Soul Sighs, finding the online space that feels like home

Where good ideas come from

In 2007, I started an educational technology blog, iLearn Technology. When I started the blog, I did it for myself with little (read: no) thought about audience. I’ve always been a journal keeper. I write EVERYTHING down because I find that if I write it down, I’m more apt to remember it and to use it for something.

In 2004, I got a job as a technology teacher. There was a slight catch: I had never taught “computers” AND my degree had nothing to do with educational technology.

And yet, life had led me to a computer teacher position and a brand new iMac lab to contend with. Being the geek that I am, I went to the library and picked up “Mac OS for dummies.” Before the school year began, I endeavored to learn all that I could about how my new classroom worked. I also performed about a zillion Google searches related to educational technology. Incidentally, at the time, there wasn’t a lot out there, what I did find was exciting! I started a notebook (the spiral with lines kind) and would write down every URL I came across that I thought would be useful. Then, I color coded based on whether it was a site that I needed to go back to for reference or one that I would use with students. Soon, that wasn’t enough and I went back through my notebook(s) and added details about how I could use the site with students and what subject the site was related to. It wasn’t long before my small living room was covered in notebooks and pens. One day my husband came home, surveyed the damage of the living room and said, “I don’t know why you don’t just blog this stuff…at least then it would be searchable.” He walked me through the steps of setting up a domain name (iLearn Technology). The next day, I played around with WordPress until I had the basics down. I started adding my notebooks full of links to the blog so I could easily search when I was looking for something related to what I was teaching. I remember getting a text in the midst of this transfer from my husband, “see..all the hot blondes are blogging!” Attached was a link to iJustine who had broken into the blogging/live casting scene with her phone bill. When my mother-in-law (a third grade teacher at the time) heard that I was blogging, she introduced me to this amazing teacher online “Technospud” who was doing collaborative projects with Oreos. Soon, I was following Technospud (who as it turns out is Jen Wagner), she led me to David Warlick. Brilliance.  Other educators do what I was doing. Brilliance AND validation!

I’m currently re-reading Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From the Natural History of Innovation.” As it turns out, this thing I was doing with notebooks? It is nothing new. In the 17th and 18th century, people began keeping “Commonplace” books of quotations. This was a place where they would record learning and things they were pondering and quotations that spoke to them. This idea of, “lay a fund of knowledge from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.” My dad did this. He kept tons and tons of notebooks as I was growing up. I can’t remember a time when he was without a notebook of some sort that he was adding to. When I was really young, he would get up before dawn every morning with a pot of coffee and just write. Dream. Ponder. We had this wooden cube that he built that housed the notebooks until they were overflowing and needed a new home. As an adult, this practice resonates with me. I still keep hordes of notebooks. I still have a notebook nearby any time that I am reading something new or catch a hunch while watching TV, or in a conversation. In many ways, these have become my version of the “commonplace” books. Steven Johnson calls out an important feature of the Commonplace books of the 18th century, they were intended to be gone back through so that circling ideas might find a landing place.

As it turns out, I’m a technology geek. I had no idea how much I enjoyed technology and what it makes available until I spent the summer learning about it, used it with students, and blogged about it. It was a few months into my blogging adventure that I began to realize the point of blogging: audience. Prior to this, I was really just blogging for myself, so that I would have a way to search back through my ruminations about different sites.

That I could connect to others and share ideas with a wider audience? Nothing short of magic!

This connection with others and audience gave me additional purpose in my writing and led to sharing what worked (and what didn’t) with students. It caused me to grow as both a writer and an educator. I had to evaluate tools with a keener eye. I had to consider a lot of different students. I was laying a fund of knowledge that was reaching farther than my spiral notebooks. I felt a different responsibility.

It strikes me that Twitter, blogs, Instagram, and Google Plus have become our Commonplace books. The place where we share quotes and work to remember. That is certainly what iLearnTechnology became for me. This leaves me wondering, how often do we go back and re-read our own online work? How often do we use it as a place to reflect and allow for hunches to collide? This is common practice for me when I write in notebooks, I often go back to reread. I rarely go back and read through my Tweets, occasionally I’ll reread a blog post I wrote (usually when I’m looking for something specific.) I wonder how many posts we’ve written where hunches are waiting to collide if we would only go back and remind ourselves? I also wonder, how our online Commonplace books have allowed us to connect those hunches with a much larger audience? Amplifying and connecting ideas in ways that have never before been possible? I know that it was hunches colliding in personal and online space that led to the Learning Genome Project, and the same for starting a school. Without the collision of both worlds, I would likely be in a very different space.

I love that feeling of coming home. It is like this incredible soul sigh that just feels right. I feel it every time I walk into my house. It’s the lingering scent of my husbands cologne, the afternoon light pouring through the windows into the dining room, the celebration my dogs throw that I came back to them. In many ways, my scribbled notebooks give me this same soul sigh. They are a place where I record life. Where I remember things that are important and meaningful to me. They are the place where hunches are born. Digital space allows for this as well. My blogs feel like a place I can record and share life with friends. I use online social networking tools for different purposes. My blogs have become public Commonplace notebooks where I hope to allow the collision of ideas. Twitter is a place where I record quotes, top-of-the-mind thoughts, readings that resonate with me. Twitter is also the place where ideas get challenged and refined. Instagram is the place where my visual life lives. This is where I marvel over the every day amazing in nature and where I connect with others who love the in-between moments of life. The art. The fashion. The food. Nature. Family. Facebook is the place I connect with family and close friends. The place where I am often frustrated. The place where I am brought to tears. The place where I laugh.

It strikes me that so often we dictate the tools that students use to collect and share hunches. I try to imagine what that would be like for me. I wonder if the vulnerability and usefulness would be the same if the tools I used were dictated. While there is generosity in sharing the tools, and exposing kids to new things, I wonder how many “hunches colliding” moments never happen because they are forced to use a tool that doesn’t feel like home? What if instead of dictating what a student used as a Commonplace book, we gave options and let them find the place that felt like home? For some this might be a place where they can tell story and remember through images, for others it might be a blogging platform. Some might find 140 characters to be just enough. Some may not be ready for global vulnerability and the spiral notebook is enough.

“Lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.”

Look where you want to go and steer in that direction: How a blog started a school

I never took drivers ed, but when I was 14, my parents took me to a driver safety course.  I remember very little of the night but one thing that stood out was the phrase: “look where you want to go and steer in that direction.”  The course instructor was offering solid advice for what to do if you hit a patch of ice and lost control of the car.  That advice stuck with me and, as I navigate Colorado winters, is something I practice regularly.  As it turns out, this has been good advice for education and life as well.  Sometimes you have to not only look at where you want to go, but steer in that direction as well.  This is how a blog led to starting a school.

I started Dreams of Education on March 8, 2010.  At the time I had filled my Google reader to the brim with post feeds from educators around the world.  I was being inspired and fed daily by my world-wide personal learning network and yet in the schools I was in, saw a very different reality of education for kids.  I had kept iLearn Technology since 2007 and really enjoyed blogging there.  To be honest, it was easy to just write a review on technology tools and how they could be used in the classroom.  It was also safe.  I didn’t have to reveal too much of myself.  But in March of 2010 I couldn’t stay “silent” any longer.  I needed a place to dream and invite others to dream with me.  I used this blog to look at where I wanted education to go and started steering in that direction.  Here I am 478 days later starting a school.  It sounds much more neat and tidy and perfectly planned in writing than it is in reality.

During this time last year I had just left a teaching position I really loved.  I had to leave for health reasons and to be truthful, I wasn’t completely ready to leave.  I loved the students I taught.  They energized me and gave me a sense of professional purpose-they needed me.  I had just packed up my classroom and handed off my job to another. It was freeing, and terrifying, and exciting, and rotten.

I always felt like a bit of an outsider at the school where I taught.  I couldn’t seem to just let the status quo be and was constantly pushing the envelope and questioning why we did everything the way we did.  I consistently felt a sense of urgency for change because we were dealing with kids who kept growing and couldn’t wait around for us to get it right next year.  I couldn’t accept the ‘good enough’ mentality.  I found the place I fit in on Twitter and in an online network of educators from around the world.  Here I found other educators who believed that kids deserved better now.  Suddenly I wasn’t an outsider but part of a movement in education to make a change.  Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for the school where I spent the past 7 years.  It provided a place for me to grow and interact with other wonderful educators and gave me the freedom to develop my own programs and work with teachers.  At the end of the day, we just have different visions for learning.  I was willing to push for change, they were comfortable in the routines that they had in place.

Leaving my classroom and my students was hard. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself, it felt like summer never ended because come August I wasn’t preparing my classroom and computers for the following year.  No re-imaging machines, no bulletin boards, no sending cards over the summer to my students. It was strange.  I worked with several area schools on social media, technology integration and professional development.  I took home boxed curriculum and dreamed up ways to expand their offering with technology and more engaging activities.

On September 28, 2010 I was working on aligning technology activities to reading curriculum.  As is my habit, I was multi-tasking. Listening to Pandora, chiming into #edchat on Twitter, tinkering with new tech sites, and working on the curriculum alignment.  As I was working and chatting and listening a song came on that I had never heard before.  I scrambled to find a sticky note so that I could write down the artist before the song changed (for the record it was Zee Avi).  I sat there amazed that technology had come to the point that it can predict what kind of music I will like based on just one bit of information.  Because I was elbow deep in the ridiculousness that is boxed curriculum, I started to wonder why curriculum didn’t look more like Pandora.  I threw out the following on Twitter: “What if curriculum looked more like Pandora?”  Immediately I started getting retweets and comments like, “say more about that” and “exactly, curriculum should be more customized.”

I couldn’t seem to shake the idea of curriculum looking more like Pandora. For a blogger that means it is time to sit down and write.  Over the summer I had gotten into the habit of starting every day with a TED talk or RSA animate video with breakfast.  That morning I happened to watch Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson.  I started wondering if there might not be something to these hunches I was having and wrote the post When Hunches Collide.  It has been my most popular post on Dreams of Education to date.  In the post I wrote out some thoughts on curriculum, hiring teachers, community involvement in schools, #twitacad, and innovation lab.  The post was truly just a collection of unfinished thoughts, a place to get them out of my head.  I didn’t know it at the time but September 28 was a “steer in that direction” kind of day.

In the first weeks of December, one of my Twitter PLN @DoremiGirl introduced me to @ianchia.  Ian is an app developer in Australia who was working on an app called Send Felicity and was looking for input from educators.  Yoon knew that I geeked out about technology, specifically Apple products, and introduced us.  Ian and I immediately hit it off.  After a handful of fantastic conversations I told Ian about this crazy idea I had to make curriculum look more like Pandora.  I wanted to know from a developer standpoint if this crazy idea was feasible to even build.  Ian reassured me that it was possible and pointed me to some tools I could use to prototype my idea.  Suddenly it seemed like I was surrounded by people who were pouring into helping make my idea a reality. Business minds who were making recommendations, developers who were pointing me toward wireframing tools, educators who would listen to my craziness and reassure me that it was worth pursuing.  The Learning Genome was born.

One of the business people I met along the way introduced me to an educator in Denver Public School System.  He told me very little about him just that “you should meet, I think you might find some overlaps.”  Jason and I set up a time to meet at a local bookstore.  I showed up, he did not. Miscommunication in dates/times.  That weekend was the COLearning 2.0 conference in Colorado.  Several teachers that I used to work with joined me at the conference.  A discussion began in the first session about how classrooms could look different.  One of my colleagues and I were IMing each other like crazy as the discussion unfolded.  A gentleman sitting across the room from us was saying all of the things we were typing back and forth. It was a little creepy, like we had some how tapped into this guy’s brain with our instant messaging and were now controlling his thoughts.  After the session, my colleague @matthewquigley went to talk to the gentleman whose mind we had been controlling.  As it turns out it was none other than the Jason that I was supposed to meet at the book store.  Small world.  We talked more about what schools could/should look like. We dreamed together right there in the hallway and made plans to meet the following Monday.

Jason has been developing a new school design.  He has re-imagined the school day, year, staffing and financial model.  His goal was to open a charter school in DPS based on this model.  The problem: he wasn’t exactly sure what learning might look like in this new structure.  Light bulb moment.  This is why the business associate wanted us to meet.  I walked Jason through my Learning Genome prototypes and described my vision for how learning could look different.  Synergy.  At the conference, Matthew and I mentioned that we had been dreaming for years about what a school could look like and that someday we would like to start a school of our own.  We were thinking YEARS down the road.  Jason challenged us. Why not now?  Jason has quite the educational background and has been involved in 13 school start-ups. He let us know that the 6th month time frame we were staring down was a big task but not impossible.  We were intrigued.

Jason met with me in March to sketch out a rough timeline of what it would take to start a school by fall of 2011.  It was a lot.  Never one to back down from a challenge, I started seriously considering the possibility and even spat out a few blog posts casually mentioning the idea.  At the same time, I wrote a post here about Charlotte Mason because I had just completed a day of internship at one of the schools I was working at.  The leader of the school pointed some prospective parents to my blog (who happened to know me from my previous teaching position).  In addition to seeing my Charlotte Mason post, they saw my “working on starting a school” post.  The next day I got a call from two families asking me about the school I was starting.  We talked at length about the vision of the school, what it could look like and what it could do for kids.  The families asked if we could sit down and talk more about it.  On March 29 three incredible families agreed to take on this journey with us.  Anastasis Academy was born.

This blog, Dreams of Education, started a school.  It let me look at where I wanted to go, leaving it up to me to steer in that direction.  Those little hunches that came one blog post at a time turned into big ideas.  I think all too often in education we spend so much time looking at where we want to go that we forget the steering in that direction piece.  The vision is important but without action it remains just another good idea.  We can’t wait for someone else to tackle education.  Our students can’t afford to wait for us to get it right in a few years. Their needs are here and require answers now.

It is up to us to look at where we want to go and steer in that direction.


**I am learning that there is a story being told through the creation of this school. This post is just a SMALL piece of that story.  If you are interested in how my partner in crime @matthewquigley fits into all of this you should check out his new blog.  I’ll work on getting him to keep posting 🙂