Slide – Organize around the opportunity to contribute

2021 Difference Making 01 REVISED

“It’s ironic that a shift away from a focus on preparation (take Algebra 1 because you need it for Algebra 2, which you might need to go to college which you might need to get a job) to a focus on difference making is the best possible form of preparation for the innovation economy. A portfolio of work that demonstrates expanding contribution to causes that matter — to a young person and their community — is far more valuable to most colleges and employers than a list of courses passed.

What if, instead of a list of required courses, high school was organized around the opportunity to contribute?”

Vander Ark & Liebtag, Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, 2021 (p. 80)


Download this file. See also my other slides.

3 big questions to ask after a visit from an outside helper

Outside Consultant 03I’ve been blogging about bringing in outside helpers…

Here are three big questions to ask AFTER a visit from an outside helper:

  1. Are we tangibly better as a result of their visit? [or did we just waste everyone’s time?]
  2. Can we actually do something differently as a result of their visit? [or did they just take the money and run?]
  3. How do we know? [what evidence do we have?]

Great times to ask these questions include about a week after the visit (when the gloss has worn off) and also about 3 to 6 months after the visit (when the work should be well underway)…

How much of your work with outside helpers has resulted in tangible, concrete, actionable, beneficial changes in your school(s)? If not much, why is that?

ISTE Certification 01

[I decided to make some new investments in my own learning this semester. One of the ways that I’m doing that is to try and become ISTE-certified. I’ve had a longtime relationship with ISTE. When we created the nation’s first graduate program designed to prepare a technology-savvy school administrator at the University of Minnesota (way back in 2003!), ISTE was one of our most important partners in that work. I served on the initial advisory board for ISTE’s Standards for Education Leaders (back then, they were the NETS-A) and in 2016 I received ISTE’s global Award for Outstanding Leadership. I have worked with ISTE in a number of other service and professional learning roles and currently am serving as one of ISTE’s Community Leaders. All that said, I never have worked toward ISTE certification until now. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences as I go through the certification program this year…]

ISTE logoI’m part of an awesome cohort. We represent a variety of job roles and responsibilities across multiple states and several countries, including both P-12 and postsecondary. I already can tell that I’m going to learn a lot from the other members of my cohort. We meet face-to-face every few weeks and also engage together in a number of asynchronous learning activities. So far we’ve met once and have been assigned to some small groups.

Our early work has been focused on grounding ourselves in course expectations, assignments and deadlines, and introducing ourselves to each other and the ISTE Standards for Educators. ISTE also has invited us to reflect on what it means to be part of an online professional learning network.

One of our first activities asked us to reflect on some of our understandings, strengths, and challenges related to the ISTE Standards for Educators. Here’s some of what I wrote:

I orient toward design thinking so am probably most confident with Standards 5a, 5b, 5c, and 6c because they emphasize the (re)design process. I spend a lot of time redesigning lessons and units with P-12 teachers, instructional coaches, and principals. I also have done a great deal of program design work at the university level, including recently redesigning our principal licensure program at CU Denver. I’m also confident in Standards 2a and 2b because I’m a school leadership professor who works with school leaders all around the world on designing and implementing new visions for learning and implementation structures for deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work, and rich technology infusion. As a university faculty member who tries hard to integrate technology into my teaching, I think I’m doing a decent job with Standards 6a, 6c, and 7a. My students tell me that they appreciate my efforts in this area. Finally, I’m a strong user of social media tools and online platforms and have a large global professional learning network (so Standard 1b!).

As a university school leadership professor, I don’t deal too much with data, data privacy, copyright, coding, computational thinking, and other more IT-oriented and/or media literacy concerns. Accordingly, Standards 3c, 3d, and 6b aren’t really in my day-to-day domain. Standard 7c is hard for me simply because I have seen technology systems used too often to reinforce low-level factual recall, procedural regurgitation, and assessment and I am adamantly opposed to those traditional practices dominating the deeper learning practices that we should be implementing instead.

I’ve been using ed tech since the mid-1990s. I’ve seen a number of learning and productivity technologies come and go, so I think I’m a pretty savvy consumer of new tools and their affordances (or their lack thereof) and the mindsets that underlie them. I’m familiar with and am a regular user of a larger number of digital tools, including some old standbys like RSS and blogs that I think still have value in today’s social media-oriented world. I’m an unafraid and unapologetic learner and am looking forward to living in community with – and being stretched by – the other folks in this certification cohort.

My primary implementation struggle is time. As a research university faculty member who also happens to care deeply about my teaching, those often conflict with each other in regard to institutional expectations and reward systems. Now that I’ve been promoted to Full Professor, I’m hoping that I can spend more time on what I want, not what the university wants!

I’m looking forward to my continued learning and growth in this certification process as I work to strengthen my understandings of learning technologies and meaningful classroom integration. I’m also interested in the logistics of how ISTE structures and facilitates this course and am hoping to pick up some good tips for my own blended instruction. 

More reflections from me in the weeks and months to come!

Some good questions to ask before hiring an outside helper

Monkey puppetSchool resources are always limited, whether they be time, money, attention, energy, or personnel. Before you hire an outside helper for your school(s), here are some questions you might ask…

  • Are we bringing in this person to actually help us do something?
    • Or do we just want to dabble and/or pretend that we care about the topic? 
    • Or are we just doing it because others are / it’s a hot topic right now?
  • How does this work fit in with our other current initiatives?
    • How will we help our employees, students, and families understand the connections with our other work?
    • How much of a priority is this work compared to our other initiatives?
  • What will we do beforehand to optimize our employees’ chances of being successful with this?
  • What’s our follow-up plan afterward?
    • What additional support structures, leadership behaviors, professional learning, expectations, timelines, deadlines, financial and time resources, personnel, monitoring mechanisms, etc. will be put into place to support this work?
    • Will this work be supported at the very highest levels of the school organization? How?
    • Are these new supports adequate for the work to be successful?
  • Do we have a fighting chance to actually do this right now?
    • Or are we just fooling ourselves?
    • Do we have both the will and capacity to actually make this happen?
    • What are we currently doing that conflicts with or will obstruct our success with this new work?
  • What concerns will our employees, students, and families raise about this work?
    • What is our plan for addressing those?

Some questions to ask the outside helper (before you hire them) include…

  • Can you actually help us do something? (i.e., can you help us with the WHAT and the HOW, not just the WHY?)
    • Or are you just going to tell us we should do something and then leave?
  • What should we do beforehand to optimize our employees’ chances of being successful with this?
  • How much time do we need with you to get started successfully on this?
    • What will that work look like (and why)?
  • How much time do we need after you work with us to get started successfully on this?
    • What does that work look like (and why)?
  • What barriers, challenges, and other concerns should we expect as we head into this work?
    • How can you help us with those?
  • What kinds of follow-up resources and supports can you provide us?
    • What do those look like (and why)?

These are just a few to get started… What else would you add here?

Put your outside helpers to work

Outside consultantThis fall I started working with the Mattoon (Illinois) Community Schools. They are doing some really important transformational work for such a small district, including significant investments in

  1. students’ leadership capacity through The Leader in Me framework;
  2. competency-based education and student progressions;
  3. deeper learning modalities in their schools, classrooms, and external partnerships; and
  4. career and technical education through their upcoming, multi-school district, regional innovation hub, LIFT.

The gods in charge of airport travel smiled upon me this pandemic week, which meant that I had the pleasure of spending Monday in person with teachers, coaches, administrators, school board members, and families in Mattoon. Here’s what my schedule looked like:

  • Workshop 1 (all teachers and administrators) = reconciling competency-based education and deeper learning
  • Workshop 2 (leadership teams) = leadership challenges related to deeper learning
  • Workshop 3 (elementary teachers / instructional coaches) = redesigning elementary lessons for deeper learning
  • Workshop 4 (secondary teachers / instructional coaches) = redesigning secondary lessons for deeper learning
  • Workshop 5 (families and community members) = evening conversation on why school might look a little different these days

It was a long but important, productive, and incredibly fulfilling day. We made some great progress on Monday and I am looking forward to our continued work together this spring. These long-term partnerships are where the magic happens!

Which brings me to the title of this blog post…

Schools, are you putting your outside helpers to work? I see so many one-and-done keynotes or workshops. We know that they don’t really make a difference, right? Sure, it’s nice to get uplifted for 90 minutes about the importance and value of our teaching and leadership work. And, yes, we can get a taste of something helpful in an hour or so. But long-term transformations don’t stem from short-term engagements. If you don’t have the time, inclination, or budget for a longer-term engagement with someone whom you think can help you, at least insist on more of their time during the day that they’re with you. Why would you ask them to only spend an hour or two with your educators and community? Ask your outside helpers to focus deeply on the WHAT and the HOW, not just the WHY, and have a follow-up plan for implementation and support of your educators that goes beyond wishful thinking: “We heard about this for an hour at our district kick-off meeting so go off and do this now at a high level.” Anything less seems like you’re just wasting time, energy, attention, and money? Maybe you have an overabundance of those in your school organization but I’m guessing not…

Want to learn more about the work I’m doing with Mattoon and others? Please don’t hesitate to reach out!

The best books I read in 2021

Difference makingI read some great (and not so great) books in 2021! Here are my top few (and why)…

My top book for 2021 is Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, by Tom Vander Ark & Emily Liebtag. Tom and Emily describe how students can make positive impacts in their local, online, and global communities NOW, not later after they graduate from high school or college. The real-world, authentic, contributory work that students are doing is incredibly inspiring. We need more learning opportunities like these because they help our learners find meaning and relevance in their schooling experience. The book has countless examples of this work in action and has given me numerous ideas to talk about with school leaders (as well as a bunch of new schools to investigate further!). 

Right behind Difference Making at the Heart of Learning for me was The Power of Place, also by Tom Vander Ark and Emily Liebtag (and Nate McClennen). The Power of Place focuses on community-embedded partnerships, service learning, and impact projects and is a very nice complement to Difference Making at the Heart of Learning. New schooling models are showing us how to make learning more meaningful and impactful, if we are willing to follow the paths that these schools are blazing. I can’t recommend these two books highly enough.

I am a former Social Studies teacher and attorney, and current school law instructor. Accordingly, I care quite a bit about the health of our American democracy. Right now we see a number of extant challenges to some very basic political precepts that we have taken for granted for far too long (for instance, voting rights, the peaceful transfer of government control, and the ability of Congress to actually get anything done, just to name a few). In his book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, Robert Reich describes quite clearly how our current political, judicial, and basic governance processes are all working for the moneyed few, not the general American public. Reich shows us how nearly every decision made in government benefits those who are wealthy, not average citizens, making the United States a democracy in name but an oligarchy in reality. Wealth and political inequality right now are greater than they have been in a century. If you want to know why so many American citizens are rightfully angry that their economic, health, and political interests aren’t being addressed by the people whom they elected to represent them, read this book. It’s an eye-opener…

I also discovered some new science fiction authors this past year. I can’t believe I hadn’t somehow heard of Marko Kloos before November of 2021! His series, The Palladium Wars, consists of three books so far: Aftershocks, Ballistic, and Citadel. I enjoyed them thoroughly and am hoping that more will follow.

I also thought Acheron Inheritance by Ken Lozito was just plain fun and am looking forward to the rest of that series. Additionally, on the fantasy front, I enjoyed re-reading all of Michael Sullivan’s books in both the Riyria Revelations and Riyria Chronicles series. And now I’m diving back into Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series for the fourth time, which also has been a blast…

Hope you’re reading something fun too!

Books I read in December 2021

Difference makingBooks I finished reading (or rereading) in December 2021…

Hope you’re reading something fun too!

TOTAL FOR 2021 = 90 books

* Some of you have asked. This is my fourth time reading through the Wheel of Time series…

If we want deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work, and rich technology infusion, we have to DESIGN FOR THEM. 4 Shifts Protocol,

Upcoming travel and events

  • January 14 - Flagstaff Academy, Longmont, CO
  • January 18 - Mattoon Public Schools, Mattoon, IL
  • January 26 - Masons Cove Elementary School, Salem, VA
  • February 1 - Mattoon Public Schools, Mattoon, IL
  • February 3 - Mississippi Bend AEA, Bettendorf, IA
  • February 15 - Mattoon Public Schools, Mattoon, IL
  • February 23 - Mattoon Public Schools, Mattoon, IL
  • April 27 - Mattoon Public Schools, Mattoon, IL
  • June 13-14 - Traverse Conference, Watershed School, Boulder, CO
  • June 14-15 - InnEdCO Annual Conference, Breckenridge, CO
  • June 17 - Hong Kong Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Hong Kong, China
  • June 25-29 - ISTE Live, New Orleans, LA
  • July 15-17 - National Association of Elementary School Principals Conference, Louisville, KY

How can I be of support to you?
Get in touch!

Leadership for Deeper Learning Book Cover
Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning
Different Schools For A Different World Book Cover
What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media Book Cover