Being a robust digital leader requires a mosaic mix of skill, knowledge, creativity, perseverance, and motivation
At NASSP’s Ignite ’16 conference in Orlando in February, a highly transformative session involved presentations by the 2016 NASSP Digital Principal Award winners: Glenn Robbins from Northfield Community Middle School in Northfield, NJ; Bobby Dodd from Gahanna Lincoln High School in Gahanna, OH; and Winston Sakurai from Hanalani Schools in Mililani, HI. The roundtable this month features an edited transcript of the session, which was moderated by Bob Farrace, NASSP’s director of public affairs.
Farrace: The Digital Principal Award program is a program NASSP started in 2012 to identify the best models among your peers—those principals who are doing amazing things, leveraging the power of digital media to improve their own learning, to improve professional development, and of course, ultimately to improve learning in their schools. Let’s start with Glenn Robbins.
Robbins: I am the proud principal of the Northfield Community Middle School (grades 5 through 8) in New Jersey with just under 500 students. We’ve been BYOD (bring your own device) for the past three years, going on four, and we use supplemental Chromebooks for students as well. They are tools of empowerment and resources; and they are not the driver of pedagogy. We give the students instant access to resources that they need every day instead of providing them with the textbook that’s out-of-date six minutes after it goes to print. So for me, empowering our students is giving everyday, real-life resources to improve their lives and to improve the lives of others, and that’s the message we’re trying to send home: What can technology do to better the lives of another person or community?
Dodd: At Gahanna Lincoln (GLHS), we utilize the student empowerment from our student council and other organizations and let it flow throughout the culture of the building. I believe as a leader, it is important to limit the amount of times you tell staff and students “no.” When it comes to empowerment, when students or teachers come to me with ideas, I rarely say no. When a teacher knows they can try new methods and don’t feel a need to ask, that means empowerment is embedded in your culture. When teachers and kids are willing to take risks and are willing to try different things, empowerment has spread from your staff to the students. Your students see it and talk about it. When students start leading on their own, you know students feel empowered.
Sakurai: Aloha! I’m Winston Sakurai. I’m from Hanalani Schools from Mililani, Hawaii, and we have 330 students in seventh grade all the way up to 12th grade. What we try to do with technology is to make sure that students have access to a lot of different resources, especially free resources.
A lot of what we do with empowerment using technology goes through our student government or National Honor Society. Both are affiliated with NASSP, using some of their best practices. I think one of the greatest things with our students and faculty is that they feel free to communicate through different mediums, whether that’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Edmodo, or through Google classroom. Students contact teachers or myself any time of the day. My teachers are really good; sometimes we’re talking online at 10 o’clock at night in some kind of chat, just to hash out certain things that are going on for the next day or for the next week. I have a great staff, just as Bobby and Glenn have a great staff, that drives a lot of these efforts, and I’m fortunate to have them do those things through technology.
Robbins: How many people implement or infuse design thinking in their buildings? One of the reasons why we transferred over is that we looked at Stanford University’s d.School (the Institute of Design at Stanford). Yes, as a middle school, we modeled a top-ranked university. At the middle school level and the high school level, we have kids that “play school.” They are constantly told what to do, what worksheet to do, and that’s what they’re doing. They’re playing school every day, and they’re very good at it. So our mentality was that we wanted to deprogram them, unschool them, to make them more resilient, to make them more design-thinkers than anything else.
We put together a manifesto with our mantra, which is: “Care. Think. Design. Act.” We encourage the students to fail over and over and over again as they iterate on projects, as they work together on teams, because as they go further in life they can’t play school when they go to a job interview; they can’t play school when they’re working in the so-called “real world.” For us, we wanted to empower them to understand what it’s like to be working on a big piece of it, which is human-centered and empathetic.
The fifth-graders’ capstone that’s going to happen in several weeks is interviewing a first-grade student with hearing aids. He has them behind his ears. He plays hockey and football and has a hard time wearing his helmet. So the students are going to question him and work with him. They may or may not come up with a product, they may or may not come up with an idea, but they are at least going to look into it.
[For] sixth grade, we are working with a teacher that has multiple sclerosis. She has struggles in and out of our building, and she’s agreed to work with the entire sixth grade and look at how they can design something. The students are breaking it down, whether they’re going to use one of the 3-D printers, whether they’re going to use some type of resource on their hand-held cellphone or laptop or whatever it may be, and they’re reaching out to other resources around the world. We’re empowering them to do that.
[For] seventh grade, we have a newly established partnership with Thomas Jefferson University. Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia is one of the premier hospitals in our area. Dr. Bon Ku (who leads a medical school that focuses on design thinking), med students, and doctors will be working with seventh-grade kids and putting together something for the pediatric units to better the lives of the young children who go there. The eighth grade is working with a company called e-NABLE, which is designing 3-D prosthetic hands. We’ll be producing 26 3-D prosthetic hands that will be customized for children who are in need across the globe.
Sakurai: Back in 2008, we started a Schools of the Future initiative. It began with these questions: What do we really want students to know and be able to do for their future? What kind of core content will they need? What kind of skills will they need?
The idea was, if we really want students to know these things, to be able to do these things, how can we use and leverage technology to do that? We went about the process of creating an online science fair. It came from a student and teacher group. We were able to receive $250,000 to spearhead the project. It wasn’t so much for the science fair as it was for technology upgrades, for professional development, because we had to change our pedagogy of how we taught.
When we talk as a school, we say, “Yes, we’re going to put the technology in the classroom.” However, it still takes the adult being there to guide that process. We needed to come up with some kind of training and guidance for them. So they created YouTube videos for the students to be able to learn how to use an online platform. Now we have people from all over the world who can judge the science fair virtually. Their grandparents can see it now. It has been a wonderful thing to connect our students with the world. The learning was very authentic for the students because now they could share their science fair projects with anybody.
Dodd: At GLHS, we have the Lincoln Fabrication Lab. In a “fab lab,” students have the opportunity to design, create, and basically operate a manufacturing business in the traditional school setting. We continue to ask our parents, community members, and our advisory board what they need from our schools. The feedback we receive lists the number of manufacturing and business opportunities in Gahanna that we could be utilizing and creating learning opportunities for our students.
Seeing the need for a fab lab and having the equipment already in place to start a lab, we needed to hire a quality staff member for the program. As a leader, you’ve got to be able to hire staff that can make a difference. Woody Hayes, legendary football coach from Ohio State, always said, “You win with people.” So that’s what I did. I went out and got the best fab lab teacher there is.
The local media interviewed the teacher about the fab lab, and word quickly spread throughout Gahanna about the great things we were doing at the school. That led to the GLHS alumni class from 1975 donating $30,000 toward a graphic design lab within the fab lab. The fab lab has created excitement among our students and community; it has allowed our students and staff to incorporate design thinking into our daily structure to create more opportunities for all of the students in the district.
Designing the Learning Space
Farrace: Winston, can you talk a little bit about how the students designed the whole learning space in Hanalani?
Sakurai: I went back into the classroom last year to teach a design-thinking class. We called it Applied Engineering because it’s actually the planning and leadership that goes into executing a project. They went through the whole process and used some design software to redesign our library. They took out all the shelving, went through every single book. The online surveys said, “We have a lot of collaborative spaces on our campus; they’re all outside. We would like to have a SmartBoard, a video conference room” and they wanted a place to study. They glass-encased a study room, maybe about 20 by 30 feet, and that was known as the Quiet Room.
They went through the process of design thinking, empathy for their student body, wanting to know what the student body wanted, what the teachers wanted, and they re-created this whole thing. The nice thing was, this was all student-led. The library is the most happening place on campus now. It was designed specifically for the students, by the students, and that’s the greatest thing for me.
Bringing Teachers on Board
Farrace: How do you work with the teachers for whom you might be moving a little too quickly?
Robbins: How often do you meet with your teachers? How often do you actually talk and get to know them? One of the biggest things that I really tried to implement since I’ve been at my school is that I meet with my union president every single morning. Whether it’s small talk or something big, we’re constantly having conversations. I invite her into observation post-ops as well to support teachers who may be struggling. That person provides some knowledge and understanding on how to grow. It’s more of a team effort than anything else.
Dodd: Modeling is important for administrators. I am constantly modeling the use of technology in education on a daily basis. In my previous district, we were 1:1 with iPads at the high school level. When I was walking around the building, I always had an iPad in my hand to use when necessary. When we were having staff meetings, I would have my best staff members who were using the devices share how they use the devices in their classes.
I also began flipping my staff meetings and creating video newsletters. The goal was to focus on personalization for staff and parents so they could do the same for our students. I would use an iPad to show the staff how to use different apps and illustrate to them how I was using the device and apps. At the end of the videos, I would explain to staff the apps that I used and let them know how they could use the app in their classes.
I explain to teachers when I’m having conversations with them that they don’t need to use certain resources every day. I don’t want technology to guide teachers’ instruction; I want instruction to guide what resources and tools they are going to use. Once teachers understand that is the building culture, they’re a lot more comfortable. I believe it is important to focus on modeling and building relationships in order to overcome the possible pushback of using different resources for instructional methods.
Sakurai: I knew some of our staff members were enjoying using technology, so there were about five or six of the early adopters that I actually put technology in their hands. These teachers really pushed the envelope, and they said, “This is how we’re going to use it in the classroom.”
Because they became excited about what was going on, the other teachers said, “Hey, what are you doing in your classroom?” They would share on my behalf. They aren’t necessarily coming to me; they’ll go to the teacher down the hall that’s really good with apps, or really good with PowerPoint or YouTube presentations. And we take [the teachers] to conferences. We are constantly exposing teachers to new technologies through conferences on the island or webinars. It’s not me saying that we need to do this, it’s actually other people saying different things, and hopefully they’ll get excited because they are seeing the students learning in the classroom.
Breaking Through Mental Walls
Farrace: What were the mental walls that you had to break through so that you could do this in a more innovative fashion?
Robbins: My son can use my iPhone better than I can. So, why am I holding him back? Why am I holding the other students back? That was embracing fear; that was moving forward and getting “no” a lot. For me, it was about finding different angles to approach it. Reaching out and talking to other people around the country, saying, “What do you do in your school? How can I bring it to mine?”
Dodd: I never assume that kids can’t do something. Students have proven for years that they can do anything. The assumptions I had early in my career had more to do with me than with students. My first assumption was that I could never be knowledgeable in all the different areas that encompass the principal position. I didn’t know where to get information. I thought I would have to read a countless number of books and magazines. I always thought I could ask people questions when I saw them or call them on the phone, but that would be the limit of the information I could receive. Once I started to look into social media and began using Twitter, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought to become more knowledgeable as a building leader.
When I first started using social media, I spent a lot of time in chats and connecting with principals and other leaders. I connected with businesses that have good leaders. I read as many posts and articles as possible each day. If someone in my professional learning network recommends a book, I buy the book and read it. I spend a great deal of time reading and visualizing. I think as principals we are not doing enough reading and reflecting. That’s where we gain our knowledge and allow ourselves to visualize and reflect on new ideas.
Social media has done a lot for our school. Social media has allowed our students, parents, and staff to realize that we can do anything we put our minds to. Your location doesn’t matter. When I became principal, I told myself my philosophy was always going to be: If it’s important to you, you’ll make it happen. If not, you’ll make an excuse. I never wanted to be the principal that was going to make excuses about why we weren’t providing the best education for our students.
Modeling as a learner is important, too. When the students and staff see a leader constantly trying to learn and grow, it can rub off on them. It shows dedication and a willingness to grow. You want to have your students and staff also strive to be lifelong learners, because it’s only going to help the building continue to get stronger.
Sakurai: As a principal, my goal is to provide opportunities for each of the students to be the best they can be. For me, it was just opportunities throughout my lifetime that exposed me to these new technologies. When I got to high school, I was involved in student government. I went to the NASC National Conferences and student leadership camps, and I was a part of National Honor Society. My leadership skills were developed there.
Digital leadership is not just about knowing technology; it’s leadership, period. You’re just trying to harness the best resources and using those to better the educational quality of life for your students. Technology can be a great equalizer; it’s probably the second after a great education. I’m dyslexic, so I use technology because I need help to be able to spell, to be able to write. Assistive technology helps me to be a better leader.
We need to provide opportunities for students. They might not have the resources as a family to do that. Schools can provide those resources or opportunities for students. That’s one of the main things that I think about every day: What kinds of opportunities can we provide, experiences can we provide, for students so they will be very successful later on in life?