Coming to a new school can be an exciting opportunity to implement some ideas that have been percolating in your head. Maybe it’s a generational thing, or a function of my own personal level of geekiness, but one of the first things I did after being appointed to my new position this year was check out the school’s website. I envision a school’s website as a “one-stop shop” for anything and everything parents, students, community members, or prospective home buyers would want to know about the school. When I saw what was in place, I knew it just wasn’t going to work for me.
I spent more than a couple days pondering how I would begin to make this change without being “that guy” who comes in and wants to change everything. I started by connecting with our media specialist who, also being new to the building, had no preconceptions about how the site should look. She was in and out of the building over the summer so we met a few times to talk about my vision for our web presence, her comfort level taking a leadership role in the change, and what she thought a middle school web page should contain. Lucky for me, she is curious and highly self-directed and jumped on board from the beginning.
I mentioned earlier that I wanted a “one-stop shop” for visitors. I also wanted each core team (we have six) and the elective team to have their own site where they could keep parents up-to-date on the “goings on” for their team.
I’ll spare you the super technical details and tell you that I am self-hosting a WordPress blog that is configured for multiple users. My media specialist and I are the “Super Admins” and the entire staff has been entered as “Users” of the main school site with the rights to create their own sites underneath.
Because I wanted some consistency, I set up the team blogs myself. I wanted all the team blog domains to be conballms.org/teamname without exception. I wanted to make sure that the Tiger team, for instance, didn’t call their site conballms.org/thetigers and that the Falcons didn’t call their site conballms.org/falconsrock. Other teachers who create classroom blogs have the freedom to choose whatever name they want after the conballms.org/.
I also chose to restrict team blogs to a common theme in order to go for a more consistent look and feel across the whole site. Teams had fun finding banner images for their sites in what almost became a kind of competition.
It took some thinking and tinkering to get things to look and act the way I wanted them to. Here are three plugins that were indispensable to me when I was getting things up and running.
- Import Users by Dagon Design. This plugin allows you to use a big, CSV file to batch create all of your users. Useful if you plan to have more than 5 or 6 people as members of your blog.
- Unfiltered MU. On multi-user installs, your user-created blogs aren’t allowed to post embed code for things like YouTube videos and the like. This plugin overrides this “feature” at your own peril.
- Subscribe2. The deal-breaker. This was how I covered the issue of parents who still wanted a regular email. This plugin allows readers to enter their email address and be subscribed to all of your posts.
I hope that you find at least one or two of those useful and that it saves you hours of scouring the web for the solutions to those simple issues.
It was actually easier than I ever thought it would be to get teachers on board. In the past, teams would send out a weekly newsletter via email to a mailing list of parents whose addresses were (manually) collected at Back-to-School Night or Parent-Teacher Conferences. It was a model that made the team leader the “list manager” and “editor-in-chief.” Email addresses had to be entered, updated, changed, or deleted, and “articles” from team members had to be emailed to the team leader, copied, pasted, and formatted into the team newsletter.
At a team leader meeting during my transition into the building, I asked simply, “How is that working so far?” Most responses were lukewarm, citing the management issues already mentioned. By this time, I had already put into place our school site and many of them had commented that they really liked it. I mentioned that I would love it if every team had their own team blog instead of sending weekly emails.
I have an expectation that our core academic teams post at least one update per week and I have subscribed to all of the team blogs in my Google Reader. So far, this has worked extremely well for the core teams. I have to think more about what I expect from the elective teams, but I like what we have going so far.
The response from parents has been overwhelmingly positive. I introduced the site formally during our BTS Night in August and invited them to email me if there was something else they’d like to see on the front page. Many have taken me up on it and since the start of the year I’ve added our lunch schedule, the number for the nurse’s office, and some static info that is commonly requested such as the link to order a yearbook. My front office staff listens for common questions from parents and I make sure that the answers get posted.
My media specialist has stepped up in a huge way. From a slightly tentative user, to someone who enjoys posting pictures and wants to learn more about WordPress.
Overall, I am pleased with this contemporary way of reaching out to parents and our community.
I’ve been inspired by this post by Eric Sheninger, but I am being careful not to bite off too much, too fast. I’d like to get better about regular posts to our Twitter feed, finish rolling out a Facebook page, and start next year by committing to posting monthly principal reports like the one he models. Thanks, Eric, for being one of the most consistent sharers of concrete, actionable advice for principals.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Tim Lauer for the extensive conversation we had at ISTE last summer and for being my “phone support” as I was putting my school site together.
Still to Come!
In a future post, I’ll blog a bit about how I stopped sending emails to the entire staff and began the year, cold-turkey, using an internal staff blog instead.