Own Your Mentorship and the Giants I Stand Upon

As I completed my self-assessment this year, I started thinking about the giants I stood upon throughout my career. And what I realized most is that emerging leaders need to own their mentoring. There is really need for formal mentorship. It is simply a matter of whether you want to learn from all those around you and whether you’ll take that time to listen, observe, and discuss with folks.

Mentorship is people watching and listening.

With that, I’d like to pay homage to those Giants that have and continue to mentor me along the way.

To Dr. Littlefield: I learned the importance of trust and leadership identification. In everything you did, trusting people was at your core. Because of that, your eyes were always on identifying leaders that could be grown. I carry these with me always.

To Dr. Amburgey and Dr. Carey: I learned the importance of a sense of agency. The two of empowered and believed in your teachers as well as students. You both empowered and encouraged risk-taking. You both created the greatest safety net a leader can provide: assurance and permission. I carry these with me always.

To Dr. Riggle: I learned the importance of being human, agile, innovative, and broad as well as deep in my thinking. You taught me humility and to care about each and every person. You encouraged  seeing beyond black and white. You showed the importance of never landing. Your belief in moonshot thinking and day-to-day growth continues to inspire all. Your depth and breadth of practical as well as visionary leadership set you apart from all others. I carry these with me always and will never forget where I came from in life.

To Dr. Williamson: I learned the importance of curiosity, openness, patience, thoughtfulness, and thoroughness. Your depth of understanding yet constant curiosity emerge over and over. You bring a stability to all situation that puts people at ease but creates momentum to growth. Your understanding of learning, teaching, and living are the standard for all. I carry these with me always.

To Dr. Pryma: I learned the importance of joy, happiness, and standing for what you believe. In a world governed by following, you set a course that focused on good people and ensuring they remained happy and joyful. You stood firm on the lost art of the teacher as leader and never waffled on seeing hyper-standardization as the antithesis of education.

To Ms. Frandson: I learned the importance of being and finding oneself. Your thirst for life and energy for something higher radiates. You embodied relaxed purposefulness and encourage reflection in all you do. I carry these with me always.

To Dr. Finan: I learned the power of reflection, pause, and laughter. Your strength of listening and reflecting bring a quite sense of progress. You show that laughter is the great equalizer regardless of situation. I carry these with me always.

To Ms. Geddeis: I learned about life and living with a constant sail pointed north. Your thirst for life and belief in the power of a smile lights up a room. You bring an energy that makes any moment worth being part of regardless of the situation. You encourage being oneself and value the island of misfit toys to a point where it leads to the greatest confluence of actionable ideas. I carry these with me always.

To Mr. Doug Johnson: I learned the value of listening and never being too big. You took a kid and gave him 15 minutes of time as you headed off to a flight for which the theme of “listen” emerged. Your wisdom in that 15 minutes of face to face time has created years of “listening” to you virtually. I carry these with me always.

To Mr. David Jakes: I learned the value of relying on others, being yourself, and trusting in time. Your constant elegance is a sign of times gone by. You bring a professionalism and class to all you do. Your loyalty and friendship are something untouchable. I carry these with me always.

Who are you watching, listening to, talking to, and discussing with? Who are those folks that you’ve established as mentors and carry away from them those items of great value that shape your leadership?

Students Should Attend Not Be Tokens

At the IL Google Summit last year, I wanted to try something different with students. In the past, I’ve invited students to join events like this  volunteers and panel speakers. But it always felt like they were tokens no matter how unintentional.  It never sat well with me despite knowing there was value to them and to others in attendance.

Yet I was constantly reminded of why we established the IDEA as a place for all learners: by intentional collision as equal learners and teachers across ages, voices were empowered and organizational directions strengthened.

This year I wanted to honor what I preach about this seat at the table, so I asked students to join as conference attendees first and foremost. Obviously, there mere presence would foster questions of help and direction.

However, the goal was for them to take part in the event as a learner: attend sessions, network with teachers, engage the vendors, and challenge ideas.  I couldn’t be happier with the experience and the feedback from the students.

Take the experience with Hapara. Their attendance in that session was invaluable to me and they were excited to evaluate the tool. The student insights fostered tremendous feedback on the value of a teacher dashboard. It challenged administrators and teachers in the room who were focused on it as a monitoring tool instead of its real use: learning and teaching dashboard.

Take the experience with the vendors. Each of them spoke with vendors about their experience within a 1:1 learning environment and challenged the vendors to solve problems or create new opportunities. They then shared insights with me about possible connections as well as areas to monitor for future possibilities. Not to mention, two of them made impressions that opened potential summer internships.

Take the experience with Google Search Ninja and Drive Sessions. Their attendance in that session confirmed that students and teachers alike don’t understand the full scope of Google Search. They shared insights that illuminated that forced organizational structures in Drive would be intrusive and hindering; however, it would be most beneficial to share different strategies to help students discover what works best for each. Not only that, the various apps and extensions reinforced the idea of helping students design a learner interface in Chrome.

One student in attendance decided that he would join in the Demo Slam and he won it! This is what I mean… he became immersed in the conference experience as an attendee and made the easy transition into moments such as this. What could be better?


Next year, I want to expand this with greater numbers and I’d love to encourage students to attend other educational conferences not as volunteers, not as token panelist, but as learners and conference attendees. The early results are exactly what I would hope: voice at the table, cross-generational learning, and insights not otherwise possible.

Mindsets Not Initiatives

When I’m asked to look at organizational plans, one item that emerges as problematic is when it is initiative rich without clear connections to mindsets.

Initiatives get all the buzz. These get all the focus. But very, very little in terms of organizational growth is about initiatives. The key is collective and individual mindset growth.

How do you know if you are initiative implementation focused instead of mindset growth focused?

  1. People talk about organizational fatigue or too many initiatives instead of talk about organizational evolution and adjustments of initiatives
  2. People use negative, frustrated, and tense language such as “how long will this last?” instead of thoughtful, inquisitive language such as “what does this mean and how can I utilize this”
  3. Leadership uses language associated with getting buy-in instead of language associated with people coming to believe, grow, and lead
  4. Success is measured in terms of project completion instead of measured in terms of ongoing organizational influence and progress

Organizational fatigue is not a problem of perpetual motion. It is a problem of initiative buy-in focus instead of mindset belief growth. It is a problem of a short-term win focus.

Now don’t get me wrong. Initiatives are important. However, these need to be tied to the mindsets that organizations are trying to grow. If not, you’ll find people concerned about time, another initiative, etc.

I believe in these mindsets: a sense of agency, agility, collaboration, freedom, innovation, joy and happiness. With each initiative that I lead, I ask the following:

  1. does this initiative support or go against those mindset
  2. how will these initiatives continue to grow those mindset
  3. how are these presented in order to show support for those mindsets
  4. if the initiative is against these mindsets, how is this shared and discussed so we have organizational and landscape awareness.

What are the mindsets you value? How are these being tied to and supported by initiatives?

School Challenge: Create Conditions for Students to Change the World

What if we took time in our classrooms to pose these three questions to students:

  1. What do you love?
  2. What are you good at?
  3. What do you want to change?

And then we challenged them with “It’s your turn to change world! What do you need to make it happen?

These are the starting point questions and challenge for Google Science Fair 2014. And I can think of nothing more important for students to explore if we believe in passion-based learning, personal and interest-based environments, and cross-disciplinary, connected learning experiences. If we believe in collaboration, critical thinking, and literacy.

One glimpse of Google’s Judging Criteria  and you see these elements:

  • Inspirational entry or idea – does it really stand out?
  • Capacity to make an impact - could the science demonstrated make a real difference to science or the world around us?
  • Passion for science – would you be a good role model for other young scientists?
  • Excellence of method – have you demonstrated real skill in their science/engineering planning and implementation of their experiment(s)?
  • Communication skills - enthusiasm, clarity, confidence, effective use of media, diagrams and Google tools.

This isn’t just for science. This isn’t just a challenge for students. This is a challenge for schools to align their stated beliefs with actions.

School Challenge

  1. Each class pose to students Google’s fill in the blank I love ____, I’m good at ____, and I want to _____
  2. Have a physical poster wall and Google spreadsheet that houses all number 1
  3. Help students develop their “I want t0 ____” into a project idea to change the world
  4. Create conditions school-wide, across disciplines for students to form teams around common ideas and begin changing the world
  5. Free up time in these classes and resource areas (libraries, learning centers, etc.) to bring their idea to life by breaking down barriers of schedules, isolated disciplines, and rigid curriculum demands
  6. Encourage mentoring both local (teacher-to-peer, peer-to-peer, peer-to-community) and global (teacher and peer-to-world)
  7. Create a TED Talk-like experience for teams to share their work prior to submission to Google
  8. Finalize and submit these impactful changes to the world to Google!!!

Would this be a meaningful, lasting experience for students? I think so…


Leaders Aren’t Grown from a Textbook

There are moments that I find myself reliving that scene in Good Will Hunting. You know the one where Will has the run in with the Harvard guy.

Clark: No, no, no, no! There’s no problem here. I was just hoping you might give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the southern colonies. My contention is that prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities, especially in the southern colonies, could be most aptly described as agrarian pre-capitalist.

Will: Of course that’s your contention. You’re a first-year grad student; you just got finished reading some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison probably. You’re gonna be convinced of that ’till next month when you get to James Lemon. Then you’re going to be talking about how the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist way back in 1740. That’s gonna last until next year; you’re gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood…

Leadership is not found in a textbook. Leadership isn’t about some graduate class box that paints systems thinking as some clear picture of leadership – quoting from what one is currently studying like Boleman and Deal. Yep… we’ve all read it and I’m glad you’re now thinking leadership is about systems and parts.

But sorry to break it to you: it isn’t that at all.

Leadership is a human endeavor: embracing the paradox of life, living in confusion and chaos with the awareness that listening is the way out, seeing people not systems, and believing in the power of joy, happiness, and smiles.

But we lost that somewhere along the way. We lost that at the core leadership is a human endeavor and everything else is a piece to a complex puzzle.

As my main man Indiana Jones proclaimed, “If you want to be a good archaeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library!”

If you want to be a good leader, get out of the graduate course textbook. They are full of dated beliefs dominating educational leadership.





How Does this Space Make You Feel?

How Does this Space Make You Feel?

I’m knee-deep in the design process for learning space prototypes. Yesterday, I did what I love doing best: interact with students randomly using one big question:

  1. How does the physical classroom space (not the teaching & learning) make you feel? My follow-up at the end was which ones would you change?

There were four themes that emerged during these interactions (Anything in “” are the students’ words):

  • Focus on the shift from an “uncomfortable and dead” feel to a “comfortable and alive” feel
  • Focus on the shift from a “getting”/consuming feel to a “creating”/producing feel
  • Focus on the shift from a “sitting” feel to a “moving” feel
  • Focus on the shift from a “boring and distracting” feel to an “engaging and life” feel

I really dig that spectrum of thought especially the movement towards comfortable and alive. “Alive” is such a penetrating word and speaks to the heart of it, doesn’t it? It was awesome hearing use elements of the IDEA contrasted with elements of the traditional classroom to illuminate what they feel and see.

And what is uber important is that students talked about this from a space perspective not from a learning and teaching perspective. They quickly wanted to talk about how their teachers try to go to the right and do go to the right of that spectrum. However, they (students and teachers) have to navigate a physical space that makes it challenging. They especially found this true with the new 1:1 learning environment where they are trying to navigate classroom spaces not constructed with that concept in mind.

If we don’t design the habitats for the desired habits, we make it increasingly difficult on both students and teachers. We must challenge the old “it was good enough for me” statement because many school spaces no longer serve meaningful learning and teaching.



Illuminating Current Reality

Illuminating Current Reality

An ethnographer mindset is one of the most important things leaders can adopt today. By doing so, your lens embraces the paradox of the human condition and focuses on herding and finding needs, possibilities, and problems instead of focusing on ideas in isolation and chasing change (or complacency) for change sake.

While participant observation and artifact sense making are two of my favorite strategies, individual and focus groups using a semi-structured interview format offer much in the way of valuable insights into the experience. These take time but the themes that emerge create opportunities for growth beyond what one could imagine.

For example, here is a recent approach to better understand our current 1:1 experience.


  • 16 Focus Groups
  • 3-5 people per group
  • each discipline represented twice

Semi-Structured Interview Questions

  1.  What is the current 1:1 experience (in thoughts/emotions and action) within your department?
  2. How well has the department adjusted to the 1:1 learning environment?
  3. How might we use these thoughts to enhance the 1:1 experience?


  • avoid declarative statements
  • focus on redirects and depth creation follow-up questions
  • use “so what I hear you saying…” points to draw deeper connections

Give it a try with a new idea or approach recently started in your area and see how many insights it illuminates. After all, the first step to changing for the better is clarity of one’s current reality. This, however, is easier said than done and not easily accepted.

It Doesn’t Start With Furniture

It Doesn’t Start With Furniture

Years ago with the emergence of friction free technology such as web 2.0, a number of us in educational technology argued that we shouldn’t start with the technology. While this idea of it not being about the technology is an old message and most folks understand it, another trend in education is seeing similar misplaced focus: classroom spaces.

Reimagining classroom spaces does not start with furniture. Furniture is but one outcome of reimagining classrooms as learning spaces.

Where does it start? Emotions. Perceptions. Experiences. Traits.

And we take those current realities and we dream about something better, about something more magical.

Starting Point Process

While there are different process flows one could take, here is one that I have always loved.

  1. Learning Space Walks: walk your building and capture what spaces are doing for engaging, learning (formal and informal), reflecting, and socializing. Interview students about their perceptions and experiences with physical classrooms: how does the current physical space make you feel and how do you learn in these? How might we change it to better meet what you’d like to do?
  2. Doorway Reaction: have teachers stand in the doorway of a classroom and discuss “what emotions and perceptions of the classroom do students have from this viewpoint”. Have them capture thoughts on a post-it note. The key is not what the teacher ends up making it but what the initial reaction is of students at that doorway.
  3. Desired State: Share out findings from 1-2. Place the post-it notes on a wall. Then, next to the post-it notes, write what you want that doorway reaction to be in the future.
  4. Experiences and Traits: Using this desired state, brainstorm experiences and traits of the classroom based upon this desired state, learning, and teaching.
  5. Prototype: Taking the desired emotions, perceptions, experiences, and traits, hand teachers a space and markers to create prototype classrooms that can bring these pieces to life. These will be messy. They aren’t CAD drawings but rough sketches of what could be.
  6. Designers: the four qualities explored (emotions, perceptions, experiences, and traits) are given to designers to determine how to bring this to life.
  7. Prototype Remix: After designers create their prototypes from our given information, we build upon it for better prototypes.
  8. Repeat the process with students and teachers.

It is easy to look at furniture. It is easy to stare at photos of classrooms redesigned already. It is easy to redo classrooms. However, it is much more challenging yet beneficial to reimagine classrooms as learning spaces.


The Visual Cues of Boredom and Distraction

The Visual Cues of Boredom and Distraction

During my pre-service work, I recall vividly our discussion and research on visual cues of boredom and distraction. We spend hours observing classrooms and noting what we saw (how nice would it have been to use a SmartPhone at that point. Alas, they didn’t exist).

This common experience for pre-service teachers no doubt yielded similar results across universities: hand on head, yawning, glazed eyes, staring out window, head on desk, doodling, etc.

And while I argued back then as I do now that mind wandering and doodling are important moments of reflection, the larger point remained that these were visual cues that something was off in the learning environment.

Visual Cues in a 1:1

Today, this isn’t as easy in a 1:1 learning environment. We need to retrain ourselves about visual cues and be cautious about assumptions.

  1. is a smile while looking at their screen a sign of being disconnected from the moment
  2. is a chuckle while looking at their screen a sign of being disconnected from the moment
  3. is an intense glare while looking at their screen a sign of being disconnected from the moment
  4. is an extended focus on the screen a sign of being disconnected from the moment
  5. is a rush of excitement while looking at the screen a sign of being disconnected from the moment

I taught in a 1:1 learning environment for three years. This was such a challenge to retrain my brain and not to make assumptions. It is unnerving to wonder so much when the cues were so clear prior to the technology.

How are pre-service universities adjusting teacher learning in terms of visual cues of boredom and distraction? How are we working with current teachers on visual cues for boredom and distraction?

Take a Risk. Take the Gold.

Risk is a scary word especially in schools. If we talk about risk-taking, how will it be interpreted? Will students think we are giving them permission to try harmful things? Will teachers design poor learning experiences? Will administrators create uncomfortable situation for the district due to public transparency?

Risk-taking often raises those yellow and even red flags.

But then you hear or see stories of what happens when you take risks, when you look over the edge without fear. Stories like Sage Kotsenburg and the risk he took this year on the biggest stage: the Olympics.

“I like doing crazy things, like spontaneous moves. I’ve never even tried the trick I did on the last jump. I thought about it before the run. But once you’re going into it, if you’re thinking it, you’re going to fall on your face.” Kotsenburg

On his last jump, he attempts a trick that he hadn’t done before that moment. He hadn’t practiced it. He hadn’t rehearsed it. He hadn’t pondered it. He let the moment guide him and he took a chance.

He took a risk. He took the Gold.


Image: Sports Center Twitter