What A Year
It has been a year of change, around the world, where I work, in my family, and personally. I am not sure anyone was prepared for the political climate that occurred this year. Our stance as a nation has swung significantly in the last 12 months. I fell asleep the night of the presidential election in a hotel room with the TV on and woke up at 2:30 in the morning and the world had changed. It didn't stop there though. A bizarre event would occur and would be all over the news; before we could wrap our minds around it, another bizarre event would occur, then another and another, coming at us faster and faster, battering the nation with a Category 5 hurricane-like weirdness that left us hunkering down, clinging to our sanity, no longer certain what was real.
In the midst of all the bizarre things that occurred this year, there were good things too. We have seen many technological advancements that will assist us as a society for years to come. Artificial Intelligence, Augmented/Virtual Reality, 3D printing, the availability of inexpensive solar cells, and even self driving vehicles made this spotlight this year. If I had to point to one person's influence of much of this, it would have to be Elon Musk. His goals for his companies Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity revolves around his vision to change the world and humanity.
A highlight of this year for me personally, our team, and the district would be telling our story. We have done an incredible job of documenting this journey. One event that I would like to highlight was our participation at ISTE this last summer. It was clear that through the amount of presentations and being a big part of Microsoft's Hack the Classroom event at ISTE, we have made progress that others see value in. I use this as a dipstick to measure our effectiveness as a team and later I highlight how I use my kids as a measurement of our student experience.
In the next three segments, I will focus on district, family, and personal reflections over the past year. Each has their own challenges, advancements, and opportunities.
Our Growth As a District
Our $421 million dollar bond issue in November of 2014 has provided many resources that Omaha Public Schools needed. Before that, there wasn't a bond issue for over 15 years. The needs assessment that was completed before the bond showed $1.2 billion in needs. As much as this first bond issue is allowing us to build and provide, (Belle Ryan and Western Hills elementary schools slated to open in a couple of weeks, for instance) there is so much more that needs to be done. The next bond in May of 2018 will help address the space needs at our secondary schools.
2017 has been a year of transition as far as leadership. Mr. Evans decided to stay one more year after a turbulent Superintendent search process with the board. I must say it was good to spend one more year with Mr Evans, this being our 13th year working together. Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Kehrberg retired at the end of the 2016-17 season creating a vacancy that was replaced with Chief Academic Officer, Melissa Comine. We also brought on a couple of new Executive Directors of School Supports. All of these are good transitions, but transitions are challenging and require time.
From a technology standpoint, we have made efforts towards planned obsolescence of devices. In 2017, we experienced budget constraints that made us adjust the frequency by which we refresh devices. One thing the refresh process has done is show how necessary digital equity and access is for all of our students. In the future, we will make decisions differently as a district through the progression to digital equity through the strategic plan. I can't wait to see what we can accomplish with digital curriculum and open educational resources that provide unique learning experiences through technology. Personalized learning is the way to go. Our students should be picking their unique pathway in opportunities that aren't even thought of yet. For more information on our unique process for devices, click the image below for the blog post on planned obsolescence.
Anytime you are shifting focus with student learning, you need to incorporate parents and community. Digital citizenship and literacy was a major focus in Omaha Public Schools in 2017. We certified over 50 schools with Common Sense Media Certification to receive the district level certification. This was not all though. We also implemented the Mobile Learning Unit, a vehicle that provides programming to students, parents, and community through a partnership with Cox Communications. What was once a 1991 bus has now transformed into a highly engaging learning environment.
Our relationship with Microsoft has continued to progress. These strategic relationships have been beneficial for our students. We are able to give authentic feedback in what the learning experience students should receive in a high technology environment. Communication is different, as well, in today's working environment. We should reflect this shift in education as well. Our team uses Microsoft Teams everyday. This article discusses how Omaha Public Schools and Microsoft are working together to bring this collaboration shift in using Microsoft Teams.
One of the fundamental areas that needed to be addressed when Mr. Evans became Superintendent was looking at our processes. The district had a tendency to on-board a system and not continuously update it. You can see that now with our PeopleSoft upgrade that started this year. The district had not completed an upgrade of that system in over 12 years. The world has changed in 12 years. Think about what wasn't here 12 years ago in technology:
With all of these things in mind, it is important to consider what we face by constantly updating our systems. Think about it, all of our social media mediums update without training us, many times even without informing us beforehand. We use them frequently enough that our own digital literacy skills improve naturally. The same needs to be done with our "systems" we utilize in our districts. This includes pedagogy.
These "systems" are what drives cultural change. Systems create behaviors and this is important in an district because, as I say sometimes, districts do what they're organized to do. To bring about actual change within an district, Superintendents or other leaders, before they cast big vision and before they announce a change, must sit down and look at systems and ask the question, "What are the behaviors that need to change in order to move in the direction we need to move?" In my past work with the BLEgroup, Gates Foundation, and GreyED Solutions working on tech audits or strategic planning, it became evident that these are the fundamental things that drive necessary change. So, simply talking and casting vision doesn't change the direction of a district. Systems create behaviors because districts do what they're organized to do.
I am excited to see where we go in 2018 with teaching and learning in Omaha Public Schools! With the shifting of leadership, continued adoption of systems that produce efficiency and great staff in every facet of Omaha Public Schools, we are better - you can see it. Check out our transformation page for what our district has done through the use of technology.
My Family's Growth
I have always measured my effectiveness as an educational leader through my kids. It's an easy mechanism since I see them everyday. At some points in life I have had one in every level at the same time: Elementary, Middle and High School. Every night I would listen to them and gather their experiences. During the last two years, this dynamic is changing. Now Emily is a Sophmore in college, Aiyana is a senior at Omaha Central High School, and Bailey has joined her as a Freshman. From a parent perspective, the light is at the end of the tunnel. I am going to have to figure out a way to measure my effectiveness differently.
In 2017, we took a much needed vacation to Colorado. The kids had a blast, and Amanda and I did too. It was one of those moments where you begin thinking this could be the last one we do as a family with our kids graduating and moving on. Amanda and I love to hike. Colorado was just the place to engage with the whole family and climb a couple of mountains, see waterfalls, and see some old friends that moved out that way. Amanda and I also took some time and rode up to a lake with our bikes and saw some wildlife. From there I mounted my GoPro and coasted down the mountain, it was the best adrenaline rush of the trip.
Where to start. 2017 showed me how much I love to learn. I read 12 books this year - yes 12. It wasn't just reading either. Many times it was a group effort with a lot of collaboration. Creating "quotures" - yes we made that up - and posting them to twitter after a chapter. We participated in #1ChapterADay activities, taking notes and using OneNote to document the journey. I have to give a mad shout out to Eileen Heller - she has kept up with me all along the way. You can check out her blog here. We also blogged about a couple of books. Check out this one Eileen Heller, Rebecca Chambers, and I did on Learning Transformed.
What's In Store For 2018?
A new Superintendent,new Board of Education Officers, and budget conversations will start in January of 2018. The Instructional Technology Team did an incredible job of applying for a Title IV grant that was awarded to us that will help drive Future Ready and a new Professional Development System in the district this spring. 2018 will again be a year of change, around the world, where I work, in my family, and personally.
Today, you always hear about our need to develop our future generations with skills in coding, STEM, and in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. As a technology leader, I emphasize this in my everyday work. This year I have had the opportunity to read 12 books with staff. The last two have challenged my thinking.
Excellence Through Equity
Back in October, Superintendent Mark Evans brought the Excellence Through Equity book to Executive Council. It has been a book of focus for our Principal Meetings over the last couple of months. Alan M. Blankstein, Pedro Noguera, and Lorena Kelly present the power of voice and choice that guides educational leaders to drive change in the classroom. The resounding themes that echo project based learning activities, relevance, and the power of equity. I loved the parallels outlined in the book to the health industry:
From Chapter 4:
This book provides timely insights and powerful examples that educational equity and excellence provides. It is also necessary and possible. Towards the end of the book, it highlights the necessary changes needed in the policy level to make sure education can succeed. It is timely with our current political climate. I have never felt the amount of pressure in public education as is occurring today.
From a technology standpoint, the book outlines technology being a powerful how. It particularly points out the International Standards for Technology in Education Standards.
Technology is a great equalizer, but it is important to understand the challenges that separate us from our private school counterparts. Every child is on an educational journey. Each of them come on the journey with different luggage. Here at Omaha Public Schools we serve children of color, immigrant children, poor children, and children whose first language is other than English. These are all things we are proud of. Nebraska Loves Public Schools has created a great video that highlights these challenges and shows the hope given to children that learning provides.
This book is foundational. Everyday I push for educational technology solutions to help facilitate efficiency in time and increase ability. Too often this emphasis takes some focus away from purpose. The book Better Conversations brings that focus back to what is relevant. Many times as educators, the answers not in technology but in human behavior. It is too easy to get fixed on the shiny and we should focus on implementing technology with purpose. This gets more and more relevant as our technology advances: The more we talk about features and functions, the further we are apt to stray from what we're trying to accomplish in the first place. Jim Knight does an incredible job of bringing purpose with technology by using the very thing we hold on to everyday: our smartphones. By using video as a reflection, we paint an accurate description of our efficiencies as a teacher and communicator.
I got the opportunity to read this book with Eileen Heller, Instructional Technology Trainer for Omaha Public Schools. During the course of our readings we created what we call a quoture - an image with a quote that stood out for us personally for each chapter. As you can see below there are some great themes that come along with each chapter - but one that speaks to me is empathy.
Listening is my weakness. Every resource of my mind in conversation is anticipating what I want to say next. Not much empathy in that. Jim Knight in our session had us do an activity on listening. We were to listen to our partner without saying anything for 1 minute. It seemed like an eternity. I learned a lot from that exercise.
Jim explains this in 3 key strategies to listening:
It all boils down to relationships....
Both books emphasize the need for relationships. In Excellence Through Equity incorporates our struggle with new standards and how we have focused too much on testing and results. Student voice and choice are needed to bring relevancy to the learning process. Better Conversations takes that a step further by understanding dialogue:
And finally because of my technology background, it is important to note that technology can happen throughout both of these processes. In both books it is used as an efficiency and as an equalizer. The technology we use today is the worst technology we will ever use in the future because it constantly changes. Don't get fixed on the shiny.
These posts are personal. They are not reflective of the Omaha Public Schools District.