Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Culture of Connection

“Connection is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The ability to feel connected is neurobiologically – it’s how we’re wired – it’s why we’re here.” -- Brene Brown

We had the privilege of listening to George Couros this summer at the Indiana DOE regional eQuip conference held at Plymouth High School.  George’s message is a powerful one that validates many of the ideas we have discussed moving forward with our small learning community.  As high school teachers, yes we still teach part time, we understand the culture in a high school is not always conducive to the holistic learning environment that is present in the elementary years.  At our school, students change classes every 12 weeks and rotate in and out of 5 classes per day. Some teachers may have more that 100 students in any trimester only to have a new set of 100 students the next trimester.  Add to that challenge, the need to navigate quickly through curriculum and standards, many of which culminate in a state mandated end of course assessment.  

Furthermore, the nature of high school content is to create silos of discipline specific instructors.  Not the ideal environment for creating that holistic base that is so important for both teacher and student growth.  There is power in partnerships and purposeful collaboration.  Fortunately, many schools, including PHS, are recognizing these challenges and taking proactive steps to reimagine a connected interdisciplinary staff and student culture.  So when George talked about the need to humanize  ourselves to our learners, we knew that journey we had started with our staff placed us on the right path.

SO how do you create an environment full of human connection, where both learners and facilitators feel so comfortable they can be truly authentic and vulnerable?  Short answer it takes a lot of intentional work.  The focus of our work started with staff culture and connection this summer.  At NTAC, this summer we had the pleasure of hearing Jim May speak on the importance of staff culture.  One of Mr. May’s quotes that has really driven our focus is “The adult culture and performance of the school will function as the ceiling for the student culture and performance of the school.”

With this in mind, we set out to increase the awareness of our own personalities by taking the Myers Briggs Test.  With so many integrated courses we felt it would be very important for the new combination of facilitators to become aware of both their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of their partners.  We both have found this to incredibly helpful in our Collaborleading efforts.  Learning to appreciate your own personality quirks as well as those you work with on a daily basis is extremely important to creating a community of connected and caring individuals who respect and value their differences.  

One of our favorite Ted Talks is BrenĂ© Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability”  What does it mean to humanize yourself to your peers and students?  As we continue to cultivate a culture of connection, we would love for you to share your ideas on how you are creating creating a strong staff/student culture by encouraging connection and humanization.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Encouraged to Fail

“Fail often so you can succeed sooner.” — Tom Kelly {General Manager IDEO}

Last week on Facebook was a piece of clipart posted with the following acronym for the word F.A.I.L. {First Attempt In Learning}. Hmm! What if that acronym greeted every student {or teacher for that matter} when they entered school? How would they go about their day differently? Would they be more willing to take risks if they knew they were supported in those efforts?

Most of us grew up or have been teaching in an educational environment that rewards hoop jumpers, compliance, lack of noise or chaos, a focus on the end goal of a good grade, etc. What would happen if, instead of encouraging this behavior, we encouraged learners to try new things knowing if they failed, we would help them learn, reflect and grow from the experience? How might they change and how might this change impact their future efforts?  

What might happen if we support our facilitators in the same way? What if we encouraged them to try a new activity or a new way of introducing a lesson? One of our new facilitators likes to use the term, “Be Revolutionary”. Does being revolutionary mean you will never fail? Does being revolutionary mean you won’t take risks? How does being revolutionary push us to the next level? As Co-Directors, we hope we are creating an environment of support for our facilitators so they have the opportunity to be honest, vulnerable, take risks and yes even fail. We will fail as Co-Directors and trust us we both do not like to fail.  We believe we have the same support system we are giving our staff to be risk takers in order to catalyze our growth as a school.
A few weeks ago, one of us took a big risk. And the other was quite nervous about the risk, though that does not mean the risk taker was not supported.   

I(Michael) got the opportunity of lifetime a two weeks ago to skydive for the first time.   The best part about it I got to experience it on the same day as my grandmother.   This was something she has wanted to do for awhile and she was able to fulfill this dream as part of her 75th birthday wish.  The plan was to jump together, but the combination of a small plane and having someone video tape both of our experiences would not allow the same flight jump.  Nonetheless it is a day I will treasure forever.  The risk was very real and great, but the reward of sharing this experience with my grandmother was priceless.  

One of the few places we are asking our students to fail less is in their encouragement of others.  We had both the freshmen and sophomore classes watch this Drew Dudley TED talk (we also showed it to our parents on parent night.)  The power of a positively spoken or written word is like fuel to a soul.  It physically can provide energy to a person and their day.  Most of our learners voluntarily participated in producing a sincere note of thanks to someone who had made a difference in their life in the past year or two.  We gave them some ideas or areas to concentrate on, but they ultimately made the decision who to write to.  We probably will never know the true ripple effect of these positive posts but we know they helped our learners at least for a short time think of someone else and how they could make their day a little brighter.   

Much like we did with our staff this summer, we have started the school year by focusing on building a strong cultural foundation.  We believe that if we can continue to create a school culture that embraces struggle and failure (students read and reflected on this article) as a positive and a learning opportunity and if we can encourage and cultivate young people that occasionally remove their selfish lens and think about how they can lift someone else up even for a brief moment, then we have a chance to build a school that thinks and acts differently than the norm.   

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Focusing on the Next Light

Photograph by Jim Richardson
School starts at Plymouth High School on August 14. Yep in less than two weeks we will welcome our second class of WSOI learners into our amazing new learning space. We will double our student body and double our staff. We were appointed Co-Directors of the Weidner School of Inquiry @PHS at the end of May, while still teaching. Needless to say we had our work cut out for us this summer.

So many things to do, so many lists to make, tasks to complete. It can be very OVERWHELMING. Fortunately our leadership team is comprised of a West and a South.

Two Wests as Co-Leaders would surely have sent sent us into panic mode (Jen’s words). Two Souths would have a hard time staying on task, being efficient and paying attention to the details (Michael’s words).  Have you figured out who is which direction?   The ebb and flow of our work throughout the summer consisted of compromising our own individual ideas of priorities and tasks and ultimately understanding that our work should be focused on the journey and not the destination, because it will ultimately evolve on a constant basis.

As we debated for awhile on our blog title, just another thing on our to do list this summer, this article on leading in the present, provided the perfect analogy for our title, The Next Light. South has frequently reminded West that WE WILL not get everything done on our to do list. And that is ok. THAT IS OK!  We will get done what needs to be done! We must focus only on the next light. There really is no light at the end of a tunnel when you are leading.  

Leading is more like a child chasing after fireflies.  Can you see it?  Better yet can you remember it?  “There’s one -  Oh there’s one over here.”  Sometimes you caught them and often times you didn’t.  However, in a child’s eyes the whole experience (journey) of finding and catching the next firefly was challenging and fun (for the visual learner).   Especially when you were doing that with a friend or family member because you could share the joy and excitement of the success of catching one.  

In our journey thus far, we have come to realize that  if we frame success through the completion of an ultimate to do list, we are going to end the day frustrated and unfulfilled.   That mindset is not only frustrating, it’s ultimately unsustainable. Our current lens of leadership is not to create the larger “to do list” of next lights but simply prioritize and focus on one(maybe two since there are two of us) at time.   

We also have discussed the importance of when we successfully reach that next light, we must mentally give ourselves credit for that success. Just like a child that catches that first firefly and puts it in the jar.   The focus for that brief moment is completely on the successful capture not the unsuccessful attempts prior to that point nor is it on the fireflies yet to be captured. After that moment of admiration and wonderment, the child’s attention returns the to field and THE NEXT LIGHT.   

There is a whole field of lights/fireflies/TO DO’S.  If we focus on the entire field, productivity is nearly impossible.  An individual person that focuses on two lights at the same time often finds that process slow and extremely unsatisfying.  Focusing on the pursuit one light ultimately produces either success or failure.  With success - celebrate.  With failure - reflect.  EITHER WAY YOU LEARN.  

The beauty of Collaborleading is that you can at times focus on two different lights.  In addition, if you practice distributed leadership among your staff and students (which is our goal), you can focus on even more lights at one time.  When those successes start piling up in the jar, the light gets brighter and brighter.  The brighter the light the more people are attracted to it.  So just like we have focused ourselves, we challenge you to find the joy in the journey(especially if you can share it with others) by focusing on THE NEXT LIGHT.  

Again please share your any thoughts, even if you disagree (especially if you disagree). Healthy conflict and debate leads to reflection and refinement.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo
shared by jonny goldstein

We thought attending the annual New Tech Conference in New Orleans would be a logical place to start our blog on co-leadership. As new Co-Directors in the New Tech Network, but not new to the network, the inquiry and comments on our new positions have been interesting and even curious. For example “ two are Co-Directing?”(usually in an inquisitive tone with perhaps a little skepticism mixed in)  Our response in every case, “Yes we are and we’re very excited about it.” To our knowledge, we believe we are the first Co-Directors in the network.

To the two of us, there is nothing perplexing about our form of shared leadership.  If you could partner with someone to lead a paradigm shift in education and completely transform a school into a learning organization, wouldn’t you want someone who could brainstorm with you, problem solve, build staff and student culture, question/challenge your views and share a vision?  Perhaps we are an anomaly, but pioneering change requires not only a different method of instruction but a different way to demonstrate leading and learning for a future where collaboration and communication are the anchors to success.
John Maxwell puts collaboration this way in his book; The 17 Qualities of a Team Player
Great challenges require great teamwork, and the quality most needed among teammates amid the pressure of a difficult challenge is collaboration.  Notice that I didn’t say “cooperation” because collaboration is more than that. Cooperation is agreeable.  Collaboration is working together aggressively. Collaborative teammates do more than just work with one another.  Each person brings something to the table that adds value to the relationship and synergy to the team.  The sum of truly collaborative teamwork is always greater than the parts.
That excerpt, in short, encapsulates how we feel about this co-directorship opportunity.  If we ask our learners and facilitators to collaborate and communicate on a daily basis, why can’t the same be asked of the directors?  Do we buy into the model or don’t we?  If we do buy in, then as many parts of the learning organization as possible need to have collaborative partners that both challenge and support the others thinking on a daily basis.  We consider this to be our own personal hybrid of adaptive and distributed leadership.
Last year we were facilitators in our school and this year we are still facilitators. We are also now co-leaders to a staff that is doubling in size. These double roles bring about many challenges but enormous possibilities for maintaining instructional credibility and replicating the very team-based skills we support our learners in on a daily basis.

As we thought about the launching of this blog, eventually the conversation led to who should write the first post.   It didn’t take us too long to come to the conclusion that if we are going to co-direct a school, it probably would be best to communicate in a unified voice.  We anticipate some individual entries going forward but this just seemed more appropriate for the first post.   We know that there are at least some eyes watching us out there.  Some are quietly doubting others are audibly supporting.  We welcome both.  At our core, we both believe the sum of our strengths is greater than our individual contributions.  We look forward to the challenges and obstacles that lay ahead, because it is through adversity that the greatest growth occurs.  

We are both new at all of this(directing, blogging, etc.....).  We welcome your feedback or your questions.  If you have topics that you would like us to speak to in the future, we would love to hear those suggestions as well.  Next post will most likely include the inspiration for our blog title.