Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 Was One Wild Ride

The holidays present a wonderful opportunity for many of us, including me for once, to relax from the rigors of work while spending time with family and friends. However, there is always some quiet time to write so I am seizing that golden opportunity this morning. With 2014 coming to a close in a few days there is no better time than now to reflect on this past year.  The year began like so many others had in the past with me as Principal of New Milford High School.  There was never any thought in my head that I wouldn't finish my career in this position, let alone the year.  I can honestly say that I could not have predicted many of the dramatic changes to my professional life that would transpire late in the year.  

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The one thing I have learned though since I began my social media journey almost six years ago is that we no longer follow a predetermined path. What was once unfathomable in my professional role has become a reality. What is even more crazy has been the successful implementation of initiatives, taking control of my own learning, and professional accomplishments that I never believed were possible.  Social media really did open up a door to a whole new world that I never knew existed.  The best part of this new world were the endless possibilities to improving professional practice and school culture.  This year was no different in strengthening my resolve to lead without fear, learn collaboratively with a global network of passionate educators, and be the change I wished to see in education (with the help of many of you). Here are some professional highlights from 2014:
  • Digital Leadership was published by Corwin on January 14, 2014.  This was my first solo effort at authoring a book.  In a little less than three months it became a Corwin best-seller.  Being an author is still a shock to me as I never, ever thought I could write even a blog post, let alone three books.
  • NMHS teachers began to earn digital badges in earnest as a way to gain acknowledgment for their informal learning. 
  • On February 27, 2014, CBS Channel 2 NYC visited NMHS and did a nice feature on our makerspace, which aired during the five o'clock news. Media specialist/teacher librarian Laura Fleming spearheaded this initiative in the fall of 2013 and the makerspace really hit it's stride around this time.
  • In late March NMHS student Sarah Almeda created the best student projects I had ever seen during my tenure as principal. Not only did she articulate the importance of creativity in learning, but she also challenged the entire education system from a student's perspective.  You can read about the project and view the video HERE.
  • During the late spring we had hosted our 30th school visit to NMHS. These unsolicited visits were a result of our continuous efforts to share what was truly possible in education and how we created a school that worked better for students than adults. Most of the visits were from schools and educators across the Northeast, but there was one other significant guest who would forever alter my career path. More on this later.
  • CBS Channel 2 NYC visited NMHS again on May 16, 2014. This time they did a feature on the 3D virtual learning initiative we were working on.
  • Near the end of the school year in June I published one of my most popular blog posts to date that provided insight on the successful implementation of 13 specific change initiatives at NMHS.
  • On July 9, 2014, I officially announced my decision to step down as Principal of New Milford High School.  This was the hardest professional decision I ever had to make. After Scholastic visited in the spring, conversations began about a potential position with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).  It was at this point that I chose to go down a new path and assist more educators to experience what is possible in education. My last day as Principal was September 3, 2014. The next day I received the best gift an educator could ever wish for from NMHS student Sarah Almeda.
  • On September 20, 2014, I delivered my first TEDx talk titled Schools That Work For Kids. This is another professional accomplishment that I never thought was possible considering I had a fear of public speaking prior to 2009. Social media let me find my voice in multiple ways and also built up my confidence to overcome fears and self-doubt in my abilities as a leader, writer, and speaker.
  • Thanks to the visionary leadership of Dr. Scott Rocco I was officially appointed as the K-12 Director of Technology and Innovation in the Spotswood School District. This move has allowed me to stay as a true practitioner, something I feel is vital to my work in the field of education. Currently I am assisting the district with their move to Google Apps for Education (GAFE) as well as a more systemic use of technology to enhance and support learning. 
  • In early October the Center for Digital Education notified me that I was a CDE Top 30 Award recipient. This was extremely gratifying as it was a testament to the collaborative work done over the years at NMHS.
  • After months of work the ICLE team and I debuted our new Digital Leadership practice area late this fall to assist leaders, schools, and districts implement sustainable changes resulting in transformation. 
As 2014 comes to a close take a few minutes to reflect on your specific journey including accomplishments, the challenges you overcame, and new connections. You might very well see a link to social media as I have. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Making Time vs Finding Time

One of the most utilized excuses in education when it comes to change is lack of time. At one point or another, we have all used the time excuse when it comes to our professional work.  With all of the mandates and directives that are thrown our way, time becomes a relatively easy scapegoat when it comes to skirting the issue of change. Whether it be in the form of endless piles of paperwork, never ending observations, meetings with parents, attending events, developing a master schedule, or constructing a school budget – there never seemed like enough time in my day to even get those responsibilities done. It is never easy in the role of a teacher either. Lesson planning, grading, meeting with students before/after school, running clubs, and coaching all take up a great deal of their time as well.  Time is the number one enemy of needed change and improvement in my opinion.

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Let’s face the perceived fact that there will never be enough time in any of our days to get everything done.  Or is there? Regardless of your respective role in education, time will always be your enemy if you look at it with a fixed as opposed to a growth mindset. This is where you need to focus less on finding time and more on making time to complete necessary tasks that are not only required, but also ones that will allow you to grow, innovate, and develop more of a passion for your work. Before getting to this point you must look at how you currently utilize the time you have. In my case I was more of a manager as opposed to a leader. In response I began to either delegate the managerial aspects of my position as a principal to my assistants or I just got rid of obligatory routines shrouded in monotony such as certain meetings.  For teachers it is important to look at how time is spent during areas of opportunity during the day (i.e. prep periods, lunch) to see where a growth mindset can be employed.  

No matter how you slice it the time game will always be challenging, but there is hope. First and foremost, make the time to learn, grown, and get better as opposed to finding the time.  There is nothing more important to an educator, outside of working with kids, than professional learning. Carve out some time each day if possible. Through social media a Personal Learning Network (PLN) provides a great antidote to the age-old time excuse. You can now learn anywhere, with anyone, at anytime you want for free.  While online consider making some time to learn and then apply a new skill while earning a digital badge to acknowledge your informal learning.  As great as a PLN is to professional growth, make the time to connect face to face with colleagues at conferences and workshops. Hands-on learning and networking experiences are invaluable to any educator who aspires to and models life-long learning.

If you are an educational leader one of your responsibilities is to take the time excuse away from your staff. Consider flipping your faculty meetings.  This concept is based on the popular flipped classroom model. When flipping a faculty meeting teachers are given informational items to read and view in advance. This results in a shift from a leader-driven meeting to one where leadership is distributed. Instead of reviewing items off an agenda, time is spent more creatively as teachers take on a more active, creative role. For example, a short video outlining the agenda items can be created and viewed by teachers beforehand. Or articles and data sets can be distributed prior to the meeting for staff to review.  Actual meeting time can then be dedicated to analyzing data, developing common assessments, making policy revisions, discussing and/or modeling effective pedagogical techniques, or engaging in hands-on technology trainings.  Either way time is made available for all staff to do things on a consistent basis that normally fall by the wayside. To learn more about flipped leadership check out the latest book by Peter DeWitt.

Another way leaders can make time for teachers to engage in professional learning is to look for and then take advantage of opportunities embedded in the school schedule. During my tenure as principal I cut all non-instructional duties in half that each teacher had by contract to create the Professional Growth Period (PGP). This essentially freed up every single teacher at least two periods a week to engage in professional learning experiences that he/she was passionate about. You can read more about the journey to implement this initiative HERE

In 2015 and beyond how will you make time for yourself and others to grow and innovate?

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Impact of a Makerspace

One of the best parts of my day is checking in on Media Specialist/Teacher Librarian Laura Fleming as she always shares the incredible work her students are doing in the makerspace she created at New Milford High School. Whether it is pictures or Vine videos, each day I witness high school students tinkering, inventing, creating, and making to learn. She has created a learning space and environment that students truly find value in as they are afforded the opportunity to explore their passions, be creative, and take ownership over their learning.  Lately I have been seeing many pictures from a specific group of students who have developed an interest in building their own computers. Last week I was utterly amazed when Laura asked me to check out the website (NMHS Computer Designs) that these students had created. After looking it over I asked if one of the students would consider writing a guest blog post for me. Luckily for us he said yes.  I hope you enjoy this guest post by NMHS freshman Chris Pavone as he explains the impact Laura and a makerspace have had on his high school learning experience. 

My name is Chris and I am a freshman at a New Jersey High School.  I always had an interest in computers, but that increased even more thanks to my library makerspace. When I started school this year, I found out that the makerspace had a Take-Apart Tech Station where students could visit and take apart computers.  Through this I learned the parts of a computer.  I enjoyed the experience so much that my friends and I then decided to challenge ourselves and began to think what we really could do with computers.  We decided to not only take a computer apart, but also to then put it back together.  We also decided to make a new computer case to put our computer in.  

The first thing we had to do was find a working computer to take apart.  Once we did that, we carefully took everything out of it.   There were a lot of screws and parts to disassemble.  It took us about three days of working on it to get everything out without breaking any of the parts.  After the computer was completely taken apart, we then began to think of ideas for making a new computer case.  We started looking around the library and in the back room we saw some empty boxes.  This is when we decided to turn a regular cardboard box into our new computer case!

We planned out how we would arrange the computer components in the box and drew lines where we wanted all of the parts to be.  Instead of screws, we used hot glue to attach the pieces to where we wanted them to be in the box.   We cut out pieces of the box to make cutouts for all of the plugs.  In order to do this, we measured the pieces and the size of the holes we needed to cut in the box.   After that we only had to put in the hard drive and the CD drive into our case and on day four our new computer was assembled!

At that point we attached a monitor and a power supply and turned our computer on to test it.  As amateur technicians, we were not surprised that we ran into a few problems. We spent some time researching the error messages we were receiving.  After a few hours, and with the help of Mr. Caronia, a member of our school IT department, we figured out the adjustments we needed to make. After successfully booting up our computer, Mr. Caronia created a user account for us to be able to login and gain full access to our computer.  We set it up so that other people in the library could use it and test it out too.  Right away students were logging on and using the computer to play games and do their work.   They were shocked that a computer in a cardboard box could work!  My school principal even came down to look.  After a few days, we moved our computer out into the showcase in our hallway.

If it weren’t for our librarian and Mr. Caronia, none of this would have been possible. Although this project was difficult at times, it was so fun and we were proud to have pulled it off.  A few days later, we wanted to try the same thing again and this time we decided to turn an old G5 Mac into a Windows-based PC. Once again, we really enjoyed it!

At this point we decided to create a website in order to share our creations with other schools around the world. Our hope is that students and teachers all over will learn from our work.  Not only do we hope they learn from it, but we hope that they participate in it. Visitors can register on our site to receive updates, they can post messages and questions in our forum, and they can participate in our challenge.  On our site we have a challenge for students to build their own computers and put them in a creative case. Students who do this can submit creations to us and we will post them in our gallery. We are proud that we have comments from teachers all over the country on our site already.  I am also proud that a student contacted me to tell me how much my website impacted her and a project she was working on.  I was even contacted by a librarian looking for my help in setting up a makerspace for her library!  

We know this is just the beginning for us and have plans to continuing taking apart computers, creating creative computer cases and sharing them on our site.  We hope our work inspires others to do the same!

Our schools are in desperate need of teacher librarians and media specialists like Laura Fleming. Had it not been for her growth mindset and innovative spirit, the learning environment that invokes relevancy and meaning in Chris's school day would not have become a reality. This is now the case for hundreds of students at NMHS. Informal learning is just as powerful, if not more, than formal learning.  Create a space that works for kids and let them make for the sake of making

Sunday, December 7, 2014

It's Elementary When it Comes to #EdTech

As a practitioner I am always looking to learn how to better assist educators at all grade levels.  Superintendent Scott Rocco provided me with a great opportunity to not only work with teachers in his district, but to also push me outside my comfort zone, which has always been secondary education.  In my position as K-12 Director of Technology Integration and Innovation in the Spotswood School District, I am assisting with the district’s transition to Google Apps for Education (GAFE) as well as working with teachers on the effective integration of technology.  Our goal is the purposeful integration of technology to support or enhance learning.  We not only want students engaged, but also want to see evidence of learning aligned to high standards as well as the development and application of essential skill sets.

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The other day I had the unique challenge and opportunity of working with elementary teachers in the Spotswood School District. This was a particular challenge as the teachers of this particular school serve students in only grades pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first.  The goal was simple, to introduce and train them on some age appropriate technology tools while identifying natural pedagogical fits.  To accomplish this I had to quickly familiarize myself with some new tools. I had a few in my toolbox, but needed more. So I did what I have been doing for the past five years and that was submit a query to my Personal Learning Network (PLN) using Twitter and Google+. 

Within minutes I was bombarded with so many new tools.  As I started to look them up I quickly realized I had to revise my query, as I was not specific enough. The teachers I was working with only had access to a laptop cart, thus apps that had to be downloaded on a device were not an option. Within minutes I received new recommendations and I took a few minutes to learn how to use each new tool. Due to the intuitive nature and ease of use, this did not take much time at all.  At the meeting later that day I introduced each of the tools to the group and noted which ones did not require student access to a computer. Each demonstration was then following by a quick discussion on the natural pedagogical link and possible learning activities.  Below is the list of tools presented:
  • Padlet - Create an online wall of virtual, multimedia post-it notes with your students
  • Kahoot - game-based digital pedagogy  
  • Plickers – No tech, no problem! Download and print cards for free; make sure you also download the free app on your phone
  • Little Bird Tales - digital storytelling in the primary classroom
  • Build Your Wild Self - creative design application that is great for writing prompts
  • AWW - a web whiteboard - a free, online whiteboard to foster creativity
  • edshelf - search for web-based tools by age, subject, platform, and category 
After just thirty minutes the group of passionate educators I worked with were now equipped with a new set of tools that they could begin to immediately implement as part of their lessons the next day. The added benefit for me as a result of this training is that I learned about an array of new tools to better assist elementary teachers with technology integration in Spotswood and beyond as I work with educators across the globe.  What web-based tools that can be accessed through a browser would you add to this list? Please share in the comments section.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Stop Ignoring Google+

In case you didn't know there are thousands of educators and an array of learning communities over at Google+.  The bottom line is that many people are missing out on some great content, resources, and conversation.  From my point of view educators become quickly attached to one specific social media tool as their go to source for his/her Personal Learning Network (PLN).  Take Twitter for example.  Now anyone who knows me knows that I absolutely love Twitter as a professional learning and networking tool. It has been and will continue to be my number one choice when it comes to learning in the foreseeable future. Twitter has many positive attributes, but also a growing number of negative aspects.  Some examples in my opinion, include an increasing amount of negativity and disrespect, rise in social media cliques, difficulty in following chats, noise, and overbearing opinions.  Even as Twitter still works great for me and others it is not the only player out there.  Nor should it be considered the best learning option for all. At times I just need to get away from the echo chamber to focus more on my learning.

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Lately I have been spending more and more time over at Google+.  It amazes me that some people think that it is a dead community. This is obviously not that case or I would not be dedicating as much time as I have recently.  There are some similarities between the two social networks.  One great characteristic shared by both Twitter and Google+ are hash tags (#). The only difference being that popular hash tags in the Twitter world do not carry the same weight over in Google+.  Instead of favoriting a tweet you give it a G+.  The practice of retweeting is mirrored by a simple arrow at the bottom of the post that will allow you to share it across your network and beyond.  As a social network you can also share text, images, videos, and links, but in a much more dynamic way. This is one of the many ways that a Google+ experience differentiates itself from Twitter. Here are some other key differences that provide an enhanced learning and experience:
  • Circles - Unlike Twitter you can place all of the members of your PLN in different circles. With Twitter you send out a tweet and everyone who follows you, pulls up your page, or accesses the hash tag (if you use one) has an opportunity to see it. You can do the same thing on Google+, but you also have the ability to send your message to a specific circle, all of your circles, extended circles, or the entire Google+ world. With circles you can organize your PLN sort of the same way you would your websites using a social bookmarking tool.
  • No Character Limits - Twitter is a bit prohibitive with it's 140 character limit. This is the one feature I love the most about Twitter as it allows me and others to be brief. What if you want more? With Google+ there are no character limits so you can be as detailed as you want. This really adds to your ability to make a point, explain a strategy, discuss an issue, etc. It also keeps all those random rants from entering into your stream that Twitter is becoming notorious for.
  • Threaded Conversations - Twitter chats work for some, but they definitely do not work for all. Just the shear pace of a chat makes them difficult for many educators to follow. Personally I have found that when I try to engage and ask questions directed to specific people those questions go unanswered.  With Google+ each update becomes a threaded conversation that you can engage in at your own pace.  Comments also live in the update so you can go back and reference them at anytime. You can even share the thread across other social networks while accessing all of the resources, ideas, and knowledge that was discussed. I see this characteristic as bringing order to chaos.
  • Dynamic Updates - In addition to sharing text, links, videos, and photos with Google+ you can also create and share events and polls right from your status update box. 
  • A More Comprehensive ProfileYour Google+ account seamlessly links your YouTube account. If you use Picasa all of the pictures you upload will also go to your Google+ page. Another cool picture feature is that all pictures include in my Google Blogger posts are archived in the photo section of Google+.  The about section allows you to include much more detail than Twitter without character limits and and array of additional categories.
  • Hangouts - Many educators are aware of Google Hangouts (GHO's) that allow users to engage in free group video chat.  Hangouts on Air are even more dynamic video chats where you can schedule live broadcasts, host interactive conversations by taking audience questions in real time or in advance, use live apps to enhance the viewing experience, and immediately archive to YouTube when finished.
  • Communities - This is one of my favorite features of Google+. Anyone can join an existing community or create a new one. The difference between Twitter is that you can have rich conversations and share blog posts, resources, ideas/strategies, plan/publicize events, and have discussions aligned to specific categories. Evan Scherr and I have created a Digital Leadership Community. With the evolution of #digilead on Twitter our goal was to develop a space that brings together all the people, ideas, resources, and conversation related to digital leadership and learning. Evan and I hope that you will consider joining this community and sharing everything that you already do on Twitter. Not only is it free, but it gives you a chance to amplify your work and voice while engaging with like-minded educators at a deeper level. 
Google+ is a powerful and dynamic social media tool that many educators and leaders are not taking advantage of.  To begin simply start by setting up your circles, connect with other educators, share your content (i.e. blog posts) and lurk for a little bit. Search for and join a few communities as well. If you need any help please feel free to connect and engage with me on Google+.

So what is stopping you from using Google+? If you are using it consistently what added benefits would you highlight?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Wake Up Call For School Leaders

So the other day I tweeted out this comment, “I am amazed each day to see so much educational progress in my Twitter feed. This should be the norm, not the exception.” Many people in education talk a great game when it comes to the effective use of technology, but the results (lack there of) speak for themselves. I constantly see and hear about leaders who tout themselves in a way that makes others develop a perception that they actually know something about the effective integration of a variety of technology tools to improve professional practice. However, once you get past the rhetoric you quickly realize that it is just talk with a clear lack of substance.  This is not to say that they are unwilling to learn or embrace significant change in this area.  It just hasn’t happened yet, at least from my view.  Thus, the use of social media in schools by educators continues to be an uphill battle.  

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For those educators and schools that are either resistant to or unsure about using social media, I challenge you to move from a fixed to a growth mindset to create schools that work better for kids and establish relevance as a leader in your district, school, or classroom.

  • Begin to strategically utilize an array of free social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to communicate important information (student honors, staff accomplishments, meetings, emergency information) to stakeholders in real-time. Consistency aligned with intent is key.  
  • Take control of you public relations by becoming the storyteller-in-chief to produce a constant stream of positive news.  If you don't share your story someone else will and you then run the chance that it will not be positive. Stop reacting to public relations situations you have limited control of and begin to be more proactive. When supplying a constant stream of positive news you will help to mitigate any negative stories that might arise.  
  • Establishing a brand presence should no longer be restricted to the business world when schools and districts now have the tools at their fingertips to do this in a cost-effective manner. Simply communicating and telling your story with social media tools can accomplish this. When you do, the brand presence develops solely based on the admirable work that is taking place in your district, school, or classroom.
  • Connect with experts, peers, and practitioners across the globe to grow professionally through knowledge acquisition, resource sharing, engaged discussion, and to receive feedback. This will not only save you time and money, but will open up your eyes to infinite possibilities to truly become a digital leader. Who would not want to tap into countless opportunities that arise through conversations and transparency in online spaces? Don't wait another second to start building a Personal Learning Network (PLN).
  • If you are an administrator, stop supporting or enforcing a gatekeeper approach and allow educators to use free social media tools to engage learners, unleash their creativity, and enhance learning. Hiding behind CIPA is just an excuse for not wanting to give up control.  If you want students that are real world or future ready, they must be allowed to use the tools that are prevalent now in this world.
  • Schools are missing a golden opportunity and failing students by not teaching digital responsibility/citizenship through the effective use of social media. We need to begin to empower students to take more ownership of their learning by promoting Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and the use of mobile learning devices if schools do not have the means to go 1:1. By BYOD I don’t mean just allowing kids to bring in and use their own devices in the hallways and during lunch. That is not BYOD. Real BYOD initiatives allow students to enhance/support their learning experience, increase productivity, conduct better research, and become more digitally literate. 

It is time for the profession of education to catch up to society. In order to start moving schools in a better direction we must help leaders experience the true value of technology.  Once this happens they can begin to better model expectations for others, which will result in sustainable changes leading to transformation. Our students deserve and demand better.  Together we can continue to be the change that we want to see in education.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Real-World Ready

In September 2014 I was honored to have been asked to speak at TEDxBurnsvilleED. The theme for all of the TEDx talks was Real World Ready. When looking at the structure and function of the majority of schools across the globe it was quite evident to me that students are being prepared for a world that no longer exists. Compounding that issue is the fact that school traditionally works better for the adults than the kids who are there to get an education.  When there is more of a focus on conformity, control, rules, test scores, maintaining the status quo, and rigid schedules kids lose. School and life should no longer be separate entities.

As educators, we need to begin to implement a bold vision for change to flip the concept of education and focus on relevant learning experiences that actually prepare students for the real world. School should allow students to follow their passions, use real-world tools to solve real-world problems, develop and apply essential skill sets, think divergently, create artifacts of learning to demonstrate conceptual mastery and foster creativity.  Schools need to work for students if the goal is to prepare them for the real world. Below is my brief TEDx talk on the topic.

I would love to hear your thoughts.  Do you think I am on the right track? What else do schools need to do to prepare students for success in the real world?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Place to Be

Throughout my life I have either attended, or worked in, a public school, as had my parents.  In terms of my own education, I always felt that I was provided with the knowledge and skills to succeed in life.  By no means was my pubic schooling perfect and when I look back there were many instances that presented opportunities for improvement.  The bottom line, however, was that I had passionate and caring educators who pushed me to be the best student that I could be regardless of the deficiencies inherent in an industrialized model of education.   

As fate would have it my role changed and I began to have a direct impact in the position of either a teacher or administrator. Throughout my ongoing career as an educator in public schools, I have always worked to provide a relevant, meaningful, and applicable learning experience for my students.  I have written extensively about many of the successful initiatives that were implemented over the course of my career at New Milford High School.  Even with these successes, many of which have been widely publicized, we were never perfect when it came to meeting the needs of all learners. This was also the case when I recollect my days as a science teacher and coach at Watchung Hills Regional High School.  Mistakes were constantly made and some persistent issues were never changed no matter how hard we tried.  Through it all there was more positive than negative in each experience and this has only strengthened by resolve for, and support of, public schools. 

When it came time to make a decision about where to send our two young children to school there really was no decision to be made. Even though I was intimidated by the outright size of the New York City School system I was fully committed to sending my children to public school in my home borough of Staten Island.  We were fortunate to move from our first home on the island to an area called Pleasant Plains and were ecstatic to find out that we were zoned for Public School 3. The word on the street was that this was a very good school, but it wasn’t until I met Principal Judy Wilson that I realized how special the school really was. I still remember the day when I sent my son Nick in with a copy of the Scholastic Administrator magazine where I was featured on the cover. Once Judy realized that I was Nick’s father we began to immediately have conversations on how to improve the school culture at PS 3. 

Judy Wilson is such a passionate principal who works tirelessly to create a school that fosters a love for learning.  At times the cards are stacked against her because of the levels of bureaucracy, mandates, and senseless policies that are embedded elements of the NYCDOE.  In the face of these challenges and many others, she has worked collaboratively with passionate staff members to provide authentic learning experiences for the students there.  For example, a dance studio was created in an unused space and dance has now become integrated across the curriculum.  The dancing classroom program was brought to PS 3 five years ago for every 5th grade student.  The program builds social awareness, confidence and self-esteem in students through the practice of social dance. They cultivate a new competition team every year composed of 12 students who compete citywide. Every year the team has brought home gold medals.

Last year Judy brought VR Quest to the school where students, including my son, were able to create their own 3D virtual reality games from scratch after school.  Thanks to the incredible guidance of Media Specialist James Laieta, my son was part of his S.W.A.T. Team where students worked collaboratively after school to work on their games.  James volunteered to do this, as he is a true educator who believes in allowing students to follow their creative passions. Another highlight at PS 3 includes an annual field trip on board a floating lab. Then there are more personal situations that mean more than words can describe. When Judy Wilson found out that my son was becoming disinterested in school she went out of her way to have him do the morning announcements with older students.  This not only made him a bit more eager to go to school, but also has had a positive impact on his communication skills.  These are just a few examples of how the school is working to better meet the diverse needs of my children.

All in all I am happy with my children’s school, but just like in my experiences, there have been a few issues that have clouded my judgment as of late.  These issues relate to homework and Common Core implementation.  Without going into much detail these isolated issues have morphed into a message that my kids hate school.  I even went as far to state this emphatically in my recent TEDx talk.  The honest truth is that my kids are, well, kids and as such they typically don’t like some aspects of their formal education.  I know I didn’t.  

In retrospect, going forward I need to focus more on collaborating with the staff at PS 3 to improve some of the elements that my children don’t like instead of rattling off sound bites.  Today I sat down with my kids and had a detailed conversation with them about all the many elements of PS 3 that they love. Let me tell you, there were many!  Judy possesses an undeniable focus to move the school forward and actually implement ideas and suggestions I put forth.  I should not use my influence to paint an inaccurate picture of a school version of David going up against Goliath, which is the NYCDOE.  As the motto states, PS 3 is “The Place to Be.” I am a firm believer in this and now have to act like it. Instead of focusing on the negatives, which are inherent in any school system, I will work to promote what makes PS3 special while providing constructive feedback and hands-on support as needed. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

#Internet4schools: Make Your Voice Heard

Back in 2009 when we began to transform teaching and learning at New Milford High School we were extremely fortunate at the time to have wireless Internet access throughout the school.  This was an extremely big deal five years ago and ultimately gave us an edge in terms of the many successful initiatives we rolled out including Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and digital learning across the curriculum.  The ubiquitous access to the Internet eventual led to the implementation of more student-centered instructional practices where students began to take ownership over their learning. We began to create a school that worked better for them in that they could create learning artifacts to demonstrate conceptual mastery through the construction of new knowledge and application of skills. Access to the Internet allowed us and our students to harness and leverage thousands of free tools to support teaching and learning as described above.

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Fast forward to 2014 and one would think that all schools would be in a position to provide Internet access to students like we were able to for the past five years.  Obviously I was extremely naive to think this. The typical K–12 public school has the same internet access as the average home, only with 200 times more users. That means that 2 out of every 3 students do not have the high speed internet access they need in their schools.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering expanding Internet access in schools and we need your help telling them to vote “YES” to expanding E-rate in order to provide the nation’s students with the tools they need.

If you are like me you have seen the positive impact that Internet access can have on student learning both inside and outside of school.  Please take just a few minutes to create a 15 second video explaining why all students across the country deserve Internet access in their schools.  Here is the text you can use in a tweet or status update:

#Internet4schools matters - Tell @FCC to vote YES and bring Internet to all schools with a 15 second video

Video I created

Once your video is created share across social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Instagram.  I made the video above quickly using Instagram. I suggest you also tag some of your connected friends in your social media update to make this initiative go viral in a similar way to the Ice Bucket Challenge earlier this year.  Bottom line - all students deserve quality Internet access in schools so that they can use real world tools to do real world work, develop digital literacy skills, collaborate with peers, unleash creativity, and find more relevance in their learning.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sustaining Outdated Practices Will Not Transform Schools

When one looks at education in general there is very little change from over 150 years ago.  Back then the education system was designed to serve an industrialized world that was in desperate need of skilled factory workers.  What resulted was the quick development of a system to educate as many students as possible in a fashion that was cheap and easy.  Conforming to this system created masses of compliant students who ultimately acquired the necessary skills to assist society become more industrialized. Fast forward 150 years and you will notice that the world has radically changed, but education has not. What are we really preparing our students for then? Seth Godin puts this question into context in the video below.

Watching the video above is a painful reminder of my lack of leadership at one point. During the early years as a high school principal I worked terribly hard to sustain practices that had been ingrained into the school learning culture. These practices looked good when viewed on the outside as they sustained the status quo, maintained control, and ensured the enforcement of rules/policies with the end result being an efficient educational system.  The resulting culture focused squarely on the metrics that my stakeholders held dear. So in the end my leadership was defined by maintaining a building driven by standardized test scores and how well students were able to conform to the system that I was brainwashed into sustaining. Luckily for me I was diverted along a different path thanks to an epiphany provided by social media.

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Upon reflection many years later, I have realized that my efforts created a stagnant school culture that was not appreciated in the least bit by the most important stakeholder group I was responsible for – my students.  If that was not bad enough, I also kept other stakeholders in the dark in regards to the innovative work that was taking place each and every day in my school as I relied on traditional methods of communication.  The evolution of technology has and continues to invoke fear in the eyes and minds of many types of school leaders tasked with transforming school cultures.  The fears, perceptions, and misconceptions that drive many leaders to maintain the status quo only work to perpetuate a growing disconnect that students experience with learning today. Conversely so other stakeholders remain in the dark in a time when leaders must be proactive with public relations to combat the negative rhetoric prevalent across the globe when it comes to education.

We can no longer afford to not only sustain an outdated system, but also rely on archaic practices that no longer have measurable impact.  The good news here is that the principles of effective leadership form a solid foundation to move schools in the direction that they need to go.  Digital leadership takes into account these effective principles that define great leadership along with the core work leaders do each and every day while leveraging available technology to do what is being done better. For greater context here are two recent posts I wrote for Scholastic:

  • Why today’s school leaders must become digital leaders: Leadership is no different today than it was years ago. The only difference is that style and focus need to change with the times if we are to accomplish the lofty task of preparing students for a dynamic world that is more social and connected as a result of technology. 
  • The seven pillars of effective digital leadership: Specific areas embedded in the culture of all schools that can be improved or enhanced through the use of available technology, especially social media. They present a framework from which any educator or leader can begin to harness the power of technology to change professional practice and initiate sustainable change. 

It is up to leaders in all positions to work smarter, not harder, if we are to create schools that provide an education that means something to our learners. For this to happen though, leaders need to get their heads out of the sand, acknowledge that the system and outdated practices no longer suffice, and take action to improve school culture.  If not, yet another generation of students will be lost upon graduation.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Professional Learning School Leaders Need and Deserve

During my ten years as a school leader, I dreaded professional development days in my district. I am not sure any educator looks forward to these monotonous experiences (developed under the guise of learning!) that are supposed to provide us with new skills and knowledge to do our jobs better. If in-district professional development wasn't bad enough, I also attended my fair share of workshops and conferences that were a complete waste of time. I attended many of these events just to meet the required hours of professional development. The problem here was that the experience focused on hours of time on task, not on the learning itself. More often than not, PD is something that has been done to us rather than something we as educators, want to engage in. These experiences made me and others come to the conclusion that professional development, or “PD,” as it is often referred to, is broken.

The overarching problem stems from the fact that PD is driven by external forces and outside agendas. These forces can come in the form of mandates from the federal and state governments or broad needs defined by the districts we work in. Whatever the case, the end result is rarely an invigorating learning experience, and time is rarely well-spent. It is uncommon to leave PD sessions with applicable ideas and strategies that we can implement immediately to positively change school culture.

The key for me was taking control of my learning and engaging in activities that aligned with my professional passions. I experienced firsthand the value of these learning activities as sustainable change and cultural transformation took hold at my school. My epiphany, so to say, changed my entire outlook on modes of professional development and led to the discovery of a practice area in digital leadership. All resulting learning activities focused on practical pathways that helped me to do what I was already doing better. The best part of this journey was the tangible results that followed.

We need to get at the heart of what embodies great leadership and engage in learning experiences that have professional value to us while honoring our precious time. You can attend all the compulsory PD events imposed by outside pressures or take a different path that will truly make a difference. To begin the process of correcting this pervasive issue, let's agree to move the focus from professional development to professional learning. The next step is to identify the most pressing needs for our schools and districts that align with potential improvements in professional practice. Finally, the time comes to zero in on quality learning experiences that will enhance your leadership skills, supporting you in the construction of new knowledge and the acquisition of dynamic skills to move your organization forward.

My observations of the inherent problems with traditional PD have informed my thinking about my consultancy (Aspire Change EDU) by developing valuable digital leadership learning experiences in response to requests from leaders across the country. The goal is to break the mold of traditional PD. Instead of traditional, sit-and-get training, We provide learning opportunities that are interactive, hands-on, collaborative, relevant to practitioners’ daily roles, designed by innovative practitioners, and packed with practical strategies that can be used immediately.

Our overall goal at Aspire Change EDU is to provide the best support for leaders and aspiring leaders in schools today. Reach out to learn how we might be able to support you. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

One Day That Changed Everything

I was just like every other principal on the planet prior to becoming connected. My narrow focus was on sustaining a school culture focused on rules, compliance, conformity, and preserving the status quo. The end goal was to make sure standardized test scores increased (or at least didn’t go down) and traditions were preserved.  On the inside everything was great. Students and staff seemed happy while the community was supportive of our efforts.  Each monotonous day began with students arriving at school and then going directly to their first-period class where they sat in desks arranged orderly rows.  After listening to the daily announcements the delivery of instruction began. My compliant students then went through their rigid eight-period day schedule with each class lasting forty-eight minutes.  At the end of each class, an annoying bell would notify everyone in the school that it was time to continue through the repetitive process.  Throw in a few specialized programs, assemblies, and pep rallies that this was basically the schedule we all followed each and every day.

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It is scary to think that the culture I describe above is still prevalent in the majority of schools across the country.  The reality is that school for most students is the polar opposite of the real world. Thus they come to school knowing that they will sit through endless lectures, endure the same lessons that have been delivered year after year, be assigned homework that does nothing to support learning, be given assessments that require little thought because they are easy to grade, and have to succumb to numerous rules that are meant to make sure they conform more than learn.  Getting through the curriculum aligned to Common Core has become the driving force in many schools as pressure is mounting with high stakes testing looming right around the corner. This would have been our reality at my school as well if it weren’t for one moment in time that changed everything.

During my first couple of years as principal, I was in a rut and didn’t know it. I led my school in a way that I was brainwashed into thinking was the only way. Education had become more about schooling than learning. Then it happened. My epiphany came in 2009 when I begrudgingly decided to give Twitter a try to improve communications with my stakeholders. Little did I know that this moment in time would totally redefine my purpose in education. As my behavior shifted from communicator to learner I immediately discovered how blinded I was by a system so entrenched in methodologies and practices designed for a period in time that had long past. I learned how to unlearn and then relearn through conversations I began having with passionate educators across the globe. These conversations empowered me to begin the process of taking my school in a better direction for the sake of my students.  

My connected colleagues provided daily inspiration, support, feedback, resources, ideas, and strategies that I used to grow as an educator and leader. As my fixed mindset evolved into one more focused on growth the seeds for change were planted and began to take root. With a diligent focus on modeling changes to school culture slowly began to be embraced by teachers and students alike.  This was not an easy journey.  During the beginning years, I felt more isolated from my colleagues across my district and state than ever before. They did not see nor care to hear about the inherent value in connected learning.  Excuses often followed as a bunker mentality overshadowed the potential value that lied in using social media to become a better leader and learner. The only thing that kept me going was that once I had experienced the value for myself there was no turning back.  

At this point, I feel the results speak for themselves.  New Milford High School became a globally recognized model for what is possible in education during my tenure as Principal and it all started when I became connected. After that, my role in the transformation process was placing my teachers and students in a position to experience the value for them.  Change became a collaborative and collective process that resulted in a school more focused on learning and one that worked better for kids than adults.  With all the challenges brought about by current education reform efforts, we moved forward with a bold vision for growth and innovation.  Even though learning across all spectrums looked different, achievement rose in virtually every area.  More importantly though was the fact that students appreciated the changes. Had I not become connected I can say with certainty that my school would not have changed.

This post is not meant to preach to the choir. It is my goal that it can be shared with the unconnected in the hopes that they will give connected learning a chance and ultimately reap the endless rewards that follow.  Our job to connect more educators is often fraught with frustration, ridicule, and disrespect, as we appear different. We cannot let this deter our efforts as all students deserve schools that provide them with the skills that our society now demands and expects. Keep pushing forward and thank you for all that you have done for me. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

School Leadership in the Common Core Era

The following is a guest post by Dr. Andrea Honigsfeld, Dr. Maria G. Dove, and Dr. Audrey Cohan. Check out their book titled Beyond Core Expectations: A Schoolwide Framework for Serving the Not-So-Common Learner published by Corwin.
Leaders who have deeper and more lasting impact provide more comprehensive leadership than focusing just on higher standards. (Michael Fullan, 2002, p. 16)
Prompted by the ongoing overhaul of school systems throughout the country and the rapid institution of new standards and other reforms for school improvement, we have found that many school districts had little time to develop a comprehensive course of action for the instruction of typically developing students, let alone their growing populations of youngsters with diverse academic and linguistic needs. It appears that much of the focus for improvement has been on creating rigorous classroom instruction to increase student achievement measured by the highly contested standardized tests. Nonetheless, we contend that a concentration on the enhancement of teaching skills and strategies is not enough. What we have uncovered in the field from our research, school visits, classroom observations, and assessment of programs, policies, and practices in K–12 public schools that serve the not-so-common learner resulted in our most recent joint publication entitled Beyond Core Expectations: A Schoolwide Framework for Serving the Not-So-Common Learner (Dove, Honigsfeld, & Cohan, 2014). 

Why we have chosen to title this work Beyond Core Expectations is twofold. First, we offer a much-needed framework for the education of diverse learners. This framework not only incorporates recommendations for schoolwide literacy practices, integrated curricula, and broad-based instructional strategies for diverse learners but also integrates ideas for school communities to examine what they collectively value to promote an understanding and respect for the talents and challenges of special student populations. Second, we advocate for the development of an action plan for educating the not-so-common learners that is research-based, achievable, and reaches beyond any current educational reform initiative for school improvement.

Who Are the Not-So-Common Learners?

Public schools are attended by students from various cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic backgrounds, having different assessed levels of cognitive and academic ability. In our attempt to identify these youngsters, we hope to better serve them through our advocacy for a school-wide framework to support their learning needs. As for this, common characteristics and criteria associated with the not-so-common learner include the following:

  • English Learners (ELs). These are students who are either foreign-born immigrants or US-born citizens of immigrant parents, speak a language other than English, and have yet to develop proficient skills (listening, speaking, reading, or writing) in English. 
  • Students with Interrupted or Limited Formal Education (SIFE). A subgroup of English learners, these school-aged youngsters often have significant gaps in their education and, on the average, two years or less schooling than their same age peers.
  • Students with Disabilities. Pupils with special learning needs due to physical and/or mental impairments who require special assistance to meet with academic success.
  • Nonstandard English Speaking Children. Often racially and/or ethnically diverse, these US born students speak a dialect of English in their communities and have yet to acquire standard American English skills. 
  • Children of Poverty. Youngsters under the age of 18 whose families have incomes below the US poverty threshold; approximately 16 million of America’s poor are children who are often malnourished, live in substandard housing, and have unequal access to educational opportunities.
  • Struggling Learners. Students who are not performing at grade level in the core subject matters (Dove & Honigsfeld, 2013, pp. 3-4)

Based on seminal and emerging research, exemplary and promising practices in the field, and our own synthesis of the knowledge base available, we developed a framework to support the instruction of academically and linguistically diverse pupils. The framework includes the following six components:

  1. A shared and inclusive vision and mission—first and foremost established for all students—reached through consensus and setting the groundwork for educational equity for our diverse learners through a shared set of values developed for the teaching special populations of students
  2. School-wide, disciplinary literacy that directly focuses on the teaching of academic language and literacy skills across subject areas so that all students can have access to rigorous content, language, and literacy learning opportunities in the core subject areas
  3. Mapping and alignment of an integrated curriculum to ensure that instructional content and practices for academically and linguistically diverse pupils are consistent with standards and appropriate learning outcomes for all students
  4. Collaborative planning, instruction, and assessment among teams of teachers—content-area, ESL, special education, and literacy, among others—to foster the use of teaching and learning strategies as well as assessment practices to make academic material comprehensible for all learners
  5. Explicit instruction for developing  literacy and language-learning strategies that foster students’ understanding of their own thinking and learning processes while acquiring content information
  6. Student engagement—actively involving students in the learning process—so they may be better prepared to think critically, work both collaboratively and independently, and remain persistent in their endeavors 

With this framework, we continue to advocate for learners with academic and linguistic diversity. We uphold—first and foremost—the need for establishing a shared vision and mission and building a commitment to schoolwide literacy practices. With these two components in place, the curriculum can be mapped and aligned with educational equity and schoolwide literacy in mind. Next, teachers work collaboratively to plan both instruction and assessment using the curriculum maps. Planning leads to the development of explicit strategy instruction that includes guided practice and collaborative student work—which ultimately fosters high levels of student engagement. 


Dove, M. G., & Honigsfeld, A. (2013). Common Core for the not-so-common learner: 
     English language arts strategies grades K-5. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Dove, M. G., Honigsfeld, A., & Cohan, A. (2014). Beyond core expectations: A 
     schoolwide framework for serving the not-so-common learner. Thousand Oaks, CA: 

Fullan, M. (2002). The change leader. Educational Leadership, 59(8), 16-21. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Tale of Two Libraries

The summer of 2013 was probably one of the most important hiring years during my seven-year tenure as a high school principal. Now don’t get me wrong, I hired so many amazing educators over the years and will forever be indebted to the incredible work they did for our students.  Upon leaving New Milford High School a few weeks ago, I was like a proud father who watched his children grow up, mature, and experience undeniable successes that forever changed the teaching and learning culture there.   The summer of 2013 will always stand out because that was the year that I was able to woo Laura Fleming back to not only her Alma Mater, but also where she was originally employed for years. 

In my opinion great leaders surround themselves by great people.  The hiring process can make or break a school culture.  This is one of the most important aspects of educational leadership as the nuts and bolts of the change process come from those doing the most direct work with our students.  It represents an opportunity to find the missing pieces to move an aggressive agenda of growth and innovation forward.  Finding the right people is often an arduous task and at times is fraught with mistakes.  

When the position of library media specialist became available she was the only person that I wanted for the position.  She was hired with one major objective and that was to transform the media center into a vibrant learning space. For years it was a place that students and staff alike avoided.  Outdated books filled the stacks, food and drink were not allowed, student devices were prohibited, and senseless rules were consistently enforced.  It needed a digital age and pedagogical reboot.  Without any specific guidance from me I bestowed upon her the autonomy over the budget and space that eventually laid the foundation for change.  However, it was her unrelenting desire to create a space that worked for kids that lead to a total transformation.  

Below is what the library looked like prior to her arrival.

This is what it looks like today. 

The learning atmosphere in the library is nothing less than amazing. Just take a look at this CBS New York video and you will see for yourself.  In September of 2013 Laura laid out her plans to create a makerspace. I offered whatever assistance I could give in terms of monetary support and then did the next best thing I could do – I GOT OUT OF HER WAY. Never once did I second-guess what she was doing or purchasing as I knew when I hired her that she was a doer, difference-maker, and spark plug for change.  The learning space that was once in the traditional library has now been taken over by the students. You see, Laura knew that once the space was up and running it would only continue to evolve.  She then got out of the way of the students.  By respecting their voice she empowered them to take ownership of the makerspace. Thus the baton has been passed and now the students are in charge.  

To learn more about Laura's amazing work visit Worlds of Learning. For specific information in regards to her philosophy of makerspaces check out Worlds of Making

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Learning That Matters

The other day I posted the following statement on social media, "When was the last time any of us had to take a standardized test in our careers? Answer = never. So why is this done to kids incessantly?" I should have clarified my comment a bit more by explaining that I was referring to repetitive standardized tests being taken while in the same job with the same school, company, or corporation.  My point was that there seems to be a disconnect in terms of how many times K-12 students are now subjected to standardized tests compared to the majority of professions. Yes, many career paths require entry-level exams and those that identify essential skills sets needed to do the job. Some jobs even require routine re-certifications. Many, however, do not require another test once a passing score has been achieved.

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The problem I have is that most jobs in both the public and private sectors utilize differentiated means to evaluate job performance. Goals are established collaboratively while keeping or losing a job isn't determined by how well you can bubble in or electronically respond to answers on a test. Now let’s make a connection to learning.  Ask yourselves this, can you clearly make a connection to the results of a standardized test you took and its impact on your current job? I sure can't because most of the tests I took lacked any relevancy and meaning in terms of what I really wanted to do with my life. Sure the SATs and GREs were important benchmarks that I had to score a certain level in order to move through higher education, but I was not one bit passionate about taking them. I can also emphatically state that both exams did absolutely nothing for me in terms of my career in education. There are so many problems with standardized tests that I can go on and on writing about them.

So why did I take them? The answer to this lies in society's overreliance on attempts to quickly and efficiently quantify learning. This is not learning but forced conformity into a system that focuses more on numbers than actual skills that can help one succeed in life. This comment from Lain Lancaster on the Google+ thread sums things up nicely:
"I'm baffled by your country's rush to standardization all across education systems (tests, common core etc.) when research has pretty much proven it's the opposite of what education should be.  (I'm in Canada) Not only that, but thanks to modern technologies, society in general is moving away from mass production/consumption to individualized production/consumption. Yes standardization is easier, and produces lots of pretty data, but there's scant evidence that it’s effective anywhere in realm of education."
So we continue to press forward in a direction that virtually everyone knows is wrong and misguided.  Why do companies like Google go out of their way to provide their employees with spaces where they can play and relax? Play has been stripped away from students so there can be more time to prepare for the tests. The best learning experiences I ever had were experiential in nature. They involved play, creativity, failure now and again, tinkering, collaboration, and meaningful feedback.  If life is all about preparing for and then excelling on standardized tests will that allow society to push forward and solve the plethora of pressing issues that our world faces today? The bottom line is that life is not a standardized test and results on these will rarely determine how successful our students will be in life. We all would be better served if school focused more on preparing students adequately to excel in the real-word instead of wasting time forcing them to take test after test that they see know value in. If true learning is what matters than we should model that in education.

So what are you thoughts?