Thursday, June 28, 2012

Learning on My Terms

The following is a guest post by Bedros Kharmandarian, a junior at New Milford High School. Throughout his high school career he has been exposed to many elective courses in the areas of graphics and technology that have allowed him to unleash his creative talents. In this piece he discusses his use of Adobe tools to create our recent Holocaust Study Tour book.  You can view last year's book created using Adobe Creative Design Suite HERE.

As a student, the use of Adobe programs has been a privilege, as well as, a tool to benefit myself and New Milford High School.  A large amount  of my efforts yearly go into our school yearbook, which is done through a collaboration between our Graphic Arts teacher, Mr. Pevny, and a few students such as myself.  I am proud to say that the yearbook has consistently received many awards over the years.  This, in my opinion, can be attributed to an amazing teacher in Mr. Pevny as well as the schools' investment in the latest educational technology (iMacs, Adobe tools, digital cameras, etc.).

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This year, a project that took a grand amount of effort on my part, as well as, the use of programs such as Photoshop and InDesign, was a booklet on the Holocaust Study Tour.  Every year our school holds an educational trip to Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic, in which a select group of students are taken to get a first hand education on the Holocaust.   When the trip reaches its end, they are left with multitudes of pictures, as well as, an essay, which is to be written by each student.   A single student is bestowed the task of using the resources at hand, coupled with Adobe programs, to create a 60 page booklet.  This year, I was the student chosen. 

So, essentially, Adobe software such as InDesign and Photoshop have been a staple in my artistic student life.  They have enriched my experience as a student at New Milford High by providing me the ability to make things ranging from yearbook content, Holocaust booklets, playbills for the school musical, projects for numerous classes, and many more learning artifacts.   I am afforded countless opportunities to learn on my terms with the tools that I am comfortable with at times that are convenient.  This is how school should be and I am thankful for everything that NMHS has done to meet my needs and provided me with unparalleled learning opportunities.             

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Learning Tool or Educational Distraction?

I thank many of us can agree that schools are split on the value that social media plays in the teaching and learning process.  Ok, who am I kidding!  The majority of schools see absolutely no inherent value as a result of the stigma that social media carries with it.  I encourage you to watch the video below as it really puts into perspective not only the potential role that social media can play in education, but also the essential role of the teacher that uses it.

Do you consider social media a tool for learning or a source of distraction and why?  I think this conversation could potentially be used as a springboard for those educators wishing to open their schools and students to this tool that many of us find so valuable. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Why Blog?

As I reflect on my continuous evolution as an educational leader I am constantly amazed at how things have changed over the course of three years.  It was in March of 2009 that I decided to give this social networking tool Twitter a try.  At the time I was skeptical about whether my time was going to be well spent posting updates in 140 characters and whether or not people would actually care or be interested in what I was doing.  Obviously my perception of Twitter early on was completely wrong as it has radically molded me into the leader and educator that I am today.

After nearly a year of using Twitter from an educational perspective I had begun to find and read blogs on a daily basis around February 2010.  I often marveled at the creative thought and passion that so many educators put into their writing.  Envious would be a more appropriate word.  As I became active on Twitter members of my Personal Learning Network (PLN) began to suggest that I start a blog.  Well let me be the first one to tell you that I am NOT a writer and always struggled with expressing my thoughts in words.  My mind was set in concrete that I would NEVER under any circumstances begin to blog (wait, I said the same thing about joining Facebook up until 2010).

So what changed?  The most important factor that influenced me to begin a blog was my PLN.  Had it not been the modeling by and support of so many unbelievable educators I would NEVER, and I mean NEVER, started blogging.  The support I received gave me the courage to share my thoughts, experiences, and ideas with others who have a stake in the noblest profession.  My reflections led to a belief that I actually had useful information to share that might be utilized to help other educators grow, think, take-risks, and eventually share their success stories.

I absolutely relish the fact that I now utilize my blog as a vehicle to share the successes of my students and staff.  Sharing is the key word here.  The concept of a PLN and immersion in the educational world of Web 2.0 has shown me the unselfish nature of educators as they constantly strive to help each other day in day out.  Why do we do this? The answer is simple, we want to ensure that students succeed!  No one person or group has all of the answers.  Each and every educator has something to share.  Blogs now provide a valuable set of services to educators in a time when our profession desperately needs it.  These include mentoring, professional development, encouragement, ideas to reform the profession, and most importantly inspiration.  They also show students, parents, and community members how passionate we are about what we do!  For me blogging has also become a portal to discuss strategies and ideas that have not only helped to transform my school, but also my leadership style.

Why do I blog? I do so to give back to those people that have helped me break free from a traditional mindset and hopefully inspire others to do the same.  I blog in the hopes of challenging my own thinking in order to continually grow into a transformational leader.  Finally, I blog to be transparent.  I want to brag about my students and staff while providing examples of innovation.  My blog, at times, illustrates that sustainable change can and is occurring in schools.  There might not be a better conduit for learning from practitioners or medium for public relations than blogs. If it wasn't for Twitter, my PLN, or the support of my family and NMHS community, this post along with all the others would never have been written. THANK YOU!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tapping Into Technology

With the rise of mobile devices and tablets in the classroom, I’m finding so many examples of organizations that are capitalizing on these tools to create new resources for teachers and students. I was recently introduced to an education reform model called TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement that is making really great use of the tablet and mobile platforms to provide teachers with better access to teacher resources with an iPhone or iPad app.

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Founded in 1999 by education philanthropist Lowell Milken, The TAP system is working in public schools across the country to provide teachers with greater means for professional development, more effective uses of student and teacher evaluation data, and creating career opportunities that enhance instruction and learning within their schools while remaining in the classroom by creating positions like mentor teachers and master teachers.  These mentor and master teachers observe other teachers and lead reflective meetings about how to improve student performance based on data they’ve collected in evaluations. You can find more information about TAP here.

Recently the organization announced the creation of a TAP “app” called the tapObserver app. Teachers can download the app onto their iPhones or iPads and to access evaluation forms, rubrics, lesson tracking and several other forms specific to the program model. The app enhances the TAP system evaluation process by helping evaluators (principals, master and mentor teachers) more efficiently and accurately collect evidence during a classroom observation. It is a powerful tool for providing evaluation feedback and support more quickly and thoroughly to improve teacher practice.

Web-based tools like this are such a great addition to the classroom, giving teachers the ability to streamline their workload, gauge and adapt to student performance, and make the most out of every lesson. Hopefully we will see other education programs will develop similar apps like this. If you use any apps like this in your school, I'd love to hear about it.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Multi-Faceted Approach to Engaging Parents

Educators must be experts in effective communication techniques, especially when it comes to parents and other key stakeholders.  As the times and tools have changed we now have a variety of means to disseminate information in a more efficient and cost-effective fashion.  In my experience I have identified 4 key principles that lay a foundation for communicating effectively with parents: transparency, honesty, accessibility, and flexibility.  As you will see, these four principles can be applied to the following strategies that are listed below:

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  1. Make your professional email and Twitter accounts available this way parents can contact you at their convenience.   If you have not created such an account for your school I highly recommend that you do.  During the beginning of each school year I send home a letter to all parents that provides detailed information on what Twitter is, how to create an account, and configuring the settings to receive SMS text messages.  This versatility, allowing parents to receive updates on their own terms, makes Twitter unlike any traditional communication tool that I’ve ever used as a principal. As far as transparency goes, is there any application more effective than Twitter?  In response to parent feedback I created an "Official" school account (NewMilfordHS).  The NMHS Twitter page includes a link to the school’s main website as well as our school’s colors, mascot and logo. This makes our page stand out to viewers and establishes a brand presence.  Information tweeted out from this account in real-time includes sports scores, special schedules, school news, student achievements, staff accomplishments, campus weather, and emergency information.
  2. Create your own website and include contact information, availability to meet with or speak to parents, extra help hours, student assignments, press, etc. This is also a great way to convey to parents your philosophy on education, professional accomplishments, and vision for helping students succeed.  My website can be viewed by clicking this link.
  3. Hold training workshops for parents.
  4. Call home on both positive and negative issues. 
  5. Share as many student and teacher accomplishments and success stories as possible.  Parents want and need to hear the great things happening in our buildings and classrooms. I do this through a monthly Principal's Report
  6.  Set up a separate phone number for parents using Google Voice.
  7. Make resources readily available for parents using a social bookmarking service.
  8. ALWAYS return parent phone calls and emails in a timely fashion!
  9. Invite parents into your classrooms/schools.
  10. Develop a school Facebook page to advertise events and provide up to date school information.  The NMHS Facebook page has now become our informational hub that parents have come to rely on.
  11. Institute a positive referral policy and make parents aware of when their child is recognized.
  12. Start a blog, let parents know about it, and encourage them to comment on your posts.  Blogs are fantastic communication tools where parents can get a glimpse into your educational life.  
  13. Look for other means to reach stakeholders. In my quest to create a paperless environment at NMHS I discovered ZippSlip.  This free solution not only allows my parents to sign and submit all school forms electronically, but it also provides me a portal to send email messages to my parents.  
If we’re going to succeed as a school, I’ve got to get several different stakeholder groups---parents, students, community leaders, and businesses---to buy into a set of core beliefs.  That means I’m constantly trying to craft messages that have resonance and to deliver those messages in ways that are likely to be heard.  In many ways, communication is the most important thing I do every day. These are just some ideas and strategies that I have either utilized during my six plus years as an educator or are going to implement.  I encourage you to share your thoughts on these ideas and some of the successful ways in which you have fostered positive lines of communication with your parents.