cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Dreaming is Hard, But It's the Only Way to Make Something — BSU Design Thinking, Part 1

This is the first of a series of posts I am writing for myself so that I can remember how I've been using design thinking in my work with our Black Student Union (BSU) program.

One of the things Steve Jobs always valued about me was my ability to mobilize a huge group of people to do impossibly large things. In college, I ran an opera company. In the 1990s, I started NeXTWORLD Expo (which signaled the inflection point that would eventually lead NeXT to save Apple). In the 2000s, I was a co-founder of a women's wilderness retreat. And in the 2010s, I helped to start Twitter Math Camp.

Now I am one of the faculty leaders of the equity steering committee at my very old, historically entrenched, very large, racially and ethnically complicated academic magnet school. Three years ago, we embarked on a five-year process of school culture transformation to make it a more welcoming place, both for our students of color and for our faculty and support staff of color. Our students' families and communities are engaged, our PTSA is an active participant, and our 40,000-member alumni association is also involved. We are up to our eyeballs in the process of waking up to the toxic soup of systemic racism that we all swim in. I have often used the Zen metaphor of fish not noticing the water that they are swimming in, but I've come to realize that systemic racism is a polluted condition of that water. Our goal is to learn how to notice the pollution and to stop polluting the water further. We need, as the Tao Te Ching says, to let the mud settle and the water run clear.

The goal is not only to disrupt the trance of inequities that we all walk around in; the goal is also to  create a healthy and sustainable school culture in which learners from marginalized communities are entitled to thrive.

The progress is slow. The work is grueling. But there is also a lot of heart in our community, and sometimes that opens up an occasional moment of grace. So when our Black students told us what they needed, I took them seriously.

Raising money and helping them organize to achieve their deep dreams are things I know how to help with. So back in September, I got busy doing what I knew how to help with. The BSU officers and I met in our classroom to work together on envisioning and fundraising and mapping out our plans.

The envisioning is always harder than the fundraising, but when you are discouraged, it looks like the opposite is true. That is part of how the status quo and the power structure maintain their hold. The status quo wants you to believe that money is the problem, but I'll let you in on the secret: money is almost never the problem. The reason nine out of ten start-up efforts fail is not for lack of money; they fail for lack of imagination. This is one of the illusions that Design Thinking can help thinkers to break out of. The imagining is the hardest part because it requires us to go against the psychological and emotional defense mechanisms that keep us locked in our "safe" but disempowered crouch. They keep us thinking and dreaming small, when what we really need to do is to take the risk of thinking and dreaming big.

So the BSU officers and I engaged in a first draft envisioning and imagining conversation. This was some of the most exciting but complicated — and emotionally exhausting — work of my teaching career so far.

"What do you want to accomplish?"
"We want jackets."
I scribble on my list. "Done. What else?"
They were stumped.
"What else?"
"But we can't afford jackets. We need to have more bake sales."
"Don't worry about the money. That's my job. What do you want to  do??"
They thought for a minute.
Um, maybe a camping trip."
I write this down. "Good. What else?"

For thirty minutes, I pushed them and insisted they just toss out crazy ideas. No self-defeating talk about implementation, just make a list. Brainstorming rules. No judgment. Don't think.

And they starting coming up with ideas. College visits. Service projects in their neighborhoods. A Senior Showcase. An assembly.

"Good, good, good. What else?"

Every time they used the word "But..." I cut them off. "We're not talking about that right now. We're talking about deep dreams and making a list. What else?"

It was bewildering to them. They've been conditioned not to dream and I was prodding them to reconnect with this basic human capacity.  Honestly, I don't know if we could have gotten anywhere if there had not already been a years-long foundation of mutual trust woven between and among the five or six of us. They know I'm a little nuts, but they also know that they can trust me. They know that when I screw up, they can call me on it and I will own it and apologize for it. We've been blundering along together for years. I taught all of these girls as freshmen and sophomores, and I've been mentoring them, tutoring them, coaching them, writing letters of recommendation for them, and pushing them to reach high for all the time they've been at our school. And now they are on their way to becoming persons of power — the scientists and artists and politicians and engineers they are determined to become.

But the academic stuff turns out to be the easier piece. Dreaming is a different kind of path, and it's one that usually only the kids with privilege get mentored into. I was breaking this boundary, and it felt dangerous. That is almost always the way I know when I'm doing the right thing. As George Lucas once said, "When people tell you it's impossible, you're on the right track."

Once we had a huge list, we did some analysis on it. What are the must-haves? What are the nice-to-haves? What are the pieces we can live without if we have to? We prioritized. We negotiated. We gave things up; then we put them back onto the list. We organized them into categories. We identified the critical path. We flagged the dependencies. "This thing has to come before that thing. This thing can't happen unless that thing happens first."

It took a long time to get them into flow. There is a suspension of disbelief that has to happen during the envisioning phase. Otherwise nothing happens. They started getting involved in the process. Their body language loosened up. They leaned into the discussions. They started to lose their inhibitions about jumping up, grabbing a whiteboard marker, and drawing a matrix or a diagram on the board. Developing the comfort and safety and confidence to break the rules of compliant and oppressive forms of discussion is a giant step towards true empowerment. We began to make progress.

Finally, we got to a place where we could begin packaging up what we had thought of and started productizing it. Our first "product" would be a Black History Month program for the school. With each step, we asked ourselves, How will students benefit from this? How will the school benefit? What are the tangible and intangible outcomes? How will we be laying the groundwork so that future cohorts of the BSU will be able to replicate this program and grow it over time?

We started building a grant proposal draft and a spreadsheet on our BSU Google classroom. Parents requested permission to join the documents and spreadsheets and chats and I was thrilled. Request for access messages started popping up and I approved them as fast as they came in. Click. Click. Click. The parents mostly lurked and marveled at their children's boldness and imagination. They expressed their excitement and gratitude at Back To School Night, but I turned it right back on them. It was their children doing the amazing stuff. I was only the facilitator.

The kids occasionally panicked. "I don't have time to work on the grant proposal! I have a chem lab due and a mock trial event in LA and a basketball game on Wednesday. I don't know how this is going to get done."

And I did what I had been trained to do as a manager of large teams. I pitched in. I did whatever parts of the work I could help with. "Don't worry about it. I'll write a draft and people can edit it in the Google doc. We'll make it happen. This is the power of teams."

And we did it. In the end, I wrote the grants for their ideas. I interfaced with the power structure. And I got them the money.

Then the real work could begin.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

We need to reimagine our whole-community conference from the ground up

We are trying to squash a new paradigm (a teacher-driven, free of charge, math ed professional development conference that locates equity at its center and foundation) into a too-small and outdated structure (TMC). We need to understand more about how the existing structure works so we can create a better plan.

We are still not anywhere near the point of identifying or understanding the unconscious, unspoken, equity-blind, harm-causing assumptions in TMC's structures. We're just not. This needs to be a whole-community effort. We're trying to set new goals but we're still walking around in the same old consensus trance.

There is no way that a small group of people could tackle this problem successfully. It's not realistic. It will take everybody in our community to surface and and interrogate the hidden assumptions in our structures. The problem with blind spots is that they are blind spots. If we don't work together on surfacing and transforming our assumptions, we will continue to just tinker around at the margins and that's not going to be satisfactory to anybody. It is also not going to unleash the liberatory potential in a a whole-community effort.

Here is an example of what I mean.

One of the toxic assumptions I stumbled on in my own classroom lately and am ruthlessly rooting out is the notion of individual attainment — the idea that each person has their OWN learning/mastery that is unconnected to the learning of anyone else in the room. This gives rise to a toxic kind of individual competition that is antithetical to sane and healthy learning for all.

This is the assumption that, once "I" understand the concept and "finish" an "assignment," then I am "done" and am on the hook for nothing more, leaving me free to play video games or do some other work.

But what if we were to start rejecting the underlying assumption(s) of individual attainment?

What if the goal were for the WHOLE CLASS to achieve fluency in a particular concept or skill as best we can, rather than for each individual to do it as best they can?

How would each of us teach, learn, listen, collaborate, help others? How would that change what I/you/we want? What would I/you/we need? What I/you/we would give?

What I realized in this thought experiment is that when grades are given for individual attainment, that is based on a socially Darwinian set of assumptions in which everyone arrives in my classroom with the same levels of everything. Every kid for themselves.

Once I saw this assumption, I couldn't un-see it, and I also couldn't help but challenge it. I am responsibility for every student in my room; therefore my goal needs be to get everybody over the finish line, right?

That forced me to look at the base-level operating assumption about individual attainment as the only measure. What if I were to change our goal to being one of, nobody wins unless everybody wins?

As I saw in the episode I wrote up on my blog, the kids took to this like ducks to water and our class averages were in the 90s rather than in the low 80s to high 70s.

How would we — each and collectively — think differently about our whole-community conference if equity were to be the absolute bedrock foundation upon which we were committed to build?

Wouldn't we have to start by analyzing together what the unconscious assumptions in our existing structures are?

Friday, February 8, 2019

Walking in the World With a Broken Heart – A Love Letter

Before I came back to teaching, I spent 25 years starting software companies in Silicon Valley. Starting organizations is a whole unique area of expertise. There is a huge amount of institutional knowledge that sprouts up about the life cycle of organizations. Newborn organizations become toddler organizations and if they survive, they become children and teenagers and adults.

Organizations are born, grow, split off, spawn new organizations, die, get acquired, fail to get acquired. Sometimes organizations become zombie organizations. A very few organizations get big. Some organizations stay the same size. Some organizations shrink. There are as many ways to thrive as there are to die.

In the corporate world, there are definitely different kinds of people who find they are suited to different kinds of organizations: there are start-up people and there are big-company people.

It takes a whole different skill set to start and run a start-up than it does to work in or run a large organization. The amount of infrastructure in a large organization is really impressive to me -- even in a poorly organized or run large organization. Anybody who has ever worked in a school district knows what I am talking about. There is a form for everything, a department for everything, a mission statement for everything.

Start-ups are completely different creatures. In a start-up, there's no infrastructure unless you create it. When you finally move a start-up organization out of the corner of your bedroom or your basement or your garage, you start encountering questions like, Where do ISBN numbers come from? Where do conference tables come from? How do boxed products get assembled and shipped? How do I calculate and submit sales tax to the state? Where does liability insurance come from?

I have always been a start-up person, descended from a long line of start-up people. Entrepreneurship is in my DNA. As I've done genealogical research on my family, it has been fascinating to discover that in between being attacked by pogroms and ethnic cleansing, my people as far back as the 1860s in Elizavetgrad in the southwestern Russian Empire were starting businesses and growing them and spinning off new businesses from old businesses.

So when we decided to start TMC almost ten years ago, it struck me as extremely exciting but also no big deal. I had done this kind of thing six or seven times before, plus I'd been watching my family members do it for generations. As Paul Hawken, the great environmental entrepreneur and author writes in his landmark book, Growing a Business, you don't start a new organization to overtake the competition. You start a new organization because there is no existing organization that exists to meet an identified need that is going unmet.

We started TMC because we felt like isolated individual math teachers who wanted to connect with other math teachers for free to find ways to improve our teaching practice.

And it's been amazing. My closest math teacher friends are people I would never have met otherwise. They come from all over the planet. They do not look like me or teach like me or have backgrounds like mine. And yet, I know their hearts in small ways and they know mine, and I love every single one of them dearly.

Starting a new organization is filled with risk. You are throwing in your fortunes with people you really don't know. What I think of as The Great Facebook Friending of December 2011 felt like a huge risk because it was. Everybody I know said, ARE YOU CRAZY? YOU ARE GOING TO MEET PEOPLE YOU MET ON THE INTERNET? HAVE YOU LEARNED NOTHING ABOUT DANGER IN THIS WORLD?

But I didn't care. I knew what the risks were, and I knew that I might need to go into Facebook Witness Protection if the 25 people I had just friended turned out to be psycho-killers.

They weren't. And I've never regretted it.

But something I learned by growing companies is happening now. within the TMC community and organization. If an organization succeeds, its mission starts getting stretched. People of good will have different ideas about what it means to live out the original mission.

This is normal. This is organizational growth. Sometimes it is possible to expand an organization's mission to meet differing needs. Sometimes it isn't. And that's when new organizations get born.

I have been wondering if this is why I feel less freaked-out about the evolution that is happening than other people do. I feel sad to see people I love leave this project I am committed to, but I'm also very used to seeing people I love leave my project to go off and start some other project that is going to be its own powerful, amazing force in the world.

The one thing I know about start-ups — and big organizations too — is that you can't just give them a personality transplant. A new organization is often needed to meet a need that is not being met by an existing organization.

It's important that we not view this as a problem. This is a great opportunity for our community.

There is so much institutional and organizational knowledge now in our MTBoS community about how to start, run, and grow a conference and a community that I see this as an enormous moment.

I am very sorry that people I admire and respect feel like they cannot live out their missions about how to create a teacher-led math conference/community focused exclusively on equity, but to me, it is very exciting that these incredibly creative, energetic, and dedicated teachers are spreading their wings and committing to figuring out how to bring their ideas about what they should look like to fruition in the world.

TMC is TMC. Something new will be something new. This is what exponential growth looks like. Today we are exploring the doubling function in our connected educator worldwide teacher community.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is said that when a lot of things start going haywire all at once, it is because something large and beautiful and powerful is trying to be born.

This is what I see happening here. It doesn't work to try and do a brain transplant into TMC because nobody knows how to do that — and it's just not how organizational development and growth work. It just isn't.

But something new is in the process of being birthed, and I see it as a "both / and" moment.

The world is an enormous place and our country needs every kind of lens we educators can bring to it. And we have no time to lose.

I am excited to think that there could be TWO or more teacher-founded math conferences in the world started by people I love and admire and feel awe-inspired to teach and learn with.

Please let us know how we can help. My heart is with TMC from the start, but as you sail off on your next adventure, please know that I will be that tiny figure on the shoreline, waving and cheering for your mission and wishing you every possible success.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Growing Pains

The TMC leadership team just did a very useful blog post clarifying how they processed proposals for TMC19.

I found it extremely helpful in sorting through my own understanding of the confused and confusing messages in the response notices this year. I appreciate the leadership team's commitment to being accountable for its own stuff.

We are all on this journey together. We need to hold hands and stick together. #OtterNation

 I do think there was some inartful language in the acceptance letters — and I believe it caused more distress than was necessary. Communication matters, and sometimes we just get it wrong.

But this is why we need to be — and remain — in dialogue in this work. Alliances across difference are hard. They are impossible without receptivity on both sides of the dialogue.

Everyone in this community knows what to do when a lesson bombs. You analyze what happened, reflect, and try again. This is how we develop resilience.  This is how we improve our knowing.

We will all do better next time because all human beings are better than our greatest or our least. And this particular group of human beings is committed to doing things better, and to doing this work together.

Our community is rare because it is willing to accept feedback, to adapt, and to grow. Let's agree to do that now. It is natural — and necessary — to experience discomfort as we learn and grow. This is what our students experience. It is inevitable that we will experience it too.

This is one of those moments when we have to make a decision about how to love this community and our world.  My hope is that we can take what we know about powerful teaching and learning and use it to make TMC the kind of reflective, resilient, transformational community we envisioned right from the start.