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With a single tweet, the 83 year-old newspaper in my community disappeared. Of course this is nothing new, it is happening in communities across North America as the newspaper business continues to search for its place in the digital world.

RichmondReview

Community newspapers don’t get enough credit for the important role they play with our school system.  They are so often our storytellers.  They tell the narratives of our kids, our teams, our musicals, our art shows, our academic success and our commitment to service.  They also keep us honest and tell our stories of controversies like bus service changes or school closures , budget decisions and staff misbehaviours.  Community newspapers connect schools to community.  In the district I work, we lost one of our two local newspapers last year with the closing of the North Shore Outlook and now this past week, the community I live in has suffered the same fate with the closing of the Richmond Review.

I have tagged more posts “Change” than anything else on my blog.   I champion change.  And we are seeing this change play out in almost every industry.  It is why, I believe, sometimes change in education is so hard.  With so much change in our world, people often hold onto the traditions of school hoping that at least they will stay the same – romanticizing the world we used to have.  And I kind of get it – we are all in favour of change, expect for the things we don’t want to change.  Some of the change feels more like loss.

The Richmond Review felt like more than a community newspaper.  I remember the excitement growing up seeing my name in the paper for something to do with school or sports.  It was great moments of pride for kids and families if their name was in the newspaper.    While I will read the Vancouver Province, Vancouver Sun and Globe & Mail on an almost daily basis, I would read the community newspapers where I lived and worked cover to cover – I would love seeing stories of people I knew or better understanding the views of those I lived and worked with.

Over the years I developed wonderful relationships with several people who worked at the Richmond Review.  In particular Sports Editor Don Fennell became a friend.  I first spoke to him as a high school student, and then probably hundreds of times over the twenty-six years he spent at the paper.  Whether we hadn’t spoken since last week or last year, he had that great ability of picking up a conversation and making one feel so comfortable.  I love his quote in the final edition of the paper, “I don’t like good-byes; I love Richmond.”  Don and the others at the paper made the community better.

Of course earlier this year when a deal was announced that saw the other local paper the Richmond News and the Richmond Review come under one owner – it was clear something was going to change.  This story has been repeated across North America.  And while I might be a little jaded thinking how unfair it was to kill-off an 83 year-old community paper with two days notice in the middle of summer, it doesn’t change the fact that despite the greatest efforts newspapers have been unable to transition into a viable economic model in the new digital world.  Surviving, not thriving describes most of the local newspaper that continue.

But this blog is largely about education and what does this change have to do with education?  Actually a lot!

If teachers, coaches, principals, schools and school districts need yet another reason why they need to be storytellers in the digital age this is it.  Local newspapers have long been our storytellers and these stories are important.  We need to tell them.  It is not enough for our websites to be information rich, they need to be rich in stories of the people.  If the North Shore Outlook and Richmond Review are not around to tell stories of our great young soccer players, or the high school performance of Grease, or the students going to Africa to build a school we need to tell these stories.

So, you want another reason to start a blog or change your website?  We can no longer rely on the traditional community media to tell our stories.  And people still want to hear these stories.  We need to tell them.

We need to write, photograph and video what is happening in our schools and then bring it to people’s attention.  Kids still want to see their names in the newspaper – we just need to figure out what that looks like in our world.

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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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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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comment

Just two years ago, I was able to make a list of all the BC educators who were blogging.  Since then, the numbers have grown exponentially with numbers well into the hundreds of teachers, administrators and others who blog on a semi-regular basis.  It is wonderful to see how many people are sharing their thoughts publicly and modeling for our students the ethical and responsible use of technology, whether it is to build relationships or on how to share their thoughts.

While I have continued to attract more readers to my blog over the year, one trend I have seen is the number of comments on the posts are decreasing.  In past years, posts like this one on school sports and this one on learning in depth generated dozens of comments.  Now, I only receive one or two comments on a post.

This, of course, has made me wonder why?

Here are some of my theories:

My posts aren’t as interesting — Admittedly, I don’t write for the purpose of getting feedback.  I write about topics for a variety of reasons — mostly, I really enjoy the process of trying to work an idea out and put my thinking down and share it.  It is very possible that my posts aren’t as interesting or as engagement-worthy as they once were.  It is easy to default to writing safe posts.  Having had some of my words taken out of context and republished elsewhere, I am more conscious now of what I say and how I say it, and it may be limiting the quality of what I write.

My position limits discussion — It is a real challenge to write about education from inside the system and then invite discussion.  While I know my posts are well-read inside the school district, almost all of the comments come from outside the school district.  I also get it is a no-win situation to comment on a blog written by the Superintendent whether they might be challenging my ideas or supporting them.

The novelty has worn off — Blogging was new and fresh three years ago, but this novelty may have worn off by now.  We are an ever-changing social media society. Perhaps I need to crank up my Instagram presence to increase engagement?

I am not doing my part to participate — My commitment when I started blogging was that for every post I wrote I would comment on three others.  I think it is part of “the deal” about being a member of the community.  Over the last several months I have not lived up to this.  I do feel bad about this.  I read so many interesting posts, so many that help shape my thinking, but I don’t often take the time to write a quick response.

Twitter love is the new blog comment — We seem to be shortening our thinking to 140 characters.  Perhaps a quick comment on a RT (Retweet) is all that can be expected now.

So much to read, so little time to write — With the huge growth in the number of people blogging about education, it is exhausting trying to keep up.

Some People Aren’t Nice — It only takes one time to be personally attacked for a comment on a blog, and that person may never come back.  While education is a pretty safe landscape, there are some who move quickly from challenging ideas to insulting people.  Perhaps this is the reason why I see so many comments on my blogs I share on Facebook — it is a “safer” community with the authentication of IDs.

We Aren’t Good at Commenting — Commenting is difficult to do.  It is something that takes a lot of time when working with students and blogging. When we (students or adults) comment we want to be respectful, make a point that contributes to a conversation and say something to continue the conversation.

I do see the trend across many education blogs of fewer comments.  The danger is that without dialogue our blogs become newsletters.  And, it is the conversations around our blogs which keep them and the ideas alive.  It is great if these conversations happen around the water cooler, or the dinner table, but one of the real attractions to blogging for me is to have thoughtful discussions about interesting topics in the public realm.

I will try to do my part to re-engage with other blogs and be a more regular commenter.  The move to transparency with digital writing is something we should continue to support.

Any other theories why the commenting in the educational blog world seems to be drying up?

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150 Posts Later

World of Recent Posts

Wordle of Recent Posts

I think, in many ways, my blog has defined my superintendency in West Vancouver.  I came into the role committed to doing things differently and while many of the aspects of the work are hard to define, or are not very visible, my efforts at writing for a public audience, about once a week, has been something I have been completely committed to.

My original motives behind blogging are largely the same today:

  • try to be transparent with my learning and leadership
  • model the “new way” many claim is the way students will learn — engaging with the world, and using digital tools to connect in ways we couldn’t connect without them
  • offer a different voice on educational issues from those in the mainstream media
  • work out ideas; get feedback, and push my own thinking

Some of what I have learned over the last 150 posts:

  • there is a tremendously supportive community of interested teachers, students, parents, and others wanting to engage in topics related to education
  • a good post can influence conversations in schools and the community
  • my network will help me out when I need it — it’s pretty amazing to have access to hundreds of the smartest people in the world through my blog
  • building a digital network makes it so powerful when you meet these people face-to-face —  it’s like you’re old friends
  • some of my thinking has changed over time, and the blog is a wonderful resource to track the changes in my ideas —  a filing cabinet for my brain
  • I am always a little nervous when I hit “Publish” — mostly worried that former English students of mine will find my spelling or grammar errors, and also worried that I may offend instead of engage
  • my writing has improved — it is a skill that improves with practice
  • a good post is one which people talk about the ideas raised; a bad post is one which has people talking about what I said… and, I have definitely done both

Some advice I would give to other educators starting to blog:

  • be clear about what you will and won’t write about — it is easier if you know from the onset the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ behind your blog
  • it is a bit cliché, but write for yourself, not for what others may want; let the blog be a personal journal in a public space
  • do not be too ambitious with your writing — make plans to write once a week, or once a month and stick with it
  • use social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to amplify your message
  • be thoughtful of the relationship between your professional role (teacher, administrator etc.) and your blog
  • think in blog posts — when you are at a conference, reading a book, or attending a meeting, begin to organize your thoughts and take notes like you are writing a story
  • the more voice you can have in your blog the more engaging it is for readers
  • be a storyteller — our schools are full of amazing stories waiting to be told

Some other observations:

  • the posts that tend to get the most interest are ones about self-regulation or athletics; people also really appreciate a little bit of “personal” mixed in with educational theory
  • blogging is a wonderful way to publicly say “Thank You” to teachers, colleagues, and mentors who have been an influence in your life
  • the busiest day for comments on my blog is Sunday, which is not true for other bloggers, but makes sense in the education world — it is the one time when we actually have a few minutes to read and reflect
  • we still need to find ways to make education more accessible – and while we need bloggers wanting to be the New York Times or the Globe and Mail of blogging; we also need less formal versions (I realize mine are more the latter)
  • it is not easy to write for a public audience — if you are told otherwise, the person is not being honest with you
  • it is okay to write about serious things, but in my blog I try not to take myself too seriously — while it should be informative, it should also be fun

I realize people like to put others in simple boxes.  I spent the first part of my career as the basketball coach who taught English and Social Studies.  I then transformed into the “kid” who became a vice-principal, and now I am the blogging and tweeting superintendent.  I suppose there are worse things I could be (or called), and I have become very comfortable with who I am and blogging has helped with this.  It has forced me to be specific about ideas, pushed me to share publicly, and given me a regular vehicle to reflect and refine my thinking.

At an earlier stage in my life I was a newspaper columnist for a local community paper. After about 150 columns I felt I ran out of things to say.  Blogging is different; it is the difference between telling and engaging, and I look forward to engaging in the next 150.

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