Monday, December 26, 2016

Blended Family Engagement

To this day I still remember the article that I read about Twitter in the Staten Island Advance one cold Sunday in March of 2009.  As someone who was totally against the use of social media for both personal and professional reasons, that article was intriguing to read as it essentially reinforced my negative perception. However, as I neared the end of the piece a light bulb went on.  Finally I saw a professional connection as to how I could use social media to be a better communicator and engage more stakeholders in everything that was happening at my school. This was the beginning of my digital leadership journey that started with the simple goal of building better relationships with families in the community. 

Developing the means to communicate more effectively and better engage families was one of the main goals of our Twitter strategy that evolved from the article I read.  We were still using traditional means of communication such as memos, on-site events such as our annual Back to School Night, PTO meetings, email blasts, and face-to-face conferences when needed. We also instituted a positive referral system that combined a paper note sent home and a phone call.  I am not saying that we were awful at engaging our families, but in a rapidly evolving digital world we were not meeting them where they were at, let alone giving them a choice as to how they wanted to engage with us. It was time to transform our communications for a digital world.



The fact of the matter was that many of our parents and students were disconnected from the school.  Many parents worked multiple jobs and just didn’t have the time to attend events and meetings on-site or even read an email or memo.  In terms of our students we were pretty much clueless as to the tools and means they were using to communicate.  With Twitter as a starting point, my goal was to engage just a few more parents and students and if I did then that was a success.  I still remember getting so giddy when parents would tell me that they read my tweet or a student would comment on a news item I shared. These little morale boosters helped me to develop a more comprehensive digital strategy, which integrated more and more tools.

Over time we learned that the real key to success was meeting these key stakeholder groups where they were at and engaging them in two-way communications using a blended approach. I was all about getting rid of paper, but we soon realized that this was still an effective way to get information out. Some families did not have Internet access or were not on social media. Thus, I still communicated using these tried and true methods. Over time I began to integrate a variety of tools in addition to Twitter such as Flickr, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Google+, Google Docs, Google Voice, and a school app for push notifications.  Email messages were still blasted out, but instead of just all text I began inserting video messages using YouTube to make my message more personal. 

The blended approach served our school community well as we provided numerous choices as to how parents and students wanted to interact with our school.  We embraced the storyteller-in-chief mindset to unleash the positive energy embedded in the great work that was taking place in our school on a daily basis. The lesson learned here was how we could create an image and identity for our school through transparency that would forge greater trust and support from our stakeholders. Thus, our concerted strategy of consistent communications and taking control of public relations resulted in the creation of a positive brand presence.  Going forward the brandED strategy was all about better engaging our families while building relationships in the process.

Engaging families goes well beyond just sending out information whether it is through traditional or digital means. Communication in general tends to be impersonal even if video is used.  As part of our engagement strategy we made improved efforts to interact with families face-to-face.  In addition to the annual Back-to-School night we began hosting more interactive events to educate parents on our emerging innovative practices. Parents and students were invited to sit on interview committees for new teachers and administrators.  When we changed homework practices as a district, parents and students were invited to be part of the entire process, including reviewing synthesized research.  

All in all we looked for more opportunities to give families a greater sense of involvement in the school community. As partnerships were formed near and far, we always looked for ways to make the connection to an improved school culture. Involvement, either active or passive, was one of our goals. However, the major goal was to build better relationships with families by showing them how much we cared about the success of their kids and the pride we had as a school in the local community. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Leadership Transformed

For every education professional, adversity is a constant reality: lack of time, not enough resources, outdated facilities, resistant staff, and a slew of mandates/directives, to name a few. It can be difficult at times to envision and implement progressive change when you feel buried by these challenges. I wish I could tell you that these daily demands will dissipate in the near future, but that would create an allure of false hope.  Instead, I will tell you what, in my opinion, is the greatest adversary we as leaders face: our own mindset.  

The human brain is wired to keep us safe, and as a result we often become averse to change. The status quo and our personal comfort zones create a perceived safety net that is difficult for many leaders to break free from. In many cases, we teach the way we were taught and lead the way we were led;  our past experiences often dictate or influence professional practice. When this mindset is combined with silos that have been erected to protect organizations from information and new ideas, it becomes more clear as to why transformational change is often just an idea that never gets put into motion.



We must take a critical look at the effect fixed mindsets can have on a learning culture. Shifting our mindset begins with a renewed focus on our senses. As leaders, we must constantly make observations and own what we see. One important reflection point: is your school is preparing students for life or only to do well in school?  Just as important as observing the reality is listening, not just hearing your stakeholders. When leaders don’t listen, people will shut down and withdraw. Saying no or refusing to embrace new ideas has become the safe bet against unwanted risk in a time of disruptive change. However, the unfortunate result is a dramatic decrease in motivation, enthusiasm, willingness to innovate, and respect for one’s ability to lead. 

A shift in mindset empowers leaders to create change, not respond to change. It is this shift that can begin to lay the foundation for transformation. How do we do this? By beginning to challenge the way things are done; by replacing the word “no” with the word “yes” more often; and by focusing on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah, but’s.”  This is where a growth mindset begins to reap professional rewards.  Leaders who shift to a growth mindset:

  • Embrace challenges
  • Persist in the face of setbacks
  • See effort as the path to mastery
  • Learn from criticism
  • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others

When leaders shift to a growth mindset, the foundation is set to really transform learning cultures. Transformational leadership is the collaborative responsibility for taking action to reach future-oriented goals while meeting the intellectual, emotional, and physical needs of each student. Transformational leaders consistently make observations, listen intently, leverage a growth mindset, and most importantly, take action to improve the organization. These leaders:

  • Focus on vision and empowerment.
  • Embrace risk to facilitate change
  • Engage in future-focused problem-solving to create learning opportunities
  • Adapt to situations effectively
  • Develop and articulate a vision about the future needs of students to ensure that all stakeholders are using the same language about leadership in the school
  • Work with people in a manner that ignites their passions, talents, and desires to attain a shared vision


The Transformational Leadership Framework above that we have developed at the International Center for Leadership in Education has four quadrants.  The vertical axis is the vision continuum, or the level of thinking about what is important in a school.  At its lowest level—quadrant A—leaders are authoritative and focus on school rules, practices, and the management of day-to-day tasks. At higher levels, leaders anticipate the future and consider what skills and knowledge students will need and what should be added to current programs and services to help students succeed. 

The horizontal axis is the empowerment continuum. On the left side, leaders execute leadership practices more unilaterally, making decisions and solving day-to-day problems themselves. Moving to the right, leadership shifts from the actions of a single leader to decision making by a leadership team to distributed leadership throughout the district or school.

There is no such thing as a perfect leader, school or district. Each day we have the opportunity to improve professional practice to create a better learning culture for students and educators. Think about your own practice and the steps you can take to make transformation a reality instead of an overused buzzword. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Potential of Virtual Reality

Many educators, including myself, routinely talk about the need for innovation in education. If we continue to employ the same type of thinking then we will get the same or results. We also run the risk of taking a step backwards and experiencing worse results than anticipated.  Change isn’t coming; it is already on our doorstep! Thus we must begin to embrace new ideas and methodologies.  It can be concluded then that change is necessary in a digital world thanks to the exponential evolution of technology.  

We must begin to explore and implement innovative learning activities beyond isolated pockets of excellence.  Innovation in education can defined as creating, implementing, and sustaining transformative ideas that instill awe to improve learning. Technology not only awes, but it can also empower our learners in amazing ways. It’s time to start asking and focusing on the right questions. It is difficult for many educators, including myself, to keep up with the evolving digital landscape.  Being able to access information is only a start. When you think about it we are drowning in a sea of information. Access only matters if it is turned into new knowledge and action.

Lets now apply the elements of innovation, change, access, and knowledgeable action to the evolving technology of virtual reality.  Just a few years ago this type of technology was financially out of reach for the majority of schools across the world. Now, however, educators can provide access to an artificial world that consists of images and sounds that is affected by the actions of a student who is experiencing. Thanks to innovative products like Google Cardboard virtual experiences can be provided to students with just one smartphone and a $15 cardboard box outfitted with two lenses.  




There are so many educational experiences that students can engage in using Google Cardboard, the world’s most affordable VR headset. Teachers can bring lessons to life with Google Expeditions and take students on interactive, virtual field trips. Below is the description from Google:

Google Expeditions enable teachers to bring students on virtual trips to places like museums, underwater, and outer space. Expeditions are collections of linked virtual reality (VR) content and supporting materials that can be used alongside existing curriculum. These trips are collections of virtual reality panoramas — 360° panoramas and 3D images — annotated with details, points of interest, and questions that make them easy to integrate into curriculum already used in schools.

To get started and view a complete list of Google Expeditions click HERE. The benefit of VR and Cardboard is not limited to Google Expeditions. There is an array of free and paid apps available.  For a list of some free apps that can be utilized in the classroom click HERE.

The potential of VR lies well beyond just accessing and viewing information on a device such as Google Cardboard.  For an innovative learning activity such as this to have real value the information gleaned from the experience should be transformed into knowledge and action.  Take a look at the video below to see what I mean.



As the mother states, innovation saved her daughter’s life.  The doctors not only used VR and Google Cardboard, but they did these important steps:

  • Accessed and collected vital information
  • Converted information into new knowledge
  • Used new knowledge to develop a solution and act

This example is the epitome of innovative learning.  It is my hope that we will move students well beyond just viewing and accessing information through VR technology and use the simple process above.  Actually, we need to lend a more critical eye to why and how technology is currently being used in education to veer away from surface level integration and substitution. The Rigor Relevance Framework provides great guidance on how to make this happen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Silo Effect

It is hard to debate that education is the key to the future.  With each passing day new opportunities and challenges arise that will require a new generation of thinkers who can rise to the occasion.  Schools must unlock the potential within our students while preparing them for a rapidly changing world. For this to happen we must rethink the very essence of education and ask ourselves if our students will be adequately equipped to succeed in their future, not ours.  As the world changes, education and leadership must change as well. If it does not change, we then run the risk of preparing students for a world that no longer exists.



Herein lies the problem.  The silo effect in schools has created a false dichotomy as to what constitutes essential learning and skills in the 21st Century and beyond.  As a result, many school leaders think everything is awesome.  Just listen to the theme song of the Lego Movie and you will know exactly what I am talking about. Then ask yourself if everything is really awesome in your school? Or better yet, ask your students to come up with a list of all the awesome learning activities they get to engage in on a daily basis. Their answers alone can best predict the learning culture of a school and whether or not it is meeting their needs. It really doesn’t matter if the adults keep beating the drum that teaching and learning are changing. Proof is in the pudding. In this case the proof comes from conversations with students. 


Everything is Awesome - Lego Movie

The silo effect creates a mirage that everything is great.  It also restricts the thinking of the collective in order to implement innovative ideas that can transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  Many schools are unwilling to change because a factor such as high achievement on standardized tests is, in their view, an indicator of high performance.  The reality for many learners is an environment focused on a traditional model of education and criteria for success that lack relevance, meaning, and value.  Thus, a natural disconnect occurs the second they enter a school building.  Looking beyond our walls while moving outside comfort zones are key actions that can begin the process of breaking down school silos.

The same silo effect applies to our own learning and views or that of our colleagues. Information is readily available to all who are willing to venture in the digital space to take advantage of it.  Being a disconnected nomad is no longer an option if the goal is to improve professional practice and the learning culture of a school. Accessing the wealth of information out there is just a start though. To truly break free of the silo effect teachers and administrators must turn the information they access into new knowledge and action.  

The best ideas and strategies are now at our fingertips. We can now break free from the self-imposed silos and begin to have critical conversations about innovative change schools need.  To begin to break free from the silo effect consider these questions:
  • Is our school/district relevant? Am I relevant?
  • How can we prepare students for the future if we are stuck in the past?
  • How do we know if we are meeting the needs of our learners?
  • What are other schools and educators doing around the globe?
  • Do we collaborate and connect with educators near and far to push our thinking as well as access the best resources, ideas, strategies, feedback, and support? 
It is important to peel away the many layers at the surface in order to gain a better understanding of where a school culture is currently. The silo effect often creates a feeling of content and satisfaction since the doorway to fresh ideas is not open.   Learning from others beyond our walls and traditional comfort zones presents limitless opportunities for innovative change. This will not only greatly impact learners, but also each other.