Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Skinny on Hashtags

Upon getting on Twitter in 2009, I was not only baffled about how to use the social media site but also about all the symbols associated with it.  There was no apparent rhyme or reason to using these in any messages whether long or short. One of them was the hashtag (#). Before Twitter I referred to this as the “pound sign” on the telephone and only used it as such.  I’d say that this is still one of the least understood elements of social media that either scares people off from using this tool or annoys the heck out of others resulting in a lack of embracement. Developing an understanding of the immense value that hashtags provide regarding communications, public relations, and branding can go a long way to facilitating great conversations about the great work happening in education and schools across the globe.

Let’s start by defining what a hashtag (#) is in the sense of social media. A simple search reveals this:
(on social media sites such as Twitter) a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify categorized messages on a specific topic.
Back in 2013 Mashable provided the following description that adds more context as well as some great tips:
The pound sign (or hash) turns any word or group of words that directly follow it into a searchable link. This allows you to organize content and track discussion topics based on those keywords. Click on a hashtag to see all the posts that mention the subject in real time. 
Spaces are an absolute no-no. Even if your hashtag contains multiple words, group them all together. If you want to differentiate between words, use capitals instead (#BlueJasmine). Uppercase letters will not alter your search results. Create a brand-new hashtag by merely putting the hash (#) before a series of words. Beyond simply organizing your tweets, Twitter hashtags can help you craft your voice while joining in a broader discussion. You can use multiple hashtags in one tweet, but don’t go overboard.

Once only specific to Twitter, hashtags can now be used on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and even Google+ for the few of us that are still active there. The key to success with hashtags is to know when to use them, the best examples to add to social media messages, how they can amplify work, and knowing which ones to follow. To begin check out the resource page curated by Jerry Blumengarten, otherwise known as Cybrary Man.  He has some great lists that can help get you started.  Following the simple advice above, my list of strategies to help you get the most out of hashtags is below.

  • Get more eyeballs on your ideas and work by using a mainstream hashtag (i.e., #education, #edtech, #pedagogy, #teaching).
  • Search hot topics and trends that are categorized by educators thought and leaders.
  • Lurk on or join an established chat (see some examples HERE).
  • Create a unique hashtag for your classroom, school, district, or organization to communicate information and share your story. Consistently add it to all messages to build a powerful brandED presence. For some great examples check out #ExploreWells and #gocrickets.
  • Engage in an online book study or start your own. 
  • Educate your stakeholders on the why, how, and what, as it relates to hashtags. Don’t assume that they know what these are or how to use them.
  • Follow conferences and events from afar. When at an event add the designated # to your messages that share not only the thoughts and ideas of presenters but also ones unique to you.
  • Use your hashtag or those that you most engage with, across a diverse array of social networks. Don’t just put your eggs in the Twitter basket. 
  • Know that hashtags have a different impact depending on the social media site. One that is popular on Twitter might not have the same impact on say Facebook or Instagram.

I am sure there are many more thoughts out there on this topic, and I encourage you to share them in the comments below. Hashtags can occur anywhere in a message. Just don’t get crazy and add too many. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Unleashing the True Potential of Video for Learning

The best job on the planet is that of a parent.  I can’t begin to explain how awesome it has been over the years watching my kids grow up and being actively engaged in their lives.  Sure, there are some lows along the way, but the highs are what bring so much joy and purpose into our own lives.  If you are a parent, you know exactly what I am talking about.  I had always envisioned the types of activities my kids would participate in with sports being one of them. However, I never thought that parenthood would bestow the official role of “cheer dad” upon me in the case of my daughter, but I am so glad that it did.

For starters, I never realized the sheer athleticism that is needed to excel in competitive cheerleading.  My daughter does all of these elaborate flips and stunts, often referred to as tumbling in the cheerleading world, that leave me in a state of awe every time I watch her.  I know for a fact that if I attempted any of these moves, I would severely hurt myself.  Equally as impressive are the team aspects of cheer. In a short period, she progressed numerous levels regarding the specific skills she could perform thanks to the dedication on her part and some phenomenal coaches. The coordination, agility, and strength that it takes to perform difficult routines that combine stunts, flips and dance are incredible.  Loud and annoying music aside, competitive cheerleading has to be one of the most difficult and demanding sports out there.

My wife and I try to support our daughter the best we can as she loves this sport with a passion.  One day when I was traveling, my wife purchased a contraption called an air track. It is a tumbling mat that simulates a bouncing floor similar to what the girls cheer on at the gym and competitions. We have it in a shed outside where my daughter and her friends can set it up and practice anytime they want.  Here is where the learning aspect comes into play.  Routinely my daughter will set up her iPhone on the fence to record herself as she tumbles away. She then watches the video to self-critique her form and reflect on what can be done to improve.  The best part is that she is doing this all on her own thanks to intrinsic motivation.  On many occasions, she will then take the video clips to her coach for feedback.

As impressed as I am with my daughter on her use of video in support of learning and mastering cheer skills, I am equally impressed with her coach.  During private lessons, he will use his iPad to video and then review my daughter’s technique and what she has to do to improve.  At the end of the lesson, he will then come up to me and go through various video clips showing where she started during the session and where she eventually ended up focusing on growth.  He does the same during team practice.  Video, captured either through a smartphone or tablet, has become an essential coaching tool to assist the girls with learning their routine.  

The above story lays out how video can effectively be utilized to support learning.  Various research studies have revealed how video can serve as a highly effective learning tool (Allen & Smith, 2012; Kay, 2012; Lloyd & Robertson, 2012; Rackaway, 2012; Hsin & Cigas, 2013). Cynthia Brame from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching looked at these and many other studies as they worked to outline the following elements to consider to ensure effective implementation. 
  1. Cognitive load
  2. Non-cognitive factors that impact engagement
  3. Features that promote active learning
For more details on the three elements listed above, please check out the entire article.  I want to focus on number three, as the goal of video shouldn’t just be consumption and knowledge acquisition, but transfer and application through active learning.  Cynthia Brame shares this:
"To help students get the most out of an educational video, it’s essential to provide tools to help them process the information and to monitor their understanding. There are multiple ways to do this effectively such as guiding questions, using interactive features that give students control, and integrating questions into the video. The critical thing to keep in mind is that watching a video can be a passive experience, much as reading can be. To make the most of video, we need to help students do the processing and self-evaluation that will lead to the learning we want to see."
I couldn’t agree more with the synopsis above, which is also supported by a comprehensive research review conducted by the University of Queensland.  Just showing a video in class doesn’t cut it and is dismissive of the potential it can have as an educational tool. For video to really impact learning and outcomes, active use should be the goal. What is even more important is how learners are empowered to use their own devices to capture video as a means to showcase what they have learned (see an example here from one of my former students), reflect, and set actionable goals for growth.  When aligned with knowledge taxonomy ask yourself how video is being used by kids to apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.  

In the case of my daughter, I can say without a doubt that she uses it to support her learning and growth in cheer.  Imagine then the possibilities for learners in our classrooms. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Chase Growth, Not Perfection

Perfection is something many people chase after. Educators are no different, but more on this later. In sports, there are only defined scenarios when perfection can be achieved. A pitcher can deliver a perfect game if he or she gives up no hits or walks and the fielders commit no errors. In bowling, a 300-game consisting of all strikes is also a sign of perfection.  Outside of sports, it becomes even harder to meet stringent criteria to achieve this.  For those of us that are married, we all strive to provide our spouse with a “perfect” diamond. The closest you can get to this designation is a “D” color, which is often referred to as a flawless and has no visible imperfections at 10X magnification.  As great as our intentions might be this can prove to way out of our budgets.  

For the most part, perfection is a fallacy. It is based more on set opinions and perception as opposed to established criteria such as the examples I provided at the beginning of this post. The fact of the matter is in the context of education there is no perfect lesson, teacher, administrator, school, program, curriculum, district, or organization. If we constantly chase or strive for perfection, then more often than not disappointment will follow. This is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to be our best for those who we serve, most notably our learners. However, trying to accomplish the impossible day in and day out is not only unrealistic but also not a wise use of time and resources. 

You can be good or great, but both of these distinctions are really in the eye of the beholder. A mindset shift is in order that requires us all to reevaluate how we approach professional practice. It is as simple as it is effective. Chase growth, not perfection. By consistently reflecting on where we are steps can be made to grow in an effort to get to where we want, and our learners need us to be. Chasing growth is attainable and leads to daily rewards that are more intrinsically motivated than extrinsic.  The fact of the matter is that there is and always be room for improvement no matter your role in education or how well your school achieves.  

Don’t put immense pressure on yourself to be perfect. You don't have to be. Instead, we should continuously strive to be the best iteration of ourselves. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

8 Ways to Overcome Management Fatigue

As a school administrator, I remember always having the best intentions when it came to instructional leadership.  During every summer, my team and I would reflect on the past year and establish a better vision and plan for how we all would collectively work to improve learning.  In theory, we devised ambitious, yet attainable goals during these months, or so we thought. Then reality would strike. It began immediately upon school starting with meetings and more meetings.  These were then followed by back to school nights and athletic events.  Throw in constant emails, texts, paperwork, parent issues, and calendar notifications, and the reality of educational leadership manifested itself in the form of management, which often came at the expense of instruction and school culture.

Now I am not saying management is not essential.  Effective school leaders can find a balance between the three. The challenge though is when the scale tips in the direction of management more time is spent here than is needed or wanted.  Herein lies the rub.  The digital age is both a blessing and a curse.  The latter takes form when administrators feel they are a slave to email, their calendars, and paperwork in the way of digital documents. Ask any school leader if this is what he or she honestly signed up for and the answer is most often a no. Management fatigue can be grueling.  It also takes an eye off the most critical job of any school leader – improving learning while developing a positive culture. 

I will be the first one to say that it is easier said than done when it comes to creating a balance between management, instruction, and school culture. It was a significant point of contention for me that finally came to a head when I reflected on this question:
How does the time I am spending actually impact learning?
In reality, the majority of my time was not being spent on improving instruction or building up school culture. Without a good focus on these areas, it is quite difficult to improve learning outcomes. The question above helped me to evaluate better where the majority of my time had to be spent. If it’s important, you will find a way. If not, then you will make an excuse. Don’t try to find the time to become a leader of learning. Make the time by committing to a few changes that will create a healthy balance between management and leadership that impacts the learning culture.  Below are eight ways to consider making this a reality.

  1. Commit to getting into classrooms more. First off, you can’t fix problems or issues with instruction if you don’t know about them. It is also impossible to give teachers valuable and needed feedback for the same reasons.  One of the most instrumental changes I ever made as a principal was committing to getting in classrooms every day, whether for unannounced observations and non-evaluative walks and sticking to it. 
  2. Build time into your calendar to write up observations. Here in lies another powerful way I broke free from the stranglehold my calendar had on me.  By turning the tables per se, I blocked time after every observation to write it up and in this case being at the mercy of my calendar was a good thing as time was directly spent on developing suggestions to improve instruction and learning. 
  3. Lead professional learning. Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do yourself. By planning and facilitating workshops and breakout sessions in your respective school or district, the chances of the specific strategy taking hold increase.  Remember, you get what you model.
  4. Attend professional learning. I know full well how tough it is to get out of your building or district for a day. However, you really need this break from management responsibilities as well as to give your brain a needed push.  It will also help keep you on the cutting edge of the latest strategies in education. Although difficult, you must resist the urge to check email and engage in work not related to the session. If need be, step out briefly to attend to this out of respect to the presenter. Be present at all times, not just physically.
  5. Cover classes. Better yet, teach a class. The former is a bit more manageable than the latter. During my first two years as an administrator, I taught a section of biology and wished I had continued to do so. Covering classes so teachers can observe their peers or attend professional learning not only gets you out of the office but provides you with an opportunity to connect with kids.
  6. Greet kids as they enter and leave the building. If you want this to work, then don’t plan meetings during this time and leave the device in your office.  There is no easier way to build culture and relationships with those who you serve by sharing a smile, handshake, or works of encouragement to start and end the day. 
  7. Eat lunch with the kids to get a pulse on culture. I loved spending my lunch in the cafeteria talking to my students. Not only did it give me a longer time to eat and relax but I also was able to receive Minecraft tips that I would later share with my son. The conversations also gave me valuable insight into what we could do to meet the needs of our kids better. 
  8. Delegate. The role of a leader is to create more leaders.  You cannot accomplish this if you do everything yourself.  When it comes to delegation, management tasks should be the first ones that are delved out.  Examples include meetings, testing schedules, and budget preparation. I had a role in all of this and more as an assistant principal but continued to be highly involved when I transitioned to the principalship.  Once I began to delegate more of these responsibilities out it freed up more time to focus on all of the above items.

Don’t let the managerial aspects of leadership drag you down. Everyone has the same amount of time during the day.  Go back to the original question I posed to determine how you are spending your time to be primarily a learning leader as opposed to a manager.  Difficult choices have to be made.  These are not them when it comes to lessening the burden of management. Yes, it will always be part of the job. Just don’t let it become the dominating component.