Telling Stories and Lending a Hand

Last week I was doing some reading and came across a post that made me very happy. It is about a new project to find ways to crowd source the notion of helping out in our local schools. Dave Eggers, the author of the wonderful book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, had a dream — he wanted to find ways to connect with and help local schools. He acted on that dream. Behold, Once Upon a School. I’ve been relatively vocal here about my recent dissatisfaction with schools in general. I’m now seeing the public school system at work and I am concerned for how it is all going to turn out for our kids. I’m in school myself and I am looking at all of it with a very critical eye … I have become very interested in helping to find ways to connect with and improve education — across the board.

I’m lucky in that my job allows me to feel good about what goes on in higher education. What I am concerned about is that most of our students aren’t getting to experience great learning environments every single day. They get some good ones and some less than perfect ones. I think it is even more spotty in the K-12 space — not because of the teachers, but because of the unfortunate realities of the system. I watched Dave’s presentation and fell in love with the idea of finding new ways to connect with my own local schools. I went to the site, put in my area of expertise, added my zip code, clicked submit and waited to see what classroom I could spend time in. There was the reality right in front of me, not a single classroom in State College. What could we be doing more of as a community to connect with teachers and schools? We’re a powerful bunch, what should be done?

21 thoughts on “Telling Stories and Lending a Hand

  1. How about starting with Madeline’s school? I bet they’d welcome you to do just about anything if you came to them with ideas…

  2. @Kristin I’d be happy to do if there was a way to plug in. It feels (and this is based more on my own perception) like there is a real resistance to meaningful participation. I’m not saying they wouldn’t be open to it, but I am saying it feels like there is an “arms length” policy at play. What I’d like to do is find a way to work with the teachers to help push them along a path. Sort of an informal professional development network — much like what we’ve seen emerge at PSU for the learning design community.

    In the absence of that scenario coming true, I’m happy to contribute time to the classroom locally.

  3. Hi Cole — I want to preface my comments with the statements: I do not have any school age children, so I have a very second hand view of the public education system; I come from a family of K-12 educators my mother is a special needs teacher and my father was a english lit teacher and is now a Regional Manager for the PSEA (teachers union); the majority of my friend-set are k-12 teachers.

    The comment I find most intriguing is your “Arms-length” policy — I think that is a generous statement, once you have a child in school you get the arms-length treatment if you are an outsider (no kids) looking to give advise/volunteer your time the policy becomes football field length which, in my mind, gets back to the lack of cooperative teaching on a daily basis, proper teacher evaluation, and arbitrary standardization placed on educators in K-12. Problem 1: We don’t teach our teachers to be collaborative (once they leave higher ed) — they are isolated, to an extent, from their peers – even in their own bldg. they teach, they go home — maybe they see each other over lunch. Problem 2: Teacher evaluation..not sure how they do it in SC but in other places it’s little to non-existent and it’s usually done my a senior member of staff with little knowledge of new teaching techniques, very little feedback is given, and no reward for implementing new ideas. Problem 3: Standardization creates an environment of tunnel vision — I need to get these things done by this date so everyone gets 70% on “the test”. Problem 4: I hear this more and more — lack of passion! umm yeah I teach because I get my summers off. What happen to “I touch the future, I teach!”. Rant Done. Possible Solution…

    To break down barriers let’s start with an Anonymous online community — get teachers/administrators who are willing to participate (low hanging fruit) into an online sharing community — add in others with expertise, so that feedback is coming from community members not individuals. Then provide a space for high performers to showcase their ideas…just like at PSU someone needs to identify the early adapters get them involved and start to reward them for exemplary behavior.

    That’s a long comment I’ll stop there …

  4. I don’t have children, but I am close to my nephew, an 8th grader, my sister and brother-in-law are both math teachers, and I have several friends in various positions in the State College Area School District, so I hear a lot about various aspects of the district and what’s wrong with it and right with it too.

    I think you are right on pointing to the system as a hindrance to student’s access to great learning environments. For instance, SCASD has had the CMS Moodle for a couple of years which I believe they call Scoodle or SCAdoodle or something cute like that. The problem is that they really haven’t implemented it and it sounds like they aren’t even sure how to go about it in a rich engaging way providing opportunities for students to learn. I think they hired someone recently, so hopefully that will change. It’s more of an administration tool at this point. When teachers want to try to do something unique, they are met with a barrage of questions and reasons why they shouldn’t instead of being encouraged to try something new and inspire others to join suit. They have to really fight to be allow to do something that is not specifically outlined in the curriculum to meet the standards set by No Child Left behind. After a while even the great teachers stop asking for some PSYCH 101 reasons. So I think it has less to do with the individual teachers’ personalities than it does fear of the unknown from administrators and lack of resources for the IT department whose responsibility it is to support technology for such a large school district. Obviously, this is just one small example because not all engaging learning environments need to be web based.

    Something I do is talk to the teachers that I know personally about what it is that I do (as an ID) and ask them to review things for me occasionally to give them some ideas on what can be done so if in the future they are met with a more open mindset (a new Superintendent is being hired) what I shared might give them some ideas. I email examples of schools doing great things. I email info about new tools that could help them in their teaching. Sometimes, I play tech support. Obviously, I don’t hit very many people this way, but it might just inspire someone someday to ask “Why not?” instead of giving up like so many do.

    I’ve often thought of ways to provide some basic instruction to teachers on designing online activities, but it is difficult for them to get approval to attend unless it is on their own time and if you’ve ever met a really awesome teacher, time isn’t something they have much of even in the summer. Maybe reaching out to the teachers in the area with a Summer Camp type event or an online version of might hit more folks than my tiny grassroots attempt. Or maybe contacting central administration to volunteer your time to present at an “In-Service” session that they do several times a year might work. I guess my point is to keep trying and keep talking.

  5. @ April i love the idea of inviting some teachers to attend camp. I wonder if some would come? It would be a powerful experience from both directions — us hearing from them and the working with us.

    I also fear that so many of our good teachers are not being challenged to think critically about how to appropriately integrate technology into their teaching for many of the reasons you mention. I just wish the administration would see the value in opening up the discussion about how to do some of these things in a safe and productive way. It is a bit frustrating to me, but I think it is a long-term conversation with long-term payback.

  6. @Michael Hofherr One thing that has (for some reason) really brought the learning design community at Penn State has been the high use of Twitter. I think many of us have found great value in that connectedness! How do we connect teachers who cannot be linked to a twitter client all day? How do we find a way to engage them in a broader conversation? I think your notion of isolation creates a situation where they don’t connect to a community of practice outside the school. A lot of my ideas come from following smart people as they write blog posts and share links to projects they’ve done.

    I personally think if we could find a way to bind a community together (of even the early adopters) we’d see real change happening. Those are the thoughts I have … any others?

  7. Never know until you ask. I wonder if there is a way to partner with the College of Education. They work with the school districts in the area to get pre-student teachers, interns and student teachers placed, so maybe they would be willing to extend an invitation to the teachers they routinely work with? Maybe have it be a bonus gift for all they do for the college and in turn the University? I don’t know if anyone’s tried to do anything like this before or not, but it can’t hurt to ask about it, right?

  8. @ April Another good point. I do quite a bit of work with the College of Education and they do amazing things with pre-service teachers. I wonder what the connections look like after teachers are placed? An interesting idea would be to spin something up that is outside the purview of the PDE or the district — sort of an informal learning network where people can connect. Good thought … I’ll see what I find out.

  9. Hi Cole–I think I’ve mentioned before the Libraries K-16 Information Literacy Network–which Emily and I co-direct. We hold yearly (sometimes even twice-yearly) professional development workshops for area K-12 and public librarians in Centre, Clearfield and Clinton Counties. We typically see about 25 librarians at each of our workshops, and we also have a listserv and a website to help enable community discussion year-round:

    I see no reason why a similar effort focused on technology (and perhaps aimed specifically at teachers) couldn’t work. Our upcoming workshop at Schlow Library on April 16 is on emerging technologies and gaming in information literacy instruction, as a matter of fact.

    The key to gaining attendance at these workshops (besides timing them very carefully around the school calendar) is simple: Act 48 credit. If the teachers can get professional development credit, they will come. This is key.

    For what it’s worth, the librarians we have connected with have told us that technology–particularly exploring new technologies in education–is one of the greatest barriers they face. I think an effort like the one you’re describing would be very welcomed in our local K-12 community.

  10. Just wanted to add in one more thought that I forgot to mention above… 🙂

    I’ve been thinking about this conference and its applicability for our state-level K-12 environment. It’s a fully online conference for small (i.e. one person) geographically distributed Iowa libraries. Could a similar model–maybe a repository of community contributed interactive workshops, lesson plans, curriculum ideas, collaborative tools etc… work for the PA K-12 environment? It would have the capacity to reach many more people, and while it wouldn’t offer the benefits of face-to-face workshops, it could build community on a much larger level.

  11. @ Ellysa I think we could do something that would make sense. Does the Library sponsor the Act 48 credits? I think we’d need an “academic home” for such activities — perhaps the CoE? No matter, I’d like to talk through the ideas a bit with you and some others. Thanks for the comments!

  12. @ April

    I’ve often thought of ways to provide some basic instruction to teachers on designing online activities, but it is difficult for them to get approval to attend unless it is on their own time and if you’ve ever met a really awesome teacher, time isn’t something they have much of even in the summer. Maybe reaching out to the teachers in the area with a Summer Camp type event or an online version of might hit more folks than my tiny grassroots attempt.

    I couldn’t agree more. Several of my friends who are teachers say they have the technology, access to software, but for many of them, they have no idea how to use it.

    A good, week-long tech immersion coupled with some help from the folks in College of Ed to make it relevant to instruction would be a real service to the community. Put me down for the wiki course 😉

  13. @jim leous I would certainly be willing to volunteer some of my time to help as well if we could get something going that teachers would find interesting and worth it. If there was a way to get the Act 48 credits associated with it, I agree that it would have a much better chance of success.

  14. I know I am a latecomer to the conversation, but I’d like to toss a few ideas into the mix. Let me begin by saying that my colleagues and I have been collaborating with K-6 teachers and administrators in SCASD for more than a decade now through the PSU-SCASD Professional Development School Partnership. This is a long-term commitment to cultivating capacity for teacher inquiry – the continuous examination of practice for the improvement of learning. The teachers I work with are articulate, innovative, and passionate about their students. They ask tough questions and push me to think differently and try new things in my own teaching and research.

    At the heart of the relationship is the notion of simultaneous renewal. It’s different from the common model. For too long the “powerful bunch” at Penn State has abused relationships with schools in two well-meaning ways (probably more). First, we have a long history of sweeping into schools with projects connected to outreach components of funded projects, then pulling out when funding dries up. It’s hard to build trusting relationships in the midst of this disappearing act. Second, there is an urgency associated with the notion that schools are broken and we need to do something to fix them. Sadly, this gets translated to a focus on fixing teachers because school systems are so complex and difficult to affect. It’s no wonder we get the “arms length” reaction. Wouldn’t you be skeptical of someone coming at you with the attitude that you are the problem that needs to be fixed?

    Long story short, we may be asking the wrong question here. A focus on simultaneous renewal means that we also have something to learn from K-12 professional educators. Are we willing to be vulnerable? Are we willing to genuinely approach working with teachers as investing in long-term relationships in which all parties bring expertise to the table to tackle a problem of practice that is as important to the teachers as it is to us? This was an essential aspect of the message from Once Upon a School – What do teachers need help with?

    There is so much more, but I’ll stop here for now. It’s exciting to know that so many people are interested in collaborating with schools!

  15. Two more quick things…

    I really like the idea of Summer Camp (Apple style!), especially if there are opportunities to support teachers in trying what they learn in their classrooms post-camp.

    And thank you for reaching out to colleagues in the College of Education. This kind of effort really is the heart and soul of what many of us do. : )

  16. @Carla Zembal-Saul I’m interested in long term and two way streets. What I’d love to get to is a place where we can have honest conversations that lead to action. I am afraid of the official connections … in other words I’d love to see a teaching and learning community happen that has both us PSU people and interested teachers coming together b/c they want to. I fear the programmatic approach based on your first point — I’ve seen it and I know why they bail. I am not interested in trying to create sweeping change with the wrong audience. I’d just like to find new ways to connect at the grassroots level. That to me sounds fun, exciting, and important. Thanks much for joining the discussion!

  17. The partnership I wrote about started as a very small grassroots effort. Grassroots makes sense and can be very powerful. I’m game to talk more and even rally a small group of school-based professionals to begin the conversation. Let me know. The prospects of using technology to connect students, educators, and others for the purpose of making learning environments more engaging and relevant is exciting and important!

  18. Hello, All. Thanks for the invitation to join this conversation. I love the example, and like the other commenters, I’m willing to participate. I understand why the College of Education was invited and why Act 48 credits were suggested, but I also understand Cole’s desire to keep it informal, and fun.

    I think we can do it all.

    Let’s say, for example, that we decided to go down the suggested path and help teachers think about the ways they use technology in their classrooms (and lives — can’t really separate the two). We could have a basically informal structure (say workshops or summer camps rather than semester-long courses), for which teachers would come to State College, bunk with volunteers to avoid hotel costs, and participate in a series of activities that were designed to be both skill and knowledge-expanding and fun. For those who want or need it, we could do it under the flag of a non-credit course, and we could certainly apply for and get Act 48 credits.

    I’m not really trying to take us in that direction, I’m just saying that I’m sure we can think of services that would be popular with the audience we hope to serve, would be fun and beneficial (as Carla says, both for us and for them), would be inexpensive, and would have an impact. We could follow these with an online community — say an online “Innovation Studio” where teachers could come for support, encouragement, and who knows what else.

    If others want to talk about possibilities, I’m in, but we’ve got to keep the playful attitude that was evident in the success of Once Upon a School (the example Cole gave us to kick this conversation off.)

    Thanks, you guys made my day.

    Kyle {(}-;

  19. @ Kyle Peck I think an informal approach is best. I’m game with making it happen … but only if we can get a group of motivated and interested people involved! Thanks for joining the conversation.

  20. Well as long as the College of Ed is in the house I feel like I should drop in my thoughts.

    I agree a lot with what Carla said. I think the key thing to recognize is the “arms length” is more a defense mechanism for teachers than anything else. They are overwhelmed with folks both internally (administration) and externally (just about everyone) telling them they are not doing an adequate job. I think they are just beat down in many ways and are entirely in a reactive mode. This leads them to be not so much resistant to change (or innovation), but more people putting their fingers into lives. Everybody wants a piece of them and by extension the kids in their classes for all sorts of pet projects.

    I also think that grassroots is the way, and in particular not presuming that we know what they need. Just as the PDS started with conversations, I think that is where any serious attempt at partnering with schools must begin. I have been involved with a group that is attempting to build a collaboration between PSU and the Delta program here in State College. It seemed like the whole conversation was just about people listing what they needed from the other group and what they thought that other group could provide. It struck me as being like meeting someone on a first date and beginning the conversation by saying “well here are my needs: I need someone to cook my meals, maybe do some laundry…”. This idea of getting together a set of offerings for teacher that will help them integrate technology into their classrooms feels like a variation on that theme. More like saying to your first date: “I have known a lot of women and based on that I am pretty sure that what you need is a manicure and a massage”. Might be right on, might not, but I would guess that the general presumptiveness of coming to it that way would make them think less of you. I think we do this a lot as higher education folks when we try to develop relationships with teachers. We assume we know the ways they need help and that we can help them. However, we don’t live in their world and don’t know their pressures. I believe that it has to start with a conversation where everyone comes with an open mind about where things will go. It has to be a conversation among equals about how everyone’s expertise can address problems for mutual problems we all care about.

  21. @Scott McDonald Couldn’t agree more … the conversation is where it needs to start. One additional thought about how it can related to the Learning Design Summer Camp — the conversation about what we needed started in the wiki. People were invited and encouraged to submit ideas about what they wanted (needed) the event to be like. Many of the people who did that had never used a wiki before. Could a similar idea work in connecting with K-12 and in building an event designed for them?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.