Saturday, January 9, 2016

What are the responsibilities of schools in teaching citizenship?

In my last post, "Let's think before we block", I discussed how there are many different strategies and approaches to content filtering and blocking sites and apps in our schools.  They range from being so restrictive that only a few approved sites are available, to the minimal approach of CIPA compliance only.

If you are involved in CIPA compliance or formulating the required internet safety policy for your district, I highly recommend that you follow the CIPA link to see exactly what the Children's Internet Protection Act says that schools must do.  The act is often misunderstood by administrators and the answers may surprise them.

As I said in my previous post, for the lack of a clear strategy of what to do regarding our educational mission, let's at least have some conversations, preferably including students, teachers and parents in addition to the administrative team.  These questions come from a presentation I shared at the NETA Fall Ed Tech conference in October of 2015.

The first question I would ask is, "What are the responsibilities of schools in teaching digital citizenship?"

Initially, most people using the term "digital citizenship" were referring to simply being safe, polite and responsible in online communication.  However, as the importance of social media to our culture has exploded in recent years, most now agree that good digital citizenship involves more than just avoiding negative actions and consequences.  In the adult world, creating a positive digital presence is arguably as important as avoiding a negative one.

If our sole responsibility is to protect our children from exposure to inappropriate content, we may, through the use of imperfect technology, attempt to shield our students from the negative side of the online world.  We may even feel that we are doing a good job of this, investing in expensive, sophisticated filters, monitoring systems, white and blacklist subscriptions, etc.  You can find all sorts of data about the effectiveness of content filters with a simple Google search, some positive and some negative.  But for the sake of our question, let's assume that content filters do a pretty good job at blocking most inappropriate content.  Then let us ask, "What have we accomplished?"

We may have spared our students from exposure to most (but if you think all, you are being naive) of the darker aspects of the internet... at least when using school equipment... on the school network... as long as they don't have smartphones... or an unsupervised home computer/tablet/cable box.  Still, we've done our job, right?  We know there are other avenues, but that's not OUR responsibility, right?

This rationalization reminds me of how bullying was handled when I was in junior high:  "Hey, you kids go fight somewhere else, as long it is NOT on school grounds!"

Students may not consciously think about it, but they are certainly aware of the hypocrisy of this stance.  At some point, they understand there are many ways to "beat the filter", and what is worse, they know that WE know that.  Think of the implied message we send with this approach.

"We don't care about what happens to you, we care about what is done with our equipment."

This is probably not a great approach if we want to teach values like respect, integrity, and accountability.

This strategy also severely restricts our ability to help students to explore and function in the digital world in a positive way.  Content filters have become very good at finding naughty words and it's easy to remove access to whole sections of the web.  But no filter is effective at determining intellectual value, social meaning, or the value of thoughts and ideas.  Sharing this type of information is at the very heart of why people use social media.  The only way to prevent the negative aspects of these very human behaviors is to remove access to the social media tools themselves.

Again, it's possible to do this as long the school controls both the device and the network.  But this is akin to banning books because some of the thoughts and ideas contained in them are negative or harmful.  And now that most schools have found social media to be an indispensable tool in community relations and even business operations, we're back to that ugly, hypocritical message we are sending to our students.

If we're not responsible for preparing students to function in the this world, then who is?  They need our guidance, they need positive models to follow, they need to learn how to determine value (both positive and negative).  Sending our young graduates into the world without providing instruction on how to positively function in it is not only contrary to our mission, it is morally indefensible.  Consider this case of a life-altering nightmare that can happen to anyone who doesn't think hard before they post.  And consider that Justine Sacco was a 30 year-old adult at the time.

For more on this topic, I recommend:

The Principal of Change - Protecting or Ignoring

Ditch That Textbook - Our responsibility to humanity:  Teach less content

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Let's Think Before We Block

A Voxer group that I follow has a lively discussion going about how schools should handle site/content blocking and restriction requests from parents and/or teachers and administrators.  Those involved in this discussion are primarily professionals who work to integrate technology into teaching and learning for individual districts.

This topic of discussion is not new.  Generally those who are comfortable and familiar with communication and social media tools (I include myself in this group) hold the view that excessive restrictions placed on student access to these forms of communication are misguided at best.  Further, they often point out that restrictive policies and practices may actually cause real harm by avoiding the responsibility we all share in providing education to our students in the areas of personal responsibility and citizenship.

Those who are less comfortable with these relatively new forms of communication and media distribution usually cite the need to protect our children from objectionable content.  Filtering and restrictive policies are justified on the basis that we need to provide a safe and secure learning environment for our students.

Image result for internet blocked

Regardless of which camp you belong to or even if you can see it both ways, the fact remains that there is a wide range of strategies and policies in place across districts.  Surely if there was a common sense, easily arrived at answer to how districts should handle this, most of us would be doing the same or similar things.

The problem is that like the debate itself, what is "best" for students in this arena is primarily a matter of personal opinion and intuition.  I have strong personal feelings about this issue, but as an officer of a public institution, I should not be allowed to create policy affecting an entire community based strictly on my own personal views.  The existence of social media and the explosion of access to all sorts of information streams is a relatively recent phenomenon, and there has not been time nor experience enough to base such policies on solid, research-based evidence.

Unfortunately, almost every district's approach to this issue has defaulted to the personal feelings of one or a few individuals, in most cases those administrators or technology managers who were around at the time such decisions were first necessary.  Once set, the practices have been "baked in" to the leadership culture of the district.  And we all know that once we've set a precedent, it is very difficult for educational organizations to change.  "We do it that way because that's how we've always done it..."

If we can admit that we really don't know the right answer, at least we can try to make the best, most informed decisions possible.  In that spirit, I implore school leaders to re-examine this issue and fight the urge to fall back to the default, least controversial path.  There is too much at stake, and every year we are sending another group of students out into a world in which they must personally and professionally deal with the very subjects on which this debate is centered.

My next post will begin a series of questions that I think we need to ask ourselves BEFORE we decide what is best for students.  While I will provide my own views and opinions, I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with me.  What I hope you will do is to begin asking these questions in your district, and to start some conversations.

Image result for inspirational quotes

Friday, July 31, 2015

Let's Get in the Game - 5 Simple steps administrators can take right now.

This is a message to all school administrators.

Bless you all, you have one of the hardest jobs that exist in today's world.  But many of our school leaders are falling dangerously behind.

Professional development and the use of modern communication tools tend to focus on teachers and classroom instruction (and rightly so).  But formal, institutionalized professional development has neither the agility nor the flexibility to serve the needs of educators in today's rapidly changing world.
As a consequence, many teachers have adopted social media and the concept of professional learning networks as their primary means of growth and learning.  This is often referred to as, "being connected".

Unfortunately and for various reasons, this new playing field has left many school leaders behind.  As the rules of the game have quickly changed, many administrators are still playing old-school, ever more alone and isolated.

If you are like me, you reached adulthood in the ancient days when the "deal" was clear; go to school, start a career, become an expert.  Congratulations, you have arrived.  You get to spend the next 20+ years knowing what to do, having all the answers, and showing others the way.

As a fellow leader, I'm sorry to break it to you, but that "deal" has been busted.  The paradigm no longer applies, certainly not to our students.  But it's critical for us to recognize, the same is true for us.  The longer we labor under the old context, the farther behind and more obsolete we become.

The age of experts is over, and we are all learners.  We have to let go of the notion that leadership requires that we have all of the answers, and embrace the idea that what leadership really means is that we support the right questions and the collaborative search for solutions.  This is difficult to do if we refuse to adopt the new tools of the trade, because modern leadership requires communication and collaboration.

We also have to accept the fact that we are never going to "arrive".  The remainder of our careers will be messy, full of mistakes, and will require constant growth and learning on our part.  Even when you do master something new, your expertise is doomed to fade very quickly as the world moves on, and new tools replace old ones.

Fortunately, the same tools that have brought about this change in our culture and society are available to help us become the leaders we need to be.  But we have to take the first steps in becoming connected.  If we don't start moving in the right direction NOW, we will soon become irrelevant and ineffective.  And if we stubbornly guard our old-school turf, we'll do more harm to our students than good.

One of the worst feelings in the world is to look up from dogged pursuit and see just how far behind you've fallen.  The good news is, we've all been there.  And this kind of game is not won by being first or scoring the most, it's won by trying.  The only way to lose is to do nothing.

So, let's get in the game, let's take the first steps.  They look like the hardest, before you take them.  But they're not hard.  They just take an open mind, a willingness to learn something new, and a little courage.

  1. Start a blog.  Don't know how?  Here's a short video tutorial for creating a blog using the google platform Blogger.  If you have a google account, you already have blogging tools available.  It's as simple as writing a Word document.  Don't know what to say?  Every administrator I know has at least a weekly news post to staff.  Start with that.  You don't' have to share it with the world, and you don't have to write a literary classic.  Just communicate.  Once you start, you'll see why blogging is a good tool for those weekly (or daily) posts.
  2. Learn the collaborative power of google docs.  Here's a short tutorial on sharing docs.  Share your meeting agenda ahead of time with your participants and ask them to help create the agenda.  Want to know what people think?  Write a question in a google doc, share it with your staff, and invite them to comment.  Once you learn the basics, you'll find you can have all kinds of meaningful conversations without wasting meaningful time.
  3. Get in the habit of posting on Twitter or Instagram one positive thing from your school each day.  Ask your staff to do the same, using the same hashtag.  You will be amazed how this will impact the culture of your school.  If you need help with social media, just ask someone who uses it, they will be happy to show you how it works.  Yes, the unknown is scary.  Remember the little bit of courage?
  4. Use Remind to communicate with staff, students and parents.  Send one inspirational note or quote each day.  Remind lets you schedule these ahead of time, your inspirational thoughts can be shared even when you are gone.  It may sound a little hokey, but this is incredibly motivating to staff when it comes from their leader.  Remind is also a great notification system for school events and alerts, and it is completely free.  This simple tutorial will help get you started.
  5. Learn about and use screencasting to partially "flip" your staff meetings.  Screencasting tools are free and very easy to use.  Good ones to start with are Screencastify (a chrome browser extension) and Screencast-O-Matic (a program you install on your computer).   These tools record your voice over what is happening on your computer screen.  Very easy to use, and you can publish directly to YouTube or save the video as a file.  (Note:  If you publish to YouTube as unlisted, only those who have the link from you can view the video, you don't have to share with the entire world).  Your staff will appreciate being able to get the details you want them to have when they need them, not just during the meeting.  And they can easily go back and review.
Any one of these steps moves you forward in the world by leaps and bounds, each is simple to do, and none of them require a huge investment of time.  You just have to start.  And once you do, you are back in the game.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Common Ground: Teachers, Administrators and Evaluations

A few days ago, @CHS_Mr_F (a great connected educator in our school) shared a post from a blog conversation between two other respected and connected educators.  Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) is a teacher, and John Bernia (@MrBernia) is a principal.  The conversation centers on teacher evaluations and the perspective of each "side".

This is a great conversation and I love the perspective from both sides.  I've said many times, the job of principal has become nearly impossible, and it requires a ton of talent and hard work to do it well.  Teachers have to work very hard to do their jobs well, too.  But they do have the luxury of clarity of purpose.  Teach kids, help them grow and to learn.  The good ones are the most valuable assets any school has.  Indeed, their purpose is the very reason schools exist.

The principal has a much different challenge.  Most would argue that the primary mission of the principal is to support instruction (and therefor, the teacher) and that is certainly true.  But principals must serve more than one master, and in the past two decades, those masters seem to present ever more crossed purposes.  Supporting instruction is certainly necessary for teachers to be at their best.  But a principal must also feed the system of accountability and management.

There was a time (some would say, back in the "good old days") when information and content was warehoused and curated by academic institutions.  In those days, systemic management, accountability, and support of instruction went hand in hand.  The school educated the child, the system was designed to feed that education through the teacher, and the system served all with efficiency.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this century.  Content and the ability to access it left the realm of the school and became ubiquitous.  The role of the teacher changed dramatically.  We don't feed; we coach, we guide.  We help students discover their own learning.  The role is every bit as important and the teacher every bit as essential, but it has changed.

In this time, the system of accountability, management and support has changed very little.  The built-in structure of most schools and state agencies simply does not possess the agility and flexibility of the individual classroom.  So, as our teachers discover the new mission and follow the path, the system falls further behind.  And there in the middle, lies the principal.

The irony of the times in which we teach is that everyone really wants the same thing.  We serve students.   The trouble is that the paths available to that service are far less open and clear to the administrator, and even less so to the state bureaucracies which must support them.  It is a very strange time.

The hope, I believe, lies in communications.  Conversations such as these are far too rare.  Isolation is the enemy, and connections are the most effective weapon to defeat it.  We have to do a better job of helping our leaders to connect with each other, with state agencies, with their teachers, and with the local community.  Yet we spend very few resources on this task.

The final irony is that very many well-meaning and dedicated principals feel that sacrificing their professional growth and learning for the sake of supporting their teachers is a wise choice.  The logic is that resources should go more directly to instruction, and that is a noble thought.  But it is misguided, for if we are lead our teachers, we must go before them, or at least travel with them.  We can't simply try to follow.  We truly must lead from the front.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

We're All Learners

There is comfort in routine.

As we enter the "dog days" of summer, that brief pause between the ed conference season and the harried start of a new school year, I look to my familiar list of tasks and find comfort.  I know exactly what needs to be done to close out the old and start the new.  Most of these tasks involve systems, not people.  While there are always updates and changes, these "systems" tasks retain their purpose.  They are necessary and familiar.  I can feel a sense of accomplishment without really needing to stretch myself as a learner.

It's a nice break from the mad rush of trying to be innovative and creative, of iteration and failure, of staring at the unknown and realizing how much I have to grow.  If I were a tree, this would be the season that creates a new ring, the pause before the frenzied growth of spring.

While in some ways I relish this interlude, I can't imagine staying in this season for long.  We all need growth and purpose.  We are all learners.  As with trees, growth takes resources.  It's frenzied and sometimes haphazard.  But it is the whole point of being.  We are not designed to be static beings.

There are many myths in education, and some die harder than others.  One in particular is not taught, but it is understood, almost as a bargain struck in our choice of career.  Start young, spend a few years learning your content and your craft, and you arrive.  A stately elm, gently swaying in the forest of public education.  Strong enough to weather the storms of new initiatives, but solid and unchanging.

Some have difficulty in releasing this myth.  It may have seemed appropriate in decades past, but the pace of change in communication technologies and access to information has more than proven that life for us is not that of a tree in an unchanging forest.  We are all on a journey, and while rest-stops and layovers are comforting and even necessary, still we move forward, or we are left behind.

We are all learners.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Thanks, George!

I just left a #ISTE2015 session presented by George Couros (@gcouros) about developing the Innovator Mindset.  Whenever I have the chance to attend George's sessions, it is an emotional and inspirational thrill ride.  George never fails to make me both laugh a cry in the same session.  If you ever get a chance to listen to George speak, I guarantee you will feel a little better about education.

George's blog, The Principal of Change ( has given me a lot to think about lately.  His message often enlightens me on the mistakes I am making as a passionate educational leader.

  • I need to develop more patience.  
  • I need to remember that each person has a perspective.  
  • I need to remember that the changes I want in myself and others are no more or less important than those of others, and that each person's context is different.  

What George has helped me to understand is that while things might not change fast enough to my liking, they will not change at all unless we can figure out ways to walk forward together.  I've also come to understand that while tasks and new things and purpose are all important, people are the most important.  This is not just a matter of ethics or morality.  Change simply cannot happen without the involvement of others, and we must find common direction together.

So thank you again, George.  I very much appreciate the message you share and your ability to bring me back to ground, allowing me to work with others, even those who are the most reluctant, in a way that keeps me from "melting down" and more importantly, keeps us moving forward as a team.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Boy, is this GREAT! - NETA 2015

NETA 2015 was another of those transformational steps we all take on our educational journey through life.  

To the non-educator, it may seem odd that I would refer to a professional conference as a transformative step in life, but if you teach kids or work directly with those who do, you know exactly what I mean.  Could anyone walk out of the the two amazing keynotes by @adambellow and @gcouros with nothing more than a bag of professional tips and tricks?  Was it possible to attend sessions and yet miss all of the inspirational conversations that could be had by simply making eye contact with someone and asking a question?  Could one possibly avoid the after-hours social celebrations of new thoughts and ideas, the "I'm gonna try this..." or "We should be doing this when we get home..." discussions?  If that was possible for you my friend, then we need to apply some emergency resuscitation to your educator's heart.

One of the loud, clear messages from NETA 2015 was that it is an exciting and amazing time to be an educator.  While this doesn't necessarily make the job easier, it sure does make it more fun!  And we need more fun, because our emotional batteries do not run on test scores, standards, or political bargains.  

Not only did I get to laugh and cry from inspirational keynotes, I got to see my principal's eyes light up like a kid's after their first roller-coaster ride when he realized the leadership session we presented was meaningful to other administrators.  That was fun!  I got to watch two of our best young teachers nervously submit and prepare, then flawlessly execute and professionally nail their presentation on their Tessellated Classroom.  That was fun!  I got to glimpse the meaning of NETA to one of my favorite teachers in the whole world through her video reflection.  That was fun!  And I get to see the echos of all the conversations and all of the inspired thoughts and ideas in the twitter aftermath and build-up to the next transformational opportunity.

This is so much fun!

So to all of you, my friends and colleagues, presenters, those who've taken the time to listen, to argue, to inspire... thanks for helping me to be more dog!