Saturday, 12 July 2014

My airport moment

The more I travel and spend time in airports and train stations, the more I realize humanity’s desire to connect. What I noticed while waiting for my ride after my flight were hugs, longing looks, smiles, and tears. I heard future plans being mentioned and, “we’ll see you next summer, same time”. In essence, I witnessed people not wanting to be apart from each other.

I consider my family for a moment. We had the luxury of growing up in the same area code for many years. Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and cousins all lived within a few miles of each other. Family reunions were large and loud and always shared many laughs. When I look back through old photo albums it was rare to not see someone in a picture. Plus, we all watched each other grow up or grow old in person rather than online. Our social network happened in real life and on our neighborhood streets.

Unfortunately, the model above has changed dramatically. Kids grow up and eventually move out of the house (not always the case). Some move out of the state or out of the country. In my own personal growth I moved away from my little town of Shamokin, Pennsylvania, went to the University of Miami, FL, traveled abroad for six months in Australia and New Zealand, moved to Philadelphia, PA, and finally find myself in Boston, MA.

Throughout that time I have had to make new friends and insure to keep in touch with old friends. I’ve had to watch children grow up distantly and experience a lot from afar. During most of my travels and moves, social media was in its infancy. I didn’t have Facebook or Twitter in college (we had Friendster my senior year). Today, what’s different is that despite the distance we all have the means and technology to stay connected. And, while there is no technology (yet) that will take the place of the emotion and feeling of being in the physical presence of those with whom you love, we can still experience the moments.

In education, moments happen every day. Students surprise us with amazing work and teachers engage their students with an exciting lesson. Like those moments of the family, the moments in a classroom should be shared as well. I often reflect on my experience with social media and how this technology has not only shaped my career, but given me an opportunity to learn and share with a global community. More than any other industry I know, education has taken to social media forums and leveraged these tools to share moments and make connections. Just a few weeks ago I watched another ISTE conference from afar (one day they’ll accept one of my session proposals). Despite being away from this conference I was able to witness the moments, the resources and the relationships. I saw friends that I have connected with both in person and through social media sharing resources, photos and experiences. I felt that I could be a part of this experience through social media and watched as relationships, that in another time may not have occurred, burgeon.

Social media is not a contest. Nor does it elevate you to some status beyond your job description because of the number of followers you have. At its core, social media are about that basic desire of all humans to connect with each other. In education, social media allow us to share the moments and experiences of our respective classrooms. It allows us to share the positive lessons and those that didn’t quite turn out the way we anticipated. And, it allows conversations to continue beyond a meeting or a conference. It’s not required for every educator to have a Twitter account, but I can assure you it will bring a new perspective to your teaching and learning.

The next time you travel take a moment to look around you. I think you’ll see what I mean.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Once in a lifetime

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself
Well...How did I get here?

I frequently listen to this song by the Talking Heads when I am in the process of making a big decision or simply reflecting on my disposition. Over the past few weeks, this song has found its way into my various playlists during workouts, commutes, and downtime. I’ve had a lot to think about and a lot to be grateful for at my current stage in life. I recently finished my manuscript for Corwin Press and two weeks ago I accepted the position of director of technology at Grafton Public Schools. While I am excited to get started and embrace new challenges that lie ahead, I can’t help but ask, “How did I get here?”

A year ago, I was also listening to “Once in A Lifetime” as I approached a similar career transition. I was in the process of leaving Burlington Public Schools after two exciting years as their instructional technology specialist and would be moving on and up to the director of technology for Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. This decision did not come easy, but ultimately it was the best move for my career. As little as four years ago, I was abruptly let go by a Charter school in Philadelphia, along with our Principal and two other teachers, on what the CEO deemed “A judgement call”. And now I find myself reflecting on that day (July 19, 2010) and how it felt to lose my job so abruptly and without any documented reason, but ultimately how that day provoked me and reenergized my career. Since then, I’ve experienced a wealth of successes and connected with a host of great educators who have challenged and inspired me to be better.  

Over the course of this year at Groton-Dunstable, I tried my best to listen and lead with confidence. I inherited a technology department that was battered and bruised but willing to change and adapt to new ideas and philosophies. As I move on, I leave behind a technology team that is a cohesive unit that is dedicated, driven, and passionate about integrating and supporting education technology. What’s more, I leave behind meaningful relationships that have blossomed over the course of this year.

Leaving this team was a difficult decision. Of all the successes the technology team has had over the course of this year, the one I am most proud of is the way this team came together to do great things. And, to do great things and continue to work tirelessly under the dark cloud of a budget crisis that persisted for most of the school year. Their willingness and constant support provided glimmers of sunshine throughout the district during those stormy days.

In my first year as district leader, I have learned many things. The most important thing I have learned is that a school leader should always be a good listener. He or she should be humble and willing to embrace a collective consensus, but confident to make difficult decisions. A leader must know what it feels like to fail, but equally, understand how to use that failure as a driving force to be better and learn why that failure occurred. A school leader should not seek accolades or awards, but challenge those with whom he or she leads to strive for greatness. I have never won an award for anything I have done in education. The only award I need is seeing the successes of the team I lead and the students and teachers I support.

I got here because of the people around me. An effective leader understands the talents and skills of his or her team and does his or her best to let those talents and skills flourish. Ultimately, the people around me have worked hard to make me look good. I thank the GDRSD tech team and the entire Groton-Dunstable community for giving me a chance to lead their technology team and support teaching and learning with technology.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

I'm a failure

CC image via flickr by John Liu
Last week I failed at something. I interviewed for a job and I didn’t get it. Or, in the context of a high stakes, standardized tests, I failed and the only thing I learned was that I wasn’t good at that job and never would be. While my family, friends and colleagues didn’t consider it a fail, I thought of how my situation might parallel students taking a high stakes test. In my situation, I already possess a great job and was simply acting upon a great opportunity that came my way. Additionally, after receiving the news I was able to follow up and keep the conversation lively.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for many of our students. The stress and importance placed upon a test can hinder a student dramatically. What’s more, this annual occurrence places a negative stigma around school and what the experience of learning should be. While the stress and desire to succeed is easily parallel to interviewing for a job, I know I will gladly interview again. For many of our students, this arbitrary measure of skill will attach to their name and live on in their educational portfolio.

As educators we’re constantly striving to prepare our students for the real world, yet we’re not giving them real world challenges in our schools because of the importance of testing and results. Our mission statements state that we will educate and produce good citizens, yet state and federal officials treat our students like another brick in the wall.

Some may see my experience as a failure, but I see it as a learning moment. The interview process was not only an exercise in self reflection, but an experience that has given me new perspective. We need to instill the same insights in our students and provide them with greater challenges than a test. Life is not multiple choice or fill in the blank. It’s composed of new challenges each day both in our personal lives and professional lives. It requires that we constantly adapt and consistently learn as much as we can.

Some of the most beneficial learning moments in my life did not include the moments when everyone on the team got a trophy, but rather, when I didn’t get that trophy. I’ve learned more through my “failures” than through my successes. And each time I grew as a learner. This isn’t to say we should encourage our students to strive for failure, but teach them about humility and that sometimes there’s only one winner. But, despite that loss, students should employ self reflection and use the loss not as an endpoint, but a springboard towards the next success.

Unfortunately, our national curriculum and our state tests don’t allow for this opportunity. State tests are final, and don’t encourage reflection or motivation to learn beyond that particular assessment. What’s more, the challenge is minimal and has limited application in everyday life. While I may have “failed” I know it’s not final and that I will learn from this moment. Wouldn’t it be great if our state tests encouraged the same? This is a call to encourage students to take risks and not fear failure, but embrace the learning that's associated with it. Our education policy makers at every level owe our students so much more than what we’re offering them.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

What's lost during testing

CC image via
This past week our high school students (9th and 11th grades) completed the new PARCC online field test. The setup and implementation was a collaborative process of many players in the school system. The test itself required many hours over several weeks for the tech coordinators, principals, teachers, administration, and eventually students. Valuable time and energy in the course of a school year was dedicated to this test. The test also took away reading, creating, exploring, and making time.

There’s waning doubt that the PARCC test, or any test for that matter, has any impact on a student’s learning. The results are simply cheap data that disrupts the creative, innovative teaching and learning practices that many teachers and students desire. The mere act of recalling information that has been strategically worded by a testing company for several hours with limited breaks holds no merit anywhere outside of the test itself. Students leave a test drained and feeling unaccomplished. Teachers nervously await the results. The entire process is a drain and an infringement on innovative teaching and learning practices.

However, I don’t possess the solution to an alternative metric. But, I have some thoughts that I hope future generations of educational theorists, administrators, and politicians consider. And one pertinent example of what learning should look like.

This past Friday I came across a piece on titled, “Teen to government: Change your typeface, save millions”. As I perused the article, I came away with a simple sentiment, “That’s it, that’s what learning looks like!” In short, a 14 year-old student developed a novel solution for his school to cut down on expensive paper handouts which inevitably led him to suggesting a switch to the US Government from Times New Roman to Garamond that would save the Government 234 million annually.

This is what learning looks like. What I witnessed after the PARCC exam, or for that matter, any test, was not. Learning should be rewarding and fulfilling for students. They should get excited about it and have time to experiment with it, and occasionally fail at it. Ultimately, students should own their learning and strive to solve a problem or conquer a challenge. Suvir Mirchandani accomplished both.

For a moment, if educational policy makers could step back from the testing lobbyists and see what students can do in the absence of mind numbing tests, they might see change. They might realize that the future of education is not about recalling information, but about making, designing, and creating. This is what our global economy demands and it’s the fuel it is currently running on. If we continue to proceed with blinders on and think that standardized tests are nothing more than a cheap filtering system, we may miss out on some great innovations and contributions to our world.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

We need to prepare students for their future, not ours

CC image via flickr by flickingerbrad
I will no longer defend or debate EdTech as some radical idea in schools. I can no longer waste my efforts on the "value of EdTech debate". The simple fact is that education technology is no longer a stand alone class. It is not something you simply add on to your school. It is a literacy that is woven through the fabric of every school, K-12, and throughout our highly-competitive, global economy. Diminishing its value or merit is no longer acceptable. It’s the equivalent of neglecting to integrate reading and writing skill sets across the curriculum.

And for the record, I realize clearly that previous generations grew up without all of these gadgets and turned out just fine. I get it. The statement is crystal clear and yes, many generations grew up without something that the next generation adopts. I grew up without Internet and mobile technology and turned out perfectly fine. Although some would debate that last statement. Regardless of how previous generations learned, exposure to some technology is essential for students today. I’m not asserting that we need to place every student in front of an iPad from Kindergarten on, but simply give them the opportunity to use it. And not just use it, but provide access and opportunities for students throughout a school district to leverage the technology beyond word processing and PowerPoint presentations.

Technology is a literacy that is expected in higher education and in our economy. It is a universal language spoken by the entire world regardless of the profession. Our current students will encounter one of the toughest job markets in generations. Gone are the days of falling into a profession and riding that wave for 30 plus years, however; its not to say those jobs are not still available. They are, but they’re dwindling as automation and outsourcing continue to expand.

The contemporary job market requires us to adapt, continually learn, and apply various skill sets in many directions. We have to multi-task, connect beyond the work day, and collaborate and connect both locally and globally. And, while I am promoting that exposure to technology and digital tools is essential, we must do so responsibly. Teaching students how to balance technology usage along with offline socializing and interpersonal skills is essential. But, to proclaim that technology simply distracts, diminishes social skills, and holds lesser value than other content areas is irresponsible. And to do so not only let's our students down, but the mission statements that are emblazoned on the walls of our schools.

It’s equally important to expose students to information literacy skill sets. As databases grow and information continues to evolve into a paperless formats, it’s essential to teach students how to question effectively and efficiently. In a world flooded with information to read, libraries have never been more important. Along with digital and information literacy skill sets, it has never been more important that to promote and encourage a love of reading across all formats. And not to simply read, but to question, analyze, discern, and synthesize with other mediums.

I can no longer exert energy on this debate. And my point comes down to a single phrase…

We need to prepare students for their future, not ours.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Why Every School Needs A Garage: An Educon 2.6 Conversation Preview

This Saturday I have the privilege of presenting a conversation at Educon 2.6 held at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. This conference has been a staple every year for me and in my career. Each year I’ve attended Educon, I’ve come away feeling good about our profession of education and excited to share and integrate what I’ve learned in my classroom and throughout the school district. What I’ve always liked about Educon is that it’s focused on conversations, rather than presentations.

This year I am excited to present on the idea of “Developing Makerspaces That Count”. While this subject is very broad in it’s description, for me, it comes back to a single word we need to address every day in education: Trust. When we put trust in our students and our teachers, we see great things happen. However, this shift doesn’t happen overnight and takes time to build this culture.

We hear stories of how some of our greatest innovators in the past decade (namely, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates) rebelled against a system and developed products that changed the world. And while these three men make great stories and, in some cases, movies, I’m always left with the question, “What if they didn’t have to rebel against the system and their creativity was fostered in school?” What if their respective schools had maker spaces available to them? Would we be having the same conversations about them today?

While the hypothetical alternate universe is fun to imagine, their actual timeline suggests that we, as educators, need to promote, provoke, and integrate makerspaces for kids to explore, take risks, tinker, discover, fail, and try again.

As the current global economy shifts and changes almost weekly, we need to stay ahead of the game and quite frankly, the American education system has not. With continued focus on high stakes testing, silver-bullet reforms, and common curriculum, the American education system continues to fall behind other countries both creatively and on the innovation front. This is not to say that allowing students a place to play during the course of a school day is going to dramatically reform our educational system and move America back to the top, but it’s a start. It's a start that will give students the chance during the course of a school day to engage in something they're truly passionate about.

And what helps provoke this change is beginning to give students the freedom to explore throughout the course of the school day. Some schools have integrated Google’s 20% time philosophy into their school day. Suzie Boss explores this in her recent post at Edutopia. At Burlington high school and middle school, I helped create a student run genius bar. This space and course allowed students the chance to question, create, troubleshoot, and discover. At Groton-Dunstable High School we developed a tech task force. It’s the same concept I developed at Burlington and has greatly impacted all of our schools. In fact, one student was able to develop an android app that helped our tech team inventory our entire fleet of Google Chromebooks. Michelle Luhtala, Library Department Chair at New Canaan High School developed a culture of trust by putting the onus on the students to take responsibility for their learning and the devices by which they learn.

And, I’m certain I could continue to list great examples of innovative ways of creating makerspaces in education. But that’s why Educon is important. The purpose of my conversation is to collectively expand on these ideas and concepts and see if we can create new ideas that work and will count in the course catalog of a school.

Six years ago when the Science Leadership Academy launched the Educon conference the students and conference advisors were not only launching a great opportunity for educators to connect, but they were giving us a space to make, share, and listen. I’m looking forward to attending and presenting at Educon 2.6 and anticipate many conversations about how we can all make the greatest impact on teaching and learning.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Mr. Duncan Goes to Twitter (and you should too)

Last Monday, I, along with many other educators, had the unique opportunity to connect with the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan on Twitter. Tom Murray organized the chat via the #edtechchat hashtag. Around 8pm Secretary Duncan made his way into the chat column and the barrage of tweets ensued. For someone trying to break into Twitter, this was probably not the best forum, however; it did show the impact connecting this way can have.

As the chat continued, Secretary Duncan began asking questions using the Q1 - A1 format. Users prefaced their tweets with A1 (based on the question number) and ended each one with the hashtag #edtechchat. Following the chat was nearly impossible in real-time as tweets cruised down the screen in a frenzied manner. Occasionally I tried to retweet a good question or comment someone posted, but overall it was hard to keep pace.

Eventually, I posed a question to Secretary Duncan in which he was kind enough to reply (above photo). Once this happened, I felt pretty cool. I had to explain to several people how we actually connected and that it was legit and that I didn’t actually know Secretary Duncan, but we now shared a brief connection in time. This occurrence also caused me to reflect momentarily on the connections and opportunities that I’ve had since joining Twitter five years ago.

In those five years, I have made great strides in my career. Three years ago I was let go, along with four other teachers and the principal from a charter school in Philadelphia on July 19, 2010. Soon after, I took to my blog, wrote a post announcing my availability for work, and shared it on Twitter. I had comments and suggestions from all over the country. Eventually I connected with Patrick Larkin and started working at Burlington Public Schools a year later as an instructional technology specialist. Two years later I became the Director of Technology for Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. I’m not saying that Twitter is the reason for my all of my recent successes, but getting out there and making and sustaining meaningful connections definitely had a big part in my career path.

I don’t think Twitter is the key ingredient to being a connected educator, nor do I feel it’s required for someone to be a connected educator. My point is that Twitter can be a really great thing and provide many of us with access to opportunities we otherwise may not be privy too. As educators, we should make connections regardless of the medium. EdCamps, conferences (local and national), and learning communities within a district are great ways to connect as well. Jumping into the social media ring will simply heighten those offline connections and broaden the scope of your learning.

If you decide you want to get into Twitter, I will suggest a few steps that I share with anyone who asks me about it.

1. Once you setup your account, encourage a few colleagues to join as well. Develop a “hashtag” for your cohort and share a few things with each other using the hashtag. This will expose you to ways in which you can share, filter, and organize your twitter experience.

2. Download Tweetdeck for Mac or PC. There are a lot of Twitter applications out there, but my preference has always been Tweetdeck. Mobile platforms will be different, but the Twitter app for iPhone is probably the best way to go.

3. Organize. One of the great features about Twitter is that you can tailor it directly to how your liking. Lists are a great way of organizing people (i.e. English Teachers) and what they share online. I’ve created lists and then I can easily browse through those lists whether it’s on the mobile or desktop platforms. Before you tweet, organize!

4. I would suggest limiting your involvement initially in Twitter chats. They can be overkill for even the most experienced user and can sometimes be an echo chamber of pithy platitudes. The key is to organize first and spend a good amount of time listening, lurking, and absorbing what you see. Twitter is a place where you can simply consume, however; it’s always better to share. My suggestion would be to start a small hashtag chat within your school community and then branch out into larger chats like #edchat

5. “Don’t take Twitter too seriously.” This is a great piece of advice from Dean Shareski who has been sharing on Twitter for awhile. Twitter can be a conversation, it can be a resource, and it can be funny. We all need to laugh a little, but must maintain a healthy balance between professionalism and over sharing cat videos. Plus, don’t get caught up with pseudo celebrity Twitter hierarchy of educators. One hundred thousand followers does not always equal credibility. Again, Twitter is most useful when it is organized. Follow people who you have read, connected with in person, or who are simply good at sharing quality information and occasionally funny.

Over the years I’ve learned and gained a lot from connecting on Twitter. It’s a community that allows me the flexibility to ask a question or have a conversation with people all over the world anytime, anywhere. This medium has had an impact on my life, my friends, and my career. The key in all of this is to share what you do and highlight your teaching, your school, and your district whether you are on Twitter or offline with colleagues. My brief connection with Secretary Duncan won't change or reform educational policy across the country, but it reinforces the power of this medium. Secretary Duncan may not enact or change anything based on the Twitter chat, but it shows us all he is listening. That's a powerful connection.