Camping with Socrates

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”   -Socrates

It sounds idealistic when I try to describe it to my wife, who isn’t an educator. There’s no preset agenda, I tell her, no real presentations, just discussions. If something isn’t working for someone they walk out of the room …and people are okay with that. We can discuss anything. We all want to be there (pretty early on a Saturday morning). They give us free coffee. There aren’t vendors. There aren’t paid speakers. At the end they give out prizes.

The “it” I’m describing is an “EdCamp,” mine yesterday EdCampSD.

For educators the EdCamp movement is all the best of this profession we’ve made our way of life. In a nutshell an EdCamp is a group of teachers and other sundry educators coming together to talk about what we do. Organized by intrepid volunteers, held at a venue that will grant us the space gratis (last year at an elementary school, this year at a district office, next year …my school? I’ll have to talk with my superintendent about that. I think he’d dig it), EdCamp provides a spot where a couple of hundred educators can gather together for meaningful, grass roots learning from each other.

What amazes and inspires me is the democratic nature of EdCamp. Sessions happen because people want to learn about what is being discussed in the room, not because they’re being compelled by anyone or anything. The best “leaders” of breakouts, in my opinion, are the ones who say the least; this should be a conversation, not a presentation. In our opening gathering participants are reminded that EdCamp has a “the rule of two feet” meaning that if a session isn’t working for someone, that person can quietly leave the room, no hard feelings, and find a session that offers her more. Pretty cool.

More eloquent people than me have praised the virtues of EdCamp, so I’ll end my short reflection here with some last very personal thoughts.

When teachers have opportunities to talk, really talk, with each other, great things can happen. This isn’t always the case in mandated “professional development,” but it does happen at EdCamp.

So does creativity, comradery, and genuine excitement. There’s something magical about a gathering of educators who make it a priority to take a Saturday out of their busy autumns to learn together. I see in the eyes of my fellow EdCampers a hunger to know more, to improve practice, and to learn from others.

This is growth mindset in action. This is a belief in the future and the difference we each can make.

I left EdCampSD inspired, renewed, and ready to change the world (or at least how I encourage teachers to learn from each other back at my school).

EdCamp is more than a little idealistic; it’s the spirit of Socrates.



What if the conversation had no bounds? What if we could talk about what we do with the people at our own campus and with kindred spirits across the country when we needed them, not just in those snatched seconds between classes or while we wolf down a sandwich at lunch? If, as a teacher I admire likes to say, “the smartest person in the room is the room,” then how fortunate are we that the “room” of our professional learning doesn’t have any walls?

A few years ago the notion of a Professional Learning Network (PLN) daunted me. How could I, a site administrator with enough responsibilities to fill my time (and maybe more) and with a few great people on my own campus (but hardly enough to qualify in any way as a “network”) put together a group of creative and interesting professionals who could (and would) support my own practice? Sure I’d phone friends who could offer advice. We’d exchange ideas and even proof each other’s written work (using that old technology: email), but this wasn’t a coherent group, and wasn’t anything like the think tank I’d imagined a PLN should be.

And then I got past the idea that it took a special kind of educator to be online, and that I wasn’t one of them. I put aside the anxiety of not being “techie enough” and took a leap. I decided to be one of the educators who was connected.

Actually, it wasn’t as quick as that. For me, joining the online world of education took some time, a few stumbling steps, and finally a recognition that I wasn’t going to throw a switch and change my world. Connecting online, just like connecting in person, takes effort, energy, and a positive spirit. And a bit of time.

I started with Twitter.

A friend and fellow site administrator mentioned the possibilities Twitter offered and I invited a Teacher on Special Assignment (ToSA) out to show me the basics. He was patient and funny, and gave me a couple of resources to help answer my questions, even as he laughed and said: “Just try it!”

I did, tweeting a couple of photos of campus life to start, and then going about deciding who to follow. Remembering my Shakespeare (“Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast”), I did a little more each day.

People smarter than me stressed the importance of engaging with others; lurking is a fine way to start on Twitter, but doesn’t build a PLN. At first I was uncertain about replying to tweets I liked, but I found that the “conversations” they started …no, I’ll take the quotation marks off that… the conversations they started (they were conversations) were fantastic. All of a sudden I was able to get (and occasionally offer) advice or inspiration to an assistant principal in Marin County, a librarian in Baltimore, and a teacher in Escondido. These weren’t people I’d met in person, but they were engaged, engaging, and people like me who love working in education.

I also learned how important it was to create content. Sometimes this was a graphic or a link to an article. Ultimately it helped to inspire my blog. I’ll be honest, I’m still figuring out this part of my professional life, but I feel like it’s something that I hope might help spark some thinking and discussion. …or maybe it’s just therapeutic.

As I recognized how much information and inspiration was out there I began trying new things: joining an edchat, replying to tweets that spoke to me, and going to an edcamp at the suggestion of folks I’d been following on Twitter. At the end of last year I even tried my hand a moderating an edchat for our district and was wowed by the response.

Dubious at first that Twitter could lead to such meaningful connections, I’ve been won over by the reality of how much this little blue bird has to offer. And…

Whether at edcamp or  face to face with teachers and fellow administrators who I interact with on Twitter, the line dividing online and real world has blurred as I’ve had opportunities to continue conversations started on Twitter with people over coffee or as we sit together around a table with other professionals.

Twitter (or any online system of connecting with others) doesn’t ever replace in person discussions, but it does provide opportunities to connect that broaden the conversation on this magical enterprise we call education. It takes away the constraints of time and makes geography irrelevant to interaction.

I’m still working on how best to learn and grow both online and off, but the concern I had just a few years ago, the worry that I wouldn’t find a group to connect with has been replaced by an optimism that while I’ll never be the smartest guy in the room, I’m part of something greater: a room without walls, big enough for anyone to join the discussion.

Admin Tweeps

photoI got to participate in a workshop for administrators on Twitter not long ago. That meant twenty or so principals and assistant principals sitting in a high school library taking selfies and trying to come up with professional Twitter names that walked the line between soulless and personal. I’m fortunate, with not too many Bjorn Paiges in the twittersphere, I get to go with my name.

Since I’ve been tweeting for a bit I got to help facilitate the afternoon, and as I walked from table to table, seeing some really outstanding educators working on creating accounts, I thought about the great possibility swirling around the room.

These are women and men I want to learn from. Kid focused, smart, and creative, this is the dream team of Professional Learning Networks. About once a month we get to sit in the same room, but, I got thinking, what if this PLN was able to communicate with each other (and others beyond our district) more instantly. What if we could share articles and ideas? What if our celebration of what happened on our campuses could be inspiration for each other? What if we really did all tweet?

We’re fortunate in our district to have a superintendent both familiar with and comfortable on Twitter. We have some ToSAs and teachers who use it often and well. A few of us site administrators are learning how we can use Twitter to connect with parents, students, teachers, and each other, and more than a few in our greater school community see Twitter as a way to see what’s going on on campus and to understand education a little bit better.

I’ll be honest, I’m still figuring it out. I know that I love the immediacy of Twitter for getting cool professional ideas, inspiration, and answers to questions that I have. I see it as a great way, in real time, to show off my campus: with major construction this summer I’ve been able to tweet photos of the progress, and gotten some nice feedback on how welcome this was. I also believe that Twitter may be the single most important improvement in my own professional development, as read articles I never would have found on my own,I engage with others in edchats and conversations, and make connections with fellow educators from around the country.

Now back to that library. These principals, assistant principals, and district office administrators are more than just colleagues; together we have the potential to support each other in person, on the phone, in texts and emails, and, collectively, using tools like Twitter. We have the potential to make everyone in the room better.

Will everyone in the room decide to tweet? I don’t know. One nice thing about Twitter is that it’s a world without expectation; when we tweet we choose to join in the conversation because we want to, not because we’re obligated.

So I look forward to the fall, and seeing how many of the administrators in my district will join me in an edchat, how many I can follow, and how many will decide that this might just be a way that we can really help each other. I like the odds.


An Open Boat in Richmond

About twice a month when I lived in the Bay Area I’d hike with my friend Jeff, an English teacher from the East Bay. We’d taught together only briefly, but found during the discussions on our rambling walks that even as we went to different schools, our love of teaching and finding creative ways to work with students brought us closer together than the days our classrooms were next door. Even after I made the move to administration the content of our conversations stayed constant, his passion for the work he was doing with his students helping me stay focused on the most important job at any school: teaching.

This summer’s road trip took me back to familiar haunts, and allowed me a chance to sit in a book lined living room drinking Peet’s coffee and talking about the hands on ways Jeff was teaching a seminar in Nautical Fiction. As he described taping off the size of the dinghy from Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” on a conference table and having four of his sophomores hop aboard, I was reminded how magical face to face conversations about our practice as educators can be.

I love Twitter and the rich bounty of information and inspiration it puts on my computer screen so immediately. Being able to learn from teachers, librarians, and administrators from around the globe is an amazing opportunity that didn’t exist when I was in the classroom. Following educators I admire and reading blogs by folks brighter and more connected than me has become a staple of my professional diet, and…

The reminder my conversation with Jeff provided was that even as I build my online professional learning network, I need to make it a priority to cultivate the face to face connections that can make such a difference.

These unscripted moments, not categorized by hashtags, give something that even the best online interactions don’t. As our talk moved from Crane to Melville to Mattheissen, and then to sustainable local fishing, I recognized that the “fish locally” worldview applied to professional communities too.

Edcamps, ToSAs, and fellow district administrators are my local bay. Sure I enjoy some tasty and nurturing offerings from other oceans, but my professional diet is healthiest when I fish from my metaphorical kayak.

So as I get back from my July road trip, I look to reach out to my colleagues and put as much energy as I put into building my online PLN into filling my own local open boat.

photo (54)