Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Prairie Home Companion

"A Prairie Home Companion," is a weekly radio show based on the fictional Minnesota prairie town of Lake Wobegon.  The show features American Folk music and stories- lots of stories.  Garrison Keillor, the host, is one of the premier storytellers of this era.

The show is typically broadcast live from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, but he occasionally goes out on tour.  We saw him about a year ago in Milwaukee, and again last Saturday in Madison.  The live broadcast was sold out before we even knew he was in town.  Ticket demand was so high that they scheduled a second show @ 9:00 pm.

The late show wasn't recorded, and we were treated to and extra 40 minutes of material- mainly singing.  The main musical performers are featured below.  If you like folksy gospel music, check them out:

During the intermission, Garrison walked around and started singing.  The first song was a Beatles tune, but it quickly turned into an impromptu hymn sing.  Garrison and 2,000 people singing a cappella for 20 minutes- it was awesome!!

Staples of the show include the "Powdermilk Pancakes" song (a personal favorite), and an encouraging word from the Ketchup Advisory Board. 

The high point of every show is Keillor's monologue on the weekly news from Lake Wobegon- featuring fictional characters from a fictional town in fictional situations that all sound amazingly real.  Over the years, he has developed a cadre of recurring characters and locations that adds a deep and abiding tapestry to the stories.

Every monologue begins with:  "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown" and ends with the phrase "...and that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are good looking, and all the children are above average."

Storytelling is an art form.  A great storyteller paints a picture.  They parse out enough details for us to create an image in our minds, but some details are purposely left unsaid.  The art is in knowing which details to provide, and which to withhold.

I was also reminded of that, in a different way, while listening to some high school jazz bands at the recent Wisconsin School Board Convention.  I was a pretty decent trombone player back in the day- but I was never very good at jazz solos.  I didn't get the art of the silence.  I thought I always had to be playing a note.  Big mistake.  The end result was that my buddy was routinely picked to play the improvisational solos, and I was left to play the background music someone else had created.  

In storytelling, music, and life in general- what separates the good from the great is the fine art of knowing when to be silent and what to leave out.  We are also drawn to variations on a theme.  Each Prairie Home Companion Show capitalizes on our desire to hear new stories and adventures about familiar characters.

I think there's a hidden lesson or two in there for organizations dealing with change.  Can you find them!?  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Prototyping, Bloopers, and Failure

One of the benefits of being an empty-nester is that I have more time to read than I've had in twenty five years.  Among the disadvantages of getting older is that I forget a lot and reading makes me sleepy.  Oh, the trade offs in life...

I was re-reading some things on Educational Design and was reminded of the importance of prototyping.  I prototype household projects and fishing ideas all the time, why should I be hesitant to prototype an educational design idea? 

Several of the professional journals I read have a feature section that spotlights a School District Official- usually the Superintendent.  Obviously, the primary purpose is to highlight some things that a successful person is doing well.  One of the questions asked, though, is what they consider to be their biggest blooper.  Typically, the answers are about things like a bad decision on a snow day, getting hopelessly lost, calling someone the wrong name at an event, or getting an answer wrong in front of students.

I wonder if those are actually their biggest career bloopers.  I hope not.

From Seth Godin:  Think Big.  Bigger than that.

He manages to send a very powerful message in two simple sentences.  

Godin also makes a point of noting that it doesn't count until it "ships."  In other words, don't just think about an idea, create it and ship it and allow yourself to be Vulnerable. 

In a world where all of us, and especially those in leadership positions, are being pushed:
  • To think Big  
  • Bigger   
  • To have the courage to call it Good Enough and Ship It 
  • To Prototype
  • To Improvise and Overcome
  • To be Vulnerable
How can the biggest mistake of a career be to mispronounce a word in front of students?

I've made lots of mistakes.  Most of the mistakes that I regret can be traced to times I didn't follow the 'Golden Rule' in how I treated someone, moved too slowly, didn't have the courage to call something good enough- so it died an inglorious death at the atlar of the status quo, or didn't have the vision to prototype.

We are using 1:1 iPads @ First and Fifth grades.  We answered a lot of questions from ourselves and stakeholders before launching the initiative.  We didn't answer all of them.

I hope we push through the temptation to settle in on a few cool apps and call it a day.  I hope we think bigger than we think we're capable of thinking and start prototyping the way we organize students, time, and content.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

This Might Work...

I recently purchased Seth Godin's "book" entitled: This Might Work, or The Icarus Deception: Why Make Art?  I say "book" because it is unlike any book I have ever read before- and I've read lots of them.  It is a 22 pound behemoth, and it is a great read!

If you don't already follow Seth Godin via twitter or his blog, you're missing out.

Here are a few quick hits of insight from the book:

Organizations that sit tight tend to get very comfortable with sitting, and they don't move when they need to move.  They want proof that the direction is the right direction; they study it, consider it, test it, and the next thing you know, they are fourth in a three person market.

Organizations that flit have a similar problem.  They're so good at flitting, so happy with it, that they continue to flit even when a decent path shows up.

The alternative is to do your best to pick a direction, and then do it... with passion.

It's not stupid to have a stated goal of starting several ventures that will fail, or asking three stupid questions a week... if you don't have goals like this, how exactly are you going to luck into being remarkable?

Seven years from now, what will you have to show for what you're doing right now?  If your answer is 'not much,' perhaps you should consider a new plan.

If you don't think those excerpts are golden- then you and I see the world through very different dimensions!  :)

Friess Lake is in our second year of a 1:1 Initiative at the 8th grade level, and we are in our second week of a 1:1 Initiative at the 1st and 5th grade levels.  Both of these proposals morphed quickly from a general idea to full scale implementation. 

We studied and considered various options, while also trying to keep the momentum moving forward.  We were cognizant of the fact that were moving ahead before we had answers to every question, but we were also worried that too much time spent studying options would result in "paralysis of anaysis."

Even though the 'plan' is a little general- not everything has gone according to plan.  


We picked a direction, and we're doing it with passion.  I think it will turn out alright.  I think it will be beneficial to our most important group- our students.  I think- short term frustrations and failures aside- we will have plenty to show for our efforts.

Thanks Friess Lake Staff!  Thanks to the Friess Lake Students and Community!  

Friday, January 11, 2013

Nate SIlver on Test Scores

You may recall that I posted a column from Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight site a couple of months ago.  If you've slogged your way through a number of my posts, you will know that I am skeptical of many of the claims made by those who worship at the altar of standardized testing- and even more skeptical of using those scores as a major component in the evaluation of teachers.

Skeptical does not equate to outright opposition on all points, or a rejection of any and all accountability measures.  However, I do tend to find myself aligning with Alfie Kohn, Will Richardson, Ken Robinson, and- based on this article- Nate Silver when it comes to questioning the use and abuse of standardized tests:

Thursday, January 10, 2013

First World Education Problems

Mainly a guest post today.  I found this during my periodic scouring of other blogs.  I thought the post was pretty good until I saw the picture of a 3rd World classroom- the picture alone transformed it from a solid post to an excellent post.

My wife and I lived and worked in 3rd World conditions in Fiji.  We followed that up with some work in a district in Texas that shall remain unnamed- but many of the individual students we worked with there lived in conditions that- quite frankly- we didn't really know existed in America.  No indoor plumbing, no central heating source, no air conditioning, (Suburban Houston) and houses- if you could call them that- on wooden stilts.

Perhaps it is because of those experiences that the picture hit home with me and caused me to reread the post with new eyes and a renewed appreciation for just how good we have it here.

Thanks Doug!

Monday, January 7, 2013


Let’s acknowledge that any conversation about guns is going to be difficult and multifaceted.
Let’s also concede that there are people who would love to see the elimination of all guns from our country and others who would oppose any restriction or limitation.  Neither of those groups represents anything close to a majority, or even a significant minority.
We aren’t going to accomplish anything if we quickly retreat to ideological comfort zones and call each other names. 
A word about Interest Groups:
Successful interest groups excel in the fine art of hyperbole, which they use to sell fear.  I don’t begrudge them that- it’s what they do.  But, let’s be honest, part of the job of an interest group is to demonstrate why they are needed and relevant and worthy of our financial support.  Interest groups are especially adept at the “Slippery Slope” game- where any encroachment on their stated position is but a first step in a larger plan to eliminate the right altogether.  And they see “signs” and “evidence” of this encroachment all over the place.  
That doesn’t mean that a concern raised by an interest group is not a legitimate concern- but it does mean that the interest group, by definition, has a vested interest in laying out worst case scenarios and playing on fear to energize and rally supporters.
Most Americans don’t belong to an interest group on any side of the gun debate.  Most Americans (including this one) don’t have a preconceived idea about what makes sense moving forward. 
We might do well to set aside the heated rhetoric of the professional polemicists who lead the interest groups and just try to have a conversation amongst ourselves.
Movin’ On:
We have some issues, and we need to search for some solutions.  This isn’t some existential issue or something that requires “somebody else” to change their behavior or fix- this is the real deal. 
I’m not a huge NASCAR fan, but I do enjoy watching the Super Speedway events like Daytona and Talladega.  These races utilize restrictor plates- which are simply a way of limiting the power of the engine and thereby restricting the top end speed of the cars.  The record qualifying lap speed of 210 mph was set in 1987.  It’s not like the technology hasn’t improved since then.  They can make the cars go faster, but they can’t improve human reflexes to the point of making it safe to drive at faster speeds.   
So, restrictor plates are good in the sense that they prevent the driver from achieving speeds that simply exceed our human capacities.  However, restrictor plates are also problematic, because they cause all the cars to bunch up into packs- which can lead to huge wrecks.  They are an imperfect solution.
In terms of gun issues, we need to stop letting the ideal be the enemy of the good.  We need to find some imperfect solutions- and we need to experiment with a variety of measures and keep refining them as we move forward.  But, we must move forward.
It’s not a matter of preventing the next tragedy.  Let’s just lay it out there- more blood will be spilled.  Over the course of the next generation, there will be more mass killings, and probably more mass killings in schools. 

What can we do to make schools safer by tomorrow?  Not a lot, quite frankly.  We can review and upgrade some policies, we can make some modifications that could reduce the body count, but that’s about it.
What can we do to make public places, like schools, safer 20-30 years down the line?  I’m not sure, but I kind of doubt better guns and bigger clips will make us safer. 
I’m going to close by re-posting some quotes from Thomas Jefferson:

"Can one generation bind another and all others in succession forever?  I think not.  The creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead." 

"I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes on laws and constitutions; I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them and find practical means of correcting their ill effects.  But I know, also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times."

We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." 

Read our history.  We’ve been arguing over the true meaning of the Constitution since before it was ratified.  Jefferson and Hamilton disagreed with each other every bit as deeply as any two modern day politicians.  The Second Amendment is here to stay, but- like a “coat which fitted (us) when a boy,” it is time to have a serious discussion about what that looks like in modern day America.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Zen and the Art of MM Vol III

A friend recently gave me a copy of the book re-think, by Nigel Barlow.  I haven't finished it yet, but it is a great read so far and will inevitably lead to a blog post or two.  It is relevant to this post in the sense that, once again, the author references Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

To me, this was a sign that it's time for Volume III of quick excerpts from that timeless classic.

Quick recap:

Vol I: The truth is often right in front of us, but we don't recognize it

Vol II: The author and his frequent riding companion argue over small things, but those small things are really based on something bigger- a fundamental difference in how one sees the world.  


The author is a hands on guy who loves to do his own repair work and motorcycle maintenance.  John, his buddy, is the polar opposite.  The author drives an older bike, and services it almost exclusively himself.  His buddy owns a late model machine, and believes in taking it to a trained and licensed mechanic for any repairs.

Volume III:

They were on a long ride out west and John's handlebars started slipping.  They tried tighening them, but to no avial.  The author noted that he needed a shim.  John didn't know what a shim was, but- upon explanation- accepted the verdict and asked where they could go to buy one.

The author help up an empty beer can and said "right here!"  John was angry- to the point of no longer being interested in fixing the handlebars.

Over time, as the author reflected on this exchange and others that followed a similar pattern, he came to realize that often "...there's something bigger involved than is apparent on the surface."  In this case- He was seeing the shim for what it meant- a quick, functional, and cheap repair.  John was seeing the shim for what it was- an old cut up can of beer as a replacement part on his expensive motorcycle. 

To the book p.48:

At first this difference seemed fairly minor, but then it grew...and grew...until I began to see why I missed it.  Some things you miss because they're so tiny you overlook them.  But some things  you don't see because they're so HUGE.  We were both looking at the same thing, talking about the same thing, thinking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking, and thinking from a completely different DIMENSION.

The author was functioning as the "MacGyver" character- ingeniously fixing things with whatever was available. John wasn't stupid and John wasn't unappreciative- but he clearly approached issues from a completely different perspective.

Later on the journey, the author gets a flat tire in the middle of nowhere.  John watches as the author carefully changes the rear tire of his motorcycle.  (Note:  anyone who has ever even changed the rear tire of a bicycle can attest to the fact that it is not easy)

"How do you know how to do that?" John asks.  

"You just have to figure it out." 

"I wouldn't even know where to start," John replies.

I think to myself, That's the problem, all right, where to start.  To teach him you have to back up and back up, and the further back you go, the further back you see you have to go, until what looked like a small problem of communication turns into a major philosophic enquiry."

I've also heard this referred to as peeling back the onion.

They Marched Into Sunlight, by Robert Maraniss, is a must read for anyone with even a passing interest in the Vietnam War.  Reading the book, it is easy to see how different people were raised to see the world in ways that served to make their response to the conflict fairly predictable- from volunteering for military serve to disengagement to leading protest marches.  More interesting, most of the people in any of these groups were almost completely unable to see the validity of other points of view. 

Taxes, fiscal cliffs, guns, the role of government, social issues, school choice- the list goes on and on. Our disagreements often go way deeper than the specific issue at hand. People see the world in fundamentally different ways, based on fundamentally different beliefs.  Well, one might say, DUH!That seems so simple, so easy.  So what?  What's the point here?

It's one thing to recognize it in theory.  It is another to recognize it in ourselves.  We can't be so quick to dismiss each other.  (Guilty as charged- by the way)  Yes, there are going to be disagreements, big important fundamentally frustrating disagreements.  We're going to get mad.  We're going to be frustrated.  We're going to wonder "what's wrong with these people!?"

Forget anything that was actually decided in the recent Fiscal Cliff negotiations.  One small encouraging sign was that Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Joe Biden (D-RI) were able to at least talk to each other.  They were able to do so because of a long standing relationship from their years together in the Senate.  This was not a relationship forged on common beliefs.  No one will confuse them as political allies- they see the world from different dimensions.  They fact that they could at least listen to each other and seek out an agreement is encouraging- and a good New Year's reminder lesson- at least for me.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Springsteen and Haircuts

I LOVE this post :)

1.  I can totally relate to this guy's attitude towards getting a haircut- I am so there!

2.  The author and I also share a deep appreciation for the music of Bruce Springsteen.*

3.  It's a slightly longer post, but stick with it- the ending is SPOT ON analysis.

* He mentions starting, but not finishing, several Springsteen related posts after attending a recent concert.  I did the same thing after watching a little of the Benefit Concert for Hurricane Sandy Relief.  I've been to five Springsteen concerts betweeen 1982 and 2009- all time well spent!!

There are thousands of talented musicians who can play the guitar as well- or better than- The Boss.  There are tens of thousands of people who can sing as well, or better.

So what makes Springsteen special?  I'm not going to give away the answer, you'll have to read the post for that.  Hint: There is really no good reason for me, or you, to do any less...