(New) Pathways to Leadership

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The past two days (and into tomorrow), I’ve had the good fortune to be in Austin, TX, amongst a group of dedicated National Writing Project colleagues. As with all NWP events, it has been intellectually challenging and emotionally rewarding, inviting us to think about what it means for us — as site leaders who have each traveled our own unique path to this position — to think about new ways that we can support teachers in our post-NCLB/RTTT world (which also happened to defund the NWP).

We are at the point in the retreat where we have been asked to reflect on two days of conversations, brainstorming sessions, interactive panel discussions, tweeting, post-it noting, gallery walking, and, of course, eating. While there are many themes to reflect upon, I want to zero in on two that made their way to my post it notes this afternoon: effective models for online professional development and recruiting and supporting teachers as they grow into leadership roles.

For the first component, it is fortuitous that I am teaching my first online doctoral course — EDU 807, “Learning Tools in Education Technology” — and that has kicked off this week while I am here at the retreat. There are multiple tensions that I feel need to be balanced:

  • The “magic” that happens in the summer institute being face-to-face vs. the kinds of alternative experiences we can offer online.
  • The pervading idea that we can “deliver” a great deal of “content” through online courses/PD vs. the kinds of participation and growth that can happen online.
  • The dizzying array of ed tech tools that we could employ vs. the values we hold dear about teaching, learning, and the NWP core beliefs.
  • The balance between teaching writing (alphabetic text, academic conventions) vs. digital writing with multiple forms of media.
  • The fine line between creating and then offering resources and experiences in a free, open source manner vs. the traditional university ideas about ownership and intellectual property.

There are more, to be sure, but these are the few that have come to mind today.

The second major idea that is on my mind comes in the form of how we can continue supporting teachers as they grow into leadership roles, assuming that we are able to find and develop these teachers in the first place. It is no accident that the NWP model has been compared to minor league baseball’s “farm system.” Noticing and inviting teachers who showed promise as leaders was (and still is) one of the main goals of our work. The challenge is that we don’t have the immersive summer institute experience (or, at the very least, not the same system that we used to have).

Additionally, in many states, teachers are no longer rewarded — in prestige or with pay — to be truly outstanding in the sense that they actively seek out professional learning above and beyond the basics offered in their districts. For instance, in Michigan as in many other states, it is now possible for teachers to get their certificates renewed using “district sponsored” PD hours. Teachers will not be recognized or rewarded for doing more. One teacher with whom I have worked extensively, for instance, doesn’t even share info with department members about the presentations at professional conferences or publications on which we have collaborated. Neither the incentive structure in her school nor the culture of professionalism in the school invites it.

In short, my mind is full, but I admit that my heart is heavy.

This is challenging work and — while I am not afraid to tackle it — I am afraid that, despite our best efforts, we are going to lose some of the magic that is the life-changing NWP experience (with or without summer institutes). This is not to say that we can’t continue to do good work, to reach out to new teachers, and to develop exciting, enriching programs. We have already. We will in the future.

It’s just to say that the “new” pathways to leadership are going to continue to be difficult for us, as existing leaders to forge, and for the next generation of leaders to find. I know we will continue, yet I am anxious to figure out exactly how we will do so.


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(A)Syncronicty and Online Learning

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Image from Wikimedia Commons

While the semester officially starts tomorrow, I had scheduled an online session with my EDU 807 students tonight via Zoom as a kick-off to the semester. As it happens, this first week of class also coincides with a trip to Austin for a meeting of the National Writing Project for the “New Pathways to Leadership” retreat. So, when I originally sent out a call to the doctoral students in the course to plan for the best time for meeting, I knew that it would be a challenge to get a mutually agreeable time in early this week, preferably Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday, so I had picked tonight when I new.

Travel plans and Mother Nature didn’t cooperate,

One of the values I know that many teachers hold dear is the actual moment of educating — bringing forth new ideas, forging connections, asking questions — and that is, no doubt, difficult to do in an online environment. At best, we aim to do so with the occasional synchronous online event (like the webcast I had planned for tonight), sometimes simply through chat. More often than not, however, it seems that online learning comes in the form of “content” to be “delivered” by a teacher and, subsequently, “mastered” by a student. Either way, the online experience seems less than optimal, though I admit that I am fairly new to fully online teaching.

So, in my efforts to maintain consistency with the goals and aspirations of our doctoral program — and because those goals and aspirations such as a personalized experience, thoughtful relationships with peers and the instructor, and (to the extent possible) flexible models for participation — I wanted to host bi-weekly, whole-class conversations to review the main ideas of the module, have groups report out on their projects, and otherwise build and maintain a community. Even with this goal in mind, I know that I must be aware of the context that my students find themselves in as working adults, spread across time zones, so watching a recorded version of the session is always an option.

I know that this balance has been difficult for anyone teaching an online course — whether 20 students, 200, or in the case of some MOOCs, 2000 or more— yet it seems integral to the learning process. Even last fall when I taught an online writing course that was designed by someone else, when I saw no live interaction between teacher and student in the form of conferences scheduled in the semester, I made time. Even a 15-20 minute conversation with my writers made a big difference in their work, probably more than had I just written 15-20 minutes worth of comments on their papers and sent them back via email.

At any rate, syncronicity escaped me today. Screencasts, such as the one I was able to hack together while stranded in an airport on a weather delay, don’t seem to be a good substitution. And, even if it was a viable option, I simply can’t image that I would have recorded this screencast as “content” that could be made available in the course. I tried to personalize it with a bit of humor, poking a bit of fun at myself and the situation as a way to build rapport with my students.

Interestingly, I was planning to share the oft-cited French postcard above during my talk with them. Noting that it offered a vision of 21st century education from the turn of of the twentieth, it is worth seeing what the artists and futurists got right (and, of course, what they got wrong). While I was not just jamming whole books worth of information into my students’ heads today — and we will use collaborative conversations tools like NowComment and Acclaim later this week — it does echo some of the major concerns that those who resist technology can call on: isolation, memorization, and lack of authentic learning tasks.

My hope and expectation is to be more interactive as the semester wears on and, for that, I appreciate the flexibility that online learning offers.


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Propose a Session for CMU’s GLCTL

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Great Lakes Conference on Teaching and Learning

I am privileged to speak at many conferences and appreciate the many opportunities that I have to connect and collaborate with colleagues.

One such event that I am particularly pleased to announce — because I have been invited as a keynote speaker — is from my own university, Central Michigan University, for their upcoming Great Lakes Conference on Teaching and Learning.

We are currently seeking proposals (through Monday, January 25th), so please consider applying!