Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Small Changes, Huge Results

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

Last week my school was fortunate to have the NJ School Boards Association (NJSBA) visit to produce a live event called Learn@Lunch: Technology as an Engagement Tool.  You can view the archive of the event here.  A little over two years ago something like this would have never happened at New Milford High School.  Yes, I was the Principal at that time, but my perspective and philosophy as to what constituted a 21st Century learning environment was vastly different than what it is today.  Back then I felt that being a tech savvy administrator just consisted of purchasing the tools for my staff and letting them use them as they felt fit.  I was also adamant that social media had no place in an educational setting, but most of you who read this blog know about my radical change of mind in regards to this.  To put it bluntly, no educational organizations in NJ would have even thought of approaching me to talk about the innovative use of technology at my school.
We have seen many shifts in terms of instruction, communication, and learning at NMHS resulting in a transformative culture that is more in line to meet the needs of our students.  So what changed?  There wasn't really one big "ah ha" moment or school epiphany, but rather small changes on the surface that have resulted in some significant changes.  The first small change was my philosophical enlightenment as to the educational value to web 2.0 technology, including social media.  It was at this time that I saw the error in my ways and began to leverage the power of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) to effectively integrate an array of tools that I had never knew existed.  This small change evolved into my present philosophy on how schools can, and should, use social media.  This short list includes:
  • Effectively communicating with stakeholders
  • Establishing a consistent public relations platform
  • Developing a brand presence that promises value
  • Authentically engaging students in the learning process
  • Providing cost-effective professional development that is meaningful
  • Discovering opportunity for my school (i.e. our tablet pilot program discussed at Learn@Lunch)
The second small change was educating my staff on the value of web 2.0 technology in the classroom and beyond.  Instead of mandating that every teacher integrate technology, I instead chose to empower my staff to create a stimulating learning environment.  Little things such as support, encouragement, flexibility, and modeling have gone a long way to provide my staff with the confidence to take risks with technology and create meaningful learning activities that foster creativity, problem solving, and participation by all students.  This is now a collaborative effort and more and more teachers are beginning to embrace a vision that pairs sound pedagogical techniques with technology.   Refer to the archive mentioned above to see some of the amazing things my teachers are now doing.

The third small change was realizing that students had to be instrumental in any effort to transform the culture of our school.  We had to give up a certain amount of control in order to successfully implement a bring-your-own-device program where students are granted access to the school's wireless network during the day using their computing devices.  We also had to trust they would use their mobile learning devices (i.e. cell phones) responsibly as a tool for learning in certain classes using free programs such as Poll Everywhere.

The fourth and final small change was becoming a more transparent administrator and sharing the innovative practices taking place within the walls of my school.  With Twitter I have been able to give my stakeholders a glimpse into my role as an educational leader.  Facebook has been an incredible tool to share realtime information, student achievements, and staff innovations.  Both of these tools combined have given my stakeholders and the greater educational community a bird's eye view into my school and the great things happening here.

These small changes, combined with many others, are beginning to have a huge impact on the teaching, learning, and community culture of my school.  Even though I have highlighted examples specific to technology, there have also been changes focused on curriculum and programming.  Politicians and self-proclaimed reformers routinely throw around the word change and think that a one-size-fits-all approach is what's needed to increase student achievement and innovation.  Each school is an autonomous body with distinct dynamics that make it unique.  It's the small changes over time that will eventually leave a lasting impact.  Schools and educators need to be empowered to make these changes as they see fit.  In my eyes, this is the type of reform that is needed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Student Driven Schools

The following is a guest post by Disha Dass and Jessica Milne, two New Milford High School students.  They approached me with an idea and as a school we let them run with it.  Nothing like this had ever been organized at NMHS.  The end result of their unwavering commitment to make their peers aware of of an issue had a profound impact on the entire school community.  Students making a difference and having a say in the culture of our school are two of the many defining characteristics that make NMHS a special place.  Our job is to serve the students by listening and putting their ideas into action in order to improve all facets of education.  They should be in the driver's seat.

If you had walked down a hallway in New Milford High School on Friday, April 15th, you would have seen students greeting each other in silence, laughing silently at a silent joke, and a mass of red shirts, all reading: Day of Silence: A Million Voices. April 15, 2011 was the National Day of Silence, a movement protesting the bullying and harassment faced by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) teens.
In New Milford, two students took the initiative to make the Day of Silence happen at their high school. They had witnessed firsthand some of the negative attitudes towards LGBT kids in the school, and decided to do something about it. Fueled by the knowledge that their cause was a good one, these students (senior Jessica Milne and junior Disha Dass) gained the support of Mrs. Zacher, the Student Assistance Counselor and head of BUDDY (Bullying Undermines the Development of Diverse Youths), an anti-bullying group at the high school. Along with BUDDY, Disha and Jessica approached Mr. Sheninger about New Milford High School participating in the Day of Silence.

Throughout the entire process, the staff and administration of the high school was nothing but accepting and supportive. Mr. Pevny designed and printed t-shirts; Mrs. Zacher organized lists of participating students and printed out "speaking cards," which students could show others on the fifteenth to explain their silence. Other teachers asked what they could do to help out, even if they themselves could be silent. Mr. Sheninger was there every step of the way to ensure that the day was a success.

On April 15th, the National Day of Silence came to New Milford High School. Shirts, stickers, and speaking cards were handed out. Students walked the halls in silence, some writing down messages to fellow students or teachers in order to communicate. In Mrs. Swarctz's chorus class, students listened to the music that they were learning to sing for the spring concert. In Mr. Tusa's A.P. U.S. History class, students nodded along with their teacher's words as they took diligent notes. The silence was only broken at 2:55, the end of the school day, when Disha made the announcement thanking everyone for participating and officially breaking the silence.

The experience could not have gone better. A small high school experienced the silence faced by LGBT teens every day of their lives. Students learned that if they have the initiative and the drive to get something done in their school, all they have to do is ask. The faculty at the high school was supportive, the administrators caring, the students open-minded. We hope this will be the first of many Days of Silence at New Milford High School.

Please share your thoughts on this initiative and the concept of students driving changes to school culture as both Disha and Jessica will be reading the comments.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Making Progress

Over the past 2 years I have worked collaboratively with my staff to cultivate a culture of learning that engages students, is meaningful/relevant, promotes critical thought/problem-solving, and is flexible in that risk-taking is encouraged in order to promote innovative practices.   It has been a gradual transition and we are beginning to see shifts in instructional practices, staff members wanted to integrate technology, and students advocating more for the type of learning culture they prefer.  What makes this transformation even more significant is that were are doing more with less and not using budgetary constraints as an excuse of crutch to not improve.
Our efforts have grabbed the attention of some of the most prestigious stakeholder groups in NJ.  This Thursday (5/19) the NJ School Boards Association will be visiting New Milford High School to host a live event called Learn@Lunch: Technology as an Engagement Tool.  Here is a description:

Across New Jersey, schools are focused on 21st Century Learning and integrating technology in the classroom. At the same time, school boards and administrators are exploring how they can use technology, the web and social media to engage both students and their communities. New Milford High School Principal Eric Sheninger will be joined by several of his teachers, students, board trustees and members of his community to discuss how New Milford High School uses technology as a student and community engagement tool. In addition to discussing the technology that students are using in his school, Sheninger will talk about how he uses social media as a community engagement tool.

I am extremely proud to have my school share some of the progress we have made in creating a school moving towards relevancy in the 21st Century.  Please consider joining us at 12:00 PM on Thursday 5/19 as members of my staff, student body, and community share some of the little things we are doing that are making a big difference.  Register for free HERE and consider passing along this post to other school districts that might benefit.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

21st vs. 20th Century Education

I came across this video that compares and contrasts pedagogical techniques, learning environments, student/teacher characteristics, and expectations associated with education during the past two centuries.

What are your thoughts on the various points made in this video?  How can we better meet the needs of learners and educators in the 21st Century?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Communicating and Connecting With Social Media (An Excerpt)

Here is a sneak peek at my new book co-authored by Bill Ferriter and Jason Ramsden.  The book is entitled Communicating & Connecting With Social Media: Essentials for Principals and will be available from Solution Tree on May 19, 2011

Using Twitter to Build Your School’s Brand

The good news is that open-communication practices in a social media world don’t have to be intimidating. For principals, experiments in open communication typically begin with Twitter ( and Facebook ( These two services have been broadly em­braced across all social and technical profiles and make it possible to reach large audiences in the blink of an eye. More importantly, they enable the kinds of two-way interactions that made Comcast a social media success story—and a characteristic of the communication practices that consumers have grown to expect from businesses and schools (National School Boards Association, 2007).
Twitter and Facebook provide principals with real-time tools that are far superior to traditional forms of communication. Social media services paired with high rates of Internet connectivity allow multiple forms of information—web links, videos, audio files, images, text messages, and documents—to be delivered and consumed in multiple ways. With almost no effort, principals can share compelling, detailed messages that are readily accessible from mobile devices, tablets, and computers connected to the Internet with their school communities.

Implementing Twitter as a Communication Tool

The most approachable and least-intimidating tool for principals interested in using social me­dia to connect with their communities is Twitter. One of the most popular microblogging plat­forms, Twitter allows users to post short, 140-character text-based messages called tweets to a designated page on the Internet. Tweets often point viewers to other web-based resources, provid­ing principals with the means to deliver real-time school information in a matter of seconds.
Since each tweet is limited to 140 characters—the average length of one well-written sentence—messages are easy to generate for busy administrators. More importantly, updates to a school’s Twitter website—commonly called a Twitter stream—can be made from any device that has ac­cess to the Internet, enabling on-the-go communication. (See figure 1.1 for a visual.) Principals using Twitter can always craft messages from traditional locations like their offices, but with cell phones, PDAs, or Internet-connected mobile devices, they can also begin messaging from the side­lines of the homecoming game, the back row of the band’s first concert, or the table with the win­ning entry in the school’s science fair.
Imagine using Twitter to immediately communicate the following to stakeholders. 

  • Calendar reminders: The school year is full of important dates. Twitter can be used to remind parents and students of athletic and performance schedules, standardized testing dates, end of marking periods, upcoming holi­days, and school closings.
  • Celebrations: The school year is also full of ac­complishments. Sadly, publicly celebrating the successes of students and teachers can be hard to do in a timely fashion. Twitter allows immedi­ate announcements of great achievements to the entire community.
  •  Helpful resources: Most parents would be happy to extend learning beyond the school day if they had the knowledge and skills needed to support their children. With Twitter, it’s easy to share links to valuable web-based resources on parenting, teaching, or the content being studied in your classrooms.
  • Decisions and details: Schools and the organizations that support them are constantly making decisions with far-reaching implications. Boards of education pass new grading or promotion standards, parent-teacher organizations sponsor after-school programs or grade-level field trips, and booster clubs and educational foundations fund scholarships for struggling students. Using Twitter to share these decisions spreads information quickly and makes the inner workings of your organization transparent to everyone.
  • Emergency updates: While principals never want to imagine scenarios for dealing with school-based emergencies, planning communication patterns before natural disasters or hu­man tragedies strike is a responsible practice. Because Twitter updates can be posted from mobile devices, they can become a part of a comprehensive plan for easing community fears and getting messages out to parents and support professionals in emergency situations.

Getting Started With Twitter

For coauthor Eric Sheninger, using Twitter began by taking about five minutes to create a free account that communicated a bit of general information about his school. Knowing that he first needed a username that would be easy for parents and students to remember, he chose NewMilfordHS. The NewMilfordHS Twitter account follows a clear naming structure that parents could probably guess even if they weren’t sure of the school’s Twitter name. The direct address for New Milford’s Twitter stream,, is posted on the school’s website and shared in as many parent messages as possible.
The second step to making any school-based Twitter stream easy to find is filling out the simple bio information that Twitter publicly displays about each user. Eric included a short sentence ex­plaining that NewMilfordHS is a Twitter stream for New Milford High School in Bergen County, New Jersey, so that the parents and students could be certain that they had landed in the right place when checking Twitter for updates. To make the page stand out and to establish a brand presence, he used the school’s colors, mascot, and logo; he also provided a direct link to the school’s website.
Once a school’s Twitter account has been created, updates can be added at any time. In fact, Eric started posting messages immediately, trying to see just what he had gotten himself into. Within minutes, he shared details about an upcoming parent night, a celebration of students on his school’s honor roll, and a link on parenting teenagers he thought his community might find interesting. He explains, “To get that information on our traditional website would have taken a week’s worth of emails and action by two or three different staff members” (Sheninger, 2010c).
Principals using Twitter to reach out to the communities they serve, however, may discover that initial efforts to use Twitter as a tool for school-based communication are met with raised eyebrows. While most of the adults in any community are likely to have heard of Twitter—re­cent studies estimate that 87 percent of Americans are aware of the service—only 7 percent of Americans actively use it (Webster, 2010). Parents and other important stakeholders may see such efforts as fads until they are shown what communication in social media spaces looks like in ac­tion. Without convincing your community that your school’s Twitter stream is a valuable source of information, your work in Twitter will quickly become obsolete.
Ferriter, W, Ramsden, J, & Sheninger, E. (2011). Communicating and Connecting With Social Media: Essentials for Principals. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Egg Babies and Wedding Planning

"Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself" - John Dewey

There are many views on the role of schools and teaching in general.  Education is everything.  How we teach, assess learning, and engage students is crucial to their success once they leave our buildings.  Will our students apply what they have learned?  Are we teaching meaningful lessons that reflect societal challenges?  

As I ponder these questions I can't help but reflect on some of the learning activities that one of my teachers - Rebecca Millan - has been utilizing in her Sociology class.  In one example she has had her students engaged in some projects and experiments to promote awareness and help them experience the potential difficulties in getting married and raising children.  While using Mac Books, students were assigned as couples and provided with a budget to plan a mock wedding.  Through the Internet and the use of their cell phones, students’ researched and called different venues and businesses to budget their wedding.  The process proved difficult for some as they saw how stressful wedding planning can be and how much goes into the process.  

Currently in Ms. Millan's Sociology class students are partaking in an experiment in which they are caring for an “egg baby” for six days, including the weekend. Students are keeping a daily log of how they took care of the baby, what types of problems and encounters were faced, as well as their reaction to these problems. Each day the egg is also checked by Ms. Millan as well as the students' own parents.  This experience is proving enlightening for some and she hopes it will help students understand the importance of all decisions and choices they make throughout their young adult lives.
Photo credit: 
It is important that schools take the time to impart crucial life lessons that students will find relevant and meaningful.  I personally find that these types of activities get lost as the pressure mounts to prepare for and have students succeed on standardized exams.  My final question is this, will students find more meaning learning about egg babies and wedding planning as it relates to life decisions or skill and drill lessons?  As E. Lindeman stated in 1926, "Education is life--not a mere preparation for an unknown kind of future living."  As such, students should understand that what they learn in schools can be and should be naturally applied.