Monday, December 26, 2016

Blended Family Engagement

To this day I still remember the article that I read about Twitter in the Staten Island Advance one cold Sunday in March of 2009.  As someone who was totally against the use of social media for both personal and professional reasons, that article was intriguing to read as it essentially reinforced my negative perception. However, as I neared the end of the piece a light bulb went on.  Finally, I saw a professional connection as to how I could use social media to be a better communicator and engage more stakeholders in everything that was happening at my school. This was the beginning of my digital leadership journey that started with the simple goal of building better relationships with families in the community. 

Developing the means to communicate more effectively and better engage families was one of the main goals of our Twitter strategy that evolved from the article I read.  We were still using traditional means of communication such as memos, on-site events such as our annual Back to School Night, PTO meetings, email blasts, and face-to-face conferences when needed. We also instituted a positive referral system that combined a paper note sent home and a phone call.  I am not saying that we were awful at engaging our families, but in a rapidly evolving digital world we were not meeting them where they were at, let alone giving them a choice as to how they wanted to engage with us. It was time to transform our communications for a digital world.

The fact of the matter was that many of our parents and students were disconnected from the school.  Many parents worked multiple jobs and just didn’t have the time to attend events and meetings on-site or even read an email or memo.  In terms of our students, we were pretty much clueless as to the tools and means they were using to communicate.  With Twitter as a starting point, my goal was to engage just a few more parents and students and if I did then that was a success.  I still remember getting so giddy when parents would tell me that they read my tweet or a student would comment on a news item I shared. These little morale boosters helped me to develop a more comprehensive digital strategy, which integrated more and more tools.

Over time we learned that the real key to success was meeting these key stakeholder groups where they were at and engaging them in two-way communications using a blended approach. I was all about getting rid of paper, but we soon realized that this was still an effective way to get information out. Some families did not have Internet access or were not on social media. Thus, I still communicated using these tried and true methods. Over time I began to integrate a variety of tools in addition to Twitter such as Flickr, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Google+, Google Docs, Google Voice, and a school app for push notifications.  Email messages were still blasted out, but instead of just all text, I began inserting video messages using YouTube to make my message more personal. 

The blended approach served our school community well as we provided numerous choices as to how parents and students wanted to interact with our school.  We embraced the storyteller-in-chief mindset to unleash the positive energy embedded in the great work that was taking place in our school on a daily basis. The lesson learned here was how we could create an image and identity for our school through transparency that would forge greater trust and support from our stakeholders. Thus, our concerted strategy of consistent communications and taking control of public relations resulted in the creation of a positive brand presence.  Going forward the brandED strategy was all about better engaging our families while building relationships in the process.

Engaging families goes well beyond just sending out information whether it is through traditional or digital means. Communication, in general, tends to be impersonal even if video is used.  As part of our engagement strategy, we made improved efforts to interact with families face-to-face.  In addition to the annual Back-to-School night, we began hosting more interactive events to educate parents on our emerging innovative practices. Parents and students were invited to sit on interview committees for new teachers and administrators.  When we changed homework practices as a district, parents, and students were invited to be part of the entire process, including reviewing synthesized research.  

All in all, we looked for more opportunities to give families a greater sense of involvement in the school community. As partnerships were formed near and far, we always looked for ways to make the connection to an improved school culture. Involvement, either active or passive, was one of our goals. However, the major goal was to build better relationships with families by showing them how much we cared about the success of their kids and the pride we had as a school in the local community. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Leadership Transformed

For every education professional, adversity is a constant reality: lack of time, not enough resources, outdated facilities, resistant staff, and a slew of mandates/directives, to name a few. It can be difficult at times to envision and implement progressive change when you feel buried by these challenges. I wish I could tell you that these daily demands will dissipate in the near future, but that would create an allure of false hope.  Instead, I will tell you what, in my opinion, is the greatest adversary we as leaders face: our own mindset.  

The human brain is wired to keep us safe, and as a result we often become averse to change. The status quo and our personal comfort zones create a perceived safety net that is difficult for many leaders to break free from. In many cases, we teach the way we were taught and lead the way we were led;  our past experiences often dictate or influence professional practice. When this mindset is combined with silos that have been erected to protect organizations from information and new ideas, it becomes more clear as to why transformational change is often just an idea that never gets put into motion.

We must take a critical look at the effect fixed mindsets can have on a learning culture. Shifting our mindset begins with a renewed focus on our senses. As leaders, we must constantly make observations and own what we see. One important reflection point: is your school is preparing students for life or only to do well in school?  Just as important as observing the reality is listening, not just hearing your stakeholders. When leaders don’t listen, people will shut down and withdraw. Saying no or refusing to embrace new ideas has become the safe bet against unwanted risk in a time of disruptive change. However, the unfortunate result is a dramatic decrease in motivation, enthusiasm, willingness to innovate, and respect for one’s ability to lead. 

A shift in mindset empowers leaders to create change, not respond to change. It is this shift that can begin to lay the foundation for transformation. How do we do this? By beginning to challenge the way things are done; by replacing the word “no” with the word “yes” more often; and by focusing on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah, but’s.”  This is where a growth mindset begins to reap professional rewards.  Leaders who shift to a growth mindset:

  • Embrace challenges
  • Persist in the face of setbacks
  • See effort as the path to mastery
  • Learn from criticism
  • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others

When leaders shift to a growth mindset, the foundation is set to really transform learning cultures. Transformational leadership is the collaborative responsibility for taking action to reach future-oriented goals while meeting the intellectual, emotional, and physical needs of each student. Transformational leaders consistently make observations, listen intently, leverage a growth mindset, and most importantly, take action to improve the organization. These leaders:

  • Focus on vision and empowerment.
  • Embrace risk to facilitate change
  • Engage in future-focused problem-solving to create learning opportunities
  • Adapt to situations effectively
  • Develop and articulate a vision about the future needs of students to ensure that all stakeholders are using the same language about leadership in the school
  • Work with people in a manner that ignites their passions, talents, and desires to attain a shared vision

The Transformational Leadership Framework above that we have developed at the International Center for Leadership in Education has four quadrants.  The vertical axis is the vision continuum, or the level of thinking about what is important in a school.  At its lowest level—quadrant A—leaders are authoritative and focus on school rules, practices, and the management of day-to-day tasks. At higher levels, leaders anticipate the future and consider what skills and knowledge students will need and what should be added to current programs and services to help students succeed. 

The horizontal axis is the empowerment continuum. On the left side, leaders execute leadership practices more unilaterally, making decisions and solving day-to-day problems themselves. Moving to the right, leadership shifts from the actions of a single leader to decision making by a leadership team to distributed leadership throughout the district or school.

There is no such thing as a perfect leader, school or district. Each day we have the opportunity to improve professional practice to create a better learning culture for students and educators. Think about your own practice and the steps you can take to make transformation a reality instead of an overused buzzword. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Potential of Virtual Reality

Many educators, including myself, routinely talk about the need for innovation in education. If we continue to employ the same type of thinking then we will get the same or results. We also run the risk of taking a step backwards and experiencing worse results than anticipated.  Change isn’t coming; it is already on our doorstep! Thus we must begin to embrace new ideas and methodologies.  It can be concluded then that change is necessary in a digital world thanks to the exponential evolution of technology.  

We must begin to explore and implement innovative learning activities beyond isolated pockets of excellence.  Innovation in education can defined as creating, implementing, and sustaining transformative ideas that instill awe to improve learning. Technology not only awes, but it can also empower our learners in amazing ways. It’s time to start asking and focusing on the right questions. It is difficult for many educators, including myself, to keep up with the evolving digital landscape.  Being able to access information is only a start. When you think about it we are drowning in a sea of information. Access only matters if it is turned into new knowledge and action.

Lets now apply the elements of innovation, change, access, and knowledgeable action to the evolving technology of virtual reality.  Just a few years ago this type of technology was financially out of reach for the majority of schools across the world. Now, however, educators can provide access to an artificial world that consists of images and sounds that is affected by the actions of a student who is experiencing. Thanks to innovative products like Google Cardboard virtual experiences can be provided to students with just one smartphone and a $15 cardboard box outfitted with two lenses.  

There are so many educational experiences that students can engage in using Google Cardboard, the world’s most affordable VR headset. Teachers can bring lessons to life with Google Expeditions and take students on interactive, virtual field trips. Below is the description from Google:

Google Expeditions enable teachers to bring students on virtual trips to places like museums, underwater, and outer space. Expeditions are collections of linked virtual reality (VR) content and supporting materials that can be used alongside existing curriculum. These trips are collections of virtual reality panoramas — 360° panoramas and 3D images — annotated with details, points of interest, and questions that make them easy to integrate into curriculum already used in schools.

To get started and view a complete list of Google Expeditions click HERE. The benefit of VR and Cardboard is not limited to Google Expeditions. There is an array of free and paid apps available.  For a list of some free apps that can be utilized in the classroom click HERE.

The potential of VR lies well beyond just accessing and viewing information on a device such as Google Cardboard.  For an innovative learning activity such as this to have real value the information gleaned from the experience should be transformed into knowledge and action.  Take a look at the video below to see what I mean.

As the mother states, innovation saved her daughter’s life.  The doctors not only used VR and Google Cardboard, but they did these important steps:

  • Accessed and collected vital information
  • Converted information into new knowledge
  • Used new knowledge to develop a solution and act

This example is the epitome of innovative learning.  It is my hope that we will move students well beyond just viewing and accessing information through VR technology and use the simple process above.  Actually, we need to lend a more critical eye to why and how technology is currently being used in education to veer away from surface level integration and substitution. The Rigor Relevance Framework provides great guidance on how to make this happen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Silo Effect

It is hard to debate that education is the key to the future.  With each passing day new opportunities and challenges arise that will require a new generation of thinkers who can rise to the occasion.  Schools must unlock the potential within our students while preparing them for a rapidly changing world. For this to happen we must rethink the very essence of education and ask ourselves if our students will be adequately equipped to succeed in their future, not ours.  As the world changes, education and leadership must change as well. If it does not change, we then run the risk of preparing students for a world that no longer exists.

Herein lies the problem.  The silo effect in schools has created a false dichotomy as to what constitutes essential learning and skills in the 21st Century and beyond.  As a result, many school leaders think everything is awesome.  Just listen to the theme song of the Lego Movie and you will know exactly what I am talking about. Then ask yourself if everything is really awesome in your school? Or better yet, ask your students to come up with a list of all the awesome learning activities they get to engage in on a daily basis. Their answers alone can best predict the learning culture of a school and whether or not it is meeting their needs. It really doesn’t matter if the adults keep beating the drum that teaching and learning are changing. Proof is in the pudding. In this case the proof comes from conversations with students. 

Everything is Awesome - Lego Movie

The silo effect creates a mirage that everything is great.  It also restricts the thinking of the collective in order to implement innovative ideas that can transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  Many schools are unwilling to change because a factor such as high achievement on standardized tests is, in their view, an indicator of high performance.  The reality for many learners is an environment focused on a traditional model of education and criteria for success that lack relevance, meaning, and value.  Thus, a natural disconnect occurs the second they enter a school building.  Looking beyond our walls while moving outside comfort zones are key actions that can begin the process of breaking down school silos.

The same silo effect applies to our own learning and views or that of our colleagues. Information is readily available to all who are willing to venture in the digital space to take advantage of it.  Being a disconnected nomad is no longer an option if the goal is to improve professional practice and the learning culture of a school. Accessing the wealth of information out there is just a start though. To truly break free of the silo effect teachers and administrators must turn the information they access into new knowledge and action.  

The best ideas and strategies are now at our fingertips. We can now break free from the self-imposed silos and begin to have critical conversations about innovative change schools need.  To begin to break free from the silo effect consider these questions:
  • Is our school/district relevant? Am I relevant?
  • How can we prepare students for the future if we are stuck in the past?
  • How do we know if we are meeting the needs of our learners?
  • What are other schools and educators doing around the globe?
  • Do we collaborate and connect with educators near and far to push our thinking as well as access the best resources, ideas, strategies, feedback, and support? 
It is important to peel away the many layers at the surface in order to gain a better understanding of where a school culture is currently. The silo effect often creates a feeling of content and satisfaction since the doorway to fresh ideas is not open.   Learning from others beyond our walls and traditional comfort zones presents limitless opportunities for innovative change. This will not only greatly impact learners, but also each other.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

5 Tips to Strengthen Your School’s Identity

There are many lessons we can learn from the business world and adapt in ways that align with education. Take the concept of branding that Trish Rubin and I discuss in detail in BrandED. Since the advent of media, organizations across the globe have worked tirelessly to build a positive brand presence that resonates with potential consumers.  In short, it represents a promise that is woven into a combination of words, design, colors, music, video, logo, service, etc. The promise that companies promote is aligned to specific attributes with the goal of creating a memorable experience.  If this goal is met the likelihood increases that a consumer will purchase their product. Mega brands like Apple, McDonald’s, and Nike have long embraced this concept of branding and the result has been the creation of a clear identity.

When it comes to education, people line up on both sides of the branding debate. From a purely business sense, I would be against the concept myself. The purpose of school is not to sell and increase profits.  This is something that we can all agree on. However, a school’s identity is extremely important in the eyes of the beholder, which in this case are key stakeholder groups consisting of students, parents, community members, local businesses, and educators. The idea of a promise to educate all learners and prepare them for success in a rapidly changing world is an expectation that cannot be ignored.  If this can’t be promised, then why would stakeholders support our schools or trust their children to educate them?

Identity matters in a digital world.  Do you want this created for your school, or would you like to be proactive in developing one? This is where the concept of branding has value and significance for schools.  The overreaching goal of a brandED strategy is to develop and sustain positive relationships with all stakeholders. It is not about selling, but a consistent focus on sharing and telling your story. The bottom line is that if you don’t tell your story, someone else will and the result could be an identity that does not align with your school’s mission, vision, or values.  

Embracing these elements of brandED thinking by becoming the storyteller-in-chief can begin the process of developing a powerful school identity that resonates.  Strengthen your school’s identity with these simple tips:
  1. Amplify great work that takes place on a daily basis by consistently sharing using a multi-faceted approach that blends traditional (newsletters, email, phone, face-to-face) with digital-age tools (social media). With social media, tools make sure your account pages are up to date (website links, avatars, profile information, etc.). It is also wise to educate your stakeholders on social media tools and how you will be using them to increase engagement.
  2. Build trust through transparency.  The benefits here are numerous, including attracting families to move to your local district or, in the case of tuition (private, parochial, independent) schools, making a greater financial investment. It can also help when it comes to referendums, passing the school budget, and engaging alumni with the hopes of donating time, money, and resources.
  3. Focus on elements that align with a thriving school culture, such as innovative learning, student achievement, staff accomplishments, college/career readiness, partnerships, unique traditions, and extra-curricular activities.
  4. Empower others to be active sharers and avoid a gatekeeper mentality when it comes to sharing the story of your school.  Encourage different departments, student groups, parent organizations, and extra-curricular activities to maintain social media accounts.
  5. Regularly recognizing the work of educators and students in your school can be inspirational. The result can be greater levels of motivation and appreciation, which helps to develop a positive school culture. Develop a template to curate all the great work occurring on a monthly basis. The report can then be shared in its entirety or broken up into numerous blog posts.  
In an educational sense, the identity of your school (or even yourself) is not only determined by the work, but also by how the work is shared.  It stands for who you are.  Being cognizant of this fact allows you to be proactive in creating an identity that resonates with all stakeholders. Think about the identity that you, your students, and your staff want. By using the tips above, engaging stakeholders in two-way communications, and taking control of your public relations, in time, you will create an identity that truly depicts the amazing work taking place on a daily basis.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Keys for a Successful Digital Transformation

Nobody likes change, but the fact is that change is at our doorstep.  Changes in technology are quickly beginning to force the hands of schools and districts across the world. This poses some good news for students, as transformation efforts are under way to provide authentic learning experiences that provide relevance, value, and tangible skills in an unpredictable world. Even though changes are occurring, we need to be mindful of what is driving the work while looking past soft claims to ensure technology is actually improving learning and achievement.   It is important not to get sucked into the transformational aspects of the technology itself, but instead focus on the transformation of teaching, learning, and leadership.  

With every inch of progress we must constantly be reflective of where we are at and how to improve. We can ill afford to keep investing in the “stuff” through the played out scenario of putting the cart before the horse. Placing a device in the hands of all students and hoping for learning miracles to happen will always result in a let down.  I know this might rub technology aficionados the wrong way, but the fact remains that edtech has been over-promised and under delivered.  Any leader who has gone through a successful digital transformation realizes this.  The key is to be critical of the process in order to make sure investments pay off in terms of enhanced learner outcomes.  

Image credit:

Many lessons can be learned from successful digital transformations, including the one that occurred at my former school. Whether going Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), 1:1, blended, or personalized learning take note of some key elements that are essential to success:


If the plumbing is not in place success will be hard to come by.  By infrastructure I am not talking about devices per say, but WiFi access and space design.  There is noting more frustrating for teachers and students alike when attempts are made to integrate technology with purpose only to have the WiFi not work or operate properly. Hand in hand with WiFi access is the capability to charge devices.  Make the initial investment to get this right the first time.


Pedagogy trumps technology. Do you have a framework in place to ensure successful integration?  It is critical to have a common vision, language and expectations for how technology will play a ubiquitous role in supporting and/or enhancing learning.  A growing number of schools and districts rely on the SAMR model.  My question for you to consider is what does SAMR actually tell you or your stakeholders about the level of student learning taking place? We found the answer to be not very much. SAMR does provide good guidance on what to avoid when it comes to technology integration (substitution) and provides an excellent bridge to the Rigor Relevance Framework. Consider the Rigor Relevance Framework, which is learner centric, to assist in effectively aligning technology to instruction, curriculum, and space redesign. Check out this example in relation to Gsuite.

Professional Learning

Investing in people will always be one of the foundation elements of a successful digital transformation. Relevant, job-embedded learning opportunities that move away from traditional drive-by approaches will help to sustain meaningful change.  Equal investments need to be made to support both teachers and administrators. After all, success is dependent on both groups having the knowledge, support, and skills to implement, evaluate, and continuously improve the digital transformation process. There is no substitute for quality face-to-face professional learning opportunities that blend an assessment of where you stand with digital practices, courses, job-embedded coaching, and active discussion.  


This element is critical in any type of change process.  It is not only about being open to change, but also being an intimate player in the process.  Thus, digital leadership goes without saying. It is about working smarter, not harder, in order to do what we already do better.  Digital leaders help to establish a collective vision, provide support, model expectations, ensure accountability, and constantly reflect in transparent ways in order to improve.  Technology is a ubiquitous component that supports the work they have always done but in a more effective and efficient manner.

Avoid Assumptions

Let’s begin with an example.  Students know how to use tech (assumption), but they don’t necessarily know how to use it to support their learning (reality). Students will be off task when they are afforded the opportunity to use technology (assumption), yet virtually all of us adults would go off task at times well before the digital age (reality).  So many assumptions are made when it comes to technology that reality plays second fiddle. Progress, and ultimately success, is contingent upon removing a myriad of barriers to change that arise as a result of our mindset. Assumptions and excuses will hold you back. Thanks to the Internet and Personal Learning Networks (PLN’s) we can learn firsthand from the reality inherent in digital transformation success across the globe.  


Success breeds success.  There is no greater motivator than the positive results of any change effort. Evidence of success goes a long way towards embracing change resulting in transformation. However, along the same lines of our infatuation with assumptions, a lack of evidence and connection to research tends to be accepted when talking about digital transformations. When integrating technology there needs to be a Return on Instruction (ROI) that results in evidence of improved student learning outcomes. This can come in the form of data, improved observations/evaluations, artifacts, and portfolios. Too much money and time is at stake to just rely on broad claims and a lack of real evidence of success. 

Smart Budgeting 

Having developed a budget for a high school over the course of many years I can tell you that there was a great deal of wasted money year in and year out. Money can be freed up in any budget if we critically analyze how the expenditure will positively impact learning.  Once money is reallocated the next step is to ascertain the role that any technology purchase will play. The question we need to be asking when going through the budget process is how will this technology actually improve learning and achievement at scale?  If there is a challenge in answering this question then obviously you are not making a wise investment.  Do your research and plan accordingly.


Relationships are the glue that holds the change process together resulting in transformation.  These need to be built both internally and externally.  From a student perspective it is important to emphasize and follow through in ways to foster greater student agency in the learning culture.  You need to begin to say yes more than no as implemented ideas that come from students are the ultimate relationship builder.  From an adult stakeholder perspective it is critical to develop a positive brand presence that will result from a multi-faceted approach to communications and an evolution into the storyteller-in-chief.  Meet your stakeholders where they are at, engage them in two-way communications, and maintain a level of consistency. Over time powerful relationships will be established with all.

All in all we need to prepare students for their future, not ours.  We can ill afford to prepare them for a world that doesn’t exist.  We need to create schools of the future, today.  Even with progress in many schools and districts it is important to always be open to critical reflection and evaluation on not just where we are at, but more importantly where we want to be.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Facilitating Open Debate In and Out of School

As educators it is important that we model the expectations that we have for our students and each other.  To that end, it is vitally important that we continually look for ways to push our own thinking and leadership in order to improve professional practice.  In my role as a presenter this is key. I routinely ask all types of educators to be innovative and take risks. As I continue to grow in this area, I am always on the look out for new tools that I can integrate into my presentations to demonstrate these two points as well as to illustrate the pedagogical link that technology supports in our schools.  Often times I will double down and also make the connection of how certain tools can be used to support the work of administrators.

Recently I was tasked with delivering a two and a half hour keynote to 1700 educators in Missouri.  This posed quite the challenge thanks to the large size of the crowd and duration of the presentation.  As I went through my deck I looked for opportunities to build in numerous interactive activities where everyone in the audience would be able to respond.  Lately my tools of choice have been TodaysMeet, Answer Garden, and Mentimeter (my all time favorite).  Once all of the interactive components were added I noticed that I had more questions than different tools.  It was time to take a risk and learn a new tool.

Thanks to the assistance of my PLN I had a variety of new tools to choose from. I settled on ProConIt.  This is a very cool, yet powerful tool that has applications in the classroom and to strengthen relationships with stakeholders. With ProConIt your audience can discuss and debate any topic you develop. Unlike typical polling tools, you create something called a "Procon" by defining both the topic of discussion and the two sides of the issue you want to gather opinions on. ProConIt allows you to ask these questions and then invite students, stakeholders, or audience members to provide their thoughts. Essentially an open debate unfolds where everyone can participate. 

As others navigate the Procon, opinions up to 225 characters can be submitted on both sides of the issue. People can even evaluate comments that were previously submitted.  What then happens is the best opinions, either for or against, rise to the top. The needle at the top of the page tells you which way the issue is leaning while the specific arguments identify why.  Take a look at the results from a ProConIt I recently used during a recent keynote. The prompt was as follows: Do you feel gaming and the gamification of education can lead to better learner outcomes? Submit your opinion with a reason.

This is a great tool to use in the classroom and with stakeholders to facilitate open debate on issues relating to learning concepts, global problems, policy changes, new courses, referendums, technology purchases, proposed school schedule changes, and the list goes on and on.  The key to using this tool, especially with students, is for respondents to explain why they are for or against.  Shortened URL’s can also be included as a means to provide evidence to support a pro or con stance.  

Upon reflecting on my use of this tool yesterday, so many useful applications come to mind.  For starters, it is an incredible tool to use during presentations to engage attendees in a thoughtful dialogue.  However, the real value of this tool will be found in the hands of students, educators, and administrators. Think about the possibilities of using ProConIt as a powerful way to improve student agency in your school or to build consensus around major decisions with a better sampling of stakeholders.  How do you see yourself using ProConIt in your respective position? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Critical Thinking in the 21st Century and Beyond

One of my fondest memories of school was my science teacher, Mr. South. Having attended a K-8 consolidated school in rural NJ, we knew who all the teachers were.  However, Mr. South stood out.  I remember an elementary student seeing paper flyers with a caricature of Mr. South wearing one of his famous flannel shirts. As the years passed, he transitioned from flannel to a dress shirt, tie, and jeans.  He was stylish in the sense that he always got students and staff alike to talk about what he was wearing over the years.

There was a reason why everyone talked about Mr. South. He was an amazing teacher. Every student in the school could not wait to take his class.  Since our school was small, there was a chance you could even have him multiple times before moving up to the high school.  What separated Mr. South from his peers was his passion for helping students learn and love the sciences.  His lessons were light on direct instruction and heavy on authentic connections and application. He didn’t teach science. We learned science.

All of his classes were amazing.  He is the main reason I pursued a degree in science initially, before taking this passion to the field of education. There was one project in particular that has stuck with me to this day.  Instead of lecturing to us about Mars he had us actually create Mars in the classroom. Students were broken up into teacher-selected groups that had different tasks to complete. The specific task of each group played a larger part in the Martian project.  My partner and I were tasked with getting materials to Mars in order to create an infrastructure on the planet.  Through our research we came across a device called the mass driver.  We presented our finding to Mr. South and he gave us the tasks of creating 2 different working mass driver prototypes

During school and after school, my partner and I worked on developing these miniature prototypes that would actually propel mass.  This was certainly a frustrating experience, as we were never really asked to learn like this before.  Countless hours were spent outside of school working on this project. We even went to Mr. South’s house on weekends so that we could use the many different tools he had in his garage.  Through it all we owned our learning by being engaged in thoughtful work and made numerous connections to other disciplines. The process in itself was fraught with highs and lows, but in the end we developed the two working prototypes as assigned while learning with our hands.  

Over a period of a couple of weeks each group worked to complete their assigned tasks.  The final step was then to actually create Mars in the classroom and that is what Mr. South had us do. It was controlled learning chaos that involved tools, wood, paper mache, collaboration, communication, black lights, and so much more.  When thinking of makerspaces today, our learning experience in his class was one connected to the guiding principles of the maker movement.  Once the surface of Mars was completed each group set up stations throughout the planet to present their specific projects.  The culminating activity was a multi-night presentation to parents and the greater community where each group showed off a thriving community would hypothetically be created on Mars. 

This was by far one of the most powerful learning experiences I ever engaged in as a student.  Mr. South had us actively learn science instead of just taking notes and then a traditional assessment.  It was relevant, meaningful, and fun. Real-world predictable and unpredictable problems were tackled.  We developed the competence to think in complex ways and to apply knowledge and skills. Even when faced with perplexing unknowns, the pedagogy employed by Mr. South allowed us to use extensive knowledge and skills we didn’t know we had to create solutions and take action to further develop skills and knowledge. At ICLE this is what we call a Quad D learning activity.  

Many of the 21st Century skills that are emphasized today were evident in the project that took place in 1988.  It is not that this type of learning is new. Heck, everything we see and hear for the most part is not new.  What has changed is how technology provides a new avenue to actively integrate this type of learning in ways that many of us could never have imagined.  The key is to focus on project-based and authentic inquiry. Taking the example I presented from my schooling consider the following elements and the ubiquitous role technology should play:

  • Driving question or challenge
  • Need to know
  • Inquiry and innovation
  • 21st Century skills
  • Student agency
  • Feedback and revision
  • Publicly presented project

These elements, when aligned with sound pedagogy, can provide students with the types of learning opportunities that they will carry with them no matter what path they choose.  

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Why Every Leader Needs a PLN

The concept of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) has been around for a couple of years now. Educators who have embraced this concept have experienced firsthand the positive impact on professional practice that being a connected educator brings. The premise is relatively simple. Carve out a little time each day (15 – 30 minutes) and use one of many available free tools to learn. It is less about the specific tool that is used for the foundation of a PLN and more about the relationships, engagement, and new knowledge that result. 

Image credit: Harold Jarche

Leadership is a choice and not one that should be made lightly.  With this choice comes a great deal of responsibility to initiate and sustain change that will lead to a transformed school culture. Learning has been, and always will be, a pivotal component of this process.  With time always being in short demand, leaders must be on the forefront of leading the learning themselves if that is what they expect of others.  Basically, we get what we model.  Outside of instruction there is not a more important leadership quality that successful and effective administrators must focus on. Quite simply the best leaders are always learning. Learning is the fuel of leadership.

With budget crunches and lack of time it is often a challenge to participate consistently in invaluable, formal learning opportunities.  Nothing beats quality, face-to-face professional learning.  It is through these opportunities that time, applicability, and relationships intersect resulting in a powerful experience. However, leaders today now have the means to supplement formal learning opportunities with a PLN.  This is equivalent to a human-generated search engine that never shuts down and is powered by the knowledge of world-renowned experts and practitioners alike. 

PLN’s can be a tough sell at times, especially when they are being pitched to administrators who are either against or not on social media.  I can relate, as this is where I was prior to March 2009. I swore I would never be on social media as I didn’t have the time for it and that it would not help me professionally. Boy was I wrong. Now, like many others, I preach the many benefits connected learning brings to all educators. Administrators though, are at times tough nuts to crack.  Hence I have developed an initial list of reasons why every leader should have a PLN.  
  1. Support and feedback
  2. Work smarter, not harder
  3. Share your work
  4. Remove silos 
  5. 24/7 inspiration
  6. Acquire resources
  7. Collaborate locally and globally
  8. Track conferences/events (#)
  9. Latest innovative ideas
  10. On the go learning
So what would you add to this list? My goal is to come up with 10 solid reasons and then create an infographic. Please share your thoughts below.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Together Everyone Achieves More

I am typically in an aisle seat when flying. The more I fly the more I notice how picky people are when it comes to their seats.  Every now and again I get asked if I would be willing to move my seat to accommodate a family member who, for whatever reasons, were reserved elsewhere on the plane. This particular week a mother asked me if I would move to her seat a few rows in front so that she could sit with her daughter. Was this a slight inconvenience for me? I suppose it was a little bit as my carry on bag would be farther back on the plane. However, I didn’t think twice about my decision. Not only was it the right thing to do, but also if the roles were reversed I would want someone to do the same for me.

It amazes me though how often I see this same situation unfold in the opposite way.  For reasons that make no sense to me, there are people who refuse to change seats. Not only do they refuse, but also they are not very respectful in the way that they respond. “I paid for this extra legroom seat so why should I give it up? I can only sit on the end seat. I will miss my connection.” Instead of embracing common courtesy, the situation morphs into a personal issue of inconvenience.  The end result is sometimes a road rage reaction, but in the air.

It is a shame that we see situations like this unfold in our daily lives. Reactions like this also extend into our professional and personal relationships.  It is easy to let our emotions get the better of us when we disagree on issues, ideas, methodologies, and opinions.  That’s human nature for you. The problem arises though when a professional disagreement is made into a personal issue.  Using the airplane seat example, it really comes down to reacting to discomfort or disagreement in a way that our treatment of others is a reflection of how we ourselves would want to be treated.  
"When we take things personally, it is difficult to see the good in people. Positive discourse is what humanity needs and deserves."
We must resist the subconscious urge to berate and belittle others just because we don’t see eye to eye. Politics this year have become a very divisive subject for many of my friends and colleagues.  I have seen countless examples of one’s views being taken personally and out of context. Verbal battles are then waged and friendships severed.  Is this the type of discourse we want to model for our students? The same can be said about idea sharing on social media.  The same behaviors and results listed above rear their ugly heads.  There is no ownership of an idea and just because you don’t agree with someone’s position doesn’t make it right or wrong from both points of view.  Yet battles ensue as to the validity and value of ideas and positions.  In some cases critical dialogue occurs, but from my view this is typically the exception.

We are not in competition with one another. It is important to always remember that even though we might disagree on a professional level, this should not lead to an erosion of personal relationships. Everyone is entitled to his or her view. As human beings we are also entitled to making mistakes.  It takes a secure person to not only admit his or her mistakes, but to also help others in a proactive fashion when they make their own. Treat others how you expect (and deserve) to be treated yourself both in face-to-face and online situations.  

As we continue to build, nurture, and repair relationships at both professional and personal levels it is vital to always remember the good in people, no matter how difficult it might be at times.  If we expect this of our students then we must expect the same for ourselves.  Technology has allowed us to grow a global team of committed educators to take on the man challenges we are face with in education. Let's seize this opportunity before us. Modeling the best in humanity in both digital and non-digital spaces will help to bring about the change we all wish to see in education.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Need for More Play in School

As I kid I loved play. Countless hours were spent building forts in the woods, creating sand castles at the beach, riding bikes, playing Atari (then Nintendo, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, etc.) or just running around for no apparent reason. Kids love play and it is a central component of their social and emotional development.  Important qualities such as patience, compromise, creativity, focus, critical thinking, problem solving, determination, resilience, and resourcefulness, to name a few, are developed through play.  Not only are these qualities vital to success, but they also represent elements that cannot be tested.

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As much as I loved play I think I enjoy watching how it not only impacts, but also how important it is to my own children.  In many ways my kids engage in play in unique ways based on their personalities.  My son, Nick, is an avid gamer who loves Minecraft and the creative freedom it fosters. On many nights it is common to see him with his headset on collaborating and communicating with kids his age from across the country utilizing thought and strategy to create a product that matters. Like most children, he also has a passion for basketball, golf, Nerf gun battles, laser tag, going to the park, and of course playing with his sister. They love walking the neighborhood engaged in Pokemon Go. I love it when they come back and tell me how many kilometers they walked while having fun.

My daughter, Isabella, on the other hand is a ball of raw energy.  She is always on the go, running around the house and outside when the Texas heat is in check.  Like her brother, technology is a huge component of her play regime.  Many evenings after dinner she retreats to her room to play Roblox with her best friend, Brooke, who lives in New York. She will have a computer set up for the game and then stream in Brooke Live using Facetime on her iPad Mini. They then play the game together, but laugh and converse in real-time. She is also big on creating’s with her friends near and far. Outside of technology she is your typical kid when it comes to play, ranging from dolls, to stuffed animals, to a variety of aquatic games in the pool.

Play has a magical effect, at times, of taking away some of the stress and pressures of life. It is in these carefree moments that kids and adults develop and enhance certain skills that will play a huge role in personal and professional development.  I find myself reflecting on the seemingly endless positive impacts that play has on kids and yet it is being cut from schools across the world.  Ask any young kid what was their favorite part of the school day and they will respond in no specific order – recess, gym, or art.  

Our kids need and deserve more play, not less! Recess in particular is needed not just in our youngest grades, but also even through the middle and high school years.  Read about why high school should be more like kindergarten and the point becomes clearer. Play has to be valued in school and its integration should be a priority if student learning and achievement are the goal. Why you ask? Research has found that play develops students in four ways: physical, cognitive, social, and emotional.

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In order to create schools that work for kids a concerted effort has to be made to break up the monotony of formal learning that places a great deal of stress on students.  Structured and unstructured play should be integrated into every school schedule, regardless of the age group of the kids.  Below are a few ideas:

  • Add more recess (kids need it and the benefits are clear)
  • Integrate makerspaces 
  • Replace study halls with play options and open choice
  • Integrate games such as chess, checkers, Trivial Pursuit, and Xbox to common areas
  • Add time to lunch. With a full length lunch period at my school (48 minutes) students would regularly go outside and play, visit the makespace, or play video games thanks to our BYOD initiative.
  • Develop a play-based elective

These are just a few ideas to implement the power of play into the school day. Students should be excited to attend school and learn. By integrating more play we can begin to create a culture where more students want to learn. Once that is achieved the possibilities are endless.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Stop the Homework Insanity and Let Kids Be Kids

I have so many fond memories of my childhood.  Growing up in a relatively rural area of Northwestern New Jersey sure had its benefits.  As we returned home from school each day, my brothers and I would jump off the bus and diligently make our way about a half-mile back to our house. Once home we would peel off the backpacks, get changed, and play outside for the remainder of the day until dinner was ready. I can still remember my parents yelling into the great abyss as many times we were either deep in the woods or down by the local farm.  There was homework, but is was very manageable to the point that my mom had to remind me that we actually had some during the elementary and middle years.

When not off on our adventures in the deep woods, we would be riding bikes, playing with the dog, swimming in the pool, shooting hoops, or getting into some kind of trouble. Life sure was good and relatively stress free.  Things changed a bit once Atari and Nintendo took hold. Most of our time was still dedicated to outdoor play, but time was definitely allocated to playing video games on these technological wonders.  On some days we couldn’t wait to get home from school to play Asteroids, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Tecmo Bowl, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. 

As we grew older sports began to make up a great part of our afterschool activities. Outdoor activities and video games often took a backseat to baseball, soccer, football, swimming, and basketball practice.  Sports were such a huge part of our lives throughout the year.  Growing up in a rural area allowed my brothers and I to participate in many sports at a high level. Part of why I believe my childhood was so great was that there was a distinct balance between school and life.  From the time the bus dropped us off until when we hopped back on, the focus was on learning.  Once home, however, time was relatively sacred when it came to play and spending quality time with family and friends. 

The life of a child today has changed dramatically.  Play both in and out of school has become a distant memory for many kids across the world.  For reasons that make no sense to me, children are given obscene amounts of homework. Instead of coming home to unwind, play, and spend valuable time with family, kids are stressed out beyond belief as high-stakes homework has become the norm.  Why have we veered off in this direction? There is little research to support the impact of homework on achievement for students in grades kindergarten through seven.  When it is assigned it should be no more than 30 minutes. Well, ask any parent and they will tell you that the amount of time spent far exceeds this.

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I am not against homework.  As a child I had homework, but it was a manageable amount that did not negatively impact social and play time.  It was also not used in a high stakes way. I want both my children to reinforce what they have learned during the school day, but more importantly I want them to be kids.  During my tenure as principal my district delved into the research with our students from all grade levels and changed our homework practices. Homework was still assigned, but there were time limits for each grade and it could not be used to punish students academically.   

The reasons for this post are not to debate the many issues I have with homework and the lack of reliable research to support it’s use. There will always be two sides to this debate.  It should be noted though that in my line of work I am able to make a pretty compelling case against current homework practices. However, I think we have to take a hard and objective look at the impact it is having on our kids. Current homework practices are making students dislike school and learning.  This is a fact.
"If your homework practices make kids dislike school and/or learning that alone should tell you something has to change."
Recently I was at an event in my community and parents were lamenting about homework.  This really hit home as every night my wife battles with my kids over homework.   My daughter cries and throws a fit.  She sits in the car and does homework to and from cheer practice. That is her after school life in a nutshell. She completes homework for 35 minutes on the way to cheer. After 2-3 hours of cheer practice she then again works on homework for another 35 minutes on the ride home. Sometimes she has even more work once she gets home. My son just sits and stares back at us with an empty gaze.  Ask any parent or child about their feelings on homework these days and you are bound to get a negative response.

If you currently work in a school consider this. Regardless of your views on homework, please take the time to reflect on whether it is actually having a positive impact. If homework makes kids dislike school and/or learning it is obvious there is a problem.  Parents also need to be proactive.  So what can you do? Share this post with your child’s teacher, administrator, school, or district. Share in the comments section below why homework is not working for your child.  Engage in conversations about homework balance and meaningful assignments that reinforce learning in a timely fashion. Together we need to address the gorilla in the room (homework) if student learning and success are the ultimate goal.

Below are some more resources that can move the homework conversation forward.
It's time to stop the insanity for the sake of our kids.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

What's Hidden in You?

I really had quite the fixed mindset early on as a young school leader. Success was defined by how well I performed my daily routine.  In my opinion, I worked hard but really didn’t push myself outside my comfort zone.  The reason was that in my mind there were just certain things I couldn’t do…nor had to. I didn’t have the “talent”, pre-disposition, personality, or character to do certain things. Thus, I didn’t really pursue activities that might have made me a better school leader. I did what I had to do to get by, never giving any real thought to what I was truly capable of. 

Professional practice had been dictated to me or so I thought. What we are capable of is really a combination of our mindset and the support or feedback we get from others. Intrinsic motivation to become better and grow in ways like never before will be all some people need, but others need a bit more guidance. I think I fell in the latter category.  Our minds are often the greatest advisor that we face each day, thus it is important to constantly improve our intellectual bank and diversify our networks in order to help unlock hidden talents.

For me, becoming a connected educator in early 2009 served as a catalyst for professional growth in ways that I could never have imagined. First and foremost, I improved and diversified my intellectual bank. As I developed and grew my Personal Learning Network (PLN) I learned how much I did not know. The resources, ideas, strategies, different points of view, support, and feedback that I received from people across the globe, many of which have now become good friends, pushed me to pursue transformative change. I don’t have to go into great detail on all the sustainable changes that were implemented over the course of five years as I have written extensively on the topic. 

The bottom line though is that the conversations and relationships that evolved thanks to a diversified network and enhanced intellectual bank unlocked leadership qualities hidden inside me. Critical conversations now occurred both face to face and virtually. My circle of trust extended beyond the brick and mortar walls of my building as I now had access to trusted colleagues who were willing to provide advice no matter when I needed it. This was the push I had constantly been seeking during my professional career and it ultimately motivated me well beyond what I thought I could do.

Through my diversified network, I met Ken Royal, one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He pushed me to extend beyond the use of Twitter to share what was going on in my school through a blog. I was very resistant, as I did not consider myself a writer. The process of writing was always a struggle for me. Needless to say, he motivated and coached me on the process of blogging. Now years later I have four published books and two more on the way in 2017. By no means am I a prolific writer in my opinion. For me, writing anything beyond 300 words is an accomplishment. One that I would have never realized if it had not been for the professional relationships I formed in online spaces.

Social media, Twitter and blogging in particular, had another unintended, positive consequence. Through the sharing of our work at New Milford High School I began to receive many invitations to present on our many evidence-based change initiatives. If I was afraid to write then I was terrified to speak in public. Prior to becoming connected I could never speak in public for more than five minutes unscripted. The more I was asked to present the better I became with little scripting. This had an immediate impact in my district as I become better at articulating key messages to my stakeholders. Little did I know how this change would carry me to an entirely new career.  I never realized I had a calling in public speaking and could never have imagined speaking to incredible educators across the globe. 

Doubt, leading to a lack of confidence, often clouds our true abilities.   Our minds are quick to revert back to safe mode when we are faced with a challenge or engaging in an innovative activity.  I hope my examples above illustrate that anything can be possible.  Once you are able to unlock what’s hidden inside you, you will be in a better position to help others unlock their hidden talents, skills, and passions. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Popular vs Effective

“Effective leadership is not about speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.” – Peter Drucker

There is always an innate desire to be popular. Chalk this up to human nature, right or wrong.  Our culture idolizes movie stars, musicians, and professional athletes. We also gravitate to those who are the most popular in their respective profession, sometimes for reasons that I will never understand.  The world basically stopped and mourned when Angelina Jolie announced that she was divorcing Brad Pitt. Kim Kardashian, on a recent vacation to Mexico, took over 6000 selfies and the masses ate it up.  In her case, social media has only increased her popularity exponentially.  We can even take a look at social media numbers in general.  Individuals with large followings are often placed into the popularity column, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are effective at what they do.  

Popularity means different things to different people and unfortunately can have a negative impact on the change process. The popularity bug impacted me early in my career.  I really wasn't concerned much about this as a teacher, but during my first few years as an administrator, it was definitely on my mind. My thought process made sense to me at least. I saw being popular with my staff as a way to overcompensate for my young age and in turn, gain the respect of veteran staff. Needless to say, all this did during those initial years was help to sustain the status quo. Nothing really changed and the results were flat at best. 

One of the most challenging aspects of education is the perception that popular teachers and administrators are also effective. Granted some definitely are, but in many cases, popularity creates a layer that when peeled away the reality comes to light. The problem, however, lies in the fact that this layer is rarely peeled away. It becomes fixated to the point that these individuals become sacred cows and untouchable.  Naysayers and antagonists use popularity strategically as a way to mask their deficiencies. It is also used to build stakeholder support for all the wrong reasons. 

Leadership is about action. It is not a popularity contest. As leaders in our respective positions, it is important to ensure popularity doesn’t get in the way of effectively meeting the needs of all learners, helping to promote and sustain a transformative school culture, or moving the education profession forward. We must be willing to make tough decisions and take on the resistance wherever it lies, knowing full well that these actions will diminish our popularity. Changes to grading, homework, instructional accountability and professional learning will all start out as unpopular decisions. However, results in the form of improved learning outcomes and the ability to help schools change at scale carry more weight in the long term than popularity does. 

Popularity does not necessarily make you a good teacher, administrator, or leader in the field of education. Your actions that lead to tangible results are what truly matter. By focusing on the latter you will not only become more effective but also pretty popular in the process. Encourage others to do the same.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Student Agency: Moving From Talk to Action

When I reflect back on what we were able to accomplish at New Milford High School, I am overtaken by a great sense of pride. We were able to transform the learning culture of a traditional school and in the process got results while becoming an example that others emulated. This was achieved during a time of tumultuous change as the education reform movement was just gaining steam. Even when doubt entered out minds, which it always does when change is involved, we persevered as a school community thanks to a unified vision that we could better serve our students.  

In a sense, all of our major changes really started when we began involving our students in the process. This was also the reason, in my opinion, as to why change became sustainable.  More often than not change is orchestrated and directed at the adult level. There is often a great deal of talk about how many changes are being spearheaded for the betterment of students, but rarely are the students themselves asked for their input or unique ideas.  Schools need to work for our students, as they are our number one stakeholder and ultimate boss. 

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If we are to improve learning and ultimately school-based outcomes student agency needs to be a real element of school culture. Student agency is about empowering kids to own their learning (and school) through greater autonomy. It is driven by choice, voice, and advocacy.  We learned a great deal about student agency during our school transformation. Below are a few practical tips to make student agency a reality in your classroom, school, or district:

  • Develop pedagogically sound learning activities with standards-aligned assessments and allow students to select the right tool for the task to demonstrate conceptual mastery 
  • Allow students to co-create rules and expectations.
  • Provide avenues for students to provide honest feedback on school culture. I held monthly meetings with all members of school government across all grade levels giving them an open forum to provide improvement ideas. We also set up an Edmodo group to continue the conversation. The key, however, was the follow-up and implementation on some of the ideas suggested. Tools like TodaysMeet and Mentimeter can also be used to gather perception data from kids 
  • Implement portfolios as a means of authentic assessment 
  • When hiring new teachers and administrators have kids on the interview committee
  • As policies that impact students are created or updated (i.e. BYOD, 1;1, grading, homework, technology purchases, space renovations, etc.) provide a forum for kids to give feedback 
  • Integrate personalized and personal learning pathways such as blended and virtual
  • Have protocols established for students to suggest new courses and extra-curricular activities
  • Implement Academies or Smaller Learning Communities (SLC’s)
  • Let students select books for independent reading based on their interests and reading level

Image credit: Jackie Gerstein

Above are some of the ways we increase student agency. What would you add? Please share some of your ideas in the comments below.

Meaningful change must begin with active student involvement. Advocacy, choice, and voice should occur in the classroom as well as the school setting. Relevancy and value on the part of our learners are central elements to success. Let’s move away from the catchy sound bites and clich├ęs and begin to implement real strategies that will better prepare students for an ever-changing world.