Sunday, July 06, 2008


If anyone out there is still reading this blog, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything of substance for a while (exactly how long, of course, is in the eye of the subscriber). That’s because I’m stuck – I can’t figure out how to get there from here. I work in a great high school with a terrific staff, wonderful students, and a supportive community – and at the moment I don’t see any way to make the changes I think are necessary for our students. Please note that I’m not saying my school is performing poorly or that the teachers aren’t working really hard and doing some really good things. By traditional metrics we are doing very well and we have a hard working, dedicated, creative staff that gives their all for students. I’m just having a really hard time figuring out how to transform my school within the current system.

So I haven’t posted anything lately because I feel like I don’t have anything useful to contribute to the conversation at the moment. As an example, I just got back from NECC which turned out to be a less than stellar experience for me. Let me be perfectly clear, this is not the fault of the conference, it’s me. The conference was the usual mix of some really good sessions, some sessions that from my perspective weren’t quite as good, and lots and lots of informal conversations. But I felt like I got very little from the conference and contributed even less (and I think those are probably very related).

I think it’s telling that the two best learning experiences I had at the conference actually occurred before it officially started and after it ended. On Saturday I had a multi-hour conversation with Chris Lehmann, Marcie Hull and Bud Hunt. Then on Wednesday on the flight home, I had the good fortune of being able to sit next to Bud and have a two and a half hour conversation. In between those two conversations very little learning happened for me and I sunk deeper into my “funk”. Again, that isn’t the fault of the conference or the attendees - it appeared to me that most other folks were having a great experience and there were certainly a plethora of opportunities to learn - but instead is a result of my “stuck” mindset. And that worries me tremendously, because if I’m having trouble learning from a collection of really smart people gathered together in one place, then I’m really in trouble.

Now, I hesitated before posting this because I was worried about how it might be interpreted. This is the first post of mine that I can recall that is pretty much just about me (others certainly included me, but had some other reason for being), and I’m sure some folks will ask what is the purpose of this post. Well, the purpose is not to have everyone leave encouraging comments (although I suppose those are better than disparaging ones) or to say nice things to buck up my ego (it doesn't need much help). Rather, the purpose for me is twofold. First, on a practical level, some folks had been asking about my lack of posting and this takes care of those queries. But second, and more importantly, I’ve always advocated for transparency and I think it’s really important to share out the struggles and the doubts as well. At some point in the future when things are hopefully looking brighter, I’ll be able to look back at this post and remember how it felt – and that will hopefully help me get through any future episodes of “stuck-ness.” (And, of course, if things don’t improve, this will neatly mark the moment when it all fell apart.)

Now, some folks will simply see this as confirmation that blogging is a narcissistic pursuit, but I’ve always subscribed to the notion that blogging is essentially a selfish activity anyway. I mainly blog to help my own learning, although I certainly believe (and hope) that it helps contribute to others’ learning as well. So, while you are always welcome to leave whatever comments you’d like, please don’t feel compelled to leave either supportive ones in order to cheer me up, or withering ones in order to castigate me for my self-absorption. I get it. Really. I’ve already mentally left myself both sets of comments multiple times over the last few months. Rather take this post at face value – it really is just for me.


  1. Okay, Karl..Posting is for ourselves on many levels... as a means to think aloud.... But I guess the same can be said about comments.
    One of my regrets about NECC was not finding time to talk with you! So any time you want just skype me.

  2. I have told my teachers on several occasions that a blog is for reflection as much as it can be for contributing something for others to learn from. And for the record, I learned from you today. I have been feeling my own funk the last few days (in part because I let the FB vs. NYFB conversation get to me.) It is reassuring to know that I am not alone and that others have some concerns of where to go from here. Thanks for being willing to put that out there!

    I have mentioned to my principal that it is not a very far trip from South Dakota to come see your school in action, but so far no luck. Maybe this will be the year!

  3. First, good to hear from you again; yours is always one of my first clicks in the aggregator (okay, ego stroke out of the way).

    You say you are stuck on some things, but you don't delve into them in the post. What's got you stuck? Assuming it is something you feel comfortable putting into the public sphere, perhaps the first step is to just get the ideas out in the open. Both for your own sake, to get them out of your head as it were, and also to tap the wisdom of your larger audience.

    As a coach, I frequently remind my fencers that slumps happen, but the best way to overcome the slump is to just keep fencing. Usually, there is something new to learn that will help them overcome whatever is getting in the way.

    So, keep blogging--push your thinking forward. Sure, it feels like molasses now, but this is temporary. You will uncover the new thing, the lesson you need to learn, and the way will get easier.

    We're all here pulling for you :)

  4. I presented at NECC for 5 years and was a great presenter, if I do say so myself!! Then I quit, cold turkey. I've been using technology in my classroom for 25 years and all of a sudden I realized that the content (the learning) was more important than the gadgets. As I read the blogs, nings, etc from NECC this year it seems that the talk was about the tools and all kinds of nebulous touchy feely kind of stuff.

    I'm retiring in a year of two, I have enough to keep me busy---time is too short! My advice to you--- if you teach kids then teach them something they don't already know. If you teach teachers then teach them something that will help their kids.

    Don't go to conferences for a year or two. Support the good tech stuff that is already available-- delve deeper. ok, off soapbox, N

  5. Thank you for posting this. I too have an amazing school with amazing teachers and we are doing great things but sometimes I still get the feeling "What now?". I have the same reservations about blogging (being part of a group blog will help me I think). Its tough and I think the hardest part for edtech is that (at least where I am) we are kinda alone. I get tired of being the leader ... I want to be inspired by someone else, I want to get excited about what someone else shows me, I WANT TO BE THE LEARNER. I'm not saying I know everything but sometimes I can feel myself get jaded and feel like there really ISN'T anything "new". Just new versions or updates to old ideas ...

    I appreciate your bluntness about your "funk" ... I am "funky" sometimes too.

    Thank you!

  6. Karl-
    Thanks for your transparency. You raise some I am glad to hear I am not the only one:) have been in a bit of a funk myself. Was hoping NECC would be rejuvinating, but I am feeling as overwhelmed as ever. Systemic change certainly is a challenge and what has me stuck is know that even when I do learn from these great folks, I have little power on my own to enforce such change...HOWEVER, I felt empowered by the opening keynote in that there is a sort of "collective intelligence" that I can draw upon and will continue to do so. While I know your post is just for you, know that it did me some good to see that others (really smart others that I admire) have the same frustrations. Thanks again for being so open

  7. @Barbara - Agreed, I wish we had found time to talk as well.

    @Sherry C - You're welcome to visit anytime. Perhaps we should figure out a grand tour of schools between the Mississippi and the Rockies.

    @Matt - Ego stroke noted and appreciated. Some of the things I can't really put into the public sphere at the moment, others are so nebulous that it's hard to put in a blog post in a way that accomplishes anything. But mostly it's the usual stuff (size of my school and how that doesn't lend itself to a more personalized learning experience, expectations of what school is for and what student should do at school, "covering" the curriculum, blah, blah, blah). It's just that previously I felt as though I was making a dent and had a real chance to make a significant difference in all those areas and now - not so much.

    @nbosch - Thanks for the advice. Most of the conversations I was around at NECC weren't about the tools that much, but the pedagogy, which was nice. Again, the problem isn't so much NECC, it's where my head is at.

    @Sallie - Glad to know there are other "funky" folks out there. Safety in numbers.

    @Kristin - Sorry I didn't get a chance to talk with you much at NECC. I don't think I ever got a chance to thank you in person for participating and helping us so much with the A Whole New Mind project (one of my goals at NECC was to thank everyone I could find in person). Here's hoping that the "collective intelligence" starts making a difference for our students in the very near future.

  8. As a newbie, better still nobody in the edublogsphere, I found this an interesting post.
    Sounds to me like you aren't "stuck" at all but learning about your learning. I think you are an early adopter, so you need some new inspiration, some "blue sky" thinking will stimulate you to even greater heights. I am sure you will come up with more "sticky" ideas for us all to get stuck on. This is an opportunity for you to really challenge us all to more deeply explore how shift (through community)happens.
    BTW, this post is to encourage anyone who reads it to continue reflecting and learning.

  9. Gosh Karl...
    It's quite comforting to know we all experience "stuck".
    What struck me was the description of your school, staff, students, and community. Yet with all this alignment of "good ducks" arises an instinct that recognizes there is still more to be done. What would really be a shame would be to get stuck in stuck, or to become simply satisfied, or just plain tired and stop.
    How great is this? We are not only able to share stuck, but also share where stuck can eventually take us. Transforming within the current system is a BIG one. Lots of folks are stuck on this one too.
    Well, now that we know we're stuck together...what have you come up with so far?

  10. Karl,

    So you know... the conversation Saturday night was one of the highlights of NECC for me as well. So there's that. :)

    But also... and I know this book is total pop-philosophy, but whenever I'm in my stuck mode, I go back and re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, especially the last third of it when he talks about stuckness, the gumption traps we can all fall into and ways he's found to get out of it. It often jump-starts me out of getting too far into my own head.


  11. Thanks, Karl. It is hard to share our frustrations sometimes. We don't want people to be offended, thinking we are questioning their work ethic or willingness to learn new ideas. We don't want to undermine any positive momentum we have built through all of our prior experiences. But the fact is that despite a lot of great work and new ideas and constant learning, some things haven't changed. At times, this wall can be disheartening. I have often told friends, there are days that I wake up and feel great about all that we have accomplished. Other days, I wake up feeling burdened by the long road ahead. I am especially frustrated when I think about the things outside my control... state testing that focuses on content not skills, overwhelming numbers of standards that lead to teaching more content than skills, lack of time to meet and work on new ideas, leaders who don't get it, etc...

    At any rate, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. It helps others, like me, process our own "stuckness." I am not sure I have a suggestion of where to go next, other than this...

    Great people keep trying, keep failing, until something great happens. That's not a quote, just a mantra I whisper to myself when I need a kick in the...

    Good luck with your "stuckness." Keep us posted. We are learning from your process and we appreciate your transparency.

  12. I understand what you are saying. Is is possible that we need to branch out and start focusing more on pedagogy and curriculum and less on technology?

    For myself, I feel weary of "preaching to the choir," hearing about the "next new thing," and failing to see the kind of substantive change that I know could result from all of this.

    I am thinking about going more "mainstream" and making curriculum a primary focus (as opposed to ed tech) -- in my optimistic mood, it seems to me that this is where things need to go for the whole system to get "unstuck." (In my more pessimistic mood, I'm not sure anything will matter. The education-industrial complex is a big machine with a lot of momentum.)

  13. Karl, of course, it was neat meeting you at NECC2008...but as others have pointed out, few of us had the opportunity for deep conversations, even if those had been desirable in many cases! (smile)

    As a writer, I've experienced being stuck multiple times. Each time, one emerges from being "stuck" with greater energy and a valuable experience. It may be that we're like a cork bobbing on the surface. A wave will come along, dunk us down, and we'll find our way to the top. Sure, you can describe that journey to the surface in heroic terms, but that might mask a simple fact--it's part of who you are to find your way to the top.

    So, since I'm as tempted as anyone else to offer advice, I simply remind you that if you're submerged under water, abide in patience. Your very nature, who you are, will lift you to the surface. Enjoy the sights along the way, ok?

    Warm regards,
    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the

  14. Hi Karl.

    Your post got me seems to me like you're feeling now how most of us teachers felt frequently over the course of the last three years.

    Like we were starting to process and grapple with all of these big ideas and possibilities for our classroom, but in the midst of CSAP's, credit requirements, and report cards. It got frustrating and overwhelming, so most of us settled for making changes on a smaller level...tweeking this project, grading that paper differently, trying this activity instead of that one. Most of them were fairly good ideas, but probably not on the level that you were envisioning...the complete overhaul of Arapahoe.

    I think that next year will be really interesting. For three years, you pushed us to think about our students, about how to put education back into their hands, and about how to make "school" real and applicable in the 21st century. Well, our class is over (in terms of the formal setting that we had the last three years), but I think that in some regards, we've only just begun.

    Essentially, you've put "education" back into our hands. It's our turn now. Time for the students to become the teachers (even though we already were teachers :)) So, maybe being stuck is ok. You don't have to be the "21C" guru all the time. Obviously you'll still be there to discuss/challenge/help, etc., but perhaps a new shift is happening. You've planted the seeds, time for things to start growing.

  15. @etalbert – I hope you’re right.

    @jane.englert – Haven’t come up with much so far, hence the “stuck-ness.”

    @chris lehmann – OK, haven’t read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance since high school, I’ll see if I can find my copy. (And perhaps I should rent some West Wing DVD’s?) I’m not sure that I’m too far into my own head, it’s just that I don’t see a way forward at the moment.

    @zukes – I’ve been doing a lot of whispering lately . . .

    @karen fasimpaur – We’ve spent most of the last three years of my staff development efforts talking about pedagogy – so much so that they’ve complained that I haven’t spent enough time on the technology. Yet still there’s been very little substantive change (IMHO), and a general feeling of helplessness and that there are too many obstacles for us to change much.

    @miguel – Nice meeting you as well. While I appreciate the sentiment, given the volume and quality of your writing, I’m not sure hearing that you’ve been stuck multiple times really helps, since even when you’re stuck you seem to be accomplishing more than I am even when I’m not stuck! At the moment, I’m still holding my breath, but the surface seems a long ways away . . .

    @cara – Hey, glad you’re actually reading the blog over the summer (and blogging yourself) – that makes 1 out of 46 in 21c. I agree, the next year will be interesting, and critical, but – as you can tell from the post – I’m not particularly optimistic at the moment. I hope I’m really, really wrong about that.

  16. Karl,

    I'm experiencing a similar sense of stuckness but it's been on the personal level, which has then impeded me on the professional level of late.

    I really am relating with both your post and the responses from everyone.

    I have found that patience is a very difficult part of this time for me. It's so much more pleasant to be in the "unstuck" parts of our lives--the parts that are exciting, engaging, and heady, because then everything seems to flow. While at the stuck times, everything feels somewhat forced, laborious, and just sort of "there" or sometimes it feels like a complete struggle where you can't see what positive will come next.

    And I find that the "unstuck" times are like a drug--I want them back, I want very badly to be in that mode again, so I'm struggling to make that "work" again.

    Maybe it is in the trying too hard. I do think it is probably in those times that we flounder, somewhere along that way, that some real change occurs or the way eventually becomes clear. But oh, I find being patient a real challenge right now.

    And what do you do when the "project" is finished, so to speak?
    I've been trying to figure out what to do now that my children are grown up--who am I if not mom, (other than techno-geek?) You've been heavily invested in a project for a long time. Now what?

    I think that again(and I suppose I am talking to myself as much as you, so I hope you don't consider this advice as more just me thinking aloud to myself, and if it's helpful to someone else, so be it) patience and actually faith, that things will sort themselves out, are something we have to find.

    And sometimes I think--maybe I'm trying to hard, thinking too hard, and maybe, just's when things go on the back burner that everything falls into place and I know what to do next?

    lol..but if you are anything like me, sometimes it's hard to put such thoughts on the back burner.

    Good luck. Hang in there.

    Maybe there is a new path you are supposed to follow?

    I also felt something missing from NECC this year, which at first I thought was just me. (I had been so excited that it was in one of my favorite places and near me.)

    And thanks to all of you who have responded to Karl, and thanks Karl for posting this. For me, it helps to feel that others can relate.

    Funny thing about transparency, hm?

  17. Okay, since I was on the airplane on the way home, I must have been a part of that good conversation that occurred...

    As nbosch said, NECC seemed to be about the tools and less about the thought process. I think that a lot of us teachers have gone through the thought process and are looking for ways that the tools can be used. It was good to see the examples in the primary grades but what seemed to be missing was the application in the secondary grades. Maybe NECC is not the place for this maybe it is. I still enjoyed most of the conference. However, I decided that the only way I will return next year is to add some to the conference.

    As far as being "stuck" I think that I am trying to learn myself (and I know that Karl is always learning) and after watching my daughter learn to use coaster breaks on a bike for the first time I see what new learning looks like again. There are always reminders out there. What we do with the "stuckness" is what makes it important.

    Karl, as a teacher at AHS and one that has been part of the 21c "planning team" I feel a little responsible for the stuck feelings. I have been comfortable with the status quo and changing little things. I have grand ideas (have we discussed them?) but they are so large that they overwhelm even me. So, what now?

    We continue to try to find the best way to make learning work for the students and we need to keep stretching our thoughts. Thanks for the help along the way.

  18. Karl, a few thoughts (since you left comments open for this post!)…

    1. As I blogged, meeting you - even for 5 seconds - was the highlight of my NECC experience. At last!

    2. You said, ‘I’m just having a really hard time figuring out how to transform my school within the current system.’ It’s not your job to figure this out by yourself. Where’s the rest of your team? Where’s your leadership?

    3. My best ideas come when I’m in the shower or driving, away from all work and personal distractions. Maybe you just need some down time. As Miguel noted, ideas tend to flow when, and only when, your brain is ready…

    4. If you’re just dying to do something now, I recommend A) reading Influencer: The Power to Change Anything (the excellent book that we’re reading for the CASTLE book club). I’d be more than happy to discuss it with you when you’re done (or earlier). It should give you lots of ideas for getting unstuck. Also, B) sign up for IBM’s free Change Toolkit ( Once registered, click on How To, Get Unstuck! Again, I’d be happy to talk about the Toolkit resources with you (or anyone else) at any time…

    Change is hard, particularly since, as Clayton Christensen notes, the system’s primary purpose is self-preservation. Let me know if you need an educational leadership professor’s friendly ear… (and keep us posted!) =)

  19. One more thought: You said that very little learning occurred for you at NECC. Can you identify what your personal learning needs are? If not, then you can't go about figuring out how to meet them...

  20. @Carolyn – Have I ever mentioned how much I appreciate your consistent and thoughtful comments? You really do an amazing job of furthering the conversation in so many different places, including your own blog. I might be coming to Austin briefly in October, and will be at NCTE in San Antonio in November – perhaps we can discuss our stuckness together?

    @barryb – Yes, Will’s post was an interesting one although, as usual, his is much more insightful and helpful to others than mine.

    @Hatak – Yes, Brian, your napkin contributed to the good conversation. You still have it, right? Thanks for being #2 of 46 from our staff development to read this.

    @Scott – OK, you’ve said that highlight thing several times, but surely you had a better conference than that? :-)

    I’m not sure where my team and leadership are, they are somewhat fragmented at the moment (probably due to my leadership abilities, I’m afraid). We’ll see what happens this fall as my staff development efforts get turned over more or less completely to the participants.

    I’m supposed to take showers?

    Influencer is already on my very long list, but thanks for the recommendation. Any advice on how to combine my work responsibilities, family responsibilities, your down time suggestion, and finding time to read all those books on my list? Yes, I know, I’m blog-whining.

    Like everyone, I can always reflect more on my learning needs, but I think I had a fairly good handle going into NECC on what I was looking for, but didn’t find it. Again, I’m not suggesting that’s NECC’s or any of the participants’ fault, but most likely something just not clicking in my brain at the moment.

  21. Yes, I still have the napkin. I will scan and post it.

    I think that the groups of 21c participants will continue to lead at school. But like a flock of sheep we will still need some correcting from time to time and some help finding direction. After all, we are teachers.

    I think that venting or whining is understandable and needed from time to time. (Just visit my class.)

    Yes you need to shower...

    Please do not take others rate of change to be a reflection on your leadership. Here is the excuse that we all fall back on: The changes that we are attempting are on a system that has been in place for how long?

    Aren't we writing the change manual? It takes time to figure out that we are changing and it is a difficult process for those of us who were "good at school" and some people are writing (read "changing")faster than others.

  22. Karl, not your leadership, the leadership above you! Last I looked you weren't superintendent...

    It's the job of your principal and central office to support you and your team and make happen whatever it is you're trying to make happen. If that's not occurring, it doesn't matter what you and your team do. If that's not working, they need to change what they're doing, not just you and your team.

  23. Hi Karl,
    Sounds like you're human... who would have guessed? ;)

    Sometimes doing nothing is doing something.


  24. #3 of 46.. Karl you have done great things so far for us at Arapahoe, as far as opening our eyes and leading us to where we want to go, even before we knew that we had to leave. I agree that next year is pivotal for our school and the changes that need to be done. Trust in those that have committed to this grand change, hopefully we will suprise you, and us.

  25. @lee Awww, that's awfully nice, calling me human. If doing nothing is doing something, I'm accomplishing tons at the moment.

    @Wallace Thanks for chiming in. Can't help but notice that all 3 of those 46 are in the same department and perhaps have talked with one another? Looking forward to that surprise . . .

  26. Karl...maybe it just means that the Science Department is awesome :)