Archive for Tech Direction

Making Thinking Tangible

The U Prep Maker Space has provided teachers with new resources to help students develop their logical thinking skills and learn in all disciplines. Teachers have collaborated with Academic Technology Director Jeff Tillinghast to make student thinking tangible and support conceptual understanding.

calculus projectMath teacher Ian McInerney faced a challenge in the teaching of Calculus. Students were having difficulty understanding how functions behave when extended into three dimensions. Although graphing software could represent a 3D object in two dimensions, students had to rotate a virtual object on the computer screen, and they weren’t fully understanding the underlying concepts. Ian and Jeff designed a way for students make physical models of these functions that they could actually hold in their hands. Students calculated the shape of 2D slices of their functions using Microsoft Excel, cut the slices out of craft foam using a laser cutter, and then assembled the slices into 2D objects.


3D model emerges from a pencil sketch

Middle School stagecraft students were building Japanese Oni masks for the fall production of In A Grove: Four Japanese Ghost Stories by Eric Coble. These masks needed to fit the actors’ faces and yet also transform their  appearances, combining linear measurements with hand illustrations. 3D printing offered the opportunity to blend measurement with art. Students Julian and Nathan used AutoDesk Maya modeling software to build simplified facial structures from basic geometric shapes and then manipulate these models to match actor faces and drawn artwork. They then 3D printed the models and painted them for the production.

Students Know How To Reduce Distractions

Facilitating student discussion is a complex talk. Pose engaging questions, keep the conversation momentum going, stay on topic, and encourage quieter voices to participate. Could two Upper School boys guide their peers through 45 minutes of discussion about electronic devices and distractions? Yes, they did! Our guides, “Mr. H.” and “Mr. G.,” did such a great job that I simply relaxed and enjoyed the conversation.

The group of 14 students generated a long list of techniques for minimizing distractions, as high quality a set of suggestions as any I have seen experts write.

  • Only check Twitter on your phone, not your computer.
  • Use a timer to work for specific chunks of time.
  • Set your phone to Do Not Disturb when you work.
  • Install the Self Control or Concentrate app to block access to social sites.
  • Charge your phone in another room.
  • Have a parent keep your phone.
  • Learn which music helps you concentrate and which distracts.
  • Don’t start a Netflix episode on a break.
  • Use distraction-free (full screen) mode when writing or reading.

The students went far beyond strategies. They explored the paradoxes and tradeoffs that they experience. Stay up late to get more done one night, and you are less productive the next day. Sports force you to be more organized but can also make you tired. School firewalls may keep social sites away but do not teach you self control. Homework can actually be more active than class time.

Did the students solve the problem of distraction from devices? Not at all! While they know the strategies, they acknowledge that they do not always use them. Self-discipline is complex. It is uncomfortable to work for hours at night, tough to resist social interactions. This suggests a new focus for education around devices and distractions. Learning strategies is just the first step. Setting meaningful goals, building self discipline, and practicing mindfulness are equally, if not more important.

Qualities of School Technology Leaders

To become technologically sophisticated, a school must have at least one person employed who possesses high competency in three areas: education, technology, and leadership.

Mastery of education is essential so that a school’s technology program always serves the school’s educational mission. People who are experts in technology and leadership but not education may lead their schools down false paths, committing to technologies that do not ultimately serve the school, and perhaps alienating teachers and school administrators along the way.

Mastery of technology is essential in order to navigate the many technology offerings that purport to improve education, and in order to keep pace with this rapidly changing field. People who possess education and leadership skills but not technology may appear tentative or skeptical about adopting technology tools within a school.

Mastery of leadership is essential in order to guide a school through change processes and build support among the school’s leadership team. People who possess education and technology skills but not leadership may have great ideas but become frustrated when others do not adopt or support them.

This person’s position will depend strongly on how the school’s leadership team is designed — the relationships and distribution of responsibilities among the different school leaders. This person could be a technology director, academic technology director, division head, head of school, academic dean, dean of faculty, or director of innovation.

The school that lacks such a person will struggle with technology, for example by exhibiting marked inconsistencies in how technology is used or hardly adopting new technologies at all to support teaching and learning. School leadership would do well to identify whether the school already has someone who fulfills this role, whether an existing faculty or staff member could grow into this role, or whether the school should hire someone new to introduce this role.


Director of IT, Catlin Gabel

Catlin Gabel is a superb, PS-12 school with four academic divisions and eight operations departments, in other words the perfect growth opportunity for an instructional tech specialist or IT director at a smaller school. The IT director serves on the administrative leadership team. I have held this position for six years and will be moving on to become the academic dean at University Prep in Seattle.

Catlin Gabel features:
– a progressive education philosophy consistent with project-based uses of technology
– six full-time IT staff and an appropriately sized technology budget
– 1:1, two-platform student laptop program in upper school
– leading-edge use of mobile, web, open-source, and curricular applications
– 53 acre campus on the outskirts of an affordable, sustainable city
– a spirit of collaboration and innovation

I am happy to answer questions about the position and school if you contact me.

Apply here:

Position Title: Director of Information Technology
Department: Information Technology
Reports to: Division Head
1.0 FTE, year-round position


The Director of Information Technology provides strategic leadership, facilitates IT projects, and coordinates department operations to ensure the delivery of robust and reliable technology resources.  The Director is a collaborative, visionary, and dynamic professional who understands the technologies, knows how to bring people and technology together, provides effective leadership to technology professionals and reaches out to support, train, develop and respond to the needs of faculty, staff and students. The Director is a valued member of the administrative team who serves on a variety of collaborative teams charged with instruction and operations planning.


• Attend administrative leadership team meetings and contribute to consultative discussions
• Inform division heads and department directors of the work of the IT department
• Collaborate with administrative team members to ensure consistency and coordination of IT activities
• Serve on other committees as needed (e.g., Communications, Knight Scholars, Senior Projects)

Vision and Planning
• Establish IT priorities, initiate projects, and set policy regarding information technology services
• Develop technology plans that stay abreast of new developments and support the school
• Define and deliver cost effective, reliable and secure technology solutions to the school
• Consult with school leaders and end users to understand academic and administrative needs

• Provide ongoing review of technology systems and methods
• Recommend enhancements that reduce costs and improve effectiveness
• Provide ongoing evaluation of IT policies, procedures and documentation
• Maintain, audit, and continuously improve security management

• Communicate IT policies and procedures to students, employees, parents and other constituencies
• Advise members of the Catlin Gabel community on effective uses of technology resources
• Share with other schools and organizations to maintain knowledge of innovations and best practices
• Uphold Catlin Gabel’s Information Technology program as a model for other institutions

• Maximize the department’s ability to provide high-quality, reliable IT systems to the school
• Solicit, collect, and respond to IT expense requests from all parts of the school
• Develop and manage an IT budget in a manner consistent with the school’s plans and vision
• Lead IT department position searches and assist with other position searches as needed

Professional Development
• Build the capacity of faculty, staff, students, and parents to effectively use IT systems
• Oversee internal training for IT staff and develop programs for all faculty and staff
• Assist administrators with the application of technology to enhance operational effectiveness
• Actively cultivate schoolwide dialogue about effective uses of technology in the school

Webmaster Responsibilities
• Develop and implement a school-wide website strategy to meet program needs
• Install, configure, manage, maintain, and troubleshoot web applications
• Investigate, pilot, and recommend new website technologies to the school
• Provide training on school website applications to faculty, staff, students, and parents


Supervise, evaluate, and support the professional growth of the senior IT positions
• Desktop and Laptop Technologies Manager
• Database Specialist
• Systems Administrator


Education and Work Experience
• Master’s Degree, featuring advanced study in an academic discipline
• 7+ years experience in information technology services with progressively greater responsibility.
• 3+ years management responsibility, including project management and demonstrated group facilitation, team building, and collaboration skills
• Classroom teaching or equivalent school instructional experience

Technology Experience
• Broad knowledge of application software, operating systems (Windows, Mac, and Linux), interactive website, and server technologies as used in educational environments
• Familiarity with network management standards, best practices and procedures
• Knowledge of emerging technologies and their application to an education environment and administrative offices
• Knowledge of proprietary and open source content and collaboration software and their effects on academic practices and policies (currently Moodle, Drupal, WordPress, and NetCommunity Spark)
• Knowledge of administrative data systems (e.g., Blackbaud products)
• Familiarity with different systems for managing narrative student progress reports
• Online learning or virtual education experience desirable

• Skill in budget preparation and management and ability to adhere to and operate within guidelines
• Ability to keenly analyze and effectively solve problems

Personal Qualities
• Strong interpersonal skills and the ability to work effectively with a wide range of constituencies
• Strong verbal and written communication skills


Daily interaction with faculty, staff, students, parents, volunteers, and vendors


Daily interaction with faculty, staff, parents, vendors, trustees, and volunteers.  On-call for problems.  If a mission critical job in the school is jeopardized by a system or network malfunction, the problem must be resolved as quickly as possible.

Catlin Gabel School believes that each employee makes a significant contribution to its success.  That contribution should not be limited by the assigned responsibilities.  Therefore, this position description is designed to outline primary duties, qualifications and job scope, but not limit the incumbent nor the organization to just the work identified.  It is our expectation that each employee will offer his/her services wherever and whenever necessary to ensure the success of our endeavors.

Updated 2/21/2012


The God Complex

Tim Harford, economics writer, explores the hubris of experts and the role of experimentation in innovation and problem solving (by way of Gary Gruber). How might one work to encourage experimentation and open-mindedness in a school?

In Conceptual Theory We Trust

Now that I have attended a five-day leadership institute, it is time to return to school and put newly learned team-building strategies into practice. To have the courage to try them, I must trust the wisdom of experts more knowledgeable and experienced than me. It reminds me of the classic pendulum demonstration (video below). Will these techniques work, or will I take a blow to the face?

The Importance of Team Preparation

While at the Santa Fe Leadership Center institute, I noticed the the theme of team preparation through personal sharing repeatedly receive emphasis. Invest time and energy into the personal histories and goals of team members, and the team will perform at a higher level and accomplish more.

Tomi Nagai-Roethe shared the Drexler/Sibbet team performance model with us. The model provides a detailed framework for understanding team functions and dysfunctions. Built around the metaphor of a bouncing ball, the model emphasizes the importance of personalized team preparation to the later performance level of the team. Early phases of teamwork include individuals sharing who they are and why there are on the team. This precedes articulation of the work to be done or the methods to be used. The floor represents organizational support. With strong support, the ball bounces faster and higher. The vertical axis represents different behavioral dimensions — intuition, feeling, thinking, and sensing. Exploring personal histories and purposes require intuition and feeling skills. The more work a team does to explore the background and motivation of each team member and their reasons for being on the team, the more momentum the team builds to accomplish great work.

Carla Silver put this theory into action through a wallet building exercise. The ultimate objective of the activity was to build the perfect wallet, but before we were even given our task, we were told to show and explain each of our wallets. This individual sharing of the wallets we had chosen for ourselves gave each person the opportunity to speak, make their preferences known, and show their chosen wallets before group work began. As a result, the group was more trusting and collaborative throughout the entire process.

Debbie Freed explored systems causes for conflict and crises in schools. Similarly to the other speakers, she explained how issues framed around personality conflicts are really about the assumptions that people bring to their jobs as a result of their personal and institutional histories.

IDEO had us practice design thinking to design a better recess for kids. They emphasized personal history through “user-centered design,” asking interview subjects open-ended questions and conducting observations to identify user needs and brainstorm possible solutions.

The idea of personal experience in teamwork seems readily applicable in our work in schools.

Systems Thinking

Photo by zachstern

Today, Debbie Freed taught us about systems thinking, a framework for understanding school conflict and dilemmas through their underlying causes. She urged us to identify: 1) what is the presenting issue; 2) what is the real issue; 3) why now? Issues framed in terms of personalities are nearly always  reflective of systems conditions within a school. Is the presenting issue really the issue or just a symptom of a deeper issue? Who did a new staff member replace? Who really makes decisions within the school? How does the school’s history inform current conflicts? How do people’s belief systems inform our understanding of conflicts?

For some reason, I have thought of schools in this way for a long time. My introduction to Catlin Gabel helped deepen this understanding, as I found myself on the wrong side of a staff replacement scenario and learned to understand the place of the technology department within a complex web of decision-making entities.

Debbie encourages us to first understand ourselves and what role we play within the system. Leaders should define reality, in opposition to crisis. Leaders should exercise clarity, articulation, and alignment. People rise to the occasion when they know their purpose, role and are held accountable. Often missing from schools are effective accountability measures (e.g., evaluation and professional development), due to a culture norm of conflict avoidance.

My favorite quote of the day: “some people think that shared decision-making means that you make a decision and then share it!”

360° Review

Here is a pretty interesting comment on the use of 360° reviews for performance assessment.

A study on the patterns of rater accuracy shows that length of time that a rater has known the person being rated has the most significant effect on the accuracy of a 360-degree review. The study shows that subjects in the group “known for one to three years” are the most accurate, followed by “known for less than one year,” followed by “known for three to five years” and the least accurate being “known for more than five years.” The study concludes that the most accurate ratings come from knowing the person long enough to get past first impressions, but not so long as to begin to generalize favorably (Eichinger, 2004).

Wikipedia article on 360° reviews

Director of Technology, San Francisco University High School:

I held this position from 2002-2006.

San Francisco University High School (UHS) seeks to appoint an experienced Director of Technology.

Reporting to the Head of School, manages IT infrastructure supporting all academic, administrative and development functions of the school. Supervises direct staff of three and coordinates with Academic Technology Coordinator and the Academic Dean. The school is a dual platform environment. The network consists primarily of HP Proliant servers running Windows 2008 Server in a VMWare environment with a Hitachi SAN with 8 Terrabytes of storage. Distribution is through a Cisco-based campus-wide gigabit Fiber-optic backbone supporting wired and wireless access for approx. 230 workstations. The school is implementing a campus-wide 1-1 iPad program in the fall of 2011.

The successful candidate will have experience in an academic environment and demonstrated success in technology administration and project management. Ability to communicate and work collaboratively with varying levels of technical sophistication is very important.

Send resume and cover letter to:

Jim Chestnut
San Francisco University High School
3065 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94115

or email to

No phone calls please!