Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Engaging Our School Community through Social Media

99% of our students are from military-impacted families, and transitions and deployments are challenges they face as we seek to engage them as integral members of our school community.  Our parents are supportive of the school, and school-wide events such as our recent Student-led Conferences,  musical performances, or Book Fairs are well-attended.  However, results from our annual School Community Council Survey indicated that communication was a major concern of parents so we made a concerted effort to improve home-school communication.

We started by changing our school website.  Initially, it was a lot of work and planning, but today, we pride ourselves on our website which includes lots of information and resources for parents to access as well as updates about upcoming school events.  New parents often share that they requested housing in our geographical area after finding out they were coming to Hawaii and checking out our school webpage.  Additionally, most of our teachers created a class webpage, and this also helped to bridge the gap between home and school.

Because social media is such an important part of our parents' lives, we decided to use Facebook as a means of communication. Our Hale Kula Eagles Facebook page has grown to several hundred members, and upcoming events are shared and photos are posted to keep members updated. Facebook allows families who have left us to find out what's happening at our school, and in turn, we can find out how our former students are doing at their new school.  Facebook has been a wonderful way to keep in touch!  We also publish Hale Kula Highlights at least once weekly, and the blog is sent directly to the email of those who've subscribed.  Parents and staff share that they appreciate these weekly reminders of upcoming events and activities.

Our School Community Council is required to hold School Community meetings at least twice per year to get feedback regarding our Academic Plan.  This has been a major challenge for us.  In the past, we held meetings in the mornings, or just before school ended for the day, or in the evening, and each time, very few parents attended or participated in the discussions.  We even paired these meetings with a student performance, but parents weren't interested in giving feedback to us on how to improve teaching and learning at Hale Kula. After all, they were there to watch/videotape their children's performance.  

After much discussion, we decided to try something different this year.  We decided to host a virtual School Community meeting using Facebook as the venue.  Since parents were familiar with the US Army Garrison Hawaii Facebook Town Hall meetings, we thought we might get better participation than if we held a meeting at school.  Here's the invitation which was posted:

  • We are hosting a virtual School Community Meeting (following the format of the USAG Town Hall meeting). The purpose is to get input and suggestions on how we can craft our Academic Plan for SY2013-2014 to best reflect the needs of our school while following the Department of Education's Strategic Plan and the District mandates.

    Any posts or comments should be respectful. We will remove any comments or questions which are perceived as inappropriate or disrespectful.

    We will respond to all questions, but depending on the number of questions/comments we receive, we will prioritize our responses according to those with the greatest impact on our school community.

    Thank you for joining this event!

Frankly, we did not know what to expect, but a virtual meeting would allow anyone to join from their computer or mobile device wherever they happened to be at the time.  We agreed to ask questions to get feedback rather than having parents post random comments or concerns.  Our focus would be on getting input from parents on issues such as attendance, improving achievement in reading and math, keeping our students safe at school, and improving parent engagement and communication.

I am still amazed at the number of comments and posts we received during our virtual School Community Meeting!  The participation was nonstop with nearly 200 responses, suggestions, comments, and lots of great ideas in just over one hour!  Our challenge now is to take those ideas and to see how we might be able to implement them to improve student achievement as well as to address issues of traffic, safety, communication, and student well-being.

Think about it.  Would we be able to get that kind of feedback if we held a face-to-face meeting?  Absolutely not!  People who might have been reluctant to speak up in a public meeting were able to share concerns or ask questions in a virtual venue.  We could hear from anyone who had something to contribute, and everyone was respectful with their comments.  We cannot guarantee that everyone's suggestions will be implemented, but we will at least consider them.

Everyone's time is so valuable, and finding ways to accommodate the needs of our families is important.  I am so grateful that our School Community Council took this leap and decided to host a virtual meeting.  Perhaps other schools will be willing to give it a try!  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

There is a 5th "C"

As educators, our classrooms are usually teacher-driven.  Students are expected to follow the rules and the procedures which have been established by the teacher as a means of managing the classroom and the students efficiently and effectively.  Classes are taught in blocks of time, and a schedule dictates when students do what.   Lessons are based on a common set of standards, students are given their assignments, and grades are allocated based on whether instructions were followed as well as the quality of the work. Many of us thrived in this system; we knew what we had to do to be successful in school.

Our 21st century world is vastly different, and what worked back then may not be what our students need to be successful today.  We read about how we need to teach the 3 R's as well as the 4 C's  - collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity - which describe the processes for teaching and learning  as we move our teachers and our students forward in the 21st century.  Our Blended Learning pilot program where fourth and fifth grade students spend part of the week in face-to-face learning and the other half accessing their curriculum and assignments on-line at home is successfully demonstrating the power of the
4 C's in engaging students in their studies.

But that is not enough.  We found that even though we have a rigorous curriculum and students have multiple opportunities to use technology and Web 2.0 tools to demonstrate their learning through the 4 C's, something else needs to be in place if we want our students to internalize and become self-directed learners, responsible for their own learning. The 5th C is "Choice." (Thank you, Michelle Colte, for coining this phrase). We have seen students in the Blended Learning Class develop the attributes of a self-directed learner.  They are able to view their assignments for the day, prioritize how they will accomplish their tasks, and with guidance from the teachers, work on individual projects of their choice.

What is it about choice that can make the difference for students?  Kevin Perks, in "Crafting Effective Choices to Motivate Students" states, "Choices that promote feelings of control, purpose, and competence are likely to be more motivating than choices that do not."  In our Blended Learning classes, students have choices, although not all of them are "desirable" to every student.  However, when students can choose how to prioritize and complete their assignments for the day, they learn organizational and time management skills.  When they can choose a topic as part of their interdisciplinary unit study, they are motivated to research to find more information to answer their questions.  When students have a choice on how to share their learning with others, their creativity and pride shines through their projects.

All teachers can and should provide choices for students -- choices in content (What will I be learning?  Why is this important? What are the big ideas and essential questions? What are the standards?), process (What resources will I use? How do I go about finding information? Will I learn better alone or in a group?), or products (How will I share what I learned?  How do I know I have produced my best work?) By providing opportunities to demonstrate the 3 R's and the 5 C's, students will gain skills and strategies to be confident, competent, self-directed learners.  That's what I hope for all of our students so they be successful, not just in school, but in life.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

It's More than a Place to Borrow Books

Yesterday, I was able to attend the annual conference for the Hawaii Association of School Librarians, an organization committed to improving teaching and learning in our schools.  This volunteer organization  shares resources, provides professional development opportunities for educators, and are involved in the community as well by hosting events for students such as The Nene Award.

As schools explore ways to save money, many are choosing to eliminate the librarian position and to focus on technology rather than purchasing books.  A prevailing thought is that libraries are outdated and that purchasing books is a waste of money when it is so easy to get information via the Internet.  I disagree; schools need libraries and librarians.

Our library is a vibrant place, filled with eager students who love to choose a "just right" book to borrow.  But our library is more than just a place to listen to stories and learn  how to find a book.  Our library is a media resource center where students learn to access information about topics of interest, to use different technology and Web 2.0 tools to collaborate with their classmates, to communicate and share information with students at other schools, and to nurture a love of books and literacy.

I have had numerous discussions about how school librarians need to change the way they provide services to teachers and students if they want to survive.  This can be a challenging process.  When we hired our librarian eight years ago, she and I had lengthy discussions about our vision for the library.  We wanted teachers to be present for the lesson so they could follow-up in their classroom.  The librarian needed to be a collaborator with the grade level teachers as they planned instruction based on big ideas and essential questions.  We needed a vast collection of books - both fiction and non-fiction - and we wanted the books to be borrowed, not sitting on the shelf.  Rather than having a set library time each week, we wanted classes to sign up depending on the purpose for the visit.  Because researching requires more time, classes could sign up more than once a week if necessary.  As technology and Web 2.0 tools became more available, the librarian would model the use of these tools in instruction so students and teachers could access and share information virtually as well as through traditional projects.  It was challenging to change the mindset of teachers regarding the role of the library and the librarian, but today, our librarian is seen as an essential resource at our school.

There are those who claim that students can get whatever information they want electronically so libraries and print material are no longer necessary. I disagree. Just because information is readily available electronically does not mean that students know how to choose the right resource, how to skim and scan to find answers, how to take notes and organize them in a meaningful way, and how to summarize and share that information with others.  That is why the librarian is an important resource in the school.  Additionally, every child needs to experience sharing a book with a special adult.  I remember those moments with my own sons, reading some of our favorite books together, laughing, crying, or just sharing that special time together.  As a teacher, that was one of my students' favorite time of the day -- storytime.  I believe that being exposed to all kinds of books -- fiction and nonfiction -- nurtures a love for reading which translates to greater success in school and in life.

Very shortly, we will be breaking ground to upgrade our school facilities.  One of our new buildings will be a "Media Resource Center" which is a more appropriate and descriptive name than "library."  Much discussion and thought went into planning and designing this new building, and our goal is to create a place that can grow and change to meet the literacy and information needs of our students and teachers now and in the future.

It would be a shame if school librarians suffered the same fate as businesses like Borders or Blockbuster which did not realize the need to change to meet the challenges of a changing world until it was too late. Let's work to make sure that does not happen with school librarians.