The Power of Story

I have not given myself an opportunity to blog for some time now, but a recent event particularly inspired me to commit myself again to reflecting about recent activities and learning experiences.  Our E-Learning team facilitated a leadership retreat (#MSLR18) earlier this month for district leaders in Lake Placid, New York.  Leaders were challenged to relax, reflect, and expand their individual horizons through the retreat’s learning activities.  School leaders are not regularly afforded these opportunities – so an event in the summer in Lake Placid was a great place for this type of engagement.

The atmosphere in Lake Placid of tranquility and peacefulness was a perfect setting for recovery, reflection, and personal & organizational introspection.

Our theme for this year is “Building Bridges with Your Stories,” which we carried through the day.  As my team is well aware, I have always been a proponent of “story.”  We are consistently challenging ourselves internally with crafting our vision, initiatives, and projects within the context of story.  What is our narrative?  How do our activities fit together within the overall story of our broader direction?  The story connects to your heart rather than your head – making stories more meaningful, impactful, and memorable than a series of facts, figures, slides, and data points.  In an age of information overload, I have found stories to be particularly helpful in assisting my understanding of vision and direction.

What struck me more than anything at this retreat though was how story can impact in so many different ways and on so many different levels.  My colleague Hilary Dee had a sense of this when the theme was originally developed – but I don’t think even we could predict how the leadership retreat would expand on the power of story.  The presentations and conversations were far beyond how to create and deliver an effective story.  They were about finding your organizational story, your students’ individual stories, your personal story – and then how to internalize these stories to positively influence your actions.  Keynote speaker Paul Reynolds posed the questions below to educators at the retreat – questions that can be framed on so many different levels.

FablePaul questions
Important questions for educators to consistently reflect upon across many different levels.
Paul Reynolds
Paul Reynolds kicks off a day of reflection & learning.

Pete Reilly took it even further when he challenged leaders to look into their heart and find their own story deep inside themselves – as a building block to improving their abilities as school leaders.

The day ended with powerful self-reflection from three talented and introspective educators from our region – Jan Tunison of Scotia-Glenville CSD, Jerry Griffin of Malone CSD, and Dr. Brian Bailey of Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk CSD.

It was during their presentations of their individual stories that it fully hit me how personal story can be.  The day has led me to reflect about my own story.  I’ve been looking at the progression of my own career and reflecting on how my thinking and direction has evolved – with previous personal experiences serving as building blocks for new directions and experiences.  (How did my thinking evolve to where it is now? Perhaps another topic for a future blog?)

Paul Reynolds summed up the day best when he said “the power of story can be transformative.”  What I hadn’t internalized until the day’s activities was the transformative story is on many different levels and it can (and should) be more than organizational.  It is personal – to each of us, to our teams and colleagues, to our classrooms, and to each of our students.  Each of us has a story and, as both Hilary Dee and Jan Tunison reinforced in their comments at the end of the day, it is what makes us human.

Reflecting on Presenting

I had the good fortune of presenting last weekend at the @nyschoolboards Annual Convention & Education Expo (#nyssba17) on behalf of @NYSCATE.  My topic was titled Leading Change: 21st Century Professional Development.  Part of my presentation identified reflection as an important activity within contemporary professional learning – and my presentation experience motivated me to practice what I preached by reflecting on the experience (this was the first time I had presented on this particular topic).

NYSSBA PD Present #2

In an effort to model good practice in professional learning, I incorporated some more contemporary elements into the presentation, including back-channeling (@TodaysMeet), data visualization & audience engagement through word clouds (@Mentimeter), and explicit collaboration (via small group dialogue).  Below is the @Mentimeter word cloud developed by session participants, in response to my question to list three (3) characteristics participants think are important in 21st Century Professional Development.

PD Word Cloud
Characteristics of 21st Century Professional Development per #nyssba17 session participants

I was excited with the output of participants – their feedback clearly pegged important elements of 21st century PD.

However, when facilitating professional learning, I find educators still need to work quite hard at incorporating these characteristics into our delivery.  I know I had to work hard last weekend – there is still a natural tendency to want to control the message by serving as the primary source of content on the session topic.  We consistently see this in our classrooms as well – where many instructors are still unable or unwilling to give up control of aspects of learning to students.  Rather than enabling participants (students) to learn from one another or to figure out the answers on their own, presenters (instructors) still often feel the need to provide the answers themselves.

Leading Change: 21st Century Professional Development at #nyssba17

Last weekend, I felt increased energy/engagement in the room and an improvement in the learning environment when participants broke into pairs to share their own experiences about how they learn best and what has worked (and not worked) in their own professional learning experiences.  Ultimately, in retrospect, I wish I had incorporated more of these group conversations into the workshop – that activity would have much more closely embodied the characteristics of good PD that participants identified early in the session and likely would have led to more understanding of the workshop topic/theme.

In addition to further refining the flow and activities of the workshop, I’m wondering if @nyschoolboards could help further encourage good professional learning in all of its convention workshops with a couple of tweaks to its format:

  1. Convention presenters are given a power point template to use for all presentations. What is (generally) implied by this requirement is that presenters are to use a slide deck in a stand-and-deliver format.  Perhaps by encouraging some alternatives to a power point template, workshops offered at the convention will utilize more contemporary PD characteristics and facilitate a more robust professional learning experience.
  2. All of the presentation rooms I visited were set up as illustrated in the photo below – presenters in the front and participants sitting in rows of chairs in the middle/back.  While I understand this could introduce space issues, perhaps organizers could ask for and enable alternative room designs that encourage more group dialogue and collaboration.
NYSSBA Makerspace Present
Does this room layout encourage stand-and deliver presentations?

Ultimately, this presentation reinforced my need to continue to be mindful to not fall back into center-of-stage professional learning tendencies and consistently focus on incorporating more collaborative (and less stand-and-deliver) activities.  @kelly_freiheit put it best (and then modeled it best) in a recent PD workshop I attended when she said “If we don’t change our practice, we can’t expect our students to change.”

Ignite Your Story

Last week, our E-Learning team hosted an event for school leaders in our region.  The goal of the event was to “stretch” leaders but in a more relaxed, reflective, and (hopefully) fun environment versus a typical full-day conference.  Our event kicked off with a series of “Ignite Talks” from a handful of our school leaders.

If you are not familiar with the Ignite format – your presentation is limited to five (5) minutes and 20 slides, with each slide automatically advancing after 15 seconds.  It was great to be on the other side of the presentations because about a month ago, colleagues on my team and I each presented an Ignite Talk at a regional administrators’ conference.  This was the first time any of us on the team had presented in such a way, so there was definitely some trepidation about the format.

It was clear from watching the Ignite sessions that presenters (sitting school superintendents and regional directors) both had a lot of fun with the format but were challenged with limiting their presentations to five (5) minutes.  Experienced presenters  Dale Breault and Karen Goldstein noted they spent far more time constructing their 5-minute Ignite than they would for a typical 45-minute presentation.

Ignite BBailey
Dr. Brian Bailey, Superintendent, Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk CSD, delivers his Ignite Talk

I found the Ignite format is a powerful way to convey a message and tell a story in a very precise way.  To use the Ignite slogan – “Enlighten me, but make it quick!”  Too often, we listen to presentations that try to do too much – too many slides, too much information, no cohesion.  In particular, we see slides used all the time with text presented so small you can’t read it anyway – so what’s the point?

For me, the Ignite session forces presenters to scrap all of that.  It requires you to use visuals to supplement your presentation – but it doesn’t drive your presentation.  It forces you to cut to the chase and focus in on a very small number of main points, which is probably about all attendees can digest anyway.

Ignite RSquier

Ignite CFord-Johnston
Ignite Talks from Randy Squier (Superintendent, Coxsackie-Athens CSD) and Cynthia Ford-Johnston (Interim Superintendent, Peru CSD)

While some folks can be intimidated by the format, Ignite for me was about the most natural way to present.  As my team knows (I say it like a broken record), visuals are key to any presentation and “it’s all about the story” in a presentation – because that is what people remember.  The story connects to your heart rather than your head.  The Ignite format forces you pick important visuals that help reflect the story you are telling.  Plus, in a world where we are all so busy, isn’t five (5) minutes enough time to make your key point?

I’m hoping we are able to facilitate further Ignite Talks throughout the year… and I will be curious to see how the format will be used back in districts.  We started hearing great ideas such as using Ignite at Opening Day, by faculty presenting to peers in faculty meetings, and by students in classroom presentations.  It was truly great seeing experienced superintendents and others “put themselves out there” and try an Ignite Talk.  They seem to have done just that – ignite further conversations about new and different ways to message your story.

Where’s the Innovation?

I’m glad to be back and able to blog – it has been a super hectic couple of months winding down the school year and I’ve been challenged to make time for myself to organize thoughts and reflect.  Included in the hectic end-of-year activities was a trip to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) annual conference in San Antonio.  I’ve been asked by colleagues “how was the conference?” and my honest response to date has been “it was OK.”  The networking with colleagues and conversations with practitioners is always a hallmark of the ISTE conference experience and something I find supremely valuable.

However, my overall mixed feelings about the event stem from the disappointment with the vendor floor.  A significant goal of the ISTE experience is exposure to vendors introducing some of the latest in educational technology innovation hitting/soon to hit our schools.  I was highly surprised at what I perceived as the lack of innovation in what vendors were presenting at the conference.  I’ve heard similar sentiments from others that attended as well.

#ISTE17 Vendor Floor – many vendors, but how much innovation?

In previous years, the ISTE conference was a great place to learn about instructional technologies before they appeared in classrooms.  It was the place to see technology tools and trends with the potential to evolve or even transform the learning experience in our schools.  Technologies such as interactive whiteboards, 3D projection & printing, robotics, and maker components were on the vendor floor at ISTE before they were part of the mainstream conversation.

Unfortunately, I found there was very little presence of these technologies that truly transform the learning experience.  I found the vendor floor to be a steady stream of interactive flat panels, cases & carts for tablets and Chromebooks, and robotics and maker kits – with very little to differentiate one from the other within each product category.  For example, when I asked one interactive flat panel manufacturer what makes their product different from competitors, I was told they had a longer warranty – not a particularly transformative response.  Many of the bigger announcements at the event seem to be about improved functionality to existing products – not revolutionary new products that can introduce/accelerate new learning potential.

Not necessarily the innovation desired from vendors at #ISTE17

After my initial feeling of discouragement with this lack of vendor innovation, I reflected further about what could be going on here.  I’m beginning to think we are at a crossroads in ed tech innovation:

  • There is a lull in true transformative innovation from the ed tech vendor community, and
  • True innovation is actually not occurring with products, but by individual practitioners changing learning models using tools that have become more mainstream.  Some of the poster sessions at the ISTE conference reflected this.

Or perhaps something else going on is that vendor technology innovation is still happening, just in other sectors than ed tech.  In particular, innovation appears to be occurring much more rapidly in the business/enterprise world and in the consumer world.  For example, in reading about a notable private sector conference held shortly before ISTE (Wainhouse Research – Infocomm 2017 Review), “ideation” was noted as a buzzword at the conference.  There was nothing of the sort at #ISTE17 from my experience.

This all said, I wouldn’t suggest there was NO innovation apparent at #ISTE17.  I’m finishing up compiling my notes from the event and I’m sure I will blog out a couple of the compelling takeaways I did have from the conference.

Ultimately, I am hopeful that we are simply in a temporary transition phase right now – when vendor innovation is limited but school, classroom, and teacher innovation is happening.  I’m hoping the next phase will be another revolution in technologies that will enable transformative change at a macro/systems level – truly changing what schools look like and what learning can look like.

The Pace of Change

It was my good fortune to have been able to attend last week’s Consortium for School Networking (@CoSN) annual conference.  It was a great opportunity to meet colleague educators from across the country/world who are truly bridging technology and curriculum in meaningful ways.  I’m sure over time I will have further reflections from my time at the conference.  One immediate takeaway was the pervasive conversation about strategies for implementing 1:1 initiatives – in particular, how quickly to move forward with such projects that require change in practice from the educators responsible for implementing it.

It was interesting to hear the different pacing districts are using to move towards 1:1.  Alberto Carvalho @MiamiSup, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, advocated in his keynote address for a bold and rapid approach to moving forward with a digital transformation in learning.  “You wouldn’t get on a plane when the pilot says we’re going to take off slow,” Carvalho said.

Albert Carvalho in his keynote address #CoSN17

We innovate, he suggested, by doing it “fast and big.”  Carvalho argued this approach overcomes the “gravitational pull of the status quo” by silencing critics and keeping momentum high.

Interestingly (and consistent with his approach), Carvalho argued against pilot projects, saying they aren’t necessary.  He suggested good research and learning from others allowed his district to implement without pilot projects.

Miami-Dade’s rapid approach was in contrast to the strategy used in @BeekmantownCSD, a district I recently visited.  Beekmantown has taken a more measured approach to moving towards 1:1 by allowing instructors to volunteer to participate in the program.  Now in Phase (Year) 3, the district has nearly its entire staff and students participating in the digital learning initiative.  Superintendent @MannixDan, Director of 21st Century Learning Gary Lambert @Dir21KLearning, and others in the district’s leadership argue this volunteer approach has created great buy-in from staff because they were not pressured into using technology and instead were able to become involved at their own pace.  This has led to broader adoption and a snowballing positive momentum from students and staff.

Beekmantown MS
1:1 classroom in Beekmantown Middle School.

So which is a better approach – slow and steady or fast and big?  Clearly, the answer is not an obvious one or all districts would be using it.  While my personal sensibility is more towards building consensus and capacity in a measured way (the Beekmantown approach), I also tremendously appreciate Miami-Dade’s boldness and urgency of purpose.  Miami-Dade is putting tremendous focus first and foremost on students – every minute, day, week, month, semester, and year when innovation and evolution is not happening is time lost from impacting student lives.  The ultimate focus in Miami-Dade is less about the comfort with the pace of change for the adults but more about the needs of the students and the required pace of change to meet their needs.

That said, the Beekmantown strategy also led to a scenario where students and student needs drive the initiative, but in a more grass-roots way.  After Phase (Year) 1 of the initiative, students were advocating their future teachers to volunteer to participate because they didn’t want to move from a 1:1 classroom to a non 1:1 environment the following year.  Students themselves began to create the sense of urgency for the evolution into the digital learning environment.

A number of presenters at #CoSN17 circled their 1:1 initiatives back to the importance of district culture in their successes and failures.  And it’s this culture that may be the determining factor in regulating the strategies (and corresponding pace) of change in a school.  Dr. Tom Ryan @ElearnTom of the eLearn Institute suggested change will be more successful if it’s within a context where “the system can tolerate” the change.  The distinct culture of each district will tolerate a different pace of change and school leaders must be cognizant of this culture when implementing 1:1 (or, for that matter, any educational or educational technology initiative).

“Culture trumps strategy & culture trumps vision” – Gene Kirchner, Fort Thomas IS

Otherwise, “culture trumps strategy and culture trumps vision” with any change initiative, as Gene Kirchner @KirchnerGene, superintendent of Fort Thomas Independent Schools in northern Kentucky, put it (see slide right). If culture is ignored, it will not matter what strategy, vision, operational plan, or technology is used – the initiative will suffer.

So perhaps there is no right pace of change in schools – the pace may simply vary by the culture of the district.  However, there are still some universal directions all districts should consider, regardless of their distinct cultures:

  1. Initiatives must be student-driven. I understand this statement at face is self-evident.  However, while it is important to build capacity of all of the adults supporting those students, this capacity-building cannot be at the expense of the needs of students.  As noted earlier, a learning moment lost with a student is a moment that can never be recovered.
  2. Simply doing nothing and making excuses about why we CAN’T move forward with digital transformation and new learning models is not an option.  As Beth McKinney @bethmckinney of Athens City School District in Alabama correctly said in her district’s presentation at #CoSN17, “The speed at which you move doesn’t matter – just move!”

“Teaming” Up to Change Learning With Collaboration Tools

In private enterprises, a new set of collaboration tools are emerging that are having a significant impact on how business is conducted.  And, interestingly, these new tools are evolving so quickly, no one is quite sure what to call them.  Names such as “team collaboration tools,” “persistent group chat/collaboration,” and “group messaging” have been suggested.  Communications industry analyst @DaveMichels wrote about this “modality with no name” – originally calling these systems “Workstream Communications and Collaboration,” but now calling them “workstream messaging.”

These new collaboration tools – whatever we are going to call them – have a couple of distinct features:

  1. They tend to organize workflow primarily by project or activity rather than other variables (particularly time).
  2. They have become modality agnostic – they tend to combine (text) messaging, voice calling, video calling, and a resource repository in one virtual space, but segmented by distinct project.
  3. They are very largely mobile friendly.

Some of the current notable brands in this “team collaboration” virtual world are Cisco Spark, Slack, and Microsoft Teams.  Amazon just recently announced its entry into the game with the release of Chime.

Slack – Using “Channels” to segment projects

In education, use of these tools is still largely in its infancy.  However, the potential of these systems to broaden the reach of school is quite significant:

Administrative:  All professionals involved with operating and improving our schools suffer from the same challenges as private companies – not enough time, information overload, and difficulty connecting with colleagues due to packed schedules.  Tools such as Cisco Spark and Slack can help by changing how our educators work and how we can help one another.  Rather than conducting business by a long stream of emails, a series of missed phone calls and voicemails, and in-person meetings where much is discussed but little is documented or moved forward, these tools instead can transform work by enabling groups of professionals to conduct more organized work anytime/anywhere.  Documents specific to the initiative can all be housed in the tool’s virtual “team” (Spark) or “channel” (Slack).  Collaborators can connect via phone, via video, via text – whatever is most convenient at that moment.  And all of these communications are tracked, separated, and organized by project/activity.  My team has started to use Spark as a more productive way to stay organized and connected – particularly in projects with partners outside our organization.

Cisco Spark – Workflow through distinct “Teams”

Instructional:  If we are trying to find impactful ways to enable student collaboration, we can look no further than to some of the tools that our businesses and higher education institutions have been embracing.  These “workstream messaging” tools will allow students to dynamically connect with peers in a robust, safe, and secure environment on iphonecollaborative projects – but still with active teacher facilitation within these team/channels.  Plus, because these platforms have been built for use on mobile devices, students can participate in learning activities using a device: 1. that is personal and most already have, 2. are very comfortable using, and 3. will be using in college or the workforce going forward.

This all said, these tools in and of themselves are not the full answer.  There are two additional components we need as educators in order to pull it all together:

  1. Integration with other, more-learning centric platforms. Google recently announced the integration of Slack with G Suite.  Cisco Spark is being integrated with leading learning management systems (our team has started looking at integrations with LMSs like Schoology).  A combination of a content or learning management system with a robust workstream messaging platform is powerful for collaboration.
  2. We need to better understand pedagogically how to shift instruction to include meaningful student-driven collaborative activities. While educators agree about the importance of students gaining collaboration as a skill, they often struggle with how to design activities within the classroom to build that skill.

I’m not sure where this is all going, but I’m encouraged by the initial direction and evolution of workstream messaging applications to transform how we work.  I’m hoping we will soon have more context and more feedback to see how these tools impact how students collaborate and learn.

Bringing a “Spark” to the Classroom?

A few of us had an opportunity this past week to get a hands-on demo of Cisco’s new Spark Board.  The product is getting a bunch of buzz in the enterprise marketplace (see here, here, and here) – to a large extent, as an electronic replacement for the dry-erase whiteboard.  Interestingly, in K-12, it is potentially more of a replacement for the interactive whiteboard – most K-12 classrooms moved past the dry-erase board some time ago.

Cisco is positioning the Spark Board as an “all-in-one” device serving three primary functions: wireless presentation, digital whiteboard, and audio/video conferencing.  At the core of the Spark Board is its integration with the Cisco Spark platform, a communications and collaboration tool that may require its own blog posting at some point (it’s deep).  While the Spark Board does not require you to use Spark, the device is only a (expensive) digital whiteboard without it – so it really only makes sense to use Spark if you are using the Spark Board.  Spark can be downloaded for free, although there are a number of limitations with the free version versus the enterprise flavor.


What we saw this past week was the “first-generation” Spark Board, so it is hard to make broad conclusions about this device for K-12 – but a few initial thoughts based on the demo:

  • The look and feel of the device is engaging. Others have described the look of it as a “big iPad” and there is much truth to that description (see above).
  • The device only requires one cable to operate – a power cable. When integrated with Spark, all content can be delivered wirelessly.  (The devil is still in the details about how Spark is technically rolled out though).  If we want our classroom/learning spaces to become more active and flexible – and to do so in some school buildings constructed long before the introduction of modern technologies – the near-untethered nature of the Spark Board is impressive.
  • The attention to the user experience in the Spark Board design appears to differentiate from other devices. The device is 4k capable, positioning it for very high-quality video.  The camera is also high-quality (1080p at 60 frames per second).  There are 12 microphones built into the Board, allowing for coverage up to 45 feet away – a great fit for a standard classroom.  Also, the Board has gain control – as users move closer or further away from the board, the volume adjusts to accommodate for the changes in distance.
Wireless presentation – mirroring content between Spark Board & user device

Particularly valuable is the attention to the user experience at the far end.  Too often, far-end participants get a less quality experience in applications like distance learning and videoconferencing because the technology at the hosting end is substandard.  Cisco seems to have considered the far-end in the Spark Board design to provide as much equity in experience as possible.

Because the device is “first-generation,” there are some key functions it currently is missing.  Cisco claims a number of these features will become available in a new release of the Spark Board’s firmware at the end of March:

  • Users can not currently annotate over content – a must-have going forward.
  • Camera is fixed today – “Speaker-track” like features (where the camera will follow the speaker) are coming per Cisco.
  • Audio is not passed through the Spark interface itself or the auxiliary HDMI cable – so displaying content with audio is not available yet.
  • Only the 55” version of the Spark Board is available today – most standard classrooms would require the 70” version that is forthcoming.

One final point I found interesting – Cisco was asked whether pushed content can be modified on the Spark Board itself.  The answer is no.  Content can only be modified within the native applications on the device(s) connecting to the Spark Board through Spark (laptop, tablet, etc.).  @Jared Heiner from Cisco indicated this was intentional – if the board requires a connected computer to operate, it provides another point of technical management and failure, and it further perpetuates a need for the user to stay at the board (i.e. in the front of the room) to operate it.  If we are trying to move towards more student-driven and less teacher-centric learning spaces, this shift away from standing near to the board make sense.  That said, the pedagogical shifts needed from some instructors could create challenges with adoption – the concept of not having a computer directly attached to your interactive board requires a shift in mindset and will likely make a number of teachers and schools uncomfortable at the outset.

There are still a number of other questions to consider in the short- to medium-term:

  • Cost – The board itself is on the higher end of similar devices ($4,999 list for the 55” and $9,999 list for the forthcoming 70” display). Perhaps of greater concern are the recurring costs for device maintenance (“registration fee”) and Spark services.
  • Technical connectivity and the use of Spark – a robust wireless network is a must with this device and the devil is still in the details about how districts would roll out Spark within a school environment.
  • Size of board – will even 70” be a large enough display in a standard classroom?

Ultimately, I was impressed with the direction of the Spark Board and the quality of the device, although recognizing the device may not be ready for prime-time use in K-12 (yet).  As mentioned in an earlier blog posting, the seamless meshing of the physical space (Spark Board) with the virtual space (Spark) is huge, creating great potential to break down the walls of our classrooms and school buildings, leading to significant new learning opportunities and learning modalities in our schools.  It will be interesting to see if the Spark Board will evolve in such a way to make it more feasible (technically, fiscally, and pedagogically) for broad use in schools.

My chance to try out to new Cisco Spark Board
Josh Whitham of Cisco demonstrates the new Spark Board