Thinking about the dark

For my first Program Leadership class at Columbia on Monday, I was assigned to read two articles.  The first was “Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times” by Maxine Greene, which appeared in The Jossey-Bass Reader on Teaching edited by A. Lieberman and published in 2003.  The second was “Dwelling in Possibilities: Our students’ spectacular hunger for life makes them radically vulnerable” by  Mark Edmundson which was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 14, 2008. First, I must confess that I’ve been back in school for just under a week after a twelve-year absence.  That said, I learned every day of those years, but very much on my own terms and sometimes quite shallowly.   I’ve mostly read email and skimmed for key ideas and bold words.  How quickly can I find a solution to this printer problem?   I need to read this book because everyone else on Twitter already has so I’ll skim it.    So, when I first read the Greene’s article, it went completely over my head, so I decided to come back to it and moved on to Edmundson.

Edmundson’s article was one I had seen before.   It’s the kind of thing that people send you when you’re the director of technology at an independent school that has a one-to-one tablet PC program.   I read it again.  Slowly.   Edmundson is a professor at UVA and describes his current students as turbocharged; moving constantly and never limiting their possibilities until the last possible moment.   On my first reading years ago, I tossed the article to the side and kept up my own constant movement.  In my head, I heard Edmundson’s voice as one that didn’t see any merit in technology and that seemed to judge his students harshly.  Now, I hear it as a mix of pity, concern, and maybe just a little bit of that judgement that seemed overwhelming in my first reading.  He sees his studies striving to reach goals that were set for them, perhaps without their own consideration.  He sees them over-achieve to their own detriment.  He sees them skimming the surface of many experiences and believes that these are thus inferior experiences.   Edmundson believes that his field, and moreover, the college experience itself, requires that students slow down.  That they learn to value the Socratic education and focus on self-knowledge.   Edmundson writes, “To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the  work in progress that we currently are. There’s no better place for that than a college classroom  where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.”   While I can wholeheartedly agreed with this statement, it’s the final statement that always provokes me.  “…starting this year, no more laptops in my classroom.”

Rant Warning:  I, as a teacher, will be the first to admit that many people cannot pay attention easily.  If they have a laptop, they will do other things that listen, take notes, and think.  Just like I used to read my English homework in math class, they will read CNN or any other number of sites that are not related to the subject at hand.  Just like I used to write notes to my friends during English, they will IM and email.  Just like I used to periodically drift off and daydream, they will play some solitaire.  There’s not much difference in the behavior – just the mode.   That said, I disagree that laptops should be banned.  I also feel that somehow Edmundson is lumping me in with party-hopping, IMing, disrepectful students who don’t know themselves and make poor choices.  I’m not.  I’m a highly-organized introvert who just likes to organize using OneNote.

Later, I returned to Greene’s article and seemed to have had a breakthrough in basic reading comprehension.    Perhaps my brain hasn’t turned to mush after all.

Greene’s article articulates, with considerably more poetry than Edmundson’s, many of the same ideas.   Both stress the need for learners to slow down, to think, to see possibility, and to look into themselves to find meaning.   They both indicate that this individual reflection must be balanced with community, that is, the ideas and experiences of others.   Both warn against complacency and trivial acceptance of “what is.”  In Edmundson’s world, this complacency comes from moving too quickly, from accepting the goals set forth by others, and from avoiding choices that remove possibility.  In Greene’s world this complacency may come from social and economic injustice and from an inability to see beyond current circumstances.  Edmundson’s students need only turn off their iPods to broaden their worlds, but Greene’s must be shown possibility as they may not have been exposed to it yet.

Aside: Perhaps what resonated most with me in Greene’s article was the statement, “There is too much of a temptation otherwise to concentrate on training rather than teaching, to focus on skills for the  work place rather than any “possible happiness” or any real consciousness of self.”  This is always what has scared me about No Child Left Behind.  Might we find that a generation of children are only able to demonstrate rote skills rather than truly think, imagine, and make change.  As one who taught computer programming, it was always important to me that my students learn the problem solving and creativity needed for code than that they learned to write predictable programs  and get high AP scores.

Both authors look to the classroom experience to allow their students to envision, and then pursue, a better life and a better world.  Both see that happening in a “democratic” setting that requires them to work in community to share ideas and experience, but also in individual thinking and reflection.  Both present the teacher as a force of change and as an counter-cultural force, working to fight complacently.   That’s something that Edmundson, Greene, and I can agree on.

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Launching jessicasepke.com

Welcome to JessicaSepke.com.

My project for January was to “spring clean” my online presence.  I’ve created jessicasepke.com from three existing sites

  • jessica.sepke.net (not updated since 2007)
  • jessicasepke.typepad.com (a blog entitled “tech life balance” that I periodically posted two between 2009 and 2011)
  • jessicasepke.wordpress.com (a blog that I actually completely forgot that I had ever started until I went to create a new wordpress account and realized that I already had one)

Posts from the two blogs appear on this site.  Conference presentations and resource listings from jessicasepke.net have been updated here. I’ve also included new information, links to social media, and a resume.  Outside jessicasepke.com, I’ve updated linkedin and tried to generally find broken links and outdated info and get it fixed or updated.

Take a look around the web, you may have a blog that you didn’t remember starting!

Inbox Zero – a week later

I love Inbox Zero.  Elation is the only work that I think I can use that comes close to describing the feeling of seeing my inbox totally empty.   Two weekends ago, I posted “my own personal failblog” from a fog of feeling overwhelmed and tired.  Last weekend, I took the bull by the horns and spend two days ruthlessly clearing my inbox.  I started Saturday morning around 7:30 and Sunday afternoon around 4:30, I hit inbox zero.   Disclaimer – I slept, ate, did laundry, and located a roll of masking tape my husband needed.

So, a week later, it’s Sunday again.  Guess what!  The inbox is still empty.  It has been empty each night for a week.  It can be done.   And, in case you are wondering, I received 396 emails this week.

So, how did I manage that?   Back to David Allen’s Getting Things Done and a few simple rules.

  1. Do it now.  Different people use different numbers for how long a “do it now” task is – usually 1-3 mintues.  I don’t really put a number on it, just “a few.”
  2. Stop procrastinating.  I had gotten particularly bad at putting off tasks for all manner of reasons.  I didn’t have enough time on had to do it right.  I was stuggling with how to handle that email response.   I needed to write but was having a low-creativity day.  I needed information I didn’t have.  I was waiting for someone to be back from vacation.   Now – do it, delegate it or schedule it.
  3. No “To Do’s” in the inbox.  If it is in the inbox, you have to think about it every time you open the inbox.  If it is a to do, either do it or get it into the tasks list and scheduled do be done.

So, I’ve managed a week with these rules helping me to keep an empty inbox.  Its a really nice feeling.  I’ve actually gotten to the end of my emails and my tasks a couple of times this week and found myself looking forward on my list to see if there’s anything I can do in advance.   I’m pretty sure that wasn’t possible two weeks ago.  Let’s see how long I can keep this thing going.

 

Goodbye, August. Hello, October.

I’m not sure where September went this year.  I just know it went quickly and the balance train ran me over.  But, in the last few days, I feel that things are returning to “normal.”  In other words, August is over and it is actually October now.  As you read in my last post, August is a hectic time for school folks. August doesn’t end with the calendar saying September 1.  August ends when the rush of back to school changes to the steady pace of the school year.

So, what have I learned from this year’s extended August?  Two new email techniques have been added to my arsenal: categories and deferring.

Outlook 2007 has categories that can be used for calendar items or emails. I’ve never really used them for anything other than contacts and then it was just for tagging people to whom I send holiday cards.  Next, I started using them to tag tasks.  A red square (Category WF for “waiting for…” ) beside a task means that I can’t move forward on this particular task until someone gets me something that I’ve asked for.  The waiting for list is another of the techniques from David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  Yes, I’m sure you’re spotting a theme in this blog.  It’s all about the GTD.  Anyway, there are several main topics of email that arrive on most days right now.  One is questions from staff members about the new databases we implemented this summer.  Another is items to be added to our new website or questions about its ongoing development.  A third is questions from parents or students about accessing the web or the database.  After those, there’s everything else.  As the amount of incoming email became more than I could clear in a day, I started using categories: “Parent/Student Question,” “Database” and “Web” joined the “WF” category.  By coding messages, I was able to deal with them in batches, ignoring the category that I wasn’t working with at the time and not re-touching the message over and over.  This has proven to be an incredibly helpful technique and has kept important questions and requests from slipping off my radar in the sea of incoming items.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had that little stack of messages at the bottom of my email inbox that I just wasn’t ready to answer yet.  Not because they were in the “WF” category, but because I needed to think about them or decide what my weekend plan was.  Each time I scanned through my inbox, these messages sat at the bottom, mocking me for my inability to clear that box.  Then I discovered the “Defer” button on the ClearContext toolbar.  Click the bottom, set a time, and the message disappears until that time.  Know that you can’t reply to that dinner invitation until after you see next week’s schedule?  Defer.  Not ready to decide whether you want to take advantage of the most recent offer from a vendor? Defer.  Simple. Elegant. Useful.

Now, Fall Break has arrived and I’m breathing a sigh of relief.  My inbox isn’t empty, but it only has a 10 items in it and I can relax for a few days.  Things have been crazy and busy, and at times a little overwhelming, but I have two new techniques to manage the flow of information.  This can only make it easier to find a little tech/life balance.  Happy Fall Break!

The August Dance

For many years, the first day of August brought a sound into my head.  It was like having song stuck, but wasn’t a song – just a clip of a sound.  It was the sound of Homer Simpson shrieking.  Over and Over.  And Over.

August is a crazy time for a twelve-month employee in a school.  The ten- and eleven- month-ers come back rested and full of ideas.  Forms start to come in (or worse – not come in).  Class enrollment is finalized.  The phone starts ringing and the emails start flying.  Then students and parents arrive, tablets get distributed, printers need installing, and classes begin.  August for me, no matter how prepared I seem to feel, always ends up with late nights, a panic as I realize that I’ve failed (again) to secure a birthday gift for my husband, and sending notes to friends and family that I’ll see them in September.

My last post, nearly three weeks ago, saw me at inbox zero.  But I quickly lost ground and ended up at inbox 168.  Last Saturday, I got that down to 63 only to be back at 120 by the next Tuesday.  I haven’t made it back to inbox zero, but as of now, I’m at inbox 14, which is, as my husband says, good enough for rock and roll.

Like any August, this one has been a roller coaster of activity.  My absence from this blog is just one symptom of the busy time that August brings.  But, in the last three weeks, we’ve launched the new website (which is lovely), brought two out of three migrated databases online, oriented over 80 new students to our one-to-one tablet program, started classes and so on.  I’m choosing to focus on what has been done, rather than what hasn’t.  Just don’t look for dust bunnies in the corners of my house.

While it is all still fresh, I am considering what can I do to keep August from being so crazy next year. Here are some thoughts that may work well for anyone fighting to gain Tech Life Balance (Note: This post is part of a previous blog entitled “Tech Life Balance.”)

  • Ask for help:  I suffer from the idea that I can always do it better/quicker myself and that it is better to take a burden on myself than to place one on someone else.   While I am getting better about delegation and asking for help, I still have a long way I can go.
  • Plan ahead:  It seems that for the last three weeks, each evening is about what must be done to get through the next day.  It is hard to jump off the hamster wheel and think ahead.  I have been on duty this weekend, which means that I am at work.  While a majority of others are taking a little time off, I’ve been hard at work to catch up so that I can start thinking about things that are further up my calendar, like that presentation for Friday or the faculty development session on Thursday.
  • Admit defeat if needed:  I had items on my to do list for August that are now on my to do list for October.  The didn’t have to happen and it was more important to get some sleep or check on my Mom or do a load of laundry.   When admitting defeat, be kind to yourself.  It’s not that you couldn’t do it; it’s that you chose other priorities.

So, we’ve arrived at Labor Day.  The time to put away your seersucker and white shoes and to silence the shrieking Homer in your head.  I did the best I could with this August. The craziness is over for another year.  Now, it’s time to get back to the routine days and to get back on the track in the ongoing quest for keeping it all in balance.  Starting with going for out for brunch and playing a couple of rounds of Tiger Woods Golf on the Wii.