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19 tech tools recommended by in-the-trenches communicators

By Kym Reinstadler, SCN Feature Writer | Expert Insights

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 7.30.05 PMIdentifying best practices and new trends are reasons enough to network with others in your field.

Networking generates ideas for  fresh new ways of doing things, which can result in a competitive edge, as well as a more vibrant and valuable social circle.

Because of the nice response to the recent summer reading suggestions sent in by a dozen school communicators, I’ve circled back again and asked a few more experts to share their favorite tech tool.

It’s my hope their A-List offerings will enhance your productivity and create more free time for you.

Sara DeVries

Sara DeVries

Sara DeVries: Basecamp makes it easy for people in different roles with different responsibilities to communicate and work together, which is why Sara, public relations director at Herrick District Library in Holland, Mich. uses it to organize projects that include several people and require multiple tasks. She said she considers Basecamp indispensable because it’s a place to share files, have discussions, collaborate on documents, assign tasks, and check due dates. A 60-day free trial period is available. After that, Basecamp will cost you at least $20 a month. More information is available at basecamp.com.

Basecamp stores everything securely and can be accessed at anytime from anywhere. helps me manage all the timelines and tasks for different PR projects we are working on, including assigning tasks to colleagues and approving their drafts.

Karen McPhee:  The, education policy adviser to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and former superintendent of the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, says a powerful search engine is a communications leader’s best ally. “This might seem like a ‘duh’,” Karen said, “but understanding where and how to find reliable information quickly is essential.” Google is Karen’s favorite search engine because she knows how it responds and how deeply she’s need to dig into the search results to discover what she needs.

Karen McPhee

Karen McPhee

McPhee  also recommends that school communicators try a “read it to me” news service like Umano. This app gives you an audio versions of the day’s top print news stories and articles from leading print sources. plus articles that have been recommended by listeners. It also offers a selection of audiobooks. Karen says having news read to her in short spurts while she’s transitioning from one activity to another helps her keep up with what’s happening in the world.

“A world view is the hallmark of a communications leader in any industry,” Karen said.

Tom Gould

Tom Gould

Tom Gould: As director of Howell Public Schools in Michigan, Tom has occasion to write in different styles. But when he’s writing a press release, his aim to write in perfect Associated Press style so print media outlets don’t have to clean-up his copy. Tom says he runs AP StyleGuard, a plug-in for Microsoft Word, in the background as he writes. If breaks an AP style rule (like spelling out February instead of using out the Feb. abbreviation), the app flags it and asks whether he’d like to change that to AP style. AP StyleGuard costs $39 per year.

Although it’s more of service than an app, Tom also recommends using Help a Reporter Out, also known as HARO. Reporters enter queries looking for sources with expertise in certain areas. He answers queries in which he can recommend an excellent source. This is how a Howell Public Schools gym teacher was quoted in a recent Parents Magazine article.

Dave Tchozewski

Dave Tchozewski

Dave Tchozewski: The primary software on Jenison (Mich.) Public Schools’ technology director’s  “Must Have” list are  Google Apps for Education. This absolutely free suite of software (email, calendar, docs, sheets, slides, and more) are how Dave said he gets work done.  These productivity tools work on any computer, any tablet and any smartphone. The most important part of the package may be Google Drive, a file storage and synchronization service created and managed by Google. It allows users to store documents in the cloud, share files, and edit documents with collaborators. Users do have to access Google Apps for Education through the domain of a registered educational institution.

Ron Koehler

Ron Koehler

Ron Koehler: The assistant superintendent of the Kent Intermediate School District (Mich.) agrees with Dave Tchozewski about Google Apps. ”They’ve become so commonplace that a huge gap would exist if they were no longer available,” Ron said. However, in the interest of full disclosure, Ron believes it’s important that users, and would-be users, recognize and remember that Google collects and markets some personal information in exchange for the free use of their apps.

Stephanie Tuttle

Stephanie Tuttle

 Stephanie Tuttle: The app this Grand Rapids (Mich.) attorney wouldn’t want to live without is just for fun: Trivia Crack. It’s a platform for playing trivia games online with players worldwide. Stephanie’s go-to app for professional purposes is FastCase, an online law library database that allows her to conduct legal research in every jurisdiction in the United States, for both state law and federal questions. There are 12 different ways to search and results are populated in a Google-esque fashion with the the most relevant sources placed at the top of the results list. “I have often used this in situations where I’m negotiating a settlement out of the office, or having discussions with other attorneys outside of a courtroom setting,” Stephanie said. FastCase is affordable when compared to other legal research services. A free trial subscription is offered. It’s possible to subscribe month-to-month. An annual subscription to the premium service costs just under $1,000 per year.

School Communicator Gerri Allen

Gerri Allen

Gerri Allen:

This Detroit-area public relations consultant uses radio apps and news tracking services in an attempt to stay abreast of trending stories. “It’s always important to scan the environment for the next big thing that could impact the schools,” Gerri said. Fortunately, there are a lot of good apps in this category. National Public Radio has a good app for mobile devices. Stitcher provides a user-friendly interface for keeping up with favorite radio programs.

Gerri also recommends Dropbox  as a safe, low-cost way of sharing, syncing and storing files in the cloud. A free trial is available.

Kate Snyder

Kate Snyder

Kate Snyder: “Staying up-to-date on current affairs is the most critical part of my job,” says Kate, principal strategist at Piper & Gold Public Relations in Lansing, Mich. “My must-have apps are those that help me stay up-to-speed on local news,” Kate said. The ones she uses most are the  Michigan Radio app, which allows her to live-stream a Michigan NPR-affiliate on her mobile devices, and apps from MLivewhich allow her to tap into news by metropolitan areas.

Linda Wacyk

Linda Wacyk

Linda Wacyk: Communications director for the Michigan Association of School Administrators first used TweetDeck to monitor Twitter traffic in multiple hashtags at a professional conference. It made following conversations in real-time so much easier! Unfortunately, if you’re  not working on a desktop or laptop computer, you’re better off using HootSuite, a Twitter management tool which has mobile applications. The free version of HootSuite allows the user to manage up to five different social profiles.

Rob Pocock

Rob Pocock

Rob Pocock: Email is the most useful technology tool, the world around, says SCN this SCN contributor and former vice president of communications for Spectrum Health (Mich.). Rob says his favorite apps are the ones he uses socially to keep in touch with family and friends: Facebook, Instagram and FaceTime. His affection for visual media didn’t surprise me, since I know that Rob and his wife Cindy are new grandparents.

Kym Reinstadler

Kym Reinstadler

Kym Reinstadler: The cybersphere is glowing with great apps, but I’d be hard-pressed to name one more useful to me than Evernote. Years ago, my life was littered with scraps of paper on which I’d scrawl notes to myself of things I wanted to remember. For quick reference, I’d impale these notes on one of two spindles that sat on my desk. One spindle was for my personal life and the other was for my professional life. One day, two male colleagues seized my spindles and had a sword fight in the newsroom! That’s when it dawned on me that I was being dumb having my three kids’ Social Security numbers — and other important information that I’d hate to flutter away — on spindle that could be commandeered as a play toy.

Evernote is in infinitely better solution. The free version has all the features I need but there’s also a premium version.

I can take a digital note. I can group the notes into topical notebooks. I can instantly access those notes from my Evernote account from any device anywhere that I happen to be.

Evernote makes me look sharp, without a pointy spindle!

School communicators can battle the “summer slide” too!

By Kym Reinstadler, SCN Feature Writer | Expert Insights

It happens at the end of every school year.

Schoolchildren at home timeTeachers dutifully send students home for summer break.

Then school communicators begin spreading the word about the dreaded “summer slide” in reading skills and encourage parents and children to schedule reading time together and visit their local library early and often.

Now with this uptick in leisure hours, it’s time to ask yourself how you plan to indulge your own love of learning and language?

In other words, are YOU reading?

I reached out to a host of SCN friends to invite them to share a couple of their favorite books — one fiction and one nonfiction.

Several sent regrets. They love to read, they said, but the whirlwind days of school communicators leaves them, regretfully, with little time for reading that’s not directly job related.

I get that.

Demands on a school communicator’s time can be crushing, especially right now.

But look over these contributions and use them to guard against totally crowding reading out of your schedule.

It’s a great way to expose yourself to ideas with the power to improve lives — especially your own.

And don’t we all love a good story?

So, enjoy!

MIKE PASKEWICZ

Mike Paskewicz and Wildcat

Mike Paskewicz (right), retiring superintendent of Northview Public Schools (MI)

Fiction: “Walter the Farting Dog” by William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murray. It’s important not to take ourselves too seriously. And, it’s comforting to know that — even if you stink up the joint once in awhile — you can still be a hero.

Nonfiction: “America’s Schools at a Turning Point, And how we THE PEOPLE can help shape their future” by Corky O’Callaghan. This book challenges superintendents to become more courageous and tell the truth about how our country is 1) Confusing innovation with entrepreneurship, 2) How current legislative actions are eroding the relevance of public education, and 3) Blaming educators for the issues instead of turning to them for the solutions.

You’ll remember Mike from this SCN story.


KRISTIN MAGETTE

Kristin Magette

Kristin Magette, communications director, Eudora Schools (KS)

Fiction: “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See. A sweeping tale of two lifelong friends in 19th Century China. This book completely captivated me from beginning to end. Complex but relatable characters are absolutely endearing, and the plot never disappoints. As a bonus, See is very engaged in Twitter and is quick to tweet with readers!

Nonfiction: “Why Should the Boss Listen to You” by Jim Lukascewski. You’ve probably heard of this one before, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. Outlining seven disciplines of a strategic advisor, he frames his insights into tips and tactics that can be applied immediately. This one both reinforced and strengthened my relationship with and value to two different superintendents.

You’ll remember Kristin from this SCN story.

And this one.

Emma Jackson, Washetaw ISD (MI)

Emma Jackson
Washtenaw ISD (MI)

EMMA JACKSON

Fiction:  “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. I love history and this book intertwines the topics of abolition, the women’s movement, and relationships between slaves and slave-owners.

Non-fiction: “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott. An oldie but goodie and a great reminder that when we improve our communication methods we build bridges of understanding and enrich our conversations.

 

 

KAREN HEATH

Karen Heath

Karen Heath
Communications Supervisor
Berrien Springs ISD (MI)

Fiction: “Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins. Suspenseful and not school related at all!

Non-Fiction: “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon. This book is all about developing a culture of positive engagement between yourself and your colleagues. The Energy Bus gives you a language to have those difficult conversations including how to get rid of “energy vampires” –those co-workers who are not pulling their weight or have their own personal agenda that is sabotaging the mission of the organization.

 

 

THOMAS LANGDON

Tom Langdon, Superintendent of Sturgis Public Schools (MI)

Tom Langdon, Superintendent of Sturgis Public Schools (MI)

Fiction: “The Eyes of the Dragon” by Stephen King. This is not the normal Stephen King fare as far as being violent, disturbing, etc. The story is totally captivating and you will learn nothing from it — a great combination for beach reading!

Non-fiction: “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson. This is another book about a failed attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail, start to finish, is definitely not a drive-by. It is also being produced on the big screen (starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte) and will be released this fall. You need to read this book before watching the movie.

 

SUSAN K. MACIAK

Susan K. Maciak

Susan K. Maciak

Fiction: Wonder” by R.J. Palacio is an eye-opening, must-read for all educators and other people who work with children. It’s a fictional tale told from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy born with multiple birth defects that left his face (even after many surgeries) extremely odd-looking and ugly to others. His loving family decides to send him to school for the first time in fifth grade, where he meets stares, glares and other negative reactions from most of his classmates, but he survives it all to excel and earn the admiration of educators and peers.

Nonfiction: “Add to Your Edge: 12 Ways to Excel in the 21st Century” by Susan K. Maciak touches on several important ways that business practices, education and career paths have been turned upside down in recent years. Readers get an edge on how to cope with change at work and in the job market in today’s challenging times. Critical information for anyone who wants to be on the cutting-edge of their career.

Sue, who has written several job coaching books, shared tips for school communicators in this article.

RON KOEHLER 

Ron Koehler

Ron Koehler, Assistant Superintendent, Kent Intermediate School District (MI)

Fiction: “The Hunger Games Trilogy.”  I’ve recently completed this trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay) hoping to better understand the attitudes of today’s youth and the total sense of disengagement many have in our political system.

New Nonfiction: “Student Voice: The Instrument of Change” by Russell J. Quaglia and Michael J. Corso. This book describes the power of the student voice and engagement in the education process. Our own student research at Kent ISD tells me that student engagement is the single most powerful tool left unused in our toolbox. It can drive student achievement and massive change in the system if we were to correctly harness it. If we allow students to remain actively disengaged, as many are, according to the annual Gallup Student Poll, we’ll continue to suffer poor test scores, behavioral issues and outside intervention seeking to improve school and student performance. If we inspire students, their voice will drive the change we need within our schools and silence those outside our system through their enthusiasm for learning.

Old Nonfiction: “Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” by Dr. Frank Luntz. Researcher, political strategist and advisor Luntz for years has been advising politicians and consultants, primarily Republicans, on the words they use to describe issues and policies they’d like to change. Research shows most people in this country support a woman’s right to choose, but the Pro-Life movement continues to limit choice in state after state. The nation’s founders fought for inheritance taxes to thwart the aristocracy that so dominated the politics of European nations. Yet, this populist tool intended to create a meritocracy, a society in which those who earn their way to the top, was dubbed the “death tax” by Luntz and is being struck down in state after state. We in the public schools use language that few people understand and most believe is intended to establish an air of authority to deflect or deny their questions and concerns for their children’s education. We’d all do well to better understand what people actually hear, and how they react to it, when we craft our messages.

You’ll remember Ron Koehler from this SCN story.

KATE SNYDER

Kate Snyder

Kate Snyder, Principal Strategist, Piper & Gold Public Relations

Fiction: “The Thief,” the first book in The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner.  I have a signed card from the author sitting on my nightstand with a (well-worn) stack of the books. The Thief is one of those books that sneaks up on you — you have no idea why everyone raves about it until you finish it. Smart, layered, likable characters with lots of political intrigue and a bit of fantasy mixed in. Books two and three in the series are even better, and the audiobook narrated by Jeff Woodman is to-die-for.

Nonfiction: “Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business”  by Ann Handley & C.C. Chapman. It’s super relevant, super practical and easy to read — great for communicators looking to work smarter not harder. I actually use it in my Writing for PR Class at Michigan State University.

If Kate looks familiar, you probably read this SCN story.

ZAC RANTZ

Zac Rantz, chief information officer at Nixa Public Schools in Missouri, which was selected by the National School Public Relations Association as the best school communications program in North America!

Zac Rantz, Chief Communication Officer, Nixa Public Schools (MO)

Fiction: ”Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis. This has always been a favorite book of mine, but each time I read it I see something new and different that I didn’t catch before because of where I am in life and what experiences I have had.

Nonfiction: “Think Like A Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. This is a book  that really caused me to look outside of how I think or what I think to be true on issues. It really encouraged me to look for the root cause of the issue, and not just the symptoms of the problem.

Remember Zac? Here’s when SCN first met him.

 

AND HERE ARE TWO FROM ME!

Kym Reinstadler, SCN feature writer

Kym Reinstadler, SCN feature writer

Fiction: “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach. Full disclosure: I love the game of baseball and believe it can be a metaphor for the human condition. This is literary baseball fiction at its best, which means that it is about more than the game on the field. A savant of the shortstop position, on the brink of setting a record for errorless games, has a throw to first base go awry, injuring a teammate in the dugout. He completely loses his edge, causing others connected to his college team to question and refocus their own talents and ambitions.

Nonfiction: “The Death and Live of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch. Sometimes a book resonates because it puts together something you’ve been puzzling over. This book did that for me in 2010. By that point I had been in the trenches for 20 years covering various attempts to “reform” public education for a daily newspaper. Accountability for progress and school choice seemed like decent avenues for improving schools initially, but by 2010 serious shortcomings were heartbreakingly obvious. Ravitch, who helped develop No Child Left Behind, deconstructs why these reform efforts haven’t worked. She contends that they are, in fact, undermining public education. And she offers some alternative ideas for preserving and improving schools.

Thank you, friends! Happy summer reading!