The Tyranny of Time

Although it seems likely that losing track of the clock is not one of the major elements of enjoyment, freedom from the tyranny of time does add to the exhilaration we feel during a state of complete involvement.

  • Mihaly Czikszentmihalyl, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Right now I am keeping many plates spinning. There are multiple writing projects on the docket, a new job to prepare for that includes a move to a new town, and a family that deserves my attention. In addition, I enjoy all of my experiences online with others, learning together. Yet something has to give. Time is not standing still.

That is why I am taking a break from blogging, Facebook, and the 24/7 news cycle in August. It is necessary to pare down our tasks at times to focus on what is essential. Some friends of mine, Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan, are doing the same thing with their blog Perspectives. Well known artists and creatives also take breaks from the Internet. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, is going on a tech sabbatical. He shared this video as a rationale, titled The Distraction Economy:

If you would rather read about The Distraction Economy, check out this article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic for The Guardian. I also highly recommend Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. by Sherry Turkle for the New York Times.

When information is bountiful, attention is limited and precious.

– Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

For longer fare on the topic of focus and attention, I wasn’t disappointed by reading Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers and Reclaiming Conversation, also by Turkle.

As I ween down my distractions, I have made a point of learning more about developing routines for my writing. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and The Writer’s Guide to Persistance by Jordan Rosenfeld have been helpful guides. With regard to my role as a principal, The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin and Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker look promising upon first glance.

Also important is the environment in which I write, work, and live. For instance, we converted our four seasons room into a device-free zone (at least for me and the cats). William Powers would refer to this as a “Walden Zone”, after Thoreau’s famed location:

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As my position picks up in our new location, I won’t be able to work remotely as much. I discovered a cabin with no wireless or television through a community connection for a few temporary stays until we officially move in. I look forward to the solitude, although I will miss my family. Hopefully by shedding some connections in my life in August, I will increase my involvement, effectiveness and enjoyment in the tasks at hand.

 

 

Mistakes Will Be Made

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I recently read aloud the first book in the Timmy Failure series to my son. The author, Stephan Pastis is the creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. The first volume in this series, Mistakes Were Made, aptly summarizes Timmy’s struggles. He is a young, clueless detective who could not find his way out of a paper bag. Timmy’s ineffectiveness as an investigator is due to his overconfidence and his unwillingness to listen to others, even when they are right and are trying to help. My son has thoroughly enjoyed this series. He listened to the second book in the series on CD. We purchased copies of the first two volumes for him so he can reread them. He is now asking me to read aloud the third installment. I am only too happy to oblige.

I thankfully do not have a lot in common with Timmy. While I am a part of a new school district, it will be with a position I am familiar with (elementary principal). My experience as an educator spans sixteen years. I would like to think of myself as a good listener and leader. As prepared as I feel, however, I know that mistakes will be made.

I bring this up because more than once someone has told me how much they are looking forward to what I will bring to Mineral Point Elementary School. A humbling news article was printed in the local paper almost immediately after I was hired. The expectations are clear: The school will only improve with my addition. While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I know the sheen of my hire will eventually dull. I’ll make decisions in which not everyone will agree with. Circumstances will put me in no-win situations. Plus, I am a person. As they say, “To err is human”. It’s the nature of everyone, not just the principalship.

So what can one do in these circumstances? First, it is imperative that trust is built and relationships are developed. There has to be an investment in people, that social capital in which I can draw upon down the road when I make hard decisions. Staff need to know that I am there for them and will get to know them as a person. With trust built and relationships developed, they will be more likely to see me in that same light.

The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy. The essence of trust building is to emphasize the similarities between you and the customer.

― Thomas J. Watson

Also, having systems in place to allow for trust to build and relationships to develop is necessary. Mineral Point Unified School District has invested in this professional infrastructure. For example, there is a full time library media/technology integration specialist at the elementary building. Time has been allocated each week on Wednesday afternoons to discuss curriculum, instruction, and assessment. A current elementary staff member has been repositioned as an instructional coach. Providing time, resources and support for professionals to have important conversations about our practice will only deepen trust and relationships.

Finally, it is critical to keep the focus on the reason why we work in education: Student learning. It is not about the curriculum or the tools. It’s about the kids. It seems quite simple. Yet as anyone who works in education knows, it is much more complex than that. So many expectations and tasks, helpful and otherwise, are thrown at us throughout the year. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details. My job is to help staff stay above the fray by protecting time to collaborate and offering strategies for being more effective in our work.

As I said, mistakes will be made. This is one of the few things I can count on as I prepare for the school year. By building trust and developing relationships, providing structure for our professional conversations and focusing on what’s most important, any mistakes I make will be mitigated with these positive and intentional efforts.

I will be taking some time off in August from my blog to complete some writing projects. I may post my progress on my website (mattrenwick.com) in the meantime.

Blogging is Writing & So Much More

For many learners, young and old, there still seems to be a level of mental separation regarding the act of writing online. If we put it down on paper, that’s writing. If we write a post or tweet, that’s blogging. There’s really little difference anymore. What we used to know as writing vaguely resembles what it is today.

Students so often fail to connect their social media engagement and real literacy. Part of that is school’s fault. We educators rarely helps kids see these relationships. But it is also the responsibility of the learner to question what they associate with fun with some of the work asked of them in class. They cannot wait to get out of class so they can…read and write with their friends via smartphone and messenger apps. The irony…

For adults in my generation (X) and beyond, we have our own personal issues with writing vs. blogging. I have heard it all. “I don’t have time.” “I don’t have anything important to share.” “What if no one reads what I write? It will be a waste of time.” “People will think I am a show off.” “I don’t want to risk being misunderstood and offending anyone.”

This surprises me. All educators have something to share. I believe the various concerns listed previously really boil down to one main reason: “I am scared.” It is not unreasonable to feel nervous about putting oneself out there. Even after several years of blogging, I still feel an ounce of worry anytime I select the “publish” button.

But fear is not the primary emotion that should guide people’s lives. Fear can prevent us from making mistakes, and it can also prevent us from learning from experience. Fear can guide our decision making to play it safe, yet without risk how would we ever grow? Fear inhibits our emotions, but at the detriment of letting others know us better as people.

If you elect to avoid blogging, it does not mean that you are any less open to sharing your expertise and ideas with others. Maybe you have a group of educators that meets regularly and collaborates openly about your work. Yet it is unfortunate that others cannot reap the knowledge you have to share. Our world would be a smarter one. Just as important is that your students do not get to see digital citizenship in action. Students emulate what we model as adults, even if they won’t admit it.

So I ask – why not put yourself out there?

 

 

Personalization: Necessary or Nice in Education?

I advocate for providing for all students the opportunity to explore different resources in the context of a relevant learning task. Teachers should consider the whole child when they prepare for instruction, considering their social and emotional needs as well as the academic. The best education is one in which learners have choice in what to explore.

Yet I worry that we are tailoring our instruction for students to the point where they no longer have to struggle to attain essential understandings and skills in their lives. Let me explain.

My son had never seen Wall-e, a Disney Pixar movie, until last night. We watched it together, often discussing parts of the story when he had questions. The one issue he could not seem to come to grips with was why the humans in the spaceship Axiom were “so fat”. I responded that every task was now being done for them. For example, they didn’t have to walk anywhere because their hover chairs transported them to wherever they wanted to go. Their drinks were hand-delivered. Yet even after multiple explanations, he couldn’t grasp the concept.

I am not surprised. It’s a complex movie, rife with references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and other notable media and events related to space travel. More so, I wonder if my son struggled with the concept of people who cannot fend for themselves. He is an independent and active guy. The idea that someone else will provide for all of his needs and wants seemed foreign. Not that my wife and I don’t spoil him terribly…

In schools, we as educators are expected to ensure that every child succeeds (it’s an act, you know). This is an expectation regardless of a student’s home life, genetics, peer relationships, mental health, or past experiences. Our collective response seems to be one of bending over backward to accommodate our students in the hope that they avoid failure and move on to that next grade. Never mind that some skills have been ignored while other expectations have been met some time ago. Move along, move along…


This is a hard issue to address. I haven’t been in the classroom in almost a decade. To say that I can speak with authority on the topic of personalization might be a stretch.

What can I speak to is my own experiences as a life long learner. For example, I am currently pursuing my first degree black belt in tae kwon do. Right now I am in a unique situation: We are moving to a new location, in an area that does not have a tae kwon do center in which I could practice. “No problem – just get a punch card and come up on Saturdays to stay fresh and learn a new form,” states our master instructor. There is little accommodation for my situation. Either do it or don’t. It’s a centuries-old form of martial art and self-defense; no one is going to personalize this craft for me.

Do we do students a disservice when we adjust our instruction so much that we never give them a chance of reaching the original goals set? What would happen if we said, “This is the expectation; I expect you to meet it.”? The reaction would depend a lot on the context. In communities that expect the very best in their child’s lives, any deviance from a situation that does not result in success might lead to parental and even political consternation. No administrator or teacher wants that in their lives.

Maybe a better approach is to create the conditions for personalization. Meaning, how can we be attuned to our students’ needs and interests, understand this information, and apply it to our instruction in ways that both differentiate for students’ needs and honor serious expectations for learning? Learners naturally seek more complexity in their learning progressions. Why would we inhibit this? It is a misnomer that teachers should be differentiating for students. When instruction is prepared for possibilities, students can differentiate for themselves.

Personalization is not a promise for every student succeeding in school, nor permission that allows all kids to get by because the outcomes are more important than the processes. Instead, personalization should be about finding what approach best fits each child in their learning endeavors, and giving them the tools and knowledge to make sense of the world as we know it. This is education as it was intended.

Starting Over Again

During the 4th of July weekend, our family visited my parents in the small town I grew up in. It was nice to see familiar faces and catch up on things. My son, a very curious nine year old (as most nine year olds are), asked what I did for fun when I was his age. He is aware that my childhood was not filled with smartphones, tablets, handheld gaming devices, or streaming video on demand, a.k.a. The Dark Ages. Reminiscing for a moment, I responded, “Well, we played outside a lot, especially around the creek down by the bridge.” Immediately, he wanted to check out this creek. Seeing neighbors heading the same way to let their dogs cool off, we joined them on the two block journey to the creek.

Walking with my son along a pathway I had followed many times myself, I couldn’t help but notice how life tends to circle back on itself. For example, I grew up in a large, historic home in a small town. We now have our eyes on a large, historic home in a small town (Mineral Point). Also, I started my career as a teacher in a rural school with a lot of community support. Seventeen years later, I am coming back to a rural school with a lot of community support. The journeys I have taken in my past experiences, both physically and emotionally, are becoming opportunities to start over again. Familiar as my surroundings may seem, new possibilities are just around the corner.

It is not just me that is preparing for this transition. My family is preparing for a move that none of us expected. The students, staff and families of Mineral Point Elementary School are preparing for a new principal. Former colleagues and connections in Wisconsin Rapids are preparing for the next principal at Howe Elementary School. I can empathize with both the excitement and the anxieties that this type of change can bring. No amount of preparation will fully temper or ease these feelings. And why should we? Life is a series of transitions. Taking time to acknowledge both emotions has been helpful for me to be present in and to enjoy the moments.

When my son and I arrived at the creek, we looked down from the bridge at the gentle rapids, teeming with darting minnows above a somewhat rocky bottom visible through the clear water. “How did you get down to the creek? Did you go in barefoot?” he asked. I explained that my brothers, friends and I threw on old tennis shoes to avoid stepping on any sharp rocks on the creek bed. More confident, he climbed down the side of the bank and stepped into the cold water with the neighbors. He was wearing Crocs, shoes I wish I would have had back then. Still, I didn’t feel the need to revisit the past for too long. As familiar as it might be, I am looking forward to what the future might bring.

 

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Recent Books I’ve Read and Recommend

Being in between positions, I am finding more time to read books and write about them. I usually post my ratings and reviews on Goodreads. This social media tool provides an HTML code of your post to publish on your blog. So…here you go! Look for more reviews over the summer. If you have titles you have read recently and would recommend, please post in the comments.

The Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School TeamsThe Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School Teams by Richard D. Sagor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A comprehensive guide for educators to conduct action research in schools. The author provides lots of templates as well as examples from both the teacher and principal perspective. I used this text to conduct my own action research. The four stage process was explained well. It might be too much information for educators just getting familiar with the action research process.

Beastly Bones (Jackaby, #2)Beastly Bones by William Ritter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining follow up to the first Jackaby book. The author provides enough red herrings to keep you guessing about the perpetrator and its origins. A nice blend of mystery, paranormal, and humor.

Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? (ASCD Arias)Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? by Jay McTighe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice companion to the other UbD resources by the authors. I could see teams of teachers using it when doing a curriculum audit.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on PerformanceBetter: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few books I elect to own in multiple formats. Better is one of them. I listened to it as an audiobook, and plan to purchase a physical copy soon. There are so many ideas in Better that I want to come back to: Innovation, systems thinking, improving performance, and doing the right thing that any person can relate to. It’s a book about medicine, yes, but so much more.

Digital Reading: What's Essential in Grades 3-8Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by William L. Bass II, Franki Sibberson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the rare #edtech books that prioritizes pedagogy over technology. The authors take a deep dive into the benefits and costs of reading on a screen. I especially enjoyed the chapters on connectedness and home-school communication.

Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure, #1)Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice departure from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Timmy may be the worst detective in history, mostly because he doesn’t listen to others or make basic observations. His ignorance leads him into a lot of trouble that is more funny than serious. The author keeps things grounded when he touches on Timmy’s home life, a realistic portrait of a single parent situation (minus the polar bear).

Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get DiscoveredShow Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief text filled with many ideas for sharing your work and process with others. Felt it was too short. The author could have expanded on some of the topics a bit more. Still, well worth my time reading it.

View all my reviews

Why I Write

photo-1455390582262-044cdead277aRight now I am reading A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice by Jordan Rosenfeld. It was given to me by Brenda Power, editor of Choice Literacy and Lead Literacy, of which I am a contributor. On page 14, Rosenfeld encourages the reader to journal about their top five reasons to write. Here is what I came up with:

1. To get my ideas down and out of my head.

I am almost always thinking about education. Unless I put these thoughts down on paper or on my computer, they tend to fester in my mind, never leaving me alone. Writing is a release for me. I can better go about my day once I have placed these ideas elsewhere. I can come back to them another time, especially if I decide to take that writing to the publishing stage.

2. To find out what lies beneath the surface.

I cannot remember where I read it, in a book about writing I am sure, but often when we start a piece we are merely “clearing our throat”. In other words, our initial attempts at prose are often stumbles and steps toward what we are really trying to say. Writing allows me to mine my thoughts and experiences and discover what is under all of the layers of our consciousness. Tom Romano, in his book Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others, calls it writing “ourselves into insight” (34).

3. To share my questions and findings with others.

I think all educators have an obligation to share what we know and what are wondering. This can be done in a variety of ways. I prefer writing about it. What I share has a permanent place in the world, where others can come back to it, ask questions of their own, and share their experiences that might confirm or contradict what I believe. Everyone becomes smarter in the process.

4. To add value to my profession and my life

When I say “value”, I don’t necessarily mean money (although getting paid to write is a pretty sweet deal). By value, I mean the worth it provides to what I do as an educator. By writing, especially online, I become more of an expert in others’ eyes. I make connections with others pursing similar inquiries, which also adds value for both them and me. In addition, taking a piece of writing from start to finish is a pleasure that has few equals.

5. To bring different parts together to make a meaningful whole

It is impossible to make sense of every piece of information out there, especially in today’s connected world. The best we can do is to take a few different bits of knowledge, connect them together through the craft of writing, and then share our work with others. Writing is the best way I know to synthesize what I read, watch, and hear.

Why do you write? What are the reasons behind your work? Please share in the comments.