Focused Presence

About a week ago, we were having a discussion on Slack about the upcoming state educational technology conference. I’m sitting this year out. A couple members of my personal learning network weren’t happy. The conference isn’t necessarily about learning. It’s more about bringing technology to education than focusing on student-centered learning enhanced and supported by technology. Jeremy said that’s not the point. The conference is about networking. It’s about connecting to your colleagues from around the state, hearing about the success and challenges we’re having, and working together to identify innovative strategies and best practices moving forward. He didn’t exactly put it like that, but I think that’s what he meant.

“Why do we have to be in the same place to network?” I asked. The conversation turned to technology. “Nobody has come close to a digital equivalent of being in the same room,” Jeremy offered. Ryan suggested that the Cisco digital presence technology might be close. I disagreed.

20170127_0902441-1Technology isn’t the problem. You can attend conferences remotely. You can watch webinars all day, and there are more than enough Powerpoint slides on the Internet to put everyone to sleep. We can connect in video conferences for face to face conversations. We can use online tools of various kinds to engage in both public and private conversations, both in real time and asynchronously. We have formal spaces where everyone acts like a professional, and less formal ones where we’re a bit more relaxed. There aren’t many gaps in technology’s ability to replicate all of the kinds of interactions we have at a professional conference.

And yet, here I am at Educon. I missed work for two days and drove 500 miles to get here. I brought five people from my district because I think it’s important for them to engage in these conversations. It’s expensive and time consuming and totally worth it.

We could do this online. All of the sessions are streamed live, and this crowd is more than casually connected. I could stay home and still interact with the people in the room in real time. The technology is there to make it happen.

But the last two years, when I didn’t attend Educon, I didn’t participate at all. I didn’t watch the streams. I didn’t follow the Twitter hash tag. I didn’t read the blog post reflections. I checked out.

Sitting in my office, or on my couch, there are a thousand other things to pull me away from the experience. We’re having a network problem. A student’s account got hacked. Someone is impersonating a board member online. There’s always a “drop everything and take care of this” moment. I’m really bad at turning off the world and focusing on one thing, and it’s even more difficult when the one thing really does require your full attention. We don’t respect focused time. I can’t close the door and say, “I’m at a conference now.” The phone will keep ringing. People will keep knocking. They still need important things.

So we’re here. We’re engaged. I’m immersed in the experience, and can hopefully focus my attention on it for the next two days. We will discuss and explore and debate. We’ll talk to people from many different types of schools with many different perspectives. We’ll try to help others by sharing what we’ve learned over the past few years, and we’ll learn much more from others’ experiences. We’ll leave with a sense of hope and optimism that we are on the right track, and we’ll have a better idea of the next steps and how to reach them.

The emergencies have to wait. I have some learning to do.

Photo credit: Scott Detray.

A Common Purpose

It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and I’m sitting in a rapidly filling high school cafeteria in Philadelphia. As I look around, a see a few familiar faces, and even more familiar names. But for the most part, these are strangers.

They’re not part of my world. They’re from urban schools. Charter schools. Parochial schools. Private schools. They’re teachers. Integration specialists. School leaders. Professors. Students. They represent 40 states and five countries.  Zoe Strauss’s opening comment from the previous night’s panel discussion leaps to mind:

Chris, what the hell am I doing here?

The panel had included some pretty heavy hitters. Strauss, a photographer and artist, was joined by Dan Barcay, the lead software engineer for Google Earth. Alex Gilliam founded Public Workshop, an opportunity for teens to take an active role in shaping the designs of their communities. C. J. Taylor is a computer science professor in the GRASP Robotics Lab at U. Penn. Phoenix Wang founded Startl to help get new media learning projects into students’ hands. These people know a thing or two about innovation, and they were discussing how to sustain innovation in schools.

But this was no ordinary audience. The 500 people packed into the auditorium and adjoining overflow room aren’t observers of this process. They’re participants. The Twitter stream for this session was flying by faster than anyone could read it. If I had been on stage, I could have looked up to see a couple hundred people typing furiously on their mobile devices. But they weren’t being rude. They were engaged in the conversation. They were simultaneously listening to the panelists, asking questions, challenging statements, agreeing, disagreeing, and applying the conversation to their own situations. The panel provided a catalyst for a much larger discussion on innovation, and thanks to the magic of video streaming, the discussion transcended that little auditorium at the Franklin Institute and included educators from all over the world.

The high level of engagement set the stage for the weekend. This isn’t a conference where you sit through an hour of boring, bullet-laden Powerpoint slides. This isn’t an opportunity for experts to tell everyone how things should be done. This is a time for asking questions, for challenging assumptions, and for exploring new ideas and possibilities together. When Chris Lehmann took the podium in the cafeteria on Saturday morning, he described this assembly as a tribe. We are united by a common purpose. We seek to improve learning for our children. Like any tribe, there are differences of opinion. We really can’t even agree on what we mean by “improve” or “learning.” But this community of mutual respect in an environment that invites discourse allows everyone to participate in a conversation that benefits the whole. I feel humbled to be a part of that discussion. I know that I’ve taken away much more than I’ve contributed, and I feel apologetic for not keeping up my end of the discourse bargain.

Near the end of the conference, I sat in the library and reflected on the weekend. I tried to jot down a few notes on the take-aways. There was some validation of things I already believed. There were some contradictions as well. Mostly, though, there was a lack of clarity. We’re in uncharted waters. What is the purpose of education? What do we mean by learning? What is the role of the teacher in a world of information abundance? How do you convince people that schools must change? Is this a top-down revolution, a grass-roots revolution, or not a revolution at all? And how did we have a gathering of technology and social media experts and manage to not talk about the technology?

I’m looking forward to building on the new relationships I’ve made. I can’t wait to engage others in some of the discussions we’ve had. I need to do a lot more reflecting on some of the issues raised, and how they affect my particular school district. But above all, I’m proud to be part of the tribe.