Friday, April 25, 2014

"Students are Dismissed to the Gym for the Assembly"

My assignment for today was to write a blog about the uncertainties of HB 2506. I was in the middle of doing so when I had to leave my work and go to a school assembly. Readers should understand that I have been to a lot of school assemblies in my five decades plus on the planet. As a student thinking about trying to be cool, as a teacher thinking about not leaving any of my students out, as building administrator thinking about what problems were going to be caused by some kid trying to be cool or getting left out, and as a superintendent thinking about not leaving any of my board members out. I also had many opportunities to go and take pride in my own kids. I tried to come up with an estimate of how may assemblies-countless.

Today I went to the assembly just to watch. Sure, my stepdaughters were prominent players in the proceedings, but I just watched. No worries, just enjoying the moment. I drove home as quickly as I could and still have goosebumps from what I witnessed when I just took the time to watch. Let me set the stage for you:
  1. Assemblies like this happen all over Kansas in schools large and small. When I talk about this one, I hope that it encourages you to go see one in your community. 
  2. This assembly was in a gym filled with 2,000 high school students. Many of you have had small groups of kids at your house. You know how ten can seem like 100. Imagine 2,000. 
  3. The students were in charge of this assembly. Students planned it, organized it, and led it. The principal never spoke, and teachers spoke only when called upon by the students. 
  4. In the interest of full disclosure, my stepdaughters are on the committee that planned the assembly. This gives me insights into the work and drama that went into the assembly, and the commensurate learning. 
  5. The assembly started at 9:30 and lasted until 11:00. 
So what happens when you take 2,000 teenagers, pack them into a gym, and put a handful of other teenagers in charge of them for an hour and a half? That is the part that gave me goosebumps (and embarrassingly brought a tear to my eye). This is also the part where I wish I were a better writer, so I could better describe what I saw, and more so what I felt.

The first activity featured the robotics team. Students described and demonstrated the robot they built. Naturally, it didn't work at first, but after a quick repair it raced around the gym chasing a giant beach ball, to the delight of the student body. The bot picked up the ball and launched it, just as it was designed to do, and the crowd roared. This wasn't a football championship, it was a robotics team.

But there were moments for athletes. Teams were introduced, by their captains, not their coaches, with one exception. A four-time state contender and 2014 state wrestling champ was introduced and cheered. He was so embarrassed I thought he would take down his coach with a fireman’s carry to get off the floor more quickly. A more humble young man I have not seen, with the exception maybe of my own boys.

The other exception to the no adults rule was when the special education jobs skills team was introduced. The team members, some assisted by their paras, were recognized by their teacher for winning numerous medals and ribbons at a job skills competition at the local college. The student body recognized their achievements with the first standing ovation of the day. The Kleenex came out of my wife’s purse at that moment.

The choirs sang, the classes did skits; more teams were introduced, just like in every other assembly that takes place in Kansas. The students were simply incredible. If there was a lull between events, they immediately went into their class chants. They were having fun, and so was I.

I will need your agreement not to mention the next activity to Gary Musselman or KSHSAA, because an unsanctioned sporting event took place. The rock-paper-scissors champion of the school was decided in a hard-fought quadrangular tournament. It culminated in the champion, a six-foot, hundred-nothing pound kid with a Swiss-ball-sized natural, being carried off the court by his friends in triumph. (I think when he did the splits in his warm-up the other players may have been intimidated.)

I cannot capture everything I saw or felt, but two things will stay with me. The assembly had the requisite pie the teacher event. The first victim was introduced-she was celebrating her retirement with a pie in the face. Upon hearing her name, 2,000 students jumped spontaneously to their feet and tried to blow the roof off the place. This, fellow educators, is what it is all about. Peyton may throw more touchdown passes, LeBron may score more points, and some ‘roid infused baseball player may hit more homers, they will all make millions more, but none of them will ever have an experience like she did. It was just plain cool to watch.

The second was when a group of students presented a new specially designed bicycle to another student in the district. They had raised the money to purchase the bike, and the glow on the girl’s face as she rode it out the gym out-shined the sparkle of all the prom queens' gowns. Again, a spontaneous roar from the students followed.

They finished up with a poetry slam. After sitting in an assembly for over an hour, the kids listened attentively to two lengthy poems written by their classmates. Not “Roses are red” or “There once was a fellow from Spain,” but long, intricate, and thoughtful words about school and life. The works moved the crowd to another ovation. Imagine the courage needed to walk onto a basketball court surrounded by 2,000 teenage peers with nothing but a microphone and some rhymes, being able to command the crowd, and then walking off to a standing ovation. Goosebumps.

I am leaving a lot out, and we can all worry about HB 2506 later. I am not going to take the time to brag about Isabelle and Olivia, who were masterful (whoops). I am just going to say that as long as our future is in the hands of public school students like the ones I saw today, I will rest easy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Don't Be a Twit, Get on the Twitter!

“There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”
Steve Ballmer, USA Today, April 30, 2007.

Sometime around 1990 I attended the National School Boards Association Technology Conference in Dallas.  The vendor hall was filled with exciting new technology!  I recall seeing a 20 pound Apple “portable” computer and IBM was touting their latest System 36 “minicomputer” which was about the size of Smart Car and had less computing power than your grandpa’s flip phone.

But the seminal moment for me was when I got stuck talking to a salesman from a company called America Online. He was excitedly describing how one could sit in New York and write an electronic message to someone in California!  It was free and instantaneous!  As I am a technology visionary and savant, my answer was “Why wouldn’t I just pick up the phone and call?”  Really? Electronic mail?  It will never catch on. 

About ten years later as superintendent in Emporia, I recall visiting with new teachers every year at the beginning year.  I would ask them how many had email accounts.  In the early years, a smattering of nerds would raise their hands, but after about three years it became a dumb question to ask. 

Today we live in a world defined by Moore’s Law.  Computing power is increasing exponentially and its power in communication moves equally fast.  Living in a house with two teenage girls I have seen Facebook, Vine, Snapchat, YikYak and a host of other social media come and go.  One thing that seems to have some staying power is Twitter.  Because we have established that I am a visionary when it comes to technology, I never really saw the power of twitter.  I used it to share and receive news and journal articles and for entertainment value.

After the last weekend of the legislative session, I realized the true power of Twitter.  It excels as an event-based social media tool.  I should have noticed this before because I have watched twitter during KU basketball games to see Fake Jeff Withey’s comments, during the last episode of Breaking Bad to share an experience with like-minded fanboys, and while watching Chief’s games to share the pain.  Twitter is about being there even when you can’t be there.

The last weekend of the legislative session, even though I was 800 miles away from Topeka, I was up at 2:00 AM with all of the rest of those political junkies, sharing in the experience with those who were actually there.  It was fascinating to watch and learn.  Rumors started, peaked, and ended or became truth in waves that might last minutes or even seconds.  Lobbyists and journalists interact with regular folks, exchanging information and sorting through the noise to develop a picture of what is really happening. (Special shout out to @tallman_mark and @tomkrebs1.)

Twitter allows everyone to be part of the action, see different views and perspectives, and share their own.  By the time the newspaper is printed, it is old news.  Skeptics like to quote Michael Scott from the office who said, “Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone, in the world, can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.”  Michael’s ironic statement fails to take into account that journalists are now some of the most active voices on Twitter, and their reputations depend on accuracy in tweets as much as in print or on the air. 

I am a convert, and new converts are the worst about proselytizing, but school leaders need to embrace social media.  Facebook, Twitter, and whatever kids are using now that I haven’t even heard of are essential to communicating both during “events” and for general information.  So get on the Google machine, search up The Twitter, start yourself an account, and get in the game.