Thursday, October 13, 2016

4 Characteristics of Effective Education Leaders

I have worked for and with excellent education leaders who have improved morale and inspired students and teachers alike to accomplish much more than previously thought possible. I've also had a few experiences with some leaders who have caused damage to a school culture. There are four particular leadership characteristics that I appreciate most in the education leaders I encounter.

Communicate a clear vision with a clear "why."

In The Truth About Leadership, James Kouzes and Barry Posner explain what sets leaders apart from other team members:
The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders. Leaders are custodians of the future. They are concerned about tomorrow's world and those who will inherit it. (p. 46)
In schools, administrators and curriculum leaders need to be able to imagine and articulate the future that students will face. Then they need to communicate how educators can help them practice and refine the skills and knowledge they'll need to be ready for that future. Here are some guiding questions:
  • Why are we here? While it may seem obvious why educators have chosen their careers, this question goes deeper. Why are you in this community? Why do we believe in this school and these specific students? What is the one thing we want our students to know or believe when they graduate?
  • What do we do? The answer to this question will help everyone in the school understand how they are going to accomplish the goals set out by the school leader. What is the path and what can we do – day-in and day-out – in our classrooms to continue on that path and reach that goal?
  • What do we need from one another and ourselves to do those things? Every member of the school community has strengths to contribute and areas where they need help from others. A great leader recognizes all the puzzle pieces and how they fit together to reveal the vision.

Empower the people around them to follow their passions for the benefit of all.

In The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, Michael Fullan explains what motivates people to perform at their best:
Humans are fundamentally motivated by two factors: doing things that are intrinsically meaningful to themselves, and working with others–peers, for example–in accomplishing worthwhile goals never before reached. (p. 7)
Once everyone in a school or district community understands the vision and how they will get there, they need to determine how their special skills and passions will help them contribute to the community effort to reach that goal. Every teacher has a slightly different set of skills and expertise, but an education leader will know how to help teachers leverage them for the benefit of all. Here are some concrete strategies:
  • When an educator finds his/her passion and it is a passion that will benefit students' learning and well-being, a great leader will stop at nothing to remove barriers for that educator to pursue that passion.
  • Once you've identified your teachers' passions and talents, find out if they are willing to use them to help the school community work toward its larger goals. Make them team leaders, committee members, and encourage them to pilot new approaches and technologies with their students.

Model risk-taking, reflection, and growth.

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explains the qualities that school leaders should nurture in the teachers they work with:
[Growth-minded teachers] are not entirely selfless. They love to learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they tick. About what you teach. About yourself. And about life. (p. 201)
School leaders who want to stimulate and nurture these characteristics in their teachers should first model the behaviors of a lifelong learner. Get started with a few of these strategies:
  • Take risks when designing professional learning, be open about those risks, and encourage teachers to do the same with their own lesson designs. Here are some ideas for how to modle risk-taking from a previous blog post and an article I co-authored for EdSurge.
  • Involve teachers and students in decision-making while still being decisive. If using surveys, share the data openly with your faculty and staff and explain how it is being used. When creating committees, be sure they truly have some say over the decisions they are charged with.

Build positive and honest relationships

In order to build a community of trust in which everyone knows they will be both lifted up and held accountable, leaders must be willing to have difficult conversations at the right times. In Managing Difficult Conversations, Fred Kofman explains how to remain true to yourself and open to your counterpart so you can arrive at a fair conclusion:
You want three things out of these conversations: Feel good about yourself, relate to the other person positively, and achieve your shared goals. Instead of jumping into a the problem, remember that how the other person feels is primary in order to make the conversation successful.
When education leaders can model how to manage the process of a difficult conversation with their faculty it will lead to a more honest and positive culture throughout the school. Here are a few things to remember:
  • Tough conversations don't have to be adversarial. All parties are involved in the conversation because they have a goal. If they can figure out what aspects those goals are shared then they can move forward together.
  • Critical friends are possible. Consider learning and utilizing structure to help with particularly difficult conversations. Protocols can help provide that structure and lay some ground rules that will ensure the conversation will not stray from its intended purpose.

These four characteristics are not meant to be an exhaustive list. What characteristics have you encountered in the effective leaders you've worked with? If you are a leader, what characteristics do you strive to improve?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The shocking things teens are doing online

When we write or talk about #edtech, we are often referring to the role of technology in teaching and learning. How can technology help teachers collect more data on their students? How can it help students be more creative? How can technology facilitate personalized learning? How can it connect learners with high quality resources and experts from beyond their classrooms?

These are noble pursuits, but we would be wise to remember that social media is perhaps the most popular way that our students use the technology they hold in their hands both inside and outside of our schools. There are many websites, videos, and speakers out there who do their best to warn teens about the dangers and pitfalls of social media. And there are many dangers.

But what if we approached it differently? What if we encouraged and lifted up our teens so that they truly believed it is within their power to make great and positive change through their use of social media?

Most recently my school, St. John's Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts, described people who choose to act to make positive change as UPSTANDERS. This short but powerful and honest video explains what an upstander is.

#StandUpForGood from Ben Cormier on Vimeo.

Not sure how to broach the possibility of taking action through social media? There are plenty of examples to draw inspiration from. If the teens in these examples can make change, why can't your students?

Hannah Alper is a 13 year old social media activist who calls herself a Kindraiser. Her website and Facebook page have thousands of followers because she keeps them updated with good news about people who are upstanders. Just read a few stories. They are simple, inspiring, and will leave you feeling like you can make a difference. If a middle schooler can spread positive stories and create her own movement, what can your amazing students do?

Ziad Ahmend started redefy at age 14, but he has grown his team significantly in the 3 years that have followed. With the mission to "boldly defy stereotypes, embrace acceptance and tolerance, redefine our perspectives positively, and create an active community" his team – which includes too many for this blogger to count – is comprised entirely of high school students from throughout the country. The stories page of his website is filled with true and raw stories of teens coping with stereotyping from around the globe. How can your students give others a voice when they deserve to be heard?

Trish Prabhus, now 16, read a news story in the fall of 2013 about an 11-year-old Florida girl who took her own life after facing repeated cyberbullying from her classmates. Trish was 13 at the time and immediately took action. She created an app called Rethink that is free, easy to install on iOS or Android, and asks social media users to think carefully about what they post by detecting potentially harmful words and phrases that are typed. It is nonintrusive and has been found in studies to reduce overall willingness to publish harmful posts from 71% to 4%.

Let's start changing the conversation with our students. Let's engage them by asking how they are using social media and how it makes them feel. Let's empower them by sharing the stories of their peers from all over the country and globe who choose to use the internet to be upstanders. Then, let's let them explore – with our encouragement and guidance – as they find their own path to make positive change using the powerful tools ate their fingertips.

Find out how to start these conversations in my recent post for ConnectSafely: Engage, Empower, Explore.

Friday, September 23, 2016

You're Going to #GoOpen. What's Next?

The U.S. Department of Education's Open Education initiative, also know as #GoOpen, came to New England for a summit hosted by Dr. Daniel Downs from North Reading Public Schools at the Amazon offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts today. Leaders like Kristina Peters, Andrew Marcinek, and Grace Magley spoke, and I was honored to be asked to speak about how openly licensed resources and tools can be used to help create high quality learning experiences for our students.

All students deserve great teachers, and great teachers deserve access to the resources they need to customize learning experiences for their students. But once they have access, what's next?

How can we motivate students to want to read and learn deeper with these resources?

We have to start by inspiring them with great questions. These questions shouldn't be based on standards, rather they should inspire our students to want to master the content and skills in the standards. There are examples of inspiring questions in the lessons highlighted in the slide deck below. If teachers are looking for help crafting these inspiring questions, ASCD's resource on essential questions is a great place to start.

What do classrooms look like when these tools and resources are being used well?

Learners need spaces that allow them to share, move, be quiet or loud, and create. Traditional classrooms encourage obedience, but obedient students are not necessarily learning. Included in the slide deck below are photos of creative uses of spaces in schools I've worked in for the past few years. Check out this brief interview where I talk about how to redesign your classroom, even if you have no budget, by involving your students.

There is a lot out there! What is the best OER to help teachers get started?

There are search tools, like OER Commons, Edmodo, and Follett Destiny. But what if you are just starting to look into OER and wading through the search results feels a bit overwhelming? I've put together a list of my top 4-5 OER sources in four content areas. The names are hyperlinked in the 3rd to last slide on the deck embedded below. Or just Google the names of the sites listed on the graphic.

What tools should teachers use to gather OER and then distribute them to their students?

First an foremost, if your school has an learning management system (LMS) take advantage of that powerful platform to curate resources, distribute them to students, and to give and receive feedback from students as they are learning. If your school doesn't have an LMS, create a class website or blog that can be a central place students and parents know to find everything they need for your class. Post links to the OER you plan to use there. If you aren't ready to create a class website, one platform that is cleanly designed and works well on a browser or as an app is TES Teach. It is an easy free tool. There is even an example of a middle school math teacher who uses it well in the slide deck. Here is his lesson

How can we protect our students' data privacy when using so many digital tools and resources?

Classroom educators as a group are not receiving enough information or training about how work they do with digital tools every day in their classrooms can effect their students' data privacy. The Educators Guide to Student Data Privacy was created with that audience in mind. It is a great resource for school or district leadership looking for ways to talk to teachers about this important topic. When it comes to evaluating tools, if the company who created the tool or resource you're thinking of using has signed the Student Data Privacy Pledge you are probably in good shape. Simply communicate your concerns and goals with the company and you will likely be ready to go. 

For more detail on each of the answers, please do check out the slide deck. There are lots of photos, lesson examples, and links to resources to help any school or teacher who is thinking of making the move to OER.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Make #EdTech Work for YOU, Not the Other Way Around

Some criticize technology use in the classroom as a way to draw kids in with flashy colors, sounds, and games that don't promote hard work and deep learning. I see technology use in education as a way to inspire our learners to want to dig deeper into everything they learn. It can also help our students access resources and experts from the world beyond their school.

So how can we make sure the EdTech is working for you and your students, and that it is not just another thing to add to the list of "things to do" in your classroom?

1. Better Professional Learning

If school and instructional leaders want teachers to take risks with new teaching strategies and technology in their classrooms, they have to model that risk-taking when we design their professional learning experiences. Instead of having "technology trainings" we should embed technology into all professional learning. After all, we want teachers to embed technology only where it fits well into their students' learning experiences. It makes sense for teachers to experience learning in the same way first.

Not all teachers see the influx of technology into schools as a positive. Traditional teacher-centered education models that seemed tried-and-true are being questioned. Help open up traditional mindsets by sharing encouraging stories, giving teachers time to tinker with new tech, and modeling the risk-taking you want from your teachers. Kyle Pace and I shared our experiences and ideas for how to make this happen. The ideas are realistic and really work.

Now, if the teachers and students in your school are going to start using devices, apps, and programs more, they need to be prepared to be positive and responsible users. Technology can be empowering and can unleash creative genius, but it can also be distracting and even addicting. My colleague, Julie Cremin, and I developed a professional learning model that empowers teacher to integrate digital citizenship vocabulary and themes in every content area. It also means teachers empower their students to use, discover, and create with technology while staying safe and secure.

2. Inspire Students to Take Action

While professional learning can inspire teachers, it is the teachers that can inspire students. Push yourself, and encourage your fellow teachers, to give students access to high-quality interactive online resources, give them choice about how they show their learning, give them feedback as they struggle through the learning process, and then celebrate and reflect on what they create. It may sounds like a tall order, but it can be done in a 4 step process.

Want to see some examples of how students can benefit from this process? Check out my TEDx Talk. It isn't just their final products that will amaze you, they will also find a way to build a classroom community because they grow accustomed to struggling, learning, and celebrating together.

3. Choose the Right Tools to Meet Your Needs

As schools start thinking about putting devices in student hands, they need to consider which device is the right choice for each age group, the resources they must access, and the tools they should be using to refine their skills. Even if you cannot purchase any more devices for this school year because of budget deadlines, this article from ConnectSafely can help you determine how to best budget for next year.

Once the device is purchased, there are thousands of apps for technology directors and teachers to comb through. How can we decide which will both promote student learning and keep our students safe? When it comes to pedagogy and district goals, this 10 question checklist – created by Ross Cooper and I – can help guide the way. When it comes to data privacy, classroom teachers don't have to leave it to administrators and tech directors alone. Every educator should play a role. ConnectSafely and Future of Privacy Forum worked together to publish this guide for educators that can help.

4. Dream Big When It Comes to Student-Centered Uses of #EdTech

Entrepreneurs and innovative classroom teachers are always dreaming up the next exciting trend in EdTech. But if that trend has the potential to truly improve student learning, we should speak up about it. Today's trends include augmented reality and virtual reality. Are these really just games, or are they powerful learning tools? Try them with your students and ask them with they think. This EdSurge article has a few ideas to get you started. You and your students should decide if they're worth the hype. Then share your findings.

Looking to inject more student voice into how technology is used school-wide? A student-driven help desk might be the answer. Some school call them innovation labs while others refer to them as technology teams. The exact name doesn't matter much. What does matter is that a group of committed students get to consistently tinker, create, and share their ideas with their teachers. Check out this EdSurge article to hear directly from students who have been part of pa program like this. If they value the opportunity, would your students value it too?

5. Tell the Story of Your School with Social Media

Once you and your fellow educators and students have found success with EdTech this year, share it! Parents and other community stakeholders will feed off the energy your school is building. Educators far and near will learn from you and their students will benefit as well. School leaders like principals, department chairs, and curriculum supervisors can get the movement started with the ideas in this post from Corwin-Connect.

If you or others in your school community are nervous about sharing publicly on social media, ConnectSafely has a guide written especially for educators. It provides a realistic perspective on the benefits and risks of using social media to share student work and school happenings. Just remember that if the educators working in the school with the students don't tell their stories, either no one will know the great things students are doing or someone else will tell their own version of those stories. Educators are a hopelessly optimistic bunch. Let's spread that optimism.

Make sure EdTech is working for you, not the other way around.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Half-Truths of Collaboration in Education

In a healthy collaborative situation, I know I can create better work and deliver a higher quality product to teachers and students. This might be the reason that my favorite part of the writing process is going through edits, feedback, and revision. If a person I trust can read through a piece with fresh eyes and perspectives, I am eager to consider their ideas, concerns, and even the most minor wordsmithing. Notice, however, that I prefaced that last statement with the caveat that it must be a person a trust.

Taking the time to build a relationship of trust must occur before healthy honest collaboration that challenges all individuals and improves the collective results. Without building that trust, we are left with "half-truths" about collaboration.

In Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work, Dufour, Dufour, and Eaker explore these half-truths.

1. "First, educators often substitute congeniality for collaboration (Barth, 2006; Segiovanni, 2005). If the members of a group get along with one another or perhaps read and discuss the same book, they are satisfied they are a collaborative team. They are not–just as good friends or the members of Oprah's Book Club ar not collaborative teams." (p. 182)

Classmates and colleagues who have similar personalities or interests might end up becoming friends. We might be able to laugh together about happenings in our classrooms and we might even share exciting or discouraging moments with one another. Perhaps we gather at a local establishment on Thursday or Friday afternoons to talk about topics outside of education. All of this is helping to build trust, but it does not mean we are collaborating.

2. "The second half-truth asserts that 'collaboration is good.' But there is nothing inherently 'good' about collaboration (Fullan, 2007; Little, 1990). It represents a means to an end rather than an end itself. Collaboration can serve to perpetuate the status quo rather than improve it, to reinforce the negative aspects of the culture rather than subject them to collective inquiry." (p. 183)

A quick conversation by the copy machine about a difficult student is a great way to relieve stress, but it isn't collaboration. A laugh over lunch about one of those moments in class that should go into your "someday" comedic book about the real life of a classroom teacher is fun, but it isn't collaboration. Again, these conversations help establish trust and build relationships with colleagues. They are the building blocks for potential future collaboration. But they, alone, do not constitute collaboration.

To me, collaboration means that all parties are willing to give, receive, and respond to both critical and positive feedback. It isn't about being best friends, although everyone should be positive and professional. It isn't about coming together to vent about standards or students. It means all parties are committed to using their dedicated collaborative time to improving themselves, helping their colleagues, and improving their students' results.

Barth, R. (2006). Improving relationships within the schoolhouse. Education Leadership, 63(6), 8-13.
Fullan, M. (2007). The new meaning of educational change (4th ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Little, J. (1990). The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers' professional relations. Teachers College Record, 91(4), 509-536.
Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the heartbeat: Leading and learning together in schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Four Elements of Paperless Learning

My journey to the paperless classroom started years ago. Even then there was both excitement and criticism around the concept of eliminating paper from our learners' academic experiences. Now that we are in an era where technology is a given, and no longer something special, is "going paperless" still worth discussing? What does "going paperless" really mean, anyway?

Here's my definition:
Paperless Classroom: Students and teachers use all available tools to access resources, record and organize information, communicate among themselves and with the outside world, and create original products as evidence of learning. As with all other resources and materials, paper is only used when the learning process or final product requires paper as a necessary element. Paper does not drive the process.

There are obvious economic reasons for going paperless:

  • Economy of costs: Paper is a significant percentage of every school's budget each year. If teachers and students use less of it, then schools save money.
  • Economy of time: Teachers use big chunks of their prep time standing at copy machines waiting for packets to assemble and appear in the output tray. Distributing and collecting paper worksheets also takes time away from learning during class time. Instant digital distribution and collection eliminates these time sucks.
  • Economy of convenience: It is quicker and easier to find, curate, and send resources to students, parents, and colleagues using paperless means. For instance, it is quicker and easier to send an email home with links to missed readings, videos, and activity instructions than it is to pull together a folder of class work and deliver it to a family.
While these are the reasons some educators have started on the path to going paperless, the truth is that a paperless learning environment can be truly transformational. Even if some teachers make the leap for the three reasons above, they should be moving toward these four game-changing elements of the paperless learning environment:

1. Open Doors to Open Education Resources

About a year ago I wrote an piece for EdSurge and said that Open Education Resources (OER) were one of 4 top trends for the coming school year. OERs are more than a trend. OERs can fundamentally change they way teachers design their students' learning experiences. What's more, they help students understand that they, like their teachers, can feel empowered to find their own high-quality sources of information. OERs include primary sources, documentary videos, audio podcasts, lesson and project plans, hands-on activities, infographics, artwork, and a whole lot more. Why not unlock all of the potential that OERs make possible for your students? Committing to a paperless method can help lead your teachers and learners away from prepackaged curricula and texts. Encourage them toward the instructional design and powerful potential that OERs make possible.

2. Smoother Collaboration

There is more to collaboration than co-writing a Google Doc. So much more.

Ask yourself and your students, "How can technology bring us together and help us connect with the people we want to learn from?"

3. Create More and Varied Final Products

The funny thing about all the tests we take in school, both in K-12 and higher ed, is that they are the only tests we take in our lives. Once gaining my licenses and certifications at the end of my schooling, I have never taken a test since. Instead of measuring learning with a test, why not invite students to create like they will as professionals? Here are a few ideas:

If my students and I can dream up those projects, imagine what your students will do when you give them permission to be creative.

4. Practice and Refine Real World Skills

As you might be thinking already, students are using many real-world skills to create the products listed above. They have to clearly define their questions and goals, research pertinent high-quality information, organize the data, make a plan, problem-solve when things don't go as planned, give and take constructive feedback from their teacher and peers, and then figure out how to best share their final work.

These are skills professionals in all industries at all levels utilize daily. When we give students experiences like these, we are preparing them more thoroughly than any test could.


A digital worksheet is still a worksheet and going paperless should not happen for economic reasons alone. These four elements can be a guide to help shape your conversations with students and teachers about why paperless should still be top of mind. If your school or classroom is going to go paperless, why not leverage the opportunity and transform the way learning happens?

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Good, Better, Best of School Culture

It seems the universe wants me to think more deeply about school culture this week. So, I'm asking myself:

How can we achieve the best school culture?

I attended Edcamp Leadership Massachusetts on Monday (see #edcampldrma for the live tweets from the day) and the dominating theme was school culture to promote positive change and to address the current climate of unrest and inequity nationally and globally. The participants there asked themselves and one another what responsibilities schools have to intentionally shape their culture so that our students have a healthy environment to ask tough questions.

Then, of course, I read a few chapters in Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work as part of my summer learning with a few colleagues at school and the focus was on school culture. As I read, I found myself returning to the Cultural Shifts table in Chapter 3.

This and other reproducibles from PLC books can be found here.
Overall, the trend I noticed throughout the table is the quest to give all stakeholders a seat at the table. This means that administrators are working closely with faculty; teachers are constantly sharing, celebrating, and critiquing their work together; and students receive and are able to respond to formative feedback frequently. A school culture that promotes this kind of transparency will always be improving because every student, teacher, and leader has plenty of colleagues who willingly share their work for the betterment of the community.

It got me thinking about what this looks like at the classroom level and as part of that relationship between students and teacher. The work of Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey on personalized learning immediately came to mind. They also provide a chart, updated in their recent book Making Learning Personal, to help educators understand how to make the shift to a classroom culture that respects the personal learning needs of their students and promotes a healthier classroom community.

When a classroom community strives for personalization, the each learner is a stakeholder who has a clear voice in his/her own learning. While the table in the first book emphasizes the formation of a culture among the adults in the school, the table in the second book emphasizes the formation of a culture in the classroom. Why not tell our students we are working on building this kind of community and include them in it using the personalized learning table? Any time we can be transparent with both our colleagues and our students we are strengthening our school as a whole.

School culture is good when school leaders keep talking about it. School culture is better when school leaders and faculty come together. In the end, we will achieve the best of school culture when we involve our students in building that culture.