Sunday, January 27, 2019

Kid-Centric Schools: When There's a Will There's a Way

When I wrote Uncommon Learning back in 2015, the premise was to set the stage as to how we could create schools that work for kids. A good deal of the strategies presented came from what we successfully implemented at New Milford High School where I was the former principal. To get a better gist of the main focus areas check out my TEDx talk. As I have since transitioned from school principal to Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), my work now focuses on helping schools transform teaching, learning, and leadership to create vibrant cultures that kids want to be a part of. Through the lens of an instructional and leadership coach, I have been able to see firsthand how schools across the country and world are implementing innovative change with this goal in mind.

There are many isolated pockets of excellence that all of us see or experience.  It is these examples that we can use to form the foundation as to where we eventually want to move towards. However, the goal should be sustainable changes that impact all students in a school, district, or system.  In the past, I have written extensively of how Wells Elementary in Cypress, TX has evolved into a prime example of what’s possible when teachers, building leaders, and district administrators work together to move from vision to action.  I encourage you to check out the numerous posts that showcase their efforts leading to efficacy.  It is now my honor to share some insights from a high school that has accomplished some equally impressive achievements in this area.

As a lead up to some long-term, job-embedded work with all schools in the Mount Olive Schools District in NJ, I had the honor of delivering a keynote to the entire staff on Learning Transformed.  After giving the message, I was able to visit with Kevin Stansberry, the High School Principal, and Susan Breton, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction.  Both of these leaders had been in the district for many years and were able to shed some insight as to where the high school was a decade ago and the innovative changes that had been implemented over the years since.  It was a fascinating story focusing on so many challenges that were in dire need of attention.  Quite frankly, that school resembled and functioned like virtually every other high school across the country. Then, changes were made. 

The prior superintendent, with overhwleming support from the Board of Education, was a genius when it came to finances and the budget.  Not only did Kevin and Susan emphasize this, but I saw it with my own eyes as I toured the building. More on what I saw in a bit. Through numerous revenue-generating programs and decisions, money began to flow into the facility and programs.  It is still flowing into the district today and I can’t wait to see how Robert Zywicki, the new superintendent and an innovative leader in his own right, leverage these financial resources to move the district even further. The premise of what was put in place is as simple as it is brilliant – put as many resources and opportunities into the hands of ALL kids to let them flourish.  

I was in awe by what I saw, and this says a lot as I spend so much time working in schools across the United States and the world.  Ove the past ten years Mount Olive High School has designed and built with relevant learning experiences and kids in mind.  As a parent, I would love for my kids to go there and I can’t even begin to imagine how proud the community is of what has been accomplished.  To give you some insight I will now share pictures of what I saw with some brief captions in an attempt to add context from a learning perspective.  

Professional TV studio

Science classrooms outfitted with dry-erase boards on the walls.

Giant-sized Scrabble board on a wall in the library for kids to play the game. 

Drunk-driving vehicle simulators that are used in PE/Health.

A room dedicated to a biological habitat focusing on numerous different ecosystems.  I loved seeing a giant tortoise that had free range of the entire room. Students use this room for turtle rehabilitation. How cool is that?

Marine robotics lab (M.A.T.E. - Marine Advanced Technology Education) where kids design and test their inventions in a large water tank purchased by the board of education. Not only do the kids develop robots that have received national acclaim, but they also create marketing and branding for their creations. I loved seeing the unique logo they designed for the class on the wall.

Robotics lab that has a machine (dual CnC mill and CnC plasma cutter) where kids create their own parts to either fix or build their robots.

Music studio that looks and feels like the real thing because it is.  I loved seeing all of the electric guitars that the Rock and Roll Academy class uses as well as all the periphery seating to accommodate performances. 

A makerspace, referred to as "The Mill" (The The Marauder Innovation Learning Lab), inspired by some of the most innovative company workspaces across the globe.  In addition to the space itself, resources for tinkering, inventing, creating, and making were available everywhere. One of my favorite rooms was the one that housed thirty-six 3D printers. The outside of the room also contained an inspirational slogan to motivate learners to think forward.

A seasonal, climate-controlled dome (Maurader Dome) is set up for physical education classes and athletics. You can't miss the large white bubble when you pull up to the campus.  It covers a large turf practice field during the colder months and then is taken down when the temperature warms.  From 6:00 PM on the facility is leased out to local organizations for use as a great revenue-generator. 

I cannot stress enough that leadership from every level made this transformation happen and epitomizes a shift from “yeah but” to “what if.” Central office administrators worked to make funds available using creative approaches that continually generate revenue outside the budget.  Kevin, as the building principal, worked with his assistants to develop a culture of risk-taking, support, and inclusiveness.  Every room we visited he made sure to state that what I saw is open to every student.  It was awesome speaking to teachers and hear how Kevin is always open to and supportive of their ideas, no matter how crazy. Finally, I was equally impressed with the teacher leadership. Their willingness to push the envelope and make learning relevant while challenging kids to think was apparent in all that I saw and the many conversations we had.

My job allows me to see first-hand how innovative practices, ideas, and strategies are being implemented with a high level of efficacy. My role is to share all of the awesome work they are doing, but also push and guide them down a path of continuous improvement. I can’t wait to return as a job-embedded coach when the kids are present with the goal of further scaling research and evidence-based practices.

We can learn a great deal from the successful outcomes at Mount Olive High School to empower other districts and systems to design and build schools that kids appreciate and want to attend. How have you worked to make your school(s) more kid-centric and what would you like to pursue? Please share in the comments below. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Are You a Critical Consumer?

Digital literacy is more important now than it has ever been.  The exponential evolution if the Internet and social media tools have allowed for the quick sharing of knowledge, ideas, images, videos, and opinions.  The result has been a double-edged sword.  In one respect everyone with a  smartphone has instant access to information at any time and from anywhere. I for one love the fact that I can get up to the minute news, sports scores, and weather in the palm of my hand. However, there is a downside that is beginning to plague society. We have seen an influx of misinformation, claims of “fake” news, inaccurate facts, distortion of the truth, broad claims, doctored results, and opinions with not much substance behind them.  Now more than ever we must not only teach our kids to be critical consumers of digital content, but we must also model the same. 

The education space is not immune to some of the prevalent issues and challenges described above.  This is not to say that amazing ideas and strategies aren’t being shared. In fact, I for one benefitted greatly as a principal when I learned about something shared on social media and then either implemented or adapted it in a way that bolstered the transformation efforts at my school.  Case in point.  As we explored moving towards Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) in 2010, I was able to glean powerful insights and evidence of efficacy from the Forsyth County School District in Georgia. The content they shared included policies, procedures, pedagogical techniques, and professional development, but more importantly, tangible improvement results.  Motivated and inspired I then began to seek out research and more examples of successful implementation that aligned with our goals while addressing specific challenges.

Going BYOD sounded like a great idea based on what I had either read or saw online. However, not everything I consumed addressed the realities we faced as a school. Some of were too “fluffy” or not practical.  It is important when reading a blog post or article to look beyond what in theory sounds good, but in practice might not lead to improvement.  Going beyond surface level opinions and ideas is really at the heart of critical consumption.  Since many of my queries when out through Twitter at the time that is how I received the majority of the information for consumption. As more and more tools and pathways have emerged to allow educators to share it is incumbent upon all of us to take a more in-depth look so that something isn’t done just for the sake of doing it or because it sounds really good.  
“Just because something sounds good on Twitter or looks good on Pinterest doesn’t mean it is an effective practice.”
The quote above has really helped ground my approach to what I consume and then ultimately use to improve professional practice.  It also extends well beyond social media to articles, books, keynotes, workshops, and presentations. We must acknowledge that with all of the great ideas and strategies there is an equal amount that just isn’t very good regardless of the hype surrounding them. By not good I mean that there will be difficulties in either implementing at scale or showing, not just talking about, better results.  To assist in taking a critical lens to what we see or hear consider the following questions:
  • Why is this idea or strategy good for my classroom, school, district, organization or professional growth?
  • How will it positively impact learners beyond just engagement?
  • Does it align to peer-reviewed research?
  • Is it realistic given culture, budgetary, demographic, socioeconomic, and facility challenges?
  • What qualitative and quantitative measures can be used as evidence to validate whether or not it is effective at improving outcomes? 
  • How can it be sustained and scaled?

Sharing will not and should not stop. Becoming a connected educator changed my entire trajectory thanks to what I was and continue to be able to glean from my Personal Learning Network (PLN) in addition an array of other means to get information discussed in this post. It is up to you to be a critical consumer to separate quality from what in theory seems like a great idea, but in practice won’t get the results that learners and educators are seeking. Sounding good just doesn’t cut it when the bold new world demands more from our learners.  

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Know Thyself

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; Mastering yourself is true power.” - Lao Tzu

Do you know who you are?  In one sense most of us respond with a resounding yes.  However, deep down many of us, including myself, are always questioning our purpose.  By the way, this is indeed ok.  Throughout our lives, we are continually discovering and reassessing who we are. Experiences, feedback, and the environment in which we live and work shape this process in a way that ultimately helps us to realize our strengths and weaknesses.  Taking all of this into account helps us come to the realization of why we are the way we are.  It is at this point that we must continually consider changes that can be made to better ourselves and those around us.  

Quote from Andrew Murphy/image credit

Herein lies my point.  How open to change are we really? The key, in my opinion, comes down to knowing thyself. So why is this so important?  Take this view from Annalisa Coliva:
Presumably, it means to know, first and foremost, one’s character and it is crucial because only by understanding one’s character can one be aware of one’s limitations and avoid likening oneself to the gods. But, more simply, it is only by knowing one’s character that one can try and improve from a moral point of view, or make the right decisions in one’s life.
In a world where people are seemingly always trying to figure out what makes others tick it might be prudent to reflect on the very nature of why we do what we do (or what we don’t).  Understanding our own drive and resistance to change goes a long way in helping others to embrace new and different ideas with the goal of improving practice.  Your ability to define who you are and how you will make decisions can help catapult you to a level of professional practice that will continually be grounded by your sense purpose. It is your prior experiences, roles, and the people that influence your work that will help to develop enough awareness to determine and define what truly matters.  Having a greater purpose than oneself becomes a catalyst for initiating needed change. 

Let the past inform your present.  We can learn a great deal by taking a critical lens to past mistakes and failures. These can teach us to make better choices now and in the future.

Dig deep to unearth your core values. Knowing what you stand for and why you believe in certain things will provide fantastic insight as to why you make the decisions you do.

Seek out, listen to, and gain perspective from the works of other educators, leaders, and authors. Hang out with people you know have developed a strong sense of self-awareness.

Don’t’ discount your fears. These manifest themselves in many ways and ultimately dictate your actions, which in turn impact everyone with whom you come in contact. By tackling your fears head on you will be more prone to make empowered choices.

Have an open mind when it comes to change as it is a constant.  Over time you will accumulate an array of experiences, which will color your perspective. Move beyond your comfort zone, take calculated risks, and expand your outlook.

Developing a better understanding of yourself is a never-ending journey, which will help you to better understand your strengths, weaknesses, fears, and aspirations.  If you want to help others either overcome or address these areas, then it makes perfect sense to do so ourselves. Only then will the stage be set to initiating meaningful change that sticks

Take some time to get to know yourself better. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Why Connect?

I was honored to have been interviewed for Educational Leadership, ASCD's flagship magazine, on the power of Twitter as part of a Personal Learning Network (PLN). You can read the article HERE.  Since only snippets of my responses were embedded into the piece I wanted to share the specific questions that were asked and my thoughts on each. As you will see, the true power of connected learning is what you glean from the people you engage with. 

When and why did you decide to get involved on Twitter? Did you have any initial challenges or reservations about it—and if so, how did you overcome those to develop a robust network and community?

I got on Twitter in 2009, which was an accomplishment in itself as I had previously convinced myself that I would never use social media as I didn’t have the time nor saw any value in it. Thus, the biggest challenge I had to overcome was a fixed mindset regarding how I could use a tool like this to improve my capacity as an educational leader. My “ah ha” moment came in March of 2009 after having read a newspaper article about Twitter in the Staten Island Advance.  This article switched the light bulb on as I finally saw value in how a tool like Twitter could help me become a better leader. The connection was to communicate.  You won’t find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator. Once I made an initial connection to supporting and enhancing professional practice I later learned how social media tools could be used to improve other areas of leadership. As my focus shifted from communication to learning that is when I saw unlimited potential.  We don’t know what we don’t know.  The humbling moments that the social media world provided became the primary driver in my pursuit to embrace digital leadership and work collaboratively with my staff to improve the learning culture at my school. 

How long does it take to develop a strong network on Twitter or other digital platforms? Does it help to focus in on one platform--like Twitter or FB--or do you need to build a diverse network with blogs, social media, podcasts?

The time it takes to develop a strong network on Twitter, or any social media platform is dependent on the quality of the content you share and create as well as the time you put in. I have found that educators are keen for more insight on practical ideas aligned to research and evidence of actual improvement. The more you can show, as opposed to telling, how innovative practices are improving learning outcomes leads to the development of a robust and respected network in my opinion. My rule of thumb is to start small by mastering one platform first and embed it consistently into professional practice.  Whether for learning, communications, telling your story, or developing a brand presence, consistency is essential.  Once you are comfortable with the use of one tool, the next step is to diversify your digital portfolio. This will open you up to even more information, ideas, opinions, connected educators, feedback, resources, and discussion. The bottom line, however, is to use the platform that best meets your needs and goals. It’s not about how many social media tools you use, but how well you use them to further your thinking and learning to continually grow as an educator while better serving your community in the process. 

Newbies are often advised to follow certain hashtags or prominent people as a way to ‘do’ Twitter, but sometimes that’s akin to walking into a crowded party and not having any idea who to start talking to or where the food is. How does one go about building a network, really?

Hashtags are an excellent way to begin to build your network as you can spread ideas and strategies to an established group. Amplification through hashtags combined with engagement plants the seeds that can lead to a vibrant network.  The key is to share original work aligned to the specific hashtag. People want to know what leads to results and ultimate success. The more practical the ideas, the quicker your network will form.  Other elements that go into network building are honesty, transparency, actively participating in discussions, and the right balance of sharing your work with that of others. The real strength of any network is not how many people follow you, but the quality of the people you follow and connect with. 

What’s the most valuable information, advice, or a lesson you’ve gotten from someone in your digital network? How did you use it to improve your practice?

I learned a long time ago to keep my message on point and aligned with my professional work. In my former role as a practicing school leader, this meant only sharing what my teachers and kids were doing during school hours. This not only protected me but ultimately helped to promote all of our successful practices while building my staff and students up in the process. In this sense, it has to be about “we” and not “me.”  Over time I learned that education had to change. “Don’t prepare students for something. Prepare them for anything!” – This is one of the biggest lessons I have learned from my time in the space. In the ASCD book, Learning Transformed that I co-authored with Tom Murray we provide a great deal of context on this. 

What three common mistakes do you see educators make when they try to develop a professional network or community on Twitter?

  • Too self-promotional where it becomes humblebragging. 
  • Tagging loads of people in your tweets for the primary purpose of getting him/or her to share your tweet. 
  • Not responding to questions or comments that are directed to you.

On average, how much time do you spend each day on Twitter? Do you have any personal rules for unplugging?

Well, this depends on the day. My thinking is this – we all can allocate at least 15 minutes a day to learn and get better. Why not make the time to do this on a platform like Twitter where we can personalize the experience?  Balance is key. As such I do not have any personal rules for unplugging. I limit my use dramatically when I with my family so that I am present. That is the best advice I can give. 

Related to the last: How do you stay focused when you’re on Twitter—and not get sucked down a rabbit hole of distraction (oh! Those cat memes!)?

Establish some personal norms and stick with them. Self-efficacy is the only way not to get distracted. I look at it this way. My time is valuable, and there must be a professional-life balance. Thus, my use on platforms like Twitter are all aligned to how I can become more effective at what I now do – helping educators, schools, districts, and organizations transform teaching, learning, and leadership. Even though my activity can come in many forms, the focus remains the same.  If I want cat memes and such I will move over to my personal Facebook or Instagram account. 

Do you think social media platforms are a give-and-take relationship? To receive good content, do you also have to create it? And if so, how?

To get anything valuable out of life, it requires to give and take.  You don’t have to create good content to obtain anything from the relationship necessarily. Case in point. One can lurk on social media and acquire proven strategies that have been successfully implemented in schools that have led to better learner outcomes.  The acquired content can then be used as a catalyst for growth and improvement in his or her context.  If you are willing to take the ideas that others are openly giving you and using them to move your professional goals forward, then a positive relationship exists. Creating content is not a means to an end if you don’t want it to be. It is the vetting of and then using, the material that others produce that leads to evidence of improvement that creates relationships in connected spaces. When, and if, you are comfortable building your content go for it, but never think that you have to to get something from the platform. 

What do you get out of Twitter (or other online connections) that you haven’t been able to get from a personal colleague?

Timely, practical, and specific feedback when and where I need it. The convenience of having a 24/7 support network that spans the globe is quite empowering.  I often get the best feedback and advice on how to improve. Another benefit is the ability to pull from a vast collection of educators who have a diversity of strengths and unique talents. 

One worry/complaint from people who are trying to build a network online is that there’s too much content. How do you sort through “the noise” to find the things and people who are most valuable to you?

The noise can be controlled by being selective about who you connect with. The beauty of social media is that it is all about YOU! Unfollow those who clog up your streams with information or posts that don’t align with your professional goals.  You can also use a tool like TweetDeck to manage your connections and hashtags in specific columns. By doing this, you essentially are applying your filter to your feed.  

When it is all said and done the true power of Twitter, or any other social media tool for that matter, is the people with whom you connect and engage with to learn. The best ideas and strategies in education come from those who are successfully implementing them and getting results. 

The digital age allows you to create an infinite amount of rooms to engage with the brightest minds across an array of experiences in education and other fields. By building a network that works for you the short and long-term impact on your professional practice can be priceless.