Knowing What Resonates

Although I have always been an enthusiastic reader, the variety, pace and range of reading that I do now astounds me. After one year of full intellectual contact with online media, I see distinct patterns emerging that determine which content will likely earn a favorite star or be retweeted to my co-learners/explorers.  Five distinct characteristics stand out:

1. I value authors who show their humanity in a palatable and potentially endearing way. No strip tease or outrageous confessions, just individuals who can describe their struggles and victories with a degree of humility, grace and often humor. Pernille Ripp does this extremely well whether she’s writing about her classroom or her living room, it’s all very real and reflective without being creepy. John Spencer (@edrethink) also has knack for thoughtful sharing that is personal and often professionally relevant.

2. System skeptics will inherit the earth even though it’s not really what they wanted in the first place. My heart beats for these perpetual disrupters; the folks who shake their heads, fists or both at the prevailing order and write, write, write, making others uncomfortable with their unforgiving questioning.  Divergent thinking, floating alternatives, and leaving nothing sacred are the hallmarks of this unquiet riot. One of my favorite education system skeptics is Terry Heick. His posts at TeachThought often require 2 or 3 read-throughs in order for me to take in the full depth of his arguments. Raising questions like “What is quality?” or “What’s Best for Kids?” demands a capacity for big picture thinking coupled with an appreciation for the supporting details that make it all go. Grant Lichtman is another agitator for change who has mapped out some very real options for alternative routes in his book, EdJourney.

3. The polemicists.  These authors take debatable positions and in doing so invite discussion with and among readers.  Although I am not a fan of formal debate, when I read an article or blog post that touches a nerve, then I also read a number of comments to get a sense of how others have responded. This practice has truly invigorated my reading in unexpected ways. Having a window into other people’s thinking about the same text has touched off some tremendous learning on my part. And it has allowed me to discover my own comment voice. Tom Whitby of edu fame tends to take strong positions especially with regard to educators and their need to get connected in order to remain relevant.  I agree with him on many points and  I have also disagreed with an idea or two. What is new is that I now take the liberty of speaking up, either in the comment section or even in a separate blog post.  And that experience of daring to hold and also publicly share a dissenting opinion has been both liberating and empowering. Learning to disagree without becoming disagreeable has broadened and sharpened my thinking.  Also check out Jose Vilson for his powerful arguments and the way he addresses opposing views; business and art in the same post.

4. Clarity of purpose and encouragement as a professional mission will get me every time. Two experts who emulate this  are Elena Aguilar and Angela Watson. Both are authors in the educational realm and  each offers unique means to help educators find their inner resources to sustain and grow their practice.  Todd Nesloney (@techninjatodd) also does an amazing job of appreciating and acknowledging his school community even as he spreads that positive
impact around the world. He is clear about his purpose and it shows. I think he must have one of the highest good news quotients on twitter. Worth following.  And sometimes I just stop by cult of pedagogy because Jennifer Gonzales is so remarkably  gracious and personable in all her communications even as she offers tons of resources to make the teaching life better and better.

5. Beauty
When I catch beautiful writing in its tracks, I try to admire it for longer but it always slips away. That’s why it’s such an intense encounter when it happens, like a sudden kiss. Beauty can be funny, come-as-you-are, full of surprise, wearing a hint of mystery – the point is, I never know where beauty will appear – in which post, on which platform, from which author. A short story like this can change my day with the laughter it unleashes.  Sometimes, it’s a picture or a short video, just something that reminds me how amazing this whole “inhabiting the planet earth” narrative is day after day, hour by hour.

I second that emotion…

If you’ve been following this blog for a little while, you may already be aware that Elena Aguilar is one of my personal education heroes. One of reasons I have such tremendous respect for her as a person and for the amazing work that she does is her capacity to help us all see what is needed, where it is missing and how we can go about acting on those insights.  In a recent post on Edutopia she makes a strong case for insuring social emotional learning (SEL) for all members of a school community in order for the whole enterprise to have a shot at meaningful success.

Elena Aguilar’s mission is school transformation, not just school improvement or reform. All schools are awash in change initiatives on various levels of scale and areas of emphasis. The capacity of all community stakeholders to meet these challenges is dramatically enhanced when we pay close attention to the emotional experiences of those involved and address the fears, hopes, ambitions and concerns head on. In advocating for this approach, Elena Aguilar understands that transformation works first with what is, in order to reach the best parts of what’s possible. Activist and Fund-raiser, Lynne Twist quotes Werner Erhard in her book, The Soul of Money</em>: “Transformation does not negate what has gone before; rather, it fulfills it.” (p. 252) Our emotions are always a part of what is. Let us claim them and put them to work towards our collective progress and benefit.

My 10 best online discoveries of 2013

Once in a while, it’s worthwhile to look back before forging ahead. Here are 10 online discoveries that rocked, changed or otherwise shook up my lifelong learning curve:

1. Twitter -Joined in July, never looked back. Proved to be an extremely powerful and fascinating tool for expanding both my horizons and my reach. Still working with it on a fairly rudimentary level. Look forward to learning more, reaping more benefits.

2. Rafranz Davis – I stumbled onto an article of hers via twitter and my engagement with the aforementioned medium has never been the same.  Follow her and you will gain access to a huge number of diverse voices within education and at the same time feel encouraged to make your own mark at your own pace in your own very distinctive way. What I so admire and respect about Rafranz is her capacity to remain extremely real (and therefore vulnerable) in her interactions as she hosts an audience of thousands. (I know, it’s not about the numbers, but still…) Thanks, Rafranz! (I’m thinking fierce…)
3. Terry Heick and Teach Thought – again another twitter discovery of great significance; A welcome source of reason and insight. Already invited this group to join my first ever “What if” Summit: .
4. Elena Aguilar – Education’s “Coach of the Decade” in my book. Speaking of, buy and read her book, The Art of Coaching to really grasp the depth and weight of what she brings to the conversation on school transformation. She has also provided me with ample encouragement as I have ventured to find and express my voice online.
5. Tom Whitby consistently offers plenty of food for thought on a range of topics in education both through his own blog posts and countless valuable links through tweets. It was in response to a blog post of his about the wisdom of the “college for all” assumption in US education that I wrote my first comment way back in July.
6. Knoword – This is just a great vocabulary game that it has been fun to share and even more fun to play. If you enjoy literacy on any level, get this game:
7. On similar note, a link to this literacy challenge offered by substantial surprise and amusement:
8. My oldest son, James, is a producer and DJ of electronic music. Thanks to his input I have become acquainted with platforms for storing and sharing music, primarily and It is by far one of the coolest things to plug into one of his mixes while preparing stuff for work and know that “Wow, that’s my boy!” Have a listen:

9. – talk about intellectual nourishment! My best buddy Cathleen turned me onto this daily feast of literary, artistic and humanist nuggets. Looking for ongoing mental and emotional sustenance? Add Brainpickings to your twitter feed and be edified.

10. Evernote – I’m still growing into this app. It has enormous capabilities and features that may well change the way I work – once I get around to playing with it and really discovering what could happen if I truly chose to get organized. Hmm…..

So that’s my top 10 online discoveries for 2013: some great individual contributors, some tools, games, and above all, plenty of fuel for learning. Who knows what’s in the pipeline for 2014?
Happy New Year, by the way!

The 1st Annual “What if” Summit

If I have learned anything from my online engagement up to now, it is this: Dare to think and dream BIG. Here’s my most recent BIG dream project: a “what if” summit of education thinkers and doers.  In my mind’s eye I have collected some outstanding thinkers in education around the table and asked them to spend a day together in dialogue. (There is also top-notch catering, a wonderfully comfortable and inviting meeting space and everyone has time, energy and enthusiasm to make it happen.)

Here’s my guest list:

Aleta Margolis and the Center for Inspired Teaching

The original “Instigator of Thought,” Aleta heads up the Center for Inspired Teaching which trains and certifies teachers to work in DC public and charter schools. Teaching fellows sign on for a 5 year commitment to not only teach using inquiry based methods but also to become change makers wherever they are active.

Terry Heick and the TeachThought staff is my favorite go-to space for wise and nuanced expression of ideas and trends in and around current and future education. Director Terry Heick regularly stretches my thinking through his insightful and sometimes counterintuitive blog posts.

Elena Aguilar and her Art of Coaching practice

Elena Aguilar is a tireless visionary and champion of school transformation which features equity, community, authenticity at every level and stage of education’s complex mosaic.

Grant Lichtman and the expanse of his tremendous Learning Pond:

Grant Lichtman spends months on the road visiting schools around the country and engaging each unique community in dialogue around what truly matters in education: what is best for kids when, how, where, why. Posing the right and most meaningful questions to all stakeholders including students (!) features strongly in his work.

As hostess, I, Sherri Spelic, get to moderate and be the “Chief Listener.” And because this is my dream and it’s so big, everyone is invited to hold this chat in Vienna, Austria (my home base) and spend the rest of the week enjoying the city and/or other spots of interest in the vicinity, all expenses paid. (Hard to say no to that!)

Here are some of the questions I would love to hear the group explore:

  • What are the big thoughts that are foremost in your mind right now regarding education?
  • What are you working on right now?
  • Each of you has demonstrated a willingness to engage in “What if…” thinking in your practice and writing.  What are the benefits of this approach in our conversations around education and its future?
  • Where have you seen and experienced successful models of student and teacher learning and engagement?
  • What were some common characteristics of those experiences?
  • What are you learning from each other today?
  • Who else would you appreciate having here to participate in this dialogue?
  • What other questions should we be exploring and investigating?
  • What’s next?

What if I could get these remarkable voices In the same room and we could listen to the dialogue and join in at turns?  What kinds of learning could take place?  What new networks might emerge?  What surprises might we encounter?   I recently tweeted: “meaningful conversation fuels the soul.” This dream meeting of the minds has that aspiration, too: to fuel the souls of all those who choose to engage in this significant work.

What if..?

Knowing not

A recent post in my twitter feed truly gave me pause:

Enough said...
Enough said…

So true, I thought. And I thought about:
My students and all the desires, impulses, hopes and expectations they bring to my classroom…
My colleagues and all that it takes for them to bring it, day after day, with intent, purpose, joy and lots of prep…
My sweet husband, whose days at work remain a kind of mystery even as he describes them to me…
My oldest son, whose identity is unfolding daily, hour by hour…
My youngest son, whose inner life is so richly imaginative and full of wonder and also of many fears…

So much I cannot know. So much to which we remain blind. And yet, to be kind, to show respect, to listen, to be present … These are all choices we can make to bridge the gap of so many unknowns. This is the stuff of connection and humanity. This is what holds us together as strangers, colleagues, friends, family: the capacity to reach out while knowing not.

Special thanks to Elena Aguilar who posted this quote on her Art of Coaching Facebook page.

A Few Thank Yous

THANK YOU: Two words that have changed my life and helped me find my better self when I most needed to.

About a decade ago, I made saying “Thank you” a genuine habit a of mind.  While I had certainly used Thank you, please and you’re welcome often enough in the past, what changed was when I found myself able to say it when it felt most difficult to do so: When I was hearing criticism, when I felt defensive, when I was otherwise at a loss for words.  Saying “Thank you” in those situations allowed me to pause, recognize some of what was going on inside me and be open for the other’s full message. As a habit of mind, Thank you becomes my ever present reminder that I did not get here on my own. I have had much help, support and encouragement along the way.

With respect to this blog, I have some initial Thank Yous to share: for encouragement and attention, for inspiration and material, for providing impetus to keep going. First to my friend and colleague, Jalene, who kindly and simply invited me to join twitter this summer.  A simple invitation in my inbox: all I had to do was click on it and start my journey.  So it began.

To one of the premier gateway voices on twitter who has sparked my interest and learning again and again: Tom Whitby.  It didn’t take many links to find Tom’s outspoken blog on matters educational and once I began following him on twitter, my field of vision was widened immesurably. For that I am extremely grateful.  It was also on Tom’s blog that I found material which necessitated a response: I replied and used one of those responses to relaunch this blog.

Through Edutopia Edutopia and Tom, I have been introduced to another host of educator voices whose contributions have inspired and fascinated me: Joe Bower , Bill Ferriter and Elena Aguilar , to name but a few.

To my cohort colleagues and the leadership team of The Klingenstein Center, I owe many thanks for the ongoing encouragement and willingness to take and share my enthusiastic suggestions for great reads and worthwhile initiatives.  In many ways, they formed my first online audience and their influence runs deep.

cburke2012 was the first follower of this blog since its relaunch and I want to say thanks for opening my eyes to this avenue of connection and reciprocity.

Thank YOU for taking the time to read this.  To whom would you say “Thank you?”

What’s in a Coach?

This summer I found the book I believe I’ve been waiting for all my career: The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation by Elena Aguilar.
(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 2013). Let me try to explain why.image

The title of my masters thesis in Sport Psychology back in 1997 raised the question: What’s in a Coach?
I was writing specifically about the dynamics of the relationship between teacher-coaches and their student-athletes and in a nutshell, I was trying to unravel the tremendous power, impact and reach of those very unique connections I experienced both as an athlete and as a coach. My fascination of and commitment to coaching only expanded and deepened in the years following.

As a PE specialist, a general coaching stance has become integral to my style and method of teaching. I encourage my students to seek their own solutions to various obstacles, I raise questions which help them reflect on how to make the most of their own resources and as much as possible, I listen, observe and listen some more. Further studies in communication, leadership and facilitation continue to confirm for me both the need and efficacy of coaching in a host of educational contexts. And this is where The Art of Coaching soars above all the other resources I have encountered related to coaching in the educational sphere: Elena Aguilar says “transformation” and means it: transformation of teachers, administrators, schools, ultimately of whole systems.

Below is a brief review I submitted to an online publication:

It’s possible to read The Art of Coaching as a how-to manual for instructional and leadership coaches in schools. Aguilar succeeds famously at taking the mystery out of the coaching process and guiding new and experienced coaches to learn, practice and apply the critical elements of the craft. Yet this book offers more. Aguilar’s fundamental commitment to the larger goal of equity in education for all students defines the context of her work at all levels. This broadening perspective lends heft to the individual actions and processes she describes. The coaching itself is not just about helping the individual teacher or administrator to improve, Aguilar sees it as vehicle for transforming schools on the systemic level. Further, as she offers coaches multiple means to connect and succeed with clients, she also champions the use of profound strategies for leaders to view and approach their challenges.
Specifically she introduces 6 lenses for examining a situation from highly unique perspectives. The lenses are those of inquiry, change management, systems thinking, adult learning, systemic (or structural) oppression, and emotional intelligence. She employs rich and nuanced storytelling to demonstrate how these lenses and their respective questions can be used to take problem-solving deeper to address possible root causes. Although the book’s focus is on building coaching capacity, I would argue that in fact, Aguilar has given educators an excellent leadership book written from the coaching perspective.

I am in the process of recommending the book to anyone in education and/or coaching who will listen. Through The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar has inspired, instructed and above all empowered me to share the unraveled mystery of what’s in a coach and what tremendous potential resides in coaching for transforming education.