Leaning into the Chaos with Social Literacy

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Dream Collaborations

I have a team of true collaborators among the English IV teachers at my school. They invited me to be part of their brainstorming for an upcoming unit a few weeks ago, looking for a way to “re-make” the annotated bibliography and research proposal into something that engages students, not only in research, but in true student-guided inquiry.  Social justice was the topic on the table for this unit’s exploration, but the teachers were tired of the same old topics and surface-level digests of mediocre source information they received from student’s in the past.  

I started my teacher inquiry interviews with the same three questions I ask all of my instructional partners:

  •  What are your goals for students?  What do you want them to be able to do, independently, in a new and unfamiliar situation?
    • We want our students to demonstrate they can understand and empathize with someone not like them; we want them to evaluate information they find in different types of source (web, academic, personal, etc) and synthesize the information to create something new that demonstrates how their own thinking has changed.
  • What evidence do you need to see from students to know if they met these goal?
    • A list of their sources with critical annotations demonstrating their evaluation and analysis of information
    • A reflection of their own journey including insights and critical moments where they came to understand something new about the world and themselves.
    • A product or demonstration that shows how they can empathize with another viewpoint or perspective
  • What types of learning experiences can you imagine that would support students in reaching these goals?
    • Collaborative
    • open-ended
    • analytical, focusing on evaluating and analyzing information

With the team’s answers from these three big, little questions I was able to pull together resources I’d been gathering from Media Literacy Week and Brittanica Digial Learning’s Blog series “Fight the Fake” written by librarian Tiffany Whitehead.  These resources included videos to engage students in the topics, resources, lessons, and activities to teach students to be critical consumers of information and to be armed with the skills needed to combat the effects of fake news and misinformation in the media.   Armed with new resources, I created a rough learning plan designed around Guided Inquiry Design (GID) (Kulthau and Maniotes)

Guided Inquiry Design 

The team indicated they wanted students to gather a wide, diverse collection of information from both popular and scholarly resources. So we began with gallery walk of videos that introduced students to the topics surrounding misinformation to prepare them to evaluate sources later on in their inquiry.  To support their critical and analytical thinking skills, we taught students how to use Depth of Knowledge (DOK) Question stems to scaffold their thinking about complex topics. 

Media Literacy Gallery Walk

Misinfo Nation

Our exploration began with a video that posed many relevant questions surrounding the impact misinformation is having on democracy.  

“In a world where it feels like our opinions are so different from one another, leaning into that chaos might actually be what leads us to a better understanding of the landscape we live in.”

In this video by Mozilla, we engaged students in the questions:

  • What is media literacy?
  • How does media shape what and how I think?
  • What opportunities does media provide us to understand one another better?
  • What barriers does media present that perpetuate divisiveness and intolerance?

As they traveled around stations students, watched a brief video from this media literacy playlist and created DOK leveled questions in response to the ideas.

Students used the questions they generated from the video gallery walk in an inner-outer circle discussion20181108_104938

Our Takeaways

Students were uncomfortable in this type of discussion where their questions, not their reasoning, were the most important contribution they had to offer.  They had become well-adapted at arguing their points to one another to “win” discussions.  In their discomfort, we saw opportunity.  Throughout the upcoming inquiry, students will be forming groups based on broad topics relating to social justice.  Their success will depend upon their ability to “lean in” to the social chaos and to one another as they form questions and seek diverse perspectives.  

Continuing the Exploration

Next in the social literacy inquiry– developing empathy and forming a Circle of Viewpoints with Time’s Guns in America.

Witnessing Community: Dias de los Muertos in the Library

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Some things we do as librarians take weeks, months, even a full year to prepare.  We set goals, execute action steps, undergo action research, and relentlessly search for collaborative opportunities with teachers and leaders.  These efforts result in varying degrees of success when measured by the impact they have directly on students.

Some things we do as librarians are unplanned for, spontaneous, and happen because we are in the right place at the right time–these are the things that often have the most impact on students.

A few weeks ago I was invited to a meeting with a department head and our principal to discuss ways we might highlight the innovation happening in our classes to celebrate the work of teachers and students.  This is my second year as librarian at my school after being a curriculum coordinator for three years in the district, and I’m aware that I am seen as a change-maker, an innovative teacher and leader.  I’m grateful that my leadership recognizes my strengths and invites me to such conversations.

At the end of this meeting as I stood up to leave, the department head asked to speak with my principal about a campus-wide event the Spanish Club wanted to sponsor for Day of the Dead.  I delayed and listened in the doorway.  As the sponsor described the cultural significance of Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and the ritual ofrenda (altar for memorial in honor of loved ones who passed away), I could start to picture it all happening as she described…in the library.

I apologized for eavesdropping and offered the library as a safe, nurturing environment for the ofrenda to be created.  We discussed inviting faculty members and students to leave notes and mementos in remembrance.  And that was the start of one of the most magical weeks I’ve had as a school librarian.


Spanish Club and art students collaborated to create the amazing decorations.  They colored sugar skulls, created skeletons, and turned the entrance to the library into a  bright and cheerful altar.  Electronic media students created original digital art that we displayed on the flat panel TV next to the ofrenda.


The Spanish teachers brought their students down for story time and to share stories of their loved ones.  Teachers stopped by to leave photographs and share stories, and for as many of them as I could I listened and witnessed their offering, crying with them as their hearts ached and laughing alongside them as they told their favorite stories.   On this day dedicated to celebrating the lives of the dead there was more life in the library than I’d ever witnessed.



A week after the celebration I was invited (once again by my principal—do you see a trend here?) to speak with her student executive council and provide updates about the library.  I took this as an opportunity to interview students about the environment of the library.  Using the new Texas School Library Standards, I wanted to gather feedback about the renovations and overall programming that has made an impact on their experience with the library.  When asked about programs that stood out in their minds as having promoted school community and culture, they all wanted to talk about Dias de los Muertos and the ofrenda.

My 30 second delay made more of an impact on students than some of the programs that took me 30 days to plan and put together.  The lesson here…listen and lean in when opportunities present themselves to you to build upon the rich cultural heritage and community of your school.  Being a witness has the greatest impact.

The Earth is Round (and other biases I confess to)

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apple bookcase books earth
Photo by Daniel Frank on Pexels.com

Today, I committed a librarian sin; I demonstrated my blatant, personal bias. Here’s what happened:

Student: Why did you tell my teacher I can’t research the Earth being flat.

Me: I didn’t tell your teacher you can’t research that topic. Only your teacher can approve or deny your topic. I may have told her it wasn’t research-able.

Student: Why isn’t it research-able.?

Me: [Without thinking] Because it’s a fact the Earth is round.

Student: No, it’s a theory. There’s a lot of information that proves the Earth is flat.

Me: [Waiting for candid camera or the student to admit she’s pranking me]. ….[awkward silence]…I know of no credible theories that argue the world is flat prior to the 18th century before cartography, exploration, and science proved it to be round.

Student: I found information on the community college library website that proves why the Earth could be flat. Doesn’t that mean it’s researchable?

Me: [Backpeddling….] Okay, let me go back. When your teacher asked me about this topic, I could not imagine how any credible, academic information would be out there that explored an alternative, scientific theory that the Earth is not round. I admit I was thinking from a scientific perspective. Are the sources you found from another perspective about the Earth? [treading lightly]

Student: Yah, a religious perspective.

Me: [Gulp]

Student’s friend: [Whispering into student’s ear] She doesn’t believe in religion.

You know those conversations you wish you could rewind and start again? Yep. This was one I’ll think about for a while. How did it end? With the student nearby, I ran a search in my databases to see what types of credible, academic resources explored this “flat earth” theory. And, yes, journal articles and other credible sources have in fact written about this theory and explored the workings of the “Flat Earth Society,” a group who collects and disseminates information that seeks to prove the Earth is in fact a plane, not a globe.

To close my interview with the student I asked three questions–my three go-to questions that help me know a student has a research-able topic:

  1. Are you personally compelled to learn more about this topic? Why?
  2. Is it research-able? Are there credible and authoritative sources out there that explore a range of perspectives and issues? Can you find diverse types of sources?
  3. Are you open to thinking, believing, or feeling differently about this topic than you do now? (Students don’t realize that research should work over the individual as much as or more than the individual works on the research).

The student answered in the affirmative to all three and marched back to her teacher for the official nod of approval.

Let it be known that in my library classes I aced this topic! On message boards, discussion posts, essays, and researched-based papers, I adamantly opposed bias in any form or fashion entering the library. I fully commit to my role as a guide for those seeking information and knowledge. I denounced those librarians who allowed their personal beliefs to influence how they serve patrons and their information-seeking needs.

The new AASL Standards for School Librarians begin with the common belief that intellectual freedom is every learner’s right.

Learners have the freedom to speak and hear what others have to say, rather than allowing others to control their access to ideas and information; the school librarian’s responsibility is to develop these dispositions in learners, educators, and all other members of the learn­ing community.

I spent the month of September working with every single English I student to ensure they knew their rights and to warn against the dangers of censorship. Today, I realized I censor students in small, significant ways.

Here’s my full confessional that today’s interview made me realize:

My Blatant Bias Confession:

  1. Religious views/ theories/ beliefs are not credible or reliable sources for academic research.
  2. Long-held scientific fact is fact and not subject to alternative theories.
  3. Knowledge comes from empirical experience.
  4. Science can and should be trusted.

These biases aren’t hard and fast rules nor are they damaging to any one in particular, but they creep in when I am working with student researchers. I re-commit to asking more questions in an interview before I start to advise student researchers. I re-commit to listening with an open-mind, understanding that each student is on a personal journey and mine is one door they will enter. I re-commit to providing open access to information and ideas (within the parameters the law and my district allows).

The shape of the earth is rather innocuous; I don’t feel morally compelled to help this student come to realize through her research that, yes, it is in fact a globe that rotates on a vertical axis around the sun. That’s not my job to change minds. But, what if it was a topic that struck such a deep moral fiber I couldn’t NOT intervene? I thought of the librarians in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the start of the deplorable propaganda campaign against the Jews. When an individual came to the library seeking to find information that the Jews were responsible for the evils portrayed by the Nazi regime, what did the librarian do?

What would you do? How do you keep your biases in check? When do we as information professionals take off the shield of unbiased perfection and be perfectly human?

Lessons from the Lockbox

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Lessons from theThis blog post accompanies the 2018 TLA presentation “Thinking outside the lockbox: New Ways to Use Escape Kits in Any Library.

Lockboxes are receiving a lot of hype in classrooms, K-12.  A quick Pinterest search will reveal countless pins and boards of teacher and librarian breakouts and lockbox applications for learning.  Founded by educators, Breakout EDU is largey responsible for the overnight infusion of escape activities.  With ready-made free games and sleek lockbox kits, Breakout EDU offers a “plug-and-play” option for eager educators to jump in and engage students in their content with critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication

I decided to dive into the lockbox phenomenon after I saw how fellow librarians were building their own kits and games to excite and engage students about books and the services their libraries have to offer.  I’ve experienced early every emotion along the way–laughed until I cried, cried until I laughed, and lobbed a few locks across the library.

Rather than making my own lock boxes, I opted to go the ready-made route and purchased four Breakout EDU kits.

Breakouts for Professional Learning

My first attempt at facilitating breakouts was a collaboration with my administration on my campus.  I’m very lucky to work alongside a campus principal who sees the role of the school librarian as an innovator and campus leader.  After sharing the Breakout EDU site with him over the summer, he invited me to facilitate a Breakout for the administrative and leadership teams before school began.  Luckily, Breakout EDU had a game that served our purpose–to engage our campus leaders in a collaborative, dynamic learning exprience that required them to communicate, think critically and creatively to re-imagine what learning experiences could look like in our classrooms.  Both the admin team and the leadership team enjoyed the experience and participated in a terrific discussion following the game about student learning and their experiences working as a team to break in to the boxes.  Breakout EDU includes reflective question cards that make the discussion process easy to facilitate and engage participates in.


Breakouts with Students

Intellectual Freedom and Information Searching

The first Breakout game I planned was…ambitious.  After such a positive response to the Breakout games with teachers and administration, I was on a high–eager to design my own game from scratch to excite students (and teach them a little about information search processes in our Gale databases).  After chasing many rabbit trails and hours of frustration browsing the cute, elaborate teacher-made games on Pinterest, I felt entirely inadquate.

Finally, inspiration struck.  The freshmen English classes I had convinced to try this experiment with me had scheduled their classes for the Breakout during Intellectual Freedom Week.  During our initial collaboration, I discussed the goals of the Breakout with teachers.  They contributed by sharing with me areas they noticed students struggled later on in the year when they got to more formal research assignments.  I threw all of the half-baked, cutesie ideas I had started and abandoned out the window and returned to the WHY:

  • Engage students in collaboration, critical thinking by facilitating an experience they had to successfully communicate, problem solve, and come up with creative solutions
  • Introduce students to basic database search techniques, familiarizing them with Gale databases, features, and content
  • Introduce students to the basic issues and complexities around intellectual freedom, their rights as students, and future concerns as learners and citizens

I went easy on myself and created a lock-step game where each clue led to a lock solution rather than creating a complex web of inter-connected clues with multipe breadcrumbs.  To organize the game, I utilized Smore, which allowed me to embed YouTube tutorial videos and Google Forms.

The result:  Intellecutal Freedom Breakout: Defending Freedom of Speech with Database Skills

After two weeks of back-to-back freshmen classes (two a period), I was exhaustd and down three broken locks and one locked box.  My biggest take-aways:

  • Have something (chocolate) inside the box other than just the breakout sign or you’ll have a lot of disappointed teenagers
  • employ the teachers’ help to police lock-abuse and reset the lock
  • once the timer starts, sit back, relax, and resist the urge to give kids unsolicited help!  They’ll figure it out–it’s part of the game
  • Did I mention chocolate?



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Round 2:  Mash-Up of Library Resources and Student Creativit

Romeo and Juliet: What makes a great work of literature great?

It took a few months to recover from round 1, but by the time the English I clases were preparing for their Romeo and Juliet unit, I was ready to try again.  Still not ready for the flashy resources, I opted to keep the physical components low-key, incorporating only a few physical clues that I adopted from a teacher-designed game I had found in my browsing.  Our goals this round were:

  • Introduce students to the historical, cultural, and literary context of the play
  • Engage students in a creative process that requires them to synthesis and share their learning with one another

Lockboxes and breakouts had a lot of potential for teaching students new content, but I wanted it to lead to something where students then transferred their learning in creative ways.  I designed the game so students had to utilize a new resource, Follett’s Romeo and Juliet Lightbox–an interactive, multi-media ebook. The clues required them to learn new concepts and information about the play in order to create a 30 second teaser-trailer for the play and to respond to the essential question on a Flipgrid I had created for them to share their understanding and their work.

(This time, I remembered the chocolate).

Year One Realizations and Aspirations for the Future

Looking back, although exhausting and sometimes frustrating, I feel that the Breakouts were a success.  Students grew as communicators and collaborators, excersized their problem-solving and information search skills, and were having fun!

Next year, I plan to focus on extending teacher collaborations to content areas outside of English and to continue to mix and mash-up our library resources, digital and print, to incorporate them into the experiences.

What are your stories and lessons-learned with lockboxes and breakouts in the library and classroom?  I’d love to hear and share!


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Our nightly routine is a well-oiled (sometimes squeaky and tempermental) machine.

5:30 Dinner

6:00 Bath

6:30 Bed

Tonight, my machine turned into a boat–two in fact.  As I bounced from room to room picking up discarded socks, toys, and tossing dishes into the sink, I happened to pause in time to witness a moment between my two children as they made boats out of my throw pillows (sigh) and raced across the hardwood floor.  What caught my attention was not the imminent threat of a boo-boo, but Will’s tone towards his little sister, Waverly.  His “boat” had come to be stuck between the front door and his sister’s “island.”

“Can I go around you, Waverly?” Will gently asked, stopping the careening of his crazy boat at the edge of her blanket.

“Um…Mes [“yes” in 3 year-old speak].”

“It might bend this corner a little bit, but I’ll fix it, K?” He promised.

“Okay, Bubba….good job, Bubba!  That’s it!”

Once Will’s aircarft carrier was safely around his sister, I sank down on the chair and started to breath again.  I watched their regatta for twenty more minutes.

Scenes like this happen all of the time but with very different endings in my house.  I’m usually somewhere in the background, halfway listening for the great War-of-the-Siblings to ensue.  Tonight, I paused and held my breath, taking small sips of air until something new and unexpected occurred.

My word this year is possibility as I explained in an earlier post.  I’m working on saying “no” and turning off the “shoulds.”  The “shoulds” were loud tonight as they are most Sunday nights (should be doing laundry, vacuuming, getting pajamas ready for bath, adding to the grocery list before you forget), but I told them “No, you can wait” tonight and held my breath.

A couple of weeks ago, my amazing yoga instructor began class wtih a breating exercise–a critical segment of yoga practice.  Before we ready our bodies for practice, we ready our minds and then our lungs.  This time however, she instructed us to hold our breath at the top of the inhale for six seconds and then to take a few small sips of air, reaching the deepest pockets of our lungs as we filled them with possibility before exhaling to a count of six.  The rhthym goes something like this:

Inhale slowly through the nose 1-2-3-4-5-6

Pause 1-2-3-4-5-6

Sip. Sip. Sip

Exhale 6-5-4-3-2-1

In the pauses between breath, we open our minds, lungs, and bodies to possibilities in our yoga practice–an idea I brought into my practice that day and my daily routine with my family and my work these days since.

I’m one of those women who needs to fill the space.  In my eight-hour work day, I work 540 full minutes.  I eat while I’m prepping for the next class or creating a display, answer emails between classes, and pause only long enough to add to or cross off an item on the to-do list.  I know I ran my class this way”  “bell-to-bell,” they say.  “Students should be tired when they leave you,” they say.  “No down-time” they say…

Without the pauses, how are we making room for possibility?

This past week I attended TCEA.  My first session on transforming high schools was led by Dr. Robert (Bob) Dillon @IdeaGuy42 who admonished us to consider how we are humanizing the learning experiences in our schools for both students and adults.  “Small moments have big purposes,” Dr. Dillon reminded us.

And so, tomorrow is the start of a new week, full of possibility.

To the leaders:
Before that first staff meeting, conference call, or email, how will you set the example for those who follow you to set an intention, breath, and pause for possibility?

To the teachers:
How will you plan the small moments in your class for students to be mindful of their personal goals as well as learning goals, to pause and consider, reconsider, and then reflect on how their learning is impacting them?

To the individual human being:

Don’t let the boats go unnoticed.
Inhale 1-2-3-4-5-6

Pause 1-2-3-4-5-6

Sip [possibility].

Exhale 6-5-4-3-2-1



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Maybe I should start over.  Maybe I should end this blog and let the domain go into the archive.  It’d be easier–a clean break from the winter of the last three years.

I think instead, I’ll start right where I am with who I am.  Today’s not the day to tell the story of where I’ve been and who I was.  That Odyssey will be told in time.  I was there and am back again.  Back home in the library, more prepared and determined–I hope–than I was before.

For now,  I’ll start over with a word.  Possibility.

The first yoga class I attended in 2018 began with the instructor offering a new understanding of the word accountability. 

Accountability, she told us, has two parts:  intent and grace.  Intent, yes…but grace?  Yes. Grace.  We start each yoga practice by setting an intention for that day’s practice–strength, balance, breath, foundation, forgiveness, courage.  Whatever our life needs in that moment on the mat, we devote our practice to.  One of the things I fell in love with first about yoga was the discipline it required to practice grace for yourself.  Ten years ago in my mid-twenties I was not good at this.  Today in my mid-thirties, it’s getting harder to have grace for myself, but at least I know how important it is, and I can recognize the signs of when I’m should-ing myself.

“You should be reading, Audrey.”

“You should be doing laundry, Audrey.”

“You should be unloading the dishes, Audrey.”

“You should be organizing the closet, Audrey.”

“You should be blogging, Audrey.”

“You should be nicer.”

“Should be smarter.”

“Should be more patient.”

be more loving.”

be more spontaneous.”

be MORE!

I’ve should-ed myself to the brink of panic attacks and debilitating anxiety.  When should-ing is at it’s worst, I start to should those around me, denying them the grace that I’ve denied myself.  My response has been to do the one thing that quiets the shoulds…I do more.

In a yoga practice, however, in a roomful of yogis with a good teacher, there’s no space for should because grace occupies the room.  When you are focused on an intent on the mat, then every wobble, fall, modification for a difficult posture, and child’s pose is part of the journey.  Each breath is a new possibility.

And so, possibility is my intention for 2018.  To hold myself accountable to my word I will not set weekly goals for the number blog posts I publish or calendar my day to make time for all the things I should be doing.  I will instead, practice grace for myself and create space in my life for all the marvelous possibilities that this year has to offer.  When the shoulds start rolling in,  I’ll do the opposite and make space.

Inhale grace.

Exhale possibility.

Hello, 2018.  You’re beautiful.


The “Power of Realization”

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As “change agents,”  leaders in education must continually seek the tensions in our systems;  and then, setting conditions conducive to change, we must help others to realize the crucial breakthrough moments needed to sustain transformation.  

Traditionally, action and strategic plans focus on long-range, wide-sweeping policies and processes to influence change.  When planning for system-wide transformation, what are the potential shortcomings of our thoughtful initiatives?  How can we plan for the small, significant moments of shared experience so that transformation not only takes root but comes to fruition.

In Change Leader, Michael Fullan refers to the “transformative power of ‘realization’”  where critical mass is actualized and key players and leaders experience the result of the needed change.  Without this moment, we are sometimes left in the divergent, unpredictable landscape.  In a learning system, in order to transform, we must find our way to the “learning zone” where members of the system seek to analyze, interpret, and synthesize patterns together.  It’s the sweet spot where well-timed and placed constraints lead to innovation and transformation.

In the natural life-cycle of curriculum, we neglect to identify the specific outcomes and results that will reveal when our goals are actualized.  We plan for teams of teachers to come together and write documents.  We plan for the careful revision and editing of those documents.  We sometimes plan for the vetting of the ideas within those documents.  And, we try to remember to plan for the professional learning needed to implement the curriculum with results.  Is it even possible for a system plan for moments of actualization so that once implementation occurs, motivation can carry the system through into self-organizing patterns of transformation?  What would these pivotal moments look like?  Who would need to be involved?  What are the necessary conditions?


As a new curriculum coordinator I was charged with making sense of the curriculum that had been passed down to me through multiple past coordinators, leaders, and processes.  As a former teacher who delivered the existing curriculum, I knew that it would be an impossible feat to fine-tune a few things here and there as there was no organizational pattern or process to the existing curriculum; it was written chaos.  There was one solution for my district-level team consisting of literacy trainers, the elementary English language arts coordinator and the social studies coordinator:  begin anew.  But in our early talks about what it meant to “write” curriculum, its necessary components, headings, and features, it became apparent that there was no shared agreement as to what curriculum meant to our organization.  What was our belief about the integration of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional learning?  We turned to a body of work by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (UbD), to begin the design of a mission-aligned curriculum that backwards-mapped student performances to the district’s Portrait of a Graduate.  


“As a model learning community, a school appropriately requires learning from every member of its community, since continual learning is vital for institutional as well as personal success.” Grant Wiggins, Schooling By Design

Early on in the process our K-3 English Language Arts and Social Studies and 4-12 Engish Language Arts teacher design teams struggled with authentic performance task design and progressive, conceptual rubrics that aligned to the attitudes, attributes, and skills outlined in the Portrait of the Graduate.  But with the help of peer critique protocols, Word processor, and the necessary time and space, one by one, the new units took shape with written performance tasks at their core.

Over the summer our greatest concern was adoption by the other 1,000 teachers who had not been a part of the new curriculum design.  Initial professional learning in August for implementation merely touched on the “WHY” with more time spent in the “HOW” to actually read the new template.  Teachers experienced a protocol for backwards planning a unit and then they were set off with a “Bang!” from the starting block.

Now we are in year 2 of the new design process utilizing the tenets and principles of UbD and beginning the re-design process in other content areas.  I knew that having a common understanding of curriculum was important to a learning system;  what I didn’t anticipate was that in the pursuit of that common understanding we might stumble upon the necessary, unplanned-for moments key to self-organized transformation.

The Tensions

We knew the potential of the new curriculum meant teaching for greater depth, focusing on the big concepts in our discipline rather than the isolated content and skills, and turning our gaze to original student work as the true measure of success.  After the first six weeks of the year, the feedback, questions, and concerns revealed a general “fuzziness” as to the purpose of the performance tasks and their role in planning a unit.  Without seeing the results of the unit goals actualized, how could teachers be expected to “buy-in” to something so radical and “new”  (synonymous for “temporary”) thing?

In our planning stage for curriculum design, we knew the importance of frequent days for the teams to re-convene to discuss what their own experiences planning learning with the new units and the results they are seeing from their students.  Wiggins and McTighe emphasize the importance of anchoring units in student work to validate that the unit design is coherent allowing students to demonstrate the criteria and quality (in this case in their writing) that is desired.  With the long-standing presence of writing assessments in our state, we felt well-versed at calibrating student work to established rubrics, but we had no experience as a team with 1) designing authentic performance-based assessments aligned to the system’s Portrait of a Graduate and 2) designing, refining, and anchoring an assessment in student work.

As teams collected samples of student work from their campuses, our district-level team set out to find a process that could support teachers in the next phase of their work as curriculum designers.  Understanding by Design provides processes for analyzing student work.  Through the careful examination of the variations of those processes, a resonating pattern emerged–the work we were about to embark on required us to set the conditions for our teacher curriculum designers’ learning while applying adaptive action.   

In addition to under-estimating (and under-planning) the power of student work analysis in inform unit refinement, we also failed to plan for how we would continue to support the teachers’ transformation as instructional leaders once they were away from our community and back on their campuses.  Many of them were stepping into unfamiliar territory, that of a teacher-leader.  In one teacher’s own words she didn’t “know how to be their leader and their friend.”  The tension revealed that the roles the teachers participating on the curriculum teams assumed on their campuses did not necessarily align to whom they had become through the curriculum experience.  When with their curriculum design team, they were part of a professional learning community with a shared identity founded in vision and shared values.  Many of them had experienced close to 20 days of curriculum design as a team over six months. Back on their campuses, they took the brunt of the criticism, the questions, the complaints, all with the highest degree of professionalism without any of the concrete tools teacher-leaders practice daily: peer coaching, modeling, and action research.

So What?

Looking back, I know I saw the familiar traces of adaptive action, but now I see how the transformational outcome from the shared experience analyzing student work relied upon establishing shared identity, focus, and practice.

The Process

(Adapted from Understanding by Design and Human Systems Dynamics)



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Step 1:  Teachers gather student samples for an agreed upon assessment or task and place at the center of the table.  Each teacher begins by picking up a student sample and reading it silently.  Teachers  may “flag” student work that they want to be sure to return to with the whole group later, but they are not responding to any one specific sample.  Teachers read as many student work samples as possible in 20 minutes.  At the end of the 20 minutes, teachers individually respond to the questions in the “WHAT?” and “SO WHAT?” boxes in the matrix.

Step 2:  Teams discuss the patterns they noticed, document their shared observations, insights, and questions.  During this step, teams may return to specific examples to dig deeper into patterns and start to identify exemplars in the student work samples that could help communicate to teachers and students the goals of the task and how they align to the evidence.  


Step 3:  The team discusses its next steps for refining the performance task, the rubric, and potentially the sequencing of standards in the course so that all are aligned.  Teachers also creates a list of “burning questions” that they have as learners that will guide their next level of research and inquiry either in relation to instructional practices or assessment design.


Step 4:  Two teams meet to share the patterns, connections, and actions they noted and respond to one another with critical questions for reflection.



Closure:  Ask each individual teacher to respond to the question,  ‘based on the work they see, what would outsiders view is most important to us?”  Invite teams and the whole group to share their responses noting tensions and contradictions in their responses to one another and to the goals of the curriculum and portrait of a graduate.

During this process, the room crackled and popped with a new kind of energy.  For the first time during the curriculum design, it wasn’t just the teachers’ voices being heard–it was the collective and individual voices of the students through their original work.  

We understood, finally, because we realized a moment when all arrows pointed the same direction that this was different; this was change.  The process itself of using an adaptive action cycle as it aligned to setting the necessary conditions for learning resulted in a moment of actualization for the individual teachers, the teams, and my district team.

The process provides a constraint–a support–that is both predictable and unpredictable, convergent and divergent.  Through an established process, teachers form a shared agreement not only in their identity as a curriculum design team but their collective identity as a discipline within a larger learning system, and then as teachers and learners within that system.  Without the shared experiences and agreement through action, there would still be too much divergence for systemic and sustainable transformation.

Now What?

The teams will experience this process five more times this year as we analyze student work to inform refinement to the curriculum.  It is our hope that the teachers will begin to take the process back to their campuses for their teams to adopt.  Their new role as instructional leaders requires that they have processes and experiences they are comfortable with and confident in to take back to their own communities where transformation can continue to occur through self-organization.

As a systemic process, this adaptive action approach to student work analysis is used across grade-levels, content curriculum coordinators and district-level leaders.  It can be used within campus-based teams of teachers of like subject and cross-teams of teachers.  Principals, as learners and leaders within the system, can participate in the shared agreement and decision making alongside teachers as together they seek patterns, find the tensions, and strengthen their shared identity, focus, and practices as a learning system.  Students, themselves, can participate in the process to ensure their voices are heard, and they have a role in the decision-making.

My personal “Now what?”

  1. Dig deeper into the tension that resulted in the teachers’ individual responses to the question, based on the work they see, what would outsiders view as most important? It’s unclear if contradictions appeared in their responses as a result of their analysis of the student work or as an indicator that their understanding and vision of the performance tasks was different than the group as a whole.
Outsiders would say, students are understanding how literature throughout history still relates to current events or human conditions.
Students are learning to manipulate language and are thinking at a high level about who they are and what motivates them as learners
Students are learning to manipulate language and are thinking at a high level about who they are and what motivates them as learners
Mastery of standards
Making world connections.
They would say that individualizing the writing and reading process is very important to us. They would also say that spending a lot of time reading and writing is a priority.
Expository, not fiction.
Based on the work that they see, outsiders would say that editing and revising is most important; however, they would be concerned with the lack of strong basic skills such as complete sentences, capitalization, and punctuation.
That story-telling and creativity is valued more than grammatically correct writing.

2.  Plan for how to set the conditions in contexts outside of the curriculum teams so that more moments of realization can occur across the system.  One way I’m beginning to do this is to facilitate the same process with campus-level teams.  But, do the necessary conditions exist for the process to be sustainable once I leave?  If a group has not established a shared identity, focus, or practices, then what?

My hypothesis is that the more shared experiences we can create, then the faster change and evidence of transformation will occur.  As a predictable routine, applying adaptive action to student work analysis strengthens desired behaviors and patterns we value.  As a shared experience, the analysis strengthens the shared identity of the system–top to bottom–reinforcing agreement, which in turn allows for greater self-organization and faster transformation.  

It’s small, but it’s significant. And most of all, it’s powerful stuff.




Leading Like an Artist

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I never left the classroom.

Four years ago, I made the most pivotal and sacrificial choice in my professional life: I accepted a position in the professional development department as an instructional coach thus relinquishing my physical classroom and its customary roster of 200 high school students.

As I placed each well-loved classroom library book into boxes, the individual students’ stories whose lives touched those pages sung to me. I sat down on the hand-me-down futon sandwiched in between dusty and barren shelves and sobbed.

But, I never left the classroom.

Since that day in 2010, I’ve carried my classroom with me into numerous contexts and four very different positions. First, I took my classroom with me into the role of an instructional coach where I sought to be a servant-leader. Then, with unexpected twist of fate, my classroom followed me into an intermediate dyslexia services position where I had time and space to consider where I might lead next. And, once again my classroom accompanied me cheerily back to the high school I loved, where I resumed the role of a servant-leader, expanding the influence and role of the library media center.

Now, to an outsider, it might seem that I’ve removed myself from the classroom even further by becoming that dangerous “A” word…a district administrator. I’ve crossed the line; I am an “other” a “them” in a see of teacher “us-es,” who solemnly shake their heads at those who’ve “left the classroom,” opting for cubicle space and cabinet meetings over the chaos and connectivity of campus life.

I never. left. the classroom.

And, I will never leave education.

I’m seeing more and more educators throw up their hands in despair and frustration at the system. Resigning their own and their students’ futures to the current condition of public education, some of the best and brightest are saying enough is enough and truly leaving their classrooms and generations of students behind, turning to reinvention in order to maintain their sense of purpose and identity. Nothing saddens me more than the exodus of teacher-artists.

In her blog, “Dear Teachers of 2014-2015: Welcome to the World of Art,” my friend and mentor Jennifer Isgitt calls for a new manifesto for teachers in this current sad state of the profession.

Every other day, it seems, I read another account, another memoir of a gifted teacher who just can’t handle the bureaucracy, the administration, the politics, the poor pay, the lack of recognition in education. Every year another teacher throws up her hands or writes his broken-hearted resignation letter for the national media.

In August before the new school year even really took root, Jennifer wrote about the pain educators are experiencing. It was in her blog that I saw myself there in black text as part of the problem–at least the traditional role and the role of my new set of colleagues and office partners. Her blog led me to a book that helped me re-define a vision for my (somewhat reluctantly) adopted role–that of a district administrator.

As a new curriculum coordinator, I resisted the title administrator for all of those same reasons that Jennifer included the word in her list of barriers that I don’t need to list here. With all of my reluctance to accept the heavy label, I clearly remember when my close friend and fellow coordinator finally said to me, “Audrey, you are an administrator.” I decided then and there to actively seek and create a definition of what that word could mean in a system that is crying for reinvention.

Jennifer’s blog planted the seeds of artistry. In her call to educators to “teach like an artist,” I heard a voice within me call, “lead like an artist.”

I’m slowly reading and processing Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, thinking critically about the evolution of our society away from industrialization–in which our current educational model and those policy makers who dictate static and dying conventions and conditions for educators and learners are deeply embedded –and grappling with the role of public education in the connected society where artistry is the only real commodity.

Growing up, I never saw myself as an artist or a leader–not in the traditional sense of either words. I had no particular talents, ambition, or desire to be followed. In fact, sometimes the two roles seemed opposite from one another; I had no model for what it could mean to be both–none that I could immediately see at least.

In the connected society, however, one must be an artist in order to lead and vice versa.

Godin revealed to me that I am already an artist. Since boxing up my classroom four years ago, I’ve continually redefined and reinvented my comfort zone, finding comfort in the risk-taking behaviors that make it safe for me to move forward. I’ve adopted the stance of an artist, “creating ideas that spread and connecting the disconnected” no matter the job title or bulleted list of responsibilities and roles.

I’ve adopted a new definition of an artist:

…Someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo…[taking] it (all of it, the work, the process, the feedback from those who we seek to connect with) personally.

I’ve decided to be courageous:

Courage doesn’t always involve physical heroism in the face of death…sometimes courage is the willingness to speak the truth about what you see and to own what you say…Courage is necessary because owning our point of view brings risk. When you speak your truth, you have opened a door, allowing others to speak to you, directly to you, to your true self.

I’ve found a new definition of an educational leader that I am not afraid to own:

Leadership puts the leader on the line. No manual, no rule book, no uberleader to point the finger at when things go wrong…Leaders are vulnerable, not controlling, and they are taking us to a new place, not to he place of cheap, fast, compliant safety.

And, I’ve recognized my greatest asset is my ability to connect and to form connections between people.

In my new role as a leader-artist, I practice these things everyday: artistry, courage, and connection.

It’s through the stance of an artist that I’ve found comfort in the unknown. I don’t know what I want to be when I “grow up.” I imagine that there are many more roles and official titles that I might try on that haven’t even been invented yet, thanks to a rapidly evolving educational and economical landscape.

Regardless of how I might lead in the future, I will always be in the classroom. Educators are my tribe; education is my only true alliance.

Being a Change Leader in a System Resistant to Change

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I drafted the following list while participating in North Star of Texas Writing Project‘s Inquiry Day in April. It was a powerful day full of affirmations, inquiry, and open sharing among attendees. Meenoo Rami (#engchat), author of Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)invigorate Your Teaching opened the day by sharing her own journey as a teacher leader and change agent.  Today, I needed to be reminded of just these things. I came across my notes from that day along with this draft for a blog post. Students may be heading out for summer, but for many of us, we’re in the middle of the next great “now what?” as we prepare for next year’s students and teachers to return to the freshly waxed and polished halls of our schools.

How to be an agent of change when the context you’re working within doesn’t have room for change:

1) Be open to change yourself and intentional about seeking experiences that inspire it.
2) Surround yourself with colleagues, mentors, and thinkers who share your same questions but who also have a host of their own questions to share.
3) Do not close your door. Resist the temptation when met with challenges and dissonance to simply shut your door and do your job. Find a new door to open in a network open to innovation.
4) Be vulnerable. Know that what you have to gain will often be greater than what you stand to lose. What do you stand to lose? Your pride, position, sense of control?  Those are all fluid and flexible anyway–cling to them too fiercely and they’ll slip through your fingers.
5) Purposefully lose control. Cast your dice into the wind. Let the chips fall where they may. When we relinquish control, we find new avenues of influence.
6) Be subversive. If the system does not allow you to innovate, use your creativity to wield the system to innovation– sometimes without it knowing it. And, if you really need to, abandon the system. When the results are powerful, share your success.
7) To avoid debilitating frustration, seek the patterns within the system that do work. Working within them, reach for one pattern you wish to influence next.
8) Find your happy place and the people who fill it. Hold it and them near and dear.
9) Cry, scream, storm, and rant when you need to (and return to #1 to try again).
10) Sometimes, it’s true what they say– it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Today, I’m adding an additional nugget of Rami’s wise words, “Give yourself permission to do the Work you know to do with students [ and teachers].”

On the Eve of Testing: “Standardizing” the Library

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It’s Friday, which means I should be dishing up popcorn for patrons, talking book recommendations to students, and working on my Battle of the Books display and plans for poetry month in April.  I should be compiling the social justice web-quest for my English I classes and collaborating with their teachers to talk about scaffolding students’ information literacies through inquiry.  I should be checking in on the class that is in the library using our online resources to explore careers. But, I’m not.

Instead, I’m using an entire roll of purple butcher paper (valued at $175) to cover every. single. stack and shelf. in the library, because Monday is the first day of STAAR testing.

It’s not the extra task added to my already brimming plate that’s ruffled my feathers; I can manage my time and make things work. And I will get back to all of those things and more once the transformation is complete.

It’s the principle of the thing.

Why must every book cover and title, poster and sign be covered in preparation for testing in the library?  For two reasons:

Reason 1.  Students will be writing essays on the tests next week and might get an idea or thought from glancing around the library, and upon seeing a book that they read in the 8th grade, suddenly have inspiration for an example to use in their writing.  This would not be fair or a true test of their writing abilities.

“Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life. Libraries change lives for the better.” Sydney Shelton

Reason 2. A student in one Texas school may have generative material on the walls that a student in another Texas school or classroom does not have.  This is an unfair advantage on the test, where students are expected to write uniformly and predictably to achieve pre-set numerical scores that will accurately then rank their writing ability as “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” and “advanced.”  There is no room for “creative,” “inspirational,” “unique,” “authentic,” and “relevant.”

 “A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.”  Doris Lessing

The test is a refined instrument that we rely upon as a democratic society to ensure that all students are receiving equitable and comparable education in the free, public system.  Apparently, our democratic society feels that thinking for oneself is not a desirable trait in its citizens, nor is the ability to be “immune from indoctrination.”

It’s not just in my library that this is happening today.  Classrooms and testing centers all across Texas have sterilized their walls and spaces in preparation for the April testing season. It’s not my campus or institution that sets the context for this irony.  We comply, as all others must, in the name of public education, bending a knee to allow the state the measure our students and our work, only to jump back to our feet when the day is over and return to the real work at hand, that of facilitating learning.

Now, I must return to today’s work at hand.  Mr. Shakespeare, Maestro Beethoven, and Emperor Napoleon must be tucked into their respectful nooks for the coming days lest some student writer get the wrong idea for his writing.