Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A New Model for Writing Instruction for the 21st Century

A couple of months ago, our tenth graders received their writing scores for the year. As a school we did very well with our proficiency level of 96 percent. What really bothers me about that particular writing test is a burning question, "Does it accurately measure the kinds of writing our students need to be doing in the 21st century?" Our students in North Carolina are asked to complete a writing test every March. On this test they are asked to complete "an extended informational response" which is further described as writing definition or cause and effect. Students are then scored for content and writing conventions. Basically, the prompts that I reviewed asked students to write articles or letters on a variety of topics. (North Carolina provides access to their writing prompts on the grade 10 writing assessment site here.) They also provide a full description of the assessment and how it relates to No Child Left Behind legislation. But even with all of the information provided by the state, my burning question persists? Just how does this assessment reflect the kinds of writing our students are doing and will be doing in the 21st century?

As a long-time English teacher who enjoyed teaching writing to students, it really concerns me that we are still using an assessment that does not authentically assess writing of the 21st century. The National Council Teachers of English have weighed in on this issue by describing the profound changes needed in literacy education and literacy practices. Because of these changes, they provide some imperatives schools might do well to heed.

  • Our schools and our nation need to recognize and validate the many ways we all are writing.
  • We need to develop new models of writing, design a new curriculum supporting those models, and create models for teaching that curriculum.
  • We need to make sure that all students have the opportunity to write and learn in intellectually stimulating classrooms.
  • We need to recognize that out-of-school literacy practices are as critical to students' development as what occurs in the classroom and take advantage of this to better connect classroom work to real-world situations that students will encounter across a lifetime. ("Writing in 21st Century" NCTE.)
The North Carolina 10th Grade Writing Assessment has students writing letters and articles, as if our students are going to become journalists or 20th century citizens who send letters to the editor to their local newspaper. What exactly is not authentic about this activity? First of all, today's students do not read the newspaper. (I am not sure they have ever read the newspaper, but I will give a nod at our state's effort at trying to make the writing task authentic.) Students today, according to the many studies done on "digital natives," they do not read newspapers; they get their information from the Internet. Secondly, 21st century citizens are not likely to respond to issues using letters to the editor. They are more likely to respond to those issues using 21st century tools like blog posts, comment postings, and even posting YouTube Videos.  Besides, how is writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper or an article for the newspaper an "authentic" activity when newspapers are slowly becoming nonexistent? Let's face it, the North Carolina 10th Grade Writing Assessment has become a fossil.

Perhaps we need to begin just as NCTE suggests. Let's validate and recognize all the ways students can write or express themselves with 21st century tools. I realize that could be quite a massive list, but let's start by recognizing that composition and response to issues no longer requires written words. If student gets upset with the BP oil spill disaster, they can post a video they've created on YouTube. They can post an original song they've sung in a podcast. They can post original photos with accompanying music in a slideshow. The list is endless, and as online Web 2.0 tools continue to evolve and be developed, the list of ways students can communicate ideas in the 21st century is never complete. Of course, we still need to have students use the written word. There is still much that has to be communicated that way. But the five-paragraph essay should be relegated to the slag heap immediately. No one ever authentically wrote that way anyway, and writing assessments that force teachers to teach in that manner need to be thrown into the same slag heap. Let's take a close, ongoing look at the kinds of writing our students do and the kinds of writing the 21st century will require them to do and toss out 21st century writing assessments and 21st century writing pedagogy.

Once we've tossed out that irrelevant writing assessment and writing curriculum, we need to do as the NCTE suggests: "develop new models of writing, new curriculum supporting those new models, and develop new models to teach the new writing curriculum." Kathleen Blake Yancey posts a report entitled "Writing in the 21st Century" on the NCTE web site. In that report, she provides a historical context to writing instruction and some themes to think about as we ponder writing in the 21st century. For example, she states "with digital technology and, especially Web 2.0, it seems writers are everywhere." Any new model of writing can't ignore that our students live in a world where "writers are everywhere" and that people "write in order to participate" which is actually an entirely different purpose for writing than to persuade or inform. Any new model of writing would be useless if it still had students writing essays and letters to the editor. Instead, our new models of writing need focus on how writers can use 21st century tools to express themselves in a world where anyone can have his or her writing published.

Once we have our new model of writing and the curriculum to be taught with it, we need revamp the old twentieth century classroom where students sit quietly at desks writing introductions-bodies-conclusions on ruled paper to be handed in at the end of the class. This is the real world of our students. If we want writing instruction to be intellectually stimulating, we need to give them real-world issues, concerns and problems. Then we ask them to use 21st century tools to respond, investigate, report back, and create solutions. English teachers need to put away their red pens which have been used to bleed all over student papers for the last hundred years or so, and become facilitators who empower their students to learn how to communicate effectively in the 21st century with 21st century media.

Finally, like NCTE suggests we need to quit separating what students should be doing in school from what they do at home. Asking students to write an essay in the English classroom using a pen and a sheet of paper then turning it in is an obsolete practice. Amazingly, our students do this, then on their way out of the classroom, they pull out their cell phones and they send a concise text message that follows very strict rules to a friend. We basically ask them to do the inauthentic before they can engage in the authentic. Why can't we have students authentically engaged in using 21st century media as a part of regular writing instruction?

It is time. We need a 21st century model of writing. Actually, we needed it yesterday, but we do need to move the kinds of writing and writing assessments we ask students to do out of the last century. Those of us in administration positions need to help our English teachers make this happen. We need to advocate to policy makers the imperative to remove outdated, irrelevant assessments like the North Carolina 10th Grade Writing Assessment. We need to support our teachers as they seek these new writing models, develop the curriculum to teach them, and provide them with the kinds of access to technology in their classrooms that make writing authentic again.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

21st Century Administrator Experiments with Diigo

Diigo is one of the those Web 2.0 social networking tools that I have not gotten around to finding a way to use yet. I have looked at some of the Web 2.0 activities suggested by blog posts, but as with any tool, I needed to just sit down and "play" with the tool to see how I might use it in my administrative practice. I have found some interesting 21st century administrator uses for the tool, and I will keep exploring ways to expand its use.

Setting Up Your Diigo Account

Setting up an account is rather easy, like it is for most Web 2.0 tools. All you need to do is access Diigo at:

Using Diigo's Chrome Extension

Google Chrome is my browser of choice, so I installed the Google Chrome Diigo extension.You can access that extension here.

Once that extension is installed, I have a button on my browser bar, that when clicked on, a toolbar for Diigo tools appears for easy access of the Highlighter Tool, Bookmark Tool, Sticky Note Tool, and the Share Tool. This extension allows me to access Diigo's tools at the click of a button.

Diigo Chrome Extension

Uses I Have Found for Diigo

I have only been working with Diigo for a few days, but I have already discovered a few uses for the product. I have incorporated its use in the products I use as a part of my personal learning network.

  1. Use Diigo to annotate and mark interesting ideas, quotes, thoughts, or other information stumbled across while reading articles in my Google Reader. In the past, I found myself copying and pasting them into my Microsoft Onenote program, or into a MS Word file. Diigo allows me to clip these items and place them into categories for easier access.
  2. Use Diigo to organize notes and clips into categories. Because Diigo allows you to set up custom categories, I can create categories that I need, and then I just place items in those as I find them. Because Diigo hyperlinks back to the original, I can access the entire article any time I need to do so.
  3. Use Diigo's highlight feature and the sticky note feature to write quick notes about the text. The sticky note feature allows me attach notes to the text of an article for later reference.
  4. Sharing Diigo Clips. I have not fully taken advantage of this one yet, but I see the possibilities. I have shared clips using Twitter, but you can also share clips of text using email and other social networking tools. I can see myself stumbling across an interesting idea that I want to share with my teachers, and then using Diigo's sharing feature to send the information out to them.
  5. Other Uses as I find them. I am sure I will find even more uses for the tool in the coming days.
Accessing Your Clips with My Library Page

Once items are highlighted, they are then placed in what is known as "My Library." From there, using multiple view choices, you can read and access all of the items you have clipped from web sites. You can also make the items public or private, group them into categories, read snapshots of the web page, among other things.

My Library in Diigo

At this point, I am still experimenting with Diigo's functionality and features. It has already shown promise in becoming a tool to help me collect all these things from my web reading. In the coming months I hope to take advantage of the sharing feature even more.

Monday, June 28, 2010

21st Century Response to Risky Online Behavior of Our Students: Information from McAfee’s Youth Online Behavior Study

As students become more engaged in social networking sites, school administrators are likely to find themselves dealing more and more with irresponsible behaviors like cyberbullying which in turn spills over into the school building. McAfee’s study The Secret Online Lives of Teens makes it clear that teens are more willing than ever to divulge private or personal information about themselves in these online communities, engage in online behaviors and hide them from their parents, and engage in becoming members of social networking communities. The fact that more and more of our students are now engaging in social networking sites should mean that we as educators need to take the lead and not ban participation in social networking. Instead we need to be teaching our students how to engage in social networking in a safe and responsible manner. Some of the findings of note from the McAfee study include the following items:

  • 81% of 16 to 17 year old teens report having at least one membership to a social networking site.
  • 91% of all kids say their parents trust them to do what’s right online.
  • Even though parents are less likely to monitor their children’s online behavior, as they get older young people are more inclined to hide what they do online from their parents. By the time they are 16 to 17, 56% of teens hide their online activities.
  • 73% of 13 to 17 year olds in 2010 say they have an account on a social networking site compared to 59% in 2008.

There were other findings of interest in the study, but I think those listed above should be sufficient to guide some common sense proactive measures we need to think about as administrators.

First of all, the number of our students who are members of social networking sites is not going to decrease. It is going to increase. As administrators, our proactive stance should be to embrace social networking as a fact of life. It’s here. We would do much more for them if we teach them how to be responsible members of these social networking communities. We need to help them become responsible cyber-citizens and how to capitalize on the strengths that social networking can bring to learning.

Secondly, although the survey reported that kids believe their parents trust them with their online activities, the fact that as they get older they hide these activities suggests otherwise. Educators need to be proactive and begin to educate parents on what social networking is, its promises and possibilities. We need to enlist parents’ help in our efforts to teach young people responsible cyber-citizenship.

It is time for administrators to acknowledge the realities of social networking and encourage the educational establishment to take on the task of proactively teaching our young people how to be responsible in all of their online activities, including participating in social networking.

For additional information on the McAfee study, see here.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Book Merchants of Doubt: 21st Century Read

Oreskes and Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt is proving to be a fascinating read. I purchased it the other day after seeing a brief description of it on Barnes and Noble’s web site. What caught my eye was the subtitle: “How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.” I am in the middle of one of my reading jags. Several months ago I became fascinated with how think tanks and other policy oriented organizations are filling the media with “supposed” scientific evidence to support their pet biases. For example, the Fordham Institute has plastered web sites with study after study that they say “proves once and for all that vouchers and school choice work.” Members of this institute who are supposed to be researchers don’t exactly publish phony studies, but they do twist facts and misrepresent results to push their own narrow agenda.

Merchants of Doubt focuses on how well-known scientists have aligned themselves with industry and institutes with narrowly-focused ideological agendas to attack scientific findings that are contrary to their beliefs. This book begins by looking at the misinformation campaign and downright deception of the tobacco industry to mislead the public on the dangers of tobacco. Their goal was to create doubt in the minds of Americans regarding tobacco use, and they succeeded for quite some time, until lawsuits and the truth became known about their underhanded tactics. At this point, I am now reading the chapter about those scientists, tied to political agendas, purposely misled the public about the strength of the Soviet Union’s military in order to push their agenda of attacking detente and peaceful limits on nuclear weapons. (Sound familiar?)

What fascinates me about this book is how education-issue think tanks and even university researchers paid for by foundations with an agenda are basically doing the same thing with school choice research and charter research. These individuals are deliberately obscuring the truth about the state of education in the United States and the effectiveness of their narrow agenda items in order to derail public education. Organizations like the Friedman Foundation, Fordham Institute, and Heritage Foundation are not interested in facts and research unless it supports their narrow agendas. Their comments and “research findings” make their way into the mainstream media for all to see. What is really sad, many times the media does not question their findings. That is the same thing Oreskes and Conway say happened with the research on the dangers of tobacco. The media often printed their “research” or interpretations of research that basically said, “there is no proof that cigarettes cause cancer.”

These same forces are at work today. These organizations like the Fordham Institute and Freidman Foundation continue to point to the worst that is in public schools to create doubt about the whole public education system. They then push their own narrow agenda---vouchers and school choice. First of all, obscure the truth, then secondly, push their agenda. Oreskes and Conway call it the “tobacco strategy.” It works very well when current reality does not match your agenda. Tobacco strategy means to obscure the truth to the point that there is a great deal of doubt, even about what is scientific truth.

For interest sake, I have included a video of Oreskes describing her book. It’s a great read so far.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mind Mapping Software for 21st Century Administrators

There are several mindmapping products out there, and I have previously reviewed one particular software solution called Inspiration. I have personally used several products, and each on has its advantages.


Freemind is an open source mindmapping solution and as far as open source solutions go, it is a solid mindmapping solution. Its interface is fairly simple to use but I have found some things about it just a bit quirky and it does not create elaborate mindmaps as other products do.


Freemind Screenshot

I have personally found that Freemind is not one of the simplest mindmapping tools to use. It’s advantage is its cost. For further information about Freemind see here.

Mindjet Mindmanager

This is a commercial mindmapping product that has a great deal of functionality. It has a number of templates, converts to outline forms, and can even be used for presentations. As a presentation tool alternative to PowerPoint, this is a solid product. It is easy to learn to use as well. I am currently using Mindmanager 7, but Mindjet now as a version 8 that I have not gotten around to purchasing, but I plan to do so. You can even download a trial version, and the company does offer academic versions. For more information about Mindjet Mindmanager see here.


Mindjet Mindmanager Screenshot


Xmind offers a free version of its software for download. It is a much easier to use mindmapping tool than either Freemind or Mindmanager. It does not have all the features found in Mindmanager, but it has a great deal more features than Freemind. There are templates to guide your map design. You can choose design features like map format, lines used, icons, and even the type of background to use. For $49 you can upgrade Xmind to Pro and add addtional features like presentation mode, adding audio notes, and many other features. This is one of my personal favorite mindmapping tools due to its ease of use, presentation features, and the ability to upload your maps to Xmind web with subscription. For more information and to download Xmind’s software see here.


Xmind Screenshot

Inspiration 9

It is very difficult to avoid listing Inspiration 9 when talking about mindmapping software. Educators have been familiar with this tool for quite some time, and it is a standard productivity tool with a number of educators. It is also an excellent tool for administrators as well. It’s ability to create maps, outlines, and now even presentations makes it a highly useful mindmapping tool for administrators. I have reviewed this software before, so I won’t get into great detail, but it is a product well worth the less-than-one hundred dollar selling price. For more information and a free trial download, see here.


Inspiration 9 Screenshot

Product Comparison

If I were going to rank these products in ease of use I would rank them in the following manner:

  1. Inspiration 9
  2. Xmind
  3. Mindmanager
  4. Freemind

If I were going to rank them according to how useful I have found them as an administrator, I would rank them in the following manner:

  1. Inspiration 9
  2. Xmind
  3. Mindmanager
  4. Freemind

When considering all of their additional features , I would rank them:

  1. Inspiration 9
  2. Mindmanager
  3. Xmind
  4. Freemind

As you can see, Inspiration 9 is my personal favorite when it comes to mindmapping, but Xmind is a close second.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

US Department of Education Claims That Vouchers Improve Graduation Rates: Junk Science at Its Best

I recently began reading Dan Agin’s book Junk Science: An Overdue Indictment of Government, Industry, and Faith Groups That Twist Science for Their Own Gain. In that book, Agin goes to great lengths to point out how special interests in government, commerce, and the “faith” industry are using “junk” science to change or sway public opinion toward their own biased positions. Yesterday, the US Department of Education released their report entitled “Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.” The results of that report include the following:

  • There is no conclusive evidence that the Opportunity Scholarship Program affected student achievement. “On average, after at least four years students who were offered (or used) scholarships had reading and math scores that were statistically similar to those who were not offered scholarships.”
  • The program significantly improved students’ chances of graduating from high school. “The offer of an Opportunity Scholarship Program Scholarship raised students’ probability of completing high school by 12 percentage points overall. The graduation rate based on parent-provided information was 82 percent for the treatment group compared to 70 percent for the control group.
  • The Opportunity Scholarship Program raised parents’, but not students’, ratings of school safety and satisfaction. “Parents were more satisfied and felt school was safer if their child was offered or used an Opportunity Scholarship Program Scholarship.The program had no effect on students’ reports on school conditions.”

Immediately, the right-wingers pounced on the findings as if they were earth-shattering. Never mind that the first point clearly contradicts one their oft-repeated claims that vouchers increase student achievement. The headings on all kinds blogs biased toward vouchers made the statement loudly and clearly that “DC Vouchers Improve Graduation Rates.” For example the right-wing Heritage Foundation declares unashamedly that “the evidence is clear school vouchers work for Washington DC students.” (See Here.) Jay P. Greene’s Pro-voucher blog continued the same refrain. But if you look at the study, tucked away in it’s language about the graduation rate claim is the following: “There are some limitations to this analysis, however, it is based on parent reports rather than school administrative records, and it represents relatively a small share of the study sample.”

 In other words, the authors of the study did not use actual graduation statistics for their claims, they used PARENT-REPORTED claims, and that the sample size may be problematic. Why not use the actual graduation rates? Using parent reported graduations is not convincing because of possible reporting errors. The sample size being to small also limits generalization.

The study also includes a “Conflict of Interest” statement that clearly points on that Patrick Wolf and his research team from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform were a part of the research team. This is the same Patrick Wolf who is the “Professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice.” (See here.) Keep in mind this whole department was established by the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-mart) with the goal of pushing school choice and vouchers. This whole department at the University of Arkansas acts just like a think tank, providing biased research to support the narrow-minded interests of the faculty and those of the Walton Family Foundation. Clearly the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform offers the best research results money can buy.

Any credibility to this study released by the United States Department of Education is swept away by serious flaws in its design, and the unmistakable biases that individuals like Patrick Wolf bring to it.

Dan Agin states that “Often the most important characteristic of junk science is that much of it is based on no science at all, but on wishful thinking, fantastical thinking, and so on. In general, any political group or movement that twists science with bias in order to support a political agenda is producing junk science in a possible dangerous mode. Junk science is often a deliberate tool used by those who seek to exploit the public for one end or another.” This study is an illustration of Agin’s version of junk science. There are clear biases by those who worked in the research. The wishful thinking of Patrick Wolf taints any conclusions that he draws from it. And, the whole purpose of the study supports his political agenda of promoting school vouchers. What amazes me is that our own United States Department of Education would allow itself to be used by those who have narrow political agendas.

The fact that this study was released by our own United States Department of Education does not make it credible. In fact, it should remind us that the very department that is supposed to be helping us carry out our endeavors to educate the young of this nation is still a political animal and its research should be examined with an eye toward skepticism.

As an educator in the 21st century, we have no choice but to examine critically all of the educational research being touted by our own government, think tanks, non-profit organizations, and even our own professional organizations. As I attended two educational conferences in the past two weeks, every time a presenter used the words “according to research” I could not help but slide toward skepticism. As Dan Agin would say, research with an agenda is junk science. Sometimes that agenda is clear and sometimes it is not, but in the 21st century, as an advocate of public education, I remain skeptical every time I hear those words.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Prophet of Education Continues to Prophesy the Doom of Public Education: Tony Wagner’s Keynote to NCNSP Summer Institute

Today, I had an opportunity to hear Tony Wagner, author of the book The Global Achievement Gap give a keynote speech at the North Carolina New Schools Project (NCNSP) Annual Summer Institute. I have read Wagner’s book two times and it is one of many books now that sound the clarion call to educators about reinventing public schools to meet the needs of 21st century students. Wagner conducted a study in which he interviewed business executives and university professors and asked them about the kinds of skills students need to learn in order to be successful in today’s global economy. This research led Wagner to promote what he calls the Seven Survival Skills. They are:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Collaboration Across Networks
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills list directly parallels Wagner’s list at many points. (See the Partnership for 21st Century Skills List here.)

During his keynote, Wagner reviewed his list of skills and most of what he has published in his book. Some of the points he made are what many teachers have found out while working hard in the trenches adhering to the dictates of NCLB. First of all, he stated that our classes have become test prep classes. Since No Child Left Behind became law, our classrooms have become places where the entire focus is on the tests. He pointed out that it is possible for a school to meet AYP requirements and still fail students. He also repeated what many of us who work in schools today have been saying for some time, “What get’s tested get’s taught.” Wagner’s points about testing are made in his book too, but they are really not anything new. Teachers and administrators have been trying to tell education policymakers this for years.

It was Tony Wagner’s final three points of the speech that caught my attention. First of all, he called for a new accountability system he entitled “Accountability 2.0.” This new accountability system is based on new assessments of a more authentic nature that capture the seven survival skills he advocates. Secondly, Wagner called for “school-based R and D.” These schools would be places where teaching and learning are studied and explored. Finally, he called for “performance standards to license and re-certify teachers.” Teachers and administrators would be required to develop and maintain “portfolios” that basically illustrate their effectiveness. Teachers could place reflections, videos of teaching, and other artifacts that capture their effectiveness in these portfolios. Principals could do the same thing. As a practicing administrator, I know our public is going to demand some kind of accountability system, and his mention that if tests are used as a part of that accountability system, they must be adequate for that purpose. I’m still professionally cautious about the test-used-as-evaluation conversation because education policymakers have been known to let financial considerations determine the quality of tests used.

I am also not excited about Wagner’s suggestion of a professional portfolio to be assembled by educators. The demands of the classroom and of the administrative offices make me question whether any teacher has the time to assemble this portfolio he advocates. There was an attempt several years ago in North Carolina to ask teachers to assemble this kind of portfolio, and the state legislature actually passed a law forbidding the use of such an evaluation method. Basically the whole idea sounds like he advocates that every teacher and administrator justify his or her existence at the end of every year. I just can’t agree that this proposal is a move into the 21st century. It is actually a rehashing of an idea from the 1990s. How many other professions have to prove their effectiveness at the end of every year with some massive portfolio? That should do wonders to reduce any teacher surplus that exists.

I would agree with Wagner about the need for Research and Development schools, but I do not think they necessarily have to be special schools set aside for the this purpose. If school reinvention is that imperative, then every school should be trying to re-invent what it is doing. Good teachers and administrators work constantly at trying to find better ways to reach their students. Why can’t we just create the kinds of conditions in all our schools that make it possible for innovation and reinvention?

Overall, Tony Wagner’s keynote was a repetition of the things he says in his book The Global Achievement Gap. He continues to sound the warning message to public education that Willard Dagget and Ray McNulty did at the Model Schools Conference I attended last week in Orlando. Most of us who work in the schools know too well the truth of what these education prophets of doom are prophesying. We know schools have to change to meet the needs of 21st century students, but we are still surrounded by a culture and bureaucracy that seeks to preserve what is. Quit talking about where we need to go and help us remove these obstacles to change.

Cover Image

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Converting to Google Apps: Our Systems Move to Cloud Computing

Our school system completed its conversion to using Google Apps this past week. Like any change, there were those individuals in our central office who experienced a bit of frustration with the change. I have been an enthusiastic supporter of our conversion since I heard that it was a possibility. Our small school system stands to save financially with the conversion. By using Gmail, much of our email infrastructure costs and support have been eliminated. We are paying Google to help with the archiving, but no longer will our already taxed tech support department be responsible for making sure the email server is operational. Secondly, by using Google Apps, our educators now have several tools at their disposal: Google Sites, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Chat, Google Video, and Google Wave. I realize much of our staff does not yet know the added functionality these tools bring to their jobs, but I honestly can’t wait to share that with them. Finally, Gmail itself is actually an email upgrade for our staff. Its email search feature is much stronger than what we had with Outlook. The gadgets offered by Google labs add even more functionality to Gmail. Our staff is just now learning how our move to Google Apps is the right move for our system.

Friday morning, I walked into the office and our receptionist was undecided regarding our conversion because there were several features she enjoyed when using MS Outlook. She liked the “You Have Mail” message that appeared in the lower left-hand corner when she received an email under the old Outlook system. I immediately showed her that by installing Google Talk, she could receive the same kind of notification. She excitedly showed other office staff how to install this application to get the email notifications. Then another office staff member said she liked to be able to preview her messages with a preview panel that was available in Outlook. I immediately showed her a Google Labs gadget that offered this same capability. Before I left the office, they were all experimenting with the settings and gadgets in an effort to make the application their own. There was a clear level of excitement regarding their new email tool.

When school systems convert to new technologies, it is most important that we show them how those new technologies offer greater advantages than what they had. The excitement of our central office staff after I showed them a few of the added features of Gmail was an affirmation that our system has done the right thing in converting to Google Apps.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Secretary Duncan’s Video to Principals; You Judge the Message

Below is a video in which Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addresses school principals. Take a look. In it he promises additional funding for Title I and for IDEA, and he states clearly that it will not become a competitive grant. Perhaps the Department of Education is beginning to listen rather than prescribe, prescribe, prescribe.


Secretary continues to state two more things we all agree as school leaders:

  1. Federal law should help principals and I would add teachers in providing our students with a world-class education.
  2. No Child Left Behind Act has been unfair to teachers and principals.

As they say, “The Devil is in the details” and we can only hope that Secretary is sincere and really means what he says about the reauthorization of ESEA. He and President Obama currently have a severe credibility problem with a number of educators. It is going to take more than posting a few videos to regain the trust of many who supported this administration in the last election.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

First Day Reflections on the International Center for Leadership in Education’s 18th Annual Model Schools Conference

First impressions are everything as the saying goes, and my first impressions of the 18th Annual Model Schools Conference put on each year by Dr. Willard Daggett’s International Center for Leadership in Education, have two facets. Facet number one is that the “Model Schools Conference” is all about the glitter and glamour with little substance. The opening keynote speech with its flashing spinning lights and sound effects served its purpose of building up to the audience to Dr. Willard Daggett’s opening keynote speech. Once that speech is underway, Daggett continued with the same diatribe he has been making since I first heard him in 1992. “Schools need to change.” Message is the same. What has changed is the expensive lighting, cameras, and glitzy stage effects. What is really sad and disappointing is that a number of schools pay small fortunes in tight budget years to attend these extravaganzas and what they get in return is a old Daggett message dressed up in new technological rhinestones and one big massive sales pitch for other services offered by his organization and a few his selected vendors who offer educational services. I wonder how much they paid Daggett’s organization to be a part of this show of lights and mirrors? I realize that this is entirely my speculation, but I almost felt like I was attending that “Saying Yes” convention that Jim Carrey’s character was attending in the movie “Yes Man.” I just kept waiting to see Willard Daggett take off his shoes and run barefoot down the aisle and confront one of the audience unbelievers of his solutions for curing education.

The other facet of my impressions of this entertainment extravaganza by Willard Daggett’s organization is all the talk about 21st century education. In his keynote, Ray McNulty made the comment about how many classrooms today are museums and that little has changed in today’s schools. Willard Daggett continued with the same message even emphasizing the need to move to electronic textbooks and devices of the 21st century. All this rhetoric is correct and hard to argue with, but then there was just one element of hypocrisy that made it hard for me to hear this message: there was NO WIRELESS ACCESS ANYWHERE IN THE CONVENTION HALL. My question is this: how can a conference that boasts all this stuff about 21st century teaching and learning, have a valid message without providing its attendees with one of the pre-requisites of the 21st century, wireless access? Was it too expensive to provide those in attendance this access? Or, was the plan to work with Marriott Hotels to provide that wireless access for a charge so that even more money could be made?

You know, perhaps I gripe to much. And yes, I might have let a little disappointment like the lack of wireless access poison my views of the whole conference, but I know from my years working in retail services, the little things sometimes do matter. This little thing combined with all the over emphasis on glamour and glitz only makes me wonder if the Model Schools Conference is all about showmanship or substance.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Roll of Stamps Provides Lesson in 21st Century Tolerance and Understanding

For those who have never sat in the principal’s chair, you miss out on so many opportunities to deal with very strange situations, or should I say unexpected situations. This situation was yet again another opportunity for me to reflect again on my practice as a 21st century educator.

About two weeks ago, I mailed letters out to the parents whose children are prospective students for our school. I packed the information into an envelope, plastered a stamp on it, and took the letters downstairs to be mailed. Several days later I received a phone call from a mother to whom I had sent one of the letters.

“Is that some kind of joke?” she asked. I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Ma’m, what do you mean?” I asked totally lost.

“You put a confederate flag stamp on the letter you sent me. I was really offended by that,” she stated.

I was really lost at this point. I could not imagine what she was talking about. I might live in the south, but I have always tried to be sensitive to what kinds of things others might find offensive. In truth, I do not even own a single item that has the confederate battle flag on it. This is the 21st century. The Civil War is over. I was totally flabbergasted. How did a confederate flag stamp get on the letter I sent out to this particular parent? I continued to tell the parent that I could not imagine how that happened, then I opened the drawer to my desk and it dawned on me. The stamps I had used were state flag stamps, and I remembered that some southern state, did not know which one, still had the confederate battle flag on it.

I quickly flipped through the roll of stamps while continuing to apologize profusely for something I was not quite yet sure how it happened. Then I saw it: the Mississippi state flag. Sure enough, there is a confederate battle flag on it. Your can see it for yourself. Lest someone think I am posting confederate flags on my blog, here’s a link to it so you can see for yourself.  (Mississippi State Flag) 

I then proceeded to explain to the parent how I inadvertently placed the stamp on the envelope, and that I did not think anything about it because they were state flags. I honestly did not pay attention. I just put the stamp on the envelope. I assured her I meant nothing by it, and I certainly needed to be more careful in the future.

After I hung up the phone, I went through that roll of stamps and threw out every Mississippi state flag stamp there was.

Most people would find parts of this situation superficial and laughable, but I think it illustrates very clearly the line we walk as 21st century administrators. Our contemporary society is polarized like never before, and our public is watching our moves very carefully. As a 21st century administrator the need for tolerance and understanding is even more vital because increasingly we find ourselves juggling all the sensitivities of the many parents and students we serve. As the our schools and communities get even more plugged in to the wider global community, the need for that respect and tolerance becomes even more important. We must be respectful and tolerant in all we do. That might even mean we have to waste a few stamps in the process in order to become 21st century models of tolerance for both our students and our communities.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fostering Excitement in 21st Century Students

This afternoon, I was typing a letter in my office. Most of our students had cleared the building. I heard pieces of conversation between teachers just outside my office. They were discussing who was going to administer and proctor the coming state tests. Suddenly, two students rushed into my office with a Flip camera and blurted, “You’ve gotta see this!”

Earlier in the afternoon, they had gotten permission to use one of the Flip cameras to walk down the street to shoot some video. Now they were back and could not contain their excitement. Obviously, some administrators would have had none of this kind of intrusion. They would have told the two students, “You go back outside my office and knock like you’re supposed to!” That wasn’t my reaction. In fact, I was so taken by surprise by their level of energy and enthusiasm, that I went along with it. They honestly did not give me any choice. One of the students plugged the camera into my computer’s USB port, and asked if he could use my mouse. He really did not wait for an answer, which was fine. I wanted to see where this was going. He manipulated the software for a minute until their latest creation appeared on my monitor. I was still surprised by the excitement these two students were showing. It was uncharacteristic for these two students to show that level of enthusiasm. It was even more amazing that they wanted to eagerly show me their video. By the way, these are two high school students who as a rule don’t want be caught living in the principal’s office.

Together we watched their video segments. Both them made comments like, “We’re gonna edit that out,” and “We gotta leave that in there.” When the video was finished, the Flip camera was quickly unplugged with very little comment. They finally asked to show it to the whole school tomorrow.

This encounter was one of those powerful experiences begging for reflection. As educators, how many times have our students busted into our offices, brimming with excitement and we use the experience to remind them of proper manners rather than embracing their moment of engagement?  How many times have we become so encumbered with the “stuff of our jobs” that we actually dampen the excitement for creation and learning our students exhibit? There are wonderful reasons to be an educator in the 21st century. Our students are content creators not just content consumers. These two young men reminded me what it is all about today. Thank you gentlemen!