Bringing the Phone Tree out of the Moth Balls

Never having played sports in school (or ever, really), the phone tree, as I understood it being used by soccer moms, never really entered into my life. I got the concept, but never needed.

When talking to a music teacher a few weeks ago about how he was using technology to care for students, the phone tree became suddenly relevant.

After a marching band gig, the teacher had sent a mass text to all of his musicians thanking them for showing up and performing. A simple act this teacher hadn’t thought much about until I’d worked to underline the importance of the ethic of care in the classroom.

It was a simple act that, after the instruments had been packed away, reminded the students that what they did mattered to other people and that they were valued.


It also got me thinking about a possiblity for phone trees in the classroom. Apps are great and I’m all for welcoming kids to bring tech into school spaces. Oftentimes, this transitions to a mandate or a platform requirement.

Enter, phone ring.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. At a class’ opening, each student is linked to another. A to B, B to C, C to D, etc. until Z is linked back around to A in the end. (More of a phone ring, I’m realizing.)
  2. Working on anything – homework, projects, whatever – if C has a question she can’t quite figure out, she gets ahold of D via whatever means necessary. It can be text, IM, e-mail (gasp), phone call (double gasp). D and C work together find an answer.
  3. If they can’t, that’s cool. The ring continues. D says, “I think we need another brain,” and gets ahold of E. The ring continues.
  4. Knowing the system is in place, the teacher begins the next class asking if any questions or troubles made it around the ring since their last meeting. It’s a formative assessment gold mine.

Student are practicing social skills, it’s low-threat collaboration, it values the asking of questions. It’s low-cost and allows for the use of mobile technologies without requiring them or the installation of new functionalities.

P.S. In putting together the chain, I’d probably take personalities into consideration and try to build in as much student choice. The easiest way I’ve found is starting with a conversation of what it means to be connected to someone who supports your learning and then asking each student to write down the names of three students they know would support their learning if they were linked and one student who would probably derail their learning. After that, it’s up to teachers’ professional opinion to make matches that foster student growth.


Things I Know 324 of 365: From Freakonomics to freako-not-so-fast

Half my life is an act of revision.

– John Irving

I mentioned the other day how much I enjoy reading the Freakonomics blog. Today, I read this piece from American Scientist by Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung who took a deeper look at the work of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and found some easy mistakes.

They took the guys who ask “What’s really going on here?” and asked “What’s really going on here?”

Gelman and Fung aren’t out to discredit Levitt and Dubner. Instead, they are watching the watchmen and point out moments of Freakonomics where Levitt and Dubner miss the mark or fail to ask the next question.

It’s another case of what’s popular not necessarily being what is right.

The piece is interesting for a number of reasons, but appealed to me mainly on the level of helping people to ask good questions. Rather than simply pointing out the problem, Gelman and Fung conclude with a set of recommendations that have direct implications for anyone working to make inquiries into the world and working to make their work accessible to a larger audience:

  • Leave friendship at the door.
  • Don’t sell yourself short.
  • Maintain checks and balances.
  • Take your time.
  • Be clear about where you’re coming from.
  • Use latitude responsibly.

For guidelines to asking good questions and working to craft answers to those questions that show integrity and understanding, this list is a great start. It’s also a reminder to any reader of anything that the iconoclast should be questioned as often as the traditionalist.

Things I Know 311 of 365: Schools need question portfolios

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.

– e.e. cummings

I stood in the snack food aisle today, in awe of what we can do to a potato. Beyond ridges or smooth, the modern potato chip can look like pretty much anything we want it to look like and taste like pretty much anything we want it to taste like.

Humankind has mastered the potato.

Take that, blight!

After the awe, I started to wonder. How do we do it? How do we make this batch of potato chips taste like dill pickles and that batch taste like prawns? When I buy ketchup-flavored potato chips, is it because they used ketchup or they found the chemicals necessary to make potatoes taste like ketchup? I had to start looking for the dishwashing liquid because the potato chips were too interesting.

On the drive home, I started thinking about potato chips and how we keep track of students’ learning.

Portfolio assessment has been around for a while and more resources have been devoted to its use and misuse than I care to plumb. What if we’re doing it wrong?

What if, instead of or in addition to student work, we were to keep a portfolio of the questions students asked?

Imagine a question portfolio that followed students throughout their time in school that reminded them and their teachers of the questions with which they’d wrestled as they learned. What would it look like if, attached to each question, was the latest iteration or the lineage of answers the student had crafted for that question?

What difference would it mean to create a culture of learning where parents were encouraged to ask their children, “What questions did you ask today in school?”

I have a suspicion that in valuing questions, we’d have no other choice but to make school into places where students had the space to answer the questions they thought most intriguing. It also seems likely to me that a student who has been taught the value of a good question and been given the support, resources, and space to seek answers will have no trouble learning anything that’s necessary throughout her life.

We do a decent job of telling kids there are no stupid questions, but a horrible job at showing them that the act of questioning isn’t stupid.

Once I got home, I remembered I’d read a passage about the science of potato chips in David Bodanis’s The Secret House. I found it on my shelf and started searching for answers to my grocery store questions.

What questions did you ask today?

Things I Know 142 of 365: We can draw everyone into the conversation

I’m always up for a conversation. So long as it’s with someone else (and sometimes even with myself), a good conversation leads to me learning more.

And I really like learning.

Standing up to start my section of the keynote for the Ohio School Facilities Commission’s 21st Century School Design Symposium 2.0 today, I presented the audience with a slide devoid of title or name.

It read simply:

What do you want to know?

In the next line, I invited audience members to text their questions to the phone number on the screen or send a message to my twitter account.

The original plan was to follow the questions up later in the presentation and open my Google Voice account. Call it keynote formative assessment.

Due to some login issues, I wasn’t able to access my account while I was still on stage.

That was for the better.

Once I returned to my seat, I opened Google Voice and found several questions waiting.

“How do you run professional development to prepare SLA teachers for project-based teaching?”

“What do you use to clean your dry erase tables?”

“Any how-to tips for working with an odd BOE?”

In my 30 minutes, I hadn’t the time to speak directly and in a detailed way to the concerns each of the questions raised. If I’d attempted to do so, I would have missed the mark of what I was asked to speak about.

Still, each question shows at least the basics of curiosity surrounding the ideas that had been presented.

The texters were inquiring.

Any question worth asking is worth answering.

The same thing happens in my classroom. In fact, I’d wager the same thing happens in every classroom. Class discussion begins or the teacher asks what questions the students have, and the few noble souls pipe up.

Most of the time, it’s the same people. On particularly excellent days, other voices enter the mix.

Today, Google Voice helped me collect some of the voices and questions that would have gone unheard and unasked in class conversation. It was the tool for today, but it isn’t the only tool.

From time to time, when having a full class conversation around a text, I explain that my goal is to hear from all voices in the classroom. I explain the value I place on a plurality of ideas and that I’m genuinely curious as to what each student has to say.

When I asked today’s audience to share what they wanted to know, I was also genuinely curious.

In class conversations, I’ll often require students who don’t speak up in the physical spaces to share their thoughts (either a new idea or a reaction to a peer) on the class discussion board on MOODLE.

Those message board strands bear out some deeply thoughtful conversation.

That conversation is epically helpful to me as I attempt to understand each of the students in my charge and how they view the world.

Sometimes, I’ll jump in on the discussion board conversations. Other times, I’ll send a private e-mail in response.

Today, I sent a response to each text message I received. I might never hear from any of them again. I get that.

Still, when we’re banning and working to verbally diminish the power of new conduits of conversation in education, maybe it will serve as a reminder of the tools we have to draw more students of all kinds into the fray.

Things I Know 118 of 365: I object and everyone else should too

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

– Howard Zinn

I wonder how often teachers encourage their students to disagree. For all of the talk of student-centeredness, I think we miss it by miles.

Disagreement or discourse strikes me as a hallmark of a truly student-centered learning environment.

As I wrote a couple days ago, I submitted a course reflection Saturday that voiced my dissent from the learning module I just completed.

In one section, I admitted to doing the opposite of what was asked of me.

I only wrote the reflection after some calculations revealed I would still earn an A in the course even if I didn’t complete the assignment at all.

Only when my dissent couldn’t be held against me did I feel comfortable voicing it. This within the bounds of an academic institution.

In a place of learning, dissent should be welcomed. It should be encouraged. It should be expected.

I’m tempted to qualify that expectation with terms of civility, but I realize dissent sometimes erupts from a place where the bridge to civil discourse has long since been burned.

Often, when I encourage my students to ask questions, I’m really encouraging only those questions that imply agreement.

“Question,” I seem to be saying, “but make them questions about how and not why.”

Though these implications don’t show it, I’m fine with my students questioning my authority.

I must be.

My hope is that they will move on to question those in authority on a regular basis. I can’t work toward that with the caveat of “Question authority, just not mine” and then hope for any kind of real trust.

It’s the kind of questioning I would have hoped for when Gov. Chris Christie spoke last week at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

To what the New York Times called a “polite and subdued” crowd, Gov. Christie said, “You are among the leaders of our educational future,” he said, “and if you’re not disrupted yet, I’m going to disrupt you now.”

I suppose that’s what I’m hoping for as a teacher. I want to disrupt and challenge the thinking of my students about everything from social issues to parts of speech.

Like Christie, though to a lesser extent, my rhetoric discourages my audience from working to disrupt me.

“Others, yes, disrupt others, but trust me, I’m the teacher.”

The crowd should have disrupted Christie.

They should have asked him the difficult questions that required him to be the most thoughtful and intelligent version of himself.

Whether they agreed with him or not, those in attendance should have demanded clarity when Gov. Christie referred to the NJ teachers’ union as “a political thuggery operation.” If they are the leaders of our educational future, then they should have asked the millions of questions they would hope to pour from students in any similar situation.

They should have asked more.

They should have required of him the same kind of explanation and thinking any math teacher requires when asking students to show their work.

They should have asked for the same reason any student should demand an explanation beyond, “Because I’m the teacher, that’s why.”

Gov. Christie, though, is not one to show his work, nor has he shown himself to be skilled in civil discourse. Instead, he wraps his opinions around bricks he throws through the ideological windows of those who stand in opposition.

It’s not enough to have an opinion, teachers (and governors) must be able to substantiate those opinions with something other than bricks.

Things I Know 76 of 365: Good conversation can be self-sustaining

Conversation would be vastly improved by the constant use of four simple words: I do not know.

– Andre Maurois

Thursday’s advisory began with a question. Actually it was a statement first, “Now, I don’t mean to sound racist.”

I turned to Matt, my co-advisor, and said, “We’re about to hear something racist.”

“Why is it that caucasian people can’t handle spicy foods?”

I was wrong.

The next 45 minutes ended up being one of the best advisory periods I’ve ever had.

We wound through racism and stereotypes and what separates the two. We talked about possible sources of those beliefs. We talked about some of the roots of American cultures and asked questions of the kids as to what they understood.

I explained my family had no discernible roots in the Caucasian Mountains and that it was okay to call me white.

When one student said, “Let’s say someone calls someone else the ’n-word’ for no good reason, what do we do?” we worked toward an answer to the question and dealt with the idea that “for no good reason” implied there could be a good reason.

From a bean bag chair, one advisee added, “The ’n-word’ was just a way the slave owners oppressed black men.”

I’ve had this conversation or some off-shoot of it many times. This was the best version.

“What about when you hear someone say something and you think it is racist? What’s the best way to deal with that?” I asked the advisory.

I called on a student who didn’t have her hand up, but whom I could tell was working through her answer by the look on her face.

“Tell us what you’re thinking,” I said, “Even if you’re not sure, tell us what’s playing through your mind.”

A little shocked at first, she said, “Well, I guess I’d ask them questions. When she asked her question,” she said motioning to the student who had asked the initial question, “you didn’t jump on her or anything. You just asked her questions. That seems like the best thing to do.”

I challenged a little bit, suggesting it was one thing to offer that answer now, but another to remember it in the heat of the moment when one feels offended. The advisee agreed and we continued thinking and talking.

We continued, as luck would have it well past the dismissal time for advisory.

No one made a move toward their book bag.

No one asked if they could leave.

No one departed from the conversation.

Because the conversation started from a place of curiosity and the topic we were discussing was rich with no clear answers, no one seemed to notice we’d tripped over the end of our mandated togetherness.

PD: Let’s Meetup

After after years of reading and talking about self-guided professional development and how online spaces can make it happen, I’m going to do something else.

I shelled out a little coin and created a meetup group.

Admittedly, scheduling the first meetup for the day after the group was created turned out to be a bit overzealous.

March 9, we’ll try again.

Our first topic of discussion, “forming and asking good questions in the classroom.”

The group has no requirements and asks only that attendees bring with them a link, tool or text they turn to in consideration of the meetup’s topic.

I don’t know why I or you haven’t started a TeachUp group before. Maybe others have, and I just haven’t heard about it.

Either way, knowing I’ve got some informal PD on the horizon with folks I largely don’t know but who share an affinity for wanting to be better teachers has me all tingly in that way only learning can.

If you’re in the Philly area, come join.

If you’re not in the Philly area, start your own.

And, if you’re a bit trepidatious about paying for a meetup account, just jump in our group – think of America as the Greater Philadelphia Area.