Developing a Culture of Digital Innovation

The genesis of my work as a digital principal started as a young journalism student in high school and college when I started to realize the power of this new connected world. It was becoming clear that the voice of one individual would hold the potential to influence, shape, and grow a vast network of learners, leaders, and thinkers in the future. Some two decades later, the power of being connected and growing together showcased itself at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School where I serve as the principal learner. We were fortunate to host Grant Lichtman, an educator and learner, who was travelling across the country visiting some of the most innovative schools in the nation. His goal was to unearth some of the gems about how to move schools into a new realm where learning and understanding is deep and authentic. He wrote about our school in his blog and details the visit through this video. The staff and students were excited to discuss our work and get an outside perspective about our mission to build kids into greater scholars, citizens, leaders, and stewards.

As a digital principal, opportunities like these have emerged at a greater rate than ever before and following how this visit became a reality goes to the deep possibility that comes from being connected. The road to Grant’s visit started two years ago in Birmingham AL at edcamp Birmingham when I had the opportunity to meet Philip Cummings, an incredible educator, from the Memphis area. Philip and I continued our conversations after returning home to our schools. We followed each other via our blogs and Twitter, and we realized that our collaboration wasn’t complete. He invited me to apply to participate in the Teaching for Tomorrow Conference at the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence, and I accepted both the invitation to present and stay with his family during the conference. While there, Philip introduced me to Bo Adams, a middle school principal from Atlanta. Bo and I connected surrounding the work of building student leaders, providing schools with a broader definition of success, and energizing schools. During these conversations, Bo directed me to the Grant Lichtman book, The Falconer. From there, a dialogue between Grant, Bo, and I commenced that led to the visit to MRH Middle School. It is amazing to look back on how this came to fruition, but I believe that the best digital principals are consistently building opportunities for the staff and students through a complex set of loose connections that form the essence of their professional learning network.

Another part of being a digital principal is seeing the connections and disconnections surrounding education. One of the glaring disconnections that has existed for some time surrounds the varied rating of schools by parents between the schools that their children attend (often rated A or B) and the overall rating of schools in the country (often rated as a D or F). The heart of this disconnection seems to be in the mental models of schools that many have developed from their own experiences in schools as well as the ones that they have formed based on the images planted by news, television, and motion pictures surrounding schools. This disconnection has put schools in a difficult position to move forward and find new forms of excellence as parents, community leaders, and other stakeholders struggle to envision the new possibilities of excellent connected schools. One of the primary roles of today’s digital principal should be to serve as the storyteller-in-chief for their story. This role allows a principal to answer the essential question, “Who is telling your story?” because if the principal isn’t laying out the story, vision and mission of the school, then others will, either through formal or informal avenues. So what does this role look like for a digital principal? It means using all of the social media tools as well as traditional forms of communication to explain the vision for excellence of your school. At Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School, we have embraced the real-time sharing of success and communication of mission that comes from the use of our Twitter feed and our Facebook page, but we also realize that our story must be told in many forms for the variety of audiences that we engage. Though principals have used e-mails and newsletters for many years to open lines of communication, the digital principal is using these forms in combination with social media to meet all stakeholders at their entry point to the mission. At MRHMS, our greatest leverage point in this work to shift mental models has come through the digital story told through our teacher blogs, our Flickr page, and our YouTube channel. Schools and leaders, not using these tools, are tying one hand behind the back when it comes to building a whole community of digital innovation.

Digital principals, as outlined in the DNA of both the NETS-A and Breaking Ranks, can no longer see their role as building excellence within only their own school as their primary role. The best digital principals now see their role in context of the larger educational community. They are sharing their thoughts and ideas, generating a school culture that allows their teachers and students to do the same, as well as spending an increased amount of time learning from the work of top learners and leaders throughout the country so that ideas, resources, and tools are flowing into their school from schools throughout the planet. I have embraced this role as a digital principal. It started with beginning to capture my thoughts, resources, and ideas on my blog, Principally Speaking. This blog has been the central hub to my writing, reflection, and sharing as a digital principal. More importantly, it has been a model for many of the teachers in my building who are now using their blog to enhance their classroom, talk with other teachers, and model for their students the power of on-line writing. As a connected principal that encourages collaboration as part of the culture of the school, I am able to continue to open learning opportunities for kids. Over the past year, this has included students as featured bloggers in our local online newspaper, students presenting at regional conferences, and students working with experts via Skype and Twitter. Many of these opportunities started with just a nugget of information or a simple idea harvested from the incredible power of Twitter. The educational learning available on Twitter by volume, access, and ease, is becoming our greatest source of professional development in our school and for the best digital schools in the country.  As a digital leader, I have nurtured my staff and students in the use of Twitter as a learning vehicle, and the results are emerging with greater intensity each day, each month, and each year.

Fulfilling the role of connected leader and supporter of excellent learning everywhere has provided me with a number of opportunities. Currently, I serve on the board of the Saint Louis Area Secondary School Principals Association where my role is to provide the social media content and communicate online learning for the organization. As co-founder of edcampSTL, Chris McGee and I have started another avenue for folks to learn and grow outside of the school day, both through a weekend conference as well as through Twitter hashtag #edcampSTL. It has also been an honor to serve the last two years as a board member for the Midwest Educational Technology Conference, one of the largest gatherings in the midwest to discuss high-level technology integration into the classroom. In this role, I have had the opportunity to help select speakers and shape the conference to meet the needs of the new generation of connected educators and principals. In addition to these three roles that have allowed for a deeper professional learning network in the Saint Louis area, Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School has embraced the idea of sharing and learning with others on our campus. In the last two years, we have worked with our partners the Cadwell Collaborative and The College School to host a conference of educators from throughout the United States and Canada to discuss how to grow innovative schools. At the heart of these conversations were learning surrounding high-level technology integration and education for sustainability. Another avenue of being connected for me has been sharing at greater depths and growing my professional learning network by publishing articles at websites such as: Connected Principals, Ecology of Education, Angela Maiers Blog, Edudemic and Project PLN.

Another goal of mine as a digital principal has been to maximize the technology literacy, passion, and availability to all of my students. Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School is a place of learning where 50% of students struggle with the weight of poverty each day. Our program is designed with excellent practices in mind, and with a heavy focus on building the capacity needed for all of our students to be successful beyond high school. We recognize the role that technology-integration and connected learning can play in making the dreams of our kids, their families, and others surrounding their families a reality. MRHMS exists in a 1:1 laptop environment. This allows a leveling of the playing field for our kids when it comes to computer access, but we don’t see this as enough. Our teachers work hard to build lessons that allow for learning in class and beyond class using our technology. We see great opportunities for kids to learn asynchronously as they have their computers 24-hours a day. Students often report that they are watching learning videos through flipped classrooms, playing learning simulations, and continuing the conversation with their teachers into the evening via e-mail. Making this a reality takes navigating a mountain of logistics and being dedicated to teaching digital citizenship, empathy, and responsibility, but excellent digital principals are finding ways to make these experiences a reality for their students. My vision expands past our incredible laptop program to bringing technology into the field. MRHMS is a school as expedition so about 20-25% of the learning takes place outside, outside in the community or outside of the community. This creates an even greater challenge for our dedication to digital learning, but over the past two years, students and teachers have embraced digital learning in the field. The use of a technology grant to fund iPod Touches for taking stills and video in the field has allowed our students to complete deep learning surrounding the Civil War and develop a greater sense of place using public transportation. In addition, our vision for technology in the field has a huge science and math component surrounding data collection. Students are gathering data using a handheld Vernier LabQuest along with probeware to monitor our sustainability projects surrounding aquaponics and raising bees. This information is then used to better our programs and partner with local universities. As all of this digital learning and proficiency expands, we are in a great place as a school to store, showcase and celebrate the learning as we have launched a K-12 electronic portfolio. This platform to showcase learning came from the committee that I chaired with the Director of Technology and it is showing increasing promise in year two. Students are finding their electronic portfolio to be a place of pride for their best learning and a place for quality reflection. Teachers are using it to gather essential data surrounding student growth as scholars, leaders, citizens, and stewards as well as using the e-portfolio as an entry point for communication with parents. Schools have to be able to expand their definition of success beyond the test scores, and excellent digital principals should be leading the way by finding ways to showcase excellent student work through e-portfolios, electronic student work showcases, and increased opportunities for public audiences.

There are a number of other smaller items that have added to my work as an effective digital principal over the last four or five years. One of those has been a greater emphasis in our building surrounding reducing our paper waste and moving more of our work between students and teachers and teachers and teachers to the cloud. This has required a commitment on my part to train students, parents, and teachers on how to best accomplish this as well as model the expectations in the building. Our work as a 1:1 school has also afforded me the opportunity to share the trapped wisdom of our building with schools and leaders new to the process, most recently beginning a partnership with Union and Monett School Districts in Missouri and collaborating with Cooperstown NY School District on Presentations of Learning. To deepen our work as a school as expedition, we are looking for ways to build meaningful virtual expeditions that allow students to learn in class and at home about incredible spaces like our National Parks. We have also recently added three elective courses that showcase our desire to have a culture of digital innovation. These include: technology as culture, creative writing (with an emphasis in on-line writing and authentic audience), and a leadership course that asks students to infuse technology deeply into the core of their learning and action planning. Finally, this journey as a connected principal has recently provided me the opportunity to be honored as an on-line thought leader at the first annual Bammy Awards, a national event, designed to honor educators for their dedication to kids and learning.

My work as a digital principal remains risky and filled with many pitfalls. We are all learning together about the best ways to collaborate, share, and communicate while balancing things like public criticism, privacy, and those worried about the disruptive nature of technology, but the true leaders of the digital principals’ movement realize that the time to act is now. It is important to support our digital principals who are willing to act now for the sake of kids and excellence in schools even though there will be moments in this leadership journey that are misunderstood by people because there are still many with a sense that the connected principals’ movement is a distraction instead of the disruptive innovation for excellence that it is destined to become.