Saturday, February 26, 2011

We can all be Superman

Last night, I finally sat down and watched the much bally-hooed and blogged about "Waiting for Superman".  I have been a bit reluctant to watch this film, simply because I have heard scathing reviews from people in education circles about how it was unrealistic, biased against educators, and failed to take into account numerous factors that clearly impact the success of students.  I had my critical eyes ready to tear the film to shreds.

And then I watched it.  And I saw numerous things that I could rip apart.  Standardized testing--junk.  Merit pay--don't know how that could work. Bill Gates emphasizing math and science over other skills--not just about those.  Premise predicated on very specific examples--doesn't tell the whole story.

But there was something in this film that really struck me, and it was something that is undeniable for me, no matter who might criticize my interpretation.  What hit me was the unquestionable emotion of the families who were attending the school lotteries in hopes of securing a spot for their child at one of the charter schools.  There was pure desperation in the eyes of these families, followed by either the unadulterated joy that the 'winners' had on their faces when they found out that they had gotten a seat, or the gut-wrenching sadness and defeat in the eyes of those who did not.  This hit me in the heart.

I just see that my good friend Chris Wejr just this moment Tweeted a quote by Ross Greene, which said "All students WANT to do well...we have to provide the environment and teach the skills so they CAN do well".  In the context of this film, no parent or student sets out hoping to be unsuccessful.  Each parent and student out there wants the best for their family, and is really doing the best job that they know.  If they can give their child any sort of leg up to help them be successful, they will.  And I found it hard to watch anyone who was trying to help their child be restricted in their ability to do so.

Where did the desperation in the eyes of those parents come from?  These people were desperate that their child NOT to go to another school (in the case of this film, schools in the public system).  And no matter what the context, if those were parents of students that attended my school, I would sit up and pay attention.  And I would be absolutely wrong not to.  These people are our clients,  they are clearly unhappy with the current state of affairs, and I need to seek to understand.

This is great, just a few minutes after Chris tweeted his quote, another PLN star Joe Bower tweeted this, which fits this discussion as well "U can fire all the "bad" teachers u want but if u do nothing to ensure of quality replacements nothing good will come of it all.".  This is a perfected segue into the second half of this post.  You can't just fire people and expect to solve the problem.  You can't just come up with a merit pay system and expect to solve the problem.  You can't just change curriculum and expect to solve the problem.  You can't inject some Bill Gates-ian money and expect to solve the problem.  And these are just a very small few of the band-aid approaches to systemic issues, and clearly any one of these methods in singularity will have little impact on the education system.

Which brings me to the ultimate question that the film really fails to address, how do we REALLY do this?  How do we really change things so we no longer think of our children as students, but rather as learners.  So we don't need attendance policies to make kids come to school, but rather we invoke "The Best Attendance Policy Ever Created".  So we don't need to externally motivate our children with rewards and awards, but they want to learn because it is just so damn cool.  And ultimately, so our parents and students do not have to wish to go to any other school, but are truly excited and proud about their own neighbourhood school.

I do not control politicians.  I don't have input into how the millions of dollars are spent on national health, education, defense, or other large-scale priorities.  I don't write governmental policies.  And as much as I would like to think so, I don't really have as much influence as I would like.

But I do have influence.  We all do.  And we all have a huge number of ways that we can impact our schools.  We can CARE about all of our students and parents.  We can be passionate.  We can be learners.  We can be leaders. We can be uncompromising in our focus on what is best for students above all else.  We can be open to new ideas and implement new initiatives that are student-centered.  We can work with our teachers and provide them outstanding opportunities to collaborate with each other so they can reflect upon and refine their craft for kids.  And so on...and so on.

In short, I truly believe one thing (and I have always wanted to be..)

We can all be Superman.  Even if it's just in our own little way.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Administrators: Don't 'solve the problem'!

Right now, we are currently in the midst of creating our School Improvement Plan.  I am very pleased with the progress that we are making, and perhaps even more satisfying is that we have made the Improvement Plan into an interactive blog (at our SKSS SIP Blog) and used the plan as an opportunity to teach 21st Century skills and Web 2.0 tools to our staff.  However, what I am most thrilled with is the incredible level of engagement that we have gotten from our school community.   This has been the result of taking the time to give our staff, students, and parents the opportunity to speak to each other, to have their voices heard, and to see what they have said reflected in the plan.
However, the deadline for creating this three-year plan is approaching, and we are in the throes of transforming our ideas in the form of SMART goals.  In conjunction with our Department Coordinators, my outstanding Assistant Principals and I are working through this transformation with our School Improvement Leader.  Our Department Coordinators are working on department-focused academic goals, and the admin team and our SIL are working on our school-wide social responsibility goals of increasing the sense of school and community and social And with the looming deadline, I can feel that each of us is starting to slip into the age-old curse of administration:  we are trying to solve the problem.

I think back to one of my previous posts "Why School Improvment Plans Suck" , when I jumped to 'solve the problem' like this in the past (and why I don't think administrators should 'solve the problem'):

"I looked at the last School Improvement Plan that I wrote four years ago, it sucks, and it is MY fault.  This is not to disrespect my School Improvement Leader who helped create the plan--he worked incredibly hard.  But it was me who responsible for getting stakeholder involvement, and I didn't do a good enough job of it.  I put the glossy pictures of happy things and happy kids and happy logos, I wrote the SMART goals and presented them to staff (and to their credit, they mostly went along with them), I engineered the plan!  What a backwards way to do things: it is little wonder why I had limited buy-in to the plan.  It was (and still is) a static, lifeless document with justifiably little commitment from the very people that were meant to implement it."

Immediately, one might ask the obvious--aren't administrators supposed to solve problems?  At first blush, this might seem to be a primary function of an administrative role.  However, having attempted to do this on numerous occasions myself, I have come to the conclusion when administrators wade into a situation and 'solve the problem', there is a much greater possibility that one or all parties involved will not really buy into the solution.  And having watched the process that we have gone through in developing our School Improvement Plan, I now believe that should a problem arise, administrators should try to facilitate the problem-solving process that involves the salient stakeholders.

Why don't we do this all of the time?  I think the answer is simple; facilitating a problem-solving process in which the stakeholders are engaged takes time.  More specifically...
  • It takes time to gather the group together (and depending on the issue, this could be a large group).  
  • It takes a great deal of effort to create a mechanism in which the individuals are able to participate in meaningful dialogue.  
  • Sincerely listening to the stakeholders, coming up with common language and reference points to determine the current state of affairs, the desired state, and benchmarks to determine progress towards the ideal requires an open mind and genuine curiosity.
  • Valuing where people are coming from and harmonizing this with a destination where they may be less comfortable going to takes a special set of skills.  
  • Smoothing over the inevitable bumps in the process involves copious amounts of patience and composure.
  • Staying the course and slowing the process down when the stakeholders may wish to charge ahead takes perseverance.
  • Following up to ensure that everyone is satisfied that they have been heard and taking the time to celebrate successes requires a commitment to the entire process.
In short, this process is not easy.  However, consider the alternative.  Jumping to 'solution mode' without going through the process will take significantly less time...on the front end.  But confusion arises if stakeholders do not have a chance to have meaningful dialogue and develop common language.  If there points of view are not valued they will be extremely reluctant to value other perspectives.  There will be bumps in the process, without doubt, and without patience in these situations, chaos results.  Charging ahead without considering all of the ramifications can lead to options that are often regrettable and difficult to change.  And without follow up, do we really know that we have worked through the issue?  And overall, by just 'solving the problem', a dependency on the external 'problem solver' can occur. 

Considering all of this, our admin team will continue to slow the process down to create SMART goals for our SIP.  If we wish to continue to authentically engage each of our stakeholders, and this process takes more time than just jumping to a solution, it will be time well spent. 

And to be honest, it's kind of nice not to have to 'solve the problem'.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

15 Lessons Schools can Learn From Restaurants

 And if the 'meal' is not meeting their needs and they are not eating it, we must realize that students are still hungry, and we can't just keep giving them the same meal and expect them to eat it with the "when they are hungry enough, they will eat it" mentality.  It doesn't work....
I need new carpet in my house.  I have a dog and a cat, and unfortunately, between the two of them, they have managed to pretty much destroy the carpets in each of our five bedrooms (picture leaving your cat in the bedroom and then having it claw at the door for about three hours--nice).  Factor in our two young children who seem to be harder on the carpets than football players with cleats on a soggy field, and we have a formula for new carpets.  So, we called Home Depot, had a very nice man come out and measure up our rooms, and then tell us we would have a quote by Thursday.  Anxious to find out about the cost and when we could get the carpets replaced, we didn't wait by the phone, but we were actively curious.  The call never came...

Sigh...ok, they must be busy, we'll get a call on Friday.  Hmmm, Friday comes and goes.  Nothing.  Saturday morning, still nothing.  So finally, we call on Saturday afternoon, and who'd believe it, the quote had not been done.  The person on the phone told my wife "There's nothing we can do until next week.".  We sat and chatted about this for a few minutes, and wondered whether we should be looking at another company.  Spending a couple thousand dollars on carpets is not a small deal for us, and if the first dealings we have with one of the litany of carpet options out there is negative, why would we give them our business?

I will finish this story later in this post, but this experience made me think about customer service.  I have seen a number of valuable posts that make analogies:  why schools are not like businesses, if we treated doctors like we treated teachers,and a variety of other excellent comparisons.  However, I think the one that resonates with me is around the customer service that I think is ideal when I go to a restaurant.  A satisfying experience for me at a restaurant might look something like this...
  • I probably will have heard of this restaurant through positive, word-of-mouth comments, and if I haven't, I likely will have Google searched it and gotten some reviews.
  • When I come to the restaurant, it should be inviting in every sense
  • When I walk in, I like a friendly greeting from the staff, even if it's just to be acknowledged by saying "We'll be right with you"
  • It's kind of helpful to see the menu displayed, so I know what the restaurant offers.
  • If the restaurant has been recognized in the news or elsewhere for its' service, in the community, or has employees that have been recognized for their hard work, it's nice to see those things displayed.
  • When the host or hostess walks me to my table, it's nice to have a quick conversation, and perhaps a "You will love the food here--it's awesome!"
  • At our table, I expect it to be clean and presentable.  I also expect that they recognize that I have two children, and need to have a table that accommodates this, as well as a booster seat and a high chair.
  • When the server comes, it sure feels nice to get a smile and a hello, and perhaps a description of some special entrees that are on the menu for the evening.
  • The menu needs to be clear and easy to understand.  Nothing like reading a menu and feeling embarrassed because you really don't know what the heck anything is.
  • I would like some flexibility--I know this can't be limitless (I can't order a burger at a Thai restaurant), but if I want to get salad instead of fries, or would like to add hot peppers to a pasta dish, I would like to be able to individualize my meal a bit)
  • I am patient, but don't really want to wait too terribly long, especially with my two little ones in tow.
  • If there is an issue, or something has been forgotten, JUST TELL ME!  Don't make me wait and wait and wonder, and not acknowledge me.
  • The food needs to be good!  I need a couple of "yums" from around the table, or as my two-year old says, "Dad, this is VERY tasty!"
  • I like to have a server check in on us and sincerely be curious about whether we are enjoying our meal.
  • I don't want to feel rushed out the door, but I also don't want to wait for ages to pay the bill.
  • It's really cool when the owner sees us on the way out and asks if we enjoyed ourselves, and thanked us for choosing this restaurant.  I know this is not always possible, but when the "head honcho" takes a moment to say thanks, it really means something.
So bearing this in mind, I need to substitute my school into this context...
  • People have heard of our school through word-of-mouth, and if not, they have probably searched it, or been on our website.
    • Lesson:  Our rep needs to be good, and our first contacts(ie. website, newsletter, phone greetings, etc) better be good.
  • When I walk in, I like a friendly greeting from the staff, even if it's just to be acknowledged by saying "We'll be right with you"
    • Lesson: even if the office is packed, our clients need to be acknowledged very quickly
  • It's kind of helpful to see the menu displayed, so I know what the restaurant offers.
    • Lesson: Let's make our course selection booklet very user friendly, accessible, and interactive (ie. including video clips by students for each course in our online course book), and have copies available for people while they wait.
  • If the restaurant has been recognized in the news or elsewhere for its' service, in the community, or has employees that have been recognized for their hard work, it's nice to see those things displayed.
    • Lesson learned: Our trophy cases need to be up to date, any articles that are in the paper about the school or our students need to be prominent for people to see, and our history and traditions should be evident
  • When the host or hostess walks me to my table, it's nice to have a quick conversation, and perhaps a "You will love the food here--it's awesome!"
    •  Lesson learned: When a new student comes, I need to reassure them and their parents that they WILL be successful at our school, and that we have multiple mechanisms to help them do just that.
  • At our table, I expect it to be clean and presentable.  I also expect that they recognize that I have two children, and need to have a table that accommodates this, as well as a booster seat and a high chair.
    • Lesson learned: We have an old building, but it can still be clean, with a friendly and welcoming feel to it--and this mostly will come from the people that are in it!  As well, if there is a student with special requests or needs, we must find a way to try and accommodate them.  If we truly cannot (in some very specific and odd circumstance, like we don't have a course or program that they are looking for) we must be very clear about this UP FRONT, and do everything to help them to find a spot that can. 
  • When the server comes, it sure feels nice to get a smile and a hello, and perhaps a description of some special entrees that are on the menu for the evening.
    • Lesson learned: We need to highlight the things that make us South Kam, and encourage the student and the parent to get involved in these very special things.
  • The menu needs to be clear and easy to understand.  Nothing like reading a menu and feeling embarrassed because you really don't know what the heck anything is.
    • Lesson learned: Timetables, maps, how to get around, where to park, when study block is, connections tutorials, and the like--these MUST be clearly explained and demonstrated)
  • I would like some flexibility--I know this can't be limitless (I can't order a burger at a Thai restaurant), but if I want to get salad instead of fries, or would like to add hot peppers to a pasta dish, I would like to be able to individualize my meal a bit) 
    • Lesson learned: We must try to individualize the programs that we offer, the types of instruction and assessment and interventions that we give--we must tailor-make education as best as we are able.
  • I am patient, but don't really want to wait too terribly long, especially with my two little ones in tow.
    • Lesson learned:  Return phone calls.  Don't keep parents or students waiting in the office.  Get those letters of reference done quickly.  Meet with kids now, when they need you.
  • If there is an issue, or something has been forgotten, JUST TELL ME!  Don't make me wait and wait and wonder, and not acknowledge me.
    • Lesson learned: Getting parents involved as quickly as possible when there is something that is not going well is absolutely paramount.  Academics, behaviour issues, attendance as well as the positive things--JUST TELL PARENTS!  They will understand, and try to help!
  • The food needs to be good!  I need a couple of "yums" from around the table, or as my two-year old says, "Dad, this is VERY tasty!"
    • Lesson learned: The product that our students consume must be YUMMY.  It must satisfy them.  It must stimulate them to want more.  It must make them want to come back again and again and again.
  • I like to have a server check in on us and sincerely be curious about whether we are enjoying our meal.
    • Lesson learned: We must give extensive amounts of feedback, all the time.  We must be actively curious about how our students are doing, and what we can do to improve their experience in schools.  And if the 'meal' is not meeting their needs and they are not eating it, we must realize that students are still hungry, and we can't just keep giving them the same meal and expect them to eat it with the "when they are hungry enough, they will eat it" mentality.  It doesn't work.
  • I don't want to feel rushed out the door, but I also don't want to wait for ages to pay the bill.
    • Lesson Learned:  If a parent or a student has an issue, take the time to listen to them, and seek to understand where they are coming from.  And don't take too much time to get back to them.  We must recognize that while we may have dozens of issues to deal with, they have ONE, and it is really important to them.
  • It's really cool when the owner sees us on the way out and asks if we enjoyed ourselves, and thanked us for choosing this restaurant.  I know this is not always possible, but when the "head honcho" takes a moment to say thanks, it really means something.
    • Lesson Learned: As the Principal, I need to be out there and visible with our students and our parents.  Take the time to come out of the office and ask people if they have been helped, or if there is something that I can do to make their experience a little better.
And these are just the things that come to mind when I go to a restaurant--you may have many others.  But ultimately...
  • Our students and our parents are our clients.
  • We are not the only "restaurant" in town--there are many options, including online possibilities
  • The loyalty of the client is something that we must take VERY seriously, and loyalty to quality trumps loyalty to an organization
  • The client expects and deserves excellent service
  • When a mistake is made, we need to acknowledge it and make it right
  • The most precious commodity that we hold at bricks and mortar schools is the ability to develop a relationship with students and parents
  • If we don't develop these relationships on a variety of fronts, we will lose our clients.
So to finish my Home Depot story...

...the call never came.

But a few minutes later, something happened.  The phone rang.  And it was the manager of the local Home Depot.  He apologized for the quote not being ready.  He told us that first thing Monday morning, he would contact the installer, and he would personally make sure that we had that quote on Monday.  Without fail.

And that's all it took.  A phone call.  A personal contact acknowledging that there was a mistake made.  A message saying that we were valued and important.  A guarantee that we would have the situation rectified.  And involvement from the highest level.  As a result, my wife and I are not looking at other carpet stores.

And there it is. A bit of customer service goes a long way.  For all of us.  In any profession.  But in the analogy of the restaurant, what's on your menu?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Twitter makes you dumber

Remember when it used to be cool to know everything?  You know, that Pointdexter at the front of the class that could answer every question.  The one who read ahead in the textbook so they looked fabulously smart for the teacher.  The one who knew that the teacher was going to be following that textbook chapter by chapter, page by page, and assign each question in the review before the big unit test.  Sadly, the rest of us Sweathogs (and if you don't know who those people are, just put "Welcome Back, Kotter" into a Youtube search, and you will see me in my senior high years) didn't really clue into that until years later.  We just marveled at how smart Pointdexter was.

I used to think I was pretty smart.  Not MENSA smart or anything like that.  But I could contribute to most conversations without sounding too moronic.  I could throw out the occasional fact that might wow one or two people, especially when they Google searched it and it was actually correct.  Perhaps a bit like our friend Ron Burgundy...

In my last post, The Evolution of a Twitter User, I talked about some of the feelings when I had when I first began to use Twitter.  But one thing that I failed to mention is that Twitter actually made me dumber...well, perhaps feel a bit dumber, because once I became connected to people in my own Personal Learning Network and then joined chats such as #edchat, #cpchat, #scichat, #mathchat, I realized that there are literally hundreds and hundreds of great ideas about pretty much any topic that you can possibly think of, and thousands and thousands of people that can and do contribute to those ideas to make them even better.

Once I became connected to a Learning Network, I quickly realized that I wasn't a "big deal", but I was rather insignificant deal in a gigantic pool of knowledge.  The best part of connecting to thousands of minds was while I might have felt "dumber" for a while, I also felt as though I became instantly smarter because I could tap into the knowledge, skills and resources of people from all around the world when I had a particular problem or needed some help.

An example of the power of the PLN was just this week.  I wanted to get some information from people on classroom walkthroughs.  I don't necessarily believe in them, to be perfectly blunt, but I wanted to have something that would make my visits to classrooms more purposeful and meaningful. I was also motivated by Douglas Fisher (an incredible speaker that I saw in Chicago a few months ago) and his thought of determining engagement of students in classes by trying to look at the number and types of interactions that were taking place in the classroom.  I tweeted out to my PLN a question about walkthroughs and quickly got a ton of materials and responses (thanks @Becky_elllis, @dmantz7, and @mmiller7571) from some fellow Tweeps within a few minutes.

Using some of the ideas sent to me, I thought that I might create a Google Doc form of a Classroom Walkthrough Tool that I could access on my Blackberry to collect data.  I made up a fairly rudimentary template of the SKSS Classroom Walkthrough Tool, tried it out a couple of times to make some modifications, and then thought, who better to ask about this tool than the guy who motivated me to do this (Doug Fisher) , and my PLN (you).  I will then take it to my Coordinators to see what they think of it next week, and then hopefully have some of our teachers to volunteer to work with this template to help them engage students in their classes.  So I sent this to Doug, and he was happy to help, and I am hoping that you might be able to as well.  Please make any notes that you want, steal it, share it, or comment.

And while I may never be Pointdexter all on my own, I think that I, like all of us, can be a great deal smarter when we share ideas and feedback with the collective through our Learning Network.Thanks for your help.


The Twitter Dummy (who is quite happy to be one!)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Evolution of a Twitter User

This week, a number of our staff members have joined our SKSS PLN on Twitter.  I am pretty excited about that.  I am excited that our teachers will have access to such a wide array of experts and resources online.  I have found that it is the best professional development that I have ever had, or to coin Jeff Delp (@azjd) it is perennial profesional ProD. I can't say enough good things about it, to the point that I am being ridiculed behind my back and to my front about it.  I blissfully don't care because I have never felt more energized about my job and about learning.  However, I need to digress...I also remember the way I felt the first few weeks on Twitter.  Perhaps you remember too...Put these into thought bubbles above my head, and maybe above yours too.

- What am I doing here?
- Who am I supposed to follow?  And for that matter, how the heck do I follow them?
- I have zero followers, so if I tweet something out there, am I just tweeting to myself?
- Hey, I have a follower, I better put something smart out there.  Oops, damn.  Spelling mistake.
- How do I attach a link?  Cripes, the link is huge and doesn't fit in 140 characters.  Forget it.
- Tweetdeck?  What the heck is that?  OK, try that one.  Sounds like everyone is doing it.
- OK, still don't know what I am doing here, and I don't know how to follow people.  I'll just search their name...nope.  Hmmm, don't really know what their Twitter name is.
- Right, now I can follow some people, but when I see their tweets, I see this stupid pound (#) sign and chat.  Sounds like a bunch of people are having a good conversation.  Where do I find this stuff?
- Unconferencing?  What the heck is that?  It sounds expensive.  Let's not worry about that.
- Hashtag?  That sounds illegal, didn't we suspend someone for that last year?
- Jeez, it's 9AM PST on Tuesday, why the heck is there about 50 tweets per minute with this #edchat?
- Wait, I tweeted, and someone RTd it.  Is that good?
- Whoa, I am CHATTING now.  cpchat. edchat. scichat. opensource. formativeassessment.  I am in on every conversation.  Tough to keep up with all of these great ideas.
- Ooops.  Look at all these links.  Ooooh, another good one.  Another!  I can't keep up.  What the heck is this Diigo thing?
- This person says they need help from their PLN.  Is that an airline?  Here's a link to a google document.  Hey, cool.  Whoa.  That's creepy, other people are working on this too!
- Wow, why are these people following me?  Kinda neat that they actually are reading my blog.  Not totally sure why.
- Hey, there's Chris, and Chris,and Remi, and Bryan, and Todd, and Aaron, and Gino, and Terry online tonight.  Cool stuff they are doing.  Kind of looks like what we are doing.  Let's share ours.
- I vowed this would not be social, but I have to tweet about the Grammys.  And why did I just take a picture of my feet on the couch with Pebble Beach golf in the background and send it to Dean Shareski?  Never met him before, but it was a good laugh.
- I have a Google Doc, and I need some help.  Thanks Lyn, thanks Blake, thanks David for adding to it, it's way better now.
- Let's get the staff going on this, they need to develop a PLN.
- Sure, would love to share our blog on an Elluminate chat, sounds great!  Never used it before, but we'll figure it out.
- It's actually pretty easy, just get a Twitter account, download Tweetdeck and link it up!  Linux?  No prob, use Yoono.
- Be glad to demonstrate Twitter.  And how to create a blog. And add a Dipity timeline. And add gadgets. And import your online bookmarks from Delicious to Diigo. And show you screenr so you can show others how to do it.  And use word clouds. And to get your whole staff using a collaborative Google Doc.  And...and...
- Tech policy committee for the district?  Sure, would love to be a part of it.  Let's make policies based on courtesy rather than prohibition so that kids can learn with technology and social media, not just use social media.
- New program? Never heard of Animoto, let's try it and see if it works for us. If it doesn't, I will just put a Tweet out to my PLN, and they will come through for us.  They always do.

And it goes on.  Prior to October, and prior to Twitter I knew none of this stuff, and wasn't really sure that I wanted to get involved with it.  Just a few months later, I am very comfortable trying and learning and then demonstrating and teaching new technologies because my PLN has given me the courage and the knowledge to do so.  I really feel like I have changed as an administrator, and I love it.

I know that my staff will be going through some of the same things that I was as they begin their journey in developing their own Personal Learning Network.  I just hope they have the same experience I did and continue to have.  It has made me excited to be a lifelong learner.

It really has been an evolution!

Monday, February 14, 2011


Most times when I write in my blog, I want to try to offer something concrete that people might be able to use or apply to their own situation.  Tonight is a bit different.  I want to talk about our district, what happened with me over the last week around technology at our school.

In a time when many are trying to advance themselves, their schools and their districts with technology, web tools, and social media, there are often obstacles to implementation that seem insurmountable.  I know this frustration: in one of my last posts, I described the technology situation at South Kam.

"Five years ago when I came to South Kam, the technology that was available to our teachers was sorely lacking.  We had antiquated computer labs populated by throwback "Computers for Schools" donated from local businesses who no longer wanted them.  We had no common email system, and most teachers did not use email at school.  Some teachers had electronic grading programs, others used pencil and paper and then entered them into our student management system.  That was just five years ago.  And it made me mad."

My how things have changed.  Last Monday at our staff meeting, I gave a ten minute presentation about Tweetdeck and how it can open doors to a multitude of online resources and sharing.  As you might guess, I had a few staff members interested in using Tweetdeck as a result.  However, we are a linux-based, thin-client school that predominantly uses open source software.  So, when I went to install Tweetdeck on a teacher's machine for them, it didn't work.  And I found that Tweetdeck would be unstable with our network.  And, I found out that Twitter was blocked for our school (which it hadn't been only three days before).  ARRRRGH!  Great.  Sigh.  Another good thought down the tube, right?  Wrong.

In the past, I might have been worried about having to negotiate through a series of potholes and roadblocks to make this happen.  Often times, I hear of stories from my Personal Learning Network about sites being blocked, computer images deep frozen to glacial proportions, and endless bureaucracy and red tape to even get a single program put on to the network.  You can hear the frustration in people's blogs and tweets over "the back end" dictating over "the front end".  When I read these posts and tweets, I realize how lucky I am.

When I talked to our district IT department, they did not throw up a roadblock, not at all.  Twitter blocked?  Oops, no prob, let's unblock it.  Tweetdeck won't work?  They gave me an explanation why Tweetdeck would struggle with our linux boxes, and they also came up with a solution.  An EXCELLENT solution. Yoono is an outstanding open source application that is very similar to Tweetdeck, and even has a few bells and whistles on it (like being able to upload pictures, being able to manage multiple SM apps, etc).  I loaded it up for the teacher, it is now an add-on on our browser, and any of our staff can do it.  Awesome.

Last Thursday, we found that our new fiber-backbone wireless network port for our kids was only accessible by iPhones, and not by Blackberries or Android-based phones.  Only a small percentage of our kids have iPhones, so that meant the other 95% of our kids who have the other ones were out of luck.  ARRRRRGH.  Great.  Sigh.  Another good thought down the tube.  Right?  Wrong.

Our IT department fretted about it overnight, and then called me to arrange a meeting today to figure out a work-around.  At the end of the meeting, we had a solution, and by next week, we will be ready to roll with a wireless network that students will be able to access with nearly any smartphone so they can access the internet for free in our school.  No problem.  Awesome.

In our district, we have had a number of policies around the appropriate use of the internet and social media.  Some of these policies are very good, and some of them are quite antiquated.  I am really trying to push the envelope about unfettered and ubiquitous access to the internet for students at our school, and to educate students about courteous use of online technologies rather than try to "enforce the unenforceable" and ban technology and sites (never did get that one).  In the past, there would have been a great deal of fear about "opening Pandora's box" (already opened, I believe), but I now sit on a very forward-thinking committee that involves the Superintendent, Trustees, the IT department, and other relevant stakeholders (including students) so we work together and policies that are proactive and honor the ever-changing landscape of learning with technology.

We are really moving, and I feel pretty lucky to work with such a great group in our district that truly wants to do what is best for students, for teachers, and for learning.

We are making strides.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Biggest Watercooler on Earth

"Did you know you can boost your brain's problem-solving skills by simply chatting with a co-worker around the office water cooler?" - Terry Small (@terrysmall)

I saw this tweet from Terry Small this morning, and it made me think that each of us has the opportunity to have the Biggest Watercooler on Earth, our Personal Learning Network.

I know that I would not be alone in saying that my Personal Learning Network is awesome.  Each day, I still find it amazing to see the blur of information that comes across my screen when I am on Tweetdeck.  I usually have multiple threads open on my laptop, ranging from #cpchat and #edchat to more subject specific threads such as #engchat, #mathchat, #scichat, and #sped chat.  And every 20-30 seconds, another one of our colleagues standing around our giant watercooler tweets an idea or link that they feel might contribute to the greater good in education.

I find it even more amazing that any of us can put an idea out there and get almost instant feedback.  Whether it is Google Doc with a form that we need edited, a video that we have produced, a search for tried and tested resources, a good friend looking for some thoughts on a job interview, or just a question that we might have that on which we might want some different perspectives, it seems that it is only 140 characters and a few scant minutes before we have some sort of response.  Brilliant.

Stephen Covey described a concept that I believe is very important to our watercooler, the mentality of Abundance:

"Most people are deeply scripted in what I call the Scarcity Mentality. They see life as having only so much, as though there were only one pie out there. And if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, it would mean less for everybody else. 

The Scarcity Mentality is the zero-sum paradigm of life. People with a Scarcity Mentality have a very difficult time sharing recognition and credit, power or profit – even with those who help in the production. The also have a a very hard time being genuinely happy for the success of other people. 

The Abundance Mentality, on the other hand, flow out of a deep inner sense of personal worth and security. It is the paradigm that there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody. It results in sharing of prestige, of recognition, of profits, of decision making. It opens possibilities, options, alternatives, and creativity."
Terry Small also added to my thoughts on the watercooler with another tweet this morning:

"Everybody has a skill of some kind. When you share it you not only have the power to help others,but you enhance your own skill by owning it."

It is from this perspective that I am finding myself becoming a PLN evangelist.  The people that are a part of each of our PLNs are people with incredible and varied talents.  They are genuine in their beliefs, and have the courage and the mentality of abundance which drives them to share their ideas with each of us. 

I am sure that my colleagues and staff roll their eyes when I pass on links to them, show interesting tools at staff meetings, and generally talk about the litany of resources available from all around the world.  I walked into a social setting prior to a meeting last week in Vancouver, and the first thing one of my colleagues said to me was a sardonic "So, how's Twitter lately?" followed by a couple of snickers from around the table.  All I can do is smile and continue to tell the stories of all of the things that are available to them just a few short mouseclicks away. 

I just want them to come and stand by the watercooler. 

It's a pretty great place.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I like making people mad.

"You pissed me off last night."

"Why is that?"

"Because I actually went home and tried Twitter."

Right now, as the Principal at my school, I spend a great deal of thinking about the use of technology and web tools in education.  I have a great support mechanism in my outstanding School Improvement Leader, Blake Buemann.  At least three or four times a week, we bounce ideas off each other around web tools, applying them to our school, devising methods to demonstrate them to our staff, and finding ways to have these tools help us engage kids or involve parents.  Really and truly, it often devolves into us shaking our heads at the amazing and limitless tools that are available and ways that they can be applied to the classroom.

Tonight I read an outstanding Blog Post on Connected Principals by Eric Juli called "I'm No Good at Technology", and it made me think about how we are trying to implement technology and the use of Web Tools at South Kamloops Secondary.  We have moved a long way in the past few months, and I think it is boiling down to a couple of elements--role modeling and persistence.

Five years ago when I came to South Kam, the technology that was available to our teachers was sorely lacking.  We had antiquated computer labs populated by throwback "Computers for Schools" donated from local businesses who no longer wanted them.  We had no common email system, and most teachers did not use email at school.  Some teachers had electronic grading programs, others used pencil and paper and then entered them into our student management system.  That was just five years ago.  And it made me mad.

So every time there was a pilot project around technology in our district, I volunteered our school.  Thin client, linux-based computers with open source software?  Count us in.  Wouldn't mind a school piloting Zimbra (open source email), how about South Kam.  Thinking about wireless in the district, sign us up, we'll pilot it.  Want to set up a learning lab in the library, my librarian is all over it.  We are now completely wireless at our school, with a fiber backbone and separate ports for our staff, for our students, and for the public.  We are linux-based, and run on open source software, including our central email system.  We have 42 digital projectors in our school.  We have a learning lab with Smart Technology in it, and a couple of classrooms that have Smartboards as well.  And we will get more.  Our PAC is right on board with us.  We have been persistent.

But getting technology into the building is just the start, isn't it?  I have heard of schools and districts that "buy all of their kids laptops" or "get all of their teachers tablets or iPads".  My question always is, "Why?".  Just getting people technology does not help people use technology to improve instruction or engage students.  It needs to be role-modeled. 

After going to the 21st Century Learning Conference in Chicago in October, my School Improvement Leader and I decided to go for it.  We got Twitter Accounts. We downloaded Tweetdeck.  We began working in Google Docs.  Diigo toolbars adorned our browsers. We converted our school improvement plan from paper to web using Blogger, and so was born our School Improvement Plan Blog.  We began planning every staff meeting with the idea of engaging our staff with strategies that they could use in their classrooms to engage kids, and not just with technology  At our staff meeting in November, I spent a large portion of the meeting showing examples of the power of social media.  In December,we had our entire high school staff work on a blog, and collaborate on a school improvement topic using Google Docs.  We developed a communications protocol for our community using Twitter, Facebook, Buzz, Tumblr, and other tools. At our staff meeting last night, I gave a demonstration of Tweetdeck, and how it can be an unbelievable stream of resources for teachers.  And I was lucky enough to be asked to do a Webcast describing our school improvement blog last night for Parents as Partners.  We are role modeling.  We are being persistent.  And it is making a difference. 

We have a number of our staff members using blogs for their courses, and putting their courses on Moodle.  We have our math teachers using tablets so they can upload lessons to the internet. My Foods teacher asked if I knew any hashtags for Home Economics.  I found our art teacher signing up for a tumblr account during lunch.  And the engagement that we have had around our school improvement plan has been unbelievable--staff, students and parents are in!

But best of all, one of my most veteran teachers came into my office this morning after the staff meeting last night and said:

"You pissed me off last night."

"Why is that?", I asked.

"Because I actually went home and tried Twitter."

Role-modeling and persistence.  They are making difference.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Educational Autopsy

The end of the semester has come and gone at most schools across North America.  It is a time for a fresh start for students and staff.  It is the culmination of a course at one end, and the new beginning to other courses at the other.  For me, it is a time that I start to do "The Autopsy", where I look at summative data of a semester gone by: I begin to look at the success rate/failure rate in each of our courses.  I call this "The Autopsy" because it seems akin to a doctor coming along to his patient and trying to figure out what went wrong when the reality is that the patient is already dead.

Why do I do this, you might ask.  Scratch that, you SHOULD ask me why I do this.  You should be saying "You are an idiot.  Don't you think it would make more sense to look at this while the patient (student) was still alive and your treatment (school-based interventions) still have a chance to make a difference?".  And if you asked me that, I would sigh like I always do and agree, you are exactly correct. 

This semester, we had over 1400 students take just over 5200 course instances (ie. on average, each student takes just under 4 courses per semester--some of our seniors had a study block).  We had 216 course instances failed, which represents a success rate of 95.8 percent across all of our courses.  Since beginning the Professional Learning Communities journey at our school four years ago, this represents the fourth year in a row that our success rates have increased.  This is tremendously successful, and attributable to the hard-working staff at our school, their approach to teaching and assessment, and the numerous interventions that we have at our school.

However, I fret.  Of course these results are very good.  Of course a huge number of our students are being incredibly successful.  But one thing that I know is that all of that success doesn't matter all that much to the students that were not able to pass the courses that we offered to them.

Failure has a number of costs.  From a cold and pragmatic perspective, it has a financial cost.  Many of the students in our senior grades will have needed one or more of those courses to graduate.  We will have hired a teacher for that course that they just failed, and we will provide another one for them to try to get through another course to get their credits to earn their Grade 12 diploma.

Failure has a logistical cost.  So now what?  A student has been unsuccessful.  Do we make them repeat the course?  Of course, the research is abundantly clear that retaining a student has zero benefit, (see Hattie, p 97 in Visible Learning).  Do we pass them along without some of the requisite skills to be successful at the next level?  Do we find learning supports, move them along to the next course, and give targeted remediation?  Where do the supports come from?

And of course, failure has a huge emotional cost: it has a cost on the self-esteem of those who have been unsuccessful.  I have never believed that a student starts a course with the intention of failing.  I am going to guess that every student who is beginning a course here in the second semester is thinking about what they are going to do meet the outcomes of the course and pass as opposed to a carefully laid plan outlining their educational demise.  And don't think that it is a great moment for the student when they go home and break it to mom and dad that they didn't quite make it through that course.  No matter how much someone puts on a brave or blustery spin on it, it stings.  Failure is not fun.  And for those people who say "failure teaches kids", imagine being a fly on the wall listening to the two parents when their child leaves the room after giving them the bad news.  Not a great moment.

From where I sit, I tend to get reflective at this point in the year.  I tend to ask questions:

- Did we do all that we could? 
- Did we meet with the student early in the course to determine their interests, and how they like to learn so we could maximize their engagement in the course? 
- Did we develop a personal connection to the student to let them know that we care about them, and that we will work with them to help them through this class?
- Did we involve the parents so they could be partners in the learning process through frequent communication (ie. via phone, email, creating a class blog or webpage, weekly progress updates) 
- Did we try to differentiate the learning experience for the child through engaging methods of instruction and multiple, frequent and varied methods of assessment?
- Did we use assessments to inform and alter our practice?
- Did we sit with the student and have an honest conversation as to what we could do that would help them be more successful?
- Did the student get sent to our Connections Tutorials? 
- Did they get the small group help that they needed during our mandatory study block? 
- Were they asked to stay in at lunch to get extra help? 
- Did they get referred to our Academic Intervention program? 
- If none of these worked, was our counselling department involved? 
- Did we bring the student to School Based Team Meetings and make an alternate plan? 
- If attendance was an issue, was the administrative team involved?
- Did we get the parents, the student, the counsellor, the admin team, and pretty much everyone else who could make a difference in to a meeting to pull out all the stops and see if there was any way to make this work?

This is not an exhaustive list, but it seems to me that when we do all of these things, the odds of students passing their courses should be incredibly high.  I think we have a tremendously successful student body because when we see students starting to fall down we ramp up the support and wrap it around them so tight that they can't get away.

But every year I do the educational autopsy, which tells me that I still have a long ways to go.  And although better than 96 percent of the time we are successful, more than 3 percent of the time we are not. 

And I don't think we can stop until the educational autopsies become a thing of the past.  I would much rather be taking students through their educational physicals en route to them being successful in all of their courses.  Every time.

All failure teaches me is that we still have a long ways to go.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Get Admin Connected - Help them find "The Switch"!

I’m fatter than I was when I was in university.  Yup, not much doubt about that.  I was in pretty good shape back in those days.  I could run 10 kilometers in right around 40 minutes.  I could bench press 275 pounds.  I could dunk a basketball (at least if someone alley-ooped it for me).  I had the makings of a flat stomach.  I could drive a golf ball 280-290 yards.  I probably was better looking (but 2 times 0 is still zero, so whatever).  Can you hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” in the background?

Now, I run a couple of times per week, and my knees hurt.  40 minute 10km run—ha, not quite, maybe break 48 minutes and throw up after.  My shoulder would pop right out of it’s socket en route to my decapitation if I tried to bench 275.  290 of the tee needs a big tail wind and a severe elevation change for me now.  As for the stomach part, well, I guess I could wear pants with a 30 inch waist, but a 36 is much more comfortable and doesn’t disgust family and friends nearly as much.  Why am I telling you this?  It will provide illustration for “the switch” that is inside each and everyone of us.  I will get back to that.

On Sunday, I got the opportunity to spy on one of the Educon sessions in Philadelphia that was put on by George Couros and Patrick Larkin.  The talk centered on the question of “How to get more administrators connected”—in this case, to social media and Web 2.0 tools.  Of course, not being at the conference, I had to rely on the online AV feed, the chat, and the back chat that was taking place on the #educon thread on Twitter.  The session was fascinating and invigorating:  there were multiple perspectives—teachers, administrators, parents, even representatives from tertiary education.  There was plenty of emotion, numerous bits of gentle finger-pointing, examples of accepting blame, and a general bearing of souls.

As a result of this session, I wanted to support George and Patrick.  They are two of the many crusaders that are out there trying to push people into uncharted waters.  And they need help.

So I thought that I would jot down my Top 5 ways PLUS ONE to get administrators connected.  I am only one person, (I fully recognize and accept that) but I represent the voice of a busy high school principal with (two children under the age of three) who did not utilize anything more than email and Powerpoint just a short four months ago.  For some reason, I now am considered by some (probably more wrongly than rightly) to being a technological leader in my school and school district.  So, here goes—this is how I think we can encourage administrators like me to get connected.

But there is one qualifier: I believe the first five thoughts here really do make a difference, and I mean that sincerely. And if they don’t work at first, perseverance says try, try again, and DON'T give up.  But as compelling as these strategies might be, as convincing as you may think you are, and as often as you are going to try (and please do keep trying), the sixth one is the kicker.

1.     Create a sense of urgency:  As someone new to social media and getting connected and, I needed to feel this urgency.  If you like fatty food, going to the doctor going and finding out your cholesterol is too high, that your gall bladder is malfunctioning, or some other critical issue allows you to play the movie forward and see what things might look like if you don’t make some changes.  Maybe this analogy is too rudimentary and crude, but there needed to be some sort of initial, armpit sweat-generating moment for me to want to embark on the social media journey.  For me, it came from two speakers, Will Richardson (@willrich45) who gave a keynote in Chicago in October, and Tony Wagner's Keynote made me think completely differently with respect to the skills that children will need in the future

2.     Show them the potential for improving the capacity of their organization:  Every school-based and district-based administrator wants to have an organization that is brimming with capacity.  Distributed leadership is incredibly important, and (hopefully) all administrators recognize that having an school or district filled with people who will lead the charge in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and technology is a rich district indeed.  Show them this video—it makes so much sense in terms of developing capacity.  Check out this TED Talk, a talk that we all need to watch.

3.     Show them something cool:  I posted this on my blog a while ago when I stole it directly from George Couros (@gcouros—a must follow).  It demonstrates the power of a PLN through Twitter, Screenr and Google Docs.  It is very cool, and in your own context, I know you can come up with something even cooler.

4.     Pester them with your support:  Nothing glamorous or Web 2.0 here. Administrators need to be worn down a bit.  Invite them to your school or classroom.  Show them what you are doing with social media, with blogs, wikis.  Even better, have your students pester them, have your students demonstrate what social media does.  If a Grade 6 student can use social media, for the love of mercy, I think an administrator with a few letters behind his name can do it to, can't they?

5.     Show them examples of other Admin that are doing it:  There are SO many to list, but it’s pretty tough to get a better example than senior administrator Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of West Vancouver.  There are hundreds of principals out there as well, but Chris is pushing this aspect of the Superintendency to a new level.  As well, here is a list of administrators in British Columbia, and a list of Canadian Educators on Twitter just as an example, and here are a few more from cybraryman1 (thanks to @TheHomeworkDog and @sram_socrates)

But there is one more point to consider after looking at this list (PS. I am positive that others will come up with much better lists than this), and it is absolutely key.  Isaac Newton said:

"If I have seen further than others, it has been because I am standing on the shoulders of giants" 

Yes, we need to get to know giants. We need to seek them out. We need to stand on their shoulders.  But we also have to have the intrinsic motivation to climb up on their shoulders.  Alfie Kohn would agree. Something needs to flick that internal switch—it is a switch exists in every one of us.  The hard part is, your switch truly lies out of the reach of every last person on this planet, save for one.  YOU.

What made me want to get a Twitter account?  ME.  What made me want to start a blog? ME.  What made me want to work with our school improvement leader to create a dynamic School Improvement Plan template?  ME. What makes me want to get up early on a Sunday morning to watch a conference on getting administrators connected to social media and Web 2.0 tools?  ME.  What is going to make me try to run 10 km in 40 minutes? ME.  Bench 275?  Well, let’s not get crazy here.

The point is, we cannot make the excuse that “someone isn’t giving me the tools”, “if only I had a Principal who showed me the way”, or “my Superintendent isn’t connected, how can they expect me to be?”, or “I wish my staff would get online”.  Bollocks.  Garbage.  I won’t accept any of these.  Because at the end of it all, the reason I do something is when I can find that switch inside of myself and turn it on.

But the thing that we all have to remember about #1 through #5 is that they make that switch inside reachable.  Urgency, developing capacity, coolness, and supportive pestering make the switch inside of reluctant administrators like me and others believe that the switch can be turned on, and there will be people around to encourage us if we should ever think about turning it off.  They make us see value in the work that is going to go into turning that switch on, keeping it on, and encouraging others to find their internal switch.

And once they’ve found it, be there to encourage and support them, and keep showing them cool things that remind them of the urgency there is to adopt getting connected so their schools or districts BURST with capacity.

So my #6 is simply this:

5. Use #1-5 to help people find their switch.

And speaking of which, it’s time for me to go for a run.