Is Knowledge Power?

As I was leaving school this week after Bedtime Story Night with primary students, I caught my marquee’s new message.

Is this true anymore? I thought. It’s not that I am against knowing things. We all need to have a strong and deep base of experiences and information to make good decisions. But how we arrive at this knowledge may be the difference in today’s world compared to the past.

Coincidentally, I had just finished reading Why School? by Will Richardson. It is a short and engaging book about how schools need to change the way we as educators help students learn. No longer are we the deliverers of knowledge. Why do this, Richardson asks, when they have the sum of all human knowledge in their pockets, in the form of a smart phone? Instead, the author suggests we model for students how to ask the right questions and show them where reliable information may be found. Teachers should be surveyors instead of purveyors of knowledge.

And it is not just Will Richardson that is proposing this method of teaching. He is supported in his cause by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). This organization published a policy listing 21st-century literacies of today’s world, for teachers as well as for students:

  • develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross culturally
  • manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • create, critique, analyze and evaluate multimedia texts
  • attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

Nowhere in NCTE’s position is it stated that students must be able to regurgitate information that can easily be found through a simple Google search.

My school has started moving toward this approach for instruction. My job as a principal is to recognize that we are successful at what we do now, while continuing to learn as we teach to ensure best practices are being used in our classrooms. Activities in our approach include incorporating mobile technology in classrooms, becoming more connected educators through social media and working in professional learning communities.

Please share what you are doing in your school to meet the demands of today’s learners.

Recommended iPad Apps for Administrators

My team of elementary principals has agreed to purchase iPads. If we expect teachers to use technology with the purpose of improving pedagogy and learning, we need to model it. The fact that I discovered through Twitter that there is an iPad 4 only emphasizes our need to be connected learners. Without this knowledge, iPad 3s would be getting shipped to us as I write.

One of the first steps we are taking is deciding what apps to have preloaded on our devices. Here are a few that I am recommending to my technology director, Phil Bickelhaupt (@WRtechdirector). Many of these may be familiar to you, and I suppose there is a reason for that.

Free

  • Evernote – Excellent way to record and document gatherings (not “meetings”). Just this week, I held an impromptu staff gathering about some decisions made in our leadership team. Because of the short notice, not everyone could make it. I used Evernote to write down notes and record our conversation. Afterwards, I emailed the combined content to the rest of the staff. I am aware of at least two teachers who did listen to the audio while reviewing the notes.
  • Skitch – This app allows me to annotate over any photo or screenshot. I can then email that photo to a colleague, save it on my Camera Roll, export it to Evernote (this app is part of the Evernote Trunk), or create a public link as a final product. In the past, I have mostly used Skitch to email annotated photos of students to staff, but it seems like there is much potential with this tool.
  • Chrome – I had this app a while ago and didn’t like it. As people are want to say, Google doesn’t play with Apple. Since then, Chrome must have been improved. I can now check my school email account, modify my Google Site, work on Docs and use it as the browser that it is.
  • Dropbox – While Google Drive is nice for storing many kinds of documents, Dropbox does the rest. If I have photos or video I took in a classroom on my iPad, I can use this storage application to directly upload this content to my account. Once I have downloaded Dropbox to my computer and my phone, I can view these items wherever and whenever I want. Other perks include sharing folders with colleagues as well the iWorks Suite (Pages, Numbers, Keynote – all essential apps as well) now allowing uploading of files to Dropbox.
  • Flipboard – There is so much information out there. It is hard to wade through everything online without some type of reader app that delivers your favorite educational information to you. Flipboard subscribes to blogs and online news providers and puts the content into a magazine-style format. Content that you like can easily be shared via Twitter and email, or saved to read later. Zite is a similar reader app that is popular with educators.

Paid

  • GoodReader – This tool has been described as the Swiss Army Knife of apps and for good reason. As a principal, I have many files and documents I need to read, but I don’t always have time to do it. With GoodReader, I can save and organize this information into folders. I can also retrieve files from Dropbox or Google Drive by linking these accounts to the app. One of the best parts of GoodReader is being able to annotate and highlight a PDF, then save it and email it to a colleague later.
  • Notability – If the interface of GoodReader is a bit too busy, check out this app. It has a much cleaner look and is somewhat easier to organize files. Although I cannot connect with Google Drive, I can upload content from Dropbox. I use both apps for different purposes. While GoodReader is excellent for reading (hence the title), Notability is great for jotting notes with the handwriting tool. I can also import photos into the document as well as record audio. I think there is a lot of potential for using this tool with instructional walkthroughs. So why not use Notability instead of Evernote? Even though the former allows me to handwrite, the latter embeds the audio within my notes when sharing the content online.
  • Instapaper – When you think about it, the majority of our days are spent reading, much of it online. Viewing this much web content can be hard on the eyes. Instapaper is an app that allows me to bookmark text online and read it later in a plain, Kindle-like format.
  • Grafio – This app allows me to create diagrams and flow charts for my ideas and plans. It is very intuitive in that when I attempt to make certain shapes, it autocorrects the circle or square so it is perfect. Dragging a finger from one shape to another creates an instant arrow link. I have used this app to create a visual for my building’s professional development plan and to assign lunch supervisors to specific parts of the building.
  • iMovie – Creating videos using photos, video and audio is a cinch with this app. In my humble opinion, it is better than the Mac version because it is simpler. I can stretch out the audio or photo in the timeline by spreading the file out with two fingers. Uploading the finished movie to YouTube or Vimeo allows me to share the final product through a web link. I have used this app for recognizing student achievement and recording student book talks.

As an elementary principal, these apps are what I use the most. What are your favorites? Please share in the comments.

Resisting What We Need the Most

I recently ran across some terrific posts by Christine Comaford, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, about growth and change. Although she puts her advice in the context of business, her writing is very applicable for Educational CEOs (otherwise known as administrators).

For instance, in her post How Change Fails: CEOs Focus on Symptoms NOT the System, she explains that for organizations to be successful, leaders need to explicitly explain to their staff that experiencing friction when growing is a normal part of the change process. Christine also points out that when these issues arise, as leaders we need to look at the system to find a solution rather than focusing on the problems. She includes a nice visual in her post:

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Image Credit: Christine Comaford Associates, LLC (c) 2011

As school leaders, imagine all the fires we put out in a day, yet don’t take the time to reflect on how they started in the first place. Consider the following:

– There have been several instances of physical aggression on the playground between students (hypothetically speaking, of course). Are we serving the students best by suspending them repeatedly every time it happens, or by taking the time to listen to concerns and help them solve the problem in a more socially acceptable way?
– The noise level in the cafeteria is too high. Do we split the students up and take away their social time, or do we reteach everyone what an acceptable volume of talking sounds like?
– You introduce technology to staff with the goal of using it to augment instruction and increase student engagement and learning. When teachers express concerns that they don’t have the time to put one more thing into their day, should we dismiss their worries as just complaints, or should we offer opportunities for discussion about these legitimate issues?

I think most of us know the answers to these scenarios. Yet we as leaders don’t always react as we want and should. We can chalk it up to forgetfulness, lack of time, or just taking an easier yet temporary path to peace once again. But the easier path is also the status quo. Change is hard. At the same time, we have to follow that path if schools expect to stay relevant for students today and in the future. And that requires vision, based on a school’s beliefs, values and mindset. Going back to our foundation is the best and probably only way to continue growing as a community of learners.

Reflections After Introducing Writing ePortfolios to Staff

(This is a communication I sent to my faculty this afternoon. Last night they were all trained on how to use iPads to develop writing ePortfolios.)

Staff,

Thanks again for your willingness to take a step forward in integrating the iPad and Dropbox technology into your instruction and assessment. Just like the students, we need to extend ourselves sometimes and feel some “uncomfortableness” to become better at our profession.

Vertical teams for writing start tomorrow. Please communicate with your team where you will be meeting at 8 A.M before tomorrow arrives. If you can communicate these locations I will post them. The team assignments can be found on our Howe Teacher Site: https://sites.google.com/a/wrps.net/howe-elementary-bulldogs/pd/contact

What will you do tomorrow and at future vertical team collaborations? Our goal for all of our collaboration time is to improve student learning. Here are some possibilities:

– Develop norms, like you did as grade level teams.
– Discuss best practices in writing instruction.
– Use the ePortfolios, take one sample from each grade level, and compare across the building K-5 to analyze levels of academic expectations.
– Support each other in learning these new technologies.
– Celebrate your successes.
– Watch Regie videos and discuss samples/examples of exemplary student writing found at http://www.regieroutman.com.
– Use the writing rubric resource books and develop common assessments to share with the rest of building.

I am very proud of everyone for continuing to open your doors to your colleagues. Revealing our needs and identifying where we could improve our instruction collectively is the best way to increasing student achievement and learning. Remember: “Good schools are collections of good classrooms” (Richard Allington). This definitely describes us. We all do excellent things in our classrooms. You are the greatest learning resource for your colleagues.

-Matt

The Writing Principal: Tips for Administrators Considering Blogging

Before You Start Blogging…

  • Read other administrators’ posts. Go to badgeradmins.wikispaces.com for a comprehensive list of recommended blogs. Emulate their style and structure when developing your own voice.
  • Determine your purpose for blogging. Do you want to communicate with families? Reflect on your own practices? Connect with colleagues? All of the above?
  • Think about what you want to say and/or jot down your ideas on paper first. Doing this prior to writing a post helps organize your thinking.
  • Connect with educators on Twitter to build your professional learning network. You will want feedback on your posts. This social media tool is a great way to share your writing with others.
  • Write, type, then blog. At least initially, write your post on a word processor and copy/paste your writing into your blog.
  • Choose your tool. Determine which blog service you want to use. I prefer WordPress. Google Blogger is also popular.

When You Start Blogging….

  • Focus on being a writer first, the writing second. This is a great tip from Regie Routman. What it means to me is, without being engaging, thoughtful and to the point, it doesn’t matter what I am saying because no one will want read it. The messenger is just as important as the message.
  • Get your ideas down. Worry about conventions later.
  • Save it before you publish. I reread and revise my posts many times before publishing. Barry Lane’s five steps for the writing process are revision, revision, revision, revision and revision.
  • Share your post with someone you trust before sharing it with the world.
  • You can be critical, but always be kind.
  • Add lots of tags. These are the breadcrumbs that allow others online to find your great ideas.
  • When you have ideas, get them down. Save your thoughts as a draft and come back to it later when ready. I have a draft I have been sitting on since August. It won’t be ready to publish until May.
  • Put yourself in your writing. People respond to humor, questions you have and anecdotes.
  • Share your posts out on Twitter and other social media tools.

After You Have Started Blogging…

  • Thank those who retweet and recommend your posts to others. Reciprocate by reading and sharing their posts.
  • Check out your statistics and allow comments. This is precious feedback to help you get better at writing.
  • Don’t change older posts. I have come around on this. I used to think that as my thoughts changed after unlearning and relearning, I should also change what I have written. However, unless there are glaring grammatical errors or a poor choice of words, it is important to leave your previous thinking as is. Add a comment to your post to clear up confusion or address questions. There is nothing wrong with saying, “This is what I thought then, and now I think…”.
  • Share your posts with your staff, colleagues and boss. Can you think of a better way of modeling writing and sharing yourself as a learner?
  • Write posts in front of students. It can be as simple as writing a review after sharing a favorite book with them. Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGtoGo) said it best: “You are the best writer in your classroom.”
  • Have fun. I hope I have not made blogging sound like you are writing a term paper. As Alan Levine states in his terrific post The Question Should Be: Why Are You NOT Blogging: “Blogging should be conversational. It is your own personal thinking, shared out loud”. Thank you to Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ) for sharing this.

I would go into the rationale for why you should blog, except that Superintendent Christopher Smeaton already did this so well in his post Why Blog?. I know there are many more ideas and tips out there. Please share in the comments.

Getting Started with ePortfolios

In a recent post, I laid out my school’s long-term plan for implementing ePortfolios.

Portfolios in my district have been more of a chore for teachers, instead of a powerful tool for reflection and to show growth over time. Even when I was teaching, it seemed like a hoop we had to jump through. There are a variety of reasons for this: Lack of professional development for staff, no easy way to periodically share student work with parents, and (seemingly) never enough time during the school day. Our hope is that technology and time to collaborate will help change this for the better.

The screenshot below is a draft of my agenda for my staff’s first technology training night. What is not listed in the agenda is the research, rationale and process to support student portfolios; it will be covered prior to using the technology.

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It is important that I allocate enough time during the training for staff to practice using the technology with colleagues. The goal is that they leave our session with not only the what and the how but also the why we use ePortfolios. We will continue learning together during future technology nights this school year.

Have I covered everything? Are my instructions clear enough that all staff will be successful? If you have any suggestions or feedback for us, please share with a comment.

Flipped PD

I recently flipped my staff professional development. This change was born out of necessity more than anything.

The concept of flipping instruction has been used a lot in education, for both students and staff. My elementary school decided to try it because we didn’t have enough time during the day to truly learn with one another. In the past, we spend the majority of our limited time together watching a video or reading an article with little time to discuss what we saw or read. At the same time, it was recommended at a summer leadership institute that teachers spend 20-100 hours per year reflecting on their own practices, collaborating with colleagues and discovering better ways to help students learn. Something had to give.

Here is how it worked for us.

Before Our Professional Development Day

In late August, I asked my teachers to view online videos about teaching poetry from the Reading-Writing Connection. I also handed out the ASCD article Every Child, Every Day by Richard Allington. The expectation was they would complete these activities by our October 12 PD day.

As the date drew closer, I shared a Google Doc to help guide teachers’ thinking as they watched the videos. Creating a two-column document, I wrote higher level thinking questions on the left side related to the videos, such as, “What does the concept ‘Whole-Part-Whole’ mean to you as a teacher?” On the right side staff wrote their responses to these questions.

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We also took stock of where our beliefs were as a staff. Instead of sitting down, filling out the surveys together and then tabulating them by hand, we used Google Forms and submitted our beliefs before we ever got together.

During Our Professional Development Day

Because much of the sitting and getting was done when it was convenient for each teacher, the majority of our time was spent talking with colleagues and sharing best practices. Not to say there wasn’t structure; there was. For example, we used the Last Word Protocol instructional strategy to facilitate discussion about Allington’s article. It gave myself and the other teacher facilitators an opportunity to model some effective instructional practices, an area that tends to take a backseat when curriculum and assessment directives are handed down to buildings.

Each session was connected to our building goals, which are connected to our district and state initiatives. To keep things fresh, we made sure that no session lasted longer than 45 minutes. I wouldn’t expect kids to sit through an hour and a half presentation, and I can’t imagine my teachers would want to do the same.

After Our Professional Development Day

With the help of technology, our learning from today has not ended. Many of the documents, resources and learning summaries were uploaded to our faculty Google Site for later perusal. This web tool has quickly become a hub for all of our important information.

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Our professional development day transitioned from these activities to self-directed, focused collaboration. I spent my afternoon working with teacher teams and addressing technology questions.

When I tweeted out that I flipped my school’s PD, I got multiple replies asking how it went. Thinking back to one teacher’s comment (“I had so much fun today!”), I think things went very well.