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.