Crucial Conversations about Digital Literacy

Dear Teachers,

At last I am coming to the end of my current grad course. It’s been something of a brutal five weeks, with coursework that has been challenging to me in addition to my personal whirlwind of professional learning delivery, including multiple Google-related classes, three sessions at the Summer Elementary Academy, training, a week of ETSI, New Teacher training, and many campus visits. Whew!

I’ve read several books for this class. My second-favorite, Influencer, was all about the Psychology of Change, and the six sources of Influence necessary to effect real & lasting change in an organization. My Influencer Strategy report is here. My favorite-favorite was the one I just finished, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. I had heard the title of this book mentioned in passing from several people in my district, and I’m so glad that my class gave me the push to read it. The book provides fabulous advice for holding all kinds of conversations in different arenas of life. The seven principles of Coaching for Crucial Conversations from the book (2011, p 215-216) should be extremely useful for me in my current plot to take over the world project to improve students’ digital literacy (Improving Digital Literacy Through Student-Created Content=IDLTSCC for short). Each of the seven principles has an accompanying skill or skills, and the crucial questions that one should return to when applying each principle.

Principle 1: Start with heart. At the beginning of my current class, we created a compelling Why Statement, and I see that my plan keeps circling back to that why. I appreciate having had to articulate that why statement, because if I lose sight of the reason I’m committed to my project, it won’t have much chance of succeeding. My why is this: Digital literacy is not only a crucial component of a student’s success as a lifelong learner, it is also, according to Angela Maiers (2016), a human right. Don’t miss that part about the human right: students without digital literacy skills will not be able to be full participants in society. Maiers continues, “Students’ lack of mentors and role models for how to behave in the digital arena puts them at risk personally, and impinges their ability to create a permanent digital record of their character and potential to be taken seriously in the world. More importantly, it puts their freedoms on the line.” That’s a pretty compelling reason to recommit to my own plan.

I want better digital literacy and digital citizenship for all God’s children, but I would settle for starting in my little corner of the world. I want students not only to learn digital literacy skills from each other, I want those content creators to recognize the enormous power for good they have by making positive contributions to digital society. I want them to understand that their online actions impact other people – and that they should want to impact other people positively. This project is my tiny antidote – or at least an inoculation – to the negativity that one sees in the online world sometimes. Don’t think that negativity can change? I beg to differ! Nobody thought 30 or 40 years ago that smoking would be banned in public places, and look where we are on that one. You and your students can become digital culture change agents starting today!

Principle 2: Learn to Look. Being a keen observer of both the content of people’s conversations and the conditions – how people are reacting to the content – provides opportunities to open up dialog about the process of the whole IDLTSCC plan. I will need to be aware of body language, people (including me) becoming too quiet or getting loud or insistent, and the general climate of a gathering whenever we meet to discuss the project.

A “crucial” conversation has high stakes, strong emotions, and differing opinions (p.3). It would be a mistake on my part to think that my idea is so non-controversial that no one would ever have a dissenting opinion about it! I need to be sensitive to others’ opinions, suggestions, and uncertainties about the plan, and to be aware when people might not feel it’s safe to challenge me. In general, I try to be very open to others’ ideas, and if any of you who are reading this ever sense that I’m being defensive or not listening to suggestions, I hope you’ll pipe up! There was one quote from the book that I particularly loved: “The pool of shared meaning is the birthplace of synergy (p. 25).” To me, that means when we all get our ideas out on the table and feel heard, that’s when the magic of collaboration really starts to happen – and there is nothing better than that! I did discover that my Style Under Stress might include using too much humor to deflect tension at times; that is something that I am aware of and am actively going to try to get under control. It’s hard to break a lifelong habit, but I’m determined to try!

Principle 3: Make it Safe. People need to feel as though it is safe to offer criticism, voice concerns, or even just ask a question. I like to think that I listen and am approachable, but I need to be open to the possibility that other people don’t always share that opinion. “Making things safe” does NOT mean watering things down a message to the point where nothing gets accomplished; it means that both parties’ mutual purposes have been acknowledged. All parties must assume positive intent. That’s so hard, especially if there has ever been a pattern of perceived negative intent. Here’s a little trick I try to remember. Whenever I get an email from someone who rubs me the wrong way (it’s never from YOU), I walk away and come back to it later. When I open it and read it a second time, I imagine that it is from one of my best friends. Nine times out of ten, the content is much more benign than I might have thought on the first read-through. Assuming positive intent helps everyone to feel safe in the conversation and can lead to much more productive outcomes.

A commitment to mutual purpose creates a feeling of safety, and the acronym CRIB will be useful in establishing that mutual purpose. It stands for Commit to seek mutual purpose; Recognize the purpose behind the strategy; Invent a mutual purpose; and Brainstorm new strategies. In this particular instance, the mutual purpose is allowing and enabling kids to create content about digital skills they possess in a way that teaches others those skills. Hopefully all participating teachers and librarians will already recognize that mutual purpose. If we need to invent another mutual purpose, I also hope that all those involved will be open to brainstorming new ideas and strategies for making the program successful. I commit to being respectful of new ideas and approaches, and to fostering a climate that allows a free exchange of ideas among the participating educators.

Principle 4: Master my stories. Stories are our interpretations of facts, and when dealing with other people we often make assumptions because we don’t have all the facts. I thought the most interesting “crucial question” to ask myself during the process is “What am I pretending not to know about my role in the problem?” – wow, what a lot of insight answering that question requires! My role in problems (the thing I might “pretend not to know”) will most likely be in the area of communication. I’ve gone over and over my plan and goals so many times that I could tell the story in my sleep, but that doesn’t mean anyone else has spent as much time on it! I may take for granted how clear the plan is to others. Even those educators who have read my blogs and other updates about the project likely don’t have nearly as clear an understanding about it as I might believe they do. So telling my story clearly, with no victims, no villains, and no helplessness, will be something I’ll need to watch myself for. Conversely, I’ll need to monitor the stories I tell myself about what other people are doing (or not doing). It’s tempting to attribute certain behaviors to an assumption (i.e. a story), but there are usually many other options for why someone is doing something than the story I might choose to believe. Assuming positive intent can help to frame a story/assumption in a positive way.

Principle 5: STATE my path encourages us to speak persuasively, not abrasively. STATE is an acronym for Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ paths, Talk tentatively, Encourage testing. This principle allows people to be both totally honest AND completely respectful (avoiding a “Fool’s Choice” of being one or the other). The three ingredients are confidence, humility, and skill – and I’m not sure I have enough of any of those at times for a hard conversation! Confidence and humility can actually be good friends, assuming the confidence does not lead to OVERconfidence and arrogance. I like to think I will be confident enough to have an opinion on how to proceed, but still humble enough to recognize that others may have very valid suggestions for improvements or other directions the program might take. We have wonderful teachers in our district; I would be a fool not to be open to other viewpoints! Talking tentatively does not mean to water down what I’m saying, but rather to avoid being dogmatic. It means giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, and allowing others to see that although I’m confident about my plan, I certainly don’t know everything.

Principle 6: Explore Others’ Paths. No idea I ever have on my own will be as good as an idea that has iterated through a group of smart, committed individuals. I’ll need to continue to ask for others’ input and suggestions on making the IDLTSCC program much better than it would be if I were on my own. This is a time for genuine curiosity about what others are thinking, especially if anyone seems to be moving toward Silence or Violence. It’s all about being open and actively seeking the opinions and suggestions of others. It’s exciting to think about that happening, because the more people feel a shared ownership of the plan, the better chance it has of becoming part of the district culture and continuing long after individuals have moved on.

Principle 7: Move to Action. After all the discussing (and hopefully very little cussing!) it will be time to take action. Principle 7 of Crucial Conversations reminds me very much of the 4th Discipline of Execution: “create a cadence of accountability.” This is the step where people make an account of what they have done so far and make commitments about what they will do next. “Who will do what by when” is the way Crucial Conversations puts it: specific, defined steps will help everyone to understand what they should concentrate on next.  Teachers committed to the IDLTSCC program will commit in weekly meetings to the content that they will have their students produce over the next week.

Another component of the plan that I hope to create is a student review panel made up of some of the older students. This panel will decide how to categorize and tag the submitted content, whether the video is of sufficient quality to be added to the collection, whether it is redundant, etc. It will give older students some experience in managing a rollout and will allow them to mentor younger students. The younger students should enjoy getting feedback from “the big kids.”

As the school year begins, dear teachers, I am excited to see the direction that my – now OUR – project leads us and our students. I wish you all an excellent start to your year. Happy creating, everyone – I’ll be in touch soon!



Maiers, A. & Moran, N. (2016, April). Digital literacy is about power and privilege. Retrieved from

Patterson, K,, Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2011). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: