Category Archives: Branding and Buzz

Branding and Buzz

Honoring Controversy – The Series

School Administrators working on controversyOne of the truly challenging parts of leading large-scale school change is how upset some people can be about the change (School Change Truth 2 reminds us that people seem to abhor change). Large-scale school change, especially paradigm shifting change, invariably generates controversy. 

The question is how to deal with it. Understandably, many of us don’t like confrontation and would rather not deal with it or hope that it will simply go away. 

But this is one instance where ignoring the situation will not make it go away and will likely make it worse. What to do?

The Series:

How well your initiative deals with controversy and critics will depend on how calm you remain, how productively you listen to your critics, and how good you get at determining when to simply acknowledge a critique and when to do something about it.

How We Listen Matters

Adding the “barking dogs who bite” parent, mentioned in the previous post, to the design team taught us something else about dealing with controversy. The way critical community members deliver their message, especially when they are forceful or angry, can keep us from listening productively to their message

For example, we certainly intended to use iPad apps to reinforce letter formation and spelling. The way angry parents were telling us we shouldn’t use tablets to teach young learners had us dismissing them (and their message) as extremist. 

But then a small statement in an otherwise enflamed tirade made me realize that they thought we were going to teach students to handwrite only using the devices! 

It had never occurred to us that we should be directly stating that the correct way (the only way) to properly teach handwriting was with pencil and paper. Once we made that statement, they cooled quite a bit. We were debating the benefits of using apps to reinforce letter formation when what no one had said (and needed to be said) was that handwriting needed to be taught with pencil and paper. It was so obvious to us, we never thought to say it. 

But listening productively to the critics (even when it’s hard) told us the message we should be sharing.

Similarly, when working with a middle school to implement interdisciplinary, project-based learning, our group talked a lot about problem-solving, connecting learning to the students’ world, and active learning. Critics were angry because they saw us throwing out the curriculum and dismissing Math, English, Science, and Social Studies. It was a lesson in how listening productively to your critics can also tell you when you’re using the wrong words or wording.

Of course we were teaching Math, English, Science, and Social Studies! 

But in our excitement about the learning power of connecting subjects and using projects and active learning, we had said nothing about the content students would be learning. Our critics quieted and were less frequent when we started talking about how we could make Math more meaningful by using it to address issues in Science and Social Studies, and how applying reading and writing to solving real world problems makes learning the reading and writing skills more meaningful to students, and how active, hands on learning strategies, help students better learn Math, English, Science, and Social Studies. 

Our critics helped us know what we were not saying that would be helpful and what terms we were using that were generating less buy-in, than other terms that helped promote buy-in.

Barking Dogs and Barking Dogs Who Bite

Thinking of school change from the framework of being intentional and rational about moves and counter moves, as mentioned in the previous post, can be helpful. Remember, a confrontational and forceful community member perceives their job as saying whatever it takes to have you NOT make the school change you are in the process of making.

Part of thinking through moves and counter-moves is knowing when you can and should ignore the issue, or take no action, and when you must do something, perhaps quickly. You have to be able to distinguish between “barking dogs” and “barking dogs that bite.” Many of the critics of the primary grade iPad initiative in Auburn said their piece, then went away. But we had one parent who kept returning to the school committee and to other community groups to blast the initiative. Her arguments were starting to gain traction, even though to those of us implementing the initiative none of them had any credence or basis in fact. She had become a barking dog that bites.

My superintendent was surprised by my solution. I put the parent on our design team. My superintendent wasn’t so sure about the move but trusted that I knew what I was doing. I’m not so sure that I knew what I was doing at the time (and frankly, part of it was the old “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”), but my instinct proved correct. The parent saw how decisions were made and saw that “what was good for children” was at the heart of what we were doing.

She also had a voice in our decisions (as did every design team member) and was now in the position of not being able to pontificate at a board meeting about what she thought we should or shouldn’t do, but now had to work with the team to convince us to do what she thought was right. When her ideas were what one might call extreme or crazy, she was only one voice and her ideas didn’t go far. When her ideas were on point, we collaborated on finding the right way to address the idea. She made quality contributions to the design and implementation of the initiative and even became a cautious supporter, advocating for continued funding for the project at budget time!

Dealing with Controversy Requires the Right Mindset and Temperment

As discussed in the previous post, large-scale school change, especially paradigm shifting change, invariably generates controversy. The question is how to deal with it. Understandably, many of us don’t like confrontation and would rather not deal with it or hope that it will simply go away. 

But this is one instance where ignoring the situation will not make it go away and will likely make it worse. What to do?

The first step is, to the greatest extent you can, to not take it personally. If you care deeply about your initiative, which is often the case when you play a strong role in designing or implementing an initiative, it’s hard not to take the criticisms and concerns personally, especially the ones that seem unrealistic and crazy or when the community member is so angry or forceful in their convictions. It’s almost impossible to avoid taking it personally when they make it personal about you (I once had a parent at a school committee meeting attack me by name and try to shame me for supporting our work).

It’s critical to remain calm. This is not simply an issue between you and the angry community member. There are others watching. Some will agree with the community member. Some will think that the community member is being unreasonable and will sympathize with you (perhaps feeling bad that you have to sit through this onslaught!). In many cases, you can simply thank them for sharing their perspective and let their comments (and how they were delivered) stand on their own.

If you respond too strongly, sharply, or angrily, no matter how justified you may be to feel these things, you are the one whose argument loses every time. It doesn’t matter that the community member thinks they are correct and is being angry or forceful, when you lose it, you lose your supporters. It is for them and for you that you remain calm, no matter what.

If possible, provide a counter example. When Maine decided to be the first 1-to-1 laptop initiative in the country (The Maine Learning Technology Initiative, MLTI) by providing all 7th and 8th grade teachers and students laptops, WiFi, and training (probably the largest middle school initiative in the country!), teachers, principals, and tech directors were highly anxious. At the time (2001), no other state was doing this. Few schools across the country were doing this. Then-Governor King got calls saying that if he wanted to improve Maine’s economy, he should give every middle school student a chainsaw, not a laptop. He even got death threats!

Even caring educators’ imaginations were rife with worries about all the bad things that might happen: students going to inappropriate sites, students being distracted from focusing on learning activities, equipment not working properly when needed, laptops going missing. As a new initiative, it’s hard to counteract supposition because there may be no counter-examples to point to. Fighting supposition with supposition is difficult (”My belief it won’t happen should be stronger than your belief it will happen!”).

But he had the advantage of having one middle school, Piscataquis Community Middle School in Guilford, Maine, who had initiated 1-to-1 laptops with their eighth grade earlier that year.

When a critic shared their worst fears about what would happen when every seventh and eighth grade teacher and student had an internet-connected laptop, Governor King could publicly turn to the Guilford teachers and say, “I see this person’s concern. Has this been an issue with your program?” The teachers could then state that it has not been, or if it had, what the scope of the problem had been and what their solution was. It also helped that the response came from someone other than the governor. It wasn’t just the program advocate’s response, but a response from someone who is already doing the work. Bottom line, those teachers, in this instance, had more credibility with the critics than the governor did.

Keep in mind, too, that your critics aren’t trying to ruin your day. Initiatives are “initiatives” because they are new. They haven’t been done much (if at all) before. They aren’t “tried and true.” And they are unlikely to be what your stakeholders and learning community have experienced in school. As I pointed out previously, all they have to work from is supposition and their imagination, both of which are charged by emotion. And without real counter-examples, you are fighting an uphill battle. Trying to debate an emotional worry without real counter-examples is simply a debate of opinions and in the end will simply give credence to the critic’s concern. I’m reminded of a Facebook meme: “That is a very well laid out rational point, but I will still hold to my emotional opinion based on no facts or evidence.” 

In such a situation, remaining outwardly calm and simply thanking them for sharing and letting their comments stand on their own is the only practical path forward for you.

That can be quite discouraging, feeling like you have no way to parry what you perceive to be an irrational assault on your initiative. Maybe this will help. I was working with a small group creating a career academy for challenging and at-risk students in a mid-sized city. It became quite a political hot potato, and, as the superintendent’s project, a pawn in battles between the superintendent and other groups (having little to do with the school itself). My colleague had friends–who were not connected to the school project–over socially one evening and was telling them about our challenges in that district. One of the friends was a veteran combat pilot now working as a commercial airline pilot. He told my colleague, “You know, they only shoot at you when you’re over the target.” It became a metaphor that has energized me through this and other initiatives since!

I also find it helpful to think of implementing an initiative in the midst of controversy a bit like chess, as a complex game of moves and counter-moves to win the game. I don’t so much want you to start thinking of implementing your initiative as a game or to turn this into another situation where someone wins and someone loses. But the framework of being intentional and rational about moves and counter moves is a helpful one. Remember, a confrontational and forceful community member perceives their job as saying whatever it takes to have you NOT make the school change you are in the process of making.

In the next post, we’ll explore sizing up the individuals expressing concern about your initiative.

School Change Generates Controversy

One of the truly challenging parts of leading large-scale school change is how upset some people can be about the change (School Change Truth 2 reminds us that people seem to abhor change). Some parents worry their children won’t do as well as they do now. Some teachers worry about the work and adjustments they’ll have to make with the change, or fear they’ll fail at the initiative or that it’s another initiative they’re expected to implement well without adequate training or support. Some just think that the initiative doesn’t look “like school,” so you’re clearly doing it wrong! 

Parents will resist and fight back against the change. Teachers will resist and fight back against the change. Community members will resist and fight back against the change. Some directly: telling you –or your superintendent or the school committee–exactly what they don’t like about the initiative or what their worries and concerns are. Others are less direct, telling you what they think will make you stop or change your mind, rather than telling what they really fear, or that they don’t want to put the effort into the change. And if your initiative is the kind that few others have implemented to date, and you have no examples to point to, then your stakeholder group has only their imagination, good and bad. And some of those stakeholders will rail against the worst their imaginations can come up with! Without counter-examples, you have no proof they are wrong.

When Auburn Schools ventured to be the first district to have a district-wide 1-to-1 kindergarten iPad initiative, there were no other kindergarten iPad initiatives to point to. We had educators and partners who were excited about the opportunity. Our imaginations told us about all the good that was possible from such an effort. But we also had some angry community members who came to testify at school committee meetings about all the worst things their imaginations could conjure:

  • We would reduce the number of teachers and just teach students through online learning
  • Students would spend all their time on the tablets and would no longer play outside, draw with crayons, sculpt with clay, sing songs, or sift through sand
  • Predators would get to the children through the cameras on the devices
  • The kindergarteners would spend all their time playing games they downloaded or going through Facebook instead of doing the learning activities
  • Students eyes would go bad using the tablet screens, and they would all need glasses
  • The children would never learn to write with pencil and paper 

Many years later, none of these predictions came to fruition. But that didn’t stop them from being hot topics in the beginning. (In fact, back then I blogged, “Rumor of our Locking Students in Closets with iPads Are Greatly Exaggerated!“)

Large-scale school change, especially paradigm shifting change, invariably generates controversy. The question is how to deal with it. Understandably, many of us don’t like confrontation and would rather not deal with it or hope that it will simply go away. 

This series will help address how to deal with the controversy your initiative generates.

Communicating with the Community: Getting the Message Right

I attended messaging training this summer while at the Association for Middle Level Education Affiliate Summit. The training was put on by the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 16 leading education associations all focused on improving learning in America's schools.

I know we are facing some communication challenges presently, and I suspect some of you are, too, so here are my notes on that session (cleaned up a little).

Key Questions to Shape Your Messaging:

  • What's your issue/messaging challenge?
  • Who should you be reaching out to?
  • What's your ask?

Key Findings from National Public Opinion Polls and Survey Data

  • Recent growing support for teachers
  • A belief that there is a lack of adequate funding
  • Rank local schools high but think country's schools are in trouble
  • Parents want to know how their child is progressing

Common Assumptions (from that national data)

  • The community can be influenced primarily by parents, students, teachers
  • Top education problems & issues: motivation, character, discipline, effort
  • Student success and teacher effectiveness = caring
  • Choice is good
  • Reforms need a lot more money
  • Everyone should have the opportunity to go to college
  • Individualization is needed to strengthen basics (not for innovation)
  • Education is a limited commodity (there is only so much to go around)

Common Agreements (from that national data)

  • Public schools are key to a nation's economic future
  • High quality pubic education is a right, not a luxury
  • Public education benefits society
  • Innovation is important, but don't experiment on my children – we need improvement
  • Goal of pubic education is the preparation needed to support our country's quality of life

Values That Work in the Community (from the national data)

  • Education is a shared investment
  • The current system needs updating to prepare students to live in a rapidly changing world
  • Improving education requires a practical set of iterative steps toward an ultimate goal
  • Issues of equity are about the distribution of resources, not about bad people (maybe about unlucky people, not bad people)
  • Don't say “my child” say “every child”

 

QR Codes & Fostering a Strong Home/School Connection

Mauri Dufour is one of our kindergarten teachers in Auburn, an early adopter of iPads in primary grades, and is an Apple Distinguished Educator. Over the past year, Mauri has explored the role of QR codes in her classroom.

Last March, she took some time to tell me about how she uses QR codes to connect with her students’ families.

Highlights from Mauri’s video:

  • Each Friday, her students each make a video for his or her family about that week’s literacy center
  • Students must explain the “why” of the lesson, as well as, what they did in the center
  • The QR code makes it easy to share the weekly video with the family
  • This has helped foster a strong Home/School connection
  • Mauri describes how she worked with parents to make this happen

Despite working in a high poverty school, the QR codes have helped create much stronger parent involvement and communication than might otherwise be expected.

Social Media for School Leaders

I just returned from the national middle school conference (AMLE12) in Portland, OR.

While there, I attended a wonderful session on Social Media for School Leaders by Howard Johnston and Ron Williamson. Their presentation showed a wonderful balance of the realities of today's viral communication and the school context.

The presentation addressed the role of social media in five areas:

  1. Social Media and Schools
  2. School Safety and Crisis Management
  3. Communication
  4. Productivity
  5. Professional Growth

What they made clear is how important a tool social media is to schools and school leaders, and the enormous opportunity lost when schools shun social media. They raised the following questions suggesting why school leaders might want to pay attention to the potential of social media:

  • Do you communicate with students, families and staff?
  • Do you monitor community views about your school?
  • Do your kids use social media?
  • Do you need to stay on top of cutting-edge educational topics?
  • Do you need to promote good news about your school in the community?

And they recommended a 5-step plan (in part, based on findings from the Pew Internet and American Life Project) related to social media and school safety:

  1. Learn about social media and how it works
  2. Recognize that most teens use it responsibly
  3. Don’t attempt to ban it
  4. Help students, families and staff know about how to manage social media
  5. Focus on responsible student use

Johnston and Williamson provided a great list of resources available to school leaders:

 

Introduction to Twitter for Educators: 12 Resources & Strategies

The irony is that at the same time my district has banned Facebook and has a team working on a social media policy, our administrators are learning how to use Twitter for both Branding and Buzz and their own professional development.

(Well, maybe it isn’t irony. I think maybe it is exactly the Yin and Yang of social media that has schools confused about what to do with it. On one hand social media seems to lead to distraction and bullying. On the other hand, it is a powerful marketing tool and tool for building a professional learning community.)

Auburn’s administrative team will soon get a brief Introduction to Twitter inservice. These are the resources I will be sharing with them.

What other resources would you share? (please add your suggestions in the comments)

 

Getting Started with Twitter:

 

Leveraging Twitter as Your Professional Learning Community:

 

Leveraging Twitter for Building Branding and Buzz Around Your School:

 

Leveraging Twitter for Teaching and Learning

 

Is Middle School All About Grade Configuration?

There is a new study out which concludes that students take an academic plunge when they go to a 6-8 school rather than a k-8 school. The article is called The Middle Level Plunge.

At first glance, it seems to be a reasonably well designed study comparing student performance in a 6-8 school to those in a k-8 school (the old grade configuration dilemma!). Their fallacy is in essentially equating the 6-8 grade configuration to “middle schooling,” and actually say “Our results cast serious doubt on the wisdom of the middle-school experiment that has become such a prominent feature of American education.”

Here is the response that I posted as a comment on their article:

Thanks for adding to the research on the impact of school grade configuration. I especially appreciate that you didn’t just study the grade configurations, but also tried to control for various explanations, including teacher experience, school characteristics, and educational practices. You have defined each of these clearly in your article.

I am concerned, however, with your using the term “middle school” to mean the 6-8 configuration schools. You are clear that this is your definition in the article, but in middle level education circles, the term means something very different, and I fear your conclusions about 6-8 grade configuration will be misinterpreted as conclusions about middle school practices. Readers should be able to make their own distinctions, especially when the writing is clear, as your article is, but you and I both know that in our “sound bite lives” there are too many people who will see the words “middle school” and think that your definition is the same as my definition.

For middle level educators, “middle school” is essentially a set of developmentally appropriate educational practices applied in the middle level grades (generally considered grades 5-8), without regard to the grade configuration of the school housing those grades. Readers may find helpful the numerous resources available on the Association for Middle Level Education website (http://www.amle.org).

Further, the school characteristics and educational practices you examine are not those that define middle school practices. I would have looked for the characteristics defined in AMLE’s This We Believe (http://tinyurl.com/865xggv), or the Turning Points 2000 recommendations (http://www.turningpts.org/principle.htm).

Again, I am not criticizing your study or the clarity of your writing, but simply sharing the unfortunate possibility of confusion for school decision makers trying to make informed (especially research informed) decisions based on your article and the use of the term “middle school.”

Perhaps, I could invite you to refer to the schools in your study as “6-8 schools,” instead of “middle schools.”

So, my big objection is defining “middle school” as a grade configuration, and seeming to conclude that “the middle school experiment has failed” and the possibility that decision makers will interpret this as if it were our definition of middle school…

I want to be clear, though. It is right and proper for researchers to select a term, define it, and use it in their article as they define it. It is expected that the reader will read such an article closely and critically. The authors of this study have done nothing wrong. Could it have been better (more clear to a wider audience) if they had done it differently? Yes.

But it is also right and proper for a reader to add their critique (politely and professionally) to the conversation though avenues such as comments on posts.

(For those of you exploring the Lead4Change model, this is a Branding and Buzz issue. Situations like these go directly to the issue of public perception of our initiatives and what role we play in communicating our vision. It is on us to try to correct misperceptions and to work toward the integrity of models we subscribe to.)

 

It’s Your Turn:

Are you a middle level educator or advocate? What are your thoughts about this study? I often ask you to post your comments here, but perhaps this time, you could post your comments on their article. And maybe you’d pass the word to your circle of middle grades contacts and they could comment, too…