Things I got done this year

After a challenging 2016-17 school year in which I was pressed into duty as Interim Dean of Students, this year I was able to get back to my regular gig as a mid-level administrator. From this perch I am able to work on projects that are important but not urgent; the sweet spot in the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Here are some projects I completed this year of which I am particularly proud.

Mobile Device Policy The school’s antiquated Cell Phone Policy has been in place since right after 9/11 when the school realized that it needed to permit students to carry a phone so that they could contact their parents in the event of an emergency. But the old policy was hindering academic innovation by decreeing that phones must be off in classroom buildings. Teaming with our Academic Technology Integrationist, Howard Glasser, we wrote a new policy that addresses mobile devices, not just phones, and permits classroom teachers the flexibility they need to employ mobile technology in their pedagogy if they so choose. The new policy also allows students the latitude to use their devices to stay organized and consult the LMS (Canvas). Since this is a boarding school, we also provided new guidelines for our evening study hall and late-night dorm use. You can read more about the new policy in my last blog post, here.

Endangerment Rewrite Going back to last year, I had been working on a revision to one of our major school rules, “Endangering the Safety of Others.” The language in our handbook was frustrating me because this is a large and important category of behaviors that the deans worry about, but the current policy seems only concerned about the dangers of incendiary devices. I also have grown concerned about dangerous driving, helmetless skateboarding, and students providing each other with tattoos and piercings in unsafe ways. The new policy language I wrote addresses these concerns, and it also has changed the name of the rule to the simple “Endangerment,” thus placing equal weight on behaviors than endanger oneself, not just others.

I should note that it took me two attempts to get this policy revision approved by the full faculty. I trust our Quaker process, and my first attempt didn’t provide enough time for discussion. I am very thankful that my colleagues ultimately gave the revision their blessing.

REACH things My role as the REACH admin here in the deans’ office took up a lot of my time and attention this year. While we nominally rolled out REACH at the end of the 2016-17 school year, this was the first full year that we used this digital sign-in/sign-out software. I’ve written about it on blog elsewhere, but I will note that there is an exciting software update coming in August, and it may lead to everyone here liking REACH even more. It has taken time to figure out all the best ways to configure the software to meet our needs most fully, but by the end of the year we were using it to replace our old system of collecting vacation travel information, so we are really converts. If the mobile apps become faster and more pleasurable for the user, then the students and dorm parents will have fewer complaints, and I’ll be able to take advantage of even more of the capabilities in REACH. You can read more about REACH in my blog posts here and here.

Attendance System 3.0 This project was a major undertaking for our IT department, and I can’t claim much credit. I have served as a spokesman for the deans’ office and what we want to see in the functionality of the new system, and I am the dean who most directly supports our attendance supervisor, who is the most important end user. Our new attendance system, which is completely homemade, is now offering a host of new options for students. They can clear cuts and lates electronically without needing to take a piece of paper to a teacher, and their advisor can look over their shoulder and help guide them. The faculty can now pull dynamic info about who is out of school on a given day instead of receiving a static report once per day. (But they can click a little button and subscribe to the report, and then they get an email like the one they used to get. I love the way the new system feels comfortable for users who don’t like change, but offers better visibility to power users.) This big project isn’t done yet, and when the new features for parents are rolled out the whole thing will be far more automated than before. Just as REACH (ideally) takes busywork away from the deans so that they can do more high level, critical thinking tasks to keep kids safe, the new attendance system will ultimately take busywork away from our attendance supervisor.

Network Restricted Lists Gaming addiction is a major story in the NYTimes this week, and we are dealing with it in boarding school land, too. Our old school policies, which forbid students to have televisions in their dorm rooms, haven’t been updated to respond to streaming gaming, “Netflix and chill,” etc. I approached our committee of dorm heads to ask them to collaborate with me on new policy language to address the concern, but they basically came back at me and said, “Why don’t we just shut off the wifi for kids with a problem?” So that’s the approach we have taken. We’ve created two new network access levels (whether a student is on the school’s wifi or wired network) that grant more restricted hours of use. The second, stricter list also denies access to popular gaming, entertainment, and social media sites and services. The hope is that we will not need to use these new tools very often in the coming years, but if we have kids under our care who cannot moderate their own device use such that they are not getting satisfactory sleep, we can temporarily assign them to one of these lists to support them.

Again and again, the story of these projects is one in which open-minded collaboration with colleagues leads to better outcomes than if I just apply executive force. I don’t always get exactly what I want, but (if I try sometimes) the school gets what it needs. Happy summer vacation, school people!


Back From ATLIS

I returned last night from the ATLIS Annual Conference in Washington, DC. (Okay, technically it was in Crystal City, VA.) Due to my busy schedule, I was only able to attend one day of the three-day conference, but I still got a lot out of my time there and co-led a session that represented the culmination of a year’s worth of work. ATLIS is the “Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools,” and basically, these are my people. It’s incredibly energizing to be among so many fellow educators who are engaged in the task of thoughtfully employing technology in schools, either as their primary job description (IT directors and technology integrationists) or as a focus they’ve chosen within their work as classroom teachers or administrators.

Before discussing the session that I co-led at 11:00am yesterday, I want to praise the session I attended first thing in the morning, “Digital Health and Wellness: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach.” A school counselor, librarian, and dean from Sidwell Friends School shared what Sidwell has done to create a common terminology and set of goals that are vertically shared PreK-12 at their school. Because Sidwell is a fellow Friends school, a lot of what they have done could be deployed directly at the school where I work with little alteration and it would be a good cultural fit. I appreciate the generosity with which the Sidwell team shared their story and their resources. The session was booked into one of the smallest meeting rooms at the venue, and I’m glad I arrived early since it was standing room only, and there were attendees sitting on the floor everywhere. We might deduce that, even among this very tech-forward crowd, there is a great deal of concern about the health and wellness risks that come with the devices and media our kids are bringing with them to school every day.

Indeed, the session that I co-led with my colleague Howard Glasser (@hglasser) was an outgrowth of our work this year writing a new mobile device policy for our school. Our session, “Mobile Device Policies: Exploring Reasons and Experiences” was nominally a chance for us to share out what we’ve done with our new policy, but as we brainstormed what we wanted to do with our hour, it quickly evolved into a session that was far less about the Eric and Howard show, and far more about sharing the wisdom of all of the attendees in what we hoped would be an interesting meeting of the minds.

To that end, we impaneled an all-star trio of tech leaders, Dawn Berkeley (@theberknologist), Jared Colley (@jcolley8), and John Yen (@johnyen), to bring together a variety of points of view and to help break up the sage-on-the-stage dynamic that might have developed if Howard and I did all the talking. It’s a shame that we didn’t feel confident enough at the start of this process to request a longer time slot. Howard and I held hour-long Skype conversations with our panelists before we asked them to formally present with us, and I wish we could have recorded those conversations and uploaded them to YouTube. We were able to go into greater depth just shooting the breeze in that format, but all three were wonderfully eloquent, thoughtful, and good-humored as panelists. They fielded one pre-canned question posed by Howard and me (“How has your school’s mobile device policy impacted the teaching and learning at your school?”), and then responded to a variety of questions from our audience of roughly 35 attendees. We had questions about addressing poor behavior from students, dealing with rampant gaming, and bringing along reticent colleagues. Overall, our panel and the attendees left me with a sense of optimism that the benefits of mobile devices far outweigh the dangers, and the core beliefs that Howard and I wrote into our school’s new policy were affirmed.

Perhaps the heart of our session was an interactive poll we created as a conversation starter using Pear Deck. We asked the audience to weigh in their minds where their school’s mobile device policy fit on a spectrum from traditional to progressive and then to plot that on a line so we could visualize the variety in the room. Then we asked them to do the same thing regarding their school’s pedagogy (again, traditional to progressive spectrum). Finally we joined those two lines as an x and y-axis to create a Cartesian coordinate map. Here’s what the results look like:

Because the mobile device policy that Howard and I brought to our school’s faculty for approval was accepted, we feel that we’ve shifted our school’s policy from the far left (most traditional) to somewhere in the progressive range. Perhaps our policy is now out ahead of our school’s pedagogy, which is a bit more traditional, but the policy we wrote gives individual teachers the flexibility to determine how mobile devices are used in their classes, so there will be a wide range of choices on display at our school in the coming years. We hope that the Pear Deck activity will empower attendees of our session to go back to their schools with data about where their school’s policy fits into the broader ecosystem, and perhaps to persuade their colleagues that change is needed.

This work of rewriting our school’s mobile device policy is the signature accomplishment of my 2017-18 school year, but it would have never occurred to me to use it as the jumping off point to lead a session at a conference. I owe Howard a great debt of gratitude for dragging me into this enterprise. Howard is a masterful coach; so masterful in fact that he manages to coach me without me noticing that he is doing so! Our session was one of two that Howard co-led at ATLIS, so he is helping to put our school on the map as a leader in the area of educational technology. (The other session was “School Community as a Driver of Change.”) I’m also deeply grateful to Dawn, Jared, and John for giving so generously of their time as our panelists. I know that conference attendees chose to come to our session specifically because of the respect they feel for those three tech leaders.


Using REACH for Vacation Travel Planning

My colleagues and I in the deans’ office have been dissatisfied in recent years with the way in which we collect vacation travel plans from our students, and our inability to organize those plans usefully once we receive them. We are just about to throw in the towel and outsource the whole thing, but we thought we’d try an experiment for our last major vacation of the year (spring break) and use REACH as our travel planning hub. (You can read my previous post about REACH here.)

Our old system requires parents to login to the school’s parent portal and fill out a form that is linked to our database. The form then populates an Excel spreadsheet that is very detailed and sortable. However, the hurdles that this system asks parents to jump over, such as remembering their login info and completing a very extensive form, lead to low compliance. Many parents just email us instead, or call, and then we are stuck entering all of the information into the form, or more often we just house information in multiple places, which leads to mistakes. We need to pass this information along to the car service we use to shuttle students to the nearby train station and three major airports, and errors can be costly and lead to urgent crises.

REACH puts the onus on the students to fill out their vacation leave request. (Our school used to make the students fill out a paper form back in the day, so this isn’t without precedent for us.) They need to get all of the pertinent info from their parents, including flight data and so forth, and then submit it for electronic approval by their parents, host (if there is one), and finally the deans. Now that REACH has a well-designed mobile app, nearly all of our boarders have the ability to fill out their vacation travel info from their phone at any time. You can imagine how much more accessible this system is than asking parents to sit down at a laptop and navigate to a web site, login, and then follow several links to a form. REACH easily generates an Excel spreadsheet, too, so there is no loss of spreadsheet-ability, but our old form had a lot more columns for specific info. In particular, with REACH students put their flight info into the “Notes” field, so it is doesn’t get broken out in detail in Excel as it would using our old form.

That concern aside, we are much, much closer to 100% compliance using REACH, and that’s an enormous improvement over the system we’ve been using for the last few years.

Moreover, I see many opportunities to improve upon this first attempt. When we first started using REACH, Brian Murray (the company’s Director for North America) showed me how to format the leave type for this purpose, but I forgot some of the good advice he gave me. So I correctly created a specific “Spring Break 2018” leave type, and I created the correct work flow for the “actors” (people who need to give approval), but I didn’t pay attention to the transportation categories. I should have custom built just two options for students: “school provided ground transportation” and “family provided ground transportation.” Instead, the kids selected from the crazy quilt of options we normally give them (GS Van, Uber/Taxi, Car – parent driver, Car – other, Public Transportation, etc.). This meant that I had to send about 30 follow-up emails to students who chose transportation options that required me to be psychic in order to know whether they wanted us to book them a limo or if they were trying to say that another student’s parent was driving them. That really wasn’t such a headache, and I’ll get it right next time.

One aspect of REACH that our old system can’t duplicate is that it provides greater visibility to the students’ dorm parents (“hall teachers” in our school’s parlance). Those important adults can see the students’ leave requests, although many of them haven’t fully figured out REACH yet. (You could rephrase that to say, “The school hasn’t provided them the training they need,” and that blame falls on my shoulders.) But they are certainly able to see whether a student has left campus or not, which used to be rather chaotic and opaque before we started using REACH. We agreed earlier in the year to a solid workflow in which students have their dorm rooms checked for cleanliness by a dorm parent, who gives them a paper check-out ticket. The student brings that ticket to the deans’ office, and we SISO them out on REACH when they are actually leaving campus. (SISO stands for “sign-in/sign-out,” if you aren’t hip to the lingo.) Every adult on campus who logs into REACH can see who is still here and who has departed, and vice-versa at the end of each vacation.

There is even a little room for humor in this process, which makes it fun for the deans and dorm folks. I create custom locations for each vacation to which students are SISOed when they go on leave. Thanksgiving was “Turkey Time,” winter break was “Tinsel Town,” and our upcoming spring break will be “Cherry Blossom Wonderland.” You even get to assign each location in REACH a color of your choice, so I get to have seasonal fun with that, too.

After spring break my fellow deans and I will reevaluate how things went and decide if we are going to use REACH for vacation travel planning next year. As of this writing, I am leaning towards dedicating a year to working with it and improving upon what we’ve accomplished. We should reap productivity gains as returning students develop experience with the system and come to understand what is expected of them. As more adults on campus gain proficiency with REACH, they should come to enjoy the window it grants them into the work we do in the deans’ office, and they’ll be better able to care for their advisees and dorm charges.

I’ll try to write a post-spring-break breakdown of how things went. Stay tuned.

Coping with #Parkland

I normally avoid putting my political views out on the web too forcefully because I want my students to feel safe to express their own opinions without worrying about my disagreement. But the #Parkland shooting transcends politics for those of us who teach. Our most fundamental duty is to protect our students, and watching our politicians squirm as they seek to cater to the NRA is just a gruesome spectacle of cowardice.

I’ve spoken out twice in the last 48 hours, first in the Twittersphere last night in an #isedchat dedicated to our reactions to this most recent school shooting, and then this afternoon when I accompanied a contingent of eleven students to a protest outside the offices of a local GOP Congressman, Brian Fitzpatrick.

I’m deeply grateful to Bill Ivey (@bivey) and #isedchat for hosting a cathartic opportunity for independent school educators to share their reactions to the Parkland shooting and its aftermath; which, if you have been hiding under a rock, has featured an incredible response in the form of student voice. I can’t speak as eloquently or powerfully as the student survivors, but I can say unequivocally: I’m not interested in carrying a gun to work. I didn’t choose to work at a Quaker school because I wanted to be a gunslinger; I work at a Quaker school to be a promoter of peace.

Here’s one of my tweets from the chat that seemed to resonate most strongly:

As for today’s IRL protest, student leaders at my school did all the real work; I just got tasked with providing adult chaperones. My passionate and politically active colleagues quickly provided more bodies than we needed to walk with eleven students to the parking lot across from our school, where a weekly protest forms outside Brian Fitzpatrick’s office. After standing in the rain with about thirty other protesters for an hour, we took the protest up four flights of stairs to the congressman’s office, flouting the five-guests-at-a-time policy of the space. There is an occupancy sign in the tiny antechamber of the suite that declares that only five people may be there. So we engaged in a little civil disobedience, which began to fluster the poor junior staffer who had to deal with us. Congressman Fitzpatrick’s chief of staff, Mike Conallen, politely emerged to engage with the protesters in the hall outside of the office suite, thus rescuing the junior staff and getting us out of the office.

Mr. Conallen was generous with his time, and wanted us to hear that “every option” regarding gun control is on the table as far as the Congressman is concerned. Neither I nor the other protesters took much solace in this news, as the GOP leadership appears to have no desire to displease the NRA and stop their gravy train, and the only idea they’ve expressed so far is to arm teachers like me. In the last 24 hours, news has come out that an armed sheriff’s deputy at the school on the day of the shooting hid behind a concrete column outside the school and did not run inside to confront the shooter. Furthermore, we have learned that the FBI was tipped off a month before the attack that the shooter possessed an arsenal of firearms and was a ticking time bomb. The degree to which politicians have let down our children is scandalous, and since trained law enforcement professionals don’t seem able to deal with school shooters carrying assault rifles, imagining that teachers will have more luck is preposterous.

Since Twitter is my jam, I too have observed a change in the tone of the response to this most recent school shooting. It feels different this time. These student protesters aren’t going away. They’ve ridiculed Marco Rubio on CNN, and people in power are beginning to wake up and recalibrate their positions. We are seeing big businesses distance themselves from the NRA, so I think the unassailable NRA glacier is beginning to crack.

The midterms are coming!


On the New 529 Rules

The folks at the Carney Sandoe blog published a post today summarizing what we know about the changes in the tax code that will permit families to pay K-12 independent school tuition using funds drawn from 529 plans. Funds from 529s were heretofore restricted to higher ed expenditures, so this is a significant change. I learned something new from the CSA post, namely that certain individual states have write their own regulations that forbid this expansion of 529 expenditures; New York and Illinois for example. (Yes, this is a politicized red state/blue state matter, but the CSA blog post eschews that angle.)

A lot has been written about all of the problems with this change to 529s, and I won’t repeat it all here. (See Ron Lieber in the NYTimes, here.) While the pundits and analysts agree that this change is mostly a windfall for the wealthy, I haven’t seen enough written about the damage it may do to middle class families trying to save for college.

When I opened a 529 two years ago after the birth of my son, the rules of the game were clear: the money I accrued in the account wouldn’t be touched until he began college. I made calculations regarding how much I would need to save per year based on assumed rates of return on investment and inflation in college tuition. Now that math is under assault.

If my wife and I choose to send our son to independent school at any point in his K-12 years, that school may make financial aid calculations based on an expectation that we will draw upon the funds in our 529 to pay their tuition bill. The more successfully we save for our son’s college education, the more bloated and enticing a pinata our 529 will become for that independent school! Will this force middle class families to abandon the idea of sending their kids to independent schools? The change in the tax code appears on the surface to be a life raft for independent schools that are currently struggling to meet their revenue targets, but what if it has the opposite effect and reduces their admissions funnels?

There simply isn’t enough money to go around in middle class families’ budgets to fund a 529 that will be drawn upon for K-12 and higher ed expenses. College is mostly unaffordable for middle class families now, but the one thing that disciplined savers have going for them is the power of the tax-sheltered compounding inside the 529 that can, if they are lucky, exceed the growth rate of college tuition by a few percentage points over the course of two decades of saving. That will, if one doesn’t bungle one’s asset allocation and get stung by bad timing in the economic cycle, close some of the gap and help one pay for college. If money is being leeched out by K-12 tuition along the way, it won’t be invested long enough to allow the market to do its thing. Yes, it makes sense for anyone making K-12 tuition payments to cycle that cash through the 529, even if just for the minimum amount of time required to get the tax benefit. I worry that financially unsophisticated families without tax advisers won’t be able to handle the extra complexity this brings to their lives, which returns us to the conclusion that this change in the tax code is really just going to benefit the wealthy.


Addendum to “Initial Strategic Planning Thoughts”

I ended my last post about our strategic planning process with a concern that we might overreact to the perceived threats to our students that come from addictive mobile devices and social media. My argument was that this problem is tactical, not strategic, and that the tech companies and government regulators will address it. Sure enough, the big business news today is that a well-known activist hedge fund (Jana Partners) and others are applying pressure on Apple to improve parental controls so that parents can limit screen time and protect their children online. And Apple didn’t wait long to issue a response; they say improved parental controls are already in the works and on the way. Therefore, I’m sticking to my argument: our strategic plan shouldn’t overreact to fears about technology at the expense of innovative curricular/pedagogical goals.

Initial Strategic Planning Thoughts

We began our strategic planning process today with a brainstorming session for the full faculty and staff. I thought it would be valuable to capture my thoughts on my blog before we get too much farther down the road and my initial, personal reactions lose their freshness. It will be fun to look back at the final strategic plan (next year?) and see how much of it corresponds to my initial ideas.

We were prompted to keep our thinking at the 10,000 ft. level in our morning group brainstorming sessions. Candidly, I agree with Susan Cain that brainstorming doesn’t work — especially group brainstorming — but I enjoyed listening to my thoughtful colleagues’ visions regarding the school they’d like us to become.

A metaphor that our facilitator was asked to share with us before we began: We are going to make a masterpiece, and today’s activity is equivalent to gathering the paint. I have problems with this metaphor because it suggests that, once the strategic plan is complete, and once the school changes to become the school described in that plan, the masterpiece is finished and the school will cease to need to evolve. Clearly, schools in the 21st century need to practice deftness and embrace ongoing change. They need permanent adaptability to rise to the challenge of what Rita Gunther McGrath has called “the end of competitive advantage.”

Despite that objection, the three queries that guided our brainstorming were appropriately broad to generate open-minded thinking and good conversation. Again, my thoughts below are mine alone. I am not publishing my colleagues’ opinions without their consent.

Query 1: What do we think students will need to be prepared for the 21st century?

My honest answer to this question is: I have no idea, and I’m skeptical of people who assert that they do with any confidence. I agree with the Thomas-Friedman-esque argument that American workers need to move up the value chain and plan for the type of careers that AI and robots won’t be able to do. (Our school has many international students, so I’m not just addressing America here. Anyone hoping to have a secure, “first world” career should probably be heeding this advice.) An emphasis on critical thinking skills and creativity should be at the center of an education with this goal in mind.

Given the rapid pace of change, trying to design a curriculum in which the content is an accurate guess at the specific knowledge and skills that will be in demand in 30 years is a futile exercise. The middle school computer programming classes that were forced on me in 1985 taught me skills that were useless before I had graduated from high school. In this context, a broad-based curriculum for generalists strikes me as sensible as any. I admit my bias: I went to a college (Columbia) with a wonderful core curriculum.

Query 2: What would an ideal school for the 21st century be, both in and out of class?

Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk from 2007 is well known to every educator in the English speaking world, but too little has been done to actually respond to his critique of the industrial era/factory model of schooling. I think an ideal school should dispense with the ringing bells and forced march through short class periods. Some parts of the day might still benefit from a tight structure, but students need more open ended time to work on creative projects, follow their passions, and get into a flow state.

Grant Lichtman’s ideas are still bouncing around my brain after the preconference session I attended at TABS. (See my previous post, here.) Lichtman argues that the future of connected computing will lead to a “cognitosphere,” and that schools should be preparing for a future in which their value will come from their status as a “node” that generates original academic content. While I’m not so sure that this whole cognitosphere thing is going to come to pass, I like the direction in which we would be led if we wished to become a such node. I imagine that we would need to build learning experiences for students that were authentic and involved deep dives, not just superficial content coverage.

Query 3: What pedagogy or pedagogies would the ideal school use? 

While my responses to the first two prompts were on the vague side, I have much more concrete thoughts about Query 3. The ideal school should feature an emphasis on project based learning, explicitly address non-cognitive skills, and integrate technology such that it is both ubiquitous and invisible. If we aren’t willing to embrace PBL across the curriculum, I’d be happy to see a school-wide “genius hour” (a.k.a. 20% time) initiative to unleash students’ passions and creativity.

An ideal secondary school would also be one that is not backwards-designed from the college admissions process. That might mean doing away with grades, GPAs, and AP/IB classes. Obviously, William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep continues to resonate with me.

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After our morning of brainstorming, the groups all reported back over a communal lunch. Those themes are not my intellectual property to publish here, but I would like to address one that matters to me a great deal: digital citizenship. I agree completely with the need for us to integrate the teaching of digital citizenship skills more broadly across the curriculum, but I worry that the drumbeat I heard about this during the report-back session is an example of non-strategic thinking. Yes, we (by which I mean all adults attempting to raise children these days) have quite a headache on our hands as we react to the intrusions of mobile tech and social media, and all the bad behavior that has come with them. But this is an immediate problem that isn’t likely to be this bad for much longer. Tech companies are building better parental controls, the government is going to write new regulations, etc. I hope our strategic plan doesn’t just react to childish behavior on Instagram and Snapchat. We need longer-range thinking.