Sunday, January 31, 2010

To Filter or Not Filter? Question for Administrators

I have thought about writing on this subject for quite sometime. I even did some research in advance, hoping that I might find some kind of inspiration or direction. I have found none. Part of the problem is that no matter what the federal E-rate funding regs say, I am, and always will be against Internet filtering. Regardless of what those who advocate Internet filtering say, I can’t agree. This might seem strange coming from a school administrator, but I just do not like using filtering when it comes to Internet access. Honestly, I have not met an Internet filtering product I like. Some would argue that personal preferences should not play a part; we should focus instead on effectiveness. I disagree with that argument because there a number of products out there that effectively do what they are supposed to do. They filter out web sites. The problem is, they do not do so flawlessly. Some good is filtered out as well, and the end result is a compromised Internet experience. Take Lightspeed Systems product as an example. Their product is highly effective in what it does. It has a high octane web filtering system. For example, it is set up so school systems can completely lock users out of all social media sites. Just try to access Twitter behind their filter and this enormous “ACCESS DENIED” screen hits you right between the eyes. Makes you almost feel like you tried to break the law or something. No doubt Lightspeed’s “ACCESS DENIED” is quite effective in letting a user know, “Back off Bud! You ain’t allowed there.” But there are two problems with their filtering system that become rather obvious should you find yourself on the wrong side of their filter. One is obviously the “ACCESS DENIED” screen message when you try to access a forbidden site which makes for one miserable Internet experience. Perhaps they could tone it down just a bit. I could go for a Internet filter message that is a bit more polite, like, “Sorry, I really hate to bother you, but I can’t allow you to go there. If you really think you should be able to access this site, call your system’s administrator.” The second problem with filtering systems like Lightspeed it is too easy for school administrators to rely on the folks at Lightspeed to determine what is acceptable and unacceptable.  Perhaps my inner distrust of corporate America is coming out here, but I just think before something is blocked, we should know why we are blocking it. Administrators and teachers are just ultimately in a better position to protect our students from inappropriate content. After all, teachers have been blocking inappropriate content from their classrooms ever since Billy, a student in my high school English class, had his Playboy magazine confiscated by Ms. Bartholomew (names changed to protect the guilty and innocent).

What would I propose instead? It has to start with our teachers and us. As administrators we are going to have to trust our teachers are effectively monitoring students while online. We have to provide them with the tools and resources to help them do this. We have to train them on ways to keep students safe while browsing. You know, what is funny about this solution? Bet it’s much cheaper than purchasing Lightspeed Systems!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Death of a Laptop: Experiences of a Digital Immigrant

Sometimes I do not think we come to realize just how dependent on something or someone until it is gone. There’s that cliché again, but it adequately captures this morning when I opened my laptop to discover the LCD panel was damaged. For now, I have set aside how it happened because there is no explanation. It worked fine last night, but somehow during the night the screw holding the panel in place came loose and caused the computer, well,  it really doesn’t matter, the computer is dead.

What this incident brings to mind in general is how dependent I have become on technology in general and my laptop specifically. I would get up in the mornings and just boot it up to read email, catch up on blogs, tweet, and sometimes browse my handful of regular sites. These actions have become a regular part of my morning routine, and I did not even think about it. I just did it. Our students are now the same way. The difference between themselves and myself lies somewhere in the fact that I can remember life without Internet, laptops, blogs, and Twitter and they cannot. Our lives were infiltrated by these technologies and their lives have been inseparable from these. Yet, I know I felt the same momentary sense of loss they must feel when connections from these technologies are severed in their lives. It is the same feeling I used to get when, as a child, the TV set failed to operate and suddenly the family was thrown into finding some other way to amuse themselves. We turned to books, newspapers, games, radio, LP records, or even conversation. Suddenly, we found ourselves face to face without the TV, and nothing to do. Some of my fondest family memories are when all seven of us sat around the living room listening to the radio, telling stories, or playing games.

This morning when I faced the death of my laptop, just a for a moment, felt that same loss from many years ago, and I also felt that same longing for family that I had in those broken-television-days. I wanted, for just a moment, to engage in the same “family time” from a long time ago. That feeling went away very quickly as I reached for my Aspire Netbook bag, and it was long gone by the time I had the power source plugged in and my Acer was booting up. Now all I could think about was what kind of laptop was I going to purchase to replace my HP? Perhaps I was engaged in digital native thinking rather than digital immigrant thinking.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Could “Race to the Top” Be the Next Four-Letter Word after NCLB?

Just this week, there were states who announced with great fanfare their submission of an application for the latest education program to come out of Washington, “Race to the Top.” If you notice, the fanfare and elation is mostly coming from politicians. There’s just not much coming from us school level educators, except maybe some suspicion and extreme caution. I myself have twittered my fingers off about the subject as have several others. The reality of this whole situation is, those of us who work in the schools just don’t trust much coming out of Washington these days. We have been subjected to No Child Left Behind for the past eight years or so, so naturally, we just aren’t going to embrace the next thing coming from the US Department of Education without a great deal of trepidation. Let’s face it, our politicians are staring at those gaping holes in their budgets, and I have a feeling most would sell out their own mothers to find a way fill those just so they do not have to think about raising taxes. This makes them cheerleaders for anything that will keep them from raising taxes and/or cutting services that their constituents see as important.

The reality of “Race to the Top” is simply this, it is still a figurative “four-letter” word to most of us in-the-school educators until some of those gaping holes in its language are filled in. NCLB was passed and promoted, and maybe educators were just a bit more trusting then, so we were more accepting of the spaces between the lines. Now that we have been “No-child-left-behinded” on for eight years, we can no longer just accept that “it’s good for us” when Secretary Duncan proclaims it so, or when President Obama boasts about it changing the face of education. I am sorry, we just don’t trust you anymore, and that goes for anyone from Washington when they speak of reforming education.

You know, you would think that the Obama Administration and Secretary Duncan would learn something from the health-care fiasco they as an administration are enduring. That battle was not lost because they just couldn’t convince enough lawmakers. It was lost because they just did not go to the people to whom the law was going to have the most effect, and make their case to them. I know they tried with those Town-hall meetings that turned into screaming matches, but the people who attended those meetings already had their minds made up. Someone had already got down to the grassroots level and convinced them that healthcare reform of any kind was bad for them. Well, if Secretary Duncan and President Obama really want any reform effort to work, they are going to have come down to our schools and make their case for “Race to the Top.” They need to speak to all of us who are in the schools everyday and allow us to contribute to their policy. I don’t know about you, but not once has a US Department of Education official asked me about the policies under “Race to the Top” or anything else I thought might improve our schools, nor do I know anyone in any schools around me who have been asked. (Not that I think myself that important. I use that sentence figuratively.) The history of education establishment describes one after another of these federal-top-down reform attempts and none have had a lasting effect. Our schools are still structured like they were a hundred years ago. Four years or eight years from now we will still be staring at the same problems in our schools because the Obama Administration and Secretary Duncan have not lifted a finger to win over those of us who work everyday with kids in our schools.

The reality of reform is that it is going to begin within our schools when our leaders give us reform we can believe in. Right now, I have read all of the “Race to the Top” propaganda on the US Department of Education web site, and I am sorry, I just am not convinced that this policy is going to anything but destroy what little morale that is left in the schools around the United States. It will continue in accelerate  this country’s obsession with testing being the ultimate answer. It will attach so many strings to this money that most of us administrators will have several more piles of paperwork to complete just so that the US Department of Education can make sure we are not spending it in a way they deem inappropriate.

The reality of “Race to the Top” is this: it is a four-letter word spelled with more than four letters, at least it is until many questions are answered.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Race to the Top: Four More Years of NCLB Education Policy??? Thank You Mr. Duncan!

I have struggled immensely over the past two days over just what I could possibly say about Secretary Arne Duncan’s and the Obama administration’s new education initiative called “Race to the Top.” Honestly, as a voter and supporter both electorally and monetarily of the Obama presidency, I feel disappointment. As a veteran educator who has struggled immensely and painfully with my fellow teachers and administrators through the past eight or so years of No Child Left Behind, I feel saddened. As an individual who had hoped the new administration might set things right again through sensible education policy I feel betrayed. Betrayed to the point now that I almost regret my choices during the past election cycle.

In trying to think what I would possibly say to President Obama if I were to post an open letter like Anthony Cody does here, I think at this point I am too disappointed to make a logical argument. I am sure I would like to post more later, but right now I would like President Obama and Secretary Duncan know that I feel they have let the teachers and administrators across this nation down by blindly continuing the same primary emphasis on testing educators have been subjected to for the last eight years. Teachers are going to feel pressure even more now to “teach to test” because policy will have forced schools to tie evaluations to test scores. This same policy will have also forced administrators like myself to move test scores much higher in the educational scheme because my own evaluation will be tied to them. Ultimately, this policy has will push US schools further behind because instead of teaching 21st century skills, students will be learning how to choose the correct answer to a multiple choice test and how to make sure their bubbles are completely filled in.

I honestly think it is a shame that the Obama administration and Secretary Duncan are actually taking advantage of states in this time of need by reintroducing the same policies when states are starving for additional funding, and the only way to obtain that funding is basically sign over control of public education to the federal government by accepting their reform agenda regardless of its proven effectiveness. I know not all states can stand up to this bribery like Texas has because a billion dollar education shortfall is impossible to fill. But honestly, I sort of hoped for a little integrity out of the Department of Education specifically and President Obama generally. It is just wrong to introduce this kind of measure when states are so strapped for money. To the President and Secretary Duncan, I can only say the following right now:

“Mr. President and Secretary Duncan, I do not have a letter written yet, and I am not sure I am ready to write in a logical and entirely coherent manner because I am so disappointed. No, as an educator, my heart is breaking and I literally hurt because of the actions taken with this “Race to the Top” program. You have not made our jobs easier. You have not even made reform easier. You have actually just created “No Child Left Behind Part II” and this horror story is just as bad as part I. Yes, we all want what is best for children, and we all want them to attend schools where everyone learns. But the lesson your administration should have learned from NCLB has been lost already. I can only hope that both of you will reconsider and re-evaluate the harm you have done to public education by these actions.”

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Time for No Child Left Behind to Be Left Behind But I’m Afraid of What They Might Come Up with Instead

When I started teaching about twenty years ago, a veteran teacher once told me when I elatedly said that I was glad our state government was changing some education regulation, “Be careful what you wish for. What they often come up with is often worse than what we have.” Twenty years later, that veteran teacher’s fear is alive and well inside my head as discussions heat up about the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind. I have long suspected that the original motivations behind the No Child Left Behind legislation was to set public schools up so that they automatically fail. Why else would you set up the totally ridiculous and impossible standard of having all students proficient by 2014. It does not take someone with the intelligence of a rocket scientist to see that having ALL students proficient by that deadline is not going to happen, ever. In fact, you could set that standard deadline for 2050 and it will never happen. I realize to some idealists that statement sounds pessimistic coming from a school administrator who should have high expectations for all students, but as the discussion about NCLB re-authorization heats up, I honestly think this country is in desperate need of a reality check.

Let’s face it, education is an extremely messy process. Contrary to what all the politicians behind NCLB or its re-authorization think or believe, education is not a business. Education is not a factory. NCLB has a basic assumption that education can be a business or a factory. The discussions about the re-authorization of the legislation and this “Race-to-the-Top” rhetoric still have the same basic assumptions at their core. For example, the discussion of national standards and national tests to measure those standards is only extension of the same factory-model view of learning. The difference now is that states like Tennessee and Texas are going to directly tie teacher performance to test score performance. That should be a frightening prospect to all educators. Not because we do not want to take responsibility for our students’ learning, but because there are so many environmental factors about learning that we do not control. For example, we do not even control our own budgets which means we ultimately do not control the resource stream into our classrooms and schools. Yet, there are those who tie student performance on tests to teacher performance. That is clearly a sign of the delusional factory-model thinking of our political establishment.

I do think we must take responsibility for our students’ learning, and I am not just making excuses by pulling the environment card. But, instead of tumbling headlong into the next standards and accountability fad, we must also back up and critically look at the entire accountability and standards movement and what is has done to education as a whole, and to our teachers and students specifically. No matter what anyone says, we have an educational system that “teaches to the test.” Some might argue that this is not a problem, but anyone who has actually worked with these high-stakes tests know their many limitations. In a sense, we are basing a child’s entire future and a teacher’s on a test. That is frightening!

Where then is this current standards and accountability push taking us? Will we have national standards and a national test that determines the fate of both students and teachers in this country? Perhaps instead of “racing to the top” we need to walk for a bit to assess our ideas. If we do not do that, I am afraid what that veteran teacher told me long ago is true. “Be careful what you wish for. What our government and educational establishment develops to replace what we have is often worse than what we had before.”

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review of Will Richardson’s book “Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Web Tools for Classrooms” Second Edition

If you are an administrator looking for an overview of read-write web tools that are useful in the classroom, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Web Tools for Classrooms Second Edition is an excellent starting point. Richardson starts the book explaining the nature of the read-write web and discussing in a general way its promise as an educational tool. The he proceeds to describe seven read-write tools in each of the following chapters. The strength in Richardson’s book lies in his straight-forward description of these tools, suggestions of possible classroom uses, and the examples of those uses. I would consider myself somewhere close to be a poweruser of the web, but this book added some additional ideas for classroom use to my sharing repertoire. I now feel even more confident discussing with teachers their use of these tools in the classroom. For example, chapter 4 in the book focuses on wikis. I was familiar with wikis. I have even set up wiki pages myself for various kinds of uses as an administrator, but Richardson’s explanation of the nature of wikis combined with suggestions and examples of classroom uses set my own mental wheels to turning. I even have some plans to establish a wiki for an administrative project I have been thinking about for my school. Chapter 5 on RSS feeds is even more thorough as Richardson talks about the mechanics of RSS without getting too bogged down in details. In addition to the mechanics of RSS, he also gives some very interesting classroom application ideas too. The seven Read-Write Web Tools described in this book are:

  1. Weblogs
  2. Wikis
  3. Real Simple Syndication (RSS)
  4. Aggregators
  5. Social Bookmarking
  6. Online Photo Galleries
  7. Audio/Video Casting

Will Richardson’s book is an excellent addition to the 21st Century Principal’s library.

Cover Image

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Soul Searching Question: What Is My School Doing to Prepare Students for the 21st Century?

Recently, I was asked by our central administration the question, “What is your school doing to prepare students for the 21st Century?” Honestly, I had a difficult time answering that question. First of all, there’s the issue of “What does 21st Century Learning Look Like?’ The answer to that question depends in one sense on who you ask. The individuals at The Partnership 21st Century Skills have their list of skills. The 21st Century Workforce Commission National Alliance of Business has a list of skills. and if you search for a 21st Century skills list on our state web site, you get a dead link message. Apparently, their skill list has not made it into the 21st Century yet. Seriously, before someone asks me how my school is preparing students for the 21st Century, perhaps there needs to be a consensus on what these skills are. But let’s set that problem aside and acknowledge that no matter what list you look at, there is some congruencies regarding the skills on these lists. For example, most of these lists have things like problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity/innovation, among others. So coming to some level of agreement of just what these 21st Century skills are should be easy. This leads us to the second issue regarding the 21st Century Skill question.

Let’s just be direct here. As long as states and policy makers are hung up on multiple choice assessments that test core skills, school are going to focus on test preparation. Sometimes, what it takes to do well on those tests is in direct opposition to those skills described by 21st Century rhetoric. Naturally, this means less time spent on teaching things like problem solving and collaboration. What this means is that our schools are sometimes torn between “getting ready for the test” and “preparing students for the 21st Century.” Some would disagree with this, but the bottom line is we are still assessing twentieth century style and until we develop 21st Century Assessments, teaching and the content of teaching is going to change very little. Given the sanctions environment created by No Child Left Behind, we all know that schools are going to choose teaching to the test over the problem solving and collaboration skills of the 21st Century.

So how do I answer the central office question? I could answer it by looking at what we are doing instructionally at our school and make that fit the 21st Century Skills framework. The problem is, I honestly feel guilty answering in that manner. In my heart, I know 21st Century learning is not the focus; getting students ready for “the test” is the focus. So I cannot in good conscience answer in that manner. It all comes down to this: I am not able to answer that question like I want to answer it. As a 21st Century Principal, I am ashamed to answer that question, because I know we are not doing enough to prepare our students for the future. Now I also refuse to play the blame game because that is done enough. Instead, I want focus on what I can do.  I can work to create the kind of school environment that makes 21st Century skills important. I can fight for technology resources in tight budget times. I also can be more discerning in what resources to fight for. I can work provide teachers the tools, skills, and time to make 21st Century learning happen. Finally I can continue to advocate with all who will listen, for assessments that mirror what our students face in the 21st Century. Bottom line, I want to be able to answer that 21st Century question from the central office next time with a whole list of what we are doing to prepare our students for the 21st century.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How to Keep Yourself or Anyone Else from Getting Lost in Your My Documents File


In a couple of weeks I will be moving on to a new principal’s job at a new school. In preparation for leaving, I have been trying organize everything for the incoming principal. In the old days I suppose a principal, who was leaving, would just need to make sure everything is filed and accessible in the old file cabinet. My problem is, as a 21st Century Principal, I did not use the file cabinet in the year and a half in this position except maybe to stuff objects like Christmas cards, business cards, and all those planner samples from all those companies vying for our business. Instead, I did everything electronically and saved only electronic copies of all the documents of the trade on my hard drive. Of course I have a back up copy of everything on my portable hard drive. My organizational problem is, “How do I make all these files accessible, so that even someone who is not particularly considered a heavy computer-user, can find whatever they need easily and as quickly as possible?”

About a year ago, I purchased and read a book called Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better. In that book there is a section that talks about how to make your “My Documents” folder more accessible, and I really have to thank the author, Gina Trapani, for the solution to my current dilemma. In order to make my electronic files more accessible, I could have used a solution I tried four of five years ago while trying to organize all my teaching files. In those days, I just created a series of folders and organized all the files into the folders. For example, if I had teaching materials related to poetry, I created a poetry folder and placed all related files into that folder. The first time I had to find something, I discovered the problem with organizing computer files in this manner. It literally takes forever to sort through folders, especially when you are not exactly sure which folder you placed the file in. It really did not save time. Trapani suggested doing away with folders entirely, and she suggested taking advantage of a computer filing system’s strength: it is completely searchable. So here’s how I am making my electronic files accessible.

  1. I started by making sure all of the electronic files were located in a single folder entitled “archive” or something similar. (As the folks at Lifehacker suggest, I got rid of all the subfolders.)
  2. After all the electronic files were placed in one folder, I made sure each file was tagged with one of several key words. For example, teacher evaluations were tagged with the word “evaluation,” “personnel,” or one of ten to twelve keywords I used. If I needed to, I might even add a person’s name as a tag.
  3. Now, to access the files, all a user needs to do is type in one of those keywords into a desktop search tool, such as Google Desktop, to pull up all files tagged with that keyword. It is then just a matter of sorting through those files rather than a file folder or multiple folders with 25 or 30 files.

My test run this afternoon worked beautifully. It did take a little time investment to ensure that all the files in storage had appropriate key words, but I have, in effect, created a way for my successor to access my electronic file cabinet. In the future, I plan to take an extra few seconds to make sure each file as it is created has appropriate tag words before I save them, especially for those files I know will have historical importance for my job.

By the way, check out Gina Trapani’s book Upgrade Your Life. It is chock full of ways to make our lives easier through simplification.

Upgrade Your Life by Gina Trapani: Book Cover

Also, check out the Lifehacker web site for lots of other great tips. It is one of my personal favorite sites.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Inspiration 9 Software Review

The other night I downloaded a trial version of Inspiration 9. I have used the software all the way back to version 6, and I even had a copy of version 8 on my laptop. Inspiration’s ability to allow me to take web formatted notes while reading during my masters program and then my EdS program was invaluable. These webs could then be easily converted to outlines and printed for my notebooks. I even shared these outline notes with my EdS classmates on several occasions.

Truth is, Inspiration has also been useful to me in other ways as well. I have used it for scripting notes during teacher observations as well. The main advantage of using a web format was that it helped me organize my thoughts as I scripted during a teacher observation. I also used Inspiration as a presentation software in those instances where I wanted to be able to navigate my presentation in a visual way, utilizing the software as a kind of map between main points. I continue to use Inspiration in these ways, and I always look for ways to take advantage of its capabilities.

This actually brings me to a new added feature of Inspiration 9 which I think I will like. You can now convert those web notes into a presentation complete with backgrounds and effects. I have not entirely explored this feature yet, but it looks promising, especially for those of us who like to start out with a visual map of the information we want to present.

Be sure to download a trial version of Inspiration 9 below. Also, if you have found other ways to use the software in the course of carrying out your administrative duties, let me know.

Create Concept Maps, Idea Maps and Outlines with Inspiration!  Download Your Free 30-day Trial of Inspiration Today!

Implications of Ideas from Adam Penenberg’s Book “Viral Loop” for Educators

Yesterday, I completed reading Adam Penenberg’s new book entitled Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves. This was one of the most fascinating books I have read in recent times. Penenberg provides an interesting look at how entrepreneurs are capitalizing on a characteristic of the Internet to create successful online businesses. Not really a “how-to-do-it” format, Viral Loop provides example after example of both successful and non-successful businesses who have taken advantage or tried to take advantage of something called “a viral expansion loop” to create successful businesses. In common language, they created businesses that take advantage of the fact that Internet users tend to share links and information about sites and Internet services they like. This sharing in turn, creates more and more users of the site over time. (I think that accurately captures Penenberg’s terminology.) If you have ever wondered why sites such as Ning, Facebook, MySpace, or Hot or Not have experienced success, this book provides some insight into that success. The creators of such sites were able to tap into the viral nature of the Internet and make their number of site users grow phenomenally. I suppose the next question someone may ask is, “Why would a school administrator and educator even care about the use of viral loops and the creation of online businesses?” Personally, I think there are some interesting things from this book that help educators further their own understanding of the Internet in general that also might enlighten educational policy. First of all, understanding viral loops as described in this book helped me, as an administrator, understand even more fully why educational leaders’ efforts to fight to keep sites like MySpace and Facebook out of schools is largely a futile act. The number of users of these sites continues to grow exponentially. These sites now play a central role in our culture, and to ignore them as if they do no exist is just plain ridiculous. This means that schools not only are fighting against a cultural force akin to rock music in the fifties and sixties, they are also ignoring an enormous part of the current youth culture. The “viral nature” of these sites is much too strong, and at some point schools are going to look ridiculous as they continue the fight to keep access to these out of schools. Secondly, what about the educational establishment using the “viral nature” of the Internet to meet its own goals and aspirations? I am not sure what this means at this point, but just maybe, educators need to be looking at how entrepreneurs are doing it, and then use viral loops to promote learning and maybe even teaching. I am not sure where to go with this yet, but I do know educators can also take advantage of the nature of the Internet to make learning happen too. At this point, I am still digesting some of Penenberg’s thoughts, but there has to be some kind of implications for us as educators and school administrators.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mortenson’s “Stones into Schools” Model of Managing Resources

In the day-to-day business of running a school, it is often easy to get caught up in the concerns of what resources we lack in trying to educate our students. In tight budget years like the ones we are experience now, it is much too easy to become a pessimist and look at the proverbial glass as being half empty. Yet, after reading Greg Mortenson’s latest tome Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the resource shortfalls I face in my school are so minor to seem insignificant. All of the complaints regarding limits on the number of copies, the inability to purchase those workbooks, and the lack of funding for the science project, just don’t seem as important any more. Mortenson’s second book, like his first Three Cups of Tea, is a not so subtle reminder that many times the magic of making education happen is not with the things money can buy, but with what happens between those teachers and students and the communities that support them. I was again moved by the author’s tale of trying to bring education to girls in a part of the world where some deliberately fight against those efforts, like the Taliban who literally threw battery acid in the faces of girls and their teacher in an effort to frighten them from getting an education. With that kind of resistance, how could I possibly complain about not having enough money to provide my teachers with interactive boards and laptop computer labs? Yet, Mortenson’s book touched me on a level beyond its focus on resources. It reminded me forcefully of why I became an educator and persist as one to this day. It is the promise of education that gives all of us hope and future. There are places in Afghanistan and Pakistan where young girls  have hope and a future due to what Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute have done. However, I do not have to journey to the other side of the earth to give that same kind of hope to young girls, and young boys. I have the ability to do that everyday in my role as principal, as I carry out the vision of making sure all of the students in our school get the best education possible. Thank you Greg Mortenson for reminding of my own calling.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Managing E-mail: Thoughts and Observation

When I made the move from classroom teacher to school administration, I really was not prepared in some ways for all of the phone calls, voice mails, and emails that suddenly started coming across my desk. When I became principal of a middle school, the volume of that communication increased even more, especially the email load. One of my earliest struggles was how to manage the email overload, and maintain my sanity. It seemed that everyone wanted a response and they wanted it now.

Today, I finished reading John Freeman’s new book The Tyranny of E-mail. In this book, Freeman takes his readers back to look at how communication has evolved generally, and how email has evolved specifically to become the communication device of choice for many people. All of the disadvantages of email he describes I have come to know as an administrator. First of all, sometimes educators forget the asynchronous nature of email. For example, a teacher will send me an email in the morning, and if I have not responded by lunch time, they will send another one thinking that I did not receive the first one. The truth is, this teacher is mistaken in his/her belief about the fundamental nature of email. It is not for conversation, and it was not designed for that. People who expect synchronous responses to email should use the phone instead. A second problem regarding email I have encountered as an administrator is another problem Freeman describes is called “flaming.” For example, on several occasions I have received a volatile email from a parent or teacher that says things that few would rarely say in person, much less in writing. My own personal tendency in these instances is to pound out a response to this email and send. The problem is, most of the time it is best if I wait before sending a response. I need to think more carefully about what needs to be said. It is impossible to recall an email once the “send” button has been pushed. A third problem with email described by Freeman is that email does not allow for face-to-face interaction. This is true. When meeting with someone physically, we can read facial expressions, we can see hand gestures, and we can hear vocal inflections. All of these add meaning to what is being said. Email messages do not allow for this kind of communication. In the end, a recipient of an email can only rely on the words, which often can be unclear by themselves.

Thinking about Freeman’s book, my own experiences, and some other things I have read, I have developed some of my own “Email Rules.” The goal for these rules is to simply manage the email without the email managing me.

  1. Check email at predetermined times of the day. It is important to schedule daily email sessions each day. Freeman says that two of these are enough. Personally, I use three to four sessions each day. During these sessions, I read emails and respond to those that only require a quick response.
  2. Use the subject line to indicate the nature of each email. For example, an informational email will have “FYI” or FYR (For Your Review) in the subject line. This immediately tells the recipient that the message does not require action on his or her part. If the message requires a response,. I place “REQ” (Request) in the subject line. The point here is to come up with a common symbol system that clearly points to the purpose of email. This makes email management on both ends easier.
  3. Another idea Freeman describes I implemented over a year ago. When I receive an email that asks me to do something, if I can respond quickly, I do so. Most often these emails that make a request involve completing it at a later time. In these instances, I put the email in a To Do List folder, and I add the item to my Task List. By doing this, I tie my email to my to do list.
  4. Finally, I have decided that sometimes responding by email just isn’t the right thing to do. For example, when a teacher sends me an email requesting some instructional materials, and there just is not any budget for them, I will either call the teacher on the phone, or I will speak to them in person. Just sending an email response is often cold and impersonal, and to be honest, even when I have to say no to teachers, I still want to be supporting, and the best way to do that is often face-to-face.

While my list above is certainly not complete, I think I have to agree with the whole point of Freeman’s book The Tyranny of E-mail. As we move into the 21st Century, we must continually be on guard so that the technologies and tools we use do not take away our humanity and rule our lives.