Active listening: the diary

This is the chronicle of my week, focused on active listening. To read the blog post summarizing what I learned, see “Active listening at a tech startup.”


  • On Mondays we have a cross-product staff meeting with a representative from every product, where we review a document of all the work that will be completed that week. In this week’s meeting, the CEO was in attendance. The meeting was proceeding pretty routinely, but toward the end things got more heated when one of my coworkers opened a can of worms by asking a sensitive question directed at the CEO. This sparked an intense 3 minutes of conversation, and I couldn’t help but chime in, since the topic was something I felt strongly about. I failed to active listen in this moment. I left the meeting feeling flustered. Instead of active listening, I had just thrown out my own opinion. I felt like my opinion had not been heard or validated in any way. I assume others in the room, including the CEO, felt the same.
  • Not long after, I was in a meeting with other members of the product team. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss  what metrics we want to look at. The answer was pretty clear in my mind and I ended up dominating the conversation with my input. Even if that was a productive way to engage in the meeting, it did not do me any favors. Though I didn’t get much push back during the meeting, I attributed that partly to people’s exhaustion from the previous meeting, which most of us had been a part of. Though I left the meeting feeling like I had contributed to the outcome, I did not leave feeling great about building relationships with my coworkers, which is equally- if not more- important to my success at work.
  • When I wasn’t in meetings, I was usually at my desk talking to the tech lead I work with- let’s call him George. George and I sit next to each other and have a lot to talk about. I think our frequent communication has greatly helped our professional relationship. I can tell we both put effort into understanding where the other person is coming from.


  • My team’s morning standup went by quickly, and I did not directly respond to what anyone said. Quick standups are not necessarily a place to practice active listening, but I can still do a better job of making eye contact and paying attention to what everyone on my team is saying, rather than looking at my screen and nodding along.
  • I did not have any meetings all day (yay!), though George and I conducted many back to back video chats with teachers for user research. During these sessions, I asked teachers questions while George took notes and occasionally asked his own. Because a video chat can feel less personal than a face to face meeting, I routinely restated or summarized what the teacher was saying back to them. The teachers always seemed to appreciate this- to know that on the other end of the line, they were being understood. If I accurately restated what was said, they would often say “YES!” Teachers are also intimately familiar with the concept of “checks for understanding,” so they were quite receptive to my repeating what they said (some of them also said “great question” before responding to anything I asked, which I loved). I guess I just love talking to teachers. They’re the best.
  • In between calls, George and I continued spending much of the day talking to each other. I also noticed for the first time that I’m the only product manager who sits right next to my tech lead. I have moved desks a few times at this job and have sat next to different people. I’ve definitely noticed that sitting next to someone improves my relationship with them (on both a professional and personal level). I guess that’s the proximity principle in action. Since the most important person for me to work well with right now is George, there is no one else I’d rather be proximate to.
  • I had a brief one on one meeting with the CEO, where I started the meeting by asking him for some feedback on my performance. Asking for feedback was especially important for me that day, after the intense meeting we were both in on Monday. I was worried that I had upset him by talking back to him during Monday’s meeting when he was particularly impassioned, and I wanted to give him an opportunity to deliver feedback to me directly. Luckily he did not seem upset by my participation. He gave me some positive feedback which was nice to hear, and the constructive criticism he did give was not directed at me personally but at the overall culture on our team. Throughout his feedback, I did use active listening to repeat back what he was saying, and he exclaimed “YES!” when that happened.
  • Overall today showed me that I’m much better at active listening in a one on one setting. I also found today much less stressful than yesterday.


  • We had our big weekly team meeting today. I did participate and I found myself much calmer. The CEO attended and delivered some of the same feedback he told me on Tuesday. I did actively participate in the meeting but I did not feel like I dominated the conversation. Active listening helped- in fact, at one point I explicitly said to the CEO, “Let me repeat back to you what I’m hearing you say”- which was a helpful point in the meeting for many of us in the room.
  • Two coworkers separately asked me to go on walks with them, which I really appreciated. One asked for my advice on a situation affecting their professional development, and another updated me on what was going on in their personal lives. It means a lot when coworkers confide in me, and I treasure that trust. I tried hard to practice active listening during both conversations, though I found it was more difficult to do when I had strong opinions to express.
  • George and I continued our video chats with teachers, which continued to go well.
  • Toward the end of the day I led a meeting on data analytics, looking at what new data we want to track. It was with two coworkers I work with closely so I had a good sense of where they were coming from. I wasn’t as focused on active listening but the meeting seemed to go well anyway, perhaps because we were so aligned on next steps.
  • As I was getting ready to go home, I was asked to speak with a member of our sales team, who asked me some questions before a call he had the next day. Our conversation illuminated some misalignment between what the sales team was selling and what the product team was building (a phenomenon not unheard of at many companies). This could have been an uncomfortable conversation but I was very focused on putting myself in his shoes and talking from his point of view. I knew the misalignment would have to be resolved and that it wouldn’t get done in that one conversation, which helped me stay calm and collected.


  • This day was relatively quiet. I had an exploratory phone call with a potential external partner in the morning, which went well- in part because it’s much easier to repeat back to someone what they’re saying when the situation is new and you’re still learning the context. Active listening comes in pretty handy, and almost a bit naturally, during these types of phone calls.
  • My parents visited my work and we went out for lunch together. I find active listening with parents can actually be trickier than with most other people because I have a bad habit of reverting to an “eye roll” response in our conversations.
  • George and I conducted more teacher video chats which all went well.
  • We had our company all-hands meeting, where I did not actively participate.


  • George and I wrapped up all our video chats with teachers, which all went well.
  • During lunch I met with staff from our sales and marketing team. I definitely did not do a great job active listening and – unsurprisingly- the meeting definitely could have gone much better. The sales and marketing folks are under a lot of pressure. Even though there is much push back I have to provide to protect the work my product team is doing- especially the engineers- I have to do it in the right way. Unfortunately  when they were speaking to me in impassioned tones I could not help from responding in impassioned tones from my own perspective. This was not helpful, and the fact that it was a Friday lunch meeting doesn’t give me an excuse to not be as intentional about active listening.
  • I spent the end of the day Friday in front of a whiteboard with George, doing a design thinking exercise as we went over the notes from all of our user research. This was a highly productive session and we came out of it with some clear next steps. Again, the mutual respect and working relationship that George and I have built has helped us get to this point.
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More with Google Fusion Tables…

I want to make a map that changes based on user input. A map with a dynamic data source. Seems simple enough.  I hear good things about Mapbox so I downloaded Mapbox Studio and started playing with it, but it was pretty confusing to figure out how to do what I wanted. Maybe it just has way more functionality than I need.  So I went back to the simple Google Fusion Tables I’ve used before, and took them one step further.

I followed these directions on how to sync fusion tables with Google spreadsheets. It was straightforward but involved a few firsts for me:

  • My first time using the script editor on a Google spreadsheet.
  • My first time using the Google Developers Console
  • My first time enabling a Google API (Fusion Tables API)
  • My first time creating credentials to access an API
  • My first time using Advanced Google Services

Clearly, this is some 101 level stuff, but I’m still proud of getting through it! It involved some troubleshooting. Now I have a map that automatically updates when I update a spreadsheet. Yay!

Next step: turn the spreadsheet into a form, so that I have an interface for inputting information.

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Why per pupil spending?

As I learn more about public funding for education, I have been questioning why the de facto metric is per pupil spending. I’m sorry, but per pupil spending does not intuitively make sense to me. If you tell me that school A spends $5,000 per pupil and school B spends $10,000 per pupil, what am I supposed to assume?

  • That school A is hoarding money and not spending it on students.
  • That school B is wasteful and taking students on field trips to Paris.
  • That the district likes school B’s programs better.
  • That school A’s district keeps more money for itself.
  • That the two schools have the same budget of $1,000,000 but school A has 200 students and school B has 100 students.
  • That school A has more young teachers who make less money.
  • That school B has more students with special needs.
  • That school B was able to privately fundraise on top of its given budget.

For example, the website School Funding Fairness uses discrepancies in per pupil spending as the cornerstone of its argument that public school funding is unfair and inequitable. When experts present school funding numbers, I bet none of the above assumptions is what they want me to make.  But the fact remains that focusing on per pupil spending leaves me with more questions than answers.

The numbers I *actually* want to see when I think about school funding have more to do with:

  • How schools get their money
  • How schools spend the money

And when I think about the answer to either of these, I don’t think of per pupil spending.

How schools get their money

I want to see what money schools have coming in, broken down by federal, state, and local sources, as well as private fundraising. And I want to see *why* it’s coming in, such as weighted student formula, grants, etc.

How schools spend their money

I want to see a breakdown of school expenditures, including what % of the budget is spent on salaries, instructional expenses, enrichment programs, and things like food, buildings and transportation.

The good news is that budget information such as the information provided on the SFUSD website is presented in more detail than just per pupil funding. The bad news is it’s not always easily accessible in the most intuitive format.


Donor funds used to cover salaries

When I lived in Boston I served on the board of a pilot public school, Fenway High School. Sitting on the  board’s Finance Committee, I got more comfortable looking at school budgets. In fact, one of my projects was analyzing budget data. I put together a presentation that showed while funding from BPS was declining, more and more of the funding that Fenway was raising- intended for enrichment programs- was covering basic operational expenses such as teacher salaries and instructional materials.

These types of insights into school budgets- which are just the tip of the iceberg- don’t come easily. Becoming familiar with Fenway’s budget took a lot of time and conversation with other board members and school leaders. As I learn more about public education funding, I’m interested in getting to the metrics that reflect what’s really happening inside the schools. Digging into funding for San Francisco public high schools, I hope to shed light on how schools get their money and how schools spend their money, explained in ways more intuitive than per pupil spending.

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Should schools try to boost self esteem? Can feminism help?

Note: this blog post is more personal than you might expect.

I struggled with low self esteem when I was younger, particularly in high school. As an adult who now works in education, I think about the types of educational reforms within our grasp that improve self esteem, particularly for teenage girls.


Photo Credit:

I contacted a couple friends of mine who have PhDs in Psychology, with special emphases on School Psychology. I asked if they knew of research on what school programs or interventions improve self esteem in youth. To my surprise, both of them replied basically saying “High self esteem? Why would you want that?”


My friend Marc said the following: “In social psychology, we generally frown on interventions that target selfesteem because we assume that what you should do is help people have genuine accomplishments, and selfesteem is the natural reward for those accomplishments.”

(This was interesting but hard for me to swallow, since I think I experienced genuine accomplishments in high school and also low self esteem.) Marc’s answer was just the tip of the iceberg.

My friend Jessica then pointed me to various journal articles written on self esteem, such as “An Alternative to Self-Esteem” from the National Association of School Psychologists and “The Truth About Self-Esteem” by one of my favorite education writers, Alfie Kohn.

As I read these articles and others (see “Self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor”) I quickly realized that for many people, improving self esteem means hollow praise, spoiled kids, sheltered existence, overinflated self worth, and the overall decline of American society. 

I winced as I read all this, thinking of the insecurities and low self esteem of my teenage years. I wanted to nurture and care for that fragile side of youth, and instead people see these interventions as a bad idea. Was I really wrong to think there was something schools could do to combat low self esteem? I hope not.

In the research articles and media pieces against self esteem interventions, what I see missing is the immense gendered experience of coming of age. This was central to my personal experience, where my own low self esteem was tied to my looks- I thought I was fat and ugly. When I think about the hours I spent thinking about how fat and ugly I was, and the AIM messages my friends and I were sending back and forth every night that said “you’re not fat, I’m fat,” I get angry- both at how I could have used that time better, and how I know I’m not alone. Millions of teenage girls are spending valuable time feeling bad about themselves- not to mention how this could lead to harmful behaviors- instead of channeling their energy in positive directions (and yes, genuine accomplishments). (Low self esteem in teenage boys is also often tied to gender, but I’ll save that for another blog post.)

One thing that could have helped high school Julia would have been a women’s group at school. A space for me to think critically- about why I was feeling certain feelings or thinking certain thoughts- would have helped me realize that the problem wasn’t me, it was societal pressures facing teenage girls. I came home after school every day and turned on MTV’s TRL, watching music videos of scantily clad women gyrating to the beat. Then I wondered why I felt like crap. It wasn’t until I discovered feminism that depictions of women in media became something I thought critically about and became passionate over. Being a teenager is hard for many reasons and dealing with gender identity is only a part of it, but the self esteem boost that comes from a feminist lens can transfer to dealing with non gendered struggles as well.

I did not discover feminism until I was an adult, and it changed my life for the better- primarily in opening my eyes to a world of social justice work that I could get behind- rallying together with women instead of feeling insecure and alone. I only wish I had gotten there sooner. After college, I taught high school at Leadership Public Schools in Richmond, CA. There I started a club called Ladies Outspoken, a weekly discussion group during lunch for high school students interested in exploring gender topics. Only one or two girls came each week.

As a first year teacher, I know I made mistakes and could have done better in many ways. I wish I did a better job building a community of support for teenage girls. Now I want to hear about programs that work, particularly best practices in middle and high schools. Should schools try to boost self esteem? Can feminism help? I like to think the answer is Yes and Yes please.

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Map of Public High Schools in San Francisco

I’d like to play with data visualizations of schools in San Francisco. So, let’s start with high schools, and narrow it down to non-charter public high schools. I spent some time finding data on the 18* public high schools in SF and learning how to use fusion tables (woohoo!).

So here it is, my first attempt, Part 1! A map of all the public high schools in San Francisco. Color coded markers based on # of students with free/reduced lunch. Click on the map below and you’ll be able to click on the markers and see more info about the schools. Check it out and let me know what you think!

San Francisco Public High Schools

San Francisco Public High Schools

And here is Part 2! Same map, now with color coded markers based on most recent API score (CA’s Academic Performance Index, which is currently suspended). Click on the map below and you’ll be able to click on the markers and see more info about the schools. Check it out and let me know what you think!

San Francisco Public High Schools

San Francisco Public High Schools

One of the first things we notice is the overlap between the two maps. Sad to see that the percentage of low income students persists as an indicator of school performance in San Francisco. I’m curious what else you see here and what questions this raises for you. What other ways would you like to see SF education info presented– exact correlations? a map of all the school mascots? Photos of the cafeterias? I’d love your input! Also curious how this is perceived by people who are or are not familiar with the city.

Suggestions on other mapping tools I should use are also welcome.

*According to SFUSD, there are 18 high schools in the district. According to GreatSchools, there are 23 (it seems to include 5 additional special education programs in the list). Wikipedia includes 17 of these (it doesn’t include the Academy of Arts and Sciences), listing 9 of them as “comprehensive” and 8 as “alternative.” Wiki also includes charter schools on its list. The 18 public schools in SF I mapped are:

  • Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Balboa High School
  • Burton High School
  • Downtown High School
  • Galileo Academy of Science and Technology
  • Independence High School
  • International Studies Academy
  • Jordan High School
  • Lincoln High School
  • Lowell High School
  • Marshall High School
  • Mission High School
  • O’Connell High School
  • School of the Arts
  • SF International High School
  • Wallenberg High School
  • Washington High School
  • Wells High School
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Cats, Minecraft, and Stimulating Professional Development- A recap of my first EdCamp experience!

I attended my first EdCamp on Saturday. It was, in a word, inspiring. Brought me back to my days running the DECal program at UC Berkeley, where students take ownership of their education and facilitate their own accredited group study classes. DECal sparked my passion for alternative education models, and I was glad to see those values mirrored at EdCamp. I was encouraged to attend this “unconference for educators” by my new colleagues at Remind, where I’m beginning a new role supporting the community of teachers who use Remind to communicate with students and parents. I was also happy to see a few of my Harker coworkers in attendance as well.

EdCamp San Jose (#EdcampSJ) was held at Union Middle School. Principal Todd Feinberg was kind enough to open up his beautiful campus to us. When I arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect besides the general format of an unconference- participants come up with their own agenda at the beginning of the event. The first person I met at the event was Danielle Sigmon. Danielle is an awesome lady who works at Edutopia. Besides a shared interest in improving K-12 education, we quickly discovered another shared interest- cats! After going through the formal ritual known as “showing each other our cat photos,” I felt like this conference was starting out on the right foot.


photo by Craig Yen

As expected, the morning began with participants writing on a board either what they wanted to learn or what topics they were willing to facilitate a discussion about. The board filled up quickly! Then the EdCamp organizers compiled the lists and put together the day’s schedule, which revolved around three sessions of discussion groups- everyone could attend whichever sessions they were interested in. It was awesome to see the broad spectrum of topics that the participants brought to the table.


photo by Elana Leoni

The first session I attended was on using Twitter and Voxer. I was so glad that people were interested in this topic and that someone had volunteered to lead this session! In my new role at Remind, I’ll be using social media to connect with educators, so I’m working on better understanding how these tools are used in and out of the classroom. I am not exactly an early adopter of new technology, so I tend to only join new platforms when it feels like most other people I know are using them. I have learned that there are strong educator communities on both Twitter and Voxer. (For those of you like me who hadn’t heard of Voxer before, it’s a voice-based platform where groups can chat with one another like a “walkie talkie.” It’s pretty fun and easy to use!) Thank you Craig Yen for leading this session! By the end of it, I had downloaded Voxer, created an account, joined a group, and had already participated in discussion! It was awesome to enter a session not knowing anything about a tool like Voxer, and to leave feeling comfortable using it.

The second session I attended was on using Minecraft in the classroom. My colleague from Harker, Diane Main, was facilitating this session, and she is awesome, so I knew it would be a good one. I had seen parts of the Minecraft documentary before, so at least I didn’t come to the session with the embarrassing notion that Minecraft was Minesweeper (woops… glad I cleared that up before the conference). I was only basically familiar with Minecraft — I knew it was a very popular game and that the founder is Swedish and did not set out to create a multi billion dollar company– he was just an avid gamer who happened to create a cult following. I knew from Diane that Minecraft was also used in classrooms, and I really enjoyed going to her session and hearing from many different teachers how passionate they and their students are about it. The primary theme I heard was that Minecraft is an incredibly creative tool– students can create their own worlds in the game. There is a version of the game called MinecraftEdu which is quite popular in schools. Diane showed some examples of student work using Minecraft- it was very cool to see how she integrated learning tools throughout the game, such as at one point stopping at a treasure chest and answering questions in written form. I came away from the session with a renewed interest in Minecraft- I’d love to watch the whole documentary and also read the book Diane recommended- Minecraft: The Unlikely Tale of Markus “Notch” Persson and the Game that Changed Everything. If anyone wants to watch the movie or do a book club with me, let me know!

There was a lunch break between the second and third sessions, which was a great opportunity to better get to know some of the teachers and organizations in attendance. I loved talking with an elementary school teacher who drove to the event all the way from Tuolumne County (2 and a half hours away!) and also some of the founders at Kodable, which is a computer programming curriculum for elementary school students. Great people!

I session-hopped during the third session, starting out in the GeniusHour session and finishing in the Creative Writing session. I hadn’t heard of GeniusHour before but now I love the concept. It’s also known as 20% time- similar to how some Google employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on a project of personal interest to them- some teachers encourage their students to pursue personal interests during the schoolday. Teachers Angela Der Ramos and Kathy Nichols facilitated the session, and I really appreciate the creative ways they support students in becoming self directed learners. I might have to check out this book that a teacher recommended- The 20Time Project: How educators can launch Google’s formula for future-ready innovation.

I could have stayed in that session but I was curious about what was happening in the Creative Writing session. I’m so glad I went to it for my very last session of the day! Facilitator Elana Leoni had asked everyone in the room to spend 20 minutes free writing, and I joined the session just as they were beginning to share what they wrote with the group. It’s hard to describe what it felt like in that last session- I had casually joined the group late, but was quickly drawn in, humbled and touched by the level of raw and personal emotion that the participants shared. The power of writing– especially creative, reflective writing– clearly touched not only those who shared their words but also those of us who listened. Out of respect for the personal nature of the stories, I will not share them here, but I definitely left with tangible insight into the value of creative writing curriculum and the #writeon movement.

As I walked back to the gym at the end of the last session, I was honestly sad that the EdCamp was coming to an end. And as someone who can think of a lot of things to do besides wake up early and attend a work event on a Saturday, that’s saying a lot. I truly enjoyed all the sessions I attended, appreciated the company of all the educators and educator advocates in attendance, and felt stimulated by what I learned. Throughout the day, I heard many teachers comment on how useless their district-mandated professional development was, in comparison to the self-generated, volunteer-run professional development they were experiencing here. That messages resonates with me, as I move forward with helping teachers feel supported, empowered, and part of a community that understands them. I look forward to harnessing the ethos of EdCamp in my work.

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Open on principle or Open on demand: Who really needs open data and transparency?

I really enjoyed day one of the Code for America Summit. Many of the topics resonated with me, and as host/emcee David Eaves said, the community and aura “felt like home.” I guess this is more evidence that the civic tech space is a better fit for me than the ed tech space, per se. Ironically, one of the things that attracts me to civic media- projects around open data and transparency that are just plain “cool” – is also seen as a huge red flag in the space.

Specifically, many of us drawn to civic media believe in concepts of “open” and “transparent” on principle. Data should be shared and accessible. Good things happen when information is public. These are principles I instinctively believe in, without regard for how exactly the open and transparent and accessible information will be used.

[image]I was challenged today, as I have been in the past, to think one step beyond “what” and “why,” to the ever-important “for whom” and “how.” When we are passionate about a new idea or new product, it is easy to describe what we’re passionate about and why we’re passionate about it. But it is not always easy to describe for whom it will be useful and how they will use it.

For example, take my ambitious global mapping project for education. The fact that this tool should exist is something I feel strongly about. But my feeling comes from a principle (perhaps”should” statements are a giveaway). It’s easy for me to talk about why this project is compelling, but more difficult to answer the question of demand. However, I should know better, if not for common sense, then for the following 3 experiences:

  • One. Before business school, I worked at USAID, the US government’s foreign aid agency. As anyone who’s worked in international development can tell you, there are many projects that come about because someone thought they sounded like a good idea while sitting in an office. What unfortunately happens is these projects get funded before a needs assessment takes place, without actually being tested in the field, and with no local community input. These projects end up being a waste of (taxpayer) money with little or no impact on local communities. That’s why it’s exciting to see a trend right now where development projects are really focused on the end user: initiatives that are targeted around problems facing local communities.
  • Two. I read the entrepreneurship bible and I drank the MIT Kool-aid. Not only did my previous startup come out of MIT’s foundational entrepreneurship class, but I also TA-ed the class for two semesters after that. So I know by heart the first steps of building a successful startup- they can be summed up in 3 words: Know. Your. Customer. As my mentor Bill Aulet likes to say, a customer is the number one requirement for success (actually, he would say a paying customer). This is especially relevant for projects and startups coming out of MIT, many of which are based on a “technology push” rather than a “market pull.” There is so much groundbreaking and fun research happening on campus, and many students and professors want to commercialize products before really understanding their target market. (This does not detract from the fact that if all active MIT-founded companies became a nation, it would be the 17th largest economy in the world.)
  • Three. This past spring I took a course at the MIT Media Lab with the great Ethan Zuckerman, who directs the Center for Civic Media. In his course, I started piloting projects as a part of my vision for edversation. The consistent feedback I received from Ethan and my classmates was: Who is this for? How will they use it? My response of “I’m not sure- it’s just cool!” didn’t cut it. What was particularly interesting was the fact that most of my classmates were journalists (the class was a news media class that attracted many Nieman fellows). I now think anyone who wants to embark on a new venture should find a journalist friend. Journalists have an intense focus on the who and why. They kept asking me, “What is the story here?” That is such an interesting way of looking at new projects- and a clear way to focus on demand rather than on principle.

Along these lines, what resonated with me most throughout the conference today was the theme of focusing on serving a need in the community. For example, there are myriad projects that Code for America fellows work on, yet they are all based on addressing real gaps between municipal governments and their constituents, particularly services for underserved communities. For example, one of my Berkeley classmates worked on this project to help people check their food stamp balances via text message. This ethos of bridging a gap permeates the culture of effective civic media work.


I was struck by today’s keynote speaker, Tom Loosemore. Last year’s keynote speaker was Mike Bracken, and everyone loved him and him team so much that for this year’s keynote they brought in Mike’s colleague, Tom. Mike and Tom are from the UK where they work on the Government Digital Service, building awesome tools to allow citizens to access government services in a central location. I guess many US civic technologists idolize the work that has been done in the UK- it is certainly a great example of how far we can go. One of the most memorable parts of Tom’s speech was when he laid out the dream: a government webpage where someone could enter their name and click “Just sort it all out for me.” It was so simple and elegant when he laid the vision out like that- that is the ultimate goal that civic media projects strive for, especially those focused on making government services more easily accessible. Tom is also responsible for the design principles of the UK’s Government Digital Service- the very first one is “start with needs.”

One of the speakers who echoed this point was panelist Stephanie Hannon, Director of Product Management at Google. Stephanie pushed the audience to let “open” be a means rather than an end. She says data must not just be open but must also be structured, licensed, and reusable. She implored the audience to “start with the people you want to serve, pick the problems you want to solve- think beyond ‘open’.” This sentiment was echoed by other panelists, such as Oliver Wise from New Orleans and Vasudha Reddy from New York City, who asked for more civic tech solutions that they can apply to their cities.

These speakers reinspired me to consider the audience I am targeting with edversation, and helped me flash back to other lessons I have learned about understanding the customer and choosing the story I want to tell. For me, this means first and foremost choosing a use case to focus on as I build an education data tool. It can be teachers building lesson plans, parents picking a school for their kids, donors choosing a school to give money to, or researchers using comparative education statistics. These are the types of decisions I must make in order to be open and transparent- not just on principle but on demand.

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Planned Parenthood- California politics and high school campuses

Last night I attended an educational event in San Francisco hosted by Planned Parenthood. The event was geared to inform the public about Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which is the political arm (the 501-c-4) of the organization.

My first impression was surprise that about 30% of people in attendance were men. In fact, one of the first speakers to share how Planned Parenthood benefited him was male. This first impression laid the foundation for an eye opening evening.

imagesI learned that Planned Parenthood does three types of work: reproductive and general health services (97% of which are preventative), education outreach, and advocacy. The Action Fund does the advocacy work, supporting candidates in local, state, and federal elections.

Adrienne Bousian, who runs Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood Northern California Action Fund, gave a helpful overview of the work Planned Parenthood has done and is doing in California. For example, I learned that California is the only state that has defeated parental consent ballot initiatives three times (all between 2005 and 2008), in part due to the advocacy work of the Action Fund. And the Action Fund is currently focusing on the November 2014 elections, helping elect candidates who support reproductive health care access. I didn’t realize the extent to which Planned Parenthood is politically engaged and active.

One point that stuck with me was when Adrienne described the demographic who cares about reproductive health care access. Today it is primarily people under 30- particularly minority groups- those who don’t vote as much as other groups do. As our generation grows older, we will be a significant part of the voting population, and support for Planned Parenthood turns out to be a pivotal issue that indicates support for other causes as well. Planned Parenthood does a lot of voter registration at its health care centers. It’s always fascinating to learn how voter demographics affect political outcomes and I hope to learn more.

At the event, I also had the pleasure of speaking with Heather Saunders Estes, the President of Planned Parenthood NorCal. I told Heather about my positive experience with Planned Parenthood’s education outreach work. At the high school I taught at in Richmond, Planned Parenthood was on campus every Tuesday, available to answer questions. I had heard about the types of questions and concerns students would bring; it was clear that sex ed in our school was a gap filled by the resources of Planned Parenthood. Knowing that many of my students were sexually active, I invited one of the Planned Parenthood staff members to come speak to my classroom. The day she visited, I was very impressed with the ease and professionalism with which she handled student questions. High school juniors are not an easy audience to discuss the SAT withimages, let alone sexual health. As I sat in the back of the class, I thought how uncomfortable I would have been, having the conversation that she had with my students. That was six years ago, and I know today many of the students already have children- I hope at least some are still connected to Planned Parenthood as a source of information, care and nonjudgmental support.

When I told Heather how grateful I was for Planned Parenthood’s education outreach, she told me that unfortunately many of these programs were cut in 2008. In California, Planned Parenthood’s education outreach work was in large part funded by state grants, but the grant program was cut during the recession. Heather also told me that there are still grants that districts can apply for to bring Planned Parenthood and sex ed to their campuses, but the grant application process is complicated and many districts don’t have the capacity to navigate the bureaucracy. Heather hopes that as the economy improves, the state grant program will come back and be more accessible to school districts.

Since most of the time Planned Parenthood is in the news it is related to abortions (which are a tiny fraction of their health services- only 3%), it was really interesting to learn about their other services and lesser known branches of the organization: the political advocacy and education outreach work.  I am so proud of and encouraged by the efforts of accomplished women like Adrienne and Heather. They are tirelessly pursuing work that benefits all of us.

To learn about how to get involved, check out their site.

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Bringing a police officer into my high school classroom

In 2008 I was teaching at Leadership Public Schools – Richmond when I told my students that I invited a police officer to visit our classroom. The first reaction I heard was “I don’t like cops.”

A few days later, the officer came and spent 45 minutes addressing a group of skeptical high school juniors and answering the questions they had prepared (I heard Richmond can’t afford enough police- is that true? Why do you show up late when someone calls? Have you ever shot anyone? Do you get scared?). That day, I don’t know if he changed anyone’s mind about cops, but he succeeded in connecting with the students by answering their blunt questions, sharing his personal story, and showing a more human side to law enforcement.

Today I am reminded of the tension in that classroom 6 years ago, and how much further we have to go- both systemically and individually- to rebuild trust in our communities. We must not pass off the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri as an isolated incident.

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“Higher education is at an inflection point.”

This morning I read MIT’s final report on the Future of MIT Education (livetweeting as I read).  I was impressed by the quality of the report and its level of specificity (I’m somewhat cynical about reports produced by task forces and committees). The report was published last week and has not attracted much attention, but I decided to geek out and read the whole thing.

As a recent MIT alum, and somitxgendermeone who admires MIT’s cutting edge work in ed tech, MOOCs, and open courseware, I was curious how bold the report would be in setting goals for the campus. The 16 recommendations set forth in the report reflect a tension felt by the task force- “a tension between a desire to preserve the qualities that define an MIT education and a push to make grand, sweeping changes to its very core.” This was illustrated in the nature of the recommendations, some of which were concrete and attainable, while others seemed more vague and generic.

Of the 16 recommendations, I was most fascinated with numbers eight through eleven. These 4 recommendations focused on taking online education to the next level. The first three of these were all about engagement- engaging online learners to address global challenges, engaging the K-12 community, and engaging the 1000 local edX communities with MIT. I believe that technology works best when innovators embed outreach and community building efforts into their core strategy. These three goals set MIT onto that path.

The fourth recommendation is not about outreach but I find it intellectually interesting- the task force challenges the institute to consider certifications through MITx and edX, and to develop pricing methodologies and revenue-sharing arrangements through the certifications. Maybe it’s the nerdy side of my post-MBA life, but this made me think back to my Pricing class at Sloan, and what pricing model might best capture the value of online certifications. This kind of thinking and analysis is really at the cutting edge for MOOCs, and I’m eager to see what direction MIT goes with this charge.

I’m glad I read the report, and I hope current MIT students will read it and engage with the task force. There is a lot of work to be done, and I always think students have a role to play in keeping the institution accountable. Finally, I couldn’t end my analysis without trying to categorize where an institute task force might fit into an ed tech market map, as I “think out loud” over here. For now I have added it as a subsection of MOOCs, and also under a new category I created for University Initiatives. Let me know what you think!

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