Monday, July 28, 2014

Schools That Work For Kids

My son, Nicholas, is your typical child growing up in the 21st Century.  He loves to play outside, swim in the pool, golf in the NYC Junior Golf League, have friends over, and feast on McDonald’s.  Then there is the technology aspect of his life, which is a very big part.  Who am I to deprive him access to an array of engaging tools that his generation is growing up with? It would be hard to, even if I tried, as the Sheninger household has 30 connected devices in it. He has his devices, which include access to an iTouch, laptop, Nintendo 3DS, Xbox Kinect, and Wii U.  Just like his daddy, my son loves his technology.  Even though he plays a variety of games with his friends by far his most favorite is Minecraft.  

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On a typical Saturday morning for example, you would think that there is a play date going on in our playroom where the Xbox is. You literally hear at times five different little voices.  Once you enter the room though you see only my son who has connected with his friends in numerous states through the Xbox.  Not only are they all engaged, but also they are collaborating, communicating, solving problems, strategizing, and thinking critically to create their own unique world.  What I just described in the last sentence is commonly referred to as 21st Century Skills (we have called them essential skills at my school for the past three years). However, I believe that these skills are paramount to success in the 21st Century and beyond.  My son and children around the world need these skills as well as experiential learning opportunities that allow them to follow their passions while unleashing their innate desire to be creative.  

Some of the best learning and bonding conversations I have with my son are when he explains his rationale and thinking that have gone into creating various Minecraft worlds.  His learning is evident as he meticulously explains the structure and function of the different worlds he has created.  One of the best designs I ever saw was a McDonalds that he created.  It had the golden arches as well as the color red associated with the company’s brand. Now you couldn’t order a Big Mac or Happy Meal, but he had it designed in a way that you could grab a turkey to satisfy your hunger.  As a parent and educator, seeing his creations, discovering his methodology, and basking in his enthusiasm never gets old.  In my opinion, this is learning at its finest, driven by authentic engagement, passion, and creativity. 

Here is the major problem though.  The structure and function of the majority of schools in this country is the exact opposite of the world that our learners are growing up in.  There is an automatic disconnect when students like my son, regardless of their grade level, walk into schools due to the lack of engagement, relevancy, meaning, and authentic learning opportunities.  Our education system has become so efficient in sustaining a century old model because it is easy and safe.  The resulting conformity has resulted in a learning epidemic among our students as they see so little value in the cookie-cutter learning exercises they are forced to go through each day.  The bottom line is that they are bored.  It is time that we create schools that work for our students as opposed to ones that have traditionally worked well for the adults.

Creating schools that work for students requires a bold vision for change that not only tackles the status quo inherent in the industrialized model of education, but also current education reform efforts.  Even though Common Core is not a curriculum, many schools and districts have become so engrossed with alignment and preparing for the new aligned tests that real learning has fallen by the wayside.  In New York Common Core, scripts for lessons have become the standard.  We need to realize that this, along with other traditional elements associated with education, no longer prevail.  How we go about doing this will vary from school to school, but the process begins with the simple notion of putting students first to allow them to follow their passions, create, tinker, invent, play, and collaborate.  Schools that work for students focus less on control and more on trust.  Most importantly, they are places where kids actually look forward to coming.  The time for excuses is over and taking action is the only logical choice if we are committed to real change. Do your students enjoy coming to your school? If not, how will you change that?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Roadmap to a Job-Embedded Growth Model

I remember a few years back, during a meeting with teacher leaders, a tipping point that would ultimately change the direction of professional growth at my school. During this conversation, I was passionately sharing my experiences as a connected learner.  As social media embracement was not even a blip on the radar at this time, these teacher leaders were quite skeptical about the alleged benefits I described.  Undeterred, I continued to talk about the concept of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) and what it had done for my professional growth. I shared how its simplistic nature, built on conversations with educators all over the world, led to new knowledge development, resource acquisition, exposure to innovative ideas and strategies, support, feedback, friendships, and spirited discussion.  Best of all, at least in my mind, was the newfound ability to learn anytime, from anywhere, with anyone in the world for free.  Little did I know that this conversation set the stage for one of the most significant learning shifts we ever experienced at my school.

Once I got off my soapbox to catch a breath, one of my teachers said that this concept was great but questioned the amount of time that teachers had, in general, to engage in meaningful learning.  With all the many state mandates and district-directed professional development, as well as time after school devoted to grading and lesson planning, in her mind and many others, time was not readily available. Who was I to disagree, as her words were stark fact.  In concert, my teacher leaders said it would be great if we could have a job-embedded growth model as many organizations have in the real world.  Well, this is just fine and dandy in theory but much more difficult in practice.  

I wanted to try really hard to at least attempt to find a way to implement a consistent pathway to learning during the school day, as my teachers had requested.  Then it came to me, much to the chagrin of my Assistant Principal.  My inspiration came in the form of the Google 80/20 Innovation Model. The premise of this for a long time was that Google employees had to spend 80% of their time on their actual job duties, while the other 20% could be spent working on anything they were passionate about as long as it improved Google’s bottom line. When reflecting on this, the light bulb went on and I seized on an area of opportunity embedded in the eight-period day schedule.  In the end, we created our own Google 80/20 model at my school even though Google axed the program last year.

By contract, all teachers had to teach five periods. In addition, they each had a lunch, prep, and duty period, all 48 minutes in length.  It was at this time that I saw an area of opportunity in the form of non-instructional duties (cafeteria, hall, in-school suspension). Every teacher had one non-instructional duty period a day in their schedule.  By cutting the non-instructional duties in half, I was able to free up each of my teachers two to three periods a week, allowing them to engage in activities related to professional growth.  This was the birth of the Professional Growth Period (PGP).  In order to free up our teachers, my Administrative team and I assumed the duties that were cut to pick up the slack.  Now you see why my Assistant Principal was not happy with me at first.  Once we got rolling, though, we realized that our improving school culture did not warrant so much attention and supervision of duties, which eventually made it much easier for all of us.

PGP time for the past two years has been dedicated to my staff to become better educators and learners.  Depending on the semester, all teachers now have 2-3 duty periods off per week to engage in professional learning opportunities.  They have been encouraged to find their passion and work to define their purpose.  This time is spent learning, innovating, and pursuing ways to become a master educator.  Think of it as a differentiated learning opportunity that caters to each of my staff member’s specific needs and interests.  Sample activities include:

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

This is the time that they desperately wanted and needed to improve their craft, build on innovative thoughts and ideas they always wanted to pursue and acquire new knowledge. It was stressed that this time was not to be used to make copies, leave the building to get coffee/food or socialize in the faculty room.  It becomes all about learning.  The expectation was and has been, that each staff member submits a learning portfolio at the end-of-year evaluation conference that demonstrates how PGP time was used to improve his/her professional practice.  The portfolio can be created in any way that fits the creative nature of the staff member, but should clearly identify what was done to:

  • improve instruction
  • effectively integrate technology
  • engage students
  • address the Common Core Standards
  • increase student achievement  

The PGP Learning portfolio has been presented at the end-of-year evaluation conference for the past two years and is one of the major artifacts used in the McREL observation/evaluation tool.  It can be created in any way that my teachers see fit, but it must clearly articulate what they learned and how this knowledge and/or skills were integrated into professional practice to improve student learning.  Adding more depth to the PGP process and portfolio has been the digital badge platform created by media specialist Laura Fleming to acknowledge the informal learning of our teachers.  The end result has been a proliferation of innovative practices as teachers have been empowered to take ownership of their learning through autonomy.  Removing the time excuse didn't hurt either.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014


I was recently notified by William Jenkins that EdShelf announced it will be ceasing trading at the end of this month. However, as this has been a popular resource with users a teacher called Alicia Leonard has launched a #SaveEdShelf campaign. This is a model that I have been trying to establish in the UK and progress has also been slow. Therefore, I wanted to show my support for Alicia’s campaign and published this post “Don’t Leave EdTech Startups Sitting on the EdShelf”.  Edshelf's mission is to make a positive impact in the world by making education more efficient and effective. They strive to enable educators to do what they do best, teach and inspire.  Edshelf is a directory of websites, mobile apps, and desktop programs that are rated and reviewed by parents and educators, for parents and educators. They help us find the right educational tools for our specific needs.

It is my hope that this post will empower you to take a moment to log onto EdShelf and review some products to see if an increase in traffic might generate some investor inquiries for this start-up. Please feel free to share details of this campaign with any other education contacts you may have in your network. I hope that you have found this update useful and will be able to take a few moments to review any EdTech products that you use and pass details of #SaveEdShelf on to others.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The End is Only the Beginning

This is one of those difficult posts where I honestly am having trouble articulating my thoughts. It is bittersweet, as the time has come for me to make a decision on my future.  Today is the day that I formally announce my decision to step down as New Milford High School Principal, a decision that has been most difficult to make. My last day will be September 3.  The decision making process has been excruciatingly painful as the entire New Milford Community means more to me than many will ever know.  

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Almost ten years ago, I was presented with an opportunity to begin my educational leadership career at NMHS. (Thank goodness my wife made me apply for this job.) At age 29, I was hungry and eager to begin down a path of becoming an administrator and following in the footsteps of my father.  Little did I know that these ten years would profoundly shape me as a leader, educator, and person.  After weathering a storm of central office instability, I moved up the ranks from athletic director, vice principal, and finally high school principal, a position I have held for the past seven years.  These past ten years have been an amazing inspirational journey where I have seen firsthand what is possible in education.

New Milford High School has been my second home, which on some days could even be considered my primary place of residence.  From the minute I saw the massive pillars and entered into the hallowed halls, I knew this was a special place.  Once becoming principal, I honestly thought I would retire at a nice age of 60 or more. The community welcomed me with open arms and I inherited a staff eager to grow and learn.  I can’t say enough great things about my staff, past and present.  Each and every one of them has played a huge role in transforming the learning culture at NMHS.  They make me look good every day and push me constantly to be a better leader and learner.  Watching some of the teachers I have hired grow and mature into exceptional educators has been extremely gratifying.  My staff, along with the students, are the true catalysts of change at NMHS. For it is they who made the choice to go down the road less traveled five years ago when we began transforming our learning culture. 

Then there is my administrative team at the high school.  Jerry, Joe, and Mary have been with me in some sort of capacity since the beginning in 2004.  I could not do what I do, nor have experienced success, without the three of them. Their support, honesty, feedback, and willingness to take constructive feedback allowed us to gel into a cohesive unit.  We haven’t had a formal, scripted meeting in years as we are always communicating and collaborating throughout the day.  The level of trust and confidence we have had in one another allowed each of us to focus on our respective duties. By valuing each other’s time and working as a team in the purest sense we were able to move a growth oriented agenda forward on all fronts.  

Last, but definitely not least are the students.  I always brag at home and on the road how amazing the students at NMHS are.  They continuously inspire me with their creative thought, honesty, and desire to make the most out of their high school experience.  Over the years they have been given more ownership over all aspects of their education experience and have taken advantage of it by helping us to redefine teaching and learning for a new age.  After all, it was my students who ultimately shed light on my early failures as a leader and gave me the kick in the butt that I needed to give up certain amounts of control and learn to trust them.  We all go into education to positively impact the life of a child. All I can say is that the students of NMHS have positively impacted me each and every day during my tenure. They have pushed me to become a leader that tried his best to create a school that worked for them as opposed to one that always worked well for the adults. Without my students I would not be where I am today.

Based on the incredible environment I have described above many people are probably confused as to why I would leave.  The work we have done at NMHS has been embraced in ways that I could never have imagined.  My passion now is to assist more schools and educators in initiating and sustaining the types of changes leading to cultural transformation that we have implemented at NMHS.  This is why I will be joining Scholastic at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) and with Scholastic Achievement Partners (SAP) as a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership.  You can check out the official ICLE press release by clicking HERE.  Our main goal will be to create and provide a practitioner-driven professional learning solution that encapsulates the innovative learning pathways that many connected educators embrace.  There is a dire need to support educators in the areas of digital leadership and learning while exposing them to non-traditional learning pathways.  I don’t see any better way than building a solution with a foundation of practitioners who are leading and teaching this way in schools. 

In order to stay relevant myself, part of my new responsibilities will be maintaining a residency in schools, mostly in the Northeast (as of October 2014 I am now also the K-12 Director of Technology and Innovation for the Spotswood School District in NJ). While leaving New Milford is extremely painful I cannot wait to get into other local schools to help them improve their communications, bring attention to their innovative programs through enhanced public relations, promote connected learning/leadership, and work to initiate sustainable change. Other major responsibilities with my new position will be a continued focus on writing books, blogging, connecting with educators, conducting workshops/presentations, and delivering keynotes.

The bottom line with my decision comes down to impact. I want all districts, schools, and educators across the globe to experience what we have created and sustained at New Milford HS. I also want to be able to share the stories of the amazing practitioners who are doing the real, impactful work to authentically improve education.  It is my hope that this new beginning can help more leaders, educators, and schools transform education in a way that provides all students with the skills to succeed in a digital world.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Raising the Bar on Learning

In my opinion inquiry-based learning is one of the best pedagogical techniques available to teachers.  When activities are developed appropriately students are afforded the opportunity to construct new knowledge through exploration, problem solving, developing then answering their own questions, application, and trial & error. This technique typically makes students uncomfortable at first as they have become so conditioned by our traditional culture of education where they would rather be spoon-fed information instead of having to think. Not only do students fight this technique at first, but so do parents.  This stems from the fact that many parents want their children taught the same way they were.  I have engaged in numerous conversations over the past two years with parents explaining how the inquiry-based process for learning will much better prepare their children for success in the future. It is a conversation that I relish as the students themselves ultimately discover the value of this type of learning over traditional pedagogical techniques that are mostly passive in nature and do not require critical thought. 

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New Milford High School teacher Mrs. Chowdury has evolved into a master teacher in this approach and here is why. Physics is often thought to be a fun subject where students get to perform exciting experiments. Mrs. Chowdhury has a teaching philosophy that her students cannot engage in fun activities simply for the sake of having fun, but the activities have to trail or follow difficult calculations. When Mrs. Chowdhury’s students found out that she had some Nerf guns in the classroom, they wanted to play with them. So she created an assignment that involved Nerf guns where students had to apply their understanding of energy concepts to figure out the velocity of the bullet as it was leaving the gun. 

She gave the students a meter stick, a protractor with a string attached from the center, and a Nerf gun with one bullet. The students’ task was to design how they wanted to set up and use the materials to be able to calculate the starting velocity of the bullet. The students chose to use the protractor to figure out how high the bullet went and from there use energy concepts to calculate the velocity. When it comes to learning there should never be an easy way out. Making the process fun and engaging while invoking problem solving and critical thinking skills epitomizes the type of learning our students need and deserve. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Excuses Hold Us Back

When was the last time you came up with an excuse to get out of doing something that you did not want to do? Chances are it was today or sometime in the not so distant past. Excuses are just a part of human existence. Many times they are just lighthearted attempts to get out of work around the house, cooking, going to the mall, attending a wedding of a friend who you have not seen in years, or walking the dog. My kids consistently come up with an array of innovative excuses for why they should not go to school each day.  In all of these examples, the excuse will not cause any type of monumental disaster. We even use them when there is actually no hope of getting out of the activity for which the excuse was derived.

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As I was doing some research recently for a presentation, I came across a fantastic slide that really put into perspective the concept of excuses.  “If something is important to us we will find a way.  If not, then we’ll find an excuse.”  On a professional level excuses can, and often do, have dramatic negative impacts when it comes to change on many levels. If education is good for one thing, it is for making excuses not to move forward. Schools continue to move along just as they did over a hundred years ago. The feeling is that our system of education has worked so well during this time why change now.  In this example the common excuse that many educators use not to change is that student achievement, defined by standardized test scores, has remained high so if it isn’t broke why fix it.  When it comes to technology, excuses are as abundant as traffic in New York City during rush hour. Regardless of the scenario, here are the most common excuses that I have either used myself or experienced during my years as a practitioner:

  • I don't have time.
  • This will cost too much money.
  • It is just another thing that I have to do.
  • It has worked well for so long so why change now.
  • Student safety and security will be compromised.
  • Students will cheat and be off task so I am not allowing them to use devices.
  • We can’t implement this due to the Common Core and an array of state mandates.

Excuses are fueled by elements such as fear of change, a desire to protect the status quo, lack of education/knowledge, top-down leadership, micromanagement, and the unwillingness to take risks. By no means is this list comprehensive, but it does provide a fairly solid foundation for why excuses dominate the education profession. Sustainable changes leading to cultural transformation in schools can and will only happen when one moves from a fixed to a growth mindset. It is imperative in our respective positions that we create a shared vision that focuses on solutions to problems as opposed to taking the path of least resistance exemplified by the excuse.  

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The best way to accomplish this is to help others see the value in new initiatives and ways of thinking.  Provide a clear rationale for change tied to research and examples from other schools where these initiatives have been successfully implemented. Ensure that support structures are in place such as professional development, autonomy, availability of resources, and the establishment of a feedback loop. This will set the stage for empowering others to embrace the change while discovering the value of it all themselves.  Most importantly model the expectations that you wish to see implemented and take action.