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Friday, January 31, 2014

And the (anti) beat goes on

The anti-Common Core march in Arkansas is on. Literally. A group of protesters to the new and deeper learning standards for students will gather at the Arkansas Capitol at 2 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 1).

We’re all for the Constitutional rights to free speech and the right to assemble, and therefore respect their rights to make their case in this fashion. But we feel called to exercise our First Amendment right as well and state again that First Class Communication firmly throws our support to the teaching of the Common Core.

We plan on being at the Capitol Saturday to hear what these Arkansas Against Common Core organizers have to say, but we’ll be armed with a few facts of our own. Here’s what we know for sure about Common Core in Arkansas:

  • State education leaders across the country – as well as governors both Republican & Democrat – warmly embraced the idea and strongly supported the development of the Common Core. Common Core has the support of Gov. Mike Beebe, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, the State Board of Education, the Arkansas Department of Education and many, many educators and citizens across the state.
  •  One of the early and loudest cheerleaders for the Common Core was Gene Wilhoit, then head of the Council of Chief State School Officers and at one time director of the Arkansas Department of Education. 
  • The Common Core student learning standards were developed by leading educators from the local, state and national levels. Common Core was not a top-down mandate.

  • The process involved studying the best state student learning standards at the time as well as SLEs being taught in nations that are leading the world in education achievement. Student learning standards in English and mathematics that would enable higher levels of learning by American students resulted.

  • States’ educators have been operating under student learning standards for years. In Arkansas, SLEs have been put together by large committees of educators in much the same way the Common Core standards were – referring to the learning standards from leading states like Massachusetts as well as cutting-edge education research in the subject area being addressed.

  • Arkansas student learning standards, always approved by the State Board of Education before being taught, have been recognized for their quality, mainly because they did encourage higher levels of thinking across all subjects.

  • The major complaint, especially from educators, about Arkansas student learning standards is that there are so darn many of them. It was hard to cover the broad scope of SLEs and still have time to teach well the more complex but most important concepts. (The Common Core, by the way, fixes that.)

So, it will be interesting to be at the Capitol on Saturday and hear what these “agginners” have to say. Our fear is that we’ll hear more in the way of scare tactics than facts. Either way, we’ll report back on Monday.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Make your presentations pop

Remember the last time you sat through a presentation reading every word the speaker said because, well, there they all were, looming large on a big screen?

How soon did you quit listening and just start reading?

How soon did you think to yourself, just hand me the printout of the slides, and I can read them at home in a comfy chair?

Or, worse, how soon did you give up on the presentation altogether and start planning your weekend?

We’ve all been there – but hopefully not as presenters!

After all, PowerPoints and newer Prezis can be truly powerful tools to spice up presentations. But they need to be used creatively and as a means of supplementing or reinforcing your points. Mostly, though, they should be used to engage your audience.

How do you do that? One, never, ever simply rewrite your notes into a number of slides. Even if the words are not verbatim but pared down into bullet-points, you risk losing your audience if you don’t do more.

Sure, bullet points can be effective, but only when they are used to highlight the most important points that you are verbally elaborating on. When you use them, make sure they are there to reinforce the most important ideas presenting.

Another common mistake with electronic presentations is the use of detailed spreadsheets or charts. True, this is a way of supplementing the words being spoken, but we’ve seen too many that are way to complex to be shown in this manner -- the cells, numbers and words are simply too tiny for audience members to be able to see, let alone comprehend. Again, pull out the most important statistics or results, highlight those on the screen and just talk about the rest.

A better way to use either PowerPoints or Prezis is to illustrate important points with a fitting photo, funny cartoon or pertinent video clip that serves to illustrate a point.  Those techniques, when used well, grab and hold your listeners' attention, making it much more likely that they’ll get what you are trying to say.

Prezis are fun because you can be even more creative. For instance, a presentation First Class Communication gave about branding zeroed in on different parts of a cartoonish, branded cow.

With everything that’s available on the Web, there’s no excuse to have a boring presentation…ever…again.

Monday, January 20, 2014

APSRC's PSE Insurance Central gives educators one-stop info source

If you've been following the public school employee health insurance issue, you know it's complicated. And, if you haven't been following it -- well, you need to start.

The Arkansas Public School Resource Center (APSRC) hired First Class Communication to assist with its PSE Insurance Central, a single repository of information to make it easier for school district leaders and all public school employees to keep up with the latest developments in the health insurance arena.
Why should educators pay attention? Only because the school employee health insurance system in Arkansas is bound to look a lot different within a couple of years. Why? Changes are hurling toward the system from two sides -- the federal Affordable Care Act and the state legislature via the State and Public School Life and Health Insurance Program Legislative Task Force.

The legislature created the Task Force last fall after the State of Arkansas was forced to bail out the public school employee health plan to keep insurance rates from increasing dramatically. The Task Force was charged with spending the next one to two years determining how best to restructure the state's system to both be viable and to co-exist with the new federal mandates. No easy feat, for sure.

No doubt, the final outcome could mean big changes for school districts and school employees both. Will school districts have to offer their own plans? Will all school employees be directed to the new state exchange? These are only two of the many possible outcomes voiced so far.

  • Summaries of each Task Force meeting
  • A weekly blog with the latest news and announcements
  • FAQ about the state and federal health insurance plans
  • A calendar of Task Force meetings and other related events 
If you have questions about either the state school employee health plan or the Affordable Care Act you that you would like researched and answered, send them to APSRC's Katie Clifford or First Class Communication's Julie Johnson Holt.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

STEAM teachers will love Innovation Hub

We’ve got to tell you about one of our cutting-edge clients that will be contributing lots to the education arena.

The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub will be doing all kinds of classes and programs to equip entrepreneurs and innovators to succeed at home, but there are some things that will specifically appeal to educators.

Just this week the Innovation Hub announced a partnership with the EAST Initiative to create The STEAM Room at the coming-soon Argenta Innovation Center. STEAM, as many of you know, stands for science, mathematics, engineering, art and mathematics.

EAST is already in more than 200 schools in six states with its respected model for STEM education, but this will be the first time it is able to offer its curricula to adults as well as to students.

Examples of training and programs to be offered in The STEAM Room include coding, programming, 3-D design, animation, videography, graphic design and more.

The Innovation Hub will offer some cool after-school programs, too, like a club for students interested in computer programming -- as well as school-day (field trip!) opportunities any STEAM subject teacher will want to take advantage of for his or her students.   
For instance, at  The Launch Pad, also to be located in the Argenta Innovation Center, school groups will have the opportunity to work on some expensive, high-tech equipment in the areas of computer technology, electronics, carpentry, machining and metalwork.

No doubt, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub will make a splash in the world of economic development, but the school community will benefit from some major ripples as well.

To stay up to date with the Hub’s happenings , sign up for the Innovation Hub’s e-newsletter at

Thursday, January 9, 2014

It's time for a resolution

For 2014, I resolve to do a better job with this blog.

There. I said it. Now I just have to follow through.

Truly, I think I will because I've made it easier on myself. I'm embarrassed to say, but I jumped into  writing this blog two years ago without any proper planning. That's exactly what we at First Class Communication advise our clients NOT to do. It  causes us to shudder when they do -- strong, convulsing shudders, in fact.

So, if your New Year's resolutions include communicating better with your constituents, here are a few tips on creating, starting and -- hardest of all -- maintaining a blog.

After all, blogs -- when used correctly and consistently -- are great information and marketing tools. Superintendents, principals, teachers, business owners, company executives -- heck, anyone really -- can use them to accomplish any number of important goals:
  • Distributing information
  • Promoting organizational values
  • Inspiring action 
  • Selling products or ideas
  • Creating an online community
If you're thinking about a blog for your school district, your school or your class, think specifically about what you hope to accomplish with it. (For First Class Communication, it's being recognized as a trusted communication/public relations firm with expertise in education issues, specifically as they relate to Arkansas, i.e., we want you to know us as the firm "where education and communication conspire".)

After your overarching goals are defined, it's easy to drill down to appropriate themes, specific topics and then story ideas to fill each post. Once those are listed, you'll want to create an editorial calendar -- this will help you organize entries in such a way that you don't keep writing on the same topic ad nauseam. Nobody wants that, trust us.

You'll want to mix in announcements and news with some information about yourself and what you provide (but keep the all-about-me-news to about 10 percent of your content, please!) Businesses specifically don't want to come across as if they are trying to sell something every time they put up a new blog entry. And if you can keep entries somewhere between 300 - 700 words, you'll keep readers engaged and get noticed by search engines, too. Woo hoo!

Blogs should be thought of as sometimes helpful, sometimes entertaining and always worth reading.

Some people post daily, but we advise our clients to try for at least one post a week, three max, and to utilize other social media channels for more frequent engagement.

I've got my calendar filled out for the first of 2014, so look for the next Extra Credit post to appear on Jan. 15. You'll have to come back to find out what it's about, though.