California Notebook: Masterclass

Above is a picture of Scott Barry Kaufman, author of one of my favorite — very chewy — books on education: Ungifted. I saw him speak in California, and his presentation was startlingly good. I enjoyed the content and cannot wait to read his next book. But his presentation itself was, in style, completely compelling. It cut through the noise, typical at conferences, and my jet lag.

He set the scene at the very start when he asked us not to take pictures. (The above picture is the last one I took.) He was presenting some material for the very first time. But, he said, “that’s not the only reason to put down your phones. You should put down your phones because we’re here . . . together . . . in this room . . . together . . . and that should mean something.”

He was right, of course. I had travelled all the way from New Jersey. I had endured a long plane ride, put stress on my family and colleagues, altered my diet, etc. It was great to attend a session with a speaker who acknowledged that, however implicitly. His opening was a prompt to presence, an invitation to a totally unique experience, an immediate return on my investment.

And after his opening, he told jokes, shared stories, expressed vulnerability, showed his academic chops, taught, sought, wondered aloud, and then stopped. I believe, by that point, we were all as breathless as he was.

California Notebook: 18 Questions

No pictures today. (If you want pictures, check out the first or second entries in the California Notebook series.) Instead, I’m going to write down some of the questions I brought back with me. These questions dawned on me while visiting schools, listening to speakers, talking with colleagues, and generally breaking all of my usual habits and routines while wandering around in the California sunshine.

  1. Is it possible that school, and its received wisdom and conventions, is getting in the way of the goals of school?
  2. What would happen if we had to “do school” with the same set of people but in a completely different building? Or no building?
  3. What would happen if we stopped thinking of our classes as events driven by a teacher’s agenda and a teacher’s counting and instead started thinking of them as experiences where everyone has to contribute something for the class to count?
  4. Would this meeting be better with burritos?
  5. What would happen if every person in our school had 10% more creative confidence than they do right now?
  6. What parts of school — building, time, the school’s network — are being underutilized / not spurring as much learning as they could?
  7. Is your parent education program being cued by current events and fears or does it emanate from the school’s mission? (Is it reactive or proactive?)
  8. What would happen if students did not have to attend every class but only those classes that would help them to advance a learning outcome? (What would happen if, instead of attending all classes, students could pursue the topics and outcome in more self directed ways?)
  9. When was your school’s last symposium to showcase student learning? What is the cadence of such symposia?
  10. What would happen if you ran a class through completely different materials? (So, for example, if students couldn’t use a laptop or notebook?)
  11. When you’re looking at a student’s work (say, to grade it), what would happen if you assumed that the student’s decisions and work product make complete sense to the student?
  12. What did students make in your class today?
  13. Does everyone in the school know where the playgrounds are? (This question is even more important if you do not have a physical playground.)
  14. In your lesson, what are you trying to provoke in students? (Pro version: during the most difficult part of your lesson, what are you trying to provoke in students?)
  15. If I pulled aside 15 students in your school and asked them, “what learning experiments are you running right now?” what would I hear?
  16. How would you rate the quality of struggle in your school? (Do students struggle because of the grade game (bad), because they are not getting enough sleep or are overbooked (bad), because teachers are unclear or unorganized (bad), or because they are being led, time and time again, to ponder the central mysteries inherent in disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking or the human condition (good)?
  17. When are we invited to go slow?
  18. How would your actions toward students change if you realized that they are often wondering what you think of them and that the answer often matters a great deal to them?

California Notebook: Continued

The first post in this series is here.

Today, I’m sharing some photo-notes from Synapse School in Menlo Park. This post serves the dual purpose of shining a light on things I found interesting while wandering around a school and helping to solidify my learning / memories.

When you walk into Synapse School, the first thing you see is this wall.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is their “change maker” of the year, so she flows through many aspects of their program and curriculum. I saw half finished paintings of her in the art studio, and my tour guide told me that students study her in several academic classes. I think there is something quite powerful about having a focus that connects all the diverse initiatives that happen in a school from day-to-day.

I also noticed — and liked — this banner.

It celebrates their “entrepreneur in residence.” I like the fact that these students will grow up thinking that entrepreneurs are normal people who walk around in schools and intermingle with kids and adults.

At Synapse I also noticed plenty of places for students to step out of the classroom and into spaces where they can build or make things. Here’s a block space, where students collaborate intensely and sometimes work on their own:

And here’s a giant maker space. I toured it right at the end of the school day, and it was thrilling to see students walking into the space, without a teacher, and heading off in their own direction to build something. I didn’t take any pictures of students, but the looks on their faces said it all: they were confident, self directed, happy, and open to the ideas of others — especially when they entered this giant space filled with tools:

Last, but certainly not least, Synapse invests both time and space in the education of their parent community. They see parents as important allies in their work, and therefore, they take seriously the growth of parents. They also work hard to set clear expectations for the room in which their parental education takes place:

California Notebook: A Series

Last week, I travelled to California to meet up with a colleague who has been on a learning sabbatical (not a sabbatical from learning, a sabbatical to learn). We visited Stanford’s D-School and the Synapse School in Menlo Park before reaching — and attending — the Nueva Innovative Learning Conference. I’m going to use the next 3 – 5 RW blog posts to share what I noticed along the way.

When you walk into the Stanford D-School through the back entrance, the first thing you see is a case that displays student work.

What I love about the display is 1) that it exists and 2) that the work is the kind of thing you could see in a kindergarten classroom. Putting one’s work on display, especially when it’s not finished or polished or perfect, is unnerving at first. But such sharing is a powerful competency that can be developed and becomes especially important for promoting creative and collaborative work in an organization.

Here’s another photo . . . a memorialization of a critical, back-of-the- envelope-or-front-of-the-napkin crystallization:

Last, I loved seeing cardboard everywhere. At one point, my traveling companion added this important insight: they use cardboard so that they can “get to the demo stage quickly and then decide if they want to go further.” Imagine how many ideas never actually materialize because their creator can’t get them into the world quickly enough. Or, worse, imagine how many ideas die on the vine because their creators think they can’t share them until they are perfect or precise.

A New List

Over the weekend, I poured myself a cup of coffee, sat outside in the perfect October air, and thought about disasters.

Yup, I thought about all the things that could go wrong in my home. I made a list. And then I wrote down what I would do, who I would call, how I would proceed if some really bad or kind-of-bad things happened. I wrote down enough detail, but not too much; just enough to set a plan and some positive action in motion. I wrote for an audience that might or might not include me.

After printing out a few copies of the list, I stashed them in easy-to-find places around the house and made sure that my family knew where to find them. Few household tasks have been as gratifying. I’m not sure why.

I have a friend who will probably read this and then text me, “doesn’t everybody do that already?” I’m not sure, but they should if they haven’t.

Also, since she’s exactly the kind of person who would ask that kind of question, she’s the last line on the list: “If you don’t know what to do, call ______.”

When to Automate, When to Humanize

Recently, Reshan shared a meeting template with me. (I know, my life is incredibly exciting!) It included not only Agenda items and Resources, but also a section for Decisions & Outcomes, Expected Attendees, and Future Meetings. See below, from his blog:

An avowed meeting skeptic, I run more meetings than I’d care to admit, and lots of practice in that area has meant lots of speed and efficiency. I can churn out basic agendas very quickly. I’m good at running meetings (so I’m told). But like everything else, and to mess with a tried and true phrase about perfection, good can become the enemy of the great.

With that in my mind, I tried Reshan’s template last week. I was eager to mix things up, and a new, enhanced agenda template seemed like a fine way to start. Immediately, I found myself moving more slowly (a theme for the year, it seems). Working with the new template was like setting out to run and stepping into a quarter mile of wet concrete.

I had to put in a lot more effort, especially when I wrote my outcomes, something I had never done before. I had to think about each person in the meeting as I typed out the attendee list. I had to account for attendees who told me that they could not be present. And in order to write them down, I had to look up, via the search function on my calendar, our future meeting dates. This last step gave me a useful sense of the sweep of time — or lack thereof — that I would have throughout the year to accomplish the work of the team or committee.

I’ve run two meetings using the new agenda style. And though only time will tell if the approach leads to better team product and process, I can state fully and honestly that I’m putting more effort into each meeting. I’m being more clear — with myself and with others — about why we’re assembled. In the meetings themselves, I feel like I have a better grip on the bat or the ball or the spatula or the paintbrush (or choose your own metaphor).

Meetings are a key part of my core work responsibilities. Running a lot of them means I have improved to the point where I have to be really careful about automaticity. Finding ways to disrupt autopilot mode, to make old work new, to make daily, high leverage tasks more appropriately effortful, seems like an important, even aspirational meta-skill for modern leaders. Going further, an emerging leadership continuum seems to encompass when to automate, on one end, when to humanize, on the other, and all the messy minor steps in between.

Gmail Predictive Text Readymades

I’ve been paying close attention lately to the Predictive Text feature in my Gmail account. Often, it guesses quite well, suggesting the precisely right word to wrap up an exchange that need not go further.

But at other times, it’s just hilariously off the mark, offering absurd readymades that never cease to amuse me.* Here’s a recent favorite.

Each Friday, a poet-friend emails me — and an old-fashioned, hand-sewn email list of about 15 people — a line or two from his journal. This week, Predictive Text knew exactly what to (not) say in response:


*Or perhaps there’s sarcasm in the algorithm? Doubtful, but in that case, the joke’s on me.