School Leaders as Readers: Education for Outcome

The following passage is my most recent post I shared in our Goodreads community, School Leaders as Readers. This fall we are reading Mindfulness by Ellen Langer. If you are a school leader, I encourage you to join the group.

“From kindergarten on, the focus of schooling is usually on goals rather than on the process by which they are achieved. This single minded pursuit of one outcome or another, from tying shoelaces to getting into Harvard, makes it difficult to have a mindful attitude about life.” (p 35)

Have truer words ever been written? This is the one of the biggest problems with standards, Common Core or otherwise. They become the product in themselves, instead of a general focus for teaching and learning. Forgive my football analogy, but standards should serve as the yard markers, not the end zone.

I was watching a video today on the Teaching Channel. The teacher had “buckets” on the wall, paint cans that had labels detailing a few words which culminated high school literacy standards. In each bucket were specific skills written on paint sticks related to each standard. The teacher would pull sticks, and this is what the students would focus on that day.

Buckets of standards
Buckets of standards

Source: Teaching Channel (click to watch video)

I almost sent this out to my teachers – mindlessly! – but caught myself. Thankfully I asked, “Is this what students come to school for? To master standards?” Of course not! They come to learn about great ideas, great thinkers, about our history up until now. Sometimes I think they come to get away from all of the connectivity too. Yes, students should also develop certain competencies, but not removed from the context of these big ideas and know-hows.

Langer emphasizes on page 36 that we need to retrain our focus, and that of our students, to asking “How do I do it?” instead of “Can I do it?”. This can best happen in the context of authentic and relevant learning activities. What are your thoughts?

How to Start an Online Book Club on Goodreads

I write this title to draw in readers with the assumption that I know what I am talking about. Yes, I do know how to start a book club. But to get it going and sustain it for the long run? That will be the topic for another post.

Here are the steps I have taken to get things started on facilitating a book study for a group titled School Leaders as Readers:

1. Get a Goodreads account.

Goodreads is one of my favorite social media tools. It combines my love of reading with the online networking that creates unique connections with other readers. I wish we had something like Goodreads for kids. You can create an account through your Facebook profile, which is what I did. Otherwise just create an account through your email.

2.  Start adding books and bookshelves.

You can categorize books in three ways: “To-Read”, “Currently Reading”, or “Read”. I have several books jockeying for attention in the first two categories. As for the books I have completed, I recommend creating personalized bookshelves. This is a helpful way to curate what you have read for others to reference, or simply for you to reflect on later.

3.  Create a Goodreads group.

While it may seem odd to complete the first two steps before this one, I think it is pretty important. To start a book club online, I believe you need to be seen as an avid reader. It’s not enough to read a lot but are not actively sharing our reading lives. We expect this of our students; why not us?

Starting a group is pretty straight-forward: Select “Groups”, then “Create a Group” on the upper right side of your screen. At this point, Goodreads guides you through the next steps of giving your group a title, adding a book you want to read with your friends on Goodreads (friends will find you or be suggested to you, no worries), invite friends to your group, and then create discussion boards related to the major parts or chapters of the book you are reading.

You will want to keep your book club group’s title and purpose pretty generic, as you will hopefully be reading several books around topics of interest within this online community. Since you are the leader of the group, it is imperative that you start the discussion ball rolling with your own initial posts. Below are the first three I shared for our group’s first book, Mindfulness by Ellen Langer.

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As you can see from my initial post, I really need to read this book.

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I ended up gifting a copy to the librarian, and buying a gift card for the Good Samaritan.

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One thing I have appreciated about this online community is the sense of a “closed space”. I can write what I want to write, and not worry a whole lot about grammar, audience, purpose, etc. Of course, I am attending to those elements of good writing, but I am not worrying about it as much I might with a blog post (like this one) or more formal writing. No responses yet, but we only have six people in our group. If you are a school leader, consultant, or public education advocate in general, I hope you will join us for this initial experience. Click here to access our Goodreads community.

Bonus: Leave a comment on this blog post, and you are registered to win a free copy of Mindfulness by Ellen Langer!

Can Mobile Technology Help Us Be More Mindful?

A product called Spire came across one of my social media feeds today. This wearable technology attaches to your clothing and monitors your breathing patterns. If you are stressed, Spire will know and send you a notification on your smartphone with a reminder to take a moment to breathe deeply. The concept seems similar to a Fitbit.

Source: YouTube
Source: YouTube

To answer the question, “Can mobile technology help us be more mindful?”, I think it helps to have a basic understanding of mindfulness.

  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (4).
  • Ellen Langer, in her book Mindfulness, describes the benefits of this concept, such as “greater control, richer options, and transcend limits” (4) in our thinking and our lives, versus the negative effects of mindlessness which include poor decision making and being more susceptible to our biases. 

So will wearable technology like Spire help someone with stress (see: everyone) improve their attention span, be more present in the moment, and have greater control in his or her intentions? I think this will largely depend on how a person uses their smartphone and related mobile technology, and have very little to do with Spire itself. If a person is stressed by outside factors at work, such as employee relations, then I could see some benefits. However, if a person’s stressors are a result of their connections, then Spire probably would be a waste of money (and at $149, that is considerable).

I consider my own mobile tech use. I regularly check email, read social media feeds, and receive reminders via text and notifications. After engaging in all of these connections, I’m pretty sure my breathing rate is going to escalate, at least if it is largely related to my work as a school principal. Because Spire utilizes the same features that technology providers also use to keep me engaged in their products, I would predict that the effectiveness of it would be marginal at best. Rather, I would need to heavily reduce all of my connections on my smartphone to become more mindful. But then why would I need this product?

While Spire is a unique idea, I believe its effectiveness is correlated with how well we currently manage our connections. The context determines the outcome. Somewhat related, I think this product is another step toward technology not only becoming essential to our everyday lives, but actually becoming a part of us. There is certainly a paradox here. As I revealed about myself, often the stressors in our lives are the technology we use, such as that ever-growing email inbox. With Spire, are we reducing our stress, or just feeding the monster? That largely depends on our current habits.

Do Just One Thing

Permit yourself the luxury of doing just one thing.

-Lao Tzu

It’s Connected Educator Month. Every day, different learning opportunities are offered for teachers and leaders to expand their skills and personal learning networks.


One activity I am participating in is a Book Club for Kathy Cassidy’s resource Connected From the Start (PLPress, 2013). In the introductions, participants were asked to share an unusual thing about themselves. I noted that our home has been without a working microwave for over a year. Here was Kathy’s response:

Congratulations on going microwave free. I appreciate people who can do without things that seem essential in our lives. I wonder if this will lead you to re-evaluating other things as well… I guess time will tell.

It’s funny she asked this. I recently agreed to teach catechism for my church. My classroom is as technology-free as you can imagine. There are no projectors, tablets, or laptops available. We don’t even have a whiteboard, and when I say whiteboard, I mean the kind that uses dry erase markers. Instead, I have a chalkboard, with real chalk.

Your first reaction might be that our classroom environment is lacking. How can we reach our learning potential when we are deprived of all the potential connections we might make?

And you know what? It is freeing. These perceived constraints have helped me focus on good pedagogy. There is no worrying about whether technology should be a part of my lesson plan. We still have connections, but it is between each other and within ourselves. In the context of religious education, technology might actually be a deterrent to our progression toward the learning outcomes.

In a previous post, I suggested that a teacher could never reach the pinnacle of their capacities as an educator if they weren’t more connected. I still believe this. However, these connections we make beyond the classroom walls should never replace the connections we make within them. There is this prevailing misconception floating out there that we should be connected 24/7 to ensure we don’t miss anything important. But if we are always connected, how do we find time to reflect on these great ideas we discover and apply them within our context?

As we embark on this annual learning journey with Connected Educator Month, I am doing my best to remember that the effectiveness of technology is explicitly reliant on the presence of good pedagogy. This means allowing ourselves the luxury to do just one thing at a time. Mindfulness and connectedness are not mutually exclusive.

What’s Your Intention? Mindfulness, Technology, and Hamlet’s BlackBerry

Has your connectedness made you feel overwhelmed at times? I would answer yes. Spurred by this realization, along with a colleague’s recommendation, I read Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (Harper, 2010) by William Powers. It deftly describes both the benefits and perils of being connected in today’s world. This book spoke to me on several levels: as a reader, as a connected educator, as a father and husband, and as a learner. It is worth noting that the author takes a reasonable approach with the digital life. He likes being connected, but is mindful about his use of technology.


photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

I will try not to make this post too book-reporty. Instead, I will list some of my favorite quotes from the text, my takeaways, and how I have considered applying these concepts to my own life.

There’s a difference between access to information and the experience of it. Reading evolved away from the crowd for a reason; it wasn’t the best way to read. (p 135)

Takeaway: The author is referencing Gutenberg’s printing press and how it expanded literacy to a global level of access. Before this, reading was a social experience. If you were literate and could afford books, you read aloud so everyone could enjoy the text. Reading silently wasn’t a normal practice until much later.

Application: I have become more cognizant about the format I read on. Some books lend themselves well to print, while others read just as well in digital. However, I have reverted from reading books on my iPad to using my wife’s “old” Kindle when reading a digital text. I download the book(s) I want and then turn off the wireless. This practice prevents me from clicking on URLs in the text I am sometimes tempted to select. My reading experience feels deeper because I alone am expected to make meaning.

Digital screens are tools of selectivity, but using them is more reactive, a matter of fending off and filtering. Because a paper notebook isn’t connected to the grid, there’s no such defensiveness. The selectivity is autonomous and entirely self-directed. (p 152)

Takeaway: The notebook in question is Moleskine. The author uses them all the time to jot down notes while on the go. He parallels our notebooks to Shakespeare and his use of tables (erasable wax tablets used centuries ago to write ideas on for later reference). There is a sense of grounding when we put our thoughts down on paper. They seem to become more real and concrete.

Application: This totally affirmed my affinity for Moleskine notebooks! Probably not by chance, I really started using them around the time I became more connected in the fall of 2011. What I use often is the Moleskine Evernote Smart Notebook. I can scan my handwritten pages into a note, which is then searchable with a Premium account (and if Evernote can read my handwriting, rest assured it can read yours). Now I don’t have to be tethered to a screen when trying to capture my learning.

Take a walk without a digital gadget, and distance is yours…It’s a psychic leash, and the mind can feel it tugging. That’s the problem: We’ve gotten so used to the tugging, it’s hard to imagine life without it. (p 211)

Takeaway: Take a moment to observe any public area and you will find a large number of people checking their smart phones. McDonald’s, your school lobby, the park, it doesn’t matter. Whenever there seems to be a lull in activity, people naturally look to their smart phones to occupy their minds.

Application: I am as guilty of this as anyone. When I should have been engaging in conversation with my kids, I have caught myself checking my Twitter feed. That is why I have made a point to not bring digital devices everywhere I go. As well, I am attempting to take “tech sabbaticals” once a week. This break usually falls on a Sunday, which is the Sabbath anyway. I refrain from checking email, social media, or anything else technology-wise that would distract me from being present with my family and for myself.

Paper is arguably becoming more useful, since it offers exactly what we need and crave, a little disconnectedness. (p 216)

Takeway: The author repeatedly comes back to the importance of depth, the state of digging deeply into one’s mind and reflecting upon past learning experiences. When we don’t have gaps in our connectedness, we prevent ourselves from ever having more than superficial, surface-level understandings of complex issues. Depth is born out of reflection from our experiences, not just from the experiences themselves.

Application: For schools promoting paperless classrooms and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives, this information should give leaders pause. If a student is always connected to a device, when do they have time to remove themselves from the flow of information and digest everything they have encountered? We need to build in these points for reflection if we expect students to retain and apply the important concepts and skills of their school experience.

Click here to order this book. You can decide whether to read it in print or digitally. 🙂