Kentucky School Advocate
In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
Wes Bradley is the principal of Thomas Nelson High School in Nelson County. In the spring of 2012, the new school’s first year, it created a virtual system for the work its students, teachers and staff produce. The model allows for sharing and collaboration, and expands ways of learning.
Q: The virtual system you have created uses Chromebooks. Explain what makes them different from other computers.
A: There is no [hard] drive. In the Chromebook, the information only lives in the virtual world; everything you create is meant to be shared.
Q: So in the real world, how might this work?
A: You can draft a document and then have 15-20 people look in on it and add ideas, examples, videos, photographs or other documents instead of you doing it by yourself. It becomes a collaborative project.
Q: There has been an emphasis on the “paperless” aspect, but your model is about much more than saving paper and trees.
A: We do have a copy machine and we do have paper. This is not about a paperless model as much as it is about how are we creating systems so that everyone has access to the most important information and planning.
Q: You had used Chromebooks and the Google tools that support them – Google Drive, Google Docs and Blogger – earlier in your career, when you were a teacher?
A: In 2004-05 I started using Gmail and Google Docs with some of my students in New York City. Later, when I was in Chicago for two years, working at a charter school, we were looking at Chromebooks because they were cost effective.
When I was a teacher, I was always caught up in “How do we accelerate our own learning” and “How do we use our time?” As I transitioned into school leadership, that was something that was still heavy on my mind.
Q: Why did you decide to take this approach at Thomas Nelson High School?
A: I saw a YouTube clip about how the digital revolution is creating transparency, and it was an “ah ha” moment for me. Teachers were still planning in silos and the silos were their computer. As they move from a computer to Google Drive that increases the sense of autonomy because everyone knows they have an audience. You aren’t just creating for yourself; you are creating for others, you are creating for students.
Q: Where and when did you start the process?
A: In March of our first year, I asked our leadership team to start using Blogger to create goals and archive information. The leadership team now uses Google Drive for all our collaborative information. Everything we do is in the Google Drive.
Q: Before you made the shift, you did some groundwork that emphasized the positive aspects of change?
A: From the get-go we talked about taking risks. In year one we used a book by Seth Godin called Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable. It helped us establish that it is OK to be different, it is OK to change, and with change, things are going to make us a little uncomfortable. In year two we continued along with another book by Godin that talks about flying closer to the sun, getting out of your comfort zone and doing things you can learn from.
Q: Is much training or technical support required to use this virtual approach?
A: Not really. This is one of those things you learn by doing. The key with Google Docs is understanding how you share a document, which is really straightforward, and knowing how to link a document, which requires pushing three buttons. You are talking about seconds. Using Google
Drive really cuts down on email because Google Drive is more collaborative and you are commenting on each other’s documents more fluidly. We have been fortunate that we don’t have technical issues, or if we do, it is that the wireless Internet is down, which isn’t often.
Q: Every teacher has a Chromebook and you have a supply of Chromebooks on carts that students share. Describe how these are being used during the school day.
A: Not all of our students have a Chromebook, but that is a goal. Currently our kids are using the Chromebooks every day, but they are not carrying one with them. We have about 10 teachers that use them every day, all the time; 10 that are mixed and another 10 that are more traditional. Our teachers still have traditional computers in their classrooms, but when everything around you shifts and everything is being done through Google Drive, you naturally get on board. Now, in year three, planning is a more interactive process and lesson planning is driven toward things that students would interact with – a presentation or on a blog that the teacher is continually creating. It is a living piece.
Q: Blogger is being used to allow students to create their own blogs as part of some classes?
A: Yes, students are using their blogs to collaborate, to reflect. We only use blogs where there is a need for audience; for example, if they drafted an argumentative essay or a message to a government official, they would post it on their blog
Q: Talk a little about the digital portfolios that students are creating.
A: That is one of the things I think is really exciting. The students are creating their own digital portfolio from scratch in Blogger. We are creating a model template for them to follow, then they are personalizing the template. With these digital portfolios, they are taking more ownership of their future story, which basically means their college and career goals. The cool thing about the digital portfolios is that every student has one and they are taking pride in it.
Q: What does this portfolio include?
A: At the top of the portfolio you will see their goals, their resume, their data – things like test scores and assessments – and their writing portfolio. We are moving toward developing an independent learning portfolio. The independent learning folder has things like independent reading and a citizenship project that we have started. It could also be used to archive the work students do over the summer, so they get credit for that when they return to school. These portfolios are all-digital, so they can be accessed from any Internet connection in the world. Students don’t have to be on any platform or on any particular device to access these portfolios.
Q: Having this model allows your new teachers to quickly get up to speed?
A: Yes, we have one main blog that includes information from every meeting our staff has had over the last two years, so they could click on a document and see that history.
Q: It also allows your leadership teams to work better together?
A: When you go to a team blog, at the top of each blog you are going to see the same pieces crucial to our teams: the goals, the vision and their action plan. While we could do that through an email, this system allows everyone to be empowered to see it, edit it or comment on it anytime and from any place.
Q: I understand that this model allowed you to develop an information-rich, robust school year calendar.
A: We have one document that is a living calendar and it is a very powerful tool. It links to everything you need to know about what is happening here from day to day. For example, tomorrow we are having ACT testing, so anything related to preparing students for testing is right there on that day. You click a link that goes right to it.
Q: What about students who do not have a computer or Internet access at home?
A: At Thomas Nelson, we seldom expect students to do a great deal of work beyond the school day that requires the Internet.
Q: Are other schools interested in this model?
A: My assistant principal, Heather Warrell, presented on paperless school leadership using some of the systems we are using during an Ed Camp last fall. We have had four to five districts in past couple of months visit. I think everyone we work with sees the need for better systems.
Q: What are some of the other advantages you are seeing by using this model?
A: There is a sense of accountability that comes with systems that are collaborative.
Students see how they can be part of the solution, more of an owner than a bystander.
It also increases a sense of trust and openness. These systems are open and everyone has access to the information so it increases trust and buy-in.
Also, when you create something just for yourself, there is not a lot of reason to make it better unless you are naturally internally driven. If you create and always share with an audience, knowing that the audience can help you and you can learn from them, you are more likely to be open to growth and learning.
Q: Your students are helping teach rising middle school students how to use the Chromebooks-based system?
A: Our student leadership class is going to all the eighth-graders and training them how to use Google Drive and Blogger, making sure they have the foundation so when those students arrive here it is seamless. It was our students’ idea.