Question 119 of 365: How can you have everything?


I stood where Bill Gates is standing right now.

I’m not sure why that matters, but knowing that I was previously in the same space as one of the most influential people in the world is downright unnerving. It is as if the universe has now made the comparison between us. Not a connection, but a comparison. Of all of the people that have existed in that space, he is the one that has done the most good for the world health crisis. He is the one who has funded the most schools. He is the one that has made the most money and changed the world with his computing vision.

Today, in the cafeteria of the Science Leadership Academy, Bill Gates took question from high school students that I have met and have had conversations with. He looked through the same windows that I have and walked through the same doors. Now, watching him do these things on a live video feed is nothing compared to the experience of actually being there with him. But, perhaps it is better this way. I don’t have to be embarrassed at my relative lack of accomplishment. I will never have to stand up to him and justify my own work against his.

And I know he doesn’t care, but I don’t need him to. I don’t look up to him as if he were a god among men and I don’t need his approval to make my own small contributions to society. I do, however, want to listen to him. I want to know his story, both of his successes and failures. I want to see that the cosmic comparison continues to weigh everything and come up with an answer at the end of it all, not in terms of who matters more but rather a comparison of two ideas. Because at the end of the day, there is an idea of Bill Gates and there is an idea of Ben Wilkoff. Our ideas intersect and separate at different points. They both have a narrative, an arch, and many plot devices. I don’t think that just sharing the same space is the only part of our “ideas” that cross paths either.

In telling his own story, he said that it you can have everything. He said that all of the world’s knowledge can be found in libraries and online. He said that the basis of getting what you want out of life was a good education. He said these things because they mesh with his story, with the idea of Bill Gates.

They also match my story. I have everything. Everything that I need for information, for connection, and for creation. I had a wonderful education, and I figured out just what it means to learn (although, mostly outside of a formalized setting). I read books and blogs and tweets. I see the world’s information and I incorporate it into the idea of me.

That is why we should listen to people. Whether they are Bill Gates or someone in the supermarket. That is why we have to constantly compare notes on what kinds of stories we are telling to one another. We need to be aware that whenever two people have shared the same space and time, there is a comparison that must be shared. When we see differences, we should recognize them. We should celebrate the fact that our stories aren’t the same. We should also look for those places that our ideas match up. When we find those places, we should feel connected to an understanding that we indeed are experiencing the same reality as one another. We should feel incredibly happy that neither of our ideas are entirely flawed because we have shared something special. When the ideas of ourselves resonate with one another, it doesn’t matter if one knows it and the other doesn’t. So long as someone is making note that there was a singularity of vision for a brief moment, that is enough. It is enough to know that Bill Gates and myself, for the moment that the story was being told and heard, are allowed to let our ideas meld.

I was in Target the other day with my two children and an elderly man stopped me after I paid for our groceries. He told me that he had four children and that for a few years he had to leave them alone with his wife while he was in the War. He said that his entire family had a food budget of $15 per week, and they were able to stretch it and make it work. I had just paid for $150 of groceries that may not even last us the week. That is a factor of 10. He said that the number almost made him fall out of his bench seat as he waited for his wife to get out of the bathroom. In that moment, he noticed that our stories were drastically different from one another. He was both making a note of that fact and allowing me to do the same.

At some point in the future, I may understand exactly what he was talking about. For right now, I can just be thankful for the story. At some point, I may be able to hold the same understanding as he did of leaving his children and wife behind to work toward a cause greater than himself, but for right now I can just listen. Perhaps, that is all that any of us can do.

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Question 115 of 365: When should we build things just to knock them down?

Domino Rally
Image by unloveablesteve via Flickr

Domino Rally required a lot of patience. Setting up the huge amount of dominos in a row without knocking them over required a steady hand and an iron will to get to the very end of your plan instead of settling for knocking it down half-way through. I played it almost constantly whenever a friend had a set. I liked to watch them topple, sure, but I also liked seeing just how far apart I could put them to stretch out the configuration or how high I could get them to climb over books. I’m not sure that my friends always shared the same enthusiasm. They could go for doing it once or twice, but the time it took to build so far outweighed the toppling time that it hardly seemed worth it to them.

It was, however, worth it to me. The time that I spent setting those dominos right and keeping them that way over carpet, hardwood and tile was what made the whole experience what it was. I was creating destroyable art and it held my imagination like little else. Unbeknownst to me, there is an entire subculture of people who weren’t constrained to the pre-made sets of a Domino Rally toy. They were creating art, telling stories and paying perfect homages to pop culture. They have been creating domino falls and constructing elaborate runs of kinetic energy long before I understood what the domino effect even was. And even though I was never as proficient or patient as the folks creating these masterpieces, I understood that there was something majestic about not worrying about destroying your own creation before anyone else has the chance to.

I could put sand sculpture and sidewalk painting into a similar category, but those pursuits let others demolish the beauty of the original work. It is the temporary nature of all of this that I find fascinating. Whether you do the destructive act or not, there is something incredibly satisfying about knowing that you are giving your work a specific time limit for greatness. This timed perfection is something that could be more widely applied if we accept that all great works of creation are held in a particular time and space and that any attempt at recreating or extending those two things will fall terribly off the mark.

I put it to you that institutions should be like a great domino fall. They should take strategy, inspiration, and an incredible amount of diligence to create. Everyone that participates in the build learns something new and they develop the relationships of that only attempting something hard with others can foster. The people that build it know where the weak points are, the problem areas that could cause everything to devolve. They see the whole thing in their mind’s eye, recognizing the beauty and potential of what is to come. They are the ones who set off the chain reaction too. Everyone cheers as a well orchestrated ballet of movement commences. There is a held moment of existence for everyone who witnesses a great build and fall. We are all better for having witnessed it.

And then, the builders pack up their equipment and proceed to their next adventure. They take everything that they have learned and make the next creation even more ambitious and awe-inspiring. They do not try and pick up the pieces of the last build and try and set it off again. There is nothing new for them there. They would simply be doing the same exercise and hoping for the same result. That doesn’t make sense, not for the world of dominos or the world of business, education, or other creative work.

We are all builders and learners. We are all starters of chain reactions. We know, too, just how hard it is to pry ourselves away from having done something flawlessly and trying to do it again somewhere else. But we must. We must not allow our successes trip us up and make us unable to move forward.

The biggest part of this question is really trying to figure out just what it is that I am building, and what I am learning from it, and how I am going to let it go once I accomplish at least some of the things I have set out to do. Just how easy will it be for me to walk away from the systems I have set up? How quickly will I be able to set up a new series of ideas elsewhere? And who will come with me when I do?

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Response to Paul (on PD must be better)


This post is in response to a comment on my last post which went something like this:

As I read your list I went back and forth agreeing with you.

Do you ever question if it is not how we do PD but the audience that we have hired and put into the “seats?”

Do you think we could stop “doing PD” if we simply hired a different caliber of professionals?

Do you worry that we have to “give(!!!) context, meaning and perspective” to teachers?

Here is my response:

I do think that it has to do with who we are talking to and what messages they will accept. However, I really do believe that if given enough reason to change, everyone will. I believe in the power of people to see something great and to become a part of it.

I also think that we could stop “doing PD” once people start thinking about networks as PD, but I still think we need to give people time away from their classroom responsibilities to actually create that network and to do their learning. We are passionate about learning what is “new”, but not everyone is. Others have to be given the time to do so, even if they are able to be a networked learner. They need to have the space to network.

All learners need to be given a space that has context, meaning and perspective. While I may create a lot of the context for what I do, I live it every day. I cannot expect people who do not blog to understand the context of blogging. I cannot expect people who do not use twitter to understand the context and meaning of a twitter conversation. And, I cannot expect people who do not use wikis and revision history to create a perspective to gain that perspective by doing anything other than actually using wikis and looking at revision histories.

When I say give, I believe that I am giving an experience. The experience is what matters to me. It is what will allow them to start creating context, meaning and perspective. Nothing else will do this and expecting them to create that experience on their own is just a little to harsh for me.

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Another story of learning…


Although I have already written my This I Believe a few years ago and you can even hear it if you wish, but I have been asked to consider the prompt again in a new light, telling a story of learning that exemplfies your beliefs about learning.

My story of learning goes like this:

Boys struggle in middle school. I know this because I struggled. Not academically, but with knowing who I was and where I fit. Now, I don’t agree with the absolute that all boys have an inner turmoil that drives them to be disruptive, but I do agree that all boys struggle to be who they are between the ages of 12-14. I believe this.

Because of this, I have a soft spot for this struggle now. Just like when I was in it, though, I don’t have any concrete answers about how to make boys believe in themselves. Instead, I use books. They are not answers or advice, they are stories of someone’s struggle that you can either relate to or ignore. Those boys who can relate, create for themselves a space to be themselves, even if it is only within the confines of the story.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the one book that I would recommend over any other. The boy in the story feels things more deeply than nearly any boy at that age allows himself to feel. He is awkward out loud. And, he survives. I gave this book to one red-headed boy who would not put it down. He read it during my class and throughout the day.

Now, this is a boy that doesn’t read. His red hair flips in front of his face every other second and gets in the way of him seeing almost everything. This time it did not get in the way. He saw the boy in the book, Charlie, distinctly. In fact, he saw himself in the story.

After he finished the book, we talked about the experience. He spoke to me about having to fill the role of “kid brother” with his friends. He spoke about how mature he wanted to be and how much he saw that he just couldn’t express. He spoke about his frustration with his overprotective parents. This was a different voice than I had ever heard from him. He did not have the characteristic sarcastic tone in his voice. He did not pretend to be someone else. He a boy, sans the red hair.

I believe in the transformative power of stories. I believe that boys only survive middle school through this transformation. They only make it through because of the words that they relate to, that end up defining them. If they have no stories to help them with this definition, they will remain unhappy, unknowable, and uninspired.

The Ripe Environment: Change cannot be Institutionalized


Well, when I first started blogging about The Ripe Environment, I didn’t know that I was being edupunk, but now that I have read the powerful thinking behind the theory (Students 2.0, Stephen Downes, Bavatuesdays, D’Arcy Norman) and I believe I was. I don’t know that I really want all of the baggage that goes along with labeling myself, but I truly believe in the idea that change is about people not processes.

It takes a person to create change because vision isn’t enough. It is great to create documents and blog posts and do research projects on creating change, but unless a teacher in the classroom does something differetly or a student asks for more in the classroom, there is no way that things will shift one iota.

I happen to love the nitty gritty.

I like talking about working through significant roadblocks to change. I like convincing others that change is worth their time, that it is important.

And not just any change, we need to be moving toward Authentic Learning with such passion and ferocity that it cannot be boiled down a powerpoint presentation. Passion doesn’t come from such things. Passion only comes from a place of specific experiences, not a generic goal of creating change.

The Ripe Environment should not be about creating a hope among people that there is a movement afoot, that technology is the silver bullet or that golden jargon will save us all. The Ripe Environment is about personally expressing a need to do things better and focusing on what better really is.

I have to constantly tell myself that learning is sacred. I do it for myself. I do not share because I know what is best. I share because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is only through this act of rebellion that change will occur within others.

(I may be abstract in talking about this concept from time to time, but I really do want to talk about the personal stories and experiences that create change. Share yours in any way you know how.)

Live Blogging With AHS students.


Friday, I had the distinct pleasure of listening to some of the most
unique voices in the discussion over Dan Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind.
These voices did not come from an “expert” being paid thousands of
dollars for a breakfast engagement. They did not come from a literary
analyst who picked apart Pink’s prose with perfect clarity and wit.
They came from Arapahoe high school students that were eager to create a conversation, expansive and intense. Check out the discourse for yourselves.

took a look at one of Pink’s chapters specifically: Story. I especially
liked how the conversation evolved over the course of the hour that we
blogged. It seemed to start from a place of pure story, then it evolved
into something about the future of the workplace. Then we got very
theoretical. We started talking about how story can influence memory
and how memory influences story. Even though Pink devotes quite a bit
of time to this idea, I really like the way the students were able to
incorporate it into their thinking. It really got me to start
reflecting on what the purpose of crafting learning environments can

If we create an environment that is ripe enough to learn
within then we are creating an experience; we are crafting the story of
that learning. In turn that learning becomes a memory, one that will be
told over and over as a story if it is good enough. So, in truth, we
are trying to create learning memories for students, ones that they
will hold onto long after they have forgotten the names of their
classmates or what day of the week it was on. We want to create
memories that are so lasting that the events take on mythical
proportions, they start living on as stories of their own.

there a way of analyzing the ways in which we tell stories about our
high school experience to our friends from that time period? Is there a
way to know whether or not those experiences were learning based or
extraneous (not that they were bad things, mind you)? My question to
those students, and to anyone who reads this blog is what is a learning
memory that you have? What is the one experience in an authentic
learning environment that you will never be able to forget?

(Special thanks to Karl Fisch for setting up this amazing opportunity. More of this kind of collaboration and conversation is needed desperately.)

The Perfect Online Professional Development Community


I have really been thinking a lot about how to create an online community for all of the teachers in my school district who are as passionate about technology integration, reflection and collaboration as I am. The way that it stands, I feel so isolated in my quest for new and more effective ways of teaching. I know this is not the case, that there are probably hundreds of teachers who feel the same way, but that isn’t really much comfort when I don’t know who they are and I have no way of contacting them. I almost feel like I need to send out a classified ad: Young passionate teacher seeks the same in order to learn and collaborate about technology and pedagogy.

I can’t think of a better way to ask for a community than to create one and hope that other people join up. I have already run this idea by a few, more experienced, Edubloggers, Bud Hunt and Karl Fisch. They have both responded pretty well to the idea and are willing to help me get it off of the ground.

After my initial e-mails to my administration and these two great teachers/resources, I thought that there would be no way of stopping such a mammoth idea. My principal loved it, and the feeder area coordinator thought it would work well with some of our other goals. But last night, I received an e-mail from the Web Services manager of my district. In it he said that I should consider using two semi-crippled technologies (Firstclass and SchoolCenter) that teachers in my district are already fairly comfortable with (and the district has already paid for). I say that these are crippled technologies because they have real holes in their capabilities. They just can’t do everything that I want to do with this community.

Even with this minor setback, I have decided that I will not compromise (at least initially) my vision of the “Perfect Online Professional Development Community.” I would like to see just how collaborative, easy to use, scalable, social, and reflective I can make this experience for other teachers. So, without any further explanation, I would like to unveil what I think are the essential pieces of a new generation professional learning community.

A central portal will give you access to the following (I am thinking about using protopage):

    1. A master blog that would guide discussion.
    2. Blogroll
    3. Recent Blog Articles (a la SuprGlu)
    4. Archived Blog Articles (in a newsletter type format)
    5. A Google Earth Mash-Up of all of the school represented in the community
    6. Bios of the teacher bloggers (if they wish to include them) done in a social way so that collaboration is easier (an personal page)
    7. A calendar for event planning (Skypecasts, Classroom Demonstration Webcasts, Classroom Picture Flickr Stream)

The other aspects of the community that will not be directly shown on the portal’s front page except for simply linking to them:

  1. A Q+A section for both teaching questions and technical help questions ( has a great set-up for something like this).
  2. A Digg-Style Article/Website recommender.
  3. A Wiki for success stories of technology integration or improved practice (a little like David Warlick‘s Telling the New Story Wiki)
  4. Walk-Throughs (screencasts) for how to create blogs, collaborate, etc.
  5. A way of dealing with comments both attached to and unattached to their original posts. ( has a pretty great strategy)
  6. A professional development bookshelf (akin to either this one or this one)
  7. A way of signing up for an e-mail RSS system for new posts (most teachers check their e-mail religiously)
  8. A belief statements wiki about technology or teaching in general for certain collaborating members or individuals (this could be a running list of belief statements and/or a running list of questions that these belief statements beg to be answered. I also like the idea of using somehow).
  9. A system for sharing lesson plans and ideas (both formatted and unformatted) including a collaborative document center.
  10. A cross-school project starter (partnering up similar teaching styles)

Questions I still have about how to get this done:

  1. How do we get as many different positions represented in this community (principals, core teachers, librarians, elective teachers, etc.)
  2. Should we try to protect anonymity on the blogs?
  3. Just how much do most people know about these technologies? Will it be like starting from scratch for most people? And if so, should I send out a formal (or informal) survey about these ideas (What have you done in your classrooms with technology? Do you like to create you own lessons? How much do you enjoy reflection? Do you want feedback on your classroom ideas from other teachers? How worried are you that this is going to take too much of your free time? How many of you already blog?)?

Well, that is pretty much it. I would like to make this project as appealing and voluntary as possible, so that everyone who is in the community has a lot of buy-in. Let me know what you think of this grand scheme. What is possible and what is not possible?