Sunday, June 22, 2014

Opinions Are Nice, But Actions Are What Matter

Change has become quite the buzzword in education as of late.  You hear it in schools, during face-to-face conversations with educators, at the dinner table, and most emphatically in social media spaces.  Virtually all of these conversations have merit to them.  It goes without saying that education, schools, and professional practice need to change in order to provide learners with the necessary skill sets to succeed in today’s ever-growing digital world. This is no easy feat, something that I experience each day of my professional life as a high school principal.  Can you even imagine a world where change was easy?

With the overall structure and function of schools remaining unchanged for nearly a century, there is a great deal of work that has to be done.  This, compounded with the onslaught of reforms and mandates enacted by individuals that have no business in education, makes the process of enacting change much more difficult.  The current education reform climate has just exasperated the proliferation of schools as testing factors where students’ learning, an intricate science, is reduced to meaningless numbers. Change in this sense is not positive, but how we respond to it will ultimately determine the fate and success of our students.  

This leads me to the point of this post.  Conversations about change are a dime a dozen. Within these conversations, an endless array of opinions are dished out about what needs to change.  In about half of these same conversations, suggestions are offered up as to how to go about implementing the change.  Opinions, suggestions, ideas, and even strategies are great to discuss in theory.  They all make for great conversational catalysts where even more people will engage and respond.  However, offering opinions and stating what one thinks should be done to change anything in education falls short of the intended outcome. Real, meaningful, and sustainable change capable of transforming school culture and professional learning comes from taking action.

Leadership is not about position, but rather the actions that we take in our respective roles.  Each and every one of us has the capacity to lead if we so choose, but initiating sustainable change hinges upon our ability to move from the talk and rhetoric to actually do something.  The process seems simple to those who get all caught up in the talk, but change leaders know full well the challenges associated with what may be the most difficult thing to do in education.  Change leadership focuses on these specific elements:
  • Identification of the problem and articulating why the change is needed
  • Development of a plan of action to provide stakeholders with a sense of how to effectively implement needed changes
  • Ensuring all support structures are in place to increase the success of the initiative so that it becomes sustainable
  • Implementing the plan through action and monitoring the process throughout. It is so important that we model the expectations that we have for others so that change is embraced
  • Evaluation and providing indicators of success.  If the change process fails then reflection is paramount in order to improve the plan
Think about these elements the next time you engage in a conversation about change. If you are in a position to do so, how will you help others become change leaders to help create schools that work for kids as opposed to ones that have traditionally just worked well for us?  The world is full of opinions, but lacking in the definitive actions that are needed to transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  Be the change that you wish to see in education through action. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Twitter as a Tool For Academic Discourse

New Milford High School teachers Jessica Groff and Joanna Westbrook created a Common Core aligned English Language Arts (ELA) task that incorporated Twitter into their unit on Julius Caesar and built on content  authentic to the Shakespeare's history play – i.e. social media re-purposed with and for academic discourse. To accomplish their goal, these teachers began with an informational text on the history of the Roman Forum to ground their use of social media in historical discourse and academic content. This step gave students a context and purpose for using Twitter with this particular play and in this particular way.  In addition, the teachers worked with students to reverse engineer the rhetoric of Twitter and generate a list of the type of tweets students see currently in their daily lives. As a result,  students had more than one reference point and more than one access point to literacy content, something of primary importance to the in-class support (ICS) teacher collaborating with this team, Lorraine Montecuollo. 

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Next, the team worked with the Digital Media Specialist, Laura Fleming, to find a way to help students use memes to improve the content of their tweets. They used Mozilla Webmaker tool called Mozilla Thimble to create memes that allowed both the tech-savvy and non-tech savvy to present their visuals in a more professional manner, while bringing visual clarity, some humor, and some creativity to their responses. Finally, the results of this project illustrate that the social aspect of this project is important. Students not only interacted with one another in class, but also with students in other classes, as Twitter opened up their ideas to a wider audience.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Change is a Mindset

For many years New Milford High School was just like virtually every other public school in this country defined solely by traditional indicators of success such as standardized test scores, graduation rates, and acceptances to four year colleges. These indicators have become so embedded in the minds of those judging our schools and work that we, like everyone else, worked hard to focus only on initiatives that would hopefully produce favorable outcomes in those areas. If we were doing well we continued down the same path allowing the status quo to reign supreme.  The mentality of if it isn't broke than why fix it resonated so profoundly with us that we would not have even considered changing our ways.  If results were not what our stakeholders wanted this would then trigger meetings leading to the development of action plans to get us back on course. 

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For so long schools have resembled a hamster running on a wheel doing the same things over and over to improve sets of numbers.  We were no different and had succumbed to a fixed mindset. Every excuse in the book was at our disposal not to change and continue down the same path year after year. Heck, our education system has become so good at maintaining the status quo and enforcing compliance throughout that we and many others have been brainwashed into thinking any other course of action would be foolish.  If education is good for one thing it is making excuses not to move forward. There is still an innate desire to sustain a school structure and function that has remained relatively unchanged for well over a hundred years. This is a problem. It was a huge problem for us. We were in a rut and didn't even know it. Luckily change came in the form of a little blue bird that gave me the kick in the butt that I desperately needed back in 2009.  Being blessed with an amazing staff, student body, administrative team, and community provided the necessary support needed to move us forward.

As another school year comes to a close I can't but help reflect on the many successful initiatives that have been implemented this past year.  It is even more gratifying to see numerous other initiatives that were implemented over the past couple of years flourish.  Moving from a fixed to a growth mindset and feeding of the daily inspiration that connected learning provides gave me with the fuel to create a shared vision that eventually became a reality as a result of action. For change to be successful it must be sustained. As leaders we must not only be willing to see the process through, but we must also create conditions that promote a change mentality. It really is about moving from a fixed to a growth mindset, something that many educators and schools are either unwilling or afraid to do. The essential elements that work as catalysts for the change process include the following:

  • Empowerment
  • Autonomy
  • Ownership
  • Removing the fear of failure
  • Risk-taking
  • Support
  • Modeling
  • Flexibility
  • Collaboration
  • Communication

What I have learned is that if someone understands why change is needed and the elements above become an embedded component of school culture he/she or the system ultimately experience the value for themselves.  The change process then gets a boost from an intrinsic motivational force that not only jump starts the initiative, but allows for the embracement of change as opposed to looking for buy-in.  We should never have to "sell" people on better ways to do our noble work nor rely on mandates and directives. These traditional pathways used to drive change typically result in resentment, undermining, and failure.

This gets me back to the main point of my post and that is reflecting on the many changes that have been implemented and sustained at NMHS.  Even in the face of adversity in the form of education reform mandates, Common Core alignment, impending PARCC exams, new educator evaluation systems, loss of funding, and an aging infrastructure we have not only persevered, but proven that positive change can happen with the right mindset.  If we can overcome these challenges and experience success others can as well. Throughout the past couple of years we have also seen improvements in the "traditional" indicators of success by mainly focusing on creating a school that works better for our students as opposed to one that has always worked well for us.  Here is a short list of some of the changes that have been implemented and sustained:

  • Social media use as a communications, public relations, branding, professional growth, and student learning tool implemented in 2009. So many of my teachers are making the choice to integrate social media as a learning tool that I just can't list all of the examples.
  • Online courses through the Virtual High School implemented in 2010. Students now have access to over 250 unique courses that cater to their interests. 
  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) implemented in 2011.  The success of this initiative has hinged on our ability to ensure equity, give up control, trust our students, and provide educator support in the form of professional growth opportunities. Charging stations for the students were purchased this year and placed in all common areas.  The three guiding tenets of our BYOD initiative are to enhance learning, increase productivity, and conduct better research. See what CBS New York had to say.
  • The Academies @ NMHS implemented in 2011 as part of my superintendent's vision. These are a means to allow students to follow their passions in a cohort model of learning based on constructivist theory. The Academies are open to any and all students regardless of GPA who what to pursue more rigorous and authentic coursework and learning opportunities. This initiative compelled us to add over 20 new courses to our offerings to better meet the learning needs and interests of our students.
  • Independent OpenCourseware Study (IOCS) implemented in 2012. Students elect to take OpenCourseware and receive honors credit once they demonstrate what they have learned through a non-traditional presentation.
  • Google Apps For Education (GAFE) implemented in 2012 empowering students and staff to learn collaboratively in the cloud.
  • Flipped classroom and instructional model implemented in 2012. A variety of teachers have moved to this model consistently to take advantage of instructional time. The best part is that NMHS teachers themselves are creating the interactive content as opposed to relying on Khan Academy. See what CBS New York had to say.
  • Grading reform implemented in 2012.  A committee was formed to improve our grading practices that resulted in a failure floor and seven steps that had to be met before student can receive a failing grade. All student failures are now reviewed by me to ensure that the seven steps have been met. This was probably the most difficult change initiative I have ever been a part of. If you want a copy of this just add your email in the comments section at the bottom of this post. 
  • The Professional Growth Period (PGP) implemented in 2013.  By cutting all non-instructional duties teachers now have two or three 48 minute periods during the week to follow their learning passions based on the Google 80/20 model.  The rise in many innovative practices have resulted by creating this job embedded model for growth.  I love reviewing the learning portfolios my teachers develop each year to showcase how this time was used to improve professional practice.
  • Makerspace added to the library in 2013. I have written extensively about this space, which has transformed learning thanks to the leadership of Laura Fleming. See what CBS New York had to say.
  • Creation of a digital badge platform to acknowledge the informal learning of teachers implemented in 2013 by Laura Fleming.
  • 3D virtual learning implemented in 2013 using Protosphere. See what CBS New York had to say.
  • McREL Teacher Evaluation Tool implemented in 2013.  This required a huge shift from how we have observed and evaluated teachers for a very long time.  Google Forms were utilized to solicit anonymous feedback from staff members about the roll out, process, and value of the new tool.  This feedback was then used by the administrative team to improve the use of the tool.  
I need to stop here, but I think you get the point.  We have transformed the teaching and learning culture at NMHS that begins and ends with a growth mindset.  The time for excuses, talk, opinions, and fear needs to end if our goal is really about improving teaching, learning, and leadership outcomes. Leadership is about action, not position or ideas that just get pushed around. We continue to push ourselves to create a better school.

So what's stopping you?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Getting Creative With Buncee

The following is a guest post by Marie Arturi, the CEO/Founder Buncee and a creative communication evangelist.  Her nephew is one of my teachers at New Milford HS.

Consider for a moment how we, as adults, consume content today. We’re constantly immersed in media. We look for inspiration on Pinterest, use video tutorials, watch live news footage, get statistics from infographics, skim blogs for 'how to' videos, browse social media for trends and articles, and check social photo streams to catch up on our friends’ and family’s latest endeavors. We are learning about our world through these media, and we are drawn to them because of their quality, color, and creativity. It only makes sense, then, that our students are attracted to the same things. As Eric has mentioned before, you can’t teach in black and white, when they’re learning in color.

Buncee was born from a similar desire to create and share engaging, personal, and colorful content. In fact, it was not originally envisioned for educational purposes, but to design personalized and unique thank you cards to share with doctors and scientists from our Foundation! However, it was one educator and one student who initially lit the spark when they encouraged us to bring buncee to the educational community. They felt that the ease of use dovetailed perfectly with teaching requirements they had at school. So over time, we have worked very closely with education experts at all levels to build

Today buncee has matured into an innovative presentational tool that makes it easy to both create engaging content for students and having them enjoy creating content themselves, practices we believe ought to be present in every classroom. It's important to recognize that the teachers, professors, classes, and topics that shape us the most while growing up are the ones that ignite our curiosities. Consuming interesting content, though, is just the start; it’s creating original content that really gets students involved in learning. Although students are drawn to certain subjects over others, sharing interesting videos, adding audio, well-designed infographics, and awe-inspiring photos can greatly increase the likelihood of student engagement. We believe using Buncee for Education and teaching students the same way they learn outside the classroom is how they will become active learners.

We saw first hand how buncee’ing positively affected students during our last Google Hangout demo. The young scholars from Shannon Miller's class went above and beyond active participation and took the initiative to suggest new ideas for product features and animated stickers, like dancing candies! The same thing happened while we were visiting one of our local Long Island schools. Having just finished their digital media stories, students were teeming with ideas for stickers and animations. These young creators inspired us through their boundless energy and enthusiasm, and we honored as many of their requests as we could! It’s moments like these that validate the use of creative tools in the classroom and at home.

Today more than ever it is important that students not only expand their knowledge of the world, but exercise their creative skills. In a society where digital production is prevalent, we believe those students who are actively creating and sharing their thoughts will gain a richer educational experience. We have been honored to have met so many marvelous educators and through them, their students. Whether at schools, over tweets, or at events like SXSWedu and ISTE 2014, what a privilege it has been to share our tool in this way, at this time.