Find Your Flow: Staying Fresh

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One of the questions in my job interview for my current role as Executive Director of School Renewal was about how I keep up on innovative work happening around the country.  At the time, I was a charter high school principal, working in a Charter Management Organization that was part of a network of schools and districts at the forefront of the Deeper Learning movement.  The trendy acronyms weren’t just part of my vocabulary – PBL, RTI, Personalization, Performance Assessment – they were part of my experience.  Just a few years prior I had spent a year at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I felt like the constant flow of guest speakers – the Secretary of Education, the President of the NEA, the producers of Waiting for Superman, the director of education initiatives for the Gates Foundation, to name a few – exposed me to the broad movements happening in education in our country and around the world, to say nothing of the content of my coursework.  I started to list the sources to the interview panel.

“Yeah, that’s nice, but how do you plan to stay connected to innovation in the sector?”  I guess Santa Ana wasn’t going to be a place where I could rest on my laurels.

Which all leads to the question, How can I be deliberate in designing a workflow that is heavy in its diet of new ideas, impactful application of concepts, and exploration of what inspires and motivates the people around me?  Here’s three sources that I turn to on a weekly, if not daily, basis to keep myself connected and inspired.

Listen to Podcasts

There’s a reason this is first on my list, and I’ll readily admit my addiction.  When I’m biking in to work or travelling from school to school, I’m always listening to podcasts.  Some of the podcasts I choose are obvious in their connection to innovation in the education sector.  I’m religious about listening to Getting Smart, produced by Tom VanderArk and his team that captures the breadth of innovation in education in a way I simply haven’t seen anywhere else.  I’m equally passionate about Design Matters. Debbie Millman has been producing this podcast for 10 years, and I’m consistently inspired and intrigued by her lineup of artists and designers.  I similarly enjoyed the Creative Mornings podcasts, although that seems to have been a single season phenomenon.  I also appreciate broader conversations about policy and political movements in the country – from Slate’s Political Gabfest to Vox’s In the Weeds.  I’ve tried a few different apps to manage my podcasts, including Apple’s built-in app for the iPhone.  Right now, my top choice is Overcast.

There are two reasons why I gravitate towards podcasts.  First, I’m on the move a lot, and listening is often the only (relatively) safe mode of input.  Second, I don’t have a lot of additional time in my daily schedule.  Part of my productivity and workflow crusade is to find ways to deepen my knowledge base and gain access to new ideas in ways that don’t necessarily extend my work day.

I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m always trying to maximize productivity when I’m on the move.  I’m a human being and definitely need to decompress at times as well.  Sometimes I do that with music, but more often then not I’m listening to a range of podcasts that are nothing more than fun and interesting.

Curate Your Reading

In the past, we relied on magazine editors to curate ideas and concepts on our behalf.  I think there is still an important role for expert curation within any given field of study or subculture, and I haven’t lost my love for the packaged imagery and writing of a good magazine.

But the days of turning to Edweek as our sole or even primary source of insight are long gone.  Our digital environment has liberated content in ways that can vastly expand our exposure to new ideas.  The blogosphere often gives us access to a more informal and honest discussion threads.  I’m an even bigger fan of apps and sites that build in curation functionality to make it easier to find and manage interesting writing.  Just like Pandora or Spotify allow you to curate your music playlists, an app like Flipbook or a site like Medium allow you to curate sources for your reading.  I glean a lot of insight from other sectors – from business and health to leadership and psychology – by explicitly adding these topics to my reading list.  And the technology keeps getting better and more intelligent.  I can find content using increasingly precise search language.

And if you, like me, really do have a love for beautiful print, you can join a subscription service like Stack, that delivers a different high-quality independent magazine to your door each month.  This approach adds the element of surprise, as you never know what magazine is going to show up.  Just like the advent of clothes box subscriptions or farmers market baskets, this type of magazine subscription can really open up new possibilities we didn’t expect or that might be out of our comfort zone.

Get Out of Your Space 

It’s almost a leadership cliche – get your people out to see innovative work happening in other places.  We know how powerful it can be to see real human beings pushing the boundaries in real organizations.  Yet it’s still really hard to do.  A lot of the difficulty comes from the basic demands of schooling – our students come to us every day to learn.  Leaving for even just a day has its consequences.  We find ourselves painstakingly weighing the tradeoffs of leaving our classrooms and schools and the potential professional learning and insight that awaits.

And it’s no easier on the receiving side.  It’s hard to host visitors.  Substitutes and classroom coverage have to be arranged.  If you want to talk to teachers and administrators about their transformational practices, they have to step outside of the system.  It takes a real commitment to professional learning to commit the necessary resources – and even when we do, it’s hard to create the mental space to focus exclusively on our learning, and not the daily exigencies of the classroom or front office.

But it’s absolutely necessary.

Perhaps no strategy better informs a broad perspective on what is possible in our schools and organizations.  While these visits may necessarily be more limited than the daily access to listening or reading, they should still form a purposeful and planned part of our professional workflow.  We need visitation goals on an annual, if not monthly basis.  Some of those learning moments can certainly be on the receiving end, when we welcome visitors into our own schools and classrooms and encourage an honest discussion about what is working and what needs working.

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