Saturday, February 26, 2011

The School Newspaper Meets Social Networking

School Newspapers Meet Social Networking

If you haven’t yet checked out Hunterdon Central’s The Lamp Online, you really must. The students and their advisor, English teacher Tom McHale have done a fantastic job and the online publication is snappy, professional and informational.  Taken directly from the publication’s mission statement, “the online student newspaper of Hunterdon Central Regional High School is an open, public forum for student expression, to promote inquiry and to provide an authentic venue to showcase student work. Opinions expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the position of the school board, administration, sponsors, staff, or student body.”

Once again, we tread into some interesting territory as we continue to embrace the many opportunities offered by technology. Traditionally, student newspapers have been tightly controlled by school districts and content considered the property of the district. At Hunterdon Central as both the principal and the superintendent, I have always given wide discretion to The Lamp. The circumstances in which I have asked to see the content of the paper prior to publication have been extremely rare. Perhaps because I was a newspaper reporter myself when I was in my 20’s I have a different level of respect for freedom of the press. I have also enjoyed the benefits of extremely conscientious student reporters and a student newspaper advisor with whom I share a common sense of what is appropriate and what is not. We are also extremely fortunate to have the support of a Board of Education that embraces divergent opinions and perspectives. This is one of many factors that make Hunterdon Central a forward thinking, progressive district. We are a district that values leadership at every level.

So now, we have the online publication and a marked relinquishment of control. We are excited about taking the leap to allow opinions and the posting of content from across all sectors of our school community (students and staff) who are registered users of the site. As a team, we have committed to “responsible discussion within our school community.” We have also committed to allowing divergent opinions that, when expressed in an appropriate manner, will remain posted to this online, public forum.  We have come a long way from the parameters set forth in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case that held that “speech that can be reasonably viewed to have the school’s imprimatur can be regulated by the school if the school has a limited pedagogical concern in regulating the speech.” With the online publication, other than profanity, hate speech, personal attacks, false/inaccurate information or plagiarism; content will be permitted and remain in the public domain. Kind of like the school newspaper meets social networking.

We have been working over these past months to craft a policy for students and staff that want to post and comment to our online student newspaper. The proposed policy states that The Lamp Online staff will work toward meeting the standards set for professional journalism developed by the Journalism Education Association. This includes, but it is not limited to, a code of ethics concerning accuracy, balance, fairness, independence, and responsibility.

I have great faith and confidence that this “leap of faith” has far more benefits than risks. We shall see.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The School Schedule Choke Hold

Over the past 20 years, there seems to have been a never ending conversation about school schedules. Block schedules, traditional schedules, modular schedules, alternating schedules are all examples of the efforts of education reformers to improve the experiences of teachers and students in our classrooms. With the invasion of the 21st Century learning revolution into our educational culture, conversations about school schedules have taken on new and much more interesting tones. With e-learning, virtual schools and the open source learning management software being used by almost all schools, just how limiting are the constraints of any of the traditional modes of scheduling? For many of us who hope to continue to tear down the walls of traditional schooling, traditional schedules can feel like a choke hold on innovation and the creative use of time.

Over this past year, our School Schedule Task Force at Hunterdon Central has been working to explore alternatives to the 4 X 4 Block schedule that my school has been using since 1996. One of the earliest schools in New Jersey to move to a block schedule, it has become clear that with the changing educational landscape as related to 21st Century learning environments as well as standardized testing schedules that are dictated to schools by the State, our current schedule may not be meeting the needs of our students in ways that it once was. The extended learning time afforded by any block schedule is something that we believe is best for our students however the way that we allocate time for learning needs to change if we are going to seriously consider the exciting opportunities that technology and virtual learning may offer for both students, teachers and parents.

Currently we are looking at the following Exploratory Topics:

o     Year Round Schooling/Trimester Plans
o     Staggered Day/Flexible Hours
o     Community College Schedules
o     Virtual Schools/Hybrids
o     Extended Learning Time/Block Schedule Variations/Modular Schedules
o     Academies/Schools within Schools/Freshman Teams

As the need for more flexible time to engage with our students in a true 21st Century Learning environment expands, the way that we use our time – both students and teachers – needs to change. Or at least be considered differently. As we have moved to the use of open source learning management software (Moodle), our teachers and students collaborate with one another in an almost 24/7 environment. The constraints of traditional school schedules are becoming more limiting. Some of the questions that we have asked ourselves include:

  • Do all students and teachers really need to be here at the same time?
  • Do all students necessarily have to start and end school at the same time?
  • Should all teachers and students be exposed to some kinds of virtual/on-line learning opportunities in preparation for college and work?
  • How does that translate into teacher time since it is not a traditional class taught in a traditional way? How does this translate in the old “seat time” paradigm for kids?
  • What about year round schooling and trimester plans? Wouldn’t some kids, parents and teachers simply like this model better? 
  • Does “teaming” make more sense for freshman in a large school district or for students with learning challenges?

Working in teams, our teachers and administrators have been researching schedules in a variety of schools and consistent themes are emerging. We know that we need to find and create time for teachers to meet together in professional learning communities to discuss student work and individual student progress among the teachers working directly with each student. The shift toward educational progress plans for EVERY student mandate that teachers have this collaborative time. Students seek more opportunities to work collaboratively with one another on inquiry based learning projects and to work virtually taking a blend of both on-site and on-line courses. Traditional schedules are not designed to allow for this kind of collaboration which is critical in a 21st Century learning environment.

Although once considered a “taboo subject’” especially at the high school level, why not simply attend school year round as they do in many countries on a trimester type schedule that mimics more of a college experience. An example of a year round schedule seems to really resonate with many members of our committee.

The traditional year round calendar features a long summer vacation of 12 weeks followed by a long period of in-session days, with the first break coming at Thanksgiving. The winter holidays are followed by 55 in-session days before a short spring break. Spring break is followed by 40 work days before the end of the school year. Realistically, most schools in the Northeast are in session until almost the end of June anyway. Many, many students are already back at school by mid-August for band camp and fall athletics as well. On the year round calendar, everyone is off during the month of July which is pretty much when we are off on a traditional calendar. Year round schooling allows for both remedial and enrichment opportunities and has a strong research base that points to the importance of the “loss of lag time” for learners who are struggling. For those who have fewer learning challenges, they can choose to expand their learning through enrichment programs during time off, virtual course work or simply just take a break.

Putting aside issues regarding transportation (which are very real constraints), why do all kids have to be in school at the same time? Why do all the teachers have to be there at the same time? Maybe there are kids who would rather start at 10:30 and be finished at 5:30. Maybe there are teachers who would rather do this too. Especially if I am not involved in athletics, a later school day may make sense. There are myriad interesting issues and options to explore.

We are excited that our next steps involve students into our conversations in a meaningful way so that we can begin to fold their input and ideas into the dialogue. Knowing that “one size does not fit all,” I am looking forward to some challenging and lively discourse as we expand our conversations. Involving parents and community is the next phase of our plans and I welcome your thoughts, comments and concerns.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution!

Student 1:1 Pilot Project and 21st Century Teaching and Learning

With everyone talking about 21st Century classrooms and changes for teaching and learning, I thought I would share what we are doing at Hunterdon Central with our student 1:1 computing program. This is our second full year running this program and for our kids and teachers involved with this initiative, it has radically changed the way that instruction is being delivered in these classes.

Student 1:1 computing was an idea that we piloted and implemented during the 2009-2010 school year. No one can argue that we are in a time of remarkable technological change. Having witnessed the rise of a truly interactive World Wide Web where people of all ages and interests can create content and share their ideas, it is hard to not be on fire about the implications for our classrooms. This new connectivity has ushered in an era of communication and collaboration that our society has only begun to understand. Transformational tools such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS, social networking and simulations make sharing information and interacting with others easy and efficient. Wikipedia, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter, and Ning, are just some of the high profile examples of the types of technologies that are connecting disparate people in communities of work and play.

This world-wide shift has manifested itself at Hunterdon Central in many ways, including a classroom model that equips each room with at least six computers, a wireless projector and multimedia sound, a teacher tablet PC program, monthly technology professional development meetings, a summer technology academy and a teacher technology self-reflection survey that informs the development of professional improvement plan goals. A 1:1 student computing environment, in which each child has a computer for use at school and at home, builds upon this existing foundation in many ways. First, it enhances the classroom environment by giving every student access to powerful tools throughout the school day. Second, it gives students the same kind of technologically rich environment at home that they receive at school. The 1:1 computing program allows students to begin to spend their class time and homework time operating in the same kind of information rich environment that they will use after graduation. This gives students enhanced opportunities for leadership, increases the level of possible personalization and enhances the environment for teaching and learning.

We believe that it is critical that schools take the lead in producing technologically rich learning environments since many students, despite their facility with basic technological tasks, do not understand how to leverage these resources into powerful learning tools. Students need the same kind of scaffolding for their technology use that they receive in many other areas. They need to learn how to operate safely online, how to create an age-appropriate online presence, how to connect with other people to further their learning, how to filter the torrent of available information and how to contribute meaningfully to the world through their online activity. We believe that a well-implemented student 1:1 program will measure the same increase in student technological skills and understanding that we have traced during the past few years in our teachers and will better prepare them to compete in the Twenty-First Century.

During the 2009-2010 school year, 17 teachers and over 300 students participated in the 1:1 pilot project. The data collected as related to their experiences has been exciting and powerful for both teachers and students. During the summer of 2010, an additional 27 teachers were trained and the pilot has been expanded this year to include over 1,000 students. Through a partnership with the Verizon Foundation, we have been able to provide internet access at a reduced cost to the district for our students who are economically disadvantaged. We have also reached out to community members and businesses who have generously provided financial support for economically disadvantaged students to have netbooks even if they are not part of the 1:1 computing classes. This gives these students the same resources and access as their peers from more financially stable families.

Changes in the way that instruction is delivered is a critical catalyst for the kinds of changes that will engage our students in the kinds of authentic learning experiences that will prepare them to be the kinds of global citizens and independent learners that we envision when we think of their future success. Although the technology is important, it is the changes in the way that we think about teaching and learning that will define the successful schools of the future.