Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Story of Greatguy7

As I work to constantly improve my keynote on Digital Leadership, I am always looking for ideas to strengthen the reasons why leaders need to change while updating the specific ways to illustrate how it can be done.  For me, I strive to convey the urgency for schools, leaders, and educators to change so that students do not experience a total disconnect when entering a building that is supposedly going to educate them for success in a digital world.  This has become a daunting task, as schools seem to have become more entrenched in sustaining and conforming to an educational system that has long past its effectiveness.  The old way of doing things because it was efficient and easy can no longer be acceptable. If it is, I can say with the utmost certainty that students in those schools are getting ripped off.

The radical changes that the world is experiencing due to advances in technology are shaping our learners in ways that we could never have imagined a few years ago. Our learners, especially the littlest ones, are wired differently. They are growing up in a world where access to an array of technologies has been available since birth.  As technology has evolved so has their use of it over time.  The result in many cases has been the evolution of more self-directed, authentic learning experiences that are taking place well outside the school day. Through many interactive games such as Minecraft, our young learners are collaborating, communicating, solving problems, thinking critically, and exhibiting creativity in an array of informal, fun experiences that are definitely impacting learning.  As a result, leaders and educators need to build a bridge to bring this enthusiasm for learning into classrooms while embedding it permanently into school culture.

So back to my story. In my search to find relevant examples of learners today and the amazing things, they could do with technology I stumbled upon this eight-year-old boy known as Greatguy7.  I shouldn't even use the word stumbled as someone I know told me that I really had to check out this kid's YouTube channel. When I did I discovered that this boy had well over 40 tutorial videos related to Minecraft.  Each short video was created to educate others on the specifics of the game.  There was one video however that really caught my attention focusing on how to create videos on an iPad/iPhone and upload them to YouTube.  Thus I found the perfect example to insert into my keynote. What really interested me about this video was that during filming Greatguy7 experienced a problem and instead of creating a whole new video he quickly solved it and pushed through. To me, this is learning at its finest.

Well, for those who don't know Greatguy7 turned out to be my son, Nicholas Sheninger. I found out in June that he had his own YouTube channel with 30 tutorial videos. The real kicker here is that not only did I have no idea about this, but I had never helped him get on YouTube or create videos for that matter. This is why I love games like Minecraft and the resulting outcomes aligned to essential skill sets.  I always observed my son not only playing Minecraft but also watching tutorial videos from world-renowned players (in his eyes at least).  These videos obviously helped him acquire the skills he needed to help him and his friends create their worlds in Minecraft. What happened later amazed me as a father and educator as I only came to realize this after discovering his YouTube Channel.  As I watched his videos I saw how a simple game combined with people across the world openly sharing their knowledge about it inspired my son to take the initiative himself to teach others. As a self-directed learner, he commandeered my wife's iPad and proceeded to create video after video in our bedroom, as he now wanted to share his knowledge with others. He went from gamer/learner to teacher all on his own. 

Here is where the story really comes full circle while clearly illustrating the unlimited potential students have today if we create schools that work for them. I was giving a keynote at Tech Forum NY where I showed the video of Greatguy7 and then later informed that crowd that he was my son. At lunch a few hours later a teacher from upstate NY came up to me and said that he had seen that video before and even bragged about this fact with others at his table during my keynote. What he said next totally floored me.  He told me how he recently got a new iPhone and had no idea how to use it.  One of the things he wanted to do was create and share videos. So he did what any person with common sense would do these days and went to find a tutorial on YouTube. His search turned up Greatguy7's how to make videos tutorial.  The end result, in his words, was that my son taught a veteran teacher with over 30 years of experience how to make and share videos. I could not have been more proud.

Last night I was able to share this story with Nicholas and the rest of my family. To see the excitement on his face was priceless.  He even proudly proclaimed that he had just received his tenth YouTube channel subscriber and maybe it was this teacher who he impacted. There are so many positive takeaways from this story that connects to deeper learning.  For me though the most important lesson here is that my son loves to learn and will push himself to solve problems when the context is relevant and meaningful. Our education system has to realize that schools are now filled with Greatguy7's who just want their learning experiences to connect with the world in which they live.  If schools keep doing what they have always done they lose the opportunity to take advantage of an innate desire to learn (and teach) that all of our students possess deep down.  It is time to get our heads out of the sand, look at the world outside of our schools, and take action to create a culture that leverages these informal learning experiences happening outside the traditional school day before it is too late.

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.

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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 government 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 to 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 on Common Core, PARCC/Smarter Balanced, teacher evaluation tools, and other topics imposed by outside pressures, or take a different path that will truly make a difference. To begin the process of correcting this pervasive issue lets 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 to 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 own new role at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE)− developing valuable digital leadership learning experiences in response to requests from leaders across the country. ICLE and Scholastic Achievement Partners break the mold of traditional PD. Instead of traditional, sit-and-get trainings, ICLE provides 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.

At ICLE we are proud to launch the Principal Academy this February in Nashville, TN. There will be a specific strand dedicated to Digital Leadership, facilitated with the support of renowned practitioner Jimmy Casas.  Others might talk about the need or even provide solutions focusing on digital leadership and learning in schools, but Jimmy and I, as well as our expanding team, have successfully implemented these strategies in schools.  We plan to guide any and all leaders (superintendents, assistant superintendents, curriculum directors, principals, assistant principals, supervisors, and teacher leaders) through an interactive deep dive into the Pillars of Digital Leadership. Attendees will learn about what constitutes good leadership and how digital tools can be used to complement the work you are already doing. We will discuss how to evaluate technology initiatives to ensure that they are supporting and enhancing learning. Everyone will leave with a practical toolkit of ideas, strategies, and tools that you can implement immediately to radically transform professional practice. You will develop a plan for action, so that you can be the change that schools and students need now more than ever. The time for fluff and theory is over. Instead, we will explore practical strategies that have been tested by leaders of diverse schools across the country.

Our overall goal is to provide the best support for leaders and aspiring leaders in schools today. The event will include informal learning experiences during which attendees can interact with Jimmy and me and learn at an even deeper level. The bottom line for us is that you will see the value in the methodologies presented and understand how they can help you improve student learning and achievement, communication, public relations, and professional learning. The practices addressed in the Digital Leadership strand will help you improve learning environments/spaces, discover new opportunities, and create a positive brand presence for your school. 

We are excited to invite you to join us in Nashville this February. Not only do we hope readers of this blog will attend, but we also hope you will share this post with colleagues who would benefit from a digital leadership learning experience. 

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.