Knowing the Context

One of the early things I tend to talk about with returning Latin Family members is the importance of contextual background knowledge … the things you “just know” because you live in this place, at this time, with these cultural assumptions.  Those are the things you don’t have to explain to anybody when you’re writing or talking … because they, too, “just know.”  But they’re also the things that make it hard to learn another language, another culture … because you, the learner, don’t “just know.”

“What does barbecue mean to you?” I once asked as an example, and we talked about the significant geographic differences in our contextual background knowledge.  In These Parts, barbecue is a noun, and it means chopped or pulled pork with a vinegar-based sauce, and you serve it with cole slaw and hush puppies.  But travel a hundred miles west, and the sauce is different; travel to other places, and the meat is different; travel far enough, and barbecue is a verb, the action of cooking on a grill.  Knowing the context is important, but it’s also difficult because so much of the context is implicit and unstated.

I’ve been thinking about that because of all of the new contexts in which learners and their families will be using the Tres Columnae Project this fall.  Various ages, various places around the world … and each one has a unique set of prior experiences and implicit assumptions.  How can you know the context when, in important ways, every person’s context is different?

Ms. X and Mr. Y, bless their hearts, have “too much to cover” and “not enough time” to consider questions like that.  Besides, knowing the context doesn’t seem that important when you see your job as content delivery.  “I don’t have time to differentiate instruction,” One Ms. X said a few years ago, “and besides, these kids are so bad and lazy that they don’t even know the things they’re supposed to know coming in.”  I mentioned to her that pre-assessment, an important part of differentiation, might actually save her some time because she’d know what, specifically, her students “don’t even know” … but that sounded hard and complicated.  For That Ms. X, The Curriculum was clear: it said exactly what her students should “know coming in,” and it said exactly what she was supposed to present to them in her classes.  “If they don’t get it, that’s on them,” she said … and yet, at other times, she blamed “those awful teachers” at “those middle schools” for things her students didn’t “know coming in.”  And she saw no irony!

That Ms. X has moved on to other, better things, but where did she get that industrial, one-size-fits-all mindset?  She probably got it from her own teachers, her own school experience … from the very structure of the institutions in which she learned and, eventually, taught.  There’s some contextual background knowledge that you’re just supposed to have in any institution, and twentieth-century-style schools are no exception.  B and Mrs. D, who inspired my post yesterday, were good at helping new teachers (and students and parents and administrators, for that matter) develop the contextual background knowledge needed in That School in Those Days.  Somehow they were able to translate the unstated expectations.

And now I wonder how they learned to do it!  I obviously can’t ask B, but I’ll probably see Mrs. D at B’s funeral tomorrow.  If we have time (and we probably will, because folks in These Parts usually eat after the funeral, and you can expect fried chicken and deviled eggs and many other things), I might ask her … but I’m not sure if she’ll be able to tell me.  Maybe she was a “third-culture kid,” to bring back a term we used several months ago; there are a lot of military families in These Parts, and perhaps Mrs. D grew up in one.  Or maybe, somehow, she was just naturally empathetic, or developed her strong, obvious sense of empathy along the way.

However it happened, B and Mrs. D both developed a set of skills and understandings that I aim to help Latin Family members and Tres Columnae Project users develop for themselves.  They developed the ability to translate … but not in the mechanical, pencil-and-paper way that we Latin teachers often use that term.  B and Mrs. D could translate the contextual background knowledge of That School at That Time so that newcomers could understand it, so that there wouldn’t be clashes of expectations between what Powers That Be said and what Young Ms. X or Mr. Y (or Mr. S for that matter) heard.

We may be looking for a few good cultural translators like that as the joyful learning community of Tres Columnae Project users continues to expand.

But the thing about a joyful learning community is that there’s time and space for such translation … and for the misunderstandings that make you realize such translation is important.  There may be a lot to do and many things to “cover,” but deepening our understanding of ourselves and each other is one of those things.  It’s not a distraction or a waste of precious time the way it was for That Ms. X.

On this busy Friday, I wonder what new insights about our contexts we’ll all gain, and I wonder how we’ll go about translating those insights for the learning communities to which we all belong.


Published in: on August 29, 2014 at 10:39 am  Leave a Comment  

End of an Era

When I think of my earliest days as a teacher, I think of B and Mrs. D.  They were the two long-time secretaries at that school, and that’s how everyone referred to them: B by her first name, Mrs. D by title and surname.  They kept things running smoothly; they mediated between the conflicting needs of various groups; and everyone seemed to love, respect, and secretly fear them.

Mrs. D, long retired, still operates the unofficial retirees’ group from That School.  They meet several times a year for lunch and to catch up on things, and there’s an active email list to share news of surgeries, grandchildren, triumphs, and tragedies.  When I left That School, well over a decade ago, I was told that I had become an “honorary retiree” and invited to join the email list.

I was sad, but not surprised, to see the news of B’s death this week.  She’d been slowly fading for years; her beloved husband died not that long ago; and the last news, a week or so ago, made it pretty clear that she was in her last days.  But it still feels like the end of an era.

To me, B and Mrs. D represent a very different time … but they also represent a sense of purpose that’s harder and harder to find, at least in the schools in These Parts that I know best.  They were both very clear on the purpose of their work: to operate a Really Good School.  Why?  Because education was important, and a Really Good School was the best (if not the only) way to make sure everybody in That Community had access and opportunity.  B and Mrs. D lived in the community; their own children had attended That School; and they continued their quiet support long after their employment had ended.

The why was clear, and it was closely connected with who they were.  So there weren’t many questions about what or how … and that’s not uncommon when you’re clear about why and who.

I’d seen the news about B’s death when I sat down to write my post yesterday, but I couldn’t refer to it yet.  I spent part of the day in an emotional fog, feeling unexpectedly gloomy and bleak about small things … and yet I didn’t make the connection until later.  I kept reading the Google+ comments, knowing there was an important common thread, not sure what it was … and not sure why I’d had trouble sleeping Tuesday night, either.

B, were she here, would have laughed at me, arched an eyebrow as only she could do, and asked, “Really?  It took you that long?”

In their quiet, friendly, helpful way, B and Mrs. D profoundly influenced my who and my why, my how and my what, especially in those early, formative years.  And I certainly wasn’t the only one they influenced! Poor old Coach X, who never quite understood the how and what of procedural things like leave request forms and other important paperwork, laughed at himself when B took a job at another school and Mrs. D retired.  “I guess I’ll have to come every day till I retire,” he said, “because nobody will around to tell me what to do.”

I remember that celebration as though it was yesterday, but it’s been a long time.  Almost twenty years, if I can still count!

B, you taught me by example what a joyful learning community looks like.  You showed me how an unlikely group of people can build something meaningful together, and from you I learned how to build and sustain communities in good times and bad, in circumstances both supportive and challenging.  You also taught me that nobody has to stay in a situation or context … that it’s not just acceptable, but necessary to move on when you know that the time has come.  Everybody thought you’d be at That School for life, but when Mrs. G became principal at That Other School and asked you to come with her, you said yes.  And then, when it was time for you to retire and move on to the next phase, you said yes.  Though I wasn’t there, I have a sense that as you were fading, as you knew it was time to move on to the real Next Phase, you said yes, too … and you said it joyfully, without regret, the way you generally did.

And I picture you, eyebrow arched, asking me “Really?  It took you that long?”

It’s been a transitional time for me, with old things ending and new things starting up … the end of an era and the start of something new and exciting.  “It’s bittersweet, isn’t it?” a friend asked me the other day.  “Yes,” I said, “but sweeter all the time.”  And I think that B, had she been there, would have told me to get over the bittersweet part and embrace the sweetness.

And that’s what I plan to do.

B, I’ll be there on Saturday morning to celebrate your life with your family and friends.  I’ll remember the joyful learning community we all shared and the meaningful things we built together, and I’ll rejoice in the insights even as I mourn the loss.

I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the days ahead!


Published in: on August 28, 2014 at 10:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Should, Must, or Will?

A Wise Friend is attempting to change the culture of the school where she serves as principal, to help her teachers and staff take better care of themselves because, after all, it’s hard to give what you don’t have.  She put up a poster about the ill effects of staying too late at work.

This is the same Wise Friend who told me that “opportunities are rare.”  Wise indeed.

I wonder how Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y will respond to that!

If you’ve ever known or been a teacher, you probably know that complaining, but half-bragging, about the long hours and the lack of appreciation is an important part of many schools’ cultures.  That’s understandable, even healthy, to a degree.  But sometimes it slides from healthy to harmful … and when it does, the long hours become an expectation, a sign of membership in the secret club of Us who Really Care and Really Work Hard.  In other words, as Satia put it in the post she wrote in response to my post yesterday, they become a should.

She put it this way:

“Why are we should-ing all over ourselves?”  I have a theory about why I should all over myself.  I too often weigh myself down with what I should be doing (and, by association, should not be doing) when I don’t make the time to know my why, which is something else Justin’s been exploring in his blog.  When I know why I should be doing something, I remove the guilt and blame from my action and find myself doing something because it is a choice.  More than that, it is a choice rooted in a personal integrity that has nothing to do with an external should but is driven by an internal want, a desire that is connected with who I am.

I’ve been trying to figure out the term I want to use for actions that are driven from the inside, from your why and your who.  I tend to say “I must do this,” or “I will do this,” or sometimes “I need to do this” … but must and need to are tricky words.  Sometimes people use them to express an inner drive, but sometimes they refer to an external should.  And of course will can express your deep intention, but it can also just refer to something that’s going to happen, but hasn’t yet.

Language is tricky!  And I love it … but if I didn’t love language, why would I be a language teacher?

It’s kind of like the word purpose, I suppose.  For me, purpose is connected with your why: in the framework of vision, mission, values, and goals, it’s a vision or mission thing.  But if you aren’t clear about vision, mission, or values, it’s easy to use purpose to represent something instrumental. “The purpose of this game is speed and accuracy,” said a student leader at an activity I attended.  But I think the purpose was to build a sense of community in the group; the way to win was speed and accuracy.  Only one team could win the game, but they all could experience the bonding that came from playing together.

The purpose behind Ms. X and Mr. Y’s late hours?  Originally, I suppose, it was because they wanted to do a good job, to get things ready for their students, to make a difference.  It was a why thing … or at least it was for me back when I thought that staying late would make me better or more effective at what I do.  But when you lose sight of that, you start saying that the purpose is “to grade those papers” or “to key in those grades” or “to make my copies for the next few days.”  You confuse why with what and howmine with not mine, should with must or will.  And the results are predictable.

“I want to make sure I do what I’m supposed to do,” said Ms. X about the Newest New Thing.  “I want to use those terms the way They want us to.”  It’s pretty clear that Ms. X is operating from a perspective of should.  She’s the same Ms. X who was once in tears because she “got a bad report” on her lesson plans with the New Rubric.  “I spent hours and hours on them,” she sobbed, “and they weren’t good enough!”  The issue, according to the rubric? Objectives (which have to do with purpose) weren’t very clear, and it was hard to tell how the activities related to the goals that were stated.  Ms. X had worked hard, and she’d spent long hours, but her work wasn’t effective.

That’s hard and painful to hear, especially when you operate from the should perspective.

The stated purpose of the Newest New Thing was to develop a common language among teachers and administrators, to help them see the connections (or the disconnects) between what they’re doing in their classrooms and schools and the kinds of tasks their students should, must, or will be prepared for.  On the lowest level, that means that instruction should be aligned with the goals and processes of standardized external assessments; at a higher level, it’s about “preparing for college” or “getting ready for the real needs of the workplace.”  But Ms. X and Mr. Y?  They’re so tangled up the shoulds that all they can see is the what, and possibly the how of the Newest New Thing.  Use this language, they think, or make a poster.  Or maybe ignore it, because this too shall pass.

In a joyful learning community, there’s space and time to deal with why, to think about should, must, and will from different perspectives.  But in a hierarchy, there’s only time for What The Boss Wants.  I hope my Wise Friend will succeed with that cultural change, but the road is certainly challenging.

I wonder what other opportunities and challenges await us today!

Published in: on August 27, 2014 at 10:43 am  Comments (1)  

Mine and Not Mine

Satia’s powerful comment on yesterday’s post speaks to a struggle I’ve often experienced.  If there’s a difficult situation, or a potential problem ahead for someone I care about, is it better to say something or to stay silent?  The obvious answer is that “it depends,” of course.  But until I read Satia’s story of how she deals with her particularly challenging friend, I hadn’t really thought about how much it depends on questions of why and who.  Taking ownership of a situation, or of your role in a situation, can lead you in different directions.  In the end, is it mine, or is it not mine?

You probably have That Friend, too, the one who sometimes says things that, as Satia put it, “make me die inside a little.”  Or maybe it’s That Coworker or That Neighbor … or That Situation, and not a person at all.  A couple of years ago, for me, it was Young Ms. X and Young Ms. X, both of whom, new to the area, the school, and the profession of teaching, were sure they knew everything about why “those kids” were so “bad and lazy” and “those parents” were so “awful and irresponsible.”

It got to the point where I’d eat lunch in my classroom to avoid the dying inside.  I felt guilty about that at the time, guilty for avoiding them and guilty for not confronting them.  One time, when Young Ms. X “just knew” that all of her students could “easily” get to the public library to do research for “her” project, could “easily” print things out at home, I did say something.  “You know,” I said, “we actually have some students who don’t have reliable transportation and don’t have Internet access or printers at home.”

I don’t remember how she responded to that.  I think she felt strongly that they “should,” whether they did or not.  I don’t think she quite understood the economic realities involved, and I don’t think she’d ever seen or experienced poverty up close.

But looking back, I’m less displeased with myself than I was at the time.  Back then, I “just assumed” I should have said something … but I didn’t stop to ask myself why, or whether saying something was mine or not mine in that situation.  My gut, to use Simon Sinek’s terminology, was ahead of my brain; it knew not to say something, not to confuse poor Young Ms. X with ideas she couldn’t possibly be ready for.  But as Sinek points out, the gut has trouble articulating its why.

I wish I’d been able to read Satia’s words back then:

Do I bite my tongue because I don’t care enough about who I am to speak up? Goodness, I hope not. Do I say nothing because I don’t trust her to hear me without her becoming defensive? Possibly….

But I care about this friend, very much, and when she says things that make her sound ignorant or are outright offensive, is my saying nothing a denial of who I am and my feelings?

I had to make the time to reflect on these conversations and consider my “why”–why do I talk with her and why do I not say anything when I feel offended or even shocked by something she says? Once I knew my “why” I realized that I am not betraying “who” I am with my silence, that I can “choose my battles,” as it were, and my discomfort is my choice, a response to her words I can choose to change.

As it turned out, both Young Ms. X and Young Ms. X were gone within a year, like so many young teachers who are married to the military in These Parts.  I knew they wouldn’t be around for more than a few years at most … and I knew that if they did stay, they’d have abundant opportunities to learn the differences between their should and the is that many of their students lived every day.  I also remembered a Much Younger Me who had strong opinions about what Those Students should do; that Much Younger Me had to learn, too.  The job of learning was mine; the job of “making” Ms. X learn was not mine. The decision to sit in a place where dying inside over a sandwich or leftovers was a real possibility?  Mine.  The responsibility if I let that affect me later in the day?  All mine, too.

I’ve made a lot of big, important decisions in the past few days, and they got easier when I realized what was mine (the decisions themselves, their implications for me and my family) and what was not mine (responses that others might have).  I’ll have more to say about those decisions soon, but today I’m grateful for the new understanding, the peace that comes from being clear about mine and not mine.  When you’re working to build joyful learning communities of so many kinds, it’s easy to take on too much responsibility, to try to make things mine when they’re actually not mine at all.  On a busy Tuesday, I’ll try not just to remember that, but to act on it with purpose and ownership and joy.

I wonder what other insights and discoveries await!

Published in: on August 26, 2014 at 10:39 am  Comments (4)  

Being Who You Are

The phrase came to me as I was making coffee, preparing a typical breakfast of bread and cheese before a busy day.  I wasn’t sure what I thought of it at first.  “Being who you are?”  I asked myself.  “How can you not be who you are?”

But then I thought about times when I’ve smiled and agreed or said nothing and felt a little piece of my soul die … because the thing I smiled and agreed with or said nothing about was the opposite of who I am.  I thought about swallowing objections and the (very literal) stomach problems that resulted.  I thought about the vast chasm there sometimes seems to be between the goals and procedures of the Latin Family, when it’s really functioning as a joyful learning community, and the Larger Institutions that have hosted it.

And as I thought about that, I realized that being who you are is harder than it sounds.

“It must be really hard to be you!” I’ve said to The Dog more than once.  One day last week we “just happened” to go out for a walk as a cement mixer was coming down the street on its way to a nearby construction site.  Had he seen this appalling intrusion (from his perspective) into the sanctity of his universe, he would have responded with a flurry of running and barking.  Being who you are isn’t actually that hard when you’re a dog … but the consequences of being who you are can be difficult.  All that barking and running!  It’s exhausting.  And sometimes, inexplicably, The People don’t appreciate your efforts.

But when you’re one of The People, being who you are (or revealing who you are to a potentially hostile world) is more complex.  For us, I suppose, the exhaustion comes from hiding who we are, or from trying to fit who we really are into a slot that’s not quite the right shape.  It’s been exciting to read Laura’s accounts of how she’s reshaped her classes to be ever more open and choice-driven and empowering for her students.  Describing them on Google+, she said

My classes are more like networks rather than communities… because really, when some students are there under duress, the idea of trying to build an actual community is beyond me. Even though a community is certainly more joyful!!!!!!! :-)

And of course that’s been true of the Latin Family as well over the years.  Sometimes a given class becomes a joyful community; sometimes it’s a learning network; a few have been a painful struggle; some are just sort of there.  The greater the feeling of duress and compulsion, the less likely a sense of community is to emerge … because it’s hard to form a community without being who you are, and it’s hard to be who you are when “They” are the primary reason you’re there.  Hard, but not impossible; somehow a community formed in That One Class back in 1997, and one formed eventually in That Other Class three years ago.

After my fairly rapid first reading, I’ve been slowly re-reading Simon Sinek’s remarkable book Start with Why for the past few days.  I “just happened” to wake up thinking about my why and how and what early this morning … and I realized something important.  Your why, as Sinek points out, is very closely related to who you are; it’s a product of your life experiences and your personality and many other, sometimes unknowable factors.    “Build joyful learning communities” and “build meaningful things together” are vital elements of my why, but the context in which those communities form is important, too.  Being who I am, I prefer smaller organizations to larger ones, “hungry” organizations to complacent ones.  Extreme negativity repels me, but so does the kind of starry-eyed optimism that refuses to acknowledge challenges.  And while I’m glad to work long hours in pursuit of a goal, I reject long hours for their own sake (or as some twisted badge of honor).  If results are important, I believe strongly in freedom of process.  If process is more important, that’s fine, too, but results may vary.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know all of that already … and being who I am, I know it, too.  But sometimes it helps to put into words what you already know, especially when you’re at a crossroads like the one I described on Friday.

A friend asked about that yesterday, and when I had responded, he said something powerful: “It sounds like you know what to do, and you’re more and more at peace with what you know.”  It’s important to be at peace with a decision, to feel as well as know that you’ve made a right choice.  Simon Sinek talks about the gut, how it’s more in touch with your why than the part of your brain that uses language and words … and he talks about how important it is for organizations, as they grow, to articulate their why so everyone, not just the founder’s gut, can make decisions in accord with that why.  Being who you are, and knowing why you are, you can move forward with confidence even when the road is difficult … and that’s both a comfort and a challenge for me this morning.  I’m grateful to the joyful learning community that keeps supporting me on this journey, and I wonder what new insights and discoveries await us all in the days to come.

Published in: on August 25, 2014 at 11:16 am  Comments (3)  

Pausing Between Steps

Sometimes, when I’m walking down the stairs in the morning, I pause for a moment.  “Did I remember to do This, or to bring That down with me?” I ask myself, and then I know whether I need to keep going down or go back up.  Since The Dog is part Border collie, he’s my faithful companion at such times … and that means when I stop, he stops.  And waits.  And follows me down or up, as the case may be.

But pausing between steps is harder when you’re a dog. You take up two or three steps, and it’s not very comfortable when your head and ears are below your hips and tail.  And yet, when you’re a dog, you want to be where the action is, even if it’s a bit uncomfortable at the moment.

I’m still thinking about the implications of funnels and megaphones, of sweet spots and communities, and all the other images that I’ve been exploring this week.  But as I walked down those familiar steps this morning, paused to make sure I’d remembered to turn off that one light switch, and looked at The Dog as he, too, paused a few steps below me, I realized I needed to think more about the image of pausing between steps.

One of the joys of the academic calendar, at least for teachers and students, is the pause between steps every summer.  “How was your summer?” I asked H and his sister when I “just happened” to run into them the other day.  H’s sister has finished her program at the community college and is working all the time; H, still in high school, is trying to figure himself out and decide who or what he wants to be.  “I’m leaving The School,” he said, “and I’m going somewhere else, but I might come back.”  His sister tells him he’ll miss the community, but he’s convinced he won’t.

H is pausing between steps, and so is L, who’s looking for a fresh start at a Much Bigger School.  L grew up and matured tremendously when I knew him, but it’s hard to escape the label of “bad, lazy troublemaker” in a small environment.  When I looked at L, I saw brilliant and unchallenged, but that’s not what Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y saw.  I hope L’s fresh start works out as he hopes, and I hope H figures things out, too.

This week has felt like a pause between steps … or maybe like those long moments when the traveler in the Robert Frost poem stands gazing down the two roads.  One road looks safe and familiar; though it would certainly have challenges, they’re mostly familiar challenges.  It’s tempting to take that road, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that road’s direction and mine are too different.  The other road appeals: “just as fair,” as Frost says, and “less traveled by.”  Exciting, but unfamiliar, with new challenges and new opportunities … and its direction and mine seem more aligned.

I haven’t seen L to ask him, but I wonder how he felt when he looked at his two roads and chose the unfamiliar one.  I know how H feels because he told me:  there are some things he’ll miss, mostly people, but he’s looking forward to a new challenge.  “You’ll miss it more than you think you will,” his sister tells him.  But she isn’t trying to stop him.

When I think about my two roads, I feel an inner conflict.  “You’ll miss it more than you think it will,” says part of me, cautious liinke H’s sister.  “Remember those Good Old Days?  Maybe they’ll come back!”  H’s sister and her friends were part of the Latin Family in those Good Old Days … but of course those Good Old Days were a mixture of good and less good, and H’s sister herself is a lot happier now, a lot more comfortable with herself and her life, than she was in those Good Old Days.  Another part of me sees that, sees the unfamiliar road, and longs for a joyful new adventure.  I pause between steps, knowing that there’s no bad option … but knowing, too, that taking the better road comes with a cost.

“You know what you need to do,” said another Wise Friend when I talked with her a few days ago.  And I do … and that’s what I plan to do.  But the pause between steps was important, and the joyful learning communities I belong to have helped me tremendously as I paused.  Unlike Frost’s traveler, I’m not alone as I make the choice, and I won’t be alone on the road I take.  The pain of choosing is real, and so is the joy of choosing … but it won’t be “ages and ages hence” before I can tell the story, and I don’t think I’ll be “telling this with a sigh.”

I wish you joy on your journey, peace of mind when you choose your better road, and the presence of a supportive joyful community when you pause between steps to make decisions.  And I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await on our roads today!

Published in: on August 22, 2014 at 11:47 am  Comments (2)  

Megaphones, Funnels, and Sweet Spots

If you’ve ever used (or listened to) public-address equipment of any kind, you know it can be hard to find the sweet spot where the volume is just right for the situation.  How many times have we all seen somebody tapping on a microphone, asking “Can you hear me?” How many times have people been too close, which causes interference, or too far away, which makes it hard to hear?

That can even happen with an old-fashioned megaphone, but when you add power and technology … well, you know what can happen.  And what’s true of a megaphone is true, perhaps in reverse, with a funnel.  Funnels have sweet spots, too, especially when it comes to the distance from which you’re pouring things in and the rate at which you pour.

I learned that the hard way, years ago, with some homemade chicken stock.

I started thinking about sweet spots yesterday evening when I “just happened” to read Jackie Gerstein’s blog post “Shouldn’t Education and Learning Be the Same Thing?” and Pernille Ripp’s post about her new teaching context.  Jackie traces the historical development of Schools As They Are and notes the disconnect between school design and natural human learning; Pernille, now surrounded by people who are “crazy like me,” reflects on the importance of a supportive community with shared priorities.  Neither post addresses the idea of the sweet spot directly, but as I read them and thought about them, I could see the connection clearly.

I “just happened” to talk to a Wise Friend yesterday, one of many who have supported me as I’ve looked for my own sweet spot.  It turns out that she’s looking for her sweet spot, too: after years and years of teaching, she’s contemplating retirement and wondering what to do and where to do it and when to make the Big Change.  “Pray for wisdom and timing,” she asked me; “pray for strength on the road,” I asked her.

Meanwhile, another teacher-friend complained about “the madness of it all.”  It seems that Powers That Be at Some Low-Performing School, desperate to do something to make a difference, think they can fix the problem by requiring their “tested area” teachers to write lesson plans together and do the same thing at the same time.  “That,” said yet another Wise Friend, “is crazy.  If you take the old failed curriculum and do the same thing with it, you’ll just continue to fail.”  And yet, if I were one of those Powers That Be, and if I believed in (or just hadn’t ever really thought about) what Richard Elmore calls the hierarchical individual approach to learning, might I be tempted to do something similar?  “Make them collaborate,” I might think.  “Make them work on it together, and maybe that will help.”

And maybe it would … if Those Teachers in That School could find an alternative to the Same Old Same Old.  But it’s hard to do that, hard to find the sweet spot, when you feel interference from all sides.  There’s the interference of the Same Old Same Old, which “used to work,” as Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y has told me, “back in the good old days when teachers were revered.”  There’s the interference of uncertainty, of Big Changes Threatened and budgetary problems assured.  And of course there’s the interference of those well-meaning, equally terrified Powers That Be, desperately trying to find something to Move Those Scores and prevent Something Much Worse from happening.  In their desperation, they reach for old, familiar forms of how and what: factory-style techniques of management and control that are “supposed to” work because … well, because they “used to work,” we firmly believe, “back in the good old days.”

What would really work, I think, would be for Those Teachers and their Powers That Be to take the time to discover (or maybe rediscover) their why.  Why plan those lessons together?  To share ideas, because a community of practice tends to generate higher-quality ideas than the same people would in isolation.  Why would you need better ideas?  Because the old ones clearly aren’t working.  Why is that important?  Because, after all, you probably didn’t become a teacher in order to yell at “bad, lazy kids” and complain about “awful parents” and “those administrators.”  Because you probably became a teacher … because you liked working with young people, or because you liked explaining things and helping people understand.

But in the absence of that shared why, it’s hard to find the sweet spot.  And without that sweet spot, you just try random forms of how and what: the Shiny New Program from That One Workshop, the Cool New Technological Tool you read about Over There.  And without a why to connect them to, those programs and tools won’t be very effective … because you can’t really measure effectiveness unless you have a why to measure it against.

I’m thinking about Ms. M’s students, and I’m amazed by the joyful learning community that has formed around helping them.  But how can we, the members of that community, communicate the why to them clearly?  In the absence of why, as Don pointed out Monday on Google+, “your materials will just become a new kind of packet to be completed.”  Just like the desperate teachers at That One School, those students without a why would probably follow the process without getting the results.  They might even learn some Latin along the way, but would they form a joyful learning community?  Would they build meaningful things together?  And would they remember what they learned after The Test had come and gone?

When you find the why and the sweet spot, the megaphone and funnel are powerful tools; otherwise, they’re a distraction at best, a source of pain at worst.  I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await in the busy days to come!


Published in: on August 21, 2014 at 1:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Funnels, Megaphones, and Communities

It was an unexpectedly productive, happy morning.  I “delivered” the professional-development content, we talked about how to make it relevant and meaningful, and we started work on our “real” task of preparing assignments for Ms. M’s classes while she’s gone.  And in the midst of that, Ms. H had a wonderful idea.  We’d been talking about creating an Edmodo group so that Latin students at the other schools could share things with Ms. M’s students, and so that students at any of the schools could get help and ask questions when they needed to.  “Of course the students can monitor the feed and answer the questions in real time,” she said.  “And then there could be a real community.”

It turns out that Ms. H’s students have used their Edmodo groups that way for several years.  Mine haven’t.  They quickly embraced the idea of the “daily post” from me, a summary of what would happen in class each day with links to the various Tres Columnae Project stories and other resources we’d be using.  After a while, they started uploading videos and other “stuff” they built, for ease of sharing in class and with friends who were absent and with family at home.  In terms of the modes of communication, they started out with an interpretational task, taking in the information I provided to them.  They moved on to a presentational task, sharing things they’d created and rehearsed.  But they never used Edmodo in an interpersonal way, to exchange information and negotiate meaning together.

“It took us a while to get there,” said Ms. H.  When the Local District first embraced Edmodo, her students (and mine, too, at the time) thought it was “dumb” and “stupid” and “useless” and “boring.”  Then, over time, they came to appreciate the power of receiving information through Edmodo … of using it as a funnel, to bring back an important image for me this week.  Then, as their feeling of ownership and comfort grew, they started using it to distribute information … using it as a megaphone, to bring back another important image.  Only then were they comfortable enough to use it as a community.

There’s now an Edmodo group for the “Familia Latina” in the Local District, and several of Ms. H’s students have already joined.  It seems they’d been wanting to create a wider community for several years, but the logistics of a face-to-face community had been too difficult.  If things go well, the online community will probably encourage the development of face-to-face community.

I’m already seeing possibilities for an even wider online community … like one for learners around the world who use and create Tres Columnae materials.  I’m very grateful for the outcome of those four hours on Tuesday morning!

As I think about it, though, I’m not surprised by that outcome.  Ms. M, Ms. H, and I have known each other for many years, and even when I’ve “delivered” professional-development “content” to them, we’ve always taken time for community as well as megaphones and funnels.  As the presenter, I guess I’ve been the megaphone, but sometimes I’m the funnel, receiving their messages (frustration about too much content and not enough application!) and delivering those, in turn, to Powers That Be who planned the next session.  And sometimes they’ve taken on the megaphone role, of course.  Over time, without even noticing it, we developed into a learning community, sometimes even a joyful one … and the megaphone and the funnel came into better and better alignment.

But apparently that’s unusual.  I “just happened” to talk with a friend who’d been a presenter for Another Subject Area on Tuesday afternoon.  “It was terrible, as usual,” he said.  The material he “delivered” wasn’t dissimilar, but the group was angry and bitter.  No community, no time to apply the megaphone material he’d “delivered,” and a very leaky, resentful funnel.

“And yet,” another friend said, “those very same teachers, the ones who were so rude and unprofessional, are the very same ones who would be all over their students for acting that way.”

As I listened to that conversation with fresh ears, I heard something I’d never heard before.  That lack of alignment between what Ms. X says and what she does?  That’s a symptom of losing sight of the why … or of never knowing why to begin with.  when you know why, even a “stupid and boring” professional-development session can provide you with additional forms of how or what.  But without a why, those strategies and concepts seem useless and disconnected.  “There was a webinar,” someone once told me, “but we couldn’t participate, and we couldn’t actually hear what was going on.  So naturally we all started talking about other stuff.”

Without a clear why, it’s hard to form a community.  And without a community, the megaphone will buzz, the funnel will leak, and the message will be distorted and lost.  Anger and frustration are natural results, but they only compound the problem, increasing the buzzing feedback in the megaphone, filtering out more and more in the funnel, and further distorting the message.

“Go into greater depth” … that was the short, simple, takeaway version of what I “delivered” on Tuesday.  “Use the language of this framework, and help every student experience extended thinking as well as the recall, the skills and concepts, and the short-term strategic thinking.”  Ms. H and I walked the talk as we created and adapted “stuff” for Ms. M’s students (and our own!) to do, and we’ve walked the talk for years as we built a community around the shared why of helping students love to learn Latin.  But in the absence of such a community, and of the shared why that helps communities form, no wonder “those very same teachers” were frustrated and disrespectful!

It’s hard to give what you don’t have.  And “those very same teachers” don’t have a community or a shared why.

I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the days to come!

Published in: on August 20, 2014 at 11:25 am  Comments (1)  

Funnels, Megaphones, and Gratitude

I “just happened” to hear back from a very grateful Ms. M, and from Ms. M’s very grateful principal, Monday afternoon.  Yes, please, thank you, said Ms. M; her principal was equally appreciative and had good news about the two retired teachers, one of whom I know quite well, who will take turns as “The Sub” in Ms. M’s classes until she’s able to return.  Ms. M briefly described what her classes usually do at the beginning of the year, and it sounds like the Tres Columnae Project materials will be an excellent fit.  The One Remaining Colleague and I have some work to do to get things ready, but it will be much more enjoyable work than I had feared.

Gratitude is a powerful thing!  Ms. M’s gratitude, and her principal’s gratitude, gave me energy for what might otherwise have seemed like an onerous, even impossible task.   The gratitude and kindness of folks who work at the Little Restaurant where I stopped for lunch yesterday?  That’s a historic pattern, and it’s one of the reasons I eat there when I’m in That Part of Town.  Gratitude from somebody else, whom I “just happened” to be able to help with something yesterday afternoon, and the gratitude I felt and expressed when somebody else helped me … it makes a real difference on both the individual and organizational levels.

Thanks to some excellent comments on the Google+ thread about yesterday’s blog post, I realized that there’s a lot more to say about funnels and megaphones this week … and when I realized that, I felt gratitude toward George, Don, and Brendan for their thoughtful comments.  And then, when I got up this morning, I realized something … something I’ve certainly realized before, but it struck me again today.  Gratitude, when it’s sincere, makes those megaphones and funnels more effective.  But when organizations (and people!) are under stress, as so many are, one of the first things to go is gratitude.  Sadly, that lack of gratitude leads to greater and greater stress, a downward spiral of anger and despair, poor service and bad responses, yelling, labeling, and a host of other pains and problems.

Can you turn that around with something simple … something as simple as sincere gratitude?

I have an angry friend who tends to post ugly, half-true things about “The Liberals” on Facebook, and another angry friend who posts equally ugly, half-true things about “The Conservatives.”  Both, I think, are angry because That Other Group dares to see things differently, refuses to submit to “superior wisdom” or “the facts.”  They don’t know each other, but if they did, they might be surprised by how much they have in common …and if they really got to know each other, came to value each other as friends despite their real differences of opinion, I wonder if the gratitude might break down some of the ugly labels and categories they both use, almost automatically, when they each refer to That Other Group.  As it is, both sit at the bottom of a very effective social funnel, comfortably inside a social megaphone that amplifies their own group’s message, but effectively screens out any alternatives.

That’s one of the dangers of a funnel or a megaphone, as George pointed out:

Hm: At the center, the leader or founder articulates the organization’s why, and as the megaphone gets larger…

So the closer you are to the center, the louder things are going to get over time, and the harder it will be to hear other messages. Hm.

And then Brendan had a related insight:

Also, it’s interesting to think about the sales funnel from a broader perspective than a single company. For example, looking at an entire new industry, or a population in a public health campaign.

There might be many “sellers” or providers, but the goal on a big picture level is for that thousand people to learn about their options and find their way to a suitable one… even if a particular provider might end up with a handful of clients/customers.

Promoting the overall product or industry or learning objective to a large population might therefore have benefits for all (or most.)

That gets to the question of megaphones or other mass broadcast approaches, vs. other, more distributed methods.

I’m still thinking about how all these threads connect; I’ll be thinking as I drive to “deliver” that professional-development session today, and as the One Remaining Colleague and I do our “real” task of helping Ms. M.  But I’m beginning to see all kinds of connections, all kinds of important things to say about funnels and megaphones, about distortions and sorting, about the leaks in the sales funnel and the buzzing in the megaphone.

For that, and for so many things, I’m grateful … grateful for the joyful learning community that has formed around these posts and for the insights we bring to each other.

I wonder what other new insights await us all today!

Published in: on August 19, 2014 at 10:53 am  Leave a Comment  

Funnels and Megaphones

Over the weekend, I “just happened” to be driving behind a truck that belonged to a Very Large Company.  Traffic was slow, and eventually I realized something: the logo on the truck was not the current logo of the Very Large Company, and it wasn’t the logo I remembered from twenty or thirty years ago, either.  The link will take you to the Very Large Company’s official timeline of logos.  It’s an interesting trip down memory lane, but I think there’s more to the story.  At least for me this weekend, the multiple logos were a powerful sign … a sign of an organization that has lost its why, in Simon Sinek’s terms.  That’s a common problem for organizations, especially Very Large ones, and especially in this strange transitional time when the hierarchical individual model of organization seems to be yielding to other forms.

A logo is a small thing, of course, but small things are important.  The Very Large Company claims to be proud of its new logo, especially the new and different graphic element … but apparently the Shiny New Logo isn’t important enough for stencils, paint, and work hours from its maintenance department.  They “continue to transition” from Old Logo to New, they say, though they adopted the new one six years ago.  If the New Logo had been fundamentally connected with their organizational why, wouldn’t they have found time by now?

In his book Start With Why, Sinek compares a well-run hierarchical organization with a megaphone.  At the center, the leader or founder articulates the organization’s why, and as the megaphone gets larger, as people’s jobs focus on what the organization does and how it carries out its mission, alignment of the why with the what and the how should amplify the why, making that why clear to everyone (especially those of us on the outside of the organization).  That rarely happens, of course, Sinek says, because most organizations aren’t clear about their why.  And then, even if they’re great at the how and the what, nobody really cares.

I was tempted to say that the image of the megaphone really resonated with me … and it did, if you’ll pardon the pun.  It also got me thinking about the image of the sales funnel that so many organizations use.  Sales funnels leak and organizational megaphones buzz with interference … but does it have to be that way?  And what about the instructional funnels that factory-model schools have used for all these years?

I haven’t heard from my friend Ms. M, whose family tragedy inspired Friday’s blog post, and I haven’t been in touch with the Relevant Powers at her school, or with my other friend and long-time colleague who, like it or not, will probably be helping with “stuff” for Ms. M during the training session tomorrow.  But I’m reminded of a time, almost twenty years ago, when a very different colleague needed that kind of assistance for a few weeks at the end of a school year.  “Do you think you could write some lesson plans?” asked the Relevant Power in those days.  Yes, I told her, I can do that … but there was so much more that needed to be done, and we pulled a learning community together, and we did it.  That Former Colleague, like many of the organizations Sinek talks about, had tried to duplicate what I did with the Latin Family in those days, and she’d tried to duplicate how I did things … but at the time, she didn’t grasp the importance of the why.  She thought what and how would be enough … and they weren’t, and her instructional funnel leaked.  “I guess she sort of talked about that sometimes,” her students said about important concepts and skills.  “We sort of did that sometimes,” they said about things my students, in those days, did daily.  So how can reasonably I hope for better, or even comparable, results for Ms. M and her students?

Of course there are better tools available now, and I’m pretty sure Ms. M’s students will be using the Tres Columnae Project materials more than they ever have before. But those are really just better, more effective forms of how and what.  For great results, for a funnel that doesn’t leak even if their Real Teacher isn’t around for a while, Ms. M’s students need a clear sense of why.  Having met a few over the years, I know they’re generally clear about why they study Latin … but somehow, at a distance, without any direct contact and with all the interference that comes from “having a sub” in their class, we’ll need to build them up into a joyful learning community.

If we can do that, they can do anything.  But I don’t know Ms. M’s school well enough to know whether it’s an aligned megaphone or a leaky funnel these days … and if it’s a leaky funnel, the work will be difficult indeed.

Difficult, but not impossible.  The “magic” that the Latin Family accomplished in those last few weeks of school, all those years ago, took place in a leaky funnel school in a leaky funnel district.  We clarified the why, and we found what and how along the way.  That’s an important lesson to remember, and even more important to apply.

This is a busy week for me, with many priorities competing for my attention and many possible directions to go … many forms of what and how.  Is there One Right Way for me to go, or are there many Possible Right Ways?  I’m not entirely clear, but I know that it’s vital to be clear about the why.  That will bring clarity to the buzzing megaphone, fill up holes in the leaky funnel, and possibly even create an ear trumpet that delivers clear, actionable messages when the time is right.

I wonder what new forms of clarity await today!


Published in: on August 18, 2014 at 11:10 am  Comments (1)  

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