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Stories of Passionate Engagement

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Image Source: Hugh MacLeod, The Gaping Void

"All the education in the world is worthless," writes an 18-year-old blogger for A Boundless World, "if you never unlock what makes your heart beat." He goes on to share in a must-read article about schools and education, that grades alone don't guarantee success. Instead, passion, determination and a positive attitude equal success.

These are ideas that are emerging from the masses of K-12 and adult learners who work in our systems. Their expectations for what education should be like are changing dramatically. This story of passion captures readers and raises a question for communications directors in school districts.

If students and communities can easily share what they are passionate about in their lives (via Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, Plurk, Posterous), will they share stories about school?

These changing expectations for how we share heroic narratives may include school, or they may not. Regardless, these changes have implications, not only for the educators, but also for school district administrators who feel the pressure to represent change to a wider audience as positive, enabling, and encouraging.

The problem is that press releases, PowerPoint presentations, and traditional media interviews, which provide the video/sound bite to be broadcast on YouTube are often ineffective.

While school districts struggle to better adapt social media to their official communications process, they should instead be focused on empowering educational communities to share the compelling, everyday stories.

Our classrooms, our schools, and our districts are defined by the stories the community tells about them. Traditional media spend little time on these positive stories. They are drawn to conflict and fear in attempt to tell "the real story." And they fail to recognize that the audience is no longer just listening, but also creating content, and more apt to pay attention to social media. People know that they can find truth and authenticity in new media venues that are openly shared and transparent.

While educators' freedom of expression via social media is tightly controlled by district communication departments (in case their stories aren't positive), muzzling the one group of advocates who really knows what is happening in schools has severe consequences. Imagine your school district's reaction to a student with long hair. How would the school district manage information sharing with the community? District communications requires a different attitude and perspective.

SEIZE THE STICK
"I'm here to become enlightened," a pilgrim said to a sufi master. "Fetch me a stick," the master replied. When the pilgrim returned, he was beaten over the head and shoulders. This continued every morning, with the master saying little. Anger and resentment built up in the student, until one morning, he seized the stick, broke it and tossed it away. "Ahh, you are well on your way to achieving enlightenment," observed the master.

As a citizen-journalist, I am angered less by the attacks on education, and more by the passivity of those who refuse to "seize the stick," who acknowledge others as their masters, who cower in fear behind carefully worded press releases.

As a person who has embraced social media as a way to share the exciting actions being taken by educators around me, I also see an important need for K-12 educators to tell "their" story, sharing what is happening at their schools, in their classrooms, and in their offices as openly and transparently as possible. My bias is that I believe that most educators live in fear of speaking up, fear of losing their jobs, fear of being censured, and called into their supervisor's office at Human Resources and asked with the force of temporal power lurking behind each word, "So, tell us. What do you really believe and why should we continue to employ you if you're going to say this about us?" Instead, anyone, with the temerity to be transparent about the work they are doing, should be celebrated and applauded.

"Sharing is THE threat," shared Mark Pesce at a recent conference. One of the key points of his talk was that, in the "honest and human act of sharing, any of the pretensions to control, the limitations, or power are revealed as completely collapsed and impotent." As school district leaders struggle to lead, it is clear that, although each of us has phones that grant access to powerful, disruptive technologies, we choose not to use them. While students share ideas and information about everything under the sun, leaders are unable to have real conversations about critical issues.

Here are five tips for K-12 educators, communication professionals or not:

1. Engage Your Audience with Your Content: Content that's been prefabricated and written in third person is lifeless, but that which is authentic, transparent, and open about success -- as well as failure -- will be read by your constituents. Start with a story, and integrate multimedia such as text, audio and video. Blend all of it in so that your audience can choose their preferred media. The multimedia portions can be downloaded and put on iPods or MP3 players. This is a great way for students, community members and staff to find out what is going on from others in their organization.

2. Make Content Sharing Easy: Press releases on a website just do not work anymore. Traditional websites that can't be subscribed to using RSS feeds or that don't allow email subscriptions are dead sites. Many web users just aren't taking the time to come back to those sites, instead preferring to subscribe to content that will come to them via Google Reader, Twitter updates to their phone, and more. Use a blog (e.g. WordPress), and add plugins that make it easy for people to share your content with others.

Some sharing tools include Delicious, Digg, StumbleUpon, Facebook, and Twitter. More information available online.

If you're not familiar with these sites, then know that your audience may already be using them to share content about you that you may not like. The solution isn't to block those sites in schools, but to encourage their appropriate use. Most blog platforms enable you to share your content easily with tool (check out plugin called "Add to Any" on HowToMakeMyBlog.com).

3. Create a Content Calendar: In your district, there are many wonderful things happening that your community wants to know about. Unfortunately, providing print copies of short articles via email do not allow you to explore and share everything great that is happening; however, online, you have an unlimited number of pages and a global audience. Why not create a content calendar that enables you to map out what you will be sharing with others online?

4. Define and Build Relationships: While it may not be popular to follow your local news reporters via Twitter, it is critical that you do so. It is critical because you can raise their awareness of the content that you are sharing about your school district. While they may want to focus on the negative, you can mitigate the effect of their tweets by building a relationship of trust and integrity through the stories you share about your district, your campus, and your classroom.

and, finally,

5. Make Offline Available Online: Every speaking engagement, and every meeting is an opportunity to share your ideas. Avoid the mistake of creating content solely for online or offline audiences. When you create offline content (e.g. a conversation with parents at the morning coffee meet-n-mingle with the principal), take the time to write about it, maybe even debrief a parent in a one-on-one conversation. "What did you think about our morning coffee meeting? How did it impact you?" Take the time to share what you're doing online.

A FINAL POINT
"In high-freedom environments," Clay Shirky points out, "people use social tools for fun. In low-freedom environments, they use them for political action." Will you encourage your staff and students to learn how to appropriately use social media tools to share stories of passionate engagement?