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All That A School Story Can Be!

School Story Experience is an educational service for school leaders and their school communities. This article highlights how, at its core, it helps manage the complexities of communicating a schools’ vision and mission through 21st-century digital communication strategies and tools. Most importantly, it sets out how we view the service as a pedagogy-based one, rather than marketing or public relations. Ironically, though, the approach shows that the best advertising for any school are the affirmations which it receives from its own students, staff and parents.

Since 2018, I have been trialling School Story Solutions at Wooranna Park Primary School in order to find engaging ways for school leaders and teachers to communicate pedagogical concepts to parents and the wider community.

The product that was launched on Thursday 22 October 2020 of The Wooranna Way was a suite of publications, available in print and online, including PDF, epub and mobi.

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However, these were just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, involving many experiences we had participated in with WPPS school leaders and staff such as

  • content auditing & researching what was already published,
  • editing text, images and audio,
  • interviewing and transcribing,
  • book design
  • graphics and
  • many consultations with the leadership, staff and students.

At all times, I attempted to make clear how pedagogical storytelling, that is, stories focused on showing growth and change in classrooms and around the school, were not ‘just’ marketing. They were a vital form of communication for educators in a digital age. 

In fact, I began my visits to WPPS in February 2018 at Principal Ray Trotter’s invitation. He had been invited to write a paper for a prestigious education journal, would I read and edit it? It was to be my good fortune, as I was looking to set up an education service that helped schools grow their capacity to share their vision of education in a digital age.

How could I help him deliver a story of 21-years of his own and his staff’s hard work? Almost immediately, I recognised that I was implementing digital communication strategies that would turn the school into becoming an education self-publisher.

This meant that I recognised from the outset that a good-news-capacity-building service posed schools a categorical problem. Was growing a capacity to share school vision public relations or professional development? Was it both? To begin to answer this, I discussed with WPPS school leaders and staff what they thought about three aspects of educational self-publishing:

1. What are the current school publications, in print and online, and communication processes?

What had been already written by school leaders, teachers and members of the school community over many years which explained the school’s evolving pedagogical practices?

The issue tapped me into how the school archived the many documents, photos, videos and more of its pedagogical story. As the school librarian, Debra Nugent explained to me, the truth is that such treasures are piled into archived boxes and computer folders. It is only very wealthy schools that have the capacity to keep a well-maintained school archival collection.

By contrast, as an education writer and research, as well as someone with a doctorate in Australian cultural history, I have seen how digital archives have expanded the accessibility of primary and secondary sources from National and State Libraries. Now, how might a school digital archive be organised and maintained?

To get the process at least started, I created spreadsheets and folders on all the sources I found on the WPPS’s 21-years of pursuing a new education paradigm, as well as a repository of all Principal Ray’s writing over the years.

2. How are school stories not just a recording of past milestones?

I don’t believe it was just humility which fuelled Principal Ray Trotter’s belief that the story he was expanding upon in The Wooranna Way was a story of his achievements. For one thing, the publication was structured from the outset in relation to my interviewing of staff members and students who exemplified WPPS’s teaching and learning principles.

Furthermore, it was created in consultation with Assistant Principals Janet Whittle and Jennie Vine, and their key responsibilities in lower and upper primary respectively. More than that, each assistant principal had her own innovate input in the development of curricula and professional development across the school.

In Janet’s case, the focus was on continuing the use of WPPS’s raison d’etre which had been introduced into the school through Dr Esme Capp’s doctoral research in the early 2000s. Jennie, on the other hand, had been instrumental, together with Ray, in introducing George Bett’s Autonomous Learner Model in the school. In time, Jennie had also provoked into being 100s of ‘Enigma Missions’ (student inquiry passion projects) which launch other practices such as ‘Literature As A Catalyst For Research’, ‘Learning Symposiums’ and ‘Philosophy or Socratic Circles’.

Consequently, Ray’s request that I interview staff made me realise I was facing a much bigger project than creating a single publication. Instead, I began to view that self-publishing in schools as a way of reflecting on how innovation happens at every level of the school. The key thing was releasing how teachers are enabled to authentically tell their pedagogical stories.

Furthermore, I felt it was also important to stay close to student voices to describe the impact of teaching and learning where it really counts, in the lives of every young person at WPPS. To that end, I was also able to tap into working with seven Year 5/6 student leaders who acted has ‘sub-editors’ for the project.

3. How is a school story offered by school leaders and classroom teachers as professional development?

As a policy, WPPS champions visiting educators into the school. It is a feature of Ray’s principalship. Similarly, he discussed with me how he hoped his writing would lead to a dialogue on meaningful topics with educational leaders and practitioners.

Indeed, I saw my work in the school as enabling the ‘teacher-author’ and the principal as ‘thought leader’ as a vital form of professional developmentHoweverthis did not mean turning SCHOOL STORY SOLUTIONS into an individual, commercially-focused publication and communications process. Instead, it allowed me to put in place collaboratively created accessible school stories. Consequently, what I felt then, and continue to feel now, is that the self-publishing process in schools, if strictly managed through a pedagogical focus, opens up reflective practice throughout the whole school community. In fact, it should lead to one of the most productive forms of professional development such as Professional Learning Communities.

The text created in the concept-to-text phase of book production could be considered as the sum total of the dynamic moving parts of any school. It really is a substantial part that feeds the creative process. If that is the case, then the design elements of a book are like a living skin. Aesthetics matter in the busy environment of school life. Beauty is itself a motivator and it is for that reason I work with Creative Designer Francis Lim in a painstaking way to produce elegant communication solutions.

Anyone can do it, right?

Our partnership allows me to challenge colleagues to be respectful of the designer’s skill because, I know, that it is too easy to imagine that technology alone can make a non-designer a design expert. In anticipation of this problem, there are now publications and courses which non-designers can complete so that they can acquaint themselves with design principles. One example that I have returned to again and again is Robin William’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book (2008)

Yes, digital tools do extend the boundary of the skills once defined for an industrial age. Now, in a digital age, I’m sure that many of us will continue to experiment with software like iBooks, LucidPress and Canva. Each of these tools offers writers templates in which to place their text. 

However, I found that templates are not a substitute for design knowledge and experience. Furthermore, they can be a huge distraction from an educator’s main task of getting to understand their key audience, getting the mode and message to hit the mark and getting to share their thoughts on the detail of what they do.  How many of us have succumbed, for instance, to creating and presenting a clip-art encrusted worksheet or an overly busy set of slides? Or, how many of us have measured the effectiveness of how we communicate difficult pedagogical concepts to parents? Market researchers do that, right?

My message to school leaders, and educators in general, is to focus on the integrity of communicating the pedagogy and not to get lost in layers of digital processes and tools. At the same time, remain open to the suggestions which digital experts and designers see in their capacity to enable ‘pictures say a thousand words’ as well as creating effective communications online. It can be amazing to observe a gifted designer like Francis replace a wordy paragraph with an elegant diagram! The irony is that technology has brought down design costs to a fracture of what they once were. Consequently, it may be those old ways of thinking which are stopping schools from accessing good design for school digital communications purposes.

In conclusion, I often return to a quote by Eric Sheninger which I read maybe three years ago, just before engaging with Wooranna Park. You can read Sheninger’s whole article of “Leading in a digital age” in the Bastow Institute’s Horizon Thought Leadership, Issue 1, 2015.

[School] Leaders can now provide stakeholders with relevant information in real time through a variety of devices. No longer do static, one-way methods such as newsletters and websites suffice. Important information can be communicated through various free social media tools and simple implementation strategies in order to meet stakeholders where they are in the digital age. Digital leadership is about engaging all stakeholders in two-way communication.

Given the complexity which this vision contains, it’s now time we treasure the school leaders’ and classroom teachers’ vital need to share their commitment and expertise in ways that lead to wide community support for their professionalism. I welcome your comments, friends and colleague, in making that support through SCHOOL STORY SOLUTIONS a reality.

Talk to us about all your school story could be.