Using Empathy to Craft the Message

Today while reading Thomas Friedman’s post entitled, Clinton’s Fibs, and Her Opponents’ Double Whoppers, I was struck by an assignment for students to tackle. While I respect Mr. Friedman, the idea came from one of the 488 comments that the article generated. The majority of the commenters were either in favor or against Friedman’s position.

It was Clement Kwong’s comment that really challenged me.

“That point is – it’s not about Trump or his obvious fallacies. The outrage and indignation at his comments should not be directed through media channels that are currently being used to do so, nor in the form (your article exemplary thereof) that these reactions are being communicated. To have any significant impact on Trump’s supporters, any message revealing his lies, idiocy, mean-ness, ignorance should be sent through channels which reach such supporters and in a form which can appeal to their social attitudes, language ability and literacy, preferably without demeaning their social status.

That language that you write in, this newspaper you express yourself in, even the complexity of the ideas, however warranted, in the message that is this article completely miss the mark. In this paper, you largely preach to the converted, as a Catholic priest might have done so in Latin in the medieval era.

Wake up. Find a way to say you want to say to the people who should hear this message. This is not it.”

There seems to be quite a bit of shouting going on in politics right now and most of the arguments are missing the mark with opponents. Since working at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School I’ve learned a ton about design thinking and the importance of using empathy in the process. The design thinking process can be very effective when teaching students to craft arguments that are targeted to a certain audience. Instead of totally disregarding the opponent, what if we taught them to study them to learn more about what is important to them? Through the DEEP DT process, students can produce more effective means of communication to sway their audience.

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I can imagine how powerful the interviews that students will conduct will be. They will truly gain a better understanding of the other person’s views and then tailor their argument based on this knowledge.

I’m alive and well professionally but my blog has been dormant

Graded High School Blog

The 2012 – 13 school year has been a fantastic one for me professionally. You wouldn’t know if from looking at my blog. The main reason that Creative Tension has been dormant is that I have been focused on curating the Graded High School Blog this entire year. I’m pleased to announce that we had 103 posts and over 11,500 hits. While our primary audience is the Graded community, the Graded stories reached a worldwide audience. The concept is that the HS Blog is “where the Graded high school community shares information and ideas on education.” This has been an excellent first step to creating a venue for members of the community to share stories about learning at Graded. With the school year over it’s an excellent archive for school community members to look back on the year.

While we also have the traditional weekly newsletter that is sent out to parents each week this blog has received more viewers, given community members the chance to comment and develop a dialogue, provided the community with timely information, and opened up our school to a more global community. We have tried to limit the number of posts that are just informational in terms of upcoming events and instead tried to focus on student and teacher learning. I look forward to building on what has been done this year and improving in the following ways.

  1. Increase the number of authors. Aside from my posts, there were a handful of others who contributed during the year. I hope that we can create a culture where teachers, students and parents will contribute whenever something happens. By reminding community members that the posts don’t have to be lengthy and that they can include photos, text, audio and videos I hope that we can increase authorship. While I’ve spent a considerable amount of time curating this blog, I look forward to it becoming a place where the community shares stories.
  2. Increase the number of comments that readers contribute. Aside from a somewhat controversial post on the changes to our grade weighting policy (6) and a post asking students to comment on a draft of our self-study Executive Summary (14), there were very few comments submitted. Hopefully we’ll continue encouraging people to comment and it may require more provocative topics.
  3. Increase viewership – I’ve been promoting the blog through e-mails to the community, links in our weekly newsletter, announcements at meetings, and Facebook and Twitter announcements. Hopefully it will help to increase the number of subscribers so that they get announcements whenever new posts are made. We have a ways to go to catch our the Talonline Blog that is student focused. They have had over 78,000 views.
Image from Flickr by martin.canchola

It’s now time for me to get back to blogging and sharing the learning that I’ve been doing throughout the year. It’s certainly been a productive one for me.

What ideas do you have for engaging the school community in the discussions on learning?

This year I’ve embarked on a project to promote the work of our teachers and students through the Graded High School Blog. The blog was inspired by Patrick Larkin’s Learning in Burlington  and George Couros’s work with the 184 Days of Learning in Parkland Schools. The blog is designed for the Graded high school community to share information and ideas on education. To date, the blog has 5,717 hits which is more than the total number of hits that the high school articles in our weekly Gazette have gotten. It’s an excellent start to sharing learning with our community. It has not been a place where members of our community have engaged in dialogue. Aside from the What’s our stance on weighted grades? (a total of 6 comments) post there have been very few comments. The challenge now is to increase engagement so that teachers, students, and parents use the tool for online communication.

Anyone have examples of school blogs where the community is actively participating in the discussion? If so, I’d love to see them. Also, what ideas do you have for increasing community participation?

Seth Godin Keeps Me Blogging

I have always been an infrequent blogger, but this past year I’ve been pathetic about sharing my thoughts. It’s sad because I know that my blog posts are an important part of my learning. As Seth states, “the humility that comes from writing it. What matters is the meta cognition of thinking about what you’re going to say.” While it’s always nice when someone comments on a post, I stopped worrying about that a long time ago. Over the years I’ve come to realize the importance of organizing my thoughts and ideas into these posts. It took me awhile but I now understand how valuable it is for me to share my ideas with a wider audience and to expose myself. It may seem like a bit of a risk, but I think that the benefits outweigh the potential negative consequences. As a school leader I think that it’s important for me to model this type of learning.

I write this as I begin to prepare for a workshop on how leaders can use social media to promote learning in their school communities. The workshop is part of the Innovate 2013 Conference. I’m going to be promoting blogging even if you’re not one of the Edublog Award Winners. I’m going to share this short video from Seth Godin and Tom Peters at the session. In my dreams I keep thinking that I’ll get better at blogging so that others will see it, but in reality, that may not happen.

Back Channeling and Socratic Seminars

In May of 2011, I wrote about my experience using backchannel at one of our schoolwide assemblies. A few weeks ago I was so happy to see the tool used in one of our English classes. The teacher used it during a Socratic Seminar on John Updike’s short story, “A & P”.  The twist is that the student seminar leaders and the teacher were backchannel chatting during the discussion. The original purpose behind the use of the tool was to archive notes for students who were out for school trips. While they were able to archive the notes, they found out that it was helpful in other ways.

Seminar Logistics
The seminar leader and the teacher were in the circle and both had access to TodaysMeet. There were two other students who are adding notes to the backchannel and they were outside the circle. The other students participated in the seminar and they were not able to see the chat.

Prior to visiting the class the teacher told me that one of the unintended benefits was that the co-leaders were able to use the chat to coach the leader during the seminar. In this situation the teacher prompted the leader with the following:

“either ask for clarification or ask them to expand or move on to next question. :-)” Teacher at 2:28 PM, 17 Apr 2012 via web
“follow-up questions?”
“Good …”  at 2:32 PM, 17 Apr 2012 via web
“5 to 10 minutes more–only time for one more question after this…”  at 2:44 PM, 17 Apr 2012 via web
This instant feedback from the teacher really helped the student leader develop skills at facilitating a discussion. Imagine the power of the entire team of seminar leaders coaching each other during the seminar.
The seminar also provided students with the opportunity to show their knowledge and abilities that match with the  following IB aims:

IB English A2 Aims

  • communicate clearly, fluently and effectively in a wide range of situations
  • understand and use accurately the oral and written forms of the language, in a range of styles and situations
  • understand and use an extensive range of vocabulary and idiom
  • express ideas with clarity and fluency
  • structure arguments in a focused, coherent and persuasive way, and support them with relevant examples
  • engage in detailed, critical examination of a wide range of texts in different forms, styles and registers
  • appreciate the subtleties of technique and style employed by writers and speakers of the language

Task Force 2012: our plan for using collaborative tools

While our middle school has a 1:1 program in grades 6 and 7 our high school is planning to roll out a 1:1 program in August 2012. We have created a 27 member task force comprised of teachers, students, parents and administrators whose job it is to get out in front of the learning and to make recommendations for the 2011 school year.  The task force leadership group decided to structure the group, which has a December – June lifespan, around these ideas and goals.

“We will strive to keep the learning purposeful and the task force focused on creating recommendations (action plans) for the 2011 school year.”  


  • Develop recommendations/action steps for the high school for the 2011-12 school year. Recommendations will be based on the International Society for Technology in Education’s Essential Conditions.
  • Share information on 21st century education with the Graded community.

The group meets monthly for 4 hour chunks of time so we realize the importance of communicating and collaborating virtually. There are three tools that we are relying on heavily for communication and collaboration.

1. Ning – The 2012 Task Force Ning is our hub for communication. While there are 27 members of the task force, there are 56 members on the Ning. We have opened it up to our entire community. We started by posting notes from our initial meetings in the discussion forum and are encouraging video uploads, ongoing discussions and blog posts. We use it as a portal for discussions and an archive of our process. Recently, we asked our high school leadership team to review the Ning so that the members could gain a sense of what the task force is doing. While we’re never satisfied with the level of participation, the amount of information that has been generated after 3 months is fantastic.

2. Diigo – We have created a group called Graded 21st Century that members can use to share web resources. Members can also share highlights and notes with the rest of the group. We are finding that the long tale property  holds true with a very small number of members contributing multiple sources. It will be interesting to see how participation improves over time.

3. Google Docs – We use Google Education tools to collaborate and present information. These tools are available 24/7 for members to use and we have a rich archive of information.

So, what have we learned in rolling out these tools?

1. Building the Ning doesn’t mean that people will automatically start using the tool. We found that we had to provide support to help the teachers, students and parents to get started. Sending the information out via e-mail only worked for some of the participants.

2. Using the tools during the face to face meetings is a must. Aside from the obvious reasons, this allows the participants to discuss the tools and they can get help, if necessary.

3. We’re working with an outside consultant and she is able to track our progress and participate in the discussions. On a recent Skype call with her I asked her to guess which direction the group took in a recent meeting and she had already seen the work and was able to comment. It’s so efficient and effective to have her linked in with our work.

4. Making a monthly post an assigned task has had mixed results. Some were more comfortable with expounding on their ideas that related to specific online resources and others just shared resources on the Ning. We’re hoping that with feedback and discussion that posting will become a habit and that the quality of the posts will improve.

5. We’re constantly looking for ways to increase the chatter on the Ning. We are optimistic that we’ll develop a culture of online collaboration but it seems to be something that we can’t give up on.

We’re very excited about the work that this group is doing and it will be exciting to see how this online culture evolves. What suggestions do you have for us?