Thursday, October 31, 2013

Teachers Hate Pep Rallies!

The following is a guest post by Danielle Shanley, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for New Milford Public Schools, NJ.  Here she reflects on what she say in New Milford HS on a Friday before our annual Spirit Week pep rally.

I am sure there will be plenty of people out there who will publicly chastise me for what may seem like my inner Scrooge, but the truth is most Teachers HATE pep rallies!  Let’s be real here.  Pep rallies are disruptive to the school day and to learning.  And I love learning.  That’s my priority.  Teachers have important jobs to do, and the distraction is, well, distracting.    On the day of the pep rally, the students are usually energized to the point where they have no desire to learn, to sit still for any length of time, or to engage in any meaningful academic experiences for the day.  Sometimes the “pep rally effect” begins DAYS before the rally itself, ugh.  

Of course, school spirit, colored shirts, face paint, tattered clothing, grade level competitions, posters, blow horns, drum rolls, cheers and all that good stuff is what the memories are made of for the kids.  I get it.  Don’t send me hate mail.  But trying to teach students on that day is NO easy feat.  Trying to harness that energy in a “spirited” fashion while you are trying to address “CCSS.ELA – Literacy.W.9-10.2” becomes nearly IMPOSSIBLE.  What about that very last dreaded hour of the day, moments before the pep rally is about to begin?  Feel the swell of students moving towards doorways?  Hear the rumblings of chants and distant sounds of horns?  It’s all about to erupt! …EXCEPT in this classroom. This is what Joanna Westbrook’s students at NMHS were doing moments before the insanity began:

Amazing!  These students were creating original documentaries.  They were so engaged in their work, they didn’t even notice I was taking pictures.  Every available technology was “in use” in this room. Most students were in the editing phase on the Macbooks, adding music, photos, video, audio and even subtitles from smart phones.  I hated to interrupt to ask questions, but I had never seen engagement like this.  This was JUST moments before a pep rally; I couldn’t help myself.  Usually, kids aren’t so quick to show their work.  Not these kids.  They rattled-off their methods used in the creative process, their personal experiences, human interest stories, and the inspiration for their pieces.  They were learning, creating, collaborating, applying, interacting, and proudly sharing.  I will guess Mrs. Westbrook doesn’t hate pep rallies.  They have no negative impact on the learning in her classroom.  The best defense is a great lesson.  Hats off to you, JW!  Go Knights!!     

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Best Feedback a Principal Could Get

The following post appeared on the blog of Robert Dillon. In this piece he describes what he saw at New Milford High School during his visit while the students were present the Friday before the Edscape Conference.  His reflection has been posted with permission below. Make sure to follow Robert on Twitter (@ideaguy42). I have also added some of my personal thoughts at the bottom of this post.

There have been a thousand stories about the journey of New Milford High School toward being a connected school. All of them contain nuggets of truth that are worth exploring if you are an educational leader searching for a road map to a more dynamic, connected school, but I think that there is a larger story at New Milford that gets less attention, but most likely is the driving engine of change that allows for excellence on a daily basis.

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Recently, New Milford High School hosted their annual edcamp-like Saturday learning conference called Edscape. Leading into this Saturday, I had an opportunity to spend most of Friday in the halls of New Milford with students and staff observing the climate and learning throughout the day. My greatest take away from this informal time at New Milford was the deep sense of trust in the building. The principal trusted his administrative team. The staff trusted that the principal was supporting their work. The students trusted the teachers. The teachers trusted the students. The maintenance crew trusted building leadership. Trust. Trust, Trust. It was everywhere to be seen. From the evacuation drill that had students walking through the community, to the senior flex period that gave them more freedom, to the decisions that teachers were making with their instruction. Buried behind the headlines was this organic sense of trust in the building. I'm certain that there are some teachers in the building that aren't completely feeling this trust, but it is there in a way that is magnified beyond most buildings.

The second piece of New Milford that sits below the surface, beyond the television coverage, blog posts, awards, and energy of its dynamic principal, is the diversity at New Milford. This building was filled with an incredibly rich group of students. I had the opportunity to talk with three incredible students about a project that we are working on together, and they were amazing. I saw diversity under the Friday night lights on the football field, and I saw diversity in the cafeteria. New Milford isn't a sterile environment with a homogeneous population that can succeed no matter the inputs. It is a real school with real problems and real struggles to make success possible. The diversity also breeds a need for innovation. There is a sense of urgency to serve this diverse population, and there is an empathy for the needs of the students in the building.

Edscape was an incredible learning event for me. Getting a chance to meet old and new friends, finding new resources and ideas, and presenting about some of the things in which I'm passionate, but the story of my trip to New Jersey was that success for New Milford and most schools lies below the surface in the deep roots of the school, the roots that honor diversity and the roots that foster trust.

I could not be more proud of the collaborative work being done at NMHS.  As a Principal having it acknowledged this way by a colleague from another state and locally is priceless.  We do not have all the answers at NMHS.  We do not have the funds to do many of the things that we dream about.  What we do have is a commitment to build a culture that focuses on our students while providing them with a meaningful learning experience.  

This post was the first of a few Edscape reflections that really impacted me professionally and personally.  It is always great to receive feedback from colleagues that you admire as their work has had such a profound influence on mine.  As today is my 39th birthday I think that George Couros might have provided the best gift from a non-family member with his thoughts on how I lead.  His reflection and feedback really put into perspective why I do what I do, how much I love working for New Milford High School, and the vital role that my Personal Learning Network (PLN) has on my professional practice.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Voice: Student Edition

The following is a guest post by Cristy Vogel (@msfrenchteach).  She is a High School French Teacher in Columbia, SC, 2013-14 SCFLTA President, and #langchat Co-Moderator.  She blogs at

This post is not about a special episode of teen singing sensations on The Voice. Hope you’re not disappointed! However, the show did come to mind when thinking about student voice. If you haven’t seen the show, essentially, it’s a contest for aspiring singers who must wow the judges and audience with their vocal abilities. The hope is that the judges will hit the buzzer and declare interest in mentoring the vocalist.  The judges are experienced and very successful celebrities who have industry insights from which the contestants can greatly benefit, in theory. 

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Much like our students, each contestant hopes to have his or her voice heard in order to learn, grow, and excel.  The classroom may not be a ridiculously loud contest like what we see on The Voice, but it is a place where all learners should have the opportunity to direct their learning. Recent interactions with my own students have inspired me to reflect on voice and its implications in the classroom. In fact, it has only been in the past couple of months that I have really gotten out of my comfort zone and given students the microphone so as to make decisions about their own learning.  It is my pleasure to share with you a few tips that are based on my personal experience. 

Get informed.
Giving students a voice is not an exact science, especially since each classroom is unique. There are ways to prepare yourself for such a risk-taking endeavor, so I recommend that educators take some time to engage in discussion with others who have done it before putting learners on the stage. Read a blog on the topic, talk to on-site colleagues who have success with it, ask your PLN for ideas, and maybe engage in a Twitter chat. Then, ask yourself how your students might direct their own learning in your particular environment. You know your students best!  

Tell stories.
Our learners need a little direction when we give them voice. In fact, all of us -- not just the learners in our classroom -- want to know how and why we’re doing what we’re doing. As educators, anecdotal stories can help as they have the potential to capture students’ attention and guide them to make meaningful recommendations. I tell my students that there are non-negotiable tasks that we must do in life, but we can suggest ways to tailor them to our needs.

My first anecdote this year was about the professional development sessions that our school faculty must attend every other Thursday.  I told them that the PD is non-negotiable, but that teachers can make recommendations for future meetings. I explained that I shares my ideas with our administration in hopes that we will get to try something different. Then, I transitioned into an explanation of the non-negotiable part of the project that we are doing with students at other schools.  We discussed some aspects that they could direct before I gave them a feedback form to complete. I found that the responses were more meaningful than they had been when I had made past attempts at seeking feedback, and I believe my anecdote and our discussion impacted the results.

Just as the contestants on The Voice are prepped before hitting the stage for their first performance, our learners also benefit from a little coaching. After all, don’t we want to make that empowering moment on the stage as successful as possible? Students might not have a voice in many of their classes, so make this time count!

Listen carefully and empower your learners. 
Now that your learners have spoken, reflect on what they said. Sometimes you may receive several comments that are not helpful, but concentrate on the serious ones. Stay positive! Even if only one or two students provide you with meaningful feedback, do your best to make their voices heard. Most students are going to use the power of voice at some point, and that might be when they are making individual, rather than collective, decisions. At any rate, announce the changes that you are going to make as a result of student feedback. I recommend that you let them know repeatedly how much you appreciate it.  In my own experience, learners are happy to hear, more than once, that their voice was heard and that it made a difference. 

The fact is, there is more potential for buy-in when the learning is student-directed. Let’s let our learners shine with the mic in hand!

I would like to thank Eric Sheninger (@NMHS_Principal) for inspiring and inviting me to contribute to his blog. It was my first time doing so!  He wrote a fantastic post on the need for educators to tell their classroom stories, and it inspired me to ask him about guest blogging. As a result, I wrote this post AND already invited one of my own students and colleagues to guest blog. Yet another example of the power of my PLN!

Check out Eric’s post HERE

Thank you, Eric, for giving me a voice! 

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Impact of #Edscape

This past Saturday (10/19) marked the fourth annual Edscape Conference held at New Milford High School in NJ.  The idea for this event evolved from a dire need to fill a void in the type of innovative learning experiences that educators were craving.  As a result, a partnership between Teq and New Milford HS was formed to provide a cost-effective, meaningful learning experience for attendees.   Attendees could take ideas and strategies presented during hour long sessions and implement them immediately upon return to their schools and districts.  Each year hundreds of educators from across the country descend upon my school to take part in Edscape in what I hope will be one of the best learning experiences of their year.  I realize this is a lofty goal, but if I am to ask fellow colleagues, educators, and friends to give up time with their families on a Saturday and travel great distances then I had better be able to deliver. Based upon early feedback it seems like we did.

One of the tenants of the Edscape Conference is the focus on the work of practitioners. The selection of the keynote, as well as the majority of the sessions, places an emphasis on innovative work taking place in schools across the country and beyond. It is my feeling that in a time when the national rhetoric is quite negative towards education, nothing is more inspiring and uplifting than focusing on the innovative and impactful work being done by passionate educators.  My only regret with Edscape is that I did not get to sit in on any sessions or engage attendees in as many conversations that I would have liked.  I guess this comes with the territory when hosting a conference at your school.  However, I have been digesting feedback that I have received either through email, in person, or the #Edscape hashtag and would just like to point out a few highlights from the event.  Below are some identifiable characteristics that I believe portray the success and impact of Edscape:

  • NMHS Students – I could not have been more proud of my students and how they represented my school.  Attendee after attendee commented how helpful, respectful, and enthusiastic they were.   Next year I will look for even more ways to get my students involved with Edscape.
  • The Learning – Edscape is all about professional learning.  This occurred during sessions, over conversations in lunch, in the hallways between sessions, and afterwards at the networking reception held at Jersey Boys Grill.  Each session focused on applicable takeaways that educators could implement upon their return to their schools. What was even more powerful though was the learning that took place during conversations on professional practice and through the connections that were made throughout the day. Many attendees expressed the need to a two-day conference going forward as there were too many quality sessions that they wanted to attend. You can check out all of the sessions that were offered HERE.
  • Facility – I love my school building and numerous attendees echoed this. The original building where the majority of the sessions were held was built in 1928 and you can see that from the architecture.  We continue to work on transforming learning spaces with the money that we have. At NMHS we had adequate technology available, charging stations that our students regularly use, and superior WiFi (ask any attendee).  At our max we had over 650 devices connected to the open WiFi and not one issue. There were so many complimentary comments about the charging stations, WiFi, grounds, mission statements visible in classrooms, student work displayed on walls, and the larger television that streams announcements when you enter the school.  I feel a school is the best place to engage educators in professional learning.
  • Attendees – There were close to 400 educators from 11 different states (NJ, RI, NY, CT, PA, MD, AR, MO, OH, VA, TX) as well as Canada. Numerous stakeholder groups were represented such as teachers, assistant principals, principals, curriculum directors, assistant superintendents, board of education members, parents, and members of the NJ Department of Education.  I am humbled by the fact that so many attendees and presenters traveled great distances to be at Edscape.  What was even rewarding was seeing everyone learning side by side to improve their practices and move the profession forward.
  • Global Impact – The keynote by George Couros as well as the Connected Educator panel was streamed live by Teachercast and viewed by over 500 people worldwide.  If you have not viewed his keynote you can see a recording of it HERE.  The #Edscape hashtag was trending #1 throughout the day on Twitter.  

Edscape has and always will be a labor of love for me.  The excitement, passion, and innovative work I witness each year are the catalysts needed for change in my opinion.  Edscape is not a revolutionary event in itself.  It is the ideas and strategies that educators take with them from the event and eventually implement that have the capacity to be revolutionary.  On a side note I can’t thank George Couros enough for delivering a keynote that made attendees, laugh, cry, and think.  Spending time with him at the Jets game yesterday and introducing him to tailgating was an added bonus. 

Lastly, thanks to all of YOU that inspire me each day to put on Edscape. On that note I would love to hear what your major takeaways were from the event this past Saturday.  What did we do right and what can we improve? Feel free to leave a link to your Edscape reflection in the comments if you have or plan to write one.  Planning for Edscape 2014 for next October is now under way so mark your calendars for Saturday 10/18/14.  We will soon be setting a date and then select a keynote (suggestions appreciated).  The call for proposals will go out in the spring so stay tuned. If you have any leads on sponsors for next year feel free to secure them on my behalf or send me an email. 

Be the change that you wish to see in education!

Friday, October 18, 2013

The An Estuary #Edscape Scavenger Hunt!

The following post is an Edscape announcement from one of our sponsors.

This year at Edscape, An Estuary will be running the first ever Sanderling Scavenger Hunt! 

Sanderling is a mobile field journal that lets teachers collect badges as they document their professional learning and take part in a lively social community based around education. The Sanderling Edscape Scavenger Hunt will allow us to collaboratively document all of the awesome things going on a Edscape and make new connections in the process.

Those who complete the Edscape Scavenger Hunt will be rewarded with the Sanderling Edscape Badge and the first 50 to complete the hunt will receive additional refreshment tickets for the An Estuary Networking Reception at Jersey Boys Grill.

To get signed up go to and use the code "edscape13" to register. (For those of you on Android devices, you can download Sanderling in the Google Play Store.) Once you are registered be sure to find the "Learn to Use Sanderling" Course and the "Edscape 2013" Course and click "Join this Course" on each one. Once you have joined the courses, go to your Field Journal and get started on the "Learn to Use Sanderling" Course so you are ready for tomorrow's Edscape Scavenger Hunt!

Looking forward to seeing you Saturday 10/19 at New Milford HS!

The An Estuary Team

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Secrets to Creating a Positive School Culture

If someone would have asked me this question a few years ago I honestly would not have had a good answer.  I always thought a positive school culture was one where strict rules were created and consistently enforced to keep students focused on learning.  In my mind, the more I could control the environment that my students were a part of the better the results. There was not much flexibility in terms of the structure of the day and what students were “allowed” to do.  The end result was either compliance or outright defiance. Those who were compliant were celebrated while those who were defiant were disciplined accordingly.  

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I can look back on this early time in my administrative career and really see how na├»ve I was.  All I have to do now is look at the status of our school culture today, which has led me to this mini reflection. Last week I had the opportunity to meet with some students who convened a meeting with me.  The purpose of this meeting was for them to share concerns they had with some of the inner functions of the school.  The main part of the meeting focused on how we run our fire and security drills, but the conversation later moved onto questioning our use of Study Island and inconsistencies in taking attendance.  

Herein lies one significant cultural shift; a meeting called by students as they have been empowered to become catalysts for change. Their ideas are valued, but the fact that they have more power than they think point has not been consistently reinforced. It was at this point that I looked each of them in the eyes and told them that they don’t work for us; we (teachers, administrators) work for them. Their jaws dropped when I said this.  Giving up control and empowering my students to take ownership of their educational experience has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.  Is this really a secret though?  Well, it obviously was to me, and had I known I would have done this much earlier in my administrative career.

Now back to the student meeting.  After addressing their concerns a student brought up how much she, and others, appreciated the fact that we allow them to bring their technology to school.  This meant the world to me, as many know that I have worked hard with my staff to initiate a meaningful Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program.  I used this point in the meeting as an opportunity to challenge the students to be more proactive in their device use for learning. Each student was left with the task of working with his or her teachers and peers to strengthen our BYOD initiative so that it continues to focus on learning. The difference now was shifting the responsibility to improve the program from the professional staff to the students.  

I hear a great deal of conversation in the education world about transforming school culture.  Heck, I have even added to that dialogue on numerous occasions.  It wasn’t until now that I realized the most significant piece to the change and transformation process is our students.  This most important stakeholder group is often left out of this conversation.  So what are the secrets to transforming school culture? Make it a student-centered process, give up control, respect their ideas then implement them, and get out of the way. For it is they, our students, who ultimately transform school culture.  We are just playing in their sandbox. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Integration of Micro-credentials to Acknowledge Professional Learning

The following is cross-posted at Laura Fleming's blog titled Worlds of Learning.  Laura is the new media specialist at NMHS and  has been challenged to develop innovative ways to create structures to recognize informal learning of both teachers and students.

As a 21st Century Library Media Specialist, part of what I strive to do is to serve as an instructional technology resource for both educators and learners.  In my new position here at New Milford High School, I face the exciting challenge of reaching as many staff members as I could at one time.  I threw around many models in my head until I finally found one that seems right for us.   

I am proud to announce Worlds of Learning @ New Milford High School, a micro-credential/digital badge professional learning platform. The idea behind this platform is to provide professional learning with a pinch of gamification.  For some time now, we have been hearing about digital badges and how they can be used to guide, motivate, document and validate formal and informal learning.  In recent years, Digital Badges have evolved from what were originally static images, to a tool used for capturing and communicating knowledge. Badges can now contain critical metadata that reflects who is issuing the badge, who has earned the badge, the date upon which it was earned, and any relevant criteria for earning the badge.  Digital badges are flexible enough to be able to recognize granular skills that one acquires as well as an individual’s entire learning.   I designed the platform in WordPress using a plugin called BadgeOS  - through this plugin, I am able to easily define the achievements and organize the badge requirements. 

Worlds of Learning @ New Milford High School provides a framework to allow our teachers to earn micro-credentials through learning about a range of technology tools and applications.  The platform has been designed so that its resources will help to prepare our educators to fully leverage the potential for mastering digital age skills embodied in the ISTE NETs Standards for Teachers, as well as the seamless integration of technology addressed in the Common Core Standards.  After registering, teachers can earn badges by learning about a tool and then demonstrating how they have successfully integrated it into their instruction. Teachers must register to access all features of the site.   Once completing tasks and earning their badges, they can then showcase their knowledge by displaying their digital learning badges in a number of possible ways:

  • By putting them onto Credly, the free web service for issuing, earning and sharing badges - Credly is a universal way for people to earn and showcase their achievements and badges. 
  • By putting them on Mozilla OpenBadge.   
  • By embedding them into their own sites or blogs and pushed out to their social networks. 
  • The badges will also of course be showcased on the Worlds of Learning @ NMHS site.

As technology convergence and integration continues to increase generally in our society, it is paramount that teachers possess the skills and behaviors of digital age professionals. Educators should be comfortable teaching, working and learning in an increasingly connected global digital society.   The real aim of educational technology is to modernize pedagogy and to shape the education of the future. NMHS teachers will be able to take the tools presented in this platform and seamlessly integrate them into meaningful learning that addresses the standards in their respective content areas.

By flipping our professional learning, teachers will receive job-embedded coaching and will be supported by face to face, personalized support.    I will be available to collaborate with teachers on implementing these tools into their instruction as well as offering both face-to-face and virtual support and encouragement. This platform was not designed to be used as a formal evaluation tool.  Instead the purpose of this platform is to track, share, celebrate and be given credit for informal learning.

Teachers at New Milford High School document their learning journey throughout the school year so that it can be incorporated into Professional Growth Period (PGP) portfolios (that teachers present at their end-of-year evaluation conferences.  The PGP, created by our principal Eric Sheninger, was launched in New Milford High School in September of 2011.   As a result, every New Milford High School teacher has two to three, forty eight minute periods a week, to engage in growth opportunities of personal interest.  Each staff member has to create and present a learning portfolio at his/ her end of year evaluation conference.   This learning portfolio articulates how they integrated what was learned during this time into professional practice.  The badges teachers that earn will be a part of their year-long action plan goal. 

I hope that New Milford High School teachers will be able to benefit greatly from this sustained initiative because of the professional learning flexibility an online platform provides as well as it being a means to document and showcase the skills they have gained and  putting their learnings into practice in the classroom. With only a handful of badges available to be earned on the site at the moment, I will be adding to the list considerably all throughout the school year. 

Needless to say I am extremely excited about how Laura has risen to the occasion and created a model for a program that will acknowledge informal learning of teachers that is aligned to professional standards. Once we have this up and running the next challenge will be to set up something similar for students.  In the meantime please share your thoughts on Worlds of Learning @ NMHS.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Your Voice Matters So Use It

I often tell educators to be the change they want to see in education. This requires speaking up in any and all ways possible if you ever have the hopes of actually changing things. In education we often quip that our voices are not heard, opinions not valued, and our presence at the table when major decisions are made is absent. These statements are quite accurate from what I have experienced or seen as of late. However, if we just settle on the notion that this is how the world works and our voice will never matter, then how can we with a clear conscious complain about changes and reform efforts that we don't agree with? Worse yet, how can we idly stand by as many initiatives and mandates are put into motion that counter research and what we as educators know is best for our learners?

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Going to town halls and information sessions is a good start to voice concerns and questions in a public forum. However, even in these venues, having our voices heard and getting a response with substance is a crapshoot at best. In my experience, I usually leave these sessions with more questions than answers. Frustration and animosity build, which doesn't do me or anyone else any good. I have learned that social media has become a fantastic medium to put issues out in the open and let our voices be heard. 

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Here is a quick story that proves my point above. Late last week I read an article about how elected officials in the county where my school is located passed a resolution to stop the Common Core. I came across this article in my Twitter feed where I have a column set up for #njed. The tweet I read blasted this anti Common Core and PARCC decision. It just so happens that I tended to agree with the decision and voiced my opinion supporting the measure as I feel we are rushing to implement too many initiatives at once. The result was a constructive dialogue between me and three other educators on Twitter. We voiced our opinions, provided rationale for our respective stance, and then carried on with our day. I was not shy about expressing my thoughts on the Common Core and PARCC out in the open. Part of me always hopes that respectfully pushing back on issues I don't agree with will open up a dialogue with the people making these decisions. I, like many others, want my voice to be heard on issues that impact my students, teachers, and fellow administrators.

Now back to my story. So I return home that same night and get settled down for the last episode of Walking Dead from season 3 (side note - just started season one a few weeks ago, became addicted, and had to finish before season 4 begins on 10/13). As I waited for the commercials to end, I took a glance at my iPhone and noticed that I had a few new messages. I quickly noticed an email that intrigued me so much that I paused the Walking Dead. The email was from Bari Erlichson, the Assistant Commissioner of Education in NJ. Her message began with congratulating me on the Bammy Award I recently received and then quickly transitioned to my comments earlier in the day on PARCC and Common Core. She bluntly asked if she could call me the next day to discuss my concerns.

Just as she promised, Bari called me in my office the next morning from her cell phone. We had a candid, respectful conversation for about 45 minutes mostly on PARCC, but also Common Core, NJ School Performance Reports, and Achieve NJ. I can't begin to explain how great it felt that my voice actually mattered and I was able to freely express my opinions without any fear. Did we totally agree with each of our stances?  Probably not, but that is not my point. My point here is that we can use both traditional and non-traditional means of media and communication to make our voices heard. Don't settle for not being heard on some of the most important education issues of our generation. Blog, tweet, and pin your opinions as your dialogue is desperately needed. Let people know how you feel without being afraid. At the very least you will be able to get things off your chest.

How do you use and amplify your voice to initiate change in education?  I would love to hear other stories of how social media has helped your voice be heard.