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blogging

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be impressed – this post is somewhat a blog post about a blog post about blogging.

I had a recent email exchange with Janet Steffenhagen (Janet is the former Education Reporter with the Vancouver Sun and currently blogs for the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC)) about the state of educational blogging. She had been planning to highlight BC Superintendents blogging and noticed there seemed to be fewer blogging today than three years ago. I offered some of my thoughts in her post, Blogging Challenges for Superintendents, and listed below:

- Blogging is hard. You have to dedicate time on a regular basis to writing and it is not part of a traditional pattern for most people. It is also just hard to “put yourself out there”.
- There is uncertainty about what to write. Some Superintendents use it as a journal (like Monica Pamer in Richmond) to tell stories; others use it more for district news (like John Lewis in North Vancouver). There is no one right answer, but it is hard to determine “what” the Superintendent should write about. I have always tried to be broad – some of what I write is what I see in our district, some is what I think about education trends and some is future-focused in areas that may not be directly linked to education.
- If you don’t have an audience, it can be discouraging. With so many people joining the blogging community, it can be hard to gain an audience. While the role of Superintendent will immediately get some traffic, the numbers may be small to start. One has to see blogging as at least as much about the personal reflection to find it fulfilling.
- If you blog and don’t participate in the digital community, you likely won’t stick around. I would see some people blog but would not follow this up by engaging via Twitter or even responding (or soliciting) comments on the blog. The community is part of the power. Some who blog are really just writing newsletters online.
- The job action. I think it was hard to figure out just what to say during the strike, and very few district leaders blogged. The few who were engaged in social media often got targeted as the face of BCPSEA (B.C. Public School Employers’ Association) and at times the government, so may have thought there was no need to put themselves through that unnecessary backlash. For those new to the community – even in senior district roles – this can be intimidating. Nobody likes to be publicly criticized.

Shortly after this email exchange, I read a new article from Will Richardson, Eight New Attributes of Modern Educational Leaders. Will argues, “A new breed of educational leader is emerging from all parts of the globe. It’s a leader that fully understands the fundamental challenges to traditional teaching and learning that the new interconnected, networked world is creating. It’s a leader that also sees the amazing opportunities that abundant access to information, people, and technologies is bringing to all of our learning lives.”  Will sees the eight attributes of modern educational leaders as being:

1. They are connected to and engaged in online networks.
2. They are makers with (and without) technology.
3. They are innovators and support innovation.
4. They are models for learning both online and off.
5. They see curriculum as strategy.
6. They facilitate an “ever-evolving” vision for teaching and learning in their schools, with (or without) technology.
7. They are literate in modern contexts.
8. They know “learning is the work.”

It was a timely reminder from Will, and as much as I was giving Janet a series of reasons why leaders might not engage in modern learning, Will reminds us that it is our responsibility to be engaged — so I think it is not about any particular role like a superintendent, principal or teacher — we all need to be modern learners. No excuses.

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Photo - Rob Newell

Photo – Rob Newell

Personalized learning has become one of those terms that can often elicit eye-rolls in a crowd of educators – so used and overused that it has been a word used synonymously with almost all current educational reforms.  As I have joked, there are very few pushing for de-personalized learning.  I have written a number of times on the topic, including specifically here in the fall of 2010, when I tried to wrestle with a definition.

This past week as part of a feature in the North Shore Outlook I was extensively quoted on what I see with personalized learning and just what it means.  Here is the text:

Not all kids learn the same way. Traditional education hasn’t always had space to address these differences, but now the West Vancouver School District is looking to change that.  It’s using personalized learning to shift the emphasis from traditional learning to an  inquiry-based system that focuses on learning  how to learn.
Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of Schools for the district, has been at the forefront of the push towards personalized learning for the last five years.

Things are changing so quickly that the key facts to know right now just won’t be the same in five years,” says Kennedy.  “The topics will be different. The content will be stale.” Rather than teach facts that will likely be obsolete in short order, the district is focusing instead on teaching students how to learn, rather than what to learn, in order to encourage them to continue learning far beyond their time at school.  “Knowledge has become so easily accessible it changes the dynamic between teachers and students,” says Kennedy.

“In a more traditional classroom, students might take notes or answer questions at the end of the chapter. In an inquiry-based classroom… They start with an overarching theme, question or challenge and go from there – this encourages ownership, exploration and curiosity.” Kennedy adds that this approach often results in powerful demonstrations of learning in the form of projects, productions and exhibitions that show real sophistication.

Part of personalized learning includes different types of learning environments and opportunities for students.  Technology is a big part of that. All schools  in the district have wi-fi and teachers are provided with mobile devices to use in one-to one learning environments.  Students are encouraged to bring their own devices, however, the district also provides devices for children who can’t afford their own or have forgotten theirs at home.  But there are also other changes in classroom design, such as offering different work station options or the ability to opt-into an outdoor class rather than an indoor one.

“Personalized learning is about giving students more control – more choice – over what they’re learning, how they’re learning it, even when they’re learning… so students feel it’s more theirs,” says Kennedy. “It’s also important for students to know what they’re working on, how they are doing, and what they need to do
next to improve.”  “It changes the students to being more the owner of the learning experience. The teacher spends more time guiding, rather than directing, learning.”

Parents also have a key role to play in the district’s approach to learning. Educators hope that parents will have conversations with their children to discover what types of learning approaches work best for them so that teachers can address each child’s specific learning needs.

The district is already seeing success with the new model. “We have a long history of very successful students,” says Kennedy. “We’re finding that some students that might not have been as engaged are finding this approach more appealing. In some classrooms students are coming up with their own questions.”

Still a work in progress, but it is important to continue to talk about the future we are trying to create and put depth behind the terms we are using so often.

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waves-15

About five years ago we started discussions in our district about modernizing the classroom. At that point it was really a discussion about creating a level playing field with technology in our schools.

The First Wave

What emerged from the discussions was the view of a modern classroom starting with wireless access across all schools. At the classroom level all teachers were provided with digital devices. We took a different approach from the past and elsewhere when staff were given a choice about what devices they needed — some selected iPads, others MacBooks and still others chose PC netbooks or tablets. In addition, each classroom, from Grades 4 to 12, was also equipped with a projection device. These were not huge shifts, but they created some equity and it also built the groundwork for the student bring-your-own-device program. This program has taken hold throughout the district, in some schools as early as Grade 4, but largely implemented in Grades 6 to 12. Currently, most schools have a plan for students bringing devices and engaging them in the classroom.

The Next Wave

The next wave will continue to have a digital influence, but the modern classroom is far more than a ‘digital’ classroom. Of course, these are not things with clear start and stop timelines, so in some schools the final projectors are still being installed and student device programs are being finalized.  As schools have more students with devices, we will need to revisit our work and make further improvements to items like Wi-Fi access. So, for the next wave, I see four trends emerging:

1)   Rethinking the common spaces. Most notably, rethinking libraries as learning commons areas. Schools see these areas as places that can symbolize and epitomize some of the changes we are seeing with how we access information and organize learning.

2)  Refreshing the web environment.  The portal of 2010 has become clunky and dated.  We are looking to create secure spaces to make student publishing easier, and we are looking for ways to ensure the web tools our students and staff are working with outside the school day are available during the school day and part of our core systems.

3)  Self-regulation is influencing our classrooms.  I have written often about Stuart Shanker and the influence he is having, as well as the self-regulation work in our school district.  This can translate into fewer posters on the wall, different kinds of lighting, quiet areas in the classroom for some students and a variety of desks and chairs to improve  environments for learners – another important understanding about how young people learn.

4)  Outdoor learning spaces.  We now see many school and community gardens connected to curriculum, as well as schools interested in outdoor shelters or other structures to allow for more formal teaching out-of-doors. Combined with outdoor learning programs, these shifts are definitely altering how we view classrooms as strictly being an indoor activity.

The modernized classroom is a digitally rich classroom and as this first wave continues alongside the second wave, we will see more students with devices and more technology benefiting student learning.  As mentioned, the modern classroom is much more than kids with computers – from common spaces with less of a library look and more like Starbucks, to flexible classrooms with different furniture to ‘classrooms’ being outdoors, the modern learning environment is an evolving and dynamic place.

It will be exciting to be part of this shift.

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Calling all bloggers  – Leadership Day 2014   Dangerously Irrelevant

When Scott McLeod asks you to do something, it’s difficult to say “No”.  He is one of those connecting leaders in education.  The following tweet showed up in my feed this week:

Scott M

So, this is my first time participating in #LeadershipDay14 discussing leadership with digital technologies in education. It has been, and continues to be, a journey that takes me to different places on many levels. The following is a list of 10 things I have and continue to learn as a teacher, principal and now superintendent:

1)  More and more it is not digital leadership, it is just leadership. Just as digital literacy is giving way to literacy and digital citizenship is becoming simply citizenship, digital leadership is really just leadership. We live in a digital world, so it would be virtually impossible for educational leadership to not embrace the role technology is playing in our learning, teaching and in our schools today.

2)  You are never done.  There are many leaders, schools and districts that mistakenly embrace technology plans with the belief that one can implement technology like it is a thing — some sort of program.  Digital is a journey – the educational tools we use on that journey continue to evolve.  So, there will always be something else or new to learn.

3)  Digital doesn’t make things easier. I have said this before in different contexts, but there is still a belief digital technologies make teaching easier, or learning easier. They don’t — they make it different. However, when everything connects, digital tools allow learners to do things that could not be possible without digital tools.

4)  Listen carefully to the skeptics.  Those who question and challenge are an important part of the process. Yes, some will challenge for strictly political reasons, while others enjoy being the dissenting voice. My experience with those most closely involved in education, particularly teachers, is they will do amazing things if they think they are the right things for kids.  The culture needs to be developmental not judgmental.   If you have many skeptics — come back to why the effort is good for kids.

5)  Always start with learning goals.  Please don’t set out to have an iPad in the hand of every student as your ultimate goal. We want students to be connected learners. Now, let’s figure out how to make that happen.  And while you are doing this — also be sure you have a plan for equity. If digital tools are the answer for the learners who can afford them, we better figure out how we can put them in the hands of all learners.

6)  Make sure teachers have the tools.  I think almost all districts across North America are at least thinking about a plan to include personal devices in the classroom. This is great news.  But, before students walk into classrooms with devices, make sure you have a plan for teachers to have devices as well. We have the responsibility to ensure our staff have the tools they need to go where the kids are.

7)  You can’t microwave change.  All teachers, all schools, and all districts must go through the process. Yes, it can be frustrating that change is not happening as fast as a leader might hope for, or that the digital transition is lagging.  There are ways to support and encourage it, but trying to force the change will ruin it.

8)  Embrace the uncertainty.  I never trust people who speak with certainty about what schools will be like in five years, or what role technology will play. Same, with those in education who self-gloss themselves as technology or social media gurus.  I think we can be pretty sure about the skills our kids will need, but the rest is really uncertain and that is okay. Technology will not ensure our kids are prepared for the future, but we can be sure that in five years technology will play a greater role, not a lesser one, in our schools and in our world.

9)  Whatever you do — model it. If you want kids to blog, then the leaders need to be blogging. If you want schools to go paperless, then the district office needs to go paperless. And, if you want classes to be more learner-centred, the same should be true for staff meetings.

10)  For leaders — surround yourself with people who will push you and make you uncomfortable. There is nothing worse than being satisfied with status quo. Finding leaders who will take risks is not easy, but they are out there. We need them in our district offices and in our schools.

Community is the greatest part of the educational journey. From those who I work with everyday, to the amazing digital community, there are so many of us trying to figure out the way forward — part of that is doing our best for all of our kids in this digital world.

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Tools

Last week I shared Superintendency & Social Networking, a post that was also published in the AASA School Administrator Magazine.  I also wrote two smaller pieces for this most recent edition; edited versions are below.  I came back to two questions that I get asked frequently – how do you find the time and what tools should one be using.

Here are my thoughts:

Finding the Time for Social Media

The superintendency is already a completely consuming job, so how can you possibly find the time to invest in social media? These are my suggestions for those looking to add social media to their work routine.

Create manageable expectations. Whether it is a blog, Twitter or other tools, be realistic about the commitment you can make to participating in social media.

Choose a few tools and use them well. There are thousands of tools available. Select a few and develop a comfort level with them. Start with tools such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, all of which are heavily subscribed to by those around you.

Block out some time. As you get into a routine, schedule time each week to spend engaging in social media. It might be 15 minutes a few nights a week or some time on Sunday morning, but it needs to become part of your routine.

Decide what this will replace. As you start tweeting and blogging, decide what you won’t do and what this will replace. As you engage in social media, some of the more traditional outlets, such as reading newsletters, can be eliminated.

Embrace mobility. Be sure people know you want to be contacted, and then ensure you have access to all these tools on your mobile phone, whether it is phoning, texting, tweeting or Facebook use. You want to be mobile so you don’t have to be in the office to be at work.

Five Indispensable Tools

Blog: Consider this your home base for social media and the venue for sharing your ideas on leadership and education practices. My blog is where I share my thinking, and it serves as a great portfolio of the work that has engaged me.

Facebook: Often considered more of a personal communication tool, it remains an excellent way to connect to your community. It is still the No. 1 social media tool used by our families, so it functions as a great place to share photos from events and alert the community to upcoming events.

SlideShare: This is the place to post all of your PowerPoints so they are easily accessible to educators in your district and elsewhere. No longer do I distribute presentations by e-mail. Rather, I make them all accessible through SlideShare so others can use and share them.

Twitter: This is your avenue for connecting to your community 140 characters at a time. Twitter is a wonderful professional learning network, connecting me with colleagues from around the world.

YouTube: Short videos of your school visits or records of your speeches now can go online. The use of video is growing, and YouTube is a great place to create a repository of your work.

I know these are regular questions for many – I would love to hear other tools that people find as core, and also other strategies people use to find the time.

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Social-Network-Stock-PhotoThis post is a copy of an article in this month’s School Administrator Magazine

“When you hire me, you don’t just get me, you get my network.”

At least, that’s what I argued four years ago when I interviewed for the superintendency.

An hour prior to the start of the interview with the board of education trustees, I was given a question. And without hesitation, I was on my computer sharing the question on Twitter.

Over the next several minutes, I fielded a dozen responses from my network. There were a few quotable quotes, some links to helpful research on the Internet and a couple of “good luck” wishes. I took their thinking, blended it with my own and put together a presentation. Although the school board might have been curious about what I thought, I figured they were probably more interested in knowing I could find the best thinking, synthesize the ideas, contextualize them for our location and then share them in a thoughtful way — all in a timely manner.

Had I attempted this just a year prior, I may have been asked to leave the interview, or even been accused of cheating. It shows how quickly our world is shifting — what might have been considered disingenuous or even cheating a decade ago is now considered effective professional networking.

Since that interview, I have only become more reliant on my network, both in the face-to-face form and in the digital world.

The Network’s Power
The value of a strong network is nothing new, and social media serves to extend the reach of that network. Now, more than ever, it is not just what you know but who you know.

Traditionally, our personal and professional networks included the people with whom we went to high school or college or with whom we work and engage on a daily basis. These networks now extend globally. Social media allows us to build diverse networks with those in similar roles, across different segments of the community that have an interest in education. We not only get to connect with those we agree with but build a network that transcends the echo chamber we sometimes can detect in our daily connections.

Certainly, traditional structures where we gather in role-alike groups still exist — there are sessions for teachers, administrators, support staff, parents and the community, and sometimes we bring these groups together. Online, the roles tend to blur, and it is the ideas that become the focus, with the most current thinking and range of views. Tremendous power is available in being able to ask a question and engage so many in the answer.

District leaders can (and do) build networks across North America to learn from and with educators, such as Michael Smith, superintendent in Tuscola, Ill.; Pam Moran, superintendent in Albemarle County, Va.; Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent in Burlington, Mass.; and the hundreds of other district leaders who publicly share their ideas through social media.

Model the Way
We are continually encouraging our teachers and students to embrace digital tools. Leaders have a role to play in modeling their use, as well. We want students to take the risks in their learning and not to be afraid to make a mistake. Increasingly, we want them to engage with the real world, to own their learning and to create content for the digital world. We can help by modeling all of this.

True, social media can be daunting for school district leaders — the technology is new, and there are many waiting to pounce on any misstatement. This, though, is the world we want our kids to participate in.

What we can do is model the integrity, honesty, compassion and care in this space that we would want all others in our community to show. Our blogs as superintendents can lead to principals blogging, to teachers blogging and to students blogging. Our participation can model for others in our organization the power of the tools and also serve as the example for others to follow. Our participation does model the engagement we want for our communities in the serious issues of teaching and learning and does so in a respectful and appreciative way. District leaders can move (and model) beyond talking about it and start being about it.

Admittedly, I find blogging scary. I do it every week, but every time I hit “publish,” I worry I may have committed a spelling mistake for the world to see or said something that will be misconstrued or gotten my facts blatantly wrong. I have been in schools as a student and educator for about 35 years; I can only imagine the stress students must sometimes feel when they put themselves out there publicly — and it is also good for me to understand this.

Real and Connected
The superintendency often is seen as a role disengaged and detached from the reality of classrooms and schools. Social media can change that perception.

I clearly recall one angry parent who came to see me with a concern about a decision made about his child at one of our elementary schools. He explained his situation and ended by saying, “And I trust your opinion on this. I have read your blog and know you have four kids in school, so you obviously understand what it is like to be a parent.” In a way, my blog validated my credibility, not because of anything I had said, but because it helped to make me more real.

Social media engagement also allows leaders to keep tabs on what is being said in the community and elsewhere about your school or district. One can follow students, teachers, parents, media, politicians and others and then engage with them. Often, what is in the newspaper tomorrow or the day after is being discussed on social media today. The community wants to know what the superintendent thinks, and blogging lets us do this on our own terms.

Our Own Words
There are many people who are happy to provide a version of what the superintendent thinks and says. The local news media often paraphrase the remarks of the superintendent, as do union leaders and others in the community. Social media allows us a platform to connect directly with the community to tell our story. Instead of lamenting that our stories are not told factually and fully and that the only news reported is bad news, we can change that — by telling our own stories through social media.

The proliferation of social media had led to more public gossiping than ever. By the same token, the use of social media can help us reach our community unfiltered. I know my blog posts — typically two to four a month — influence the watercooler conversations in our schools. When I wanted our district to engage in a conversation about final exams, a blog post on the topic laying out some of the positives and negatives helped guide the conversation.

The profile and political nature of our job and the relationship with the school board and government officials all can give pause. I am careful and clear about the areas I discuss in social media and those I don’t. My focus is on teaching and learning. While I spend time discussing budgets and labour contracts with our board, those are issues for them to speak about publicly.

While others will gladly say what we believe if we let them, social media does help break down some of the traditional barricades to reaching the people we want to teach. It also can humanize us and allow us to share our thoughts and stories in our own words.

Professional Benefits
Professional learning and development for educators used to be scarce. Educators depended on monthly magazines, professional journals and occasional conferences. Now phenomenal resources are available just one or two clicks away.

While school districts’ physical boundaries remain well-defined, when it comes to professional learning, the district geography is blurry and becoming ever-less important. We are finding ways to connect and engage online that have little to do with geography. And just what can you find online? Without question, another superintendent in another school district is wrestling with the same issues you are dealing with.

My digital professional network has enhanced my face-to-face network. At last year’s AASA National Conference on Education, I connected with many colleagues I had known only digitally until then. I have found a common trend that I connect with people online and then meet them and then continue online — the combination of both digital and face-to-face connections has made these relationships far stronger than those I know exclusively online or in person.

Through Twitter and blogs, I have discovered we can connect with others in the field, solve problems, and open ourselves up to new ideas and learning.

Doors to Opportunity
Social media opens up opportunities. It gives space to highlight the work in our school districts. Each week I am sharing the best practices and programs I see in our schools — from teachers using inquiry, to students being able to self-regulate to maximize learning, to schools using digital devices. And then we can connect this work across the district and around the world.

Being engaged also opens up personal opportunities — from speaking and consulting opportunities to first insight on job openings. Social media means you have the power of your network to bring to any future job.

Anyone who sees participation in social media as another demand on an already full schedule hasn’t yet discovered the power that participation can have. None of us is truly too busy to blog, tweet or otherwise engage in social media. If we aren’t doing it, we just haven’t yet realized why it should be a priority.

West Vancouver is a school district of just over 7,000 students in British Columbia, Canada. But through involvement and engagement of our staff in social media, we are known around the world.

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The Halfway Point

halfway

There are some magic numbers in education — two numbers often referenced are 90 and 35.  A teacher can retire with an unreduced pension when their age and seniority equals to 90.  If I continue teaching, this will come for me when I am 56.  If I wait one more year I will have 35 years of teaching, and be able to retire with a full pension. And, why am I thinking and writing about this now? Because this month I am at 17.5 years — the halfway point of my teaching career.  Yes, there are a lot of “what-ifs”, but if I continue to have a career in education, and the rules remain the same, I am likely moving into the second half of my career.

Reflecting on the first-half of my career, my first classroom was an old art room at McRoberts Secondary School in Richmond.  The school was undergoing renovations and the art wing was going to be torn down — in the meantime, I set up my first year classroom.  At 22 years-of-age, I was returning to the junior high I attended with my Social Studies and English background, teaching a load of junior Math and Science.  I absolutely loved that first year. I can remember each of my seven blocks of students.  We had chalkboards, no computers in the classroom, and criteria-based assessment was a huge focus.  I was blessed with great mentors and soaked up professional development.  I remember often defaulting to how I was taught, but I learned so much from some of the amazing teachers in the school.  I have previously documented the change in my teaching here.

Flash forward to today, and I struggle with the question “so, what’s changed?”  I was in three of our West Van schools last Friday and they definitely look a lot different from my first classroom.  Physically, the chalkboards are gone and in many places the white boards are gone as well.  All the teachers have technology.  For me, technology in that first year was mostly email and mark calculations.  Now, I see teachers regularly using video, encouraging students to comment on class blogs and engaging with students and parents as part of the school-home communication cycle.  Classrooms are louder than what I remember from my first classes — I hear the regular buzz of active engagement.  And, the teacher-student relationship is shifting. I could feel the shift when I started teaching — it was different from when I was a student, and it is different again today; there is a sense that students and teacher are all learners — in it together.

I also see some of the same challenges.  Half a career later, we are still looking to improve the transitions from elementary schools and limit the number of different teacher contacts grade 8 students have during the day. We are challenging the structure of the traditional timetable limiting flexibility, to connect the learning experience to what is happening in the world.  To say schools haven’t changed would be unfair.  In some ways they are very similar – the calendar is almost identical to 1996, but in other ways there have been huge changes.  In almost every class I visit I get a sense of increased student ownership of the learning. This was not really part of my thinking as I began my career; I definitely started teaching feeling I needed to be the expert, but that thinking has also changed over time. I also see far more choice in what students are learning, when they do their learning and how they show and share what they have learned.  The access to technology for students is really shifting us from content providers in schools to those who make sense of ideas.  And, it also needs to be noted, that the call for more resources to support our schools is very similar.

All that said, I do hope the second half of my career continues to look very different from the first half.  I am one who thinks the speed of change will increase, but the school as the face-to-face gathering place will remain essential.  It’s not that we haven’t been doing the right things, just that doing the right things is changing — as our world changes.  I am excited by BC’s leadership around curriculum and reporting, heartened by efforts to encourage students to use their technology for learning, and continually bolstered by the fact that those of us who call ourselves “teachers” in this province are a committed, passionate and curious group of people.

Of course, I am also a little depressed — I have somewhat enjoyed the word “young” in the first sentence of descriptions about me, whether it was the young teacher, young administrator, or young superintendent. And, now I am coming to grips with being part of the “older” crowd. I am also asked if I am going to keep doing what I am doing?  I hope so.  I think public education is just about the most important work one can do.  I am looking forward to the next 17.5 years working with everyone who, like me, are in the second half of their careers, as well as all who come after to keep rethinking and evolving our wonderful system.

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