Many products can help you build public understanding for student-centered learning. Read the tips and peruse the many examples here to learn how to use them effectively.
Write a Pitch Letter
When you’ve identified a good story (see Telling Thematic Stories), it’s common practice to write a “pitch letter” to a reporter, editor, or producer. The letter should describe your idea very succinctly – in a page or so. What is the story about? Why is it important? Who are the main characters? What “scenes” will help tell this story? Most journalists will need more than a topic; if you describe the elements of the story and the connection of each element to the whole, you will forever endear yourself to the deadline-driven reporter. This pitch letter was written to the producer and anchor of a highly regarded public radio talk show in New Hampshire. A response to this letter came from the show’s producer.
Send a Press Release
Press releases are best utilized to announce a significant event, a high-profile hire, a large grant, or to recognize a major effort. Do not send a press release for everything that happens in your organization because that will quickly diminish your credibility. Save the press release for the special stuff; you will build your reputation by doing so. This one from the Hartford Public School District or this one from Citizen Schools are good examples. Tip: Write the headline to your press release. Read the headline again. If the headline were at the top of a story in a newspaper, would you read that article? If the answer is no, you probably don’t have a story that is worthy of a press release.
Create a Set of Talking Points about Student-Centered Learning
People who are not accustomed to talking with the media can become tongue-tied in an interview. To prevent that from happening, create for yourself a set of Talking Points with key ideas you want to convey every time someone asks you, “What is student-centered learning? Or “Why do we need to change our schools?” Get to know your Talking Points and repeat them often—in interviews, in public meetings, in speeches, in legislative testimony. It may feel monotonous to say some of the same things over and over again, but that is just what’s required for greater public understanding. Repetition is your friend! Another benefit of Talking Points is that they can be shared so all messengers can be on the same page—literally! Here is a detailed set of Talking Points about student-centered learning in a school district in central Maine. Several shorter Talking Points that were developed by school districts in northern New England can be found in Additional Resources. Yours can be much shorter, but these will give you a lot of ideas about how to frame what you want to say.
Write an Opinion-Editorial (Op-Ed)
One of the most effective strategies for engaging the public and thought leaders in your community is to write and place an op-ed in a local, state, or national newspaper or magazine. Op-eds are often found on the back pages of the front section of the newspaper or in the opinion section. Unlike a news article, in which the reporter and her editor have full editorial control of the story, an op-ed is developed and written by you. Its goal is typically to make the case for an issue, policy or program. Smaller news outlets may even be willing to let you publish a series of op-eds about different aspects of student-centered learning. Editorial editors are generally looking for an interesting perspective on a timely issue. If you’re saying something new about an issue people care about, you just might have the basis for a good op-ed. Here are two op-eds about student-centered learning that have appeared in New England-based news outlets, one in the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, the other in the Sanford News in Maine. Other examples can be found in Additional Resources.
Put Together an Information Packet or Media Kit
If you want to develop an ongoing relationship with the media, it’s wise to put together some basic information about your organization: the school profile, a recent newsletter, a brochure about your redesign efforts, and perhaps some ideas for thematic stories that might be covered. You may also want to list the experts on various aspects of student-centered learning in your district, school or organization, with email addresses and telephone numbers. Journalists will keep this information on file so that when a story opportunity arises, they have some of the basics already in hand. Once you send the packet, be sure to call the reporter or editor to make sure they received it and be prepared to answer any questions.
Create a Set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Organizations often find that the media and the public ask some of the same questions over and over again. Generating some Frequently Asked Questions and accompanying answers is a productive exercise. Bring together a group of people to brainstorm questions; members of the group can then pair up to answer the individual questions and share them with one another until everyone is comfortable with the responses. When it’s a collective effort, everyone makes meaning together. Moreover, it builds a sense of message discipline among the team, which leads to greater public understanding and less confusion. It also enables you to practice the research-based frame that is so essential to moving the public from an individualistic to a collective understanding of the purpose of public education. Here is a very thorough set of general FAQs that was created by a one district’s communications advisory team. FAQs can also be created for specific issues such as this one on the use of iPads at Sanford High School.
Create a Newsletter For External Audiences
School districts and large non-profit organizations often have a fragmented strategy when it comes to communication with external stakeholders. Different departments and programs may have separate communiqués going out at different times. It’s best to have one newsletter that goes out to the public on a regular basis that integrates all of the activities in your school or district. The Pittsfield New Hampshire School District sends a quarterly newsletter to community members and thought leaders. The Partnership for Change in Vermont, the innovation arm of the Burlington and Winooski schools, sends out an effective e-newsletter on a regular basis, as does the non-profit organization UP for Learning.
Create a Website or Adapt an Existing One
Your organization’s website is a very valuable asset. Consider it your virtual front entrance and brand delivery system. Ask yourself: What is the first impression we are leaving? Where do we want to direct visitors’ attention? What are we proudest of that we can highlight on our home page? Unfortunately, most organizations do not fully utilize this important piece of real estate. Of course, websites must be transactional in nature, that is, people must first and foremost be able to find the information they need: calendars, forms, news updates, and so forth. But if you are engaged in change work, the website is an ideal place to showcase it. It’s also a great place to deliver on your new vision and mission. Many organizations are revamping their websites to reflect their change efforts and to keep up with the emerging design trends. Below are the websites of several organizations that employ some of the latest design techniques. The first link, to High Tech High in San Diego, represents both good web design and a highly student-centered approach.
Use Social Media
If you have the time, social media can be an extremely useful—and cost-free— tool for building public understanding. Like traditional media—or perhaps even more so, social media is about relationship building. You are creating a network of followers with whom you will have an ongoing conversation. Because of its viral nature, however, social media must be considered carefully. Let’s look at a few different kinds of social media and how they might serve the cause of building understanding of student-centered approaches to learning. (To the “digital natives” who are reading this, please humor—and guide—the “digital newcomers” in your life.)
A blog is a good way to get the word out and to establish your expertise. The Berkeley Media Studies Group produced a helpful tip sheet on what to consider when creating a blog, and many school districts, schools, and education-related organizations are building public understanding through their blogging efforts. Blogging Links:
- Partnership for Change
- Citizen Schools: Women@PROS Inspire Houston Girls to Dream Big
- MindShift: Big Ideas
- National Institute for Student-Centered Education
- David Truss: Pair-a-dimes for Your Thoughts
- Connected Principals
- The 21st Century Principal
- The Compass Point
- Center for Teaching: Advancing the Teaching Profession
- The Nerdy Teacher
- Wright’s Room
Twitter is sometimes referred to as a “micro-blogging” service, a way of posting short updates limited to 140 characters. (Originally, that limitation was created to make Twitter compatible with phones and text messaging.) A digital novice might ask: What on earth can I do with 140 characters? At its best, some would say that Twitter has been a tool for securing a nation’s freedom. It can also be a great way to communicate regularly with your stakeholders and draw positive attention to the work you’re doing. It is not a substitute for other media, but rather a way to amplify and control your core messages.
Additional resources to maximize your “tweets”:
- 5 Wonderful Twitter Cheat Sheets for Teachers and Students
- Beth’s Blog: Twitter Community Organizing Rules for Non Profits
As a noted social media expert says, “Facebook is a friend-raising tool, not a fundraising tool.” It is a way to build community in a virtual space, and to get messages out in a hurry. “How Schools Can Use Facebook to Build an Online Community” illustrates how schools can benefit from establishing a Facebook presence. Here are some examples:
- Our Schools, Our Future, is a community organization Facebook page founded by a group of parent leaders in Sanford, Maine who ensure that the community is informed about public education and its connection to the city’s future.
- Parents and Youth for Change, (Burlington and Winooski, Vermont) utlize their Facebook page to help parents not connected to the schools come together and develop leadership skills.