Thursday, March 22, 2007

PB and J (Palm Beach and Jetlag)

Anne Smith and I had the pleasure of presenting in Palm Beach, Florida this past Monday. As I blogged about previously, the School District of Palm Beach County puts on a huge, district-wide technology conference each year, and were kind enough to invite Anne and me to come down and present. Since I’m always telling my folks that they need to reflect on their teaching experiences, I figured I better do the same.

As I said in the earlier post, the main reason we ended up deciding to go through with this was mainly for selfish reasons – so that we could learn both from doing the presentation and from the conversations with the so-called “audience.” I can’t speak for Anne, but I learned a few things both about myself and about the successes and challenges of teaching and learning in the 21st century.

First, some things I learned about myself. I still get nervous. To begin with, I was just nervous about the traveling. Whenever I fly I’m a little nervous about making the flights and hoping our bags get through, but this time there was the added pressure of knowing that if we miss this flight, we may not make it in time for our presentation.

Then, I was really nervous about the presentation. Even though Anne and I were well prepared, and even though we believed strongly in what we were going to say, there’s something about going to somebody else’s school district that took it up a notch (or ten) from the staff development we’ve been doing in our building for the past couple of years. Some of the tech folks in Palm Beach took us out for a nice dinner, and then we got back to the hotel at about 10 pm. I looked over my notes one last time, then went to bed, since we needed to get up at 5 am (3 am our time) to get ready and make the drive to the conference (about an hour inland). Well, my brain kept going over and over the presentation, and the last time I remember looking at the clock it was about 1:50 am. Then I woke up about 4 am. I’m way too old to function well on two hours of sleep.

The conference setup was amazing (I believe I heard that over 2,300 folks were pre-registered), and we got to see the keynote session by Deneen Frazier Bowen. Then we proceeded with our three presentations, the first and third to teacher audiences, and the middle one to leadership. It wasn’t until the third one that I relaxed a little bit, and I think I probably did a better job on that one because of it. I think part of it was probably because that middle group was “leadership,” but I think it was mostly because of the venue. The two teacher sessions were in a classroom, but the leadership session was in the auditorium (where the keynote was). Even though there were probably only 30 to 40 folks in the auditorium (about the same as we had in the classroom), it was still awkward. We were up on the stage, and they were down in the seats, and it was really difficult to hold a conversation with them. I learned (although I already knew it) that I’m much better in a conversational setting, preferably around a table with 3 or 4 (or even 6 or 8) folks just talking about stuff, not up on a stage (in this case, literally) looking down and talking at them. If we continue to do things like this, we’re going to have to figure out a way to change the dynamics of that.

After our third session, it was straight to the airport and then back home (eventually, no direct flights between West Palm Beach and Denver, so we didn’t get back home until after 11 pm – hence the “jetlag” in the title of this post). We spent most of the time on the way back debriefing our presentation (much like we spent most of the time on the way there rehearsing) – I’m sure the folks around us on the plane learned a lot!

Now, some things I learned (or had reinforced) about the successes and challenges of teaching and learning in the 21st century. First, while there are some issues that are different in different places (more on that in a minute), some issues are pretty universal. What are the “essential learnings” students need? How do we engage our students? How do we develop relationships with them? How do we encourage them to use the technology safely and appropriately? What gets blocked and what doesn’t? If stuff is blocked, how do we teach 21st century literacy? What skills and abilities and habits of mind do our students truly need to be successful in the 21st century? How much time do we devote to content (knowledge), and how much to skills (learn how to learn)? Where’s the time to learn and do all this (for students, for teachers)? How do we provide these opportunities to our disadvantaged populations – how do we address the digital divide? What about test scores? These are all issues that my school – and probably yours – deals with and talks about a lot. It was nice, though, to see another whole set of thoughtful, caring, motivated, concerned teachers and administrators wrestling with the issues.

Second, I realized how lucky I am to be in a relatively small school district. While I still think my high school is too large (about 2150 students, with about 16,000 total in our district), Palm Beach School District is more than ten times the size of my district. They have over 12,000 teachers in 166 schools, and more than 170,000 students (they’re the 11th largest district in the nation). The communities those schools serve range from $50 million homes along the coast to migrant workers that come in seasonally to work the crops.

Now, there are definitely some good things about being that size (to quote myself, sometimes size does matter). They certainly have access to resources that a smaller district does not, and they also have access to human resources – like the great folks we worked with – that give them tremendous depth that we don’t have. But I can’t imagine how you move such a large district forward with the things we’ve been talking about. Even if you have fifty visionary and charismatic leaders that all agree on the direction you need to go, I still don’t see how you get that out to all 166 schools in a way that works well. We talked about this some at dinner the night before our presentations and I’ve been thinking about it ever since (well, at least since we finished our presentations). If I think it’s often difficult to effect change in my school district (and I do), you would have to break Palm Beach School District up into at least ten different school districts to get it down to our size. And while my own feeling is that the answer lies somewhere along the lines of making every teacher – and student – a leader, how do you scale that? As usual, I have more questions than answers. And while this blog always has focused – and will continue to focus – mostly on my school and my district, it’s good every once in a while for me to contemplate the bigger picture of school reform (in this case, much, much bigger).

So, I feel like we learned a lot, and hopefully helped get some conversations started in Palm Beach. Anne and I both used the word “conversations” a whole lot during our presentation, but I’m more and more convinced that that’s what we need. Conversations among ourselves as educators, conversations with our students, conversations with our communities, conversations with the global community.

I think we did pretty well, although it’s always hard to tell because the folks that come talk to you after the presentation are generally the ones that liked it. Lee Kolbert – who was our wonderful host and helped organize, setup, and carry out the conference – has a nice blog post up about our visit. Thanks for everything Lee (and team). And Karen Seddon has a nice post and recorded a quick podcast interview with Anne and me after our last session We’re about halfway through the podcast - please remember the two hours of sleep as you listen. Here's the money quote from Anne:
They're not limited anymore to my expectations, instead they create their own expectations . . . After all, it's their education, they need to take charge of it.
For any Palm Beach folks dropping by, here’s the PowerPoint with quotes from our students and teachers that we had running before our presentation (without the music, which lots of folks liked – if you want more info about that, send me an email). These are mostly quotes taken from a survey we did of students and teachers at the end of last year after our first year of staff development. There are also a few quotes from student comments on The Fischbowl, and a few from teacher’s blogs. I don’t know if this PowerPoint was helpful for people or not, but it was good for me to create. It reminded me that, despite all my frustrations with the slow (in my opinion, but I'm rather impatient) progress we are making in my school, we are doing some good things for students and are moving forward. Thanks Lee, and team, and Palm Beach School District - for helping me to remember that.


  1. That powerpoint was full of great quotes! Thanks. I'd love to know more about what spurred the quotes. For example, what went on in the classrooms that caused the students to respond in such a way? What sort of professional development did the teachers react to so positively? What technologies were used that helped everyone learn so much?

    Thanks again,

  2. You've got our teachers and administrators talking here and that was the purpose! You and Anne provided a fresh perspective to our conference that really helped us bring it up a notch. Thank you for helping to make our 9th conference so successful. Next year we will be celebrating our 10th conference anniversary. I hope you and Anne, and perhaps the rest of your team, will be here to share some cake and then some!

  3. Tim - that's a tough one to answer in the comments. You might start with this post, which actually links to a bunch more posts (including About This Blog and The Beginning), to give you an idea of what we've been doing.

    In a nutshell, we're doing staff development that is asking teachers te reexamine pretty much everything they are doing to see if it matches up with what research says about learning, with their own philosophy about education, and with the changing needs of students for the 21st century. We're trying to utilize the technology as one tool to foster a more student-centered approach to instruction, and I think that is what the students are mostly reacting to. Feel free to contact me if you have more questions.

  4. Lee - thanks for the kind words. I'm glad we were able to get those conversations started. Cake sounds good - let us know . . .

  5. The emphasis on conversing is well warranted. I agree with your focus on that whole-heartedly. If educators as a whole put a greater effort into collaboration, education in America would benefit greatly. I hope your presentation can spur further communication amongst educators.