Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Bridge to Whitby

I like Tom Whitby. A lot.

He is honest, caring, passionate, and thoughtful.

I read his posts, see him at EdCamps, and value his opinion. He made it a point to get to know me at one of the first EdCamps I ever went to. Every time I see him, he asks me how I am and how my children are. I've even drank wine with him at a bar in Washington, D.C. (Ask him about throwing Jolly Ranchers at teachers).

If at the end of my education career people say to me, "I put your career in the same ballpark as Tom Whitby's career," then I did my job well.

However, in Tom's recent post about the parallel universes of the connected and disconnected, there's one concept I think he missed: the cliques that exist within both worlds. It's not as if we're inviting each other in to one another's world. Our worlds aren't colliding on their own, like George Constanza's famous phrase. Our worlds are insular from each other, and even insular to one another who inhabit said worlds.

What do I mean? Within the sit-n-git, one-shot, make and take professional development world, many educators don't talk to one another. They do not connect on a personal level to those they do not know. They sit with whomever they came with, maybe make lighthearted talk with someone else at the table, and leave. There's no follow-up. The end result is all of the people at the table grow at a slower rate comparative to what it could be if they engaged in authentic discussion about pedagogy and practice before, during, and after the conference. It's this lack of dialogue within the traditional disconnected world that slows their growth. But, is it so different compared to how connected educators behave at unconferences?

If you've been to enough unconferences, you start to see a pattern, very similar to those at conventional professional development conferences. Unconference veterans tend to be with only each other. They attend the same sessions, sit together at lunch, and hang out afterwards. How does that help the people who aren’t connected to those connected learners? It's too easy to say that newbies need to be bold: introduce themselves, strike up conversations, be friendly. Not everyone is wired that way. That's like saying children who are bullied should just stand up to the bully and tell him/her to stop. If you've ever been bullied, you know that doesn’t work. Asking people to step up when they’re new (or newer) to an unconference is asking them to move even further out of their comfort zone, putting no onus on veterans.

Now, I’m not making blanket statements. I’ve met some great educators I learn from daily from unconferences. They’ve been to my birthdays, held my kids, and won money in my monthly Texas hold ‘em game. But, not everyone has my experience. And, fences don't get cut down just because someone holds a saw. If we want to knock down the fence that separates the connected from the disconnected, and the cliques within both, we’re going to have to genuinely reflect about whether this applies to us or not. While we don’t have to tell people to be something they’re not, we all do have an opportunity to learn from each other if we take it. Our worlds and the worlds within them don't necessarily have to collide, but we can build a bridge between all of them that intersect so people can freely move between them as they’re comfortable.

We can even name it after the person who makes sure people who are at unconferences don’t feel uncomfortable.

Tom Whitby.

Friday, August 8, 2014

REMINDing Me What's Important

Sometimes a small reminder goes a long way.

For example, a simple text message sent from one caring college friend to remind him to get to class can spur a startup company. Called, Remind.

Brett Kopf, the co-founder of Remind, has dyslexia and ADHD. He benefited from a routine schedule in high school. However, when he got to college, the staggered class times, the infrequency in attending class, the transition from high school to college, all of this was too much. Brett needed someone to help him. By having a friend text him to remind him of due dates, Brett was able to graduate college and start his own company. Remind, a free mobile messaging service that teachers around the world use to connect to students and parents, currently has 10 million users. These 10 million users get reminders of due dates daily because of an idea based off one text message with a singular goal in mind -- let me help someone who needs it.

As Brett did, it’s important to remind ourselves of what we really need from other human beings. Whether it be text, tweet, email, or phone, we need someone to support us and who we can be open, honest, vulnerable, and trusting with. Who won’t expect anything in return for their help, because their validation is knowing they helped someone else be in a better place.  

Clara Galan did that for me today. She works at Remind with Brett. We met through a mutual friend. I shared with her my dilemma: some of the funding for a free, overnight professional development event  I’m working with 14 educators from New Jersey and Pennsylvania on fell through. Our goal is to provide a forum for 125 selected teachers and teacher leaders from our two states to have good educational conversations, share best practices, empower each other, and turnkey new learnings when we return to our home base. Food and lodging (and even some swag) will be taken care of by sponsors, everyone builds their PLN base, students benefit, and everybody wins.

But, no one wins if we can’t make up the funding difference. “You need to call Clara,” my friend, Nick Ferroni, said. “She’s great. She’ll help you.”

When Nick told me Clara was great, he didn’t define in how many ways: she listened to our situation, offered advice, promised to provide introductions to potentially interested sponsors, and didn’t want anything in return. When I asked her what I could do to support her, or Remind, she said, “We all want the same thing. We just want to help kids. That’s all that matters.”

I thanked her, not for her knowledge of how to help my team and I as we search to recoup our missed funding, but for the positive place she put me in. Her energy, enthusiasm, and selfless nature made me feel better -- not just about the project, but about the good within people. With all the hard work my passionate teammates put into securing sponsorships, finding a location, selecting lodging, and creating the right atmosphere for learning, I felt like I’d let them down as I told them we could do it.

Clara’s genuine kindness reminded me of what was truly important: that whether we pulled this event off was unimportant compared to the shared vision my teammates and I had, and the singular focus we had to create an event that would help our peers improve their practice to be more successful. I think Brett Kopf, and his friend from college, would approve.