April 16, 2013

What's with the Witch Hunt?

So I have been reading various posts and books about culture.  There is a lot of talk about the culture of Fear in our school systems right now.  There is a wave of change sweeping the education system in the US and there is a strong voice of reform and anti-unionism that accompanies it as well.  The media for years (ever since good ole Ronny Reagan) has supported the hysterical talk of the demise of the US education system.  So maybe much of that culture of fear isn't as imagined as some would like to think. 

As a school administrator for the past 9 years, I have sensed it growing in the 4 districts I have worked in.  And the fear is growing. But why shouldn't teachers be feeling fear? The Ed Reformers slather the headlines with rants about how teachers are failing our students. They find all the incidents of poor practice, student apathy, bullying, US testing comparisons, bullying, and whatever else they can find and sensationalize the events. While we all are ready to admit these things do happen in our schools, they are not a rampant plague that is dragging our system into oblivion. Many people forget we have the Largest Public Education System in the world. It is HUGE!! So are these isolated cases being blown out of proportion? Yes....and No.  Our media is one of the most watched sources of information around the world. Our media includes newspapers, TV stations (including cable networks) and increasingly, the internet.  While mainstream media used to temper the flames of heated debates, sources like 24/7 news channels that are loaded up with opinion journalists only help add fire to these isolated cases.  
It becomes easy to enlarge an incident, and with the correct verbiage (or maybe distorted verbiage) bring it to a scale that seems catastrophic.  So as the "fair and balanced" media portrays the US educational system as failing and the Teachers Unions as the money hungry devils that protect themselves from parents that just want the best for their kids, the story spins out of control and every teacher sees themselves with a target on their back.  It may not matter how much I try to defend them, how much I pat them on the back or try to let them know it is okay to fail or to take risks with me as their leader, their bigger concern is a Governor, a Congress, a School Board member, or even a disgruntled parent may be the one to say, "you are not cutting it."  How would they possibly know that?  They are not in those classrooms.  They are not viewing their lessons, seeing how they try multiple ways to reach their students.  They're not witnessing the hours they put into planning, practicing, reading or learning the book they have been asked to read or becoming skilled in the latest technology hoped to boost student interest, engagement or just make their work more efficient.  While I may have their back on the numerous things I want them to be willing to try and to develop strengths in, they are simply wanting to survive.  This is a scary time in the US Ed System.  We are creating all sorts of new ways to provide parents and taxpayers with accountability measures, so that we can be assured that all students can do well on a Standardized Test that will mean nothing to a student when they leave school, and that I have seen often enough has no measure of how successful you will be after school.  


We have recreated the Salem Witch Hunts here in the US (since we seem to be good at not learning from our History) and begun to blame all of our woes on the US Ed System, or more precisely, our Teachers.  The very people who have given of themselves to try to provide the very thing we know will help kids be successful.....an education. The people who work tirelessly to to try to reach all of our students, the people who care deeply for the students that receive little care or even abuse in some of their home situations, the people who use their own money to find food for those students who come to school hungry.  These are the people that Ed Reformers try to vilify by exposing the rather rare incidents of poor choice that take place in our schools and then ballooning them into a catastrophe that can make the headlines or the top stories by Radio whack jobs.  Yeah, these same people that reach into their own pockets at on Thanksgiving to make sure that our needy families have real Turkey Dinner or at Christmas, when they go out shopping for the students that will most likely get nothing, yeah these are the people we should be hunting down and holding accountable.  Why should we bother to look at the legislators who create policies to keep the poor in their terrible situations?  Why shouldn't we compare our students performance to a country that only has 3% poverty?  Why don't we question why they choose to close schools in poor black neighborhoods instead of sending them more money to improve their buildings, professional development, practices and resources?  Why don't more people ask these questions?

Instead of complaining about it to people that already feel the same way I do, I think I will start to change the focus, and start to heal the teachers that have been so beaten down.  I will stand by them and protect them, but mostly I will help them to make such a difference, that if you were to speak negatively of Teachers and Education that it would only make you look ignorant.  I will stand tall with them, I will shout out what great things they do, and I will answer those naysayers with, "Really, because maybe you haven't seen or heard about this....."  Get ready reformers and naysayers, because I am about to show what AMAZING Teachers we have here in the US and more importantly, I will show you what they have taught our kids to do.  What have you taught them to do?

April 15, 2013

Can we argue for a minute please?

I have been reading a lot about the fear of failure 
in schools lately and I am starting to wonder if there is another fear that is causing school success to be squelched. Before we can encourage students to embrace failure and not be afraid to take risks and then learn from them, don't we need to address the fear that exists amongst our teachers?  I have worked in a variety of districts, and in each one I have seen the fear of conflict hold people back from addressing concerns that will affect them in a variety of ways.  We need to create teams that can trust each other and that can debate an idea, I mean really beat up an idea, project, concept or concern without personalizing the process.  Why is it we fear debate? Are we so unprofessional that we cannot face criticism? Especially when the criticism is over an idea, a change, or a procedure that if looked at with scrutiny may be improved for the benefit of all.  Instead, we tend to cower in our insecurity, our fear of conflict with a colleague or maybe it's the fear of the power of the crowd. Will all of our peers look at us as the trouble maker, the whiner or just self centered.
I am searching for the naysayer or antagonist amongst my staff.  While I am not looking to battle over every decision we need to make, in order to make sound decisions about some of the changes I believe we need to make, we need to have some cognitive dissidence to ensure we are looking at all perspectives and truly examining these ideas so that they will work and be embraced as good ideas.  My friend, George Couros wrote an intriguing piece on the Antagonist a while back and I would like to see my staff embrace the concept.  

So as I met with the with my Leadership Team they brought up an interesting point, that I hadn't really considered. Is it possible the fear of conflict doesn't tend to be directed toward administration, but instead it tends to come from each other. They said that we (the staff) go around and put targets on each others backs.  But after reflecting for a while, I had to admit, I recall that feeling as well.  I remember being a teacher and being more worried about what my co-workers thought of me than my principal.  Again, this is culture issue that we must overcome and that I will put my efforts toward conquering.  We need to be able to examine ourselves, our practices and our beliefs, if we are to put student learning and their social/emotional development at the top of our priority list.  While I have read a lot about teamwork, leadership and motivating people, I am still open for ideas on creating this positive culture that is fearless in conflict, filled with trust and focused on improving everything we do. I shared with them today the video below, because I think we do have leaders amongst us, and that my staff members do make "lollipop moments" every day. Do you see this culture in your schools?  Have you battled this fear with your employees or peers?  I'd love to hear your thoughts. Wish I could give you a lollipop like I did with my staff.

April 14, 2013

How do you flip the "Switch?"

We are nearing the end of another school year, and I am facing the end of year in my new school.  It has been an incredible journey taking over a larger building and taking on the leadership of a Middle School philosophy as well.  I have truly enjoyed these challenges and have greatly embraced what I thought would be a daunting task of dealing with Middle Schoolers.  I also happen to be tackling the change process with my Building Leadership Team, as we dive into alignment with the Common Core, spelling out specifics of our RTI program, and developing our vision for what we want for our students and our school.  As fate has it, I also started listening to my new audiobook, "Switch; How to change things, when change is hard," by Chip and Dan Heath.  This was recommended by a friend on Twitter and I thought it may be very interesting at least, as I had also listened to their book, "Make it Stick."

"Switch" has given me some great reminders regarding leadership and even a few new insights that I hadn't considered with regards to creating change within schools.  I am coming to the end of my first year in a new building.  I was hired for my experience in creating a Professional Learning Community that was very successful and my ability to lead change.  I think my staff and possibly even my supervisor was becoming concerned because our progress with change was pretty slow this year.  There are a few reasons for that, not all of which are good excuses.  Foremost though, is my belief that unless we are a school with "grave" concerns, I prefer to take my first year to observe the culture and practices of my building to determine, what may be the proper course of action.  Are there curricular issues, are there cultural issues, are there staffing issues, etc., etc.  I haven't seen any "grave concerns" so I only tried to make changes that everyone else was ready to make as well, except possibly for my exuberance for integrating technology.  That quick initiative came back to haunt me a little.  So, I have spent the focus of my time observing, learning and preparing my Building Leadership Team to become my PLC Leadership Team.  To make this transition the team had to become knowledgeable about PLC's, Leadership, and being a Team.  First we studied up on PLC's by taking a couple of members to Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, IL.  They offer a full day workshop/seminar on their philosophy and practices as a PLC. It was an excellent experience that I blogged about here.  We have also just finished a book study with a book by Patrick Lencioni.

Many of my PLC tweeps have heard me talk of "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team," book before, and I have to admit, I think it is a classic. It tells the tale of an imaginary company and a CEO that inherits a dysfunctional team.  She leads them though an incredible growth experience and guides them to become a highly effective team.  I see this as my job where ever I go to act as principal.  I have utilized the pyramid of dysfunctions almost as much as I have stressed the pyramid of interventions philosophy in our RTI system.  They are excellent reminders as to why we need to be an effective team if we want our students to achieve great success and if we want to be recognized as an elite school with students that love becoming lifelong learners.  My goal is to be the school that other schools want to come visit and see what they can learn from us.

But as I have encountered in the past, sometimes these change initiatives need more than just knowledge of these dysfunctions.  While I believe we can create a trusting environment, and hopefully even overcome the fear of conflict, sometimes the upper levels of the pyramid require a bit more finesse to get beyond.  That is where the book "Switch" has given me some insights into creating an easy way to help flip the "Switch."  It was interesting that they used a new framework or phrasing for describing the two independent systems in the brain.  The emotional system was named the Elephant and the rational side was named the Rider.  These two can work together to help steer our decisions and actions in life.  However, they can often be in conflict and battle for control.  While the Rider (our rational side) holds the reins, it is much less powerful than the emotional Elephant.   You should also keep in mind that the Rider uses self-control to maintain control of the Elephant.  But, self-control is an exhaustible resource. It is very draining to try to control the emotional side of ourselves.  So what are some methods for approaching change keeping in mind the rational thinking of the Rider and the emotion driven resistance of the Elephant.

  • Find the "Bright Spots." - Find the successful teams, schools, teachers, and copy their success. This seems obvious, but is often over looked, or people will give you the, "yeah it works there or for them, but...." Instead, make it easy for the Rider to say, this has worked before and appears rational.
  • Script the Critical Moves - research has shown that when given options (the more the worse) people will tend to choose the most familiar or the easiest to perform. Sometimes, when an action is known to work, but people fear the change, you must create a script for the action, so that people can avoid confronting the choices. This leaves the Rider feeling in control.
  • Point to the Destination - This one also appears amazingly simple, but can be very effective at directing the Rider. Create your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and state it in a way that is understandable and appealing to your team. The Heath brothers prefer to call it a Destination Postcard. A vivid picture of the near term future of what could be possible. Is your vision clear enough that it is visible to all? Does it spell it out clearly where you are taking your school?  Make sure your goals are also Black & White goals, so there is no confusion.
  • Find the Feeling - When historical data doesn't help make a case for change, then this step can help stir the Elephant.  When you don't have the authority or the resources to make a needed change, appeal to the emotions of your team and watch the momentum swing. If they can find the feeling, the sense of urgency to change, then it may happen quicker than you thought.
  • Shrink the Change - sometimes the change is perceived as a mountain to climb. When stepping back and seeing the whole process, it can look like that, but if we were to shrink the change to small manageable pieces and frame it that way, it looks like a task we can tackle. Running a mile doesn't seem so bad, when you let them start from the 1/2 mile point. Adjust the frame, and make your targets smaller and your team feel up to the task. Starting the task is the hard part, so appeal to the emotions to get things started. Once there is momentum, it is easier to keep going.
  • Grow Your People - This is the opposite approach to Shrink  he Change. Here, you build your people up so that the task seems small no matter how large. The Team is so GREAT and proud, that the challenge would not matter as this team could take on anything.  Get your team to rally around three internal questions. 1. Who am I? 2. What kind of situation is this? 3. What would someone like me do in this situation?  Create an identity that your team will aspire to, then keep that in front of them.
  • Tweak the Environment - what often looks like a person problem, can actually be a situation problem. Leaders often believe resistance to change is a behavior problem when it is actually due to the situation they find themselves in. This seems easier to accept when it is more than 2 or 3 people on your team. Quite often team members are not willing to make the change due to an environmental problem that could easily be changed. Is there a way you can tweak the environment to allow the changes you want to easier for staff to accept. Think schedule, procedures, paperwork, etc. Are any of these things adding to resistance, or could some of those things make it easier?
  • Rally the Herd - This may have been one of the most interesting chapters in the book, and possibly the most common battle we face in schools when approaching a change process.  When an individual finds their self in an unfamiliar situation, they tend to look around and follow the crowd.  The problem with organizational change is, if no one is stepping out to lead the way, who becomes the point person to lead the new behavior. This behavior is more common than we think. We have all heard stories of someone being mugged or raped in plain sight of a crowd, but because no one reacts, the abuse continues. Yet, if a single person walking through a park were to witness this act they are much more likely to action to stop it.  In a crowd we tend to follow the action of the crowd, we are all looking for the one person to lead, and since we all look, no one leads.  We stop and analyze the crowd, how are they reacting? We follow their lead. It's not really peer pressure so much as peer perception. Behavior is contagious.  This is why I need to hang out with @stumpteacher @benjamingilpin and @posickj much more often. They are runners.  I am not. But if I want to be a runner and more healthy (and I really do) I'd be wise to surround myself with people that do. So how do we do that in our schools. Well, you can focus on the bright spots, but that really only works when the majority of the herd is part of that Bright Spot action.  If the majority of the herd is following negative behaviors, then you will want to use a different tactic. 
While I know some people will bristle at the idea of being manipulated, as some may feel the book attempts to teach, it really just explains about human behavior and how to create a framework that eases that path for everyone.  We all get comfortable in our ruts, and change doesn't always seem to be necessary.  But if we are striving for growth, change is inevitable and will need to take place.  The good news is, there is sound advice that can help that happen.  I hope these tidbits can help you encourage growth and change in your school. My advice though, is to get the book, "Switch," by Chip and Dan Heath, read it thoroughly and make notes throughout.  There is some incredible insight into people's habits, behaviors and the change process, that can definitely help you steer the Elephant and Rider to success.

April 11, 2013

Meeting a Friend for the First Time.....sort of.

As I have shared before, attending #ASCD13 was a life changing experience for me.  I was flooded with learning and had the chance to listen to many #EduHeroes whose articles and books I have read for years.  And while that was exciting and a great learning experience, there was one person I was looking forward to meeting more than any other (sorry Dr. Guskey, Maya Angelou). I knew I was going to have the chance to meet my #EduHero George Couros.  George and I had talked on a more personal note for a while now and he even tried to convince me to take him to a Packer/Bears game. If I had a line on tickets in September, I would have hooked him up without a second thought. But he was talking about the game at Soldier Field in December.  I have seen the Packers in December. While I love the Pack, I love the feeling in my toes and a warm couch even more.  So he went with some other Bear fans and I had to stay at home and just brag about beating the Bears from the warmth of my couch.  While he and some other Tweeps went out for dinner, I stayed at home and chatted with folks on Twitter.

I have been using Twitter for just over a year.  As I have stated in previous posts, I do not, of course, count that short time about 3 years ago when I tried twitter by following Ashton Kutcher and Alyssa Milano.  While it was entertaining for about 2 weeks, I quickly got bored with all of Alyssa's causes and Ashton's.....strangeness I guess.  So when I read about using twitter on an educator's blog post a couple of years later I used a new e-mail address and focused on making it an educational tool.  I followed only educators. People I had never met before. Most of them had quite a few followers already, so I would look through their list of followers to determine who else I could follow. Within a couple of days I connected with George Couros. I noticed he had a great deal of followers. I also noticed he shared some interesting posts and more importantly some amazing blog posts. He was wise, witty and maybe my favorite trait, he was personable.  George would let you into his life. He shared incredible and innovative ideas to implement in schools, but he also challenged the trends that were taking place. The other thing that amazed me about this guy from Canada with around 26,000 followers at that time, he followed me back. I had only tweeted a few tweets, lots of RTs and Favorites, but hadn't shared much of myself or my thoughts yet. And he still followed me. Soon I got up the courage to comment on a few of his tweets and even directed a couple of questions to him.  I was blown away when he responded. He didn't know it, but I had found a new friend.

So I roll into Chicago a day early to enjoy a pre-conference session on Standards Based Grading & Reporting led by Dr. Thomas Guskey and it was amazing.  And while it was fantastic and helped reinforce many beliefs I already had, I was distracted.  I found an excellent example of the SBG report card I would like to use in my district, I connected with other educators who had already been using SBG report cards and we shared some great ideas. But, I was still distracted. My anticipation to meet George was always in the back of my mind. Why? We had chatted on twitter many times. We had shared jokes and even had plans to meet and talk while there. So what was my worry? Well this was the guy with over 27,000 followers now and....well....I was just one of them. I mean for all I knew George was just a really nice guy, that was willing to connect with anyone (and he is). So when I am at a convention with over 10,000 people I guess I was thinking, would he have plans to meet with over half of them already?  I mean I was fairly new to all of this and he had PLN members there that he had been following for years, and had shared blog posts with and even attended previous conferences with, so when I tweeted him after the morning session and he said he was going to be in the blogger's lounge for the General Session, I had a feeling he was going to be pulled into that group and we probably wouldn't get to connect after all. The good news was I made plans to save seats for some other great friends and PLN members that were also attending.  I sat with Jessica Johnson, Kathy Perret, Katrina Stevens, Joe Sanfelippo, Christian Pleister and my wife Leah Whitford.

As I was walking out of that first General Session I bumped into another great friend via Twitter, Jimmy Casas, on our way out of the General Session and he said he was planning to meet George out by the vendor area. I was pumped!  I spot him easily from across the giant hall (he's like 6'3" or 6'4"). I also notice he has about 10 people around him already and people are walking up to him and asking for photos.  My wife (who has a bit of a crush on him) wanted a photo with him too. I gladly obliged and took a picture with my iPhone. I waited for my reciprocal offer, but as usual, when she is smitten like that, I had to ask her if she would do the same. Now usually I am pretty used to being a recognizable guy.  I'm 6'3" and over 300lbs (this means I need to run with Josh Stumpenhorst). So when I walked up to George and said, "Hey George, I'm Tom. Nice to meet you finally. Do you mind if I get a photo," well, I thought I might get a little more of a look of recognition on his face than I did.  But like I said, he had a line of folks waiting to get photos and he was really keying in on meeting up with Jimmy Casas. So I said, "Thanks,  see you later," and headed off to my next session. I was going in to listen to Dave Burgess speak. I had recently gotten his book, "Teach Like a Pirate" and wanted to hear him speak on the subject. So, I am sitting up in the front row, due to the fact that educators tend to be like church goers, they avoid the front so the preacher doesn't catch them napping (or tweeting) during the sermon, and those were the only seats left. Dave's session was way over capacity.  I'm sitting there checking my twitter feed when I get a text from George saying, "Man, I had no idea that was you. Save me and Jimmy a seat." Well apparently Jimmy was distracted on the way because George came up and sat by me. I was in a bit of shell shock that this #EduHero of mine was sitting by me without his entourage (he'll love that comment) and he was chatting me up. Discussing aspects of Dave's session that we agreed with and parts that we didn't, and a few things that were outside the topic (see the people in back knew what they were doing). We quickly started to sink into great conversations and debates about education, tweeting and started discussing who to go see next.  That one was easy, Eric Sheninger's session was a must see.

I was able to spend the rest of the weekend with an amazing guy. On Monday, the last day of the event, George came over to Leah's and my Hotel and had lunch with us. He shared some great stories of he and his parents, his brothers and how he came to where he is today. I was saddened when I heard about the loss of his father just a week later.  It was incredible to strengthen the bonds that we had built over twitter, but after getting to know him deeper, more personally, and then to have him share his incredible insights and experiences in a face to face situation, only deepened my respect and friendship with the Principal of Change.

April 7, 2013

Excuses, Excuses......Will a child's future wait?

"It is not hard to learn more.  What is hard is to unlearn when you discover yourself wrong."  - Martin H. Fischer 
You know, I'm actually getting tired of the excuse, "There's just not enough time." I get it....I understand the feeling, but guess what? It is just an excuse.  It's an excuse for not wanting to change.  An excuse for avoiding the time and thought needed to examine your practices, your curriculum, your schedule, your skills and knowledge base. It's an excuse to stay comfortable in that nice well worn rut we have developed by repeating our same actions.  Why stretch our muscles when they have become comfortable at doing what we do year after year.  I hear the rallying cries of, "we just keep adding and adding, but no one ever takes anything away.  There is no time to learn this new technology tool, this teaching strategy, or to implement this new initiative." Or the ever infamous yeah buts, such as, "yeah but that won't work in my school, or with my administrator, or in our town."

If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all.  ~Pearl S. Buck

But you know what....that's just an excuse. Why? Because so many people have made those changes already. I have literally met hundreds of people on Twitter that are doing all of those things.  They are watching their students grow and develop new skills and gain greater insights while becoming more creative. So I had to ask. How?  Do you have an 28 hour day?  Do you get paid to work in the summer?  Do you teach for a half day, then a sub comes in during the afternoon while you work on creating lesson plans for PBL or get special training on iPads, SMARTBoards or just all of the great apps on the internet? Do the kids have to stay in from recess to blog, do you not have RTI, PBIS, or state mandated tests?

No, I am not talking about teachers from my school (although I am sure there are some that feel this way) I am talking about teachers from all over the place.  I'm not even talking about only teachers.  I have heard administrators from all over the place use this same rallying cry. And yes, I have even felt this same way.  As a matter of fact, I had succumb to that feeling last week during our weekly #atplc chat on Twitter.  I was frustrated with not being able to do all of things that I know are best to do.  A few of the other school leaders shared some of their own frustrations as well, but they also offered up ideas of how to overcome them. So, after the chat, I turned off the computer and TV and just reflected for a bit. A few weeks back I had the chance to attend the ASCD national convention in Chicago and while there I attended a session by Dave Burgess.  Dave is a teacher in San Diego. He is also the author of "Teach Like a Pirate." During his session he shared how it really bothers him when teachers say to him, "Well, teaching like that is easy for you, you're creative." He went on to share how that really diminishes all the effort and creativity he puts into his lessons. His presentation was focused on teachers, but I have found the medicine was good for me too. The simple fact is we all have the same 24 hours in a day, almost all of us have the same families to return home to (some bigger and some smaller) and we all are busy and work hard to meet the needs of our students. But the question is....are we?  Are we really meeting the needs of our students?  Or are we simply going through the motions of doing what we did the year before.

If I am truly trying to grow and focusing on the needs of my students and staff, then I need to find the time and make the commitment to change what I can to make that culture exist. I can rest on the comfortable couch of excuses, or I can find ways to make all that I need to do, and all that my staff needs to do a possibility. So I am done with the excuses. While I still don't have all the answers, I am positive of the vision I have for my school and I have a Professional Learning Network of over 2,800 people I can turn to for ideas. And actually my PLN may be larger than that. Because when I ask a question to my followers, they may retweet it out to their followers. In actuality, I am connecting to educators and leaders all over the world.  I am bound to have some incredible ideas come rolling in.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.  ~Alvin Toffler

So as the quote above states, are you ready to unlearn what you have done for years? Are you enlightened enough and motivated enough to relearn how to be a teacher that is preparing students for 21st century skills? Can you readjust your vision for students, and help them become the creative, deep thinking, reflective, well read adults we need them to become? Because if you thought this would be hard for the students, guess how hard it will be for those that have developed a 10 to 20 year rut.  Not much has changed in education over the years. Sure we have added quite a bit and we have slowly raised the bar, but we still tend to stand in the front of the class and deliver lectures (heck our classrooms are even designed for that) and we still tend to teach from a book. We still tend to give a multiple choice test at the end of a unit. We still tend to mark students down for late work, we still tend to have them fill out worksheets that promote low level learning and recall instead of analysis or synthesis. What do you tend to do? Or are you ready to create new tendencies? Are you ready to break the mold? Then sit back and decide how you will do it without more money, without more support, without an aide, without more time. Just decide that it is the right thing to do, and that your students deserve your best. Not your best from 10 years ago, but your best from 10 years from NOW.  Because I am not sure that student in the back of your room....I'm not sure if they can afford to wait for you to find the time.

April 6, 2013

Is down the hall far enough?

I read a post from a good friend and incredible education thinker, Tom Whitby.  If you don't follow him via Twitter yet, you should, but more importantly you should follow his blog (although if you follow him on twitter you will naturally be led to the other).  Tom recently posted a post called "If Twitter is not PD, What is it?  While it depends on your definition of Professional Development, I agree with his viewpoint. Twitter may not have forced me take notes, create a project, or receive some form a college credit, it has absolutely increased my knowledge and increased the amount of influential and innovative educators I have learned from. Tom Whitby is one of those people. I finally had the chance to meet him recently at a Tweetup event at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago. He is almost a caricature of the professor like image I had in my mind, developed from his miniature photo along with deeply thought provoking and well worded posts.  While we only exchanged a few words and a handshake (he is an extremely popular and pursued gentleman) his enthusiasm and positive nature were written all over his face. 

So, what made this conference so different from the myriad conferences and workshops that I had been to before?  I have attended a National Summit on PLC's in Phoenix. It was also incredible and it immensely increased my knowledge of PLC's and how they should work. I was able to hear internationally known researchers and authors, even the developers of the term Professional Learning Community were there....but the satisfaction and connection to that experience is diminished compared to that of my experience at #ASCD13.  I would leave the PLC Conference or the SLATE Conference, or other previous large, multi-day conferences, and return to my hotel room and then later to my district and have no one else to reflect with or share notes with and the reflective piece of it tended to stay in my head.  Sure, sure...I would share what I learned with my staff. I would present PowerPoints and share photocopies of information I had collected, but there was something lessened in that experience.  If someone had a question about what I was sharing, or a challenging viewpoint, I had to rely on my own memory or reflection of what I had gleaned.

Having the opportunity to attend the ASCD National Convention this year in Chicago was an inspiring and exhilarating experience for me. Not only did I have the opportunity to listen and learn from some of the most incredible education leaders around the world, but I was also provided the event to meet face to face with Tweeps I had connected with on Twitter for over a year. These same people that had made digital imprints on my learning and growth were now going to be there live....smiling and expanding on their 140 character limitations from the Twitterverse. Was my mind building this up into something HUGE??? Yep.  Was I disappointed with the realization of this event. NOT IN THE SLIGHTEST!! These friends (and I do not use that term loosely) were just as excited to meet me. We shook hands, hugged, and chatted about things we had joked about online.  We jumped into stories that had been shared via Twitter or through blogs, like old friends from high school would reminisce. It was truly an incredible experience that I will never forget. 

This becomes the power of a PLN.  By attending the #ASCD13 conference with other members of my #PLN that I have had detailed discussions with, shared resources with and reflected on various educational topics with, I was going into sessions armed with a multitude of minds and experiences. We could chat online during the session, we could talk after a session as we moved on to another, and we could meet later that night and discuss the most powerful thing we learned that day. Moreover, we could go back home, reflect some more and then meet on Twitter again and share, beat up, or improve on what we had gained from our experience there.  There is always a member of my PLN that remembers it a different way, heard something I missed, or had an experience that I just haven't encountered yet.

So while I know many of you have colleagues  friends or acquaintances that are also in the teaching profession, and that you can turn to them and ask them questions, and that they may be very capable and knowledgeable, are you really pushing your boundaries by limiting yourself to this same group that is most likely so local to where you are?  If they are the the co-worker that is right down the hall, or even a friend from a neighboring district, have you really extended your reach?  Has the box of experience really been pushed to its limits, or is it just a comfortable stretch?