Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Limitations of Being a Disconnected Nomad

It seems like just yesterday that I was a disconnected nomad working hard to maintain the status quo and conform to a rigid system commonly known as education. You see, prior to 2009, I was adamantly opposed to even the thought of using social media for both personal and professional reasons. As a building level leader burdened by endless responsibilities, I could not fathom wasting even a precious minute in what I saw as a perpetual time sap. I swore that I would never be on any social media site and became disgusted when friends and family brought up the topic.  As a result, I chastised my friends and made sure that the environment at my school was not only free of this stupid entity, but also other forms of distracting technologies that would interfere with student learning.  It was a powerful combination of perception and stigma related to social media that convinced me it was a product of the devil that could only bring about harm and misfortune. Thus I was convinced that there was absolutely no value in using social media in my life.

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Being a disconnected nomad limited my ability to lead and learn.  We fear what we don't know or understand.  When this happens we make excuses not to do something and in education, we resort to blocking, banning, or pretending something doesn't exist.  This is how I saw social media and mobile technology back in 2009. The problem is that the majority of educators in 2014 still feel this way.  The epiphany for me was that I saw a professional opportunity on Twitter to improve communications with my stakeholders. From here I began to lurk and learn, which resulted in no longer being a disconnected nomad.  My problem, as I now often reflect back upon how I used to perceive social media, was that I was not educated on how this tool could improve leadership and learning.  

Here is what I now know and believe.  Social media is just a catalyst for a conversation that is contingent upon listening, sharing, and learning. Social media, and technology for that matter, is not and will never transform education. If you are looking to these entities as a silver bullet to solve all the ills in the education world then you are looking at it the wrong way. However, engaging in conversations with passionate educators has the potential to radically transform professional practice. Thus the true silver bullet that will transform education for the better is the connected educators who harness and leverage social media to engage in powerful conversations that lead to changes in practice and the building of priceless relationships. These initial conversations then lead to changes in mindset and a push to action. Yes, this is my opinion, but one grounded in evidence of how moving from disconnected nomad to connected leader and learner has positively impacted my professional practice. 

The formation of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) using free social media tools has enabled me and so many other educators experience the immense benefits that are associated with connected learning.  The ability to learn about anything at any time, anywhere, and with anyone has not only been liberating but continues to be exhilarating to this day. Social media levels the playing field by providing access to educators from across the globe.  It is up to each individual to decide the level of participation in this space. As far as I am concerned any of the quadrants in the image below are where educators should aspire to be in except for the one where there is no connectivity.

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I offer up this walk down history lane as a call to action.  There still are too many disconnected nomads leading schools and teaching our students who have yet to experience the unlimited potential that connectivity offers. I am in no way saying that these people are not good at what they do, but they can be better. What I am stating emphatically though is that they are selling themselves short by succumbing to fears and misconceptions associated with social media. Help those disconnected nomads you know experience the value of social media this school year. Once they experience and embrace the value of this tool to engage in powerful conversations education will be one step closer to providing students with learning experiences they need and deserve. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Become the Storyteller-in-Chief

The new school year has begun for many educators across the country with others soon to follow after Labor Day.  With the new year comes a renewed focus on a variety of initiatives that are aimed at enhancing learning and improving student achievement. Administrators and teachers alike will work to establish a shared vision and subsequent plan of action for meaningful change that will hopefully lead to cultural transformation. Schedules will be finalized, lessons developed, assessments graded, observations completed, meetings attended, and this basic routine in some slightly altered format will continue throughout the year.  During this time of excitement and euphoria comes the eventual focus on mandates and directives ushered in from the state level. This is quite often the most deflating part of the new year as the real reason for education is temporarily masked by a misguided emphasis on elements that do not equate to real learning.   Regardless of a school’s or district’s particular cycle of activities and response to mandates, one thing will remain the same – students, staff, and administrators will experience success.

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In the face of adversity, right off the bat, the seeds for innovation will be planted and students will begin to create amazing artifacts of learning to demonstrate conceptual mastery.  Teachers will develop authentic learning activities that allow students to construct new knowledge while applying diverse skill sets that the global job market demands.  They will also create differentiated assessments in order to provide students with valuable feedback as to the progress being made towards defined learning goals and outcomes. Administrators will conduct countless observations and walk-throughs while spearheading larger change initiatives to improve achievement and school culture.  

Here is the problem though. The mainstream media rarely shares the impactful work in schools that are actually making a difference in the lives of students.  Countless innovative practices that showcase student learning are never covered by the news. Specific achievements of staff and students might at best get a small sound bite in a local newspaper.  As a principal nothing frustrated me more than watching the media latch on to any negative education story and run with it while ignoring so much amazing work taking place in schools each day.  If you do not tell your story someone else will.  More often then not, I would say nine out of ten times, when someone else tells your story it is not the one that you want to be told.  My call to action this school year to all educators is to become the storyteller-in-chief.  

This is not a relatively hard thing to do. Social media allows us to take sole control of our public relations and tell our school stories consistently, accurately, and transparently. Educators are making a difference every day and these success stories resonate with local, national, and even international stakeholders.  Telling stories of student successes and staff accomplishments help to combat and drown out the negative rhetoric that has become rampant in the education profession. It does not have to be a time sap either. So much time and energy get put into traditional newsletters and websites even though the impact is fairly minimal.  Here are some quick ways to harness the power of social media in your respective role to take control of your public relations and become the storyteller-in-chief:

  1. Blogs – By far a blog is your most powerful public relations tool. In my opinion, there is no better medium to share innovative strategies, ideas, and success stories related to learning and accomplishments.  A blog is the 21st Century newsletter that gives that function as a two-way engagement tool with the added benefit of adding multimedia content to make your story really pop. Give Google Blogger of Wordpress a try this year to capture the greatness in your classroom, school, or district.
  2. Pictures – There might be no better way to capture and share student work, facility enhancements, and accomplishments.  Instagram was my go-to tool of choice. During classroom observations, I would regularly snap a photo of a student project.  On other occasions, I would take photos of plaques representing school-wide achievement.  Once a picture was taken I could then easily share it across other major social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook.  This process takes literally seconds.
  3. Video – Creating a YouTube channel for your classroom and/or school allows you to capture your story with more detail.  Tools like Periscope and Ustream allow you to share live events such as concerts, athletic contests, art shows, etc.
  4. Twitter – The microblogging platform allows any educators to share their story in 140 characters or less.  These tweets can be a dynamic combination of text, pictures, videos, and links to websites.  By creating a unique hashtag for your school, a threaded conversation can be shared with stakeholders or easily discovered during a search.  You can also use established hashtags to increase exposure of your stories.
  5. Facebook – This social media tool really become our storytelling hub at New Milford High School.  All of the tools above can be integrated or shared on a Facebook page.  
Educators work extremely hard.  We now have the means and tools to tell the real story of what takes places inside and outside the walls of our schools.  Take the time to integrate at least one new strategy that enhances your public relations by meeting your stakeholders where they are.  By becoming the storyteller-in-chief you will not only build a greater appreciation for your amazing work but also catch the eye of the mainstream media who will then look to you for positive story ideas. Never underestimate the power of your stories.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Our Work Defines Our Legacy

This post is my contribution to Leadership Day 2014.

Legacy is such a deep and meaningful word in my opinion.  The term can best be described as how someone is remembered and the specific contributions he or she made while they were alive.  When I think of legacy, important thought leaders, activists, musicians, and athletes come to mind such as Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, John Dewey, Princess Diana, Joe DiMaggio, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The work and contributions of these individuals speaks for itself and their impact will continue to be felt for generations.  Then there are those people still alive today that are defining their legacy such as Derek Jeter and Madonna.  One’s legacy is not only defined by his or her contributions to society, but also by the perception and opinions of others who might have been impacted by their work. Below is an interesting take on legacy from George Mason University:
For perspective, each of us, through our lives, has encountered a wide variety of people.  We recall one or more teachers, a relative, a parent, a neighbor, a friend, a leader in the community, and others; we have countless encounters with others through our daily lives, as we share space and time together in stores, on our highways and walkways, in nature, at cultural or recreational events, in group discussions, and in virtually all walks of life.  While most of these encounters are brief, some are long-term and some are intense.   Some are more meaningful than others.  Many of these encounters, whether brief or long-term, have resulted in memories.  Further, some of these memories are more positive than others; however, each of the memories results in some impact upon us. Are the memories of these individuals – whether positive or less than positive – what the other person intended?   And, for those who made a lasting impression, this view may be shared by you and others, and can represent their legacy. 
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In education I don't think anyone sets out to establish a legacy. Just like the examples above, it is our work and commitment to making a difference in the life of a child that is our main motivational force.  If there was one profession where individual or group legacy is least prevalent it is education.  Educators are not in the limelight or in a position for their work to get noticed on a grand scale.  This is not to say that our work is not legacy worthy. In fact, I feel that every educator who is able to help a child learn and puts in countless hours to ensure the success of students with varying ability levels has left his or her legacy in that moment.  

As many people know I stepped down as Principal at New Milford High School this past July and my last day will be on September 3. During my tenure I not only worked to improve every facet of the school, but I also became a connected educator in 2009. When my behavior early on shifted from primarily a communicator to learner everything changed for me as a leader.  Initial lurking led to active engagement with people who I had never met.  This was the turning point for me.  My sole purpose for harnessing and leveraging social media was to engage in conversations with like-minded educators and leaders to improve professional practice.  The more I learned in digital spaces the more I began to take risks to improve the culture at NMHS.  My Personal Learning Network (PLN) became, and still is, my most valued professional resource.  It was here and from thousands of amazing educators that I received the knowledge, resources, ideas, strategies, feedback, and support I needed to initiate sustainable change over the past five years.  Never once did I think about whether or not I was creating a legacy.  To be honest this thought never crossed my mind and I still have trouble wrapping my head around it.  

Over the past few years my work has been aligned to digital leadership and has ultimately defined me as an educator, leader, and person.  My objective has been to improve communications, upgrade public relations, establish a brand presence, grow professionally like never before, enhance student learning, redefine learning spaces and environments, and discover opportunities for my school with the assistance of digital tools.  It wasn’t really until this past week that I truly realized how this work has impacted other educators with whom I am connected.  The posts by Laura Fleming, Spike Cook, and Jared Wastler all brought me to the verge of tears. Each spoke directly or indirectly to my legacy as they saw it. There really is no greater praise one can receive than those from peers who are doing the great work themselves.

As much as I appreciate the positive feedback from my colleagues, I do not feel that I deserve it.  My motivation and drive over the years has been my students and staff.  I just wanted to create a school that not only achieved, but one that the community and we could be proud of.  In the end I believe we have achieved that.  We decided to go down the path less traveled years ago in search of a better way.  This new direction embraced a shared vision where digital tools played a vital role in our transformation efforts.  If there is a lasting legacy resulting from my time as principal in New Milford High School and beyond, it is only because of the work, determination, and commitment to create a school that works for kids and better myself professionally. One does not go out and intentionally create a legacy. Others who see value and impact in our work define it over time. Be the change you wish to see in education, focus on solutions as opposed to excuses, take action, and follow your gut. In the age of social media all connected educators and the actions they take will ultimately carve out their legacy. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Amazing Students Do Amazing Things

Earlier this year I shared the amazing work of New Milford High School student Sarah Almeda in a post titled Students Yearn For Creativity, Not Tests. Wherever I now speak across the country and soon the world I share the incredible project Sarah created.  Her passion for the arts and creativity serve as an catalyst for her learning. She has capitalized on the concept of student voice, taken ownership of her learning, and become an inspiration for me and countless other educators and students across the world.  I am always in awe of the art that she creates using a variety of mediums to demonstrate conceptual mastery.  It is these artifacts after all that truly measure the construction of new knowledge as well as both skill attainment and application.

So what does an amazing student like Sarah do over the summer?  She creates amazing art as a means to continually demonstrate her passions while learning new skills and techniques in the process.  Above is a picture of her entry into the 2014 Cover Contest held by Creative Outlook, a free magazine distributed to high school teachers and students immersed in art and music. She used her self-taught knowledge of Photoshop, bitmap generation, image distortion, photo-manipulation, digital painting, graphics tablet, and an iPhone to make it. I’m trying to share her entry with as many people as possible as only the top 10 entries that get the most votes will enter the final stage of judging. 

As Sarah took the time over the summer to share her work with me I have made the decision to reach out to my network to see if you can lend her a hand to get to the judging stage. I hope you’ll vote HERE for Sarah and consider sharing her amazing work! Regardless of how the contest turns out Sarah's desire to follow her passions and push her learning boundaries make her a winner in my book.  Her true reward has been the construction of new knowledge and the acquisition of new schools that will aid her as she pursues a future career in game design. She consciously makes the decision to learn over the summer, which is why she is an amazing student. I can't wait to see what work she shares with me once the school year starts.  

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Reinventing Writing by @Coolcatteacher

"You can't just drop new innovations into a classroom and hope that the instructor will invent effective ways to use them. To fully utilize a new teaching technology you often need to invent new teaching practices as well." - John Seely Brown
I absolutely love this quote that Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher) uses in the opening chapter of her new book titled Reinventing Writing. I have seen all too often technology just get dumped on teachers and schools with no rhyme or reason.  This often produces a disastrous effect as the pedagogy does not support the use of the technology tool in arriving to or assessing learning outcomes.  Educators today are pressured to integrate technology as society becomes more digitized.  With schools becoming more and more connected and spending countless sums of money to provide adequate amounts of technology educators are becoming increasingly overwhelmed. The missing link is guidance on how these tools can be used effectively and appropriately to allow students to create artifacts of learning to demonstrate conceptual mastery.  Educators want to desperately see and know how technology compliments and/or enhances the work they are already doing.

Vicki Davis has created a resource that identifies how traditional writing can be taken to the next level with cloud-based tools.  Students today are using technology to write outside of school, but more often than not they are not using them correctly or appropriately.  Reinventing Writing sheds light on practical ways for teachers to integrate a wide array of tools, Common Core alignment, and tips to avoid pitfalls. The book is broken down into three main parts. In chapter 1 Vicki identifies compelling reasons how new age tools improve student writing by identifying five specific benefits.  Chapter 2 focuses on the elements associated with picking the right tool to complete a specific writing task.  I loved the fact that Vicki created 20 essential questions for teachers to use in order to identify the perfect tool to complete a specific writing task.  This alone takes away a great deal of anxiety often associated with technology use as there are so many tools readily available to teachers, many of which are free. There are often many fears and misconceptions associated with technology, especially cloud-based tools.  Well Vicki has that covered as well in chapter 2 as she addresses CIPA, FERPA, and HIPAA. This is all just part 1!

In part 2 of the book Vicki breaks down 9 types of tools, each with their own dedicated chapter.  There are so many tips and practical ideas embedded in each chapter that can assist any educator regardless of his or her proficiency level using technology.  I know teachers will appreciate the "Ways to Use" table that is found in each chapter where Vicki has provided no less than 20 different ways to use the specified tool to improve writing.  Here is the chapter breakdown:

  • 3 - Reinventing Paper: ePaper and eBooks
  • 4 - Reinventing Notetaking: Digital Notebooks
  • 5 - Reinventing Notecards: Social Bookmarking
  • 6 - Reinventing the Filing Cabinet and Inbox: Cloud Syncing
  • 7 - Reinventing Word Processors: Cloud Writing Apps
  • 8 - Reinventing Journals and Reports: Blogging and Microblogging
  • 9 - Reinventing Group Reports: Wikis and Website Builders
  • 10 - Reinventing Prewriting: Graphic ORganizers, Mind Mapping, and More
  • 11 - Reinventing Illustrations: Infographics and Graphics that Add Meaning

The third and final part of the book focuses on practical ways to implement the tools in the classroom.  Here Vicki emphasizes the key elements to promote and enhance digital citizenship among learners.  This is extremely important as working with online tools that focus on writing provides some new challenges for teachers and students alike.  She then goes on to discuss how to set up writing communities that truly foster collaboration.  The book concludes with a grounding in setting realistic goals in order to consistently push the innovative envelope when it comes to writing.  All in all this is a must have resource for teachers at all grade levels.  If you are a building-level leader do yourself a favor an purchase a copy for your school.