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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why Your PLN Matters

The world is at your fingertips...I never really understood the value of that phrase. I remember my college professor would say that to us all the time. I remember at the end of high school and entering college, the internet was all of the sudden considered to be a research tool - yet many of us had no idea how to effectively utilize it. We would open up Google/Yahoo in the computer lab and type in a phrase/topic and then hit search...and then oh my goodness - magic. While the internet, as a research tool, was nothing short of amazing, never before had I learned at the speed and level as I do right now. That is because today I have a Professional Learning Network (PLN) through my new best online buddy...Twitter.

One year ago, almost to the day, my then principal - Lorraine aka @LorraineShimizu - told me I needed to get onto Twitter. As her assistant principal, I figured I didn’t have a lot of choice, so I went online and signed up. What did I do? Probably what most people do when first entering the world of Twitter...I followed anyone that could give me information on my favorite sports teams: Dallas Mavericks, Texas Rangers, Detroit Lions, and yes...even the Cowboys. Truthfully that was the end of it. All the while she was using it to share articles, relay information, reach out to our families, and grow what she called, her PLN.

A few months went by and I was given the opportunity to become the new principal of Christie Elementary. So what did I do? I took over the rights to the @ChristieCubs account and began to share information to those who followed me about what was happening… So to recap: I was sharing information and following my favorite sports teams. There is nothing wrong with this, except one major thing...I wasn’t learning anything of educational/professional value. Something had to change…

While at an educational conference in October we were asked to write our Twitter handle on our “Hi my name is _____” cards. So I wrote @ChristieCubs. It wasn’t ten minutes before several people boldly stated that I needed to get my own account. Challenge Accepted - quick note, there are a lot of people in the world named Ryan Steele - but after what felt like an hour I found a username that would work…@R_H_Steele was born.

What was the first thing I did? Well, I followed my favorite sports team reporters of course...but after that I decided I would start by following those at the educational conference. Then, here comes the truth...I looked at who @LorraineShimizu, @SKimbriel, and @matthew_arend followed so I could then follow them too. So at this point I had like 2 followers, but I was following 1,000 + people.

I made a deal with myself that I would look at Twitter at least once a day and see if there was anything valuable...within 10 days I went from checking once to checking constantly, joining EdChats, reading blogs shared through Twitter, and then connecting with other educational leaders from Australia, Toronto, California, New York, Florida and Iowa. 10 days...seriously...10 days.

Why does your PLN matter? Simply put, because I have learned more in the last six months then I can ever remember before. But it’s more than that...I have made connections, allies, and friends. I have found people who challenge my thinking and encourage me to be a better leader. In essence, my PLN is a network of people who have been willing to form a connection, a relationship really, with me...and that is nothing short of amazing.

There is so much to learn, so many things to read, so many ideas to try, and so many risks to take. A powerful PLN can offer guidance and support like nothing else, and for that reason matters.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Principal - Librarian Relationship

There was a time when the library was the true center of the school. Of course, it needed to be...after all, if you wanted to learn something new, read a great book, or find research to back-up your personal stance, where else were you going to turn? The library was THE room full of knowledge, stories, and ideas. It was a magical place, and its gatekeeper? The librarian. When you think about it, she had a lot of single handedly hold the keys to the place where knowledge was stored.

I am not sure when it happened...maybe when the internet no longer took a dial tone to connect, or when one Kindle could hold an entire library worth of literature in the palm of your hands...but for many schools, the library is no longer the sole keeper of knowledge. No longer the center of the school building. No longer the magical place it once was.

Today, many schools are working hard to bring the library back to the center of learning. Makerspaces and Learning Commons are beginning to change the look and feel of the once silent center of learning. At Christie, we have moved from a library to a Learning Commons - it is now a place where hands-on learning, collaboration, and creativity are king. Yet, as I detailed this transformation in my blog post “The Journey from Library to Learning Commons” ( it became painfully clear...I created this environment with some amazing teachers and staff, but my librarian was not the driving force. How could I have let this happen? I changed a space that was once filled with rows of shelves and whispers, to a colorfully loud space full of books and collaboration without my librarian leading the way. I didn’t just move her cheese, I blew it up! So while we are both excited and encouraged by the authentic student-driven learning taking place...the truth of the matter is we didn’t get here together.

As I have talked to other librarians and principals something interesting has come to light. Somehow, for many, the relationship between the principal and librarian, while professional, is better described as a mutual respect/appreciation, rather than a true partnership. Why is this? How did many of us get here? More importantly, why does this need to change?

I can’t recall a single class I took during my undergraduate or graduate degrees that centered around the library. Not one. I can’t think of one class called, “Libraries and You” or “Why the Library is Important” … I would have even settles for a “Libraries 101” … but sadly, never happened. I used the library to study and learn, but I never studied or learned about the library itself.

As a principal, the success of my students is the single most important thing to me. It’s the reason I come to work, take risks, put in countless hours and do all I can to serve and support my teachers and community. In all honesty, before creating our Learning Commons, when making a list of the people I worked with each day to ensure the success of each child, it looked something like this: Teachers, Students, Instructional Specialists/Coaches, ESL Specialists, Gifted and Talented Teachers, Paraprofessionals, Office Staff, Parents, and Community Members...notice something? No librarian...Why was this? The answer: My mindset.

Here is what I have learned, and I don’t think I was alone in my thinking...I viewed my librarian as the person in charge of the space where books were stored, NOT as a key player in the student learning experience. Such a misguided mindset...Luckily, it took only a few short weeks of being a principal for me to figure out I was underutilizing and undervaluing my librarian.

Truthfully, I don’t know why I didn’t strive to build a partnership with my librarian right away. Maybe because “Libraries 101” was never offered, or because I viewed the library as an outdated environment that no longer supported our technology-filled lives. No matter the reason, it was foolish.

I believe the library, or in our case the Learning Commons, needs to be the center of our school buildings once again. A place where creativity is fostered, mistakes are made, problems are solved, and literacy is just as important as active engagement through authentic higher-level questioning.

So, why should there be a strong principal - librarian relationship? Simply put...if the library is going to once again be the center of learning, the librarian needs to be leading the way. Librarians are no longer the people who tell kids to be quiet then re-shelve books...they are teachers, leaders, learners, risk-takers, and knowledge seekers. As such, it’s time for our librarians to once again be our strongest guides to learning...and as principals, we need to help them get there. After all, we are in this together.