Sunday, February 7, 2016

What My Parents Taught Me About Leadership

One of the best parts about blogging for me is that my parents read each and every post.  My father takes a look at the content only, while my mom is my chief proofreader. During my early years of blogging I always posted each post to my personal Facebook page and emailed my parents a live link. It was at this time my mom got sick of all of the spelling and grammatical errors so she emphatically stated that I must send her each post to proof before posting.  The early lesson for me here was that it is always good to have another set of eyes look over your blog posts before you make them public.

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This however is not the purpose or point of my post.  In one sense I want to thank my parents for all that they have done for my and my brothers over the years. Knowing that I have their attention with each post, it makes some sense to use this medium to convey my heartfelt admiration for their job as parents. On the other hand, I really want to focus on what my parents taught me about leadership throughout my 41 years of life.  After a recent keynote presentation I was reflecting on the fact that I hadn’t spoken to them upon returning from Turkey a few days earlier.  It must have been the perfect storm of just finishing talking about leadership and guilt that provided the motivation for this post.

Here is some context before I detail what I learned about leadership from my parents.  I grew up in a very rural area of Northwestern NJ. Growing up here led to a great appreciation of the outdoors and participation in many different sports.  My father was an elementary school principal at Alpha Public School and Hatchery Hill School for a total of 30 years.  I have always been proud of following in my father’s footsteps.  Once I became a principal myself I only hoped to be a fraction of the leader he was.  My mom was an elementary teacher for 27 years, the last 18 spent teaching at Francis A. Desmares School in Flemington, NJ.  Her passion for always finding the best in all of her students still sticks with me to this day even in my new role.

As a child I never truly understood many of the decisions and actions of my parents.  What I now know is that they influenced my development into a leader in more ways that I could ever write about.  Below are possibly the ten most important leadership lessons that I learned from my parents:

  • Celebrate what matters: You would not have known it in my household, but both my parents were award-winning educators.  I only found out about this at both of their retirement dinners.  My father even testified to congress on a few occasions. To them their success was a testament to the people they worked with and most importantly their students.  They taught me that it was extremely important to celebrate the work of others and what goes on in schools. This is why I empower other leaders to become the storyteller-in-chief.
  • Organization and time management: As kids my brothers and I were empowered to take responsibility over our learning.  To this end my parents ensured that we studied and managed our time appropriately. Not only did these lessons save me in college, they also positively impacted my productivity as a principal.
  • Timeliness – Unless I missed something, my parents were never late to work.  Being present and on time for my job as well as at meetings and events really sends a positive message.  
  • Money Matters – My dad was all over me even as a young adult about creating a personal budget in order to manage my finances. I learned more about money management and budgeting from him than I did any course I ever took.  This knowledge was then applied as a principal when I had to create and present an annual budget for my school. In my opinion this was one of my strengths.
  • Putting students first – During our childhood my mom put her career on hold in order to stay home with me and my brothers. She encouraged my wife to do the same stating that you will never get this time back. This lesson taught me to always put my students first and to create a school culture that did the same. In education we have the unique opportunity to positively impact the life of a child every day. This is an opportunity not to be squandered. Everything we do in education is for our students.
  • Modeling – I often talk about the need for leaders to model the expectations that they have for others. My parents imparted this lesson to me from birth. Their example and actions were always impacted to teach me to be a better student and person. It was their modeling of the importance of character and integrity that probably had the most impact on me. Don't ask others to do things that your yourself are not willing to do. Most importantly, be a leader of action.
  • Shared sacrifice – Nothing epitomizes servant leadership than shared sacrifice. It was apparent that my parents were only concerned with our well-being. They never splurged on expensive cars, elaborate trips, or a large home. Instead, they put all their effort and finances into our education and trying their best to teach us how to be good people.  As leaders we must make certain sacrifices in order to initiate and sustain change.  It is also understood that our main role is to serve our key stakeholders if transformation is the ultimate goal. Sacrifice also involves making difficult decisions. Remember that leadership is not a popularity contest.
  • Work Hard for Everything – My parents didn’t give me or my brother’s any handouts besides our college education, which they sacrificed greatly for. The expectation was to commit to a goal, follow-through, and learn from mistakes. This lesson helped me to be more motivated intrinsically to succeed as opposed to extrinsically. I have seen the most impact in this area by taking control of my learning through the formation of a Personal Learning Network (PLN). I live by this Chinese proverb, "The person who says it can't be done shouldn't interrupt the person doing it." Work hard and success typically follows.
  • There is nothing more important than family – At every family wedding my father does a toast. In his short speech he says that there is nothing more important than family. Leaders understand that their school or district is a family. From a professional perspective nothing else is more important and this is why we do the work we do.
  • Empathy – All throughout my childhood my parents taught me how to be empathetic. They did not tolerate the use of hurtful language or bullying of any kind. Their kindness and generosity to others and us is still apparent to this day.  This lesson taught me to identify and understand the situation, feelings, and motives of others before rushing to judgment, decision, or regrettable action.  Am I still working on this – definitely!

This is a much longer post than what I typically write, which shows you how much I have learned about leadership not from a book, class, or my Personal Learning Network, but from my parents. I could go on and on. However, a fitting close to this post is quite simply a thank you. Thank you mom and dad for all you did and continue to do to teach me what leadership is all about. I love both of you so much!

What have your parents or family members taught you about leadership? I would love to hear your thoughts. Please share in the comments below.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Practical Applications to Individualize and Personalize Learning

Possibly one of the most important shifts needed in schools is to provide individualized and personalized learning experiences to students. Learning has fundamentally changed with the evolution of the Internet and other technologies that allow for ubiquitous access to information and knowledge. Digital leadership focuses on transforming learning environments through online course offerings (synchronous and asynchronous), independent studies, and use of OpenCourseWare to provide students with continuous options to learn anytime, anywhere, and about anything. 

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Infusing online learning opportunities should be a given in a digital world. There is no excuse not to secure funds to better meet the needs of all learners or those with specialized interests. States that do not have their own online course consortia can become a member of the VHS Collaborative or use Educere (K-12 solution). Either pathway to online courses opens up an existing course catalogue to hundreds of additional niche courses that cater to specific student interests. In the case of the VHS Collaborative, it offers more than 200 courses taught by certified teachers, including virtually every Advanced Placement course accredited by the College Board. High school leaders can make these available to students to take on their own time in addition to the courses they take at their home schools. They can also insert them into their existing class schedules in lieu of electives. Either way, the result is expanded course offerings and learning opportunities for students to personalize and individualize their educational experience. 

One of the most cost-effective means to create a more personalized and individualized learning experience for students is through the use of OpenCourseWare (OCW) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC's). Perhaps one day, the twenty-first century will be remembered as the time when knowledge became available to everyone for free. Pioneers in open learning like Wikipedia have harnessed the collective intellect of the planet “to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.” 

Prestigious centers of learning are making good use of the Internet’s power to share knowledge in the form of OCW. OCW can best be defined as high-quality digital publications created by leading American universities that are organized as courses of study, offered free of charge, and delivered via the Internet. OCW courses are available under open licenses, such as Creative Commons. These courses allow for personalization of studies as students explore topics of their choosing. 

The Independent OpenCourseWare Study (IOCS) that I co-created with Julie Meehan when I was principal at New Milford High School represents an uncommon learning experience for secondary students that allows them to fully utilize OCW to pursue learning that focuses on their passions, interests, and career aspirations. IOCS is aligned to Common Core, ISTE's National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS•S), and state technology curriculum standards as well as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework. IOCS students choose from an array of OCW offerings from such schools as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard, Yale, University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, to name a few, and apply their learning to earn high school credit.  The IOCS experience is accessed through the IOCS website, which contains links to OCW offerings that are constantly updated. The site also provides an overview of the program, the IOCS Rubric, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), and a Google form through which students register for courses. Other documents, like periodic check-in forms, are also available on the site. 

Students choose an OCW course (or part of a course) from an approved, accredited university through the IOCS website. Using the IOCS Google registration form embedded in the site, they register for their course by identifying the institution, course number, and title. Sometimes, if the course is extensive or very advanced, students may decide to complete only certain parts of that course, in which case they identify what part(s) they agree to complete at the outset. This is taken into account when they are assessed for their work. 

Once they choose their OCW course, students engage in the activities provided by that particular unit of study. Learning activities vary widely from institution to institution and within disciplines, but coursework usually consists of one or more of the following: course lectures, which can be video presentation or texts; learning activities like experiments or open-ended questions; demonstrations; and interim and final assessments. Students apply themselves to these activities over the course of a high school marking period. 

Students receive individualized mentoring as they progress through their OCW course. Highly motivated, gifted students who have found their “perfect” course may need little guidance, while others may benefit from varying degrees of structuring and advice along the way. IOCS mentors check-in with students on a regular basis to gauge the level of mentoring intervention needed. In all cases, the advanced content and high expectations inherent in the coursework provide students with a glimpse into the demands that college poses and helps them prepare for their higher education. 

Students combine their creativity with their newfound knowledge to synthesize a unique product that demonstrates and applies the new knowledge and skills they gained from the OCW. The aim is that students go beyond a static PowerPoint presentation laden with mere text and pictures and produce an actual product, whether it is the demonstration of a new skill, the creation of a physical model, the designing and conducting of an experiment, the formulation of a theory, or some other creative way to show what they’ve learned (see the IOCS Rubric). 

The culminating IOCS experience for our students was a five to seven minute exposition of learning in front of faculty and IOCS peers. The work was assessed according to the IOCS Rubric. By developing a framework for the advanced learning opportunities that OCW promises, schools will enable gifted and motivated students to progress beyond the scope of their traditional secondary curriculum. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

5 Steps Toward Building Successful Digital Communities Infused With Rigor and Relevance

A dynamic combination of mindset, behaviors, and skills is required for schools to become places where social media and digital tools are integral and beneficial parts of a rigorous program and where they work symbiotically with active, engaged, and applicable learning. 
How can we take the greatest advantage of this moment in time and create compelling and challenging learning spaces for students? 

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The most important things to do are to give up control and to trust students and their teachers to use real-world tools to unleash creativity and a passion for learning. After putting these tenets in the foundation, the specifics can take several different forms: 

Step 1

Realize that social media is a predominant tool in the world. It fosters personalization, creativity, and collaboration, giving students infinite ways in which to create artifacts of their learning and knowledge. 

Step 2

If 1:1 is not in the cards make use of devices students already have, know, and use. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) signals to kids that teachers know and understand their basic makeup. 
Employing the energy surrounding personal devices allows them to use the tools that help them do what they do better. BYOD enhances learning, increases productivity, allows students to grow their research skills, and gives teachers the chance to teach appropriate digital responsibility. 

Step 3

Create spaces for making, collaborating, and tinkering. Give students chances to build and create using real-world tools (wood shop, electronics, metal work, and coding stations) and to solve open-ended, real-world problems. Bring play back into the picture. These spaces provide students with challenging problems to solve where there is no one correct solution. Through self- directed learning, students are driven to find solutions to create a product that has value. 

Step 4

Structure schools so that they more accurately reflect the real world. Ubiquitous connectivity, charging stations, and casual zones that promote conversation and play increase students’ sense of belonging and engagement. Digitally astute students engage through such models as blended learning, flipped classrooms, games, makerspaces, and virtual learning

Step 5

Give students access to open courseware and open source technology. Inherent in these approaches is a high level of personalization and choice about what to focus on, which in turn leads to greater ownership over learning and personalized ways to demonstrate understanding. 

Ambitious, successful teaching and learning have become inherently intertwined with the digital world. Educators must be able to develop and enact rigorous, relevant instructional methods and formats while using digital tools effectively to underpin their instruction. Students and teachers can transform learning so that it not only prepares them to excel in academic life, but also endows them with essential digital age skills. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Disrupting Education in Bold Ways: The Time is Right

For following is a guest post authored by Dr. Bill Daggett, Founder and Chairman of the
International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).

I believe that this a time when education can change in fundamental ways. The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will reverse the decades’ long trend of centralizing decisions about what students need to learn and how they must be assessed and put them back in the hands of local school districts as well as state education departments’ hands. The increase in federal regulations supported with financial incentives we have seen over the past several years will be lessened. Most notable are the provisions around Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) moving back to the state and local districts. Now we will be able to act on our priorities, not simply driven by federal priorities that may not have been a good fit for our districts and schools. 

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Of course, any piece of legislation has its merits and its drawbacks, but one hugely positive aspect of the ESSA is that it puts the onus back on the states and local districts to determine how they will monitor and evaluate student learning and progress. I believe that it is our obligation to make the most of the opportunity we have before us. This is our chance to collaboratively create indicators of achievement catered to the unique DNA of our state, district, and school. We have the chance to voice our own opinions and actually have them heard, respected, and applied to the process of overhauling the system and focusing on what matters most: students.

Educators at the local and state levels are now in critical positions of responsibility.  To state education officials:

  • Will you seek out the opinion of local school officials and will you empower them to make decisions based upon the community’s needs?

  • Will you fall prey to the same strategic errors the feds made and believe you know best and shut out local community’s opinions and authority?

To members of school boards:

  • Will you involve your community in the process? 
  • Will you include educators and parents—those on the ground—who possess the valuable insights that can inform wise choices? 
  • Will you compile and analyze local data to drive evidence-based decisions? Engage your local communities in respectful, honest dialogue to hear concerns, gather knowledge and ideas, and synthesize insights into your vision?

To all of you in leadership and instructional positions:

  • Will you focus on students’ specific needs and your school’s unique DNA when making plans? 
  • Will you use current data to drive decisions that fit future-focused goals?  
  • Will you determine new metrics necessary to monitor successful realization and impact of your fresh and systematic strategies and initiatives? 
  • Will you identify multiple new and cutting-edge indicators of student learning and growth that speak to the development of the whole child, not just a test-taker? 

Let’s toss out the existing rules and write new ones.  Let’s tear down the outdated system and rebuild on a foundation that looks to the future— not the past— for ideas and inspiration. The 2016 Model Schools Conference is the place for exploring ways to innovate out of the old model and construct a system that’s set up strategically to prepare our students with the skills they need to excel in a complex world. We will share inspiring stories from disruptors in our own field who have reclaimed the mantle of student-centered learning and are building a progressive system around it. Using the experience of those who have had success creating new structures as well as the inspiration and motivation of those who are just beginning, we will provide practical, exciting tools to create a culture of innovation.

For information on the Model Schools Conference and to register click HERE.