#twitterrocks

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of working with my friend and colleague, Eric Saibel, to give a workshop to teachers and administrators from Marin County about how to use Twitter.  This made me think about my journey with Twitter, and consider the turning point when I went from skeptic to believer.

I signed up with Twitter early on – back when many of us were completely unsure of how it was going to be used.  I Tweeted a couple of times – things like “I love ice cream” and “My kids are driving me crazy.”  I never could figure it out and abandoned it in favor of other Social Media – mostly Facebook.  When I went back to school, my professor assigned the creation of a Twitter account as a class requirement, although even then I stepped in meekly.  Here are some of my first Tweets:

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What turned the corner for me was the ASCD conference that came to my neck of the woods in March, 2011.  That was my first experience with the hashtag that allowed me to follow the whole conference no matter what session I choose, and I experienced the in-session back channel for the first time as well.

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Needless to say, I was hooked.

The next exponential growth that occurred was this fall at #edcampmarin, where I met some folks face-to-face, and connected with many others digitally.  Through this extended network I have been able to push my thinking and learning beyond the boundaries of my own small district.  I am now networking with local educators who I am able to actually see face to face once in a while, and whose work is close to home, literally, as well as educators from across the globe.

Click here for a great resource for getting started with Twitter.  And find me here: @kfostertweet  See you in the Twittersphere.

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Happy New Year

ChuckOK – here I am back again.  Educators are lucky – we get two New Years – January and August.  This August is a milestone new year for my family – my sons start high school and middle school, and I start my second year as Assistant Principal at my current school, eighth year all together.

As with every new year I get, I have been reflecting and making resolutions, or goals for myself.  I am hereby typing them up and putting them on this blog in an attempt to hold myself to them.

  1. Blog, blog, blog.  As an educator I know the power of reflection in learning, but with a busy job and family life, it is hard to take the time.  I like to write, however, and I am a perfectionist, so I resist the public nature of blogging unless I can take a considerable amount of time to write it perfectly – time I don’t have in my day.  This new year, I will continue to blog and share my ideas and thoughts without worrying if it is the best piece of writing I’ve ever done.  Ask me what I’m writing.
  2. One-to-one conversations with staff members.  This year my District Leadership Team started out by reading and working through aspects of Crucial Conversations.One thing that resonated with me was the idea of your fight or flight response to difficult situations.  The text that you ignore, the email unsent, or the phone call not answered – those all give you an idea about which conversations are crucial to have.  This new year I will reach out to all staff members, even the ones with whom I may have had difficult conversations.  I will push my “reset” button, and approach them with an honest stance of inquiry, trying to get to the root of their concern.  As Robert Kegan says, behind every complaint is a commitment.  I commit to finding and surfacing those commitments that every teacher brings to his or her job.
  3. Get out of my office.  I have heard on Twitter about Principals and school administrators actually setting up their desks in the hallway to demonstrate openness and accessibility.  I’m not sure I’m there quite yet, but the next best thing is getting my self out into the hallways to demonstrate openness and accessibility.  Every year I vow to get into classrooms more, and every year I go days without visiting one class.  That has to stop.  This will only happen if I remember to think about tasks in terms of urgency and importance, not just the former.

I have many more new year’s resolutions this August, both professionally and personally.  Right now, however, I have run out of time but will still post this imperfect blog.  I have important matters to tend to.

March Madness

SPRING“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

In schools, March comes in like a lion and leaves like a Tasmanian Devil.  As an Assistant Principal I can say that my work in the discipline realm picks up in March.  Kids are tired, teachers are tired – people seem to reach the end of their ropes.  I have been contemplating the reasons for this on the last day of my least favorite month in school.

First, with winter clinging on (although here in Northern California I’ll have to put “winter” in quotes), the students and teachers look tired.  Like Sisyphus, teachers have a never dwindling stack of papers to grade, and students have a full planners and backpacks.  Teachers try to squeeze the last bit of content before the high-stakes tests, making everyone feel frustrated and rushed.  Kids see their grades become a permanent part of their “records,” and understand that choices they may have made back in August continue to get in their way.  For seniors, AP exams loom, college acceptances and rejections color each day, and with one foot in adulthood, they sometimes revert back to making childish choices about what to do before a spring dance.  March is an endless march forward into the end of another school year.

The frustrating thing is that the madness of March can be avoided.  School doesn’t need to culminate in high-stakes entrance to the right college, content doesn’t have to be “covered” in 182 days, homework doesn’t have to suck up the free time of our young people, tests don’t have to dictate what and how we learn.  The logic of our present system is illogical, yet as those who have been successful in this system, it is very hard to consider how to make our way out of it.  We continue to tinker around the edges when what is needed is a completely new way of education.

Let’s end the madness of March by ending the madness of public education as we know it.  Hand me a sledge hammer.

Respectful Disagreement

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Image from Phil McKinney.

As a school leader, I have always valued working with teachers and others who openly disagree with me and are willing to come talk it out with me.  I seek out possible dissenters to get their feedback on how something is going, or how they experienced a meeting.  One time I was so successful, that a teacher spend 45 minutes in my office, and while continuing to disagree with a decision I had made, hugged me good bye.

Making room for conflict when leading for change is not a particularly revolutionary idea, but I have been reading more about it lately.  In a recent post, George Couros makes a case for the value of hearing the Naysayer and the Antagonist – making room for public dissent so that it doesn’t fester in the parking lot and behind closed doors.  In a 2011 article, Doug Reeves makes a similar case about dealing with Skeptics and Cynics, arguing that school leaders must make room for the former, while making the rather more controversial assertion that cynics should be “banned” from meetings as they are not open to learning and new ideas.  I was at a workshop recently and the presenters from The Table Group also described the necessity of allowing disagreement in order to create a culture that can eventually move forward. How could a leader disagree?

The problem, however, is in the execution.  Often, the dissent is masked by a culture of politeness.  I am new to my current school, and while teachers may agree with me about a decision, a comment I made, or how I planned a professional development meeting, often they are too polite to come into my office to express their concerns.  This means that they will politely agree with something, smile and nod, and then just go about doing things the way they have always done them.  With the most toxic form of this dysfunction, the conversations occur in the parking lot, or in classrooms with closed doors.  I am confident that I will be able to build trust and will soon have teachers coming to me, but in the meantime I must intentionally seek the dissenting voices and ask them their opinions.

The problem of politeness is most acute when striving for peer accountability in schools.  I have seen this play out in department team after department team where the team makes agreements about curricular changes, only to break them the moment they are alone in their classrooms.  Rather than disagreeing in the moment and having the difficult discussion in the open, passive resistance takes the day.  Then the perception can be that teachers who disagree are “in trouble” for disagreeing, rather than held accountable to what they say they were going to do in the first place.  The problem of politeness is compounded somewhat by the US West Coast culture in which I work – people are sensitive of constructive criticism and tend to shy away from disagreement.

In addition to embracing and listening to dissent, leaders need to make room for respectful disagreement everywhere in schools, cultivating a culture where many ideas contribute contribute to the best school possible for all students.  Any ideas?

“Who Owns the Learning?”

charlierubickscubeWe were lucky to have Alan November as a guest speaker at the Marin County Office of Education in February.  At a Round Table discussion before his talk (captured here), one teacher asked him what to do when today’s students don’t really know how to learn – he said they have become passive sponges, taking in what teachers say without curiosity of their own.  I had to remind that teacher that I see kids wanting to learn and taking initiative for their own learning all of the time – just not what we want them to, when we want them to.

I walked in to my son’s room the other day and he was sitting with his iPad on his lap. watching something with his Rubik’s Cube in his hand. I was ready to yell at him for going online without permission, and then I realized what he was doing – learning how to solve the Rubik’s Cube by watching YouTube videos others had posted. He can now do it on his own, from any arrangement. He was motivated to learn, and he quickly found a Rubik’s Cube expert to help him.  He also recently viewed the video “What Most Schools Don’t Teach,” about computer coding, and within minutes was on Code.org to begin creating his first website, learning as he went from the tutorial on the site.

Alan November asks “Who Owns the Learning,” advocating for the answer to be the students.  I know as a former history/social studies teacher that there are certain “things” students should know to be productive, engaged citizens. I also know that these “things” aren’t interesting to many students in their raw form.  Rather than tell them what they need to know, it is incumbent upon me, and all teachers, to create learning situations where they need to know in order to solve a problem or answer a question that is interesting to them.  If I hear a teacher say, “he’s not motivated to learn,” I want to ask – to learn what and how?

I have to apply this same logic as a site leader – I can’t just stand up and point fingers at the teachers.  When I offer training and professional development, I have to remember that teachers are learners, too. I can’t only tell teachers that they should be motivated, I have to ways to help them own their learning by helping craft questions and problems that interest them, and that they can help each other solve and learn.  My standing up in front of a faculty and telling them what they must to is no more effective as a learning opportunity than a history teacher doing that with a class.

Once we ask the right questions, we can all own the learning together.

Starting Over

diplomaphotoAfter a year and 10 months, I can say I am done with school (at least for now).  When I began my adventures in formal post-collegiate education it never occurred to me that I would become a blogger – and in fact I didn’t.  Though I maintained a blog, I almost never wrote except in response to a prompt or assignment.  I enjoyed writing for an audience, and I enjoyed the multimedia aspect a blog allows, but with two kids, a full-time job and the demands of my courses, I never actually had the time.  When I  finished with school I pulled off the road for a bit and easily returned to my web 1.0 ways of consumption without production or interaction.  My Valentine’s resolution (takes me a bit longer sometimes) is to pick myself up and rejoin my PLN, returning myself to a producer of content and reconnecting with my colleagues around the world.  I decided that rather than dust off my old blog (ifyoucantbeatem.wordpress.com), I would think about my current work context focus more on my day-to-day reality.

So here it is. I am a leader interested first in education at a means of maintaining an educated and productive citizenry in a large democracy. I have worked in high schools my whole career, first as a social sciences teacher, and now as an assistant principal.  I began my career in the urban setting of the San Francisco School District, and 3.5 years ago migrated to an affluent suburb where I am living the culture shock of the Savage Inequalities that Jonathan Kozol so aptly described in his 1992 book.

This blog is dedicated to the fact that all students deserve an excellent, high-level education that enables them to be productive global citizens. This is my moral imperative – what gets me up every morning. As I lead for learning and I learn to lead, I will be writing about my journey in a way that will help me reflect and join a larger conversation about schooling of the future.  Strap yourselves in and let’s go for a ride.