Leadership Lesson from Band of Brothers

One of my favorite moments in Band of Brothers — the nothing-short-of-amazing HBO series that tracks the grind of Easy Company across Europe during World War II — comes at the end of Episode 8 when the war is winding down and the men of Easy Company are doing all that they can to stay alive because they can finally see themselves as survivors.

Rumors of German surrender are running rampant and resistance on the front lines is almost nonexistent.  Divisions and battalions and companies on both sides of the front settle into a comfortable stalemate — unwilling to risk death in the last days of a horrible war that saw too many men lost.

The men of Easy Company are angered when Colonel Cink — their commanding officer — orders them to cross the lines in a midnight raid designed to capture enemy soldiers that can be interrogated for intelligence on the state of the German army.  Taught to take orders, however, the men move forward with the raid despite being uncomfortable with the risk of losing a man so close to the end of the war.

In some ways, the nighttime mission is a success.  Easy Company captures two soldiers who are returned to the American lines for interrogation.  But during the raid, a young private named Jackson is mortally wounded after entering a building too closely behind a grenade meant to clear the room of Germans.  Watching him bleed out is devastating for the men, reinforcing the truly senseless nature of the war.

The next morning, Colonel Cink commends the men for their successful mission and orders them to return to the German lines the next night to capture more prisoners.

His order seems senseless to the men of Easy Company.  How could capturing additional prisoners from the same German regiment provide additional information?  Worse yet, his orders seem self-serving:  Cink sees the heroic actions of Easy Company as nothing more than professional feathers in his cap.

As the men of Easy Company meet with their Battalion Commander — Major Dick Winters — to plan the attack, they are caught off-guard.  Winters orders his men to do nothing more than report back to him in the morning that their efforts to cross the German lines were thwarted and that no additional prisoners could be captured.  “Am I understood?” he asks.  The grateful men recognize immediately that Winters is telling them to ignore the orders of Colonel Sink in an attempt to keep them out of harm’s way.

Can you see the leadership lesson in the story of Colonel Cink and Captain Winters?

The men of Easy Company were counting on Captain Winters to protect them — and in this circumstance, protecting them required creative interpretation of the rules.  Winters recognized that the task assigned to his men wasn’t worth it, so he found a way to keep his men safe — even if it meant risking his own professional standing with his superiors.

Teachers depend on principals to protect them as well.  We are constantly buried in programs and projects that pull our time and attention away from our core work.  With little organizational authority, we’re forced to invest energy and effort into tasks assigned by folks further up the organizational pyramid whether those tasks are well-thought out or not.

When school leaders take a stand by pushing back against “orders” that are pointless, they earn the trust and respect of the teachers working in their buildings.

Any of this make sense?


Related Radical Reads:

School Leadership is a lot like Lifeguarding

What Can the Principals of PLCs Learn from Antarctic Disasters?

Three Simple Sherpa Lessons for School Leaders


My Beef with the Gamification of Education.

As most of you know, I’ve been arguing that technology DOESN’T motivate kids and that our goal SHOULDN’T be to engage learners for a long time (see here and here and here and here and here).

Those strands started rolling through my mind again this morning when iMagine Machine dropped me a Tweet asking me to check out their new geometry themed game, The Land of Venn because they thought it aligned nicely with my quest to find learning opportunities — not technology — that motivates kids.

So I spent a few minutes poking around the Land of Venn’s website — and walked away more convinced than ever that #edtech conversations and companies are headed in the wrong direction.

Now don’t get me wrong:  There’s nothing inherently evil about The Land of Venn.  From the description on the site, elementary kids in grades one through four are exposed to geometric terms and shapes while trying to save an imaginary land from an evil wizard who has set out to destroy a rock guitar playing Elegast. “Mesmerizing gameplay and an original plot,” the site explains, “captivates the child in a unique and exciting world of monsters and magic juice.”

Sounds better than a worksheet, right?

What bugs me is that like most educational games, The Land of Venn seems to place a heavy emphasis on traditional instructional strategies like memorization and repetition.

Marketing statements like “Sneakily teaches geometry step by step without the child even realizing it” and “The Child will draw over 5000 geometrical shapes while being continually exposed to a variety of geometric terms and principles over 5000 times” hint that The Land of Venn isn’t all that revolutionary.  Sure, drill and practice plays a role in learning.  And yes, mastering basic skills and concepts is a first step towards doing more meaningful work.  But shouldn’t reimagining the classroom be about something more than find exciting substitutions for memorization and repetition?

I’m also bugged by the fact that so many folks believe that we need digital games set in fictional spaces with recalcitrant zombies, talking unicorns and whizz-bang magic spells in order for kids to develop the skills celebrated by supporters of gamification.

People who promote the gamification of education celebrate the recursive, collaborative and reflective nature of the learning that happens in games.  As gamers work their way through new challenges and levels, they fail and plan and strategize and modify and share and collaborate with one another.

Those ARE skills that matter.

But to suggest that students will only willingly embrace those skills when they are working through “exciting worlds full of monsters and magic juice” is a cop out for teachers and an insult to kids.  Imagine how much more meaningful learning could be if kids were failing and planning and strategizing and sharing and collaborating with one another while trying to address a REAL problem facing REAL people in the REAL world?

Clean water is a problem in this world.  Heck, every 20 SECONDS, a child dies because they don’t have access to a fresh water source.  Did you know that?  Global poverty is a problem.  So is pollution and violence and deforestation and the loss of pollinators and bias in news sources and unfair elections and immigration and fracking and powering the planet and access to safe community spaces like libraries and parks.

Couldn’t we build “gamified” learning experiences around those issues too?  

My personal goal over the past several years has been to encourage students to become active contributors to the communities around us.  Inspired by Marc Prensky’s argument that technology gives kids power and Will Richardson’s push for schools to give kids chances to do work that matters, I’m trying to deliver essential skills within the context of projects designed to make a difference.  Whether we are Kiva lending, creating anti-bullying PSAs, or raising awareness about the sugar in the foods we eat, the projects that leave my kids inspired are the projects that are connected to something beyond our classroom.

Don’t get me wrong:  I bet that some kids will LOVE having the chance to save the rock guitar playing Elegast from Apeirogon the dark wizard in The Land of Venn.  But I’d love to see those same kids saving their own communities from the metaphorical Apeirogon’s that we wrestle with on a daily basis.

Doing so would leave them more than engaged.  It would leave them empowered.


Related Radical Reads:

My Kids, a Cause and our Classroom Blog

An Interview with the #sugarkills Gang

#edtech Reflections for Preservice Teachers

Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome


Presentation Materials: Solution Tree #atplc Institute

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be working alongside the super motivated educators at Solution Tree’s PLC Institute in Seattle and San Antonio.  The goal for most of the participants will be to find ways to polish their collaborative practices in order to help kids learn.  Together, teams from individual schools will study everything from the core beliefs that support learning communities to the nuts and bolts of making effective collaboration possible.

I’ll be delivering three different breakout sessions at the Institutes.  Here are the materials for each session.  Hope you find them useful:

Small Schools and Singletons:  Structuring Meaningful Professional Learning Teams for Every Teacher

Download Session Materials

The PLC concept resonates with most educators, but making collaborative learning work in small schools or for singleton teachers can be challenging.  In this session, participants will explore four different models for creating meaningful professional learning teams for singletons and teachers in small schools:  The creation of vertical teams studying skills that cross content areas, designing class loads that allow teachers to teach the same subjects, using electronic tools to pair teachers with peers working in the same subject area, and using student work behaviors as an area of focus for nontraditional learning teams.

Plug Us In:  Using Digital Tools to Facilitate the Work of PLCs

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For professional learning teams, collaboration can be nothing short of demanding.  Developing – and then organizing – collections of shared materials, making important decisions, and communicating with colleagues across grade levels and departments often requires additional time that classroom teachers just don’t have.

As a result, many teachers question whether or not the costs of coordination outweigh the benefits of collaboration in Professional Learning Communities.  In this session, full-time classroom teacher and Solution Tree author Bill Ferriter introduces participants to a range of free digital tools that 21st Century learning teams are using to make their collective work more efficient – and therefore, more rewarding.

We’re Meeting.  Now What?:  A Look Inside a Learning Team

Download Session Materials

For teachers on novice learning teams, collaborative meetings can be nothing short of overwhelming!  Not used to making collective decisions, teachers can struggle to organize their early work together and begin to question the benefit of a school’s decision to restructure as a professional learning community.  In this session, full-time classroom teacher and Solution Tree author Bill Ferriter explores the kinds of actions that successful learning teams take to make the most of their time together.

You can also find my PLC related posts on the Radical here and download a TON of free handouts from my PLC books here and here



Related Radical Reads:

The Power of PLCs

Five Resources for School Leaders Starting PLCs from Scratch

These are OUR Kids

Five #ISTE2014 Tweets that STILL Have Me Thinking.

One of my favorite parts about attending a conference like #ISTE2014 is having the chance to think deeply with brilliant peers.  Every conversation that I had — whether it took place in a diner, outside the Expo hall, in the backchannel of a session, or on a walk back to the condo that I shared with Philip Cummings and John Spencer — was a chance to wrestle with teaching and learning in today’s world.

What I loved the best, though, was working to share those conversations through Twitter.  Because Twitter is an intentionally restricted medium built on short messages, giving others a summary of the learning that I was doing required me to clarify and polish and condense the fundamental notions running through my head.  The results, I think, are clear and simple statements of my core beliefs.

Here are five of those statements that still have me thinking:

One of the things that I liked the LEAST about ISTE was listening to people tell me about their favorite digital tools simply because MOST of those conversations overlooked the simple truth that technology alone isn’t a motivator for kids:


On a similar note, I started thinking a lot about the kinds of people that we look to for leadership in today’s digital world.  Often, we celebrate the Techie, thinking that any person with a backpack full of digital tools HAS to know what matters in today’s classroom.  The simple truth is that I’d take a teaching geek over a tech geek any day:


Walking through the Expo Hall at ISTE is — in many ways — a frightening experience.  You are surrounded by hundreds of companies peddling their products, working to convince you that their features would revolutionize education.  What frustrated me was that 90% of the crap on display did nothing to give kids the chance to learn about, participate in, or improve the world around them:


Early on in my ISTE experience, I spent an hour or so sitting in a Commons Area with 10 or 15 other attendees.  During the entire time, NO ONE had a conversation.  Instead, they stared into screens, Tweeting or texting or Voxing or blogging or Instagramming.  That worried me:


If we aren’t talking about kids first and tech second, we’re wasting our time — and probably our district’s cash.  But I’m still shocked at how easy it is to get wrapped up in conversations about gadgets — especially when we are at a conference where people brag about being techies and gear heads and gadget freaks:


Any of this resonate with you?  What did ISTE leave you wondering about?


Related Radical Reads:

The Gadget Happy Classroom Fail

Change Depends on MORE than Shiny iGadgets

Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome