Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Value of School

For all intents and purposes I had a great K-12 education.  I got relatively good grades, stayed out of trouble, and participated in a wide range of sports and extracurricular activities.  Best of all though were some of the amazing teachers and administrators I had during those years who consistently showed they cared.  In the end I was deemed college ready and was accepted to almost all of the schools to which I had applied. I was so excited to attend Salisbury University in Maryland and study Marine Biology as I was so intrigued by this area of study.  I was again surrounded by some great educators and went on my way to further study in the sciences, eventually finding my way to the field of education.


Image credit https://media.licdn.com

As I think back many years later, I have now realized that I was good at school. The system worked the way it was designed. It worked for me, or so I thought. Never was there any question about what I was learning or even why. It was just accepted that this was how school was supposed to be.  Conformity and compliance were well ingrained into the culture of school. As I continue to reflect, I now ponder whether or not I would be successful in a K-12 system today.  Things have really changed as a result of advances in technology.  The process of going through the motions of doing school the way I did it would have been a monumental challenge in my opinion. Do students value school today? With exponential changes to technology and the ubiquitous access to information will students of the future value it?

What really got me thinking about the value of school was the video below.  I am not saying that I agree with everything in it, but there are many points that really resonated with me. 



Now try to think back to when you were a student and what you learned. How much of what you learned do you actually use today?  Even though progress is being made and innovative practices are being implemented in schools across the globe, we still must look at the big picture of education. There should be inherent value in what students learn today as they need to have the skills, mindset, and confidence to succeed in the new world of work.  If anything in the above video resonates with you, then engage your students in a conversation about the value of school.  

Engaging kids in a conversation about the value of school can and will pave the way to a brighter future. We need to listen, then act.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Relationships Are Everything

I recently had the honor of being a guest on Dr. Will Deyamport’s podcast called the Dr. Will Show. You can view the Google Hangout video HERE.  We had a vibrant conversation on the topic of Digital Leadership with a focus on school culture, embracing change, strategic use of social media, the Model Schools Conference, and innovation. A major theme that resonated throughout our discussion was the importance of becoming a connected educator and how this in itself can be a powerful catalyst for meaningful change.

If you watch the video you will see light-hearted back and forth banter between Will and me. He totally deserved the grief I gave him as it only took about five years for him to actually invite me onto his show.  In all seriousness though, something Will said to me really resonated. At one point during our conversation he told me how much it meant to him when I gave him a shout out during my keynote at the 2013 Mississippi Educational Computing Association Conference. To be honest, I really didn’t remember doing this as I routinely try to promote the great work of educators I know every opportunity I get.  This made me reflect on the journey Will and I have taken together as connected educators and the resulting relationship we have cultivated.


Image credit https://behappy.me

Will and I met virtually on Twitter way back in 2009. At the time he was known as @peoplegogy on Twitter.  I remember vividly sitting at my desk when I was a principal and seeing Will tweet out each morning “How is the coffee brewing?” Our connection began like many other educators who use social media as part of a Personal Learning Network – we wanted to learn, grow, and get better. Over time we began to communicate and collaborate across an array of social media networks exchanging ideas, providing support, and dispensing out advice. I can’t even count the number of times we have now connected over the years just to check in on one another.

A professional relationship was cultivated.  I always admired Will’s passion for educational technology and genuine interest in becoming a better educator. There are so many benefits associated with becoming a connected educator regardless of your role.  Professional relationships based on a mutual desire to improve professional practice are probably the most important outcome in my opinion. Through every connection you get new sets of virtual ears to vent to and shoulders to lean on.  Silos or isolated islands are often a fact for many of us during the daily grind. A focus on innovative practices also tends to create a lonely place for educators who go against the flow.  Not having a virtual network to complement our face-to-face relationships just seems silly to me now.

Over the years Will and I have gotten to know each other quite well.  Our professional relationship eventually blossomed into a great friendship. When I moved to Texas I drove down from New York City with my twin brother. As I was looking at our route I noticed that we would be driving through Hattiesburg, MS. I didn’t think twice about reaching out to Will and inviting him and his wife to join my brother and me in his hometown for lunch and some brews.  As I think about this story I am overwhelmed by how many other professional relationships forged through social media have resulted in great friendships.

Becoming a connected educator has definitely resulted in an exponential increase in professional relationships for me. Each of these connections over the years helped give me the knowledge, skills, and motivation to lead a successful digital transformation at my former school.  These relationships also assisted me in overcoming fears such as writing, public speaking, and failure. I am who I am today in part because of the connected network of amazing educators I have come to know over time like Will.  It is important to embrace a connected mindset ourselves and then help others build professional relationships themselves as part of a digital leadership strategy. As appreciative as I am about the professional connections I have made, it is the personal relationships and resulting friendships that I have formed that I cherish the most.

Focus on building better professional and personal relationships with any and all means (or tools) at your disposal.  In the end you will be stronger, more confident, and inspired as you journey down the path of professional and personal growth.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

10 Tips to Make Learning REAL

Another Christmas has passed and I am continually amazed by the technologies that kids now have access to.  For example, my son received a drone from my mother-in-law and has been playing with it non-stop for days now. At first, he was focused on just the basics of flying the device. After having mastered take off, landing, and balance, his focus now is on using the camera to take photos and video.  It is awesome to see how engaged he is with the drone, but that he is also learning in the process.   Technology for him, like most kids today, has become an embedded component of their lives. They have grown up in a world where they have become accustomed to the fast-paced evolution of everything digital. 

The world as we know it has fundamentally changed our learners.  It is not that they are learning differently per say, but the environment in which they learn has dramatically changed.  The challenge for educators and schools today is to make learning REAL (relevant, engaging, authentic, and lasting) for all students and aligning it more with their world.  A great deal of emphasis has been placed on personalized opportunities for students.  Whereas there are many benefits with this approach, the reliance on technology platform and human interaction can take away from intended outcomes. REAL learning places a greater emphasis on making learning personal for students. 


Image credit: http://pblstem.com/

Below are some quick tips that can make learning more REAL (relevant, engaging, authentic, and lasting):
  1. Provide students access to real-world tools to do real-world work (i.e. makerspaces).
  2. Allow students to select the best tool to complete a learning task while moving away from a one-size-product-fits-all approach.
  3. Provide meaningful feedback in a timely fashion.
  4. Connect standards and learning outcomes to their interests and passions.
  5. Implement Academy programs (school within a school).
  6. Offer virtual course options and innovative self-paced learning opportunities in lieu of traditional independent study programs (i.e. IOCS).
  7. Transform outdoor spaces into flexible classrooms and stimulating learning environments.
  8. Broaden student horizons by bringing in experts both face-to-face and virtually who work in emerging fields of work. Take kids on field trips through virtual reality technology.
  9. Move away from traditional grading and homework practices.
  10. Clearly articulate the “why” all the time so that students understand how what they are learning impacts them now and in the future.
REAL learning should be a reality for all of our students.  What would you add to the list I have started above? 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Blended Family Engagement

To this day I still remember the article that I read about Twitter in the Staten Island Advance one cold Sunday in March of 2009.  As someone who was totally against the use of social media for both personal and professional reasons, that article was intriguing to read as it essentially reinforced my negative perception. However, as I neared the end of the piece a light bulb went on.  Finally I saw a professional connection as to how I could use social media to be a better communicator and engage more stakeholders in everything that was happening at my school. This was the beginning of my digital leadership journey that started with the simple goal of building better relationships with families in the community. 

Developing the means to communicate more effectively and better engage families was one of the main goals of our Twitter strategy that evolved from the article I read.  We were still using traditional means of communication such as memos, on-site events such as our annual Back to School Night, PTO meetings, email blasts, and face-to-face conferences when needed. We also instituted a positive referral system that combined a paper note sent home and a phone call.  I am not saying that we were awful at engaging our families, but in a rapidly evolving digital world we were not meeting them where they were at, let alone giving them a choice as to how they wanted to engage with us. It was time to transform our communications for a digital world.



The fact of the matter was that many of our parents and students were disconnected from the school.  Many parents worked multiple jobs and just didn’t have the time to attend events and meetings on-site or even read an email or memo.  In terms of our students we were pretty much clueless as to the tools and means they were using to communicate.  With Twitter as a starting point, my goal was to engage just a few more parents and students and if I did then that was a success.  I still remember getting so giddy when parents would tell me that they read my tweet or a student would comment on a news item I shared. These little morale boosters helped me to develop a more comprehensive digital strategy, which integrated more and more tools.

Over time we learned that the real key to success was meeting these key stakeholder groups where they were at and engaging them in two-way communications using a blended approach. I was all about getting rid of paper, but we soon realized that this was still an effective way to get information out. Some families did not have Internet access or were not on social media. Thus, I still communicated using these tried and true methods. Over time I began to integrate a variety of tools in addition to Twitter such as Flickr, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Google+, Google Docs, Google Voice, and a school app for push notifications.  Email messages were still blasted out, but instead of just all text I began inserting video messages using YouTube to make my message more personal. 

The blended approach served our school community well as we provided numerous choices as to how parents and students wanted to interact with our school.  We embraced the storyteller-in-chief mindset to unleash the positive energy embedded in the great work that was taking place in our school on a daily basis. The lesson learned here was how we could create an image and identity for our school through transparency that would forge greater trust and support from our stakeholders. Thus, our concerted strategy of consistent communications and taking control of public relations resulted in the creation of a positive brand presence.  Going forward the brandED strategy was all about better engaging our families while building relationships in the process.

Engaging families goes well beyond just sending out information whether it is through traditional or digital means. Communication in general tends to be impersonal even if video is used.  As part of our engagement strategy we made improved efforts to interact with families face-to-face.  In addition to the annual Back-to-School night we began hosting more interactive events to educate parents on our emerging innovative practices. Parents and students were invited to sit on interview committees for new teachers and administrators.  When we changed homework practices as a district, parents and students were invited to be part of the entire process, including reviewing synthesized research.  

All in all we looked for more opportunities to give families a greater sense of involvement in the school community. As partnerships were formed near and far, we always looked for ways to make the connection to an improved school culture. Involvement, either active or passive, was one of our goals. However, the major goal was to build better relationships with families by showing them how much we cared about the success of their kids and the pride we had as a school in the local community.