Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Apps and Social Media in the Classroom

It is springtime at New Milford High School and new ideas are flourishing.  Teachers are consistently empowered and given the autonomy to take calculated risks without the fear of failure to enhance the teaching and learning process.  The end result is that our students benefit from lessons that combine sound pedagogy with the effective integration of technology. Below are two highlights from the month of April.

In support of the school’s BYOD initiative, Mrs. Chellani has recently discovered and integrated a new app called Socrative, a free, online polling tool.  This app allows students to respond to questions the teacher asks in class via their smart phone, providing an alternate means for students to participate in class.  The results are displayed on the SMART Board through the Socrative website to facilitate discussion.  Additionally, this app serves as another way for Mrs. Chellani to formally assess her students in a differentiated and technologically advanced fashion. 

Students in Mr. Devereaux's AP Biology class are creating social media accounts for the immune system.  Using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Tumblr, the students need to narrate a day in the life of the immune system.  They have been finding creating ways of using hash tags, mentions, pictures, videos, and various other ways to infuse their projects with relevant, accurate, and interactive content illustrating how the immune system works.  Check out Mr. Devereaux's website by the end of the week to see some student examples.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Leading With No Regrets

Yesterday I had a conversation with one of my teachers who has future aspirations to become an administrator. The two of us had set some time aside for her to discuss my many roles as a principal.  During the conversation, she asked me if I regretted any of the decisions I had made.  I paused, thought about this for a minute, and responded that I did not.  This is not to say that I was happy with some of the decisions I have made during my nine years as an administrator.  It is how we react once a decision is made that truly defines one’s ability to lead. 

Image credit: http://www.magforliving.com/how-to-live-life-with-no-regrets/

I think anyone in leadership second-guesses many of the decisions that are made.  However, I am of the opinion that if we were to regret decisions we have made in the past then that will hinder our ability to make the extremely tough ones in the future.  Leadership is about making decisions that are in the best interests of all stakeholders, living with the outcomes, and learning from the resulting experiences.  By following these simple, straightforward tenets, leaders develop the capacity to be confident when decisions are made, even if the outcome is not what they anticipated.  Regret will ultimately leave a sense of doubt or hesitation when decisions need to be made. We must learn from decisions that fail, or do not live up to expectations, and use this acquired knowledge the next time.

This conversation really got me thinking. Over time I have a learned a great deal from the outcomes of decisions I have made and how I went about the process of making them.  Here are a few key points that I have identified that not only allow me to make sound decisions, but to also be at peace with the end result:
  • Communicate clearly why a decision is being made.  Making decisions that have no rhyme or reason or come out of nowhere are a recipe for disaster.  With the many ways leaders have to communicate and clearly articulate their reasons for making a decision there is no excuse not to follow through.  Decisions made without proper communication build resentment, animosity, and a desire to undermine the desired changes.
  • Elicit input from an array of stakeholders.  Sometimes decisions have to be made at the drop of a dime, but most do not.  For the big decisions that will dramatically alter school culture (i.e. grading, hiring, new policies, evaluation, etc.) it is imperative that all stakeholders be represented at the table and be allowed to offer input and/or suggestions.  Shared-decision making and consensus are two of the most important elements of effective leadership.  A committee ends up being a leader’s best friend when it comes to making these types of decisions.  This should go without saying, but students should be a part of this process every time, if appropriate.
  • Take time to research and reflect.  I have found that connecting research and pertinent examples that support why a decision will or has been made greatly assists with embracement by stakeholders.  It is also important to reflect upon the potential outcomes of the decision in order to best respond to concerns and complaints.
  • Cooler heads prevail.  Never make a decision solely based on emotions, as these tend to be the worst possible decisions a leader can ever make.  
  • Develop a circle of trust.  We all need honest feedback on decisions we are about to make.  The problem is that we might not receive this prior to each time a big decision is made.  Determine who you trust the most and who will not hesitate to push back on your ideas before making a decision.  Over time this group will evolve into one of your best assets when it comes to making the best decisions.
  • The buck stops with you.  Ultimately it is up to you as a leader to make the final decision even if you follow all of the suggestions above.  You must be confident with every decision you make.  After all, you are in this position because others cannot handle or do not want this responsibility.  
My thoughts are not meant to be a checklist for other leaders to follow, but points of emphasis when the time comes to make a decision, big or small.  Life and professional experiences teach us a great deal and in the leadership world this can be priceless.  Never regret any decision you make.  Use each as a learning experience to become better at what you do.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Best Keynote Ever

I have been extremely blessed to be invited to speak and work with administrators all over the country.  There is nothing more exhilarating than sharing the work of my students and teachers as it has radically changed how I lead.  Especially during keynote presentations, I talk about the need for school leaders to take calculated risks to initiate meaningful change. However, I rarely demonstrate this in action.

Well, that all changed recently at the Leadership 3.0 Conference in Irvine, CA.  As I was going through my slide deck one final time, a crazy thought crept into my head.  As I looked at my slide on how the learner has changed, I felt that someone else could make a stronger point than I.  During this part of my presentation I typically relay stories of how learners are extremely creative with technology outside of school.  They construct their own knowledge, solve problems, and employ critical thinking skills through many of the games they play.  Thus, the perfect person to make my point was my own son, Nicholas. He is currently a second grade student at PS 3 in Staten Island, NY.

Image credit: Elizabeth Calhoon http://instagram.com/p/YBGCTxhFb1/

I immediately texted my mother-in-law as I knew there was not much time to act.  Nicholas was about to get picked up at the bus stop and I needed to know at that very minute if he would agree to Facetime with hundreds of strangers and answer a few simple questions.  Once I received the go ahead from him, I tested out Facetime using his sister’s iPad mini as his iTouch was not working.  During this test I told him that I was going to ask him a few questions about Minecraft and that it would be a piece of cake.

Now I am never nervous when I speak, but this time I was a wreck.  In my mind Nick’s performance was going to be the highlight of my keynote.  About ten minutes into my presentation it was time to call him.  The first attempt failed and I had to actually call my wife on my cell phone to work out the small issue.  The second attempt worked and I could not be prouder of my son.  He told the audience that his favorite game was Minecraft and went on to explain all of the amazing things he has created on his own.  He spoke about creating his own McDonald’s that serves food, a racetrack for his pigs, new buildings, and a pool with a slide.  

His little words and cheerful demeanor conveyed a powerful message.  Learning should be fun, creative, collaborative, and self-directed.  Creativity is an essential skill that drives learning, especially that of our younger students. Schools must recognize this fact and work with students at all levels to implement outside experiences that authentically engage students in learning and construction of new knowledge.  Everyone in the audience saw firsthand the profound impact games such as Minecraft are having on my son's learning.  Thank you Nicholas Sheninger for being the best keynote speaker ever!

P.S. I plan on videoconferencing my son into future talks as long as his schedule permits it.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Runaway Train

As the end of the school year draws near, the education reform rhetoric is heating up.  This means states like New Jersey and New York are closer to implementing new teacher evaluation systems as a result of Race to the Top, NCLB waivers, and other mandates adopted through recent legislation.  It seems like we are now at a crossroads between what the reformers think is best for elevating education in our country and the opinions of actual educators who work with students day in and day out.   One thing is for certain, it is going to be extremely difficult to initiate meaningful change as the divide between these stakeholder groups continues to widen.

Image credit: http://theragblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/barack-obama-stop-runaway-train.html

I am all for meaningful change that will benefit our students, but I continue to scratch my head as I watch what is happening in the state I live in (NY) and the one where I work (NJ).  The last time I checked both states have consistently been at the top in terms of student achievement and graduation rates.  In both cases, the respective Department of Education is moving at a feverish pace to implement the Common Core State Standards, new teacher evaluation systems, and adopt standardized tests produced by PARCC.  Can we do better?  Of course we can, but the solution is not testing the living daylights out of children thereby destroying their love for learning, demoralizing teachers, or evaluating principals on how well they implement new teacher evaluation systems instead of actual leadership.  

I live and work by one simple rule, do one thing exceptionally well as opposed the many things average.  Unfortunately common sense has not, at the moment, prevailed in this case.  What I see is a mad rush to the finish line and for what?  To appease politicians and others so disconnected from classrooms and learning that reform deadlines are met no matter how ridiculous they appear to be?   We are moving much too fast with all these initiatives and it has nothing to do with providing the best education for students.  Instead, it seems like it has everything to do with money and lining the pockets of companies in the areas of testing, teacher evaluation, and Common Core alignment.  If this runaway train is not stopped, I fear that the consequences will have a devastating impact on our education system for years to come.

The key to reform is not directives, mandates, and threats.  It is consensually figuring out the best course of action to improve education by making what we do better.   What I have learned during my tenure in education is that forcing people to do something builds resentment and animosity, especially if a body of research and valid field-testing does not back it.  I often ask myself how we have gotten to this point in time.  Education as a profession used to be revered; now no one in his or her right mind wants to pursue this career.  This is what happens when success is reduced to a hollow standardized test score or rating that is influenced by so many factors beyond the control of teachers and administrators.  Only people who have worked, or are working, in schools get this.

It is apparent that we have lost our way, but I would like to think that there is still hope.  To begin, we must slow down this runaway train before it is too late and make sure that what is being implemented is actually better that what is to be replaced.  If so, then we might be on to something.  Instead of pumping money into testing and evaluation systems why not use those funds to elevate the profession by attracting the best and brightest?  Another common sense approach in my book is that we must remove all of the red tape that prevents schools from easily removing ineffective teachers and administrators, not some algorithm that makes no sense or can’t be explained.  Finally, we must look to the past in order to plan for the future. Our country’s education system has led the world in producing some of the greatest creative minds ever known yet we are still made to think and feel like we are failures.  My hope is that we can slow down this train before it is too late.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Autonomy Breeds Change

A year and a half ago I decided to implement a job-embedded growth model at the suggestion of some of my teacher leaders.  They desperately sought time during the school day to engage in professional growth opportunities, learn how to integrate Web 2.0 tools, and develop their own Personal Learning Networks (PLN’s).  After some thinking and looking at various options inherent in the current schedule, I decided to cut all non-instructional duties in half to create a Professional Growth Period (PGP).  The inspiration for this idea came from Google’s 80/20 Innovation Model where engineers are encouraged to take 20 percent of their time to work on something company-related that interests them personally.  Duties that we cut are now assumed by me and my administrative team.

Image credit: http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2010/02/thompson-autonomy-for-change.html

The PGP was launched in September 2011.   It virtually gave every New Milford High School teacher two to three, forty eight minute periods a week, depending on the semester, to engage in growth opportunities of personal interest.  The only catch was that each staff member had to create and present a learning portfolio at his/ her end of year evaluation conference.   This learning portfolio clearly articulated how they integrated what was learned during this time into professional practice.  They also had to keep a log detailing what was done during each PGP day throughout the year.

A great deal was learned after I reflected on year one of the PGP.  For starters, I read Drive by Daniel Pink this past summer and made a few slight changes.  In order to give each staff member a greater level of autonomy, I removed all top-down mandates such as keeping a log and watching a certain number of PD 360 videos.  This year teachers had true freedom to learn anything and follow their passions as long as the time was spent to improve NMHS’s bottom line – student learning and achievement.  Sample PGP activities include the following:

  • becoming a connected educator by developing and engaging in a Personal Learning Network (PLN)
  • researching best practices
  • developing innovative learning activities
  • creating interdisciplinary lessons
  • engaging in face-to-face professional development
  • learning to use new technologies
  • collaborating on projects with colleagues. 

I also used last year as an opportunity to work with my teachers and better articulate how to compile their learning portfolios. Last week I began conducting end of year evaluation conferences with my teachers.  I was extremely eager to see their respective learning portfolios and discover what they had been working on over the course of the year.  Let me tell you this, I was not disappointed.  As each staff member presented their learning portfolio they all shared how appreciative they were to have this time.  Below is a sample from some of the portfolios:

  • Math teacher Kanchan Chellani has been using her PGP time to create engaging learning activities with Adobe Captivate to flip her classroom.  She has also created her own website filled with resources for students.
  • English teachers Jessica Groff and Nanna Westbook used their PGP time to collaborate.  Throughout the year they met to develop extensive binders to compile resources related to text complexity as outlined by the Common Core Standards.  Jessica also used the time to develop the school’s digital newspaper, The Lance, from scratch.
  • Math teacher Jeff Fiscina learned how to create engaging learning activities using Educreations. He also developed his own blog and started a Twitter account for his classes.
  • English Teacher Sue Michels read numerous books, such as Drive by Daniel Pink and Fair Isn’t Always Equal by Rick Wormeli.  She also re-wrote the entire Honors English 11 curriculum.
  • History teacher Joe Manzo learned how to use iMovie and created a project on the Vietnam War to engage his students in some of the essential concepts.  He is now working on developing a student project where they will use iMovie to create artifacts of learning related to historical concepts later this year.
  • History teacher Rebecca Millan started her own blog and is now having her students blog as well in Sociology.
  • Math teacher April Millian has been exploring the flipped instructional approach and has begun to implement it on a routine basis with the use of Edmodo.
  • English Teacher Jerry Engstrom created several unit plans aligned to the common core and read How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster and Readicide by Kelly Gallagher.  Jerry provided examples of how he has integrated specific concepts and insights learned from each book. He has begun to research how to implement student portfolios using Evernote for next year.

Similar to FedEx days discussed by Dan Pink in Drive, my teachers have been given the opportunity to follow their passions, unleash their creativity, and deliver a learning portfolio that illustrates professional growth to enhance teaching and learning.  Based on the conversations I had with teachers after they presented their learning portfolios, they are already beginning to talk about innovative ideas to pursue next year.  I am excited to see what some of my other teachers have been working on in the coming weeks and am proud that time during the school day is being used productively. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Tracking Your Digital Footprint

I was devastated to learn a few weeks back that Google Reader was getting the ax.  I took solace knowing that many of the other Google tools that I have become quite attached to were still around.  That was until I read a tweet about Google Alerts quietly being shutdown.  I paused and then quickly realized that something was amiss, as I had not been regularly receiving my alerts.  Now I was downright frustrated.  This was the one solid solution I had at keeping abreast of my digital footprint as well as the latest news about New Milford High School.  To say I was depressed, annoyed, and angry would be quite the understatement.

My emotions were quickly put in check as my Personal Learning Network (PLN) came through as it always does.  In between cursing out loud and pounding my fists on my desk, well not really that dramatic, I saw a tweet from Vicki Davis about an alert site called Mention.  I immediately downloaded it in an effort to see if it could hold a candle to Google Alerts.  Well, I can say that not only is Mention a solid alternative to Google Alerts it is a million times better!  It allows users to monitor any keywords related to you, your brands, your schools/districts, or anything else you want to monitor.  The alert settings are much more robust than that of Google Reader.  Not only can you set it up to monitor the Web (news, blogs, videos, forums, images), but you can also have it monitor mentions on Facebook and Twitter if you want.

What is even better about Mention is the variety of ways you can access and be notified of new alerts.  Here is a quick list:

  • Website
  • Google Chrome Extension
  • Desktop Application
  • Apps for iOS and Android

Below is a listing of some of the main features taken from the Mention website:

  • Media and Social Monitoring: Monitor millions of sources in 42 languages and don’t miss anything published on social networks, news sites, forums, blogs or any web page.
  • Anti-Noise Technology: Remove the noise coming from homonyms and spam by using our in-house technology that learns from your behavior.
  • Team Work: Share your alerts with any user and assign tasks to your team members.  Ask your community manager to reply to a tweet, comment on a blog article...
  • Live Alerts: Get alerted in real-time via email and push notifications of new mentions.  Don’t waste any time.  React quickly and efficiently.
  • All Devices: Access mention from anywhere.  Use the webapp, Chrome app, desktop version for PC, Mac or Linux or mobile version with the iPhone or Android app.
  • Smart Actions: You can react to any mention the smart way.  Retweet a mention, share positive mentions directly on your Facebook page....
  • Priority mentions: Most important mentions are flagged according to several criteria: influence and authority of the source and latest interactions you had with them.
  • Statistics & Data Export tool: Get an overview of your mentions by source, language, over selected period of time, generate PDF reports or export data in CSV format to analyze them your own way.

As far as I am concerned, this is a more than adequate replacement for Google Alerts and provides a great solution to monitor your digital footprint in real-time.  With the potential demise of Google Alerts, adding Mention to your digital toolbox seems like the right move.  Do you know of any other alert-based tools with similar functions?  If so, please share as I am concerned that Mention might become a paid service after a free trial period.