An Interview with James Cowper

I’ve had the pleasure to work with James Cowper in a couple of schools where he has served the Greater Essex County District School Board as an administrator.  He’s a supporter of teachers, as you would expect from an administrator, but he also “walks the walk” when it comes to using technology in education.  Recently, we met for a coffee to chat and solve all of the world’s problems and that served as a launchpad for this interview.

Doug:  Thanks, James, for sharing your thoughts via this blog post.

James:  No problem Doug.  I am happy to talk and listen with you.  I am quite flattered that you wanted to hear my thoughts and stories of days in the schoolhouse working with learners of all ages!  I appreciate it.  Thanks.

Doug:  I recall our first encounters with technology – it seems so long ago that you were involved in a technology project when you were at Mill Street Public School in Leamington.  What did you learn from working with students at Mill Street?

James:  I learned that kids are kids everywhere you go.  I came in on the front end of an ICT project in which recycled computers along with millions of meters of RJ45 (EthernetPicture1 cable) were deployed to a 350 pupil K-8 school.  The computers had competent capabilities and the staff and students were anxious to use them.  What I learned about kids and computers was that it is the creativity that we must exercise with the tools of the trade.  Using the computers, funny I don’t even call them that anymore, to drill and kill or surf and turf is just not the ticket.  Kids need to create, collaborate and communicate with the technology.  I learned an awful lot about what not to do with technology funny enough.  Of course we were doing the best that we could do at the time.  PL around the high end use of the devices was not structured or supported in a way that would lead to critical use of the tools.  I learned that you couldn’t fool kids.  Saying that computers engage kids and then using them as word processors, encyclopedias and digital worksheets only lasts so long.  If you do this for too long the kids will video you teaching the class, put it to music, morph Albert Einstein’s head onto your body and post the video for all their tweeps to see.  Seriously.  It is not the computers or the iPads that “engage” kids.  It is the access to the world, the creative quotient and the ease of collaboration that engages them.  Those things are not done with a device, a computer alone.  They must be married to the facilitation and supervision of a learning teacher. 

Doug:  Part of the project was working with students at Pelee Island Public School.  For those that don’t know, this nice little school is located in Lake Erie and accessible by ferry until ice hits the Great Lakes.  Why is it so important that technology and connectivity was made available for the students there?

James:  Students on Pelee live in a semi-isolated community after the snow flies.  Even before the snow flies really.  As an undergrad I delivered frozen foods there all summer on a refrigerator truck.  The people are wonderful.  Customer oriented as you might imagine.   Funny I ended up getting engaged there the summer of 1997.  The community is isolated from the mainland by a 1.5 hour ferry ride.  This little island houses only 5-12 students during the school year (it varies through the year).  As you can imagine keeping the com-link up to date with our students there is essential to their learning.  Connecting them to students in schools on the mainland can be so beneficial.  They have a “home school” connection on the mainland with Jack Miner Elementary.  Broadband takes that one “home school connection” to infinity and beyond really.  I can just imagine the Skype or Google hangouts that would add to the students’ (and teacher’s) learning experiences daily.  It really is a little jewel we have and it certainly reminds us all of the power of connectivity.         

Doug:  Since that time, you have been promoted to Principal at Eastwood Public School in Windsor.  During our coffee, you indicated that you’ve been there for five years now.  So, a question – if someone is making their first trip to Eastwood – what would they see that would invoke the understanding that this school really has its act together with respect to Technology?

Picture3James:  Well, we don’t have hover boards and wear silver suits yet.  Kids are not glued to screens with robotic teachers.  Books and board games is still the best part of the day at first nutrition break so I am not sure you would really be able to see a difference.  I apologize for my sarcasm.  I mean no offence.  Really.  If you had asked me what school would look like in the year 2013 when I was in grade 5 I would have said flying in cars and learning from robots!   (I think Ms. McTavish assigned that project!) You can feel a difference at Eastwood School.  At least that is what almost every visitor has said to me at one point or another.  What you can feel is a calm energy that comes when we are all functioning at very close wavelengths.  Kids are working at learning and teachers are learning while working.  It is symbiotic.  The technology that is incorporated into the day and the learning is organic.  Getting an iPad is not a monumental event.  Students do not run full tilt to the power cart.  It sits open and students get them when they need them.  There are no more labs.  We do not covet our tools in closets or the Principal’s office to gather dust.  I would say that the novelty of the device is gone.  What is left is a new type of pen and pencil.  Kids view them as tools to do the business of learning.  It is not the device that has made the difference at Eastwood it is the inherent connectivity that has.  The device without Wi-Fi access would be like having a Porsche without tires.  You can enjoy the look and the rev of that awesome engine you just couldn’t go anywhere.  Kids do walk around with devices.  We have BYOD norms.  Before you even walked in the door you would recognize we have a pretty substantial online presence.  Short of that we have a staff that continue to learn and grow in the area of tech. utilization, integration and content creation.  We are as careful as we can be with regards to where and how we spend our limited budget dollars.  We also are always looking for innovative ways to build community partnerships.  Two years ago we were awarded a reading grant, the first in the district, and we gained the opportunity to spend eighty thousand dollars on learning resources.  So as a school that has its act together I would say that we have found the reasonable and appropriate place to infuse technological tools to enhance our learning.  I would say that we have been responsible digital citizens.  I would also say we’ve lots to learn and much work to do.

Doug:  How do you support the students and teachers with the use of technology?  Is there a magic bullet that you can share with an administrator who might be reading this post?

James:  Today I learned with an ECE how to restore an Evernote Notebook from the trash.  Yeah, that was an oops.  Yesterday a 7 year old taught me how to access the microphone on the iPad in the privacy settings for Explain Everything.  The day before a student retweeted one of my posts about self-confidence and hairstyles.  I found a way to procure over 100 iPads for our 300 pupil school.  I give teachers homework with Explain Everything and then follow up as a critical friend 4 days later.  I listen to them rather than the opposite and set direction only after I have a solid understanding of our needs.  Our staffs’ learning sessions are for staff to give me information and not the other way round.  When it comes to technology I do not use any different techniques or patterns other than those that I might for simple leadership of the school.  I have this picture that hangs in my office behind my laptop and everyday I fold the laptop down and I look at it and do a short self-check.  It basically illustrates 6 needed facets to lead through complex change.  This matrix has helped me a great deal.  Here it is:

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I find that the best way to get things done is to do the right things and surround yourself with the people that feel that same way about those things.  Don’t get me wrong, I never want to be in an organization where everyone thinks and acts like me.  That would be way too much ADHD than a school could handle.  Instead I try my best to find peoples’ passions and help them use them in strength-based ways.  Honoring everyone’s starting point is key.  Teachers are leaders and coaches by nature.  I try my best to bring out that aspect in all of them.  I have done my best to stop using the words “should”, “but” and “can’t”.  If you want a magic bullet this is it.  Stop doing it to yourself and all those around you.

Doug:  A major part of the successful use of technology for teachers is finding time.  Time to learn the technology.  Time to use it in their classroom.  Time to book limited resources when they’re needed.  How do you facilitate this at Eastwood?

James: Making time is more appropriate I believe.  There is no more time.  Einstein proved it.  We have to be intentional and purpose driven with our time.  There is no time to waste and no time to find (except snow days–those are sweet).  We have to use our time like we are trying to use our money, carefully and intentionally.  Intentional does not preclude spontaneous either.  Some of my best learning has come from point of sale teachable moments.  Today a staff had a problem with a tech device and half way through the solution she stated “I am sorry to waste your time.”  My response was: “There is only one person that can waste my time.  Me.  I appreciate learning this process with you.”  It is always interesting to me that the default in a school with teachers seems to be that their learning can be perceived as a waste of time.  How on earth have we done this?  I cut this off at every opportunity. We don’t “book” the devices much anymore.  The binders and electronic booking calendars did nothing but get in the way of teachers talking and planning together.  Our teachers are expected to dialogue and talk to each other about when and how much technology they might need, use or borrow.  I have done everything I can to increase the quantity of devices to a threshold that doesn’t have them locking each other in the photocopy room or hiding iPads kids desks.  After this October we are anticipating being at a 3:1 ratio for iPads at Eastwood.  I make my teachers learners by attempting to always be the lead learner.  Yes many things get left undone.  Deadlines are missed.  I will not forsake learning, by anyone, for managerial tasks.  That has caused me issues, I admit it, and I think it is worth it. 

Doug:  How much professional learning is offered by your school district to support the school’s technology goals?

James:  The school district has professional development for the latest changes and innovations to its’ technology goals.  There are even online PODs that have been developed and YouTube videos for learning to update school webpages and teamsites.  In terms of supporting our specific brand of technology integration the support has come more in terms of resources.  Sometimes that has meant an iPad microphone other times it has meant the use of a special assignment teacher to support teacher learning.  We have learned much of what we do by experimenting, talking with each other and networking with our PLNs.  Mrs. Wideen (grade 2/3) has hosted lunch and learns and I try to integrate tech into our learning work together.  There are many opportunities for individual teachers in our school or district to find professional development at the workshop level.  Professional learning for Eastwood strives to be job embedded and action oriented.  It is challenging for a district, and I think unreasonable, to assume the responsibility for the professional learning for my teachers.  This academic year we were given the autonomy to designate our learning need and simply given the human resource support to see the learning through.  I would much rather be given the support in terms of time than be taken away from my school for a sit and get.  Up to now the teachers at Eastwood have agreed.  We have a yearly Professional Learning Cycle that they define.  Would I like more time?  You bet.  We are doing the best we can with what we have been given.

Doug:  Eastwood has gone above and beyond the resources supplied by the school district.  What has the school purchased above and beyond the standard?

James:  The standard, as I understand, is really a ratio of personal devices to students.  So 7 to 1 or even 5 to 1 is somewhere in the ballpark.  Really the fact that our District supplies each school with Wi-Fi and guest Wi-Fi is the ticket.  Without access to wireless broadband we really would be up the creek without a motor.  That being said we have really been creative in finding ways to purchase the tech that does the things the teachers and students need them to do.   Over the last three years we have added:  30 Blackberry Playbooks, 10 Leapsters, 1 Kobo, 6 Apple TVs, 2 HDMI projectors, 50 iPads, 3 Plasma screens and oodles of apps for the iPads, 200 memberships with RAZKids reading tracker, not to mention the space on Cloud content retention.  We have been very fortunate to receive additional funding through the Ontario Focused Intervention Program that we chose to use towards 50 additional iPads and charging carts.  I really have to say this next bit Doug. . . all of this would gather dust if it were not for the risk-taking teachers who recognize that the kids in their classroom can intuitively (it seems) harness the power of this stuff and make magic happen.  Eastwood teachers continue to try their best to integrate and innovate. Some of us are farther along than others and that is okay.

Doug:  I recall that you and I also talked about Eastwood and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).  What percentage of students actually bring their own devices to school?

James:  I think it is important to differentiate between the age groups in our building when discussing this BYOD phenomenon.  I would say that on a good day 80% of our 7/8 students carry a device with them all day.  Grade 5 and 6 might be as high as 40%.  I have had my best conversations however with some of my younger students (grade 2) using BYOD to film “This Is How we Play at Recess” for their YouTube followers!  The learning that happens because the devices are brought to school is the learning that must happen.  It is not going away.  BYOD is in the early stages at Eastwood.  We have started the conversations, we have norms, kids use the guest Wi-Fi to access their blogs and twitter accounts. I have had very few issues with BYOD and misuse by students.  I would really like to see further integration with BYOD in our school.  The power of that tool, a teacher’s guidance, a social media app and a student’s imagination is amazing.  There are precautions, safety protocols and appropriate use norms in place.  Teachers are grappling with how to best integrate personal devices in classroom learning.  A team of students helped create our norms:

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Doug:  If a principal or school district is wrestling with the decision about allowing student devices on the network, what advice can you give?

James:  Go for it.  And when you do be certain to invite students into the “rules of engagement” conversation.  Make sure that the kids using the devices on the network helped create the norms.   

Doug:  The promise of social media and school online presence has always been the home/school connection.  Myth or reality at Eastwood?

James:  We try our best to be out there.  The concept of “if you don’t tell your story someone else will tell it for you,” really solidified in my mind the need for every school to have a visible and active online presence.  If you do not initiate the “Official Eastwood Facebook Page” some one else will initiate the unofficial “Official Eastwood Facebook Page.”  While you may think stuff like that is just dismissed by Internet lurkers or parents it is far easier for visitors to dismiss when the school already has a positive and active digital footprint.  Our connection to homes is through the Internet.  I do still send home the odd half sheet memo to parents reminding them of this or that but let’s face it, paper is wasteful and expensive.   Virtually all of our communication to homes goes through the computer.  Working together we use the website, blog, remind101 and Twitter account to get our news and stories out there.  It is hard work.  Almost every teacher (and every Principal at Eastwood) will tell you they have to update their blog.   The tool that wins the award for me is Twitter.  Updating the Eastwood account in seconds informs my whole community.  We have experimented with Facebook as well and it proves to be slightly more challenging as our District sanctions its use on the network.

Doug:  You will have a presence at the #ECOO13 Bring IT, Together conference as a presenter, runner, learner…  Can you share a glimpse of what people who go to your session will experience?

James:  They will experience a chance to listen to a teacher that does this awesome stuff everyday.  Kristen Wideen is my presenting partner.  She is a grade 2/3 teacher who has been looping with a group of kids since grade 1.  While in grade 1 we hooked them up with some iPads and then began experimenting.  I take the admin stance and Kristen the teacher stance on the “Why” of getting our teachers/kids connected globally.  We have some current examples to share from her classroom, and our school, in Windsor as well as some stories of “How” this came to be the case.  Together we hope to inspire others to go back to their schools and classrooms and get students involved with a global audience with the goal of improving their learning.  I won’t be running unfortunately…Surgery on a torn ACL on November 15th.

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Doug:  Social media in the Cowper household doesn’t stop with you.  During our coffee, you shared information about your wife’s successful blog.  Can you share some details here?

James:  Absolutely!  My partner, Tricia, has a “Work, Life mostly Food Blog” titled Infinebalance.com.  After working through a workshop with David Warlick in 2006 I convinced Tricia to start writing again (and this time on a blog!).  After some heavy convincing and 20 or so private posts Trish took it global.  She is an excellent writer.   She is an excellent cook/baker.  She is an excellent photographer.  All that adds up to what started out as a hobby and is now an addiction to her passions for food, our kids and health.  I get to try great tasting healthy food and the kids and I are often comic material in her blog posts.  Companies and private folks ask her to try products and what not as a result.  She really has fun with it.  Just recently she used a web service to auction off the rights to update her logo.  After 90+ entries she selected the winner.  It was a really cool process that she ended up blogging about.  Anyway…Tricia loves it.  The kids and I know not to interrupt her when she is at the iMac.  Funny that the “work” part of her blog usually only comes up when people ask her “How do you find the time?”  I have helped her with the answer to that question…or is it she that has helped me?  

Thanks Doug.  This was fun!

Doug:  Thanks so much, James.  You can follow James on Twitter as @Cowpernicus.  His school blog is located at eastwoodeagles.wordpress.com and school website at https://publicboard.ca/schools/eastwood/default.aspx  and his personal blog is located at http://cowpernicus.wordpress.com.

Attendees at #ECOO13 can meet Kristen Wideen and James at their session “Learning Through Global Collaboration, Exploration, and Innovation”.  http://lanyrd.com/2013/ecoo13/schfyh/

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