a question or problem by bringing together the person(s) seeking the answer and the person(s) with the knowledge (or connections).  This is a wholly different philosophy than the one we typically see in education.  Our meetings generally serve the purpose of disseminating information or (less often) collecting opinions.  They are “pyramid-shaped” affairs with a leader at the top giving or receiving information.

By contrast, Cisco’s meetings (which often happen via teleconference, videoconference, or shared desktop) are about the lateral exchange of information.  Colleagues connect with colleagues to seek out information or to get the name of someone else who can help.  These meetings are relatively short (less than an hour) and remarkably productive.  This might have been the biggest moment of culture shock for this classroom teacher over my entire stay at Cisco.

While their corporate mission statement lists “Tech Agnostic” as one of the company’s priorities, there is no denying that they are a networking technology business.  Looking at their new products, however, gives insight into what networked professionals need to do their jobs.  One such tool is a sort of combination of Ning, wikis, and Twitter that connects members of a large organization and gives them space to collaborate.  Now, there are plenty of free tools that do similar things, and I am certainly not a Cisco shill, but this product has one cool feature that I found interesting.

Members of the network get “tagged” with labels that describe what they know about.  This starts with your job description and includes any tags that you manually add to the system.  Then, the software tracks the things that you write in all of the various corners of the network and automatically applies more tags based on what you seem to know.  Every member gets a rating in dozens of topics that quantify that person’s expertise in that area.

Other users can seek out those with knowledge that they need by filtering based on expertise.  It’s a method that taps the power of a network (and its members) and the best of what technology can offer to this problem.  It’s a capability that I hope to see in more software in the near future.

Do you see value in quantifying expertise?  Would you pay for this capability?


Kenan Update: The 21st Century Workplace

As I am knee-deep in Kenan Fellowship research and planning, this will be a short post.  It’s based on my experiences on my first day today working at the Cisco Systems campus here in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina.

I hear/read/talk a lot about 21st Century Skills and the unknown workplace of the the future for which our students need to be preparing.  I have no idea what careers will be in high demand when my 12-year-old students enter the workplace in 6-10 years.  If history is any judge, the growth fields of that time don’t even exist today.  That’s why I firmly believe that we need to teach universal skills–problem solving, communication, and collaborating–rather than specific tech tools.

With that said, however, yesterday I witnessed the cutting-edge workplace of today and it was MIND-BLOWING.  I saw rooms where video conferencing can be as productive and natural as an in-person meeting.  I walked through modular workspaces in which employees grab an empty desk each day, log into their phone, and turn any space into their office while they are there.  I saw collaboration happening in the break room, the cafeteria, and the courtyard.  I got to see a telemedicine station that allows a corporate medical clinic to diagnose ailments and write prescriptions with the help of one nurse on site and one remote doctor that never sets foot on the campus.

And, the best part of all wasn’t the technology that made so much of it possible.  It was the company culture that lists “fun” and “team-building” alongside “inclusion” and “autonomy” as priorities.  This isn’t the workplace of tomorrow; it’s today’s office.  And, it makes me want to be twelve years old again so that I can work in whatever comes next.

Ah, but there’s the rub.  As a teacher I won’t ever work in one of these ecosystems.  Why aren’t our classrooms even remotely similar to these awesome business environments?  What would it take to get us there?


Kenan Update: Setting Goals

The beauty of the Kenan Fellowship, that I was recently awarded, can also be its biggest challenge: flexibility.  The program is not tightly structured in terms of what Fellows must do as part of their research.  We are tasked with writing new curriculum, and we are offered guidance from alumni and Kenan leaders, but we are largely left to our own devices to decide the direction we take.

This is incredibly empowering and liberating.   I feel that my professional expertise is valued.  My job as an experienced lesson planner and curriculum specialist is validated.  For what may be the first time in my short career, no one is telling me which path to take.

At the same time, however, it can be daunting to have so many choices to make.  I am constantly questioning whether my mentor and I are making the right decisions, especially since by the time we realize that we’ve gone down the wrong path, it may be too late to change course.

But this mix of excitement and anxiety is intoxicating.  Over the past couple of weeks, I have been tossing around some preliminary academic outcomes for the project.  Since the title of the project is “Global Collaboration in the Classroom”, I know that I want students to be more savvy in the skills needed to collaborate internationally, across great geographic/cultural/language distances.  But I also want to stress the science skills and concepts that will be reinforced by this opportunity.

Like any project, this one starts with setting goals.  In a way, this can be depressing because the nearly limitless possibilities begin to thin out as you settle on one or more expected outcomes.  The choices that remain are rich and meaningful, but there are still fewer of them than there were before I began the planning process.  What was once an open plain with breathtaking vistas is becoming a narrower set of intersecting trails.  This is, of course, a necessary step toward a more feasible and manageable project.  But, I still find myself nostalgic for the wide open spaces.

I only hope that I am neither biting off more than I can chew, nor setting the bar too low for what we can achieve within the confines of this amazing opportunity.


Achieving goals

Way back in January, while poking fun at the bloggers’ habit of posting their resolutions at the end of a calendar year, I shared my goals for 2011 which I termed my “Future Five“.  These included more writing and traffic for this blog, and improving my lesson plans.

One goal that I had kept quiet was a professional challenge that I had set for myself.   I had decided after a decade of teaching that I was ready to engage in a bigger project for professional development and the benefit of my students.  I knew just how to achieve this: a Kenan Fellowship.

In my early years of teaching at my current school, a close friend and extremely talented teacher became a Fellow and I learned about the program from her.  Kenan Fellowships are given to classroom educators to pair up with mentors from academia or industry to develop new curricula around the emerging skills needed for the modern workplace.  Fellows are paid a generous appropriate stipend over eighteen months to perform research at the mentor’s location and develop units of instruction.  The experience culminates with a presentation at the conference of professional organization in the fall of the second year.

When the new 2011-2012 fellowships were announced last fall, I scanned the list for a topic that grabbed my attention.  My jaw dropped when I saw a fellowship with Cisco Systems entitled,

“Global Collaboration in the Classroom”

What an awesome concept to write lessons about, right?  And who better to learn from than an international networking hardware and software company that makes everything from wireless routers (I bet yours says “Cisco” on it! Go ahead, check.) to fancy high-definition video-conferencing (telepresence) systems.  Their company practices collaboration on various levels from within their buildings to across the globe.  I knew that they would have real-world ideas that could be translated into meaningful lessons for middle school students.

So, I applied.

And then, I waited.  In March, I was invited to interview.  It was stressful.  I mean, since applying for my first (and current) teaching job, I haven’t had to interview for anything.  But, the interview went well and last month I got my acceptance letter.

To say that I am excited is a massive understatement.  My plan is to use Scripted Spontaneity to reflect on the process and preview some of my work as the Fellowship progresses.  I hope that my readers will enjoy learning about Cisco, collaboration, and the Kenan Fellowships along the way.  Be sure to check back (or better yet, subscribe to the RSS feed), and engage in the discussion.