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.