Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Philosophy Behind Maker Success

For many students, school has become an irritating experience grounded in boring lessons and learning activities. A national focus on standardized testing and accountability has only made the experience worse for kids who only crave relevance, meaning, and value out of the hours of time spent in classrooms each school year.  To make matters worse, many states, districts, and schools made knee-jerk reactions when the budget ax came down a few years and cut traditional hands-on courses such as wood shop, agriculture, metal shop, and cooking. In many cases, elementary schools have even taken the fun out of school for kids by cutting recess.  

These courses represented a lifeline and a glimmer of hope in what has become a day fraught with relentless preparation for college and careers.  However, the powers that be found that they consumed precious time from the school day that could have been spent on more important curricular endeavors.  In the end, students, especially those most at-risk based on learning needs, have immensely suffered.  They desperately need an outlet during the long school day.  If not, their motivation to learn in all their other classes will wane, resulting in either a lack of effort or desire to even attend school.  The bottom line is that many schools have deprived students of real-world learning experiences that are needed now more than ever. 

This might seem like a bleak scenario that I describe above and it should.  Our students deserve activities that will not only prepare them for vital trade careers but also allow them to openly explore the solving of problems that are relevant to them. During my tenure as New Milford High School Principal, our district cut wood and metal shop.  Over the years, I have also seen recess time dwindle for my own kids and others who attend the New York City Public School System.  All hope is not lost, though, for any school looking to create a better learning environment that works for kids.  The solution for all schools comes in the form of makerspaces

A few years back, I heard of the concept when I was a principal.  When I hired Laura Fleming in 2013 to take over the traditional library, she was tasked with giving it a reboot and was given complete autonomy to do so. Her vision and subsequent plan resulted in a collaborative learning space open to all students where they could come to tinker, invent, create, and make to learn.  It was like having a 21st Century version of wood and metal shop back in school, with the main difference being the infusing of technologies for students to engage in informal, self-directed learning tasks.  Her Worlds of Making theme gave hope back to kids that had lost and needed it most. Don't just take my word for it. Read about what the makerspace did for Chris HERE.

There is a great deal of content out there about maker education. In addition to Laura’s website and book, I highly recommend you check out the work of Jackie Gerstein. Laura also collaborated with Steven and Debby Kurti from Tabletop Inventing to publish a series of articles featured in Teacher Librarian magazine that not only discuss the philosophy of makerspaces, but also provide practical implementation tips. Below are the three articles:

Schools today have a golden opportunity in makerspaces to increase relevancy while providing powerful ways for students to engage in self-directed learning. When embarking on this initiative, don't discount the importance of leadership during the planning, implementation, and evaluation process.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The BrandED Difference

When I first dipped my toe into the social media waters in March 2009 I really did not know what to expect. My sole purpose for embarking into this uncharted territory was to improve my professional practice by becoming a better communicator.  This was a natural connection to my work as a high school principal as you will not find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.  So there I was churning out tweets about everything going on at New Milford High School. Little did I know that my tweeting would lead to a feature story on CBS Channel 2 NYC during November 2009 and in the process catch the eye of business maven Trish Rubin.  It was at this point in time that I was exposed to the concept of branding in education.

Now when Trish contacted me out of the blue I was really caught off guard. She passionately explained that what I was doing was creating a brand presence for my school as well as me professionally.  At first, I wasn’t buying it, but after some more time speaking with Trish and analyzing how I was strategically using social media in my role as a school leader it began to make perfect sense.  On the surface, I always thought a brand in a traditional sense was a term specific to the corporate world and revolved around selling.  I later learned that a brand promises value through the evolution of a unique identifier that relates to a specific audience or stakeholder group. Value can be defined in many ways. Some brands promise durability, health, style, safety, taste, convenience, or savings. Brands are designed to stand out and ultimately influence the consumer in a fashion that builds trust in the product. Sustaining a sense of trust is an integral component of a brand’s ability to promise value. 

The definition above provided clarity, but it was still missing some integral components in order to make the concepts of branding more applicable to the education world.  Trish recently provided a fantastic synopsis:
"BrandED tenets are about trust, loyalty, promise, and creating better offerings and innovations that distinguish the educational brand experience for every user including kids, parents, teachers and community.  A brand isn't a short-term fix or a fad, but a way to strategically build a school's assets in a transparent digital world. No more Ivory Towers.  BrandED is about a genuine personality that can impact school culture, achievement and resources."
The statement above clearly identifies the importance and power of establishing a positive brand presence in education.  In the field of education, schools are considered a brand. They promise value to residents of the district in terms of academic preparation to succeed in society. Many families will choose to reside in a specific district if the schools have a track record of academic success. Specific variables that are ultimately embedded in an educational institution’s brand are state test scores, curriculum, teacher/administrator quality, number of AP courses, college acceptances, and extracurricular activities. By establishing a school’s identity or brand, leaders and other stakeholders can develop a strategic awareness of how to continually improve pedagogical and management practices that promise, as well as deliver, a quality education to all students. More detail on this is provided in Chapter 7 of Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times discusses this in detail

As a high school principal, I felt that it was my responsibility to continually develop and enhance my school’s brand through innovation, risk-taking, the building of relationships (students, teachers, parents, community stakeholders, institutions of higher education, businesses/corporations, etc.) and a commitment to the community. In my opinion, this vision can assist all educators in establishing a brand for their respective schools that not only promises but also delivers value to residents of the district.

By developing and enhancing one’s school and professional brand we move past a developed perception of our admirable work by providing a necessary reality for all stakeholders to embrace and celebrate.  Thus, a brand in education has nothing to do with selling, but showcasing work of students, staff, and leaders in an effort to become more transparent.  Digital leaders understand the importance of branding in their work and by leaders I mean any and all educators who take action to improve learning opportunities for their students and themselves.  A positive brand presence is developed with consistent attention to the following Pillars of Digital Leadership:

  • Communications – We must begin to meet stakeholders where they are at by employing a multifaceted approach to engage them in two-way communications. Digital and non-digital strategies are used to not only communicate important information but also become more transparent.
  • Public Relations – If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. When you roll the dice and take this gamble it typically results in a negative story being told.  In education, we do not brag enough and as a result, we pay the price dearly.  By becoming the storyteller-in-chief you can turn this tide and take control of public relations for good.  There is so much power in stories and we must do a better job of sharing them. 

When it is all said and done, the most important and crucial outcome of a brand presence in education is the building of powerful relationships with all stakeholders in ways that were not possible before social media. The end result will be a greater appreciation for the work you and your students are doing in your district, school, and classroom. Let your amazing work and that of your students turn perception into reality by developing a BrandED mindset.  

To learn more get your hands on a copy of BrandED on Amazon today! 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Excellence Should Not Be Isolated

Through social media many of us regularly share examples of excellence in classrooms, schools, and districts across the world. Twitter and other tools provide me for one with a daily and continuous dose of inspiration. In many cases students have been empowered to take ownership of their learning by being allowed to pick the right technology tool for the right task in order to showcase what they have learned.  Conceptual mastery is now being demonstrated through the creation of artifacts that align to more rigorous standards and the attainment of essential skill sets.  In these cases learning has become more meaningful and relevant for students, which in turn sets the stage for increasing achievement.  

The amplification of these stories through the use of social media would make the unknown observer think that this is common place, but in reality it is the exception. Once one moves beyond the lens of social media, innovative practices, especially those involving the purposeful integration of technology, are mere isolated examples of excellence.  When it comes to technology integration in schools transformation has been painstakingly slow.  It can no longer be acceptable to pat a select few on the back while others either are unwilling or not pushed to change. This does not best serve the whole child or every child for that matter. We must not only make a habit of modeling these practices online, but also in our schools. Isolated pockets of excellence need to become the norm, not the exception.  Regardless of your position it is on your shoulders to help usher in change at scale across your respective system to create schools that work for all kids

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Need For Digital Literacy

With 1:1 technology initiatives and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) programs increasingly being implemented in schools across the globe, the need for digital literacy education has become more important than ever. Although technology enables students to access more information in much less time, it does not always foster learning. Teaching digital literacy helps to manage all of the benefits of technology while helping students understand how to safely weed through the vast amounts of information online.

Technology in the classroom has the following advantages:

  • Allows students to manipulate information and media to construct their own meanings
  • Enables students to share their ideas quickly and easily
  • Engages students of all cognitive levels and abilities
  • Prepares students to be college and career ready
These benefits, among others, are why technology has become a major part of the global curriculum. However, teaching digital literacy has its challenges. The aspects of e-safety, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and finding and evaluating information must all be addressed. Many teachers lose sight of creativity and collaboration because Common Core and other initiatives focus on gathering and evaluating information with very little emphasis on creativity.

Educators need to embrace the creative and collaborative aspects of digital literacy. So much great learning happens through creative and collaborative processes. Bridget Burns, Michael Crow and Mark Becker noted the benefits of collaboration in their article Innovating Together: Collaboration as a Driving Force to Improve Student Success, March 2, 2015. They state that collaboration spurs innovation because bringing together groups of people who have different ideas, approaches, experiences, and areas of expertise creates a fertile environment for generating new concepts and methods. Sharing insights allows ideas to be refined and improved. Charging a group with developing a promising idea incentivizes the group—not just a single individual—to commit to its success and paves the way for trusted collaboration.

Giving students the opportunity to broaden their ideas and experiences opens up pathways of learning that can be extremely beneficial.

Brianna Crowley, an educator in Hershey, PA, successfully teaches her students digital literacy while infusing creativity throughout. She says it took a series of small steps to begin the process. One thing in particular she does is refrain from introducing any new tools into her classroom unless she knows they are going to enhance learning. Often she utilizes tools to engage her students, such as A Google a Day which is teaching her students to search for information in a safe yet creative way.

Another challenge teachers face while teaching digital literacy is the differing views on social media in education. Many schools have strict policies in place to avoid educational use of social media, while others feel that these restrictions are stifling the creativity and collaboration capabilities of today’s students. Dan Haesler, a teacher and educational consultant, believes in proactive social media education, and allowing students to make use of all that it has to offer.

When asked by Common Sense Media about social media bans in schools Haesler replied, “What if we approached driver’s education in the same way?” He concluded: Driving lessons would be taught by adults with little or no driving experience, they would only focus on what not to do, and they would never take place in an actual car. Both driving a vehicle, and navigating the internet require experience and knowledge of safety precautions so as to avoid any major incidents.

The students at Maker’s Place in Homewood, Philadelphia, PA, are a prime example of digital literacy at its finest. Children from the inner city get together to work on their digital literacy through creative and collaborative projects. Instructor Jomari Peterson teaches the students to “take control of your destiny and change the world.” Her students work together to utilize different apps and programs that help them first build a business idea and then use collaborative tools to bring that idea to life.

Although there is no “secret sauce” to effectively help educators teach their students digital literacy, there are some key points to focus on:

  • Allow students to maintain blogs or webpages that enable them to track their own learning. Google Drive easily allows students to create blogs and sites that they can share and collaborate on with their peers.
  • Have students create digital stories that they can share and publish. is a site where students can utilize hundreds of custom stickers, animations, multimedia and even record their voice into their project so they can make it “their” own, both figuratively and literally. For example, “My Day at the Beach” a student tells her story with stickers and animations and her voice recording. “Come to Istanbul” describes the city and all it has to offer.  Getting creative with Buncee is a breeze.
  • Offer students the ability to email and video chat with students in other countries. Skype Translate allows students to have a real time conversation with immediate translation.
  • Don’t get caught up in the need for strictly finding information and evaluating it. Always allow for creative ways to learn and produce.
With the help of great Ed Tech tools and dedicated educators, students can gain digital literacy and become fluent in safely finding and evaluating information, creating, and collaborating.