My most important mentor, the late Dr. Rosemarie Carroll, used this quote from a 2002 television commercial to introduce me to our Board of Education when I moved to a position at the district level. I have never forgotten the message, and it comes back to me all the time as I listen to keynote speakers and read leadership books, articles and blogs. It seems obvious that leaders must be able to connect with others in a multitude of ways and also must be able to foster strong connections among those they lead. This ability is a bit hard to pin down, and is typically attributed to charm, charisma, or other personality traits, but lately I am noticing that it seems to me to be closely associated with storytelling. Those seen as influential leaders are often the ones most articulate in discerning and skillfully disseminating the narrative of an organization, school, or group.
In my current position with Illinois Computing Educators, I am fortunate to come into contact with many wonderful leaders of schools, school districts, associations and other organizations. Most of the time, my first conversation with those I meet consists of explaining to each other what we do and a bit about our respective organizations. Almost always, I learn an amazing amount about their organizations in these brief conversations; their organizational culture and values are revealed in the projects and accomplishments they enthusiastically and joyfully share. Some of these new contacts are informal or emerging leaders, without positional power in their organizations, though they are making things happen and are influential nonetheless. Whether emerging or established, these leaders share the ability to tap into organizational qualities, practices and traditions and retell them as a narrative or story that rings true to those both within and outside the organization. This story provides a shared identity, source of pride and recognition for both individuals and the group as a whole. If the prevailing narrative is negative, disjointed, or cannot be pieced together because there is no cohesion within an organization, the school or organization is sorely in need of a Storyteller-in-Chief. Vision setting, reaching consensus on shared values and commitments, and monitoring the implementation and practice of these agreements is really building the “story” of the organization, a shared narrative that gives ownership and meaning to the work they do.
At our recent conference, ICE 2013, the importance of storytelling was a common theme for many of our speakers. Whether described as student voice, agency, or empowerment, our keynote and spotlight speakers shared powerful examples of the learning that occurs when students create, communicate, collaborate and demonstrate their learning by publishing ideas that make things happen in the “real” adult world. I learned about WOW projects that are “worthy of the world,” and saw example after example of how student ideas and actions made a difference from funding a library in an African school to improving the quality of school lunches in the United Kingdom. While these examples are not necessarily commonplace, they are multiplying and they provide a glimpse of what is possible when the right combination of creative freedom and skilled support intersect in a student’s life. Powered by technology and a myriad of online self-publishing tools, video and image editing tools and social media, the possibilities are truly boundless.
These boundless possibilities pose both a blessing and a burden for today’s educational leaders. How can we begin to empower our students to be worthy of the world if we do not use the available tools to promote and fund the kind of programs and resources required to facilitate students as contributing global citizens? It’s no longer adequate to simply have a compelling organizational story; today’s Storytellers-in-Chief must also be skilled in promoting and sharing their stories so that they reach local and even global audiences. In a recent blog post, Daniel M. Russell, Google’s “anthropologist of search” ponders the question, What does it mean to be literate? He introduces the idea of metaliteracy, or knowing how to be literate about your own literacy.
Metaliteracy becomes critical in a world with new media genres emerging rapidly and continually. Russell describes a new digital book, Our Choice, from PushPopPress as a “wonderfully genre-bending thing that has interactive graphics, embedded videos, and text that weaves through and with all the media. “Reading” this kind of text is very different than traditional reading—you turn the “page” with a swipe gesture, but go “into subsections” with a pinch-expand gesture. What was once a footnote is now an animation of how geothermal works, or an interactive visualization of wind energy resources. Audio isn’t just layered on, it’s integral to the work.” This is a far cry from the books any of us experienced in our learning to read days, so learning to read becomes our life’s work.
And so we enter this world of metaliteracy, knowing that this is the logical extension of the idea of “life-long learning” that is written into so many of our mission statements. While it may be daunting to think that learning to read can no longer be a goal accomplished and checked off of one’s list, this is where connecting becomes truly important. Those narratives others share about their organizations’ accomplishments are worth probing. Why did they decide on their particular device of choice for their 1:1 implementation? How are they using tablets as creation tools rather than as digital worksheets? What policies did they implement to provide students with publishing and online collaboration opportunities? Which new tools and resources are they finding most promising for use with students?
This probing is not limited to colleagues we have actually met in person. I would not have known about Dan Russell’s literacy blog post without my Twitter PLN (Personal Learning Network); it was a link in a tweet from Andrea Hernandez, @edtechworkshop. Until just now, I did not even follow Andrea on Twitter, but she has been retweeted by @AngelaMaiers, @LeydenASCI, @coolcatteacher, and @langwitches, among others. My PLN has once again connected me to an important post that has helped me articulate my thoughts for this piece. My PLN is loaded with amazing Storytellers-in-Chief. I followed Wes Fryer, @wfryer, and Scott McLeod, @mcleod, for years before I heard them speak at ICE last month. I am delighted to be able to keep up with Pam Allyn, @pamallyn, now that I have had the opportunity to learn about her work. I felt like I was part of recent MACUL and GAFE events by watching the event hashtags during presentations by Kevin Honeycutt and Jim Sills, though I was working at home or at the ICE Office during these sessions. I am “connecting” today in ways that Rosemarie and I could not have imagined in 2002, which is really just a smidge over a decade ago. How will we be able to connect a decade from now? You must first connect.