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Community Building Today

millennials-social-media-and-education-connecting-with-your-students_page_21There was a period in my early thirties where I decided I just didn’t want to work that hard or regularly. This was a period of time where my addiction was heavily influencing my decision making, so that might have had something to do with it as well. Yes, it’s true, I wasn’t always college and career ready. Unfortunately for me, my lifestyle requirements demanded some cash flow, so to offset this need, I looked around for jobs that would provide the maximum cash flow with the minimum time commitment. Selling beer at the local arena for sporting events and concerts fit the bill perfectly.

I had my little beer stand, and people would come up and purchase either a Budweiser or a Miller Light, and the majority of the time there would be a little extra for me. It was easy work and usually only lasted a couple hours, which left me free to pursue my other interests. After a month of this, one of the other vendors approached me and asked, “Why is it that I walk away with about $30 a night, yet you make $100?” My response was, “Because you are just the beer guy, and I’m TC, the Penn State fan who loves music, books, and getting outdoors, and who also provides you with a desired beverage.”

He looked at me dumbfounded, so I proceeded to explain. When someone approached him for a beer, he would quickly and efficiently pour that beer and collect their money. He made no effort to personalize the transaction, and in the process, himself. He never became tangible. He was just another one of the guys selling beer, no different from any of the other guys selling beer. Since he wasn’t tangible, it made it easy for people to mentally justify not tipping him.

Now when you came to me for a beer, it was different. I might comment on a shirt you were wearing. Maybe I’d ask for the score of the game. Perhaps mention the size of the crowd or their level of enthusiasm. I would utilize the approximately 90 seconds the transaction took to make myself a real person. Then once that was established, every time you came back, I would build upon that foundation until soon it wasn’t just a transaction but a relationship.

It is easy to justify not tipping the beer guy; it’s not as easy stiffing TC. The point is, so many of our perceptions come down to relationships, but we have a tendency to neglect that aspect. It’s a real lesson for public schools to grab a hold of. It’s one that charter schools are very intimate with and have effectively utilized for years.

Why do you think every time there is pending legislation that would limit charter schools in some way, charter operators show up at Legislative Plaza with a bus full of smiling minority children? Why do you think they produce the slick pamphlets with lots of pictures touting their success? It is easy to pass laws that limit faceless charter schools when just looking at data. It is a whole different story if you have these beautiful children singing “God Bless the USA” in your head when considering that very same data.

I’ll be honest with you, I’m getting a little tired of arguing with charter proponents on their terms. They control the conversation by making the focus be all about numbers. One side argues that their numbers are better and everybody forgets those numbers represent real lives. The truth is, even when we win, I feel like I just climbed into a mud pit. Talking about policy that is supposed to be good for kids and communities (Noticed how I mentioned both? It was intentional.) shouldn’t make you feel like you need a shower after every discussion.

It is way past time to change the language and the focus and stop playing primarily defense. We need to stop focusing on fighting against things and shift to showing why our public schools are so vital. Study after study shows that even people who think the whole system is garbage still have a high opinion of their neighborhood school and its teachers. It’s because they know them and they are real entities, not just data points or a faceless building children disappear into. We need to make an effort to make these relationships even more three dimensional to the general public. Luckily, we already have schools engaged in this process.


A good example here in Nashville would be Eakin Elementary School. Their Twitter handle is @EakinPTO. They have masterfully utilized the social media platform to connect the school with the community. There are constant updates for play dates, fundraisers, unique programs, and even inspirational messages from the principal. The thing I like as well is that they don’t just focus on their school, but spread information about all the schools in their cluster. Parents start to get an idea about what their child’s whole academic trajectory is going to look like, and they get excited about it. The idea of middle school can cause a lot of apprehension with parents, so Eakin starts to clear that away by making the schools familiar and getting parent buy-in early.

Eakin serves a wealthier demographic, and some would argue that provides them a little more opportunity. So let’s look at another Nashville school as a counter to that, Maplewood High School (@Panthernation_1). Maplewood has struggled in the past, but over the last couple of years, under new leadership, that trend is reversing. A big part of that has to do with their utilization of social media coupled with good old fashioned community building. It is easier to get more resources when people are excited and feel a part of something. Recently, Maplewood unveiled a new program where students run a Firestone franchise at the school. I can’t help but think doors for this opportunity were opened because Firestone got excited about the perception of the school and saw firsthand the transformation taking place.

Driving these types of initiatives are the principals themselves, embracing the technology and the opportunity to sell what they are doing. Dr. Ryan Jackson (@RyanBJackson1), Dr. Ron Woodard (@Champion4Chldrn), Dr. Tim Drinkwine (@Drizzinkwine), Dr. Gary Hughes (@DrGaryHughes), Dr. Shuler Pelham (@PrincipalPelham), Dr. Sue Kessler (@KesslerDr), Dr. Jay Steele (@jaysun36), Alison McMahan (@principalmama), and others are all people in my Twitter feed, and I don’t know all of them personally, but I feel like I do. I feel their commitment and hard work, and I know the innovative things going on in their schools. It makes that whole “failing schools” and “supporters of the status quo” narrative awful hard to buy into when I see evidence daily of them putting children’s needs before adult needs. Their schools are interesting and exciting places to be, and I feel excited to be a part of them.

These principals tighten the bonds by being willing to engage as well. They are not just throwing out press releases to make people feel good, but rather showing themselves to be complete educators. For example, Dr. Ryan Jackson is a big proponent of blended learning. I’m a little more tepid in my embrace. We have conversations via Twitter on a regular basis, where not only do I get to hear his theories, but I feel as if he listens to my concerns. We are building a relationship. If I’m out in the community and somebody makes the claim that Maplewood is a failing school run by out-of-touch administrators, you can bet I’m going to be pushing back. This relationship and others like it give me a greater vested interest, and though my kids will never go to Maplewood, I will be cheering for that school’s successes.

Jackson isn’t the only one either. Dr. Woodard regularly sends me his blog and solicits input. Dr. Kessler points out resources for learning more about education research. Dr. Hughes exchanges policy ideas. Dr. Drinkwine shares inspirational readings. Some of these administrators are funny and some are a bit more serious. The point is, all are engaged and helping to paint our schools as interesting places to be. Not homes of drill and kill. Social media platforms, like Twitter, can be used to build relationships and make our schools more open to the public than they ever have been before.

Now I’m not advocating using virtual life to replace real life. You still have to have that, what retailers refer to as the bricks and mortar experience, but social media is a way to reach parents and community members who might have been previously resistant. It’s easy to throw an invitation to a school function in the trash if you don’t really know what’s going on in that school. Social media allows you to do the prep work to get people’s minds open and be receptive to the invitation so that real, face-to-face community building can begin.

Look at Williamson County and their love affair with their schools. A big part of that is their communications plan and the role of social media in it. Dr. Looney, the superintendent, has been known to tweet with students during snow days and throughout the year. As you can imagine, kids love this and it only ups his credibility. Last year, they rolled out a “Be Nice” campaign that engaged the whole community. Students wear t-shirts with the phrase, say the phrase to each other, and find other ways to incorporate it into their daily lives. Trust me, when you are in Williamson County and you hear “Be Nice,” you instantly think of the schools, and it evokes a good feeling. It gives the whole community a sense of ownership.

At a time when public education is under attack more than ever, these relationships are more vital than ever. It’s important that our schools take every opportunity possible to make themselves as tangible an entity as possible. Does this distract from the business of instructing and learning? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it will fuel even more innovation and success because we all like to share good words and good works. Seeing other people’s ideas in such an open setting can create inspiration, cooperation, and even some competition, and all of these can spur us further.

By my estimation, we spend about 90% of our time fighting the education reform movement while they spend 10% fighting back and 90% growing their market. Any business school graduate will tell you the best way to compete is by making your product more attractive. Do you think any parent would truly rather see their child in a no-excuses, drill-heavy classroom versus a school where children are learning lessons with real world applications in a variety of settings?

For too long, charter schools have won when it comes to reaching out to the public to tout their “successes,” and public schools need to take control of that. Building relationships with parents and community members in new ways will have big payoffs when it comes to building support. In a similar fashion to the way I got more tips, schools will see greater resources, which will lead to greater success. We win the battle for public education by making public schools more attractive.

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What Does the Fox Say?

Vamers-Artistry-What-Does-The-Fox-Say-The-Animated-Guide-BannerEarlier in the week, I wrote a post about the past actions of the two candidates in the upcoming runoff election for the mayor of Nashville. Ok, well, primarily one of the candidates. The Tennessean, Nashville’s local rag, decided to write a bit of a compare and contrast piece for themselves. But there are several points in the Tennessean piece that deserve further discussion.

First of all, I’d like some clarification on David Fox’s statement that nothing he has seen indicates Megan Barry is “prepared to engage as muscularly” as the mayor should to keep our public education system from falling apart. What does that mean? I went and looked up the word “muscularly” to get a little more edification. According to the free dictionary, it means “having or suggesting great forcefulness, especially at the expense of subtlety” (e.g., muscular reasoning that does not bother with the finer points). Hmmmmm…. seems to me that public education is one of those areas where the devil is in the details, so it might require a little delicacy. Based on this statement, Mr. Fox thinks the mayor just needs to be a bulldozer.

I dated a girl for a while whose father’s solution to every repair project was “bring me the hammer.” Needless to say, not a lot of repairs got done around the house. Unfortunately, a tool chest needs a screwdriver and a wrench and a ratchet. Likewise, with something as vast as public education, sometimes a great deal of subtlety – and more tools than just a hammer – is need to bring the different stakeholders together. You know, more brain than brawn.

Many of my female friends contend that Fox is sending a subtle message to his people with this messaging. Letting them know that a woman might not be up to the hard job of keeping a school system together. Ok, I don’t know about that. Since I’m not one of his people, I wouldn’t get the message, but it is awful strange language and I am concerned about his perceived need for the mayor to keep the system from falling apart. This is a head scratcher because I thought there was an elected school board for that. Is he advocating for the mayor to take over the board?

Well, keep on scratching your head because things don’t get any clearer. When David Fox was on the Nashville school board, he advocated for then-Governor Bredesen to grant mayoral control over the school district. Now that he’s running for mayor, he says, “I’m running for mayor with the full expectation that we will always have an elected school board in Nashville.” Based on this statement it sounds like the mayor doesn’t have to keep things from falling apart because there are people charged with that task. So, where is he going to apply this muscle of his ? If I didn’t know better I’d say he’s “muscularly” trying to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to our schools. He wants to dictate to them but not be accountable for them.

The next thing that puzzles me is this: Megan Barry has long been a supporter of universal pre-K. She’s not alone in this support, as the majority of educational experts see its value. We call that a research-backed policy position. Fox feels that “we don’t have an unlimited amount of money. So, what I would like to do is, let’s fix the problem. Let’s don’t take all these kids who have privately-funded pre-K and put them into a government system. Let’s take all the resources that we can muster for pre-K and put it to the benefit of children whose families cannot afford it.” My question is who determines who can afford what? Why segregate kids out at an early age between those who get private pre-k and those who get public pre-k? Lack of funding is a poor excuse for this short-sided policy.

Especially in light of the fact that when it comes to the subject of charter schools, which research has shown have mixed results, and a study commissioned by MNPS showed that charter schools are an expensive proposition for the district, Fox’s take is this: “I don’t have any vision for how many charter schools we need. I don’t have a vision that we need to charterize everything. It doesn’t matter to me who runs the school. They just have to be successful.” Of course, he never defines what successful means. Nor does he seem concerned about the fiscal cost. So, it’s no money for universal pre-K, unlimited money for charter schools. Have I mentioned hedge fund managers love charter schools?

Also, under Fox there would be no money for community schools. Despite having a district where over 70% of children qualify for free and reduced lunch and that community schools are successful in combating the challenges that urban schools face, Fox’s response is this: “So after adding more than $1 billion to Metro’s debt and leaving the taxpayers holding the bag over her last eight years on the Metro Council … Now, she is coming up with even more ways to spend our money that have little to do with actual learning.” That’s called a non-research-backed position. We need to be finding a way to increase the number of community schools instead of clinging to the status quo of hit and miss charter schools.

The last area I want to address is Fox’s recent comments about the outsourcing of custodians and groundskeepers that occurred in 2010 when he was on the school board. Fox puts it down as a kids’ needs versus adult needs thing. Apparently, according to Fox, it’s Barry who “doesn’t have in my view a really firm understanding of why schools aren’t successful.” but I think he’s got it backwards.  He apparently does not grasp that schools are not a strict teacher-to-student equation. Equally important are administrators, nurses, guidance counselors, administrative workers, bus drivers, and yes…. custodians and groundskeepers.

When those jobs were outsourced, not only did our schools lose some dedicated people, but also a great deal of institutional knowledge. If you own an older home, then you know that there are a lot of hidden tricks to keeping all aspects of it fully functioning. Over time, we homeowners learn those tricks, and they allow us to maintain comfort and functionality without having to undertake costly repairs. You cannot put a price tag on institutional knowledge. Those custodians maintained an environment that allowed children to learn, and I’m pretty confident that most were as dedicated to our children as our teachers are. That’s having a broad enough vision to put kids first and recognizing all the components that go into learning.

When I wrote my last piece, I received some complaints that I painted Fox in an unfair light. I would contend that his own words do a better job of that than I ever could. Megan Barry is not the perfect candidate (if she writes another letter to Jeremy Kane trying to solicit his 10 voters, I may try and get Dr. Mike Looney to run for mayor), but she is clearly the better choice for mayor. She doesn’t speak in code and will help ensure that we have a public education system that supports all of our children. We don’t need to look at the past for evidence for that; just listen to what’s being said today. Please I urge everyone to take this to heart and get out and vote so that Barry is the next mayor and not Fox, because that would be disastrous for the future of our public schools.

On another note – and one that doesn’t fit here, but it’s my blog so I can say what I want – kudos to the incredible work being done at Maplewood High School by Twjuana Williams and her students. It was announced today that as part of their school work, Maplewood students will be running a Firestone Complete Auto Care Center. That’s the kind of innovation being done in our public schools.

The other thing I really admire about this story is that nowhere is the dynamic leadership of Executive Principal Ron Woodard or Assistant Principal Ryan Jackson mentioned. The focus is solely on the students and Ms. Williams. Real leadership is the ability to allow your teammates to take the spotlight while you remain in a support position. Maplewood and its community should be proud.


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Collaboration not Competition

thLast week, state standardized test results were released in Tennessee for districts and schools. As usual, those results were met with a lot of chest pounding and a lot of teeth gnashing. Many people quickly focused on the results for the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD, in typical fashion, was out in front trumpeting their success in math and downplaying the drop in reading. Math teacher and blogger Gary Rubenstein’s analysis painted a more dismal picture, and a follow up article by Chalkbeat TN raised some further questions.

Of course, ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic had his own spin. I started diving into the numbers and sharpening my knives because few things make me happier than debunking Barbic’s myths. Two things quickly became apparent, though. First, I am not a numbers guy. I know people who can look at a spreadsheet and read it like a novel. That may be Andy Spears, but that’s not me. The second thing that became apparent was that this whole exercise – pouring over standardized test data for some kind of silver bullet – is stupid and pointless. .

Just take a look at the way that Barbic has been spending his days since test results have been released. It seem like he’s never off of social media, trying to convince people that his interpretation of the test results is more legitimate then the experts. It reminds of Richard Nixon in his final days trying to convince the people that he wasn’t a crook. Thank god Nixon didn’t have a Twitter account. Note to Barbic, if you are the only one who can accurately translate your data, it’s not good data. If you are using it to show how you are “beating” traditional schools, you are not using it correctly.

I have never been a fan of the whole education-as-a-competition meme. These numbers may contain important information about student learning and potentially could guide instruction, but they most certainly shouldn’t be used like sports scores. By allowing the reform movement to control the conversation, we have been hooked into a race to nowhere that shouldn’t even exist. Hey look! Williamson County Schools beat Metro Nashville Public Schools with their 59% proficient to Nashville’s 52% proficient! Let’s have a pep rally! I’m going to be honest – I find that repugnant. We don’t hold contests for who can breathe the most air, so why are we holding learning competitions?

While we are pouring through these scores declaring winners and losers, we lose sight that these numbers are attached to very real lives and have proven to be poor indicators of actual learning . Instead of allowing these numbers to dictate perceived worth, we should be using them to ascertain why certain demographics and districts perform better or worse and what we can do to utilize resources unilaterally to benefit all. Instead of providing slogans for realtors, perhaps we should be figuring out how to make all our schools better.

That might seem like a simple concept to grasp, but try bringing it up in a re-zoning meeting. I have recently, and it wasn’t pretty. I tried to explain to a group of parents in a wealthier school zone facing re-zoning that if the district utilized the chance to re-zone as an opportunity to equalize demographics and therefore equalize the challenges, then all schools would improve as a result. They were about as receptive as if I’d showed up to their school with a can of gasoline and a Zippo. The fact that if all schools in a cluster got stronger, then all property values in that cluster would rise as a result was completely lost on them. They couldn’t see past their own school zone.

It seems to me that we might be losing the forest by focusing on the trees. Instead of fighting against charter schools and other privatization efforts, what if we doubled down on making all public schools stronger? What if we stopped focusing on artificial lines, like zones and districts, and instead focused on making all schools better? Everybody talks about collaboration, but we only do it in our established circles. We need to think about breaking out of those established circles.

Last week, I had lunch with a friend who happens to be a school superintendent, and we were discussing different aspects of public education. He brought up our strict adherence to district lines and posed some questions: Why not have the IB school from one district collaborate with the IB school from an adjoining district? What if a school in one district had an exceptional chemistry department – would it not be beneficial if the best chemistry teachers from schools in adjoining districts met regularly at that school to collaborate? Why are we not taking advantage of our regional resources and instead hoarding our district resources?

It makes perfect sense to me. One of my favorite books is Friday Night Lights. It’s about a West Texas high school and their football team in the late 1980s. The author, H.G. Bissinger, recently revisited the school and its players 25 years later. One of the players, Brian Chavez, went on to graduate from Harvard. Per Bissinger, “Going to Harvard from Odessa was the cultural equivalent of the Pluto mission.” Chavez could handle the academic work, but it was the social aspect that caused problems. “I had those social barriers,” he says. “It was just a different world. I came from a public high school where football was king. The way my Harvard classmates grew up was totally different. They were geared to rule the world. They were geared to go to Harvard when they were in kindergarten.”

I can’t help but believe that this is not an isolated issue. But what if, through inter-district collaboration, Chavez had gotten to spend time with his potential future classmates while still in high school? To relate it to Middle Tennessee, what if advanced engineering students from culturally-diverse Overton High School in Davidson County met weekly with advanced engineering students from Centennial High School in Williamson County, which has a wealthier but less diverse demographic. The benefits, both academically and culturally, for the two schools could be huge. Such a collaboration could better prepare students from both schools for success in college and careers.

Maury County is currently implementing a plan to show the overall economic value to a community when it commits to a focus on education. This is a laudable idea, and they should be celebrated for undertaking it. However, what if you branched that out to include five surrounding counties? What if all those surrounding counties worked together to demonstrate their commitment to improving education through increased funding and increased promotion for not just one district but the entire region?  How attractive would the whole region become to potential employers versus just one county? Imagine the impact that would have on the quality of life in those communities. That’s just one example of how we need to think bigger.

These are the kinds of questions we must challenge ourselves to ask. Instead of falling into the lure of competing against each other, we need to utilize the data to seize the opportunity to augment each others weaknesses and strengthen all our public schools. To challenge ourselves to find ways to break artificial barriers for the betterment of all kids – not just the ones who are geographically central to us. This is just one more area where community schools could provide the vehicle for this work. Take for example the work of the Dallas ISD and Southern Methodist University. By pulling together the local community, local non-profits, and a local university the Dallas Independent School District is trying to take the best qualities of all stakeholders and mold a better out come for all. It’s a collaboration that includes 16 public schools, a charter school, and a private school, and definitely bears watching.

This week I’ve been closely following a conference in New Orleans on the perils of education reform. New Orleans was supposed to be the method for breaking the existing model and bringing all stakeholders together to push the envelope for educational outcomes. Unfortunately, all it’s done is pit schools against each other and create another box that needs to be broken out of. In New Orleans parents and communities are isolated from their children’s schools. There is no elected board that is capable of holding individual schools accountable to the communities they serve. Instead a private board oversees each school, only regulated by the state. It is not an environment that fosters collaboration and in fact, does just the opposite, while failing to deliver dramatic improvement.

I think we need to define collaboration here as well. Despite what some may think, collaboration is not me telling you what I think are best practices and then expecting you to adopt them, whether they are borne out by research or not. It is, fostering an environment were all parties feel comfortable bringing their best ideas and their best research forth so that both parties can benefit. In true collaboration both parties ultimately make adjustments. We all say we love collaboration, but very few of us want to actually practice it.

Charter schools were supposed to be the key to improving schools through collaboration. They were supposed to be labs where strategies could be tested and then spread back to public schools. The truth, is our public schools are doing every bit as much innovation as any charter school. It’s time to seize on that and succeed where charters have failed by spreading that innovation. Take, for example, the commitment to project-based learning (PBL) and the Nashville Zoo partnership at Croft Middle School. How is Rocketship’s “flexible classroom” possibly more innovative? What if we took what Croft is doing and paired them with a Wilson County school that had an agriculture program? I firmly believe that the results for students would be much greater than those generated by longer school days, intensive test prep, and zero tolerance discipline policies. Kentucky certainly believes so, they are now recognizing project based learning as a legitimate turnaround strategy and investing in it.

Technology has erased so many physical and geographical borders, but mentally we still keep them propped up. I think it’s high time we challenge each other to tear them down. We need to stop competing against each other, but rather work together to the benefit of all. By improving Public Education for everyone, we make privatization look a whole lot less attractive for anyone.

Take the test scores for what they are and leave the reducing of children to data points to the so-called reformers who have evolved into the status quo. Let others others engage in spin while we try to find even more ways to open even more doors and expand even more minds. It’s time to stop thinking about neighboring zones and districts as competitors and realize that they are potential allies. That’s the other thing that New Orleans demonstrates – we need as many allies as possible.