23 September 2017

What Lies Beneath

I've spent the last 7 or 8 years thinking about the role of data visualization in the classroom. I am not an expert, but rather an enthusiastic student of the subject. And I feel incredibly fortunate to work in a role and a district that gives me an opportunity to grow my knowledge and skills in that arena. This year, I get to extend that by facilitating some professional development.

We're calling it "Data Academy" and there are three flavours: one for administrators, one for instructional coaches, and one for classroom teachers. We'll have them start with a question, pull and organize data, then visualize it and tell a story with it. That's the basic nuts and bolts of a process we'll manage between now and March.

But there's always a hidden curriculum, is there not? Something unspoken, yet more important, that  underpins things. Like a good foundation garment, it shapes and supports...and maybe even provides a little sex appeal.

And what lies beneath my story arc this year is the need to create some change. Schools are using data the way they did in the 1980s. I'm tired of that. I'm tired of the curiosity and expertise of educators being stifled. I can't look at another red/yellow/green coded spreadsheet or endure another conversation that has a goal of merely admiring an achievement gap.

We need a different narrative.

I spent my time off in July outlining what this could look like, then pitched this idea as a series of after school options for teachers and principals. But my boss thought differently...that we would roll it out to all administrators and instructional coaches. Um, okay.

I was hesitant at first---and still am, at least a little bit. First of all, I don't want to drag anyone through this content. These are adult learners and should have some meaningful choice about where their professional learning takes them. And secondly, this sort of large scale rollout gives me some serious imposter syndrome.

There are ways to mitigate both of these concerns. Administrators might not get to "opt out" of this work, but they can choose their own question to investigate and story to share. I am working with a group of teachers in the after school series who are there for themselves (we're not paying them to participate) and I can test out each piece with them before I meet with principals.

But beyond that, this is the work I want to do...not the work I have to do. I see a different vision for data use in education, and maybe this is a good first step toward that.


The tweet above references a scene in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born:


So, I'm dreaming a bit bigger. I've invited some reps from our regional educational service district, as well as some of my previous co-workers from the state education agency. I've also reached out to former colleagues who work with our state school board association and principals' groups. If we're really going to change conversations about data, then we're going to need a bigger room and a bigger network. I can't be the only voice in the wilderness demanding something better.

I'm building a repo on GitHub for the materials and thinking about what the denouement this spring will look like. I should have (roughly) 50 people involved in telling unique data stories this year. I want some sort of culminating event...a story slam...where they can share and celebrate. But I have no idea yet what this will look like.

For now, what lies beneath are lots of hopes and dreams and fears. But I am making my peace with that and trying to focus on the future. In the next post, I'll share some of the more concrete plans and tools we'll be using this year.

¡Viva la RevoluciĆ³n!

13 September 2017

Dear Principal

You might be familiar with the Dear Data project, "a year-long, analog data drawing project by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, two award-winning information designers living on different sides of the Atlantic." I can't think of another creative project that has brought me so much joy and inspiration---and if you haven't heard about it, then have a look at the site and definitely buy the book.

As for me, Dear Data first inspired the data stories I have been building and posting in my school district. But I've always found the original post card idea charming and daunting. It's a more intimate way to communicate, as well as an opportunity to connect about different types of data. But I just don't have the stamina (or a partner) for a weekly exchange.

Instead, I am starting small. I have blocked out time on my calendar every other week to spend in schools. And while there, I want to capture data about something that we wouldn't ordinarily notice. Later, I'll create a postcard and send it to the principal.

Yesterday was my first attempt. I visited our two middle schools. I counted the number of smiles I saw from the moment I walked into the building to the moment I walked out.

This was definitely a challenge. How do you capture this? What are the categories? I started with a simple chart that I could make tallies on. The top line represented who initiated the smile (adult or student) and the side represented who received the smile (adult or student). But, of course, nuances arose. Did my smiles count? (I decided they did.) What about someone who was just sitting there smiling to themselves? (I decided that counted.) What about people who greeted me by name...or the autistic kid who saw me and said, "Hello, stranger." in the manner of a western movie. (I didn't count them, but I recorded them.)

I spent about 3 hours between the two buildings, connecting with people, sitting in on classes, and surreptitiously making tally marks. Back at the office, I summarized the data and then thought about how to display it.

I ended up using arrows to show the direction of smiles between people, with the widths representing the number in a particular category. I decided on a consistent measure (.03" = 1 smile) and then drew the arrows in PowerPoint to scale. I cut them out and used them at templates to draw the cards.

Here is the first one:

And here is the second one:

They're not perfect---not even close. (I haven't had an art class since 5th grade, in case you couldn't tell.) I liked the idea of using school colours, but I could have used colour better with the design. I am sure there are better designs for communicating the data. Some of my writing is a mess. However, it is important to me to get these out into the world. I can't spend days or weeks on them, because the data might not be as relevant. And, I have other things I have to do in the meantime! So, I am doing my best to let go of some of my more perfectionistic tendencies and just make something happen.

Meanwhile, I find the data on these cards interesting. One school had far more students smiling at one another, but far fewer adults smiling at kids. That same school had relatively even numbers of kids and adults smiling at adults, but the first school was disproportionate. Both had the same number of kids and adults smiling to themselves.

Principals don't know that I am doing this work this year. I don't know what they'll say or if they'll care. I don't know if they'll spend time with the cards to decipher them and think about what is represented or what it could mean...or if they'll just think this is weird. My hope is that, if nothing else, they will find a little bit of inspiration. But more on this in another post.

I was both excited and sad to put them into the district mail today. I'll never hold the cards in my hands again, even if I have the images. I like to think of them as seeds I'm sowing. I'll only learn later what I will reap.

31 May 2017

Where Was I?

With only a handful more days in the school year, we have reached the end of state testing. Our first assessment window is open on the first day of school and we've filtered through several different opportunities since then. The busiest, of course, is spring.

Spring is a marathon. Ten schools. Nine grade levels. Five different flavours of tests (only three, depending upon grade level). Not to mention managing paper/pencil vs. online, getting tests to our kids who are educated in programs outside the district (for example, at the school for the deaf), scheduling translators, and all the other details. But we're at the end of all of that for another year.

For 6 - 8 weeks, assessment is all-encompassing. It is the first thing that gets checked in the morning and the maintenance it generates becomes the final tasks for the afternoon. Other work moves along in fits and starts, 15 minutes at a time. It's an odd rhythm that I settle into. And now that the dance is over, I am finding myself a bit at loose ends.

My calendar looks like this:

I'm not complaining. After months of claustrophobia-like conditions in Outlook, I like that I have some breathing room. It's just that after all the hullabaloo, I don't quite remember what it is I was doing. I hope that I captured some good notes back in March so that I can figure out what sorts of projects people were expecting me to complete.

The year is winding down. I am planning on taking off most of July, but once the spring score file drops on August 4, it will mark the starting line for another year. I am hoping, though, that for the next few weeks, I can decompress and find my bearings again.

28 May 2017

Year in Review: The Job vs The Work

A week or so ago, I received my annual evaluation from my supervisor. I completed the expected tasks with the expected work ethic and to the expected standards. All is well and I am employable for another year.

Reading through the narrative made me realize that there is a difference in how I see my accomplishments and how others view them. Both are valid in their own ways. My supervisor writes about the job I do, but in my own mind, I am always thinking about the work.

I had a new support staff person this year. It is my job to supervise her. But my work has been to ensure that she develops enough skills that she never has to worry about depending on anyone again...that if she were ever again faced with having to walk out of her home with nothing but the clothes on her back, that she could have a marketable resume and secure income. It's true that she is the one who has made all the effort to learn a very broad range of new skills. My role has been to try and be a good role model and cheerleader...to provide all the opportunities for her that I can.

There were a couple of people who told me this year how much my Twitter presence has meant to them. An odd thing, in a way...and certainly not in my job description. I see it as my work, however, to connect and communicate, as well as to create and lift others. To be sure, there is nothing special about the account---it's just me: an odd mix of data viz, old movies, and personal observations. Somehow, it helps others figure out how to move into their online presence and that pleases me.

My work this year has been to change conversations about data. And yes, my job is to support district data efforts. But there is nothing in the description about helping schools create narratives. While I might be terribly behind in my data stories project, my tiny Grinch heart grows three sizes every time I hear a school board member state their preference for a data story vs. raw numbers or have a principal who mentions that they are starting with inquiry (vs. data) to develop next steps for their building. I am starting to be recognized "someone who can synthesize a story," and I find this exciting.


It is in my job description that I should collaborate with others. It is my work to help my colleagues craft their vision, encourage them to stretch their expectations for themselves, and reflect on what it is they really want to accomplish. My ever open door brings in people who need advice or encouragement or another opinion. I do my best to be both honest and encouraging. I like seeing others succeed.

The 2017 school year will finish in three weeks. I am planning the things I need to complete over the summer, as well as setting goals and projects for next year. I keep thinking about this tension between the job and the work...two things which should be the same, but aren't. As long as I fulfill the requirements of the job, I will continue to meet some of what others believe I should be. When I do the work, I have the chance to be the sort of educator I believe I should be. I worry what might be lost during these unspoken negotiations between how my employer describes what I do and how things look from my end, but I am hopeful that I can bring them closer together.

22 April 2017

Magic in the Middle

Long ago and far away, when I was doing some work about science notebooks in elementary classrooms, there was always a reminder that the prompts used in primary grades (especially kindergarten and first) had to be very targeted and high quality. Yes, this should be true for all grades, but for little ones, there is only so much attention they have for completing a writing task. You have to be extra intentional about making the most of those opportunities.

I've been reminded of this recently while reading through some research and other resources on student-involved data use (SIDU). "SIDU is a process in which teachers facilitate student use of their own data to set goals, monitor progress toward those goals and engage in reflection to inform learning" (Jimerson, 2016). It typically includes data binders for students, data walls, data chats, or some other quasi-public display of data.

The concept of having students track their own data isn't new---and it isn't a bad idea. Transforming the raw numbers of grades into something more visual supports the creation of meaning. But my big question goes back to the idea at the beginning of this post: With limited resources in time and attention (for any grade level), is having students draw their own charts the best place to spend those?

Let's say I have 15 minutes a week to devote to SIDU in my classroom. Unless my goal is to teach students how to communicate effectively using charts and work on their data viz techniques, I don't think having kids make charts is going to make much of a difference in their learning. I do think that providing the charts with a couple of targeted questions and asking students to reflect on those could be where the magic happens. I also think that teacher time is valuable. Just like figuring out the focus area for a young writer, determining which pieces of data are most powerful to share is a critical step.

As I learn more about SIDU, I wonder if the definitions I see throughout the research are too rigid. How do readers workshop or writers workshop connect? What about social-emotional learning, "soft" skills, or other non-academic goals? Is there a place for those as SIDU? Qualitative data, too? If so, what does this look like?

Or, even more importantly, how do we help students identify their own problems of practice, then plan and monitor changes?

I'd like to support some action research around this in my district next year. I'm not sure what it would look like just yet, especially since nearly all of the examples I'm reading about involve kids making their own charts. I'm not opposed to a project with that, but I'd like to find the sweet spot in all of this...the "high-leverage" place where the magic happens for students creating their own meaning out of the information we have about them.

Have you tried this in your own classroom or school? What did you learn?

15 April 2017

Keeping It Together

I have had a stationery fetish my entire life. Pens, pencils, paper, and their kin are always among my favourite things to collect and use. When I was a classroom teacher, I always kept a paper gradebook and planner, even as more and more capabilities became available in the digital space.

Since moving into other roles in education, and the advent of tablets and smartphones, I've tried lots of combinations of tools to manage my calendar, tasks, and projects. It is perhaps no surprise that I've finally settled into a paper-based routine that I love. Out in the world, when people see me use it, they ask me about it. I thought I'd share it here.

Make no mistake, an Outlook calendar is used to organize most of my time. This is because so many meetings are scheduled through that tool. I don't sync it directly to my phone, however, to avoid public disclosure issues. (I don't ever sync work email to my personal phone, either.) But, I do import it into Google and then connect to a personal account. Yes, this is some extra work (about two minutes a week) and what I can see on my phone isn't always current. I sleep better, though.

On my desk, I keep a life planner from Erin Condren. I love being able to see a whole year at once, even though I wish it was a school year as opposed to a calendar year. (They do make lesson plan books for teachers that are organized by school year.) I have a color coded system I use to put dots on days of the monthly layouts to help me easily scan for the regular meetings and events. I am also not averse to using stickers, even at my advanced age. I add them for birthdays I need to remember or appointments or other unusual events. I like that all of this gives me something that is both functional and pretty to look at. Maybe the pretty part shouldn't matter, but it does.

Each week, I use the layouts to track appointments and tasks for each day. I put the meetings in the box on the right of each day, including the topic and begin/end times. In the lined area, I write my tasks. This becomes an invaluable place to jot reminders when someone asks for something over the phone or has just stopped by the office. I check things off as they're completed. Anything left at the end of the week gets copied over to the next week. Sometimes, there are tasks that get ported over for awhile. But usually, it feels darned good to see all those little boxes checked at the end of the week.

I have long admired the bullet journals that so many people use. I do apply some elements of the system to my paper calendar. I love my calendar, but there is so much more about work (and life) that I can't capture there. So, I started using a bound notebook (Leuchtturm 1917 dotted) to capture everything else: meeting notes, projects for work, information about data to remember for next year, movies I've watched, poems, or anything else that interests me. For example, here are some notes from the recent ASCD conference.

And here is what my data notes look like. You might recognize the more polished product in a recent post, but it all starts here. I try to capture as much as I can about how I construct things in Excel: where the data came from, how I cleaned it, the formulas used to transform it, and how the charts were built. This always comes in handy later, when I'm asked to do something similar.

A couple of other things to note about this page, both having to do with how I overcame my inertia in starting this type of journal. I had long thought---incorrectly---that when starting the journal I would need to have the whole thing mapped out. And this overwhelmed me. I just couldn't figure out how many pages I would need to devote to each topic. Finally, I realized that I didn't have to. First of all, I can "thread" pages. They don't have to be right next to each other. I just need to know how to find them. So, in the lower leftthand corner, you'll notice a note to myself about the previous pages in the book that I used to work on this same project. If I need to, I can look back at them very quickly to see all of my notes and the evolution of the project. The second thing I do is that I use a piece of coloured Washi tape at the edge of the page to signal when I'm changing topics in the journal. I might have meetings for 8 pages...and then it changes to a data project. Over time, this becomes a visual of how I have spent my time over several months. The edges of the pages become a sort of bar chart.

I love that this little journal fits in just about any purse that I have. I can have it with me all the time to record ideas. I like being able to write, draw, or tape in whatever I like. Most importantly, I appreciate that it really captures how I spend my time. So much of my work is intangible---sitting in meetings or trying to figure out how to complete certain projects. This little book makes me feel like time didn't just disappear.

One journal lasts me about six months.

My go to, all time, super duper, favourite tool for writing is a Palomino Blackwing pencil, with a nicely sharpened long point. If you haven't tried one of these pencils, the kind used by John Steinbeck, Chuck Jones, Stephen Sondheim, and others...do yourself a solid and get some. I have gotten several people addicted to them over the years. They were all skeptical, but in the end, a pencil is not a pencil is not a pencil.

Beyond that, I carry about 20 Staedtler Fineliners with me at any given time. I love the colour selection, the way they move on the paper, and again...even though it shouldn't matter...they make things pretty. Considering that most of what gets contained in my calendar and journal is work-related, having something pleasing to look at is far more motivating.

The little tool bag in my purse also carries a small ruler, some 2x2" sticky notes, a pack of Zebra Mildliners, and a pencil sharpener. At home, I have been collecting a wide variety of Washi tape, which I also use to dress up my notes. I may need a 12-step program to manage this habit in the future.

In the end, how we manage our time and information is always personal. I love looking through the following hashtags on Twitter for ideas: #bujo, #bujoinspire, #studyblr, #studygram. What works for you?

07 April 2017

Designing for Truth

For the past couple of years, a colleague (and friend) of mine and I have been sharing some ideas around human-centered design at conferences. We've presented to early childhood educators, principals, assessment coordinators, and others. The presentation is not so much a "how to" guide, but rather an attempt to shift the narratives around how we make plans for improvement. So much of the time, we start with data and just roll on from there.

We are conditioned to be data-driven, not data-informed. I always advocate for questions to drive the processes we use, not the data. A human-centered approach starts with questions and concerns and builds from there. As educators, we know---or, at least we think we know---the issues within our schools. Data may show us that not all students are reading on grade level, but the issues may not be exclusively around teaching. Perhaps we need more resources in the library to develop a love for reading. Maybe we think a reading buddy would help kids build social-emotional skills as a way to gain purpose for reading. Lots of possibilities that go beyond "Teach harder." At Tapestry last month, Neil Halloran gave a talk on Emotional Statistics. While the content wasn't specific to human-centered design, it spoke to the practicality of building empathy into the data stories we tell.

What's on Your Radar
In our sessions, we use a bulls-eye diagram cut into six slices. The slices are labeled with whatever topics we think the audience would like to talk about. (If you have enough time, let the audience generate the categories...we usually only have an hour or so and take some shortcuts.) For early childhood, that might be related to kindergarten readiness. For administrators, it's a framework for high school completion. Each person gets some sticky notes and some private reasoning time to generate as many concerns or questions they have about each area. Then, small groups come together to share these while placing them on the radar chart...gradually coming to consensus about the 2 - 3 most critical issues. The example above comes from a session with principals:

Sometimes, we leave a wild card slice so that people can have some space to raise issues that might not fit elsewhere. All of this leads to some great discussion and some thoughts then about how to build action plans around what ends up in the center. If you'd like to try this for yourself, you can download the instructions and radar template.

Design Thinking Comes to ASCD 2017
At this year's ASCD annual conference, Empower 17, there were two sessions incorporating design thinking. The first, Design-inspired leadership, by Alyssa Gallagher and Kami Thordarson,was focused on re-envisioning the role of the principal. Based loosely on the Stanford Design School Model, the presenters defined design as the creation of artifacts that work.

Learn more about the model
They suggested that we have the power to change the rules around how we use our roles as leaders. The design-inspired roles included the Opportunity Seeker, Experience Architect, Rule Breaker, Producer, and Storyteller. Of these, the Storyteller role is the most powerful, as it captures minds and hearts. As someone who reminds people to use data to tell your story as the tagline on her other blog, this last piece spoke to me. I think just as Halloran reminds us that the numbers---the truth---are all well and good, we need to be intentional about making these human connections.

Patrice Dawkins-Jackson and Wendy Kelly led an extended session on Design inspired and habits of mind: Influencing instruction and beyond that combined the Stanford model with Costa and Kallick's Habits of Mind. They described design as a human-centered process using empathy to solve the real problem. Design is not about art (although it can be), but more about creative thinking. They led the group through a model of the process of keeping user needs at the center of the work.

What I appreciated about both of these sessions was that they speak to a shift in the way we think about how we identify our goals and work toward them. Schools, as a rule, are not early adopters of ideas, technology, or much else. As another presenter at the conference opined, schools embrace business ideas (deficit-based approach, data-driven decision making, factory models...) as they are fading. We run many years beyond current trends, but better late than never, right? And if these sessions at ASCD are any indication, conversations about taking a design-approach are much more wide-ranging than I would have guessed. We build humans in education---not widgets. I know that there are thousands of teachers, coaches, principals, and others who see this everyday, but as a system, we are not so good at remembering this outcome. You don't have to be an artist to engage in design---you just have to care about the people affected by your efforts. We can use processes that honor that, as well as the data that are generated.

If you're interested in learning more about design thinking, I highly recommend the resources provided by IDEO. You can even get a group together for a course to apply human-centered design principles to a problem at your school, district or community. Or, in the spirit of the Internet, you might also enjoy Design Thinking Lessons from Our Cats. Giorgia Lupi recently presented on How we can find ourselves in the data, with examples from her own work:

There are additional posts about ASCD 2017 on my other blog. I shared what I learned on my annual roundup of data tools in the exhibit hall, as well as my own presentation on using qualitative data to put the humanity back into the truths we tell.