Friday, August 15, 2014

Our Work Defines Our Legacy

This post is my contribution to Leadership Day 2014.

Legacy is such a deep and meaningful word in my opinion.  The term can best be described as how someone is remembered and the specific contributions he or she made while they were alive.  When I think of legacy, important thought leaders, activists, musicians, and athletes come to mind such as Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, John Dewey, Princess Diana, Joe DiMaggio, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The work and contributions of these individuals speaks for itself and their impact will continue to be felt for generations.  Then there are those people still alive today that are defining their legacy such as Derek Jeter and Madonna.  One’s legacy is not only defined by his or her contributions to society, but also by the perception and opinions of others who might have been impacted by their work. Below is an interesting take on legacy from George Mason University:
For perspective, each of us, through our lives, has encountered a wide variety of people.  We recall one or more teachers, a relative, a parent, a neighbor, a friend, a leader in the community, and others; we have countless encounters with others through our daily lives, as we share space and time together in stores, on our highways and walkways, in nature, at cultural or recreational events, in group discussions, and in virtually all walks of life.  While most of these encounters are brief, some are long-term and some are intense.   Some are more meaningful than others.  Many of these encounters, whether brief or long-term, have resulted in memories.  Further, some of these memories are more positive than others; however, each of the memories results in some impact upon us. Are the memories of these individuals – whether positive or less than positive – what the other person intended?   And, for those who made a lasting impression, this view may be shared by you and others, and can represent their legacy. 
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In education I don't think anyone sets out to establish a legacy. Just like the examples above, it is our work and commitment to making a difference in the life of a child that is our main motivational force.  If there was one profession where individual or group legacy is least prevalent it is education.  Educators are not in the limelight or in a position for their work to get noticed on a grand scale.  This is not to say that our work is not legacy worthy. In fact, I feel that every educator who is able to help a child learn and puts in countless hours to ensure the success of students with varying ability levels has left his or her legacy in that moment.  

As many people know I stepped down as Principal at New Milford High School this past July and my last day will be on September 3. During my tenure I not only worked to improve every facet of the school, but I also became a connected educator in 2009. When my behavior early on shifted from primarily a communicator to learner everything changed for me as a leader.  Initial lurking led to active engagement with people who I had never met.  This was the turning point for me.  My sole purpose for harnessing and leveraging social media was to engage in conversations with like-minded educators and leaders to improve professional practice.  The more I learned in digital spaces the more I began to take risks to improve the culture at NMHS.  My Personal Learning Network (PLN) became, and still is, my most valued professional resource.  It was here and from thousands of amazing educators that I received the knowledge, resources, ideas, strategies, feedback, and support I needed to initiate sustainable change over the past five years.  Never once did I think about whether or not I was creating a legacy.  To be honest this thought never crossed my mind and I still have trouble wrapping my head around it.  

Over the past few years my work has been aligned to digital leadership and has ultimately defined me as an educator, leader, and person.  My objective has been to improve communications, upgrade public relations, establish a brand presence, grow professionally like never before, enhance student learning, redefine learning spaces and environments, and discover opportunities for my school with the assistance of digital tools.  It wasn’t really until this past week that I truly realized how this work has impacted other educators with whom I am connected.  The posts by Laura Fleming, Spike Cook, and Jared Wastler all brought me to the verge of tears. Each spoke directly or indirectly to my legacy as they saw it. There really is no greater praise one can receive than those from peers who are doing the great work themselves.

As much as I appreciate the positive feedback from my colleagues, I do not feel that I deserve it.  My motivation and drive over the years has been my students and staff.  I just wanted to create a school that not only achieved, but one that the community and we could be proud of.  In the end I believe we have achieved that.  We decided to go down the path less traveled years ago in search of a better way.  This new direction embraced a shared vision where digital tools played a vital role in our transformation efforts.  If there is a lasting legacy resulting from my time as principal in New Milford High School and beyond, it is only because of the work, determination, and commitment to create a school that works for kids and better myself professionally. One does not go out and intentionally create a legacy. Others who see value and impact in our work define it over time. Be the change you wish to see in education, focus on solutions as opposed to excuses, take action, and follow your gut. In the age of social media all connected educators and the actions they take will ultimately carve out their legacy. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Amazing Students Do Amazing Things

Earlier this year I shared the amazing work of New Milford High School student Sarah Almeda in a post titled Students Yearn For Creativity, Not Tests. Wherever I now speak across the country and soon the world I share the incredible project Sarah created.  Her passion for the arts and creativity serve as an catalyst for her learning. She has capitalized on the concept of student voice, taken ownership of her learning, and become an inspiration for me and countless other educators and students across the world.  I am always in awe of the art that she creates using a variety of mediums to demonstrate conceptual mastery.  It is these artifacts after all that truly measure the construction of new knowledge as well as both skill attainment and application.

So what does an amazing student like Sarah do over the summer?  She creates amazing art as a means to continually demonstrate her passions while learning new skills and techniques in the process.  Above is a picture of her entry into the 2014 Cover Contest held by Creative Outlook, a free magazine distributed to high school teachers and students immersed in art and music. She used her self-taught knowledge of Photoshop, bitmap generation, image distortion, photo-manipulation, digital painting, graphics tablet, and an iPhone to make it. I’m trying to share her entry with as many people as possible as only the top 10 entries that get the most votes will enter the final stage of judging. 

As Sarah took the time over the summer to share her work with me I have made the decision to reach out to my network to see if you can lend her a hand to get to the judging stage. I hope you’ll vote HERE for Sarah and consider sharing her amazing work! Regardless of how the contest turns out Sarah's desire to follow her passions and push her learning boundaries make her a winner in my book.  Her true reward has been the construction of new knowledge and the acquisition of new schools that will aid her as she pursues a future career in game design. She consciously makes the decision to learn over the summer, which is why she is an amazing student. I can't wait to see what work she shares with me once the school year starts.  

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Reinventing Writing by @Coolcatteacher

"You can't just drop new innovations into a classroom and hope that the instructor will invent effective ways to use them. To fully utilize a new teaching technology you often need to invent new teaching practices as well." - John Seely Brown
I absolutely love this quote that Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher) uses in the opening chapter of her new book titled Reinventing Writing. I have seen all too often technology just get dumped on teachers and schools with no rhyme or reason.  This often produces a disastrous effect as the pedagogy does not support the use of the technology tool in arriving to or assessing learning outcomes.  Educators today are pressured to integrate technology as society becomes more digitized.  With schools becoming more and more connected and spending countless sums of money to provide adequate amounts of technology educators are becoming increasingly overwhelmed. The missing link is guidance on how these tools can be used effectively and appropriately to allow students to create artifacts of learning to demonstrate conceptual mastery.  Educators want to desperately see and know how technology compliments and/or enhances the work they are already doing.

Vicki Davis has created a resource that identifies how traditional writing can be taken to the next level with cloud-based tools.  Students today are using technology to write outside of school, but more often than not they are not using them correctly or appropriately.  Reinventing Writing sheds light on practical ways for teachers to integrate a wide array of tools, Common Core alignment, and tips to avoid pitfalls. The book is broken down into three main parts. In chapter 1 Vicki identifies compelling reasons how new age tools improve student writing by identifying five specific benefits.  Chapter 2 focuses on the elements associated with picking the right tool to complete a specific writing task.  I loved the fact that Vicki created 20 essential questions for teachers to use in order to identify the perfect tool to complete a specific writing task.  This alone takes away a great deal of anxiety often associated with technology use as there are so many tools readily available to teachers, many of which are free. There are often many fears and misconceptions associated with technology, especially cloud-based tools.  Well Vicki has that covered as well in chapter 2 as she addresses CIPA, FERPA, and HIPAA. This is all just part 1!

In part 2 of the book Vicki breaks down 9 types of tools, each with their own dedicated chapter.  There are so many tips and practical ideas embedded in each chapter that can assist any educator regardless of his or her proficiency level using technology.  I know teachers will appreciate the "Ways to Use" table that is found in each chapter where Vicki has provided no less than 20 different ways to use the specified tool to improve writing.  Here is the chapter breakdown:

  • 3 - Reinventing Paper: ePaper and eBooks
  • 4 - Reinventing Notetaking: Digital Notebooks
  • 5 - Reinventing Notecards: Social Bookmarking
  • 6 - Reinventing the Filing Cabinet and Inbox: Cloud Syncing
  • 7 - Reinventing Word Processors: Cloud Writing Apps
  • 8 - Reinventing Journals and Reports: Blogging and Microblogging
  • 9 - Reinventing Group Reports: Wikis and Website Builders
  • 10 - Reinventing Prewriting: Graphic ORganizers, Mind Mapping, and More
  • 11 - Reinventing Illustrations: Infographics and Graphics that Add Meaning

The third and final part of the book focuses on practical ways to implement the tools in the classroom.  Here Vicki emphasizes the key elements to promote and enhance digital citizenship among learners.  This is extremely important as working with online tools that focus on writing provides some new challenges for teachers and students alike.  She then goes on to discuss how to set up writing communities that truly foster collaboration.  The book concludes with a grounding in setting realistic goals in order to consistently push the innovative envelope when it comes to writing.  All in all this is a must have resource for teachers at all grade levels.  If you are a building-level leader do yourself a favor an purchase a copy for your school.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Schools That Work For Kids

My son, Nicholas, is your typical child growing up in the 21st Century.  He loves to play outside, swim in the pool, golf in the NYC Junior Golf League, have friends over, and feast on McDonald’s.  Then there is the technology aspect of his life, which is a very big part.  Who am I to deprive him access to an array of engaging tools that his generation is growing up with? It would be hard to, even if I tried, as the Sheninger household has 30 connected devices in it. He has his devices, which include access to an iTouch, laptop, Nintendo 3DS, Xbox Kinect, and Wii U.  Just like his daddy, my son loves his technology.  Even though he plays a variety of games with his friends by far his most favorite is Minecraft.  

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On a typical Saturday morning for example, you would think that there is a play date going on in our playroom where the Xbox is. You literally hear at times five different little voices.  Once you enter the room though you see only my son who has connected with his friends in numerous states through the Xbox.  Not only are they all engaged, but also they are collaborating, communicating, solving problems, strategizing, and thinking critically to create their own unique world.  What I just described in the last sentence is commonly referred to as 21st Century Skills (we have called them essential skills at my school for the past three years). However, I believe that these skills are paramount to success in the 21st Century and beyond.  My son and children around the world need these skills as well as experiential learning opportunities that allow them to follow their passions while unleashing their innate desire to be creative.  

Some of the best learning and bonding conversations I have with my son are when he explains his rationale and thinking that have gone into creating various Minecraft worlds.  His learning is evident as he meticulously explains the structure and function of the different worlds he has created.  One of the best designs I ever saw was a McDonalds that he created.  It had the golden arches as well as the color red associated with the company’s brand. Now you couldn’t order a Big Mac or Happy Meal, but he had it designed in a way that you could grab a turkey to satisfy your hunger.  As a parent and educator, seeing his creations, discovering his methodology, and basking in his enthusiasm never gets old.  In my opinion, this is learning at its finest, driven by authentic engagement, passion, and creativity. 

Here is the major problem though.  The structure and function of the majority of schools in this country is the exact opposite of the world that our learners are growing up in.  There is an automatic disconnect when students like my son, regardless of their grade level, walk into schools due to the lack of engagement, relevancy, meaning, and authentic learning opportunities.  Our education system has become so efficient in sustaining a century old model because it is easy and safe.  The resulting conformity has resulted in a learning epidemic among our students as they see so little value in the cookie-cutter learning exercises they are forced to go through each day.  The bottom line is that they are bored.  It is time that we create schools that work for our students as opposed to ones that have traditionally worked well for the adults.

Creating schools that work for students requires a bold vision for change that not only tackles the status quo inherent in the industrialized model of education, but also current education reform efforts.  Even though Common Core is not a curriculum, many schools and districts have become so engrossed with alignment and preparing for the new aligned tests that real learning has fallen by the wayside.  In New York Common Core, scripts for lessons have become the standard.  We need to realize that this, along with other traditional elements associated with education, no longer prevail.  How we go about doing this will vary from school to school, but the process begins with the simple notion of putting students first to allow them to follow their passions, create, tinker, invent, play, and collaborate.  Schools that work for students focus less on control and more on trust.  Most importantly, they are places where kids actually look forward to coming.  The time for excuses is over and taking action is the only logical choice if we are committed to real change. Do your students enjoy coming to your school? If not, how will you change that?