Monday, September 10, 2012

School Communication for Today’s World

When I started at The FAIR School a little over four years ago communication internally and externally was a mess.  Messages were not getting to staff, announcements over the loud speaker were made almost every half an hour, and emails clogged up each person’s Inbox.  Instead of being productive, we were unproductive as a staff.  Furthermore, on the community side we were not doing a good job communicating with our parents and families about upcoming events, conferences, and general announcements.

What we quickly realized as a leadership team was that we were communicating in an outdated and ineffective manner.  Papers were not making it home, a printed calendar changed weekly as new events were added and old ones moved, and there was an insane amount of time wasted looking through all staff email announcements that did not apply to everyone on the staff.

Then a change happened...

Under the direction of our administration, leadership team, and lots of long hours by our communications director we have shifted how we communicate with our school community.  It is relevant, environmentally aware, and inherently digital.  Here is a look at the multiple ways we communicate with The FAIR School community:
  • Email: We do still use this form of communication between parent/guardians and staff to share specific concerns, get in touch with one another, or receive information.  Sometimes also we use this as a school and parent/guardian message when we want to target a certain segment of our population, like only 3rd grade families.
  • School Connects: Occasionally we use this system to “robo call” all our families.  This is an important piece of our communication system in case of emergency, snow day, or other major announcement that needs to get to everyone at once.  However, this system is used sparingly because our other methods are more effective.
  • FAIR Talk: This is our monthly school newsletter.  We still love the written word and greatly appreciate the newsletter form as a way to summarize and update families about upcoming events.  Before we printed out a copy of this for each of our families, but now we do not print any.  Instead, this is posted on our website and Facebook page for students, parent/guardians, and our community to digitally access and read.  Furthermore, by publishing this digitally our communications director has the ability to use more pictures and lots of color in her design.
  • SchoolView: This is our parent/guardian link to online attendance, grades, and registration information.  We have had this method of communication in place for a number of years and it works well for its multiple intended purposes.
Up to this point I think many of our communication methods are what you would see in many schools.  We might use a tool slightly different, but most are similar.  However, I think the next three methods of communication set The FAIR School apart.

  • Text Message: Almost everyone has a cell phone, so why not communicate with our parents where they are instead of having them listen to a message left on their home machine (provided that they have a home phone) or wait for their student to come home from school?  The request to have text messages actually came out of parent communication with the school.  Our principal came to me with the idea and within a few weeks we had the system up and running with parents enrolled.  We use texting to communicate up to the minute information and some of those typical types of announcements that we would normally have sent out through School Connects.  Furthermore, we can tier the messages so that only Kindergarten parent/guardians receive it or all our 9-12 parent/guardians.  The key here is that we are limited to 160 characters so you have to be short when communicating.  As a staff we rolled this out two years ago and reminded them about upcoming summer trainings.  They loved it because they did not have to continually check their school email during the summer and we loved it because they actually showed up for trainings.  We also have a short code, so at events if people want more information we can have then text “FAIR” to our number and then send them back a URL, name of a contact person, or what ever our message happens to be.
  • Website: The FAIR School website is not like other websites.  Take a look at the main page linked here.  What do you notice?  There is a little text, links on the side, some photos, and videos throughout.  Yes, we have really tried to bring the idea that a website is not a one dimensional space.  We want it to be interactive, exciting, and engaging, albeit a bit untraditional.  Furthermore, this is the main page for both campuses.  The FAIR School is one school with two campuses - FAIR School Downtown (located in Minneapolis, MN) and FAIR School Crystal (located in Crystal, MN).  By looking at the site you will notice that a lot of the information is the same for both campuses, because it should be.  This is big part of our communications mission where we want to have everything streamlined through one site in order for our community to come and grab what they need.  One important distinction about our website though – it is only for our permanent information.  That is correct, we do not post up to the minute, hour, or even weekly information on there.  After the school year is set and the appropriate information has been updated, our communications director leaves this site alone.  Instead, she focuses on another medium coming up next.  We really want the website to be a place where parents and families can go to access contact information, forms, letters, lists, documents, and other information that they may need throughout the school year.  Finally, this entire site (and all of our websites at The FAIR School) are run by Google Sites.  We pay almost nothing for overhead, nothing for updated software, and had very little training at the beginning.  Our communications director has done a wonderful job creating templates, working through the small nuances of Sites, and really figuring out how to make it beautiful.
  • Facebook: With over 901 million monthly users, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, we knew that as a school we had to reach people where they were spending their time – on Facebook.  So we launched our Facebook page (Check us out at FAIR School Downtown-Crystal) a few years ago and have never turned back.  We use this as our way to communicate up to date information about items such as school pictures, upcoming events for parents and families, PTSA/PTO meetings and a whole lot more.  We also use this page to put up student photos, artwork, and share what is going on in our school.  A quick scan of our top events right now will reveal photos from the first day of Kindergarten, photos of the day, calendars, and other quick announcements.  Furthermore, we absolutely love the fact that Facebook is inherently a community based approach.  Parent/guardians, students, and community members can all see, comment on, and access the information about what is happening at school that day.  When it gets to awards nights we post professional photos of all our students on the Facebook page so that parent/guardians can access them instead of rushing to the front and trying to get their own photo.  Furthermore, we believe that using this tool has brought the school community a bit closer.  Personally, I do not get to our other campus every day, but through Facebook I can “see” what they are doing and leave comments about it.  We can recognize parents for all the hard work they are doing.  We can also share exceptional artwork that is hanging in our hallways.  Traditionally this is only seen at conference time, if ever.  Now our students, parent/guardians, and community members can access it anytime and almost anywhere through their phones
  • Facebook - Part #2
    • First, all of our students have a signed parent/guardian visual media access.  This allows us to take their picture and post it online.  We have found that on the whole there are close to ten students in our entire school whose pictures cannot be posted out of over to 1200 students.  
    • Second, the Facebook site is open to anyone, even without a Facebook account.  It works just like a website.  Parent/Guardians without an account can still see what is going on and access the information, but without an account they have restrictions on what they can comment on, download, etc.  This solves the problem of “I don’t have an account because ______.”  
    • Third, is not a blocked domain at The FAIR School.  We take the approach of teaching students about digital literacy rather than blocking websites.  This leads to many courageous conversations in class about the appropriate time and place, but we have found that if the parameters are in place it works out well.  Therefore, you will see students online, accessing the Facebook page throughout the day and checking for upcoming events.  We have in fact even made it a practice to start many of our elementary school days by brining up the Facebook page during “Morning Meetings” to show photos and discuss upcoming events at the school.  
    • Fourth, this method of communication has been immensely successful.  With the new timeline feature in Facebook we can track how often our page has been hit, shared, commented on, etc.  With some of our posts last year we were reaching almost 600,000 people.  I honestly do not know of a more effective, free, way to communicate with parent/guardians in today’s world.
  • Facebook - For Staff: We have also begun to streamline our staff communication through a staff page on Facebook.  This one page has more requirements and you have to be accepted to the group in order to view the information or post out things.  However, this has dramatically changed how we communicate internally.  It has cut down on emails among staff members, virtually eliminated all staff emails, and it has produced a more effective and productive work environment.  Before you had to click on, open, and read every single mail message.  Now, if it does not apply to you then scroll right on past.  We can also be more creative with our posts - sharing links, videos, how-to information, and general announcements.  It is cleaner, simpler, and once again it makes sense within today’s world.  Plus, this site has become a great resource for our staff.  We all constantly learn about upcoming opportunities, trainings, and events and now instead of keeping them to ourselves or writing an all staff email we share it with the community.  Today when you walk through the floors you will see staff members often with Facebook open on one tab and their work Gmail account open on the other.  Using Facebook as a staff has created a shift, but one that continues to happen.  We still have to educate staff on where to post and access information, but with any addition or change there is going to be a wide range of adoption.  
As you hopefully get an idea, community communication is a little different at The FAIR School.  We firmly believe that with these methods and by training our staff, students, parent/guardians, and our community where and how to find information we have become more successful across the board.  Parents are “In the Know” and when they know what is going on it allows them to be more engaged in the school.  

For more information about communication at The FAIR School check out that page on our website.  You may have also seen us in mentioned a recent article on Edudemic about schools using Facebook.  Also, there is a whole lot more to this story of communication.  If it would be helpful to ask questions, hear more about what we did, see examples or talk to someone, please let me know.  I would be happy to connect you with the right person.

I would ask each of you reading this post to consider how your school, business, workplace, etc. connects with its community?  Is it effective?  Why or why not?  Is is instant?  Are you meeting the needs of your parent/guardians, employees, stakeholders, or targeted audience?  How can you change your communication to make it more effective in today’s world?  

Finally, at The FAIR School we do not have it all figured out.  This has been a process to get to this point and one that has come with technical glitches, problems, and at the same time a lot of success.  We are constantly thinking about and reframing what we do.  If you have comments or suggestions, please leave them below.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Right Tool Makes a Difference

All the teachers came back two weeks ago and the students last Tuesday.  Saying that work was busy was an understatement!  As a technology director there are always lots of meetings, questions, and concerns as the new year starts, but at the same time it is fun to catch up, see what people have done during the summer while you got things ready at school, and share in the excitement of the new year.

I am really thankful for a wonderful little phrase that runs around The FAIR School like an epidemic: “Let’s make a Doc.”  Yes, they are talking about a Google Document.  We have hundreds, thousands, and maybe even hundreds of thousands of these documents.  As we enter the third year of our time with Google I have to say that I greatly appreciate many of the features of a Google Applications for Education domain user.  One of them is the instantaneous collaboration created by a simple document.  Just two weeks alone we had meeting notes, agendas, shared calendars, teachers updating their websites, and our overall workshop week calendar all hosted in our GAFE domain.  Last week our leadership team was in a meeting planning the open house and we quickly made a document to share with the rest of the staff.  We all pitched in, knew what was going on, and even our assistant principal (who had to step out for a few moments) knew exactly where we were and was on the same page.  It worked out really well and the power of Google docs continues to amaze me on a daily basis.

However, not every idea we try always works out really well.  I remember the first time we sent out a Google Form to participants in our summer school program and we forgot to uncheck the box that says “have respondents login to their domain account to fill out the survey.”  Yeah, that was a bit of a mess.  Everything has a learning curve to it, but sometimes using the right tool truly does make a difference.  It could be a Web 2.0 tool (my favorite right now is an awesome little site called Schoology) or even a great piece of software (SMART Notebook 11 is improved for the Mac), but in a classroom there is a time and a place for every tool.  

It’s kind of like a box of crayons.  If you need to color someone’s hair you might choose a dark or light color depending on your purpose.  There are lots of choices, but ultimately you use the one that makes the most sense for your situation.  For sure, you do not select the blue crayon.

Doesn’t the same kind of thinking apply in our classrooms?  If we want to have students work on a podcast we probably have them use Audacity, GarageBand, or some other recording software.  We do not have them use iMovie.  That is the blue crayon and it is used for something totally different.  We have to pick the right tool for the situation and outcome we desire to see.

Sometimes this idea of the right crayon for the job is lost within the educational field.  Lately I have come across two such examples that just make me scratch my head and wonder, “Why are we using a blue crayon when the brown one is over there and it works just fine?”  

Example One: I was recently out at a high school in Minnesota doing some training and came across this least it looked like a board at first glance.  Check out the video:

Yes, that is a SMART Board.  No joke, and it has Expo markers at the base of it.  Anyone using the wrong crayon here?  Seriously, how many times have I told my teachers, “Don’t write on the board with anything but the markers that come with the board.  No Expo markers, magic markers, pens, etc.”  Does that video make any one else’s head just shake?  Just imagine if that board was being used to its full potential.  What a difference that could make in a classroom! 

Example Two: I was recently part of a discussion where we needed to sign up for groups based on individual preferences.  This was a very interesting experience because the tool we used to sign up was a wiki.  One thing that you should probably know about a wiki, if you don’t already, it only allows one person to edit a page at a time.  That is correct, blue crayon use here.  It was slightly frustrating and annoying to be “stealing the lock” from other people who were putting their names on the same wiki.  There are so many better uses for a wiki than to have people sign-up for their groups and a lot of easier, more initiative tools to have people collaboratively form groups.  The use kind of made me scratch my head and wonder.

As you start off the school year, please consider which color crayon you are using.  Do not force a blue crayon into a brown crayon area.  Brown is for the hair, blue is for the sky.  Furthermore, using pencil and paper works just fine for writing a paper instead of some new, advanced, Web 2.0 tool.  We cannot, and should not, choose to use the tool only because we have this idea that it will be “cooler” or “will lead to more engagement.”  That is not the main goal in education.  We want our students to learn.  The tool comes secondary.  Keep in mind the educational goal first and then choose the tool.  However, make sure you choose a brown crayon instead of a blue one!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Technology Shift: Relationships, Schools, and Parenting

In one of my current classes at UNI called “Technology and Education” taught by Dr. John Solis (@drsolis) we are reading a book by Jane Healy titled “Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds – and What We Can Do About It.”  So far this reading has been engaging, interesting, and overall a very good learning experience.  It has opened my eyes to a number of issues and holes within the current thinking regarding students, families, research, and the overall push to include technology into our schools.  Dr. Healy really pushes back on the educational technology norms, even though our copy was published in 1999.  Although some of the data is outdated, it still provides a solid foundation to consider the impact technology has had on our society and school settings.  In fact, in class we are currently having online discussions about some of the impacts we have seen firsthand.  I want to add to that discussion and provide some of my first comments on this text throughout this post.  

First of all, technology has a huge potential to alter the adult-child balance of power as we have known it.  Potential means something that is not yet realized.  It is an opportunity.  Technology has the opportunity to make huge strides in a number of areas of our daily lives.  In fact, earlier this week I had a discussion with a new parent and co-workers of mine.  He was remarking that by the time his daughter was old enough to have a cell phone he predicted that the phone would contain everything from her wallet, home security system, coupons, credit cards, and way more.  I mentioned to him that with the addition of iOS 6 from Apple this fall some of these changes will be appearing – long before his daughter will ever walk much less own a cell phone.  However, I think we can all agree that technology on the whole is a game changer and especially in education.  In fact, Dr. Healy does believe that using technology can be successful in an educational setting, but that it is “not automatic, inexpensive, or attained without a great deal of thought and effort” (22).  I totally agree with her.  We all have seen the new stories of the most recent school district to implement a 1:1 Program and it shows wonderful pictures of students receiving bright, shiny devices.  However, how many people are asking the hard questions about how these devices are being implemented, what the students are really learning, and how the addition of these devices will transform the classrooms?  My guess is that there are not enough people like that in our communities.  

Technology, as defined by Dr. Healy, is “any tool or medium that helps people accomplish tasks or produce products more efficiently” (30).  Not only does technology bring about a huge potential to transform our daily lives, but it will also alter the adult-child balance of power.  Traditionally our parents have taught us just about everything we know from changing the oil in our cars, planting vegetables in our gardens, and baking a cake.  Nothing really came along that kids could do better or more effectively than our parents until technology, and specifically computers, came on the scene.  Since then kids have been teaching their parents a new skill – using the computer, Internet, cell phone, and just about everything technological.  I still remember my dad introducing me to MS-DOS prompt and the ins and outs of his Leading Edge computer.  It was a fantastic first computer, but by the time our family got a second computer I was teaching my dad things that he did not know about the technology.  Even today I still receive phone calls from him about how to navigate around his Mac, where the toolbox is in MS Office, and how to print photos from iPhoto.  He is a great learner, but the teacher is his son.  Does this situation remind anyone of their own lives?  Technology has altered the balance of power in parent-child and also adult-child relationships.  Recently iPads were rolled out to sixth grade students in Basehor, Kansas.  One teacher remarked in this article about on the relationship the iPads have created:  “Technology fits perfectly with their lives...and they have delighted in teaching others including the teachers.”  Today more and more children are teaching their parents skills on the computer.  They pick it up quicker, are more efficient, and by in large are happy to assist clueless appearing adults with a technology task.  I firmly believe that technology not only has the potential, but that it has changed the balance of power in our relationships with children.

Furthermore, the addition of technology into our schools has also changed the balance of power between students and teachers.  Now our teachers are taught by our students.  When was the last time a second grader assisted you with turning on the SMART Board or troubleshooting a YouTube issue?  Believe me it happens more frequently than it ever did before.  I think all technology directors have those students within their schools that have more experience with scripting, coding, and computers than they do.  The question is if they are creating a network that competes with their skills or if they invite them into the fold.  But we need to be cautious that the addition of technology into our schools means that it is a good thing.  Dr. Healy has taught me that much so far in the three chapters I have read.  We need to be cautiously optimistic.  Take for instance another quote from the Kansas article where the teacher also commented on the effectiveness of the 1:1 Program.  He says, “The students with the iPads seem to be more focused in class...‘They’re quieter.’”  Just because students are quiet does not mean that they are engaged or that they are learning something beneficial from their iPads.  I have seen time and time again a technology that has been introduced into the classroom that does not appear to have a good reason for existing there.  Instead, the teacher wanted to “try something out.”  We cannot continue to allow our instructors to add technology into our classrooms if it does not directly benefit our students.  They see right through it every time.  More intriguing to me is the fact that our students end up bailing out our teachers when the thing they wanted to try out backfires, messes up, or does not work properly.  The balance of power between our students and teachers, just like our children and parents, has changed as a result of technology.

Technology continues to change the schooling as we know it.  This is a huge topic to consider and one that Dr. Healy does a great job of in her book.  I did want to bring a few additional thoughts to the table on this subject.  One, if technology is effectively and appropriately integrated into the curriculum it can create dramatic changes.  Take for instance a recent blog post on CNN’s Schools of Thought about flipping classrooms where Stacy Roshan says, “Using technology has allowed me to bring compassion back into an otherwise overly stressful classroom environment. The flipped classroom has transformed the relationships that I am able to build with my students, and has made class time incredibly more pleasant for everyone. Quite simply, the flipped classroom has allowed me to create a calm, inspiring environment where students can learn, thrive and feel supported, which is truly a magnificent feeling.”  Technology can have a truly magical impact on our students’ learning.  Second, teachers need to consider the role they now play in our schools.  No longer can they be the “sage on the stage,” but instead they need to fulfill a number of roles.  In Dr. Healy's text she notes that "Many educators think traditional roles must change because today's students are increasingly difficult to teach" (40).  However, only a few paragraphs later she interviews a middle-school teacher who firmly believes that computers will "'force a change in the way we all do school'" (40).  In fact, a recent “Mind/Shift” blog titled “Understanding Learning Analytics and Student Data” captured the many roles teachers need to or should be embracing in our classrooms today.  In a very easy to understand graphic chart they discuss the three roles of facilitator, analyst, and instructor that a teacher needs to fulfill.  More often than not we are still being instructors and not the other two.  We need to put our primary notions, pride, and to some degree former teaching aside and embrace the new normal.  Our students learn in different ways and we need to adapt our instructional methods and furthermore our roles to match them.  Third, the role of technology in our classrooms needs to be reframed.  Are we using a computer strictly as a substitution for a typewriter?  Is it just a glorified piece of paper and a pencil?  If that is the case why are we using it?  Dr. Puentedura has some great research out there on technology integration called “The SAMR Model.”  In it he considers how technology can be used in two main categories and two sub categories.  These are using technology to enhance (substitution or augmentation) or to transform (modification or redefinition).  His thinking and work has been fundamental in reframing how we think about technology and technology at The FAIR School.  I strongly recommend anyone interested in technology integration to review his work.  Technology continues to change the way we as educators teach and how we interact with our students on a daily basis.  

With the addition of new technology and the shift of balance from adults to kids, parents should not yield any power to their media-saturated children.  Dr. Healy notes in her book that “A major problem was that few knew how to support their child’s use of the technology and allowed children unlimited and unsupervised computer use” (21).  Has anyone else ever seen this before?  Personally, I cannot tell you how many times I get phone calls from concerned parents that want me, as the technology director, to lock down their child’s computer and protect them from Facebook, YouTube, or other late night distractions.  I kindly listen to their issues, take the computer from the child, and then comes the hard part – I have to explain to the student why their parent wants the computer to only exist at school.  I honestly cannot lie to them about the shortfalls at home, and more often than not they understand, but it makes me consider the parenting going on at home.  I just wish that more often than not a parent would be the parent and take matters into their own hands.  They are in charge of all things within their home, which includes the school owned computer.  If they do not like the way it is being used, then take it.  It is that simple some times.  An interesting shift has occurred in parents' mindset though.  According to recent research posted in a recent CNN article, titled "Why Parents Should Educate Their Kids About Tech," 70% of parents believe schools should do more to educate their children about online safety.  Maybe it is the schools' responsibility, but then again maybe it is the parents' responsibility.  Either way it is a point of contention moving forward.  However, if a parent wants some more protection from the media-saturated culture that children live in today there are a few suggested they might take.  First, parents can use a wonderful application built into every Mac called “Parental Controls.”  In this blog post they can learn how to set up time limits, lock down the computer so that their child does not go to certain web sites, or have other permissions to access files on the computer.  Second, parents can turn on their content filtering solution at home.  Most wireless routers these days come with a built in content filter that will allow parents to monitor and block certain web sites at home.  Parents need to read up, turn on, and then begin to protect their families in this way.  Third, parents can also enroll their home Internet into a content filtering solution such as OpenDNS.  At my home, even though we do not have any children, we still use this solution to protect ourselves from unwanted content and it makes our Internet faster as well.  Fourth, parents need to make sure that they do not yield any power to the children by setting clear boundaries.  Research posted on Parent Further indicated that kids who do not have boundaries with technology: “Have trouble sleeping and get less sleep, Exercise less and are more prone to obesity, Do less homework, Read less, Spend less time with their families, and Have a harder time making good decisions.”  Therefore, it is very important that parents create technology boundaries with their children.  Fifth and finally, parents need to remember an important point from Dr. Healy: “Your kid may be teaching you about the machine, but you are still in charge of teaching things that are far more important!” (42).  Parents, you are in charge at home.  Please take charge of the situation and do not give any power to your media-saturated children.

Thoughts?  Opinions?  Do you agree or disagree?  Please leave your comments below!