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Principal Markey + Students of #Leydenpride

school culture #leydenpride

Recently, we stumbled upon an essay written by Maja Bulka, a senior at East Leyden High School (pronounced LIE-den) in Franklin Park, Illinois. Maja’s essay, originally published on Edsurge, described how East Leyden transformed and amplified its positive school culture, using something so many of us are still trying to figure out: a hashtag.

East Leyden High School is a suburban school located just minutes from downtown Chicago and O’Hare international airport. Last year, more than 32 different languages were spoken at East Leyden— from Spanish and Polish, to Bulgarian, Russian and Ukranian among others. On average, 50 percent of East Leyden students receive free and reduced lunch, and on any given week—students have more than 60 clubs and sports to choose from. When it comes to diversity and positive school culture, it’s easy to see that East Leyden has plenty of both.

But a few years ago, when students were issued Google laptops called Chromebooks, Maja noted that Twitter quickly became a platform for “140-character hate rants on school, homework, teachers, other people and illegal activities.” For a time, the administration blocked Twitter from student laptops all together. But soon a new principal, Jason Markey arrived with a new philosophy: rather than suppressing student voices, why not give them a way to talk about school through a positive lens?

Just a quick Twitter search for #leydenpride, and you’ll see how inspirational one hashtag can be. These days, students, teachers, administrators and parents can share sports victories, academic accomplishments, new band uniforms and funny quotes—all complete with the same unifying message: We’re proud of our school. It’s enough to give you a healthy dose of warm fuzzies, followed by a wave of high school nostalgia. And today, we’re excited to welcome two East Leyden students, Maja Bulka and Mati Szelazek, as well as Principal Jason Markey to share with us a little more about how one hashtag can do so much.

If I’m a principal, and I think, man that’s amazing! I want to start a hashtag for my school — is it just that easy? How do you get it started?

PRINCIPAL MARKEY: First of all, if people don’t understand what your vision of a school is, then you’ll have no idea what’s going to end up on that hashtag. I believe our students and our school have gained a pretty good idea about what our vision is: it’s all about kindness and finding our passion and committing to excellence. Those are the things we talk about all the time, and so those are the types things we want to see represented on the hashtag and on the blog. You can’t just say, “okay we’re going to do this,” and think it’s just going to happen. It takes a lot of modeling and if you don’t have students who are willing to take part in it, then it’s really not a good route to go. If it’s only the adults in the building, it’ll falter pretty quickly.

It sounds like you’re saying this is not a method for creating school culture, but a method to amplify the positive school culture you’ve already created. Is that right?

PRINCIPAL MARKEY: Yes. I think everything on the web is about amplification. You know, we always had these great things going on in our school—but Maja’s essay would have gone unread by 99 percent of the people in our community, and Mati just wrote an essay for our blog about a symposium we had here, and no one would have known his personal thoughts on that event. If you’re building a positive culture, the nice thing about using something like a hashtag is that more and more students and teachers will become aware of that positive culture.

One of the things we love most about #leydenpride, is that it’s about starting a conversation. Why do you think that’s more powerful than the old-school method of sending home newsletters and updates?

MAJA: I think it’s more powerful than the usual newsletters because it comes from the students themselves. It’s also a medium that students everywhere are familiar with. All students are on Twitter, and all students like recognition, not only amongst their peers, but also among their superiors and teachers. Speaking from my personal experience, I know that whenever a student is retweeted by Mr. Markey or through #LeydenPride, they are excited, because we like to be recognized for doing something good.

PRINCIPAL MARKEY: When someone told me how excited they got when I retweeted things, or favorite tweets, that was just something I didn’t even intend or imagine. I was really surprised.

MAJA: I think it comes down to not feeling like a number. Because then everyone feels like they can stand for something and everyone can be recognized for their individual achievements.

How do you address teacher or parent concerns about too much contact between teachers and students on social media?

PRINCIPAL MARKEY: The same lines we should have in general with students should be in place whatever the medium. Right? Whether it’s just us having a conversation in our office or the hallway, or certainly tweeting or Facebook. We don’t have any hard fast rules for our teachers or our staff in regards to social media, but we expect the same thing we always expect: that they’re going to have professional relationships, and that they’re going to respectful of the students, and students the same. My personal philosophy is that I don’t follow our students, but I will gladly have a conversation with them via Twitter. I actually appreciate the fact that it’s public. I think it’s good practice for our kids in terms of digital citizenship—there are people paying attention when you tweet things.

MATI: We talk a lot here about our digital footprint. It’s important for us students to learn that what you post online is still out there, people can screenshot it, retweet it, save it. At that point, someone else has it and you can’t control it. Also, in terms of boundaries, with a hashtag, you don’t have to have direct contact with a particular person, it’s just communicating with the entire community.

PRINCIPAL MARKEY: My hope is that students will have a better understanding of this new landscape of social media. After high school, I hope they’ll be better equipped to deal with it and really represent themselves the right way.

Some schools might be nervous about starting this kind of conversation, because it could be potentially negative. Are the benefits to using this method to help build a positive school culture worth the risk?

PRINCIPAL MARKEY: I don’t really see there being a large risk. If you don’t do anything, then really, the only thing out there often is just the negative. I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t negative tweets about our High School on Twitter, because there certainly are. But if we’re not out there engaging in the positive, then there’s not going to be the counter conversation.

Have you done the search on Twitter for your school name? Have you seen the things that people are saying? There are all sorts of conversations going on online—and if they’re not going on, then the only thing about your school online is what you’re local paper is printing. And if you’re relying only on the local newspaper, really you have no control over that. I prefer, at least for our school, that we take ownership of our school story.

Do you feel like the day-to-day experience at East Leyden High School has changed because of #LeydenPride?

MATI: I’ll browse through the #leydenpride feed as I’m on the way to practice, and I’ll see something and notice what other students are accomplishing. It’s inspiring. A lot of times people are humble—they won’t say, hey I qualified for state. But their coach can tweet, “So-and-so qualified for State, #leydenpride” it provides me with a new opportunity to talk and congratulate my classmate. Because of #leydenpride, the opportunity for kindness is so much greater.

Many thanks to Maja, Mati and Principal Markey for taking the time out of their day to speak with us about school culture. And we want to hear from you! How do you use social media to amplify your school culture? Or are you in the beginning stages, building school values? If so—we invite you to take a peek at Liveschool. We’d love to help you build something positive. Now that’s something worth tweeting about.

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