It’s always an exciting time when NASSP announces its Digital Principals of the Year, as we get an in-depth view of principals who are doing amazing things by leveraging the power of digital media. This month, we examined digital technology through the eyes of three tech-savvy principals: Darren Ellwein, principal of Harrisburg South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD; David Geurin, principal of Bolivar High School in Bolivar, MO; and Nicholas Indeglio, principal of Downingtown Middle School in Downingtown, PA. The roundtable discussion, held in December, was moderated by Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein.
Levin-Epstein: What’s exciting in digital technology at your school?
Ellwein: In the last couple of years, we have had a global connection with a school in Norway. We’ve been collaborating in English Language Arts and math, especially. We do live video chats with each other, even though there is a seven-hour time difference. We leverage Padlet, Google Hangouts, Appear.in, and Facebook groups. My favorite for video chat is Appear.in, which is a Norwegian product. Using these platforms, learners from both countries collaborated on Native American issues. We’re doing something right now on the political process, connecting our senator in South Dakota with Norway. Plus, thanks to social media, I recently connected with Anthony Scaramucci, who is on [President Donald] Trump’s transition team. Global learning has expanded to include a project that encompasses schools in India, Malaysia, and Norway.
Geurin: The thing that’s been the biggest transition we’ve had in the last couple of years has been our move to Chromebooks for each of our students in a 1:1 environment. We look at different ways that technology can transform learning and can help support all of our curriculum, but we want to go beyond the technology and make sure that we are empowering our students and helping them to be digital learners—prepared for the world that they’re going to face in a future that is complex and uncertain.
Indeglio: Our main thrust now is looking at how the technology can enhance instruction and increase effective communication for both the students and the teachers. We’re looking at our weekly Facebook Live updates. We’re also following up with having the students put on the news show daily.
Levin-Epstein: How do you engage parents?
Ellwein: Remind (www.remind.com) has been a great platform. I can produce content to push out to parents to tell our story. Our school works hard to direct all the parents to our website, which has a widget with our hashtag. I just try to have the teachers promote what they are doing, explaining learning through social media artifacts. Our school is also moving to a personalized learning model that is cross-curricular. When communicating this vision and holding parent meetings, we used social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) to get the word out. To gain their input, we utilized Google Docs, [Google] Forms, and [Google] Sheets to collect data for important decisions on our learners. To provide stakeholder support with digital citizenship, we have engaged with Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org) and held parent tech nights.
Geurin: When we were looking at going 1:1, we had lots of parent-community feedback. We went out into the community and presented at different organizations. We had an online chat—sort of a virtual town hall meeting—using TodaysMeet.com, where you don’t even have to log in, but parents were able to ask questions, share concerns, and hear from the school, too. And then, on an ongoing basis, we try to provide information. We use a tool called Smore (www.smore.com) to create newsletters each month that we send out to parents, and we often include digital tips as part of that—things that we think parents will find interesting or helpful related to digital issues like cybersafety, cyberbullying, that kind of thing, or information about the Chromebooks and what’s going on with that.
Indeglio: We have a yearly cybersafety night at the school, where we invite parents and we try to present a holistic presentation of what our technology does, what our kids have access to, and then focus on what’s actually out there and popular right now that they might not be aware of.
Levin-Epstein: Who’s in charge of your digital program?
Ellwein: Principals should be the lead learners in technology and provide the vision for learning with these tools. The goal is to build capacity. “Capacity” is one word that has really struck me over the past couple of years, thanks to Jimmy Casas [an educational leader and former principal] in Iowa. I think once your teachers understand the reason why, the usefulness of it, and how it can transform learning, I believe they are the ones that really move the vision. Utilize their strengths. I have a couple of people on my staff who are incredible with TouchCast (www.touchcast.com). For others, it could be iMovie. The next step is having them [teachers] showcase their work, which we call Twitter Tuesday. On these select days, we collaborate to do 100 learning tweets as a staff. This is when they take the steering wheel—showcasing their work and driving the vision of a school.
Geurin: I would agree with the modeling. I think one of the most important things that a principal can do is to engage students and teachers with technology as a digital learner. Your influence is your example. That is number one: What you model is what you get. And then from there, similar to what was just mentioned, it’s amazing to me the things teachers bring to me that they have learned or ideas that they have that start a movement, and that spreads throughout the school.
Indeglio: Our curriculum department is technically in charge of the educational digital leadership side, and they have one specialist who oversees two staff members in each building. All they do is digital coaching for the teachers. They’ll come in and help teach lessons. They’ll watch, they’ll show them how to do things. On the technology side, they’re in charge of repairing the devices when they go down. So, everyone has their role to play, and I think it’s the principal’s job to do a little bit of everything, to kind of capitalize on that.
Then, in addition to us modeling, when our teachers are doing amazing things in the classroom and using new technologies—it’s little things, like one of our teachers last week picked up a website called My Simple Show, and it makes a very quick video which shows you a concept. Very easy to do, but unless this person discovered it, we never would have heard of it or known what to do with it, so they presented it at a faculty meeting. I think that’s kind of similar to what you guys do with the Twitter Tuesdays and all of that, and that’s the whole point of educational leadership of social media—you can jump in and you can find anything you want very easily.
So, initially it’s cutting through the red tape, making sure everyone knows their jobs, and then getting it down to the level where teachers are the ones doing the teaching.
Ellwein: I think the other piece that goes with that is the training that’s involved. As leaders, we need to take time to be able to help people get comfortable, or to help people understand, “Hey, you’re a rock star at this. Let’s figure out how you can take this further or how you can do some peer helping with people on staff.”
Levin-Epstein: What have your schools done in terms of 3-D printing, robotics, or drones?
Ellwein: We have a really great makerspace at South Middle School. It was started by someone with a real passion for it, Travis Lape. We’ve continued it, and we have 3-D printing, coding options for varied levels, and lots of cardboard! Along with being able to tinker and experiment, another goal for our makerspace was to meld it into the curriculum. We wanted a culture of problem solving and learning how to pivot or seek other solutions when roadblocks hit. So, now that’s what we’re doing. We’re taking the maker items, and we’re melding it into places within the curriculum. For example, a math teacher just came to me a couple of days ago, and she said, “Drones and linear functions. Let’s figure out how to make it work.” She then used our Ozobots and produced an activity.
Every Friday at 7:00 a.m., I run our Drone Club with another facilitator. Parrot is the main type of drones that we use, and they have even helped our learners troubleshoot issues via Facetime. I believe it’s important that kids really enjoy learning. They have to see how it applies to them and their world. It’s great if you have the 3-D printing and the other items, but there has to be an applicable use for it. Just flying a drone will spark interest, but applying it to math or other subjects will internalize learning.
We are also a Project Lead the Way school. In this program, we have our students working with design/modeling and robotics.
Geurin: I think those are the really popular things that we hear a lot about, and they can be great. But they aren’t a requirement for being innovative. You can have a 3-D printer that you pay hundreds of dollars for, or you can use duct tape and cardboard-it’s really the type of thinking we are causing in students. We’re looking for the creativity and design thinking because those skills are important in today’s world.
We do have a 3-D printer. Our marketing teacher wrote a grant, and she uses [the printer] in her class. Students have done some really cool projects. Our students have also learned robotics and programming. We are a Project Lead the Way school with computer science, and so students can take a progression of computer sciences classes here at Bolivar High School. In fact, there was an article today on CNN’s website about our computer science teacher, Gina Green, and her work with bringing computer science to our school and the fact that rural areas tend to have fewer opportunities for computer science. There are so many career opportunities with it. It requires a lot of critical thinking also, so it’s very good from a learning standpoint.
Indeglio: At the middle level, we’re a Project Lead the Way school, too, and we try to use those courses to move those kids up to the high school or to our STEM high school so they can actually pursue things they’re interested in—the engineering piece, the robotics piece, different things like that.
We have a drone, but that’s not a separate thing-that’s part of our movie club and part of our morning announcements. We have our life skills and our low-incidence special-ed population classes come to learn how to use that technology. Those kids are learning to use iMovie and different types of technology there that can assist with communication. I think that’s actually a good example, because that’s a little separate from the big picture, but it’s an example of how we have all these cool things. We’ve got the drones, we’ve got the 3-D printers, but a simple tablet can actually open up a world of communication. Where 10 years ago it would’ve cost $3,500 for a touch device, now you can literally buy a $60 Amazon tablet, and buy a $100 software program, and the kids can talk. So, it really is finding what is efficient, what works, and what’s relevant, and I think that’s really what makes everything happen.
Levin-Epstein: Can you think of any examples where the students themselves have suggested something in the digital or the technological area that has been successful?
Ellwein: We are moving from a BYOD environment—bring your own device—to iPads 1:1. During our sixth-grade pilot, we gave them control of how they want to prove their learning, the artifacts of learning. We noticed clear cases of literal “student teaching the teacher.” Combine this with our makerspace fostering flexible thinking; the projects they are creating have more substance. Learners are asking for permission—”Hey, can I do this instead of just turning in or submitting with a Google Doc or a sheet of paper? Can this be the way I prove my learning?”
Because we’re fully in the movement of personalized learning right now, we want them to have voice and choice in their learning. It’s the culture of being able to say, “Hey, the handcuffs are off. You have a chance to be able to take control. You’re empowered! How do you want to learn?” And for the teachers, it’s facilitating. It’s “the handcuffs are off for you, too.” Bring in curiosity with creativity to produce authentic learning. If they expand on it, wonderful. This also fits our iChoose days, which combines Edcamp for students with passion and butterfly effect projects. Empower learners to make decisions. Through these passion projects, we have had students enter the entrepreneurial world by producing products (like a dog feeder powered by makerspace tech tools) that leverage the available technology.
Geurin: I really love that question, because I think that is so important. Activating students as resources and getting their ideas, I think, is something that we need to do more of. I think often by the time they are in high school, they have become passive in the learning process, and so we have to almost pull it out of them when they have really good insights and about how learning could be most effective. We need to really tap into that, because we may assume certain things about the experience we are providing. I want to work on activating student voice and trying to see learning through their eyes. One thing that we did that we felt was very empowering and students were helping to really lead was when they presented at our PD day. We have a group called SWAT—Students Working to Advance Technology—and they have taken a leadership role. They presented to our teachers about how to use Google Apps and extensions.
Indeglio: At the middle level, our goal is to empower the students with as much choice and with as many options as we can, so that when they get to the high school, they can do the things you are talking about. They can lead PD for the teachers because they know more than we do, that’s the bottom line. Three very quick examples, at least at the middle level: Several years ago, we were using Moodle as our learning management system, and the kids told us, “It’s hard to use. We don’t understand it.” The teachers couldn’t use it. The kids pushed to have something that was more user-friendly, and we included them as part of that process to decide. We wound up using Schoology—everything from a learning management perspective is built around Schoology—and the students are the ones who really drive that now because they are the ones who know how to use it better than anybody. Their input influences the company itself to make changes.
We’re a traditional suburban middle school; we have ski club, and chess club, and all that kind of stuff. Last year we had a couple of students come to us interested in coding, asked if they could start a Minecraft club. We found the money, and now we run a 60-kid Minecraft club every Monday after school, which is awesome. I never would have come up with that, but they did. That was them. They came to us this year and said, “Dr. Indeglio, you’re all over Facebook; you’re all over Twitter. We don’t use those. So, can you get on Snapchat or Instagram?” We looked into both, worked with our tech department, and I settled on an Instagram account. So now, in addition to being able to get in touch with the parents on Facebook and the other professionals on Twitter, the kids actually follow us on Instagram.
The final idea is: We have a shortage of techs throughout the district; [it’s challenging] hiring good building techs. One of the ideas we are working on is using actual high school students in those roles, because they can do that, and turning it into a class or an internship. So, to me, that’s the end result we’re trying to get to.