Thursday, April 28, 2011

Time Well Spent

A slightly altered version of this post entitled "The Social Media Time Debate" can be found at the Huffington Post

There has been a great deal of discussion lately as to the necessity of Administrators utilizing social media as a part of their professional practice. There was even a comment on the Facebook page that I manage for my high school stating that I spend too much time on Twitter. With all of the positives that I feel are associated with social media, and no matter how I utilize various mediums in a professional manner, there seems to always be a large number of skeptics. It is obvious that they do not take the time to read the content that I either create or share, which is quite frustrating. Nor do they care to engage me in a discussion as to why I spend valuable time with Twitter or my blog.

Back to the real topic of my post, which is time allocation. To get a flavor of some views on this, please check out these fantastic posts on the topic by some of my colleagues that I have come to know and respect through Twitter:
Let’s face it, we can all agree that we could use more time in the day. As an administrator, during the school day I spend my time in a variety of ways. A typical day consists of crafting a morning staff email, observing teachers, conducting classroom walk-throughs, attending meetings, engaging teachers/students in conversations, and being a presence in the halls/cafeteria. Obviously, this is a general list of duties, which changes greatly depending on the time of year. Other major responsibilities include evaluations, budget preparation, development of action plans, mentoring, and professional development.

So where, and how, does social media fit into all of this? Let me first discuss blogging. I swore that I would never blog as I strongly felt that I was not a gifted writer and who would really care what I had to say anyway? I blog as a means to reflect on my work as an educational leader and to open up my ideas to elicit constructive feedback from a global collection of exemplary educators. Why do this you might ask? The answer is simple, to become better in order to improve the teaching and learning culture at my school. Blogging is also used to share student achievements and staff accomplishments. It also creates a layer of transparency and gives stakeholders a glimpse into what I do, how I think, and what I am passionate about. I am not going to sugar coat this, blogging takes a great deal of time. This is the main reason I only write about one post a week.

So when do I blog? I blog at times that do not interfere with my responsibilities as a Principal, father, or husband. For example, I am writing this post sitting in the back seat of a car with my kids on the way to see family in Long Island, NY for Easter. Yesterday I wrote a post during a rainy Saturday morning as my wife worked on schoolwork and my kids played with their cousin who was visiting (this took about 40 minutes of my time). Another popular time for me to write is on Monday evenings from 6:00 – 6:45 as I sit in the car waiting for my kids to get out of dancing school. The point here is I am an opportunist when it comes to blogging and take advantage of what little down time I have. I do not blog during the school day as I aspire to be the type of principal that Ryan Bretag so eloquently spoke of in his post.

Then there is Twitter. In 140 characters or less I can communicate with stakeholders by sharing useful information (@NewMilfordHS) for free! At the advice of some of my parents, I only send out a tweet or two a day using this account. It literally takes me seconds to do this. I am a bit more active on my other Twitter account (@NMHS_Principal).  Here I share/acquire resources (I add those that I feel my teachers will like to either Delicious or Diigo), engage in thoughtful discussions on educational issues, and acquire knowledge to grow professionally at my convenience (see my PLN post). I will use my Blackberry during the school day to tweet out examples of student work (pictures) and other great things that I see during the course of the day. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate excellence and exhibit pride in the work being done in their school in a timely fashion?

So when do I tweet? The majority of my weekday tweeting takes place during the early morning hours and from the late afternoon on. During my brief lunch every day (5-10 minutes if I am lucky) I will peruse through my Twitter stream to see if anyone has shared some great links to educational news, commentary, or websites. If I find value in the information, I retweet it. It is difficult to quantify an exact amount of time that I spend on Twitter, but each tweet read, typed, or link followed is directly correlated to my role as an educator.

The entire purpose of this post is to paint a clear picture of how my time is well spent when it comes to social media. My sacrifice comes during down periods, not at the expense of professional and personal roles that I fill. What I gain is invaluable to my growth as a Principal and learner. These are just some of the avenues that I utilize to become more effective, efficient, and better at what I do. For me, time will never be used as an excuse to streamline communications, share the many great things going on at my school, critically analyze educational issues, reflect, and model life-long learning. This is my path. What is yours?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Chrome Extensions for Educators

As a result of being off the entire week for spring break I have had the opportunity to explore the many extensions available for Google Chrome.  These free extensions not only optimize my Internet experience, but also provide a great deal of enhanced functionality to my work as an educator (especially as a blogger).  I have begun to compile a short list of extensions that I am currently using.  Some are popular, but others are relatively new.
  • Google Dictionary:  View definitions as you browse the web.  All you have to do is double click any word on a webpage to view it's definition.
  • After the Deadline: Check spelling, grammar, and style right in your web browser.
  • Those of us that love Twitter are well aware of this great service to shorten URL's.  This extension allows you to shorten, share, and and track your links right from your browser.
  • Diigo:  An educator friendly social bookmarking service, this extension allows you to highlight portions of web pages, add sticky notes, archive, and bookmark.  A must have for educators!
  • AdBlock: By far the most popular Google Chrome extension.  It blocks ads from all over the web.
  • CloudMagic: This extension allows for instant searches of your Gmail, Google Docs, and contacts.  You can read more about this fantastic extension here.
  • Google Translate: Translate entire web pages into a language of your choosing with just one click.
  • Click & Clean: This is like having a maid for your computer!  Click & Clean deletes typed URL's, browsing history, Flash cookies, and other types of online activity.
  • Clip to Evernote:  Many educators use Evernote so it just makes sense that there is an extension to save things that you see on the web right to your account.
  • RSS Subscription Extension: This extension automatically detects RSS feeds on any website you are visiting and allows you to subscribe in one easy click.
  • Docs PDF/PowerPoint Viewer: Get quick, easy access to preview PowerPoint presentations, pdf's, and other types of documents.  This extension eliminates downloading large files and/or launching another application to view these documents.
  • Chromed Bird: An extension for all the Twitterholics out there.
  • feedly xt: Transform your Google Reader and Twitter accounts into a personalized magazine.
Obviously I am just getting started with Google Chrome extensions.  If you have any thoughts on the ones I have listed please share.  Also, please consider adding your recommendations of other extensions the comments section so we can create a more expanded list.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Managing For Success

The other day one of my veteran teachers came to my office to tell me that she had decided to retire.  This was a bittersweet moment for me as I highly valued her commitment to the students of New Milford High School and knew I would have a huge void to fill, but was happy to see that she was at peace with her decision.  During our conversation she told me how much she appreciated that fact that I never once micromanaged her, which promoted creativity in the classroom.  Her comment literally made my week as I stive to avoid micromanagement of both my teachers and administrators.
It has been over a week since my teacher told me this and I still find myself reflecting on not only my leadership style, but that of other educational leaders as well.  In my opinion many leaders feel pressured as a result of high-stakes testing and micromanage as a means to ensure that curriculum and instruction are solely focused on preparing students to succeed on these assessments.  Others gravitate towards this leadership style because they are either unwilling or don't know how to give up control.  Then there are those who want to have their hands in everything so that when an initiative or idea succeeds they can take credit for it.

Regardless of the reasons, excessive micromanagement in education tends to have a negative impact on school culture.  It builds resentment, squashes creativity, lowers moral, and tends to place educators on a path to surviving rather than innovating (see Consequences of Micromanagement).  Micromanagement should be avoided as much as possible (Avoiding Micromanagement).  Leaders should think about managing through collaboration, consensus, flexibility, and modeling in order to attain desirable changes that benefit students.  With my administrative team I find myself challenging them to make decisions on their own and give them the autonomy to do so.

Is my style perfect?  Not in the least bit.  Will I still have to roll up my sleeves from time to time and make directives?  Of course, but making directive after directive is no way to lead in the 21st Century in my opinion.  One can still have their hands in a school initiative without smothering the collective group through micromanagement tactics.  A shared leadership model where all voices are respected seems to have a positive impact as everyone feels part of the change process.

I am always analyzing my actions and trying to get better.  Inherent in this quest is exhibiting confidence in the decisions of my staff, celebrating their ideas, respecting their opinions, and trusting the variety of ways in which they choose to teach the curriculum and grow as professionals.  With the proper support, guidance, and oversight I am confident that I am on the right path to managing for success, but there is always room for improvement.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cultivating Authenticity in Learning

A slightly altered version of this post entitled "Learning Like Never Before" is cross-posted at the Huffington Post.
Let me start off by saying that I work at an incredible school. When I came to New Milford High School in 2004 there were many amazing programs in place.  One was the Holocaust Study Tour.  This global learning endeavor provides some of our students the opportunity to travel to Europe for at least 10 days and study the Holocaust in depth. This authentic learning experience cannot be reproduced in the classroom.  For detailed information on the program please visit The New Milford Holocaust Project.
Technology now allows the students and staff at NMHS to share in the authentic learning experiences taking place in Europe (Germany, Poland, Czech Republic).  Last year we launched a blog where the students in Europe chronicled and reflected on essential questions, focusing on a dark time in human history.  Meanwhile, students and staff back on the campus of NMHS are using the blog as a catalyst for a variety of other learning experiences.  Some teachers even have their students respond to the posts each day.  The first Holocaust Study Tour 2011 blog post should be up tomorrow so be sure to check it out.
Skype has also brought a whole new element to the program. Prior to the trip, students Skyped numerous times with their guide who resides in Israel.  This year we even Skyped in a Holocaust survivor to our elective course on the topic.  I use Skype to keep in contact with my teacher while on the trip and to sometimes converse with the students about what they are learning.  We also encourage our history teachers to Skype with the study tour if the times can be worked out.  At our District Open House this Thursday, I plan to Skype the group in from Europe to kick off the event. The theme for the event is appropriately centered around what it is like to be a student in the 21st Century.
It is an exciting time to be in education. Technology has really added a whole new dimension to learning.  Schools that confine themselves to a bland curriculum, textbooks, worksheets, or learning activities that do not go beyond the walls of the brick and mortar building are really doing a disservice to their learners.  In a society that is now globally connected through easy to use and cost effective web 2.0 tools, opportunities to engage and make the process of learning meaningful to all students has quickly become a reality. Teachers now have at their fingertips many tools to add a global context to any lesson. For example, Skype in the Classroom is a free community that assists teachers in establishing connections between teachers in different countries to help their students learn.  

Unfortunately, many schools across the country block blogging tools and Skype as well as a variety of other web 2.0 technologies that foster creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, and communication skills. Schools have not evolved in step with societal changes. In order to best prepare out students, we must move away from an industrial model of instruction and let go of control in order to meet the diverse needs of today’s learner. This will only happen when schools realize that technology is not the enemy and when combined with passionate teachers and visionary schools the end result for students is learning like never before.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spicing Up Spanish

This past week as I was collecting information for my monthly Principal's Report I was happy to learn about how technology was being integrated into some Spanish classes.  For example, students in Ms. Schwarz’s Spanish 1 class had to write a dialogue based on the following situation.  “This is your first day of school and you are introducing yourself to a bunch of classmates.  You are in a Chemistry class and your teacher gives you ten minutes to get to know the person that sits next to you.” The students had to compose a dialogue using an outline that was provided after which they followed directions to create an avatar using Voki.  Voki is a service that allows students to create personalized speaking avatars.  Students created their avatar by customizing each of the options below:
  • Create a character from one of the different styles.
  • Customize the avatar by changing the look, clothing, and accessories.
  • Add your own voice via phone, microphone, text to speech, or upload a file.
  • Choose a background from website library.
  • Click on publish and e-mail it to me.

Ms. Schwarz’s Spanish 3 students created a comic strip that illustrated their daily routine. Students used Make Beliefs Comix, which is a website that enables students to create unique comic strips.  Students can use this tool to make their own characters and customize their looks and mood. They also have the capability to write words and thoughts for their characters. Students were truly engaged and enjoyed incorporating technology in the learning process.
I am extremely proud of the work Ms. Schwarz is doing to spice up her Spanish classes.  Even more exciting is the fact that she discovered these web-based tools on her own and took the initiative to develop authentic-based lessons that engaged her students.