Sunday, January 12, 2014

Where We Are: How Would You Start?

Context Building:

I have so much trouble blogging. It’s never about making the time, or not having anything to say. I’ve said in this space before that it’s so difficult to frame the day to day reality of my inner city school, in this incredibly positive blogosphere. But over Winter Break, Bo Adams, on his thoughtful blog “It’s about Learningwrote on December 30, 2013, a process post about homework. Bo asked for my feedback on his post, which I gladly offered and I’ve been reading the responses and thinking about the post ever since.

What got me thinking the most was and is that Bo uses his blog to think aloud, wonder, and ask questions. It’s clear to me that a blog ought to be used for just that purpose. But I’ve never done that. I’ve shared and wondered for sure, but I haven’t opened the doors to my practice, the struggles I face daily and the challenges I face in trying to move teaching and learning forward at our school.

So here goes; I’m giving it a shot. I’m hoping some of Bo's commenters will choose to respond to this post and continue the conversation we started over on It's About Learning, but this time for my context.

The Goal:

Bo framed an “Option 2” Homework assignment in his post. (Reprinted here with permission from Bo)
  • EQ: What is beauty?
  • Observe: As you go through the next 10 days, record in your observation journal instances of your thinking related to our current priority essential question. If appropriate and responsible, take pictures of things you find beautiful and make some notes about why. Ask others what they think, too. Because we are near the beginning of this experience together, I can suggest that the VTR (visible thinking routine) “See, Think, Wonder” might be one way to frame your ethnography notes. Of course, you can devise your own strategy (and you’ll be asked to do this more and more as you practice your Innovators DNA skills); if I, or some other mentor/peer, can help with your observation-strategy plan, let me/them know. Ask questions. We’ll share and review our “Game Plans” and “Gantt Charts” in two days, so we can see various strategies and plans.
  • Question:
    • Record the questions that arise for you as you detail your observations. I don’t want to overly constrain your thinking by suggesting specifics now, but let someone know if you feel yourself in some unresolved struggle about “What kinds of questions should be arising for me?”
    • In relation to your subject-organized classes, tag at least some of your questions by the department name(s) for which those questions seem particularly connected. For example, “What percentage of the population finds this painting beautiful?” might suggest a “Math” tag for a statistics portion of your emerging project.
  • Experiment:
    • Of course, you’ll be experimenting with your observation-strategy plan.
    • Also, use your observation notes to scan for trends and patterns. What hypotheses on beauty seem to emerge for you? Begin to outline – in big-picture terms – the experimental methods you might use to test your hypotheses. If it helps, pretend you are on staff with Myth Busters, like we’ve talked about during our f2f time together.
  • Network & Associate:
    • Suggestion 1 (if needed) – read and comment on the observation-journal entries posted by some of the others in this learning cohort.
    • Suggestion 2 (if needed) – find connections in your independent reading and link to nodes in your learning web on this EQ.
    • Suggestion 3 (if needed) – explore the playlist “6 TED Talks on beauty” and/or listen to the TED Radio Hour episode “What is beauty?
    • What are your suggestions regarding networking and associating with this EQ?
I love the assignment, and agree wholeheartedly that this is the type of meaningful, thoughtful, and purposeful work I’d like our Design Lab students to be doing.
Our Current Reality:
Here’s a worksheet that one of our teachers assigned before break. It’s not an example of every assignment we give; there are certainly instances of dynamic teaching and learning. But it isn’t an outlier assignment either. We give this assignment, and others like it to 16 year olds at our school all the time. This is both an example of class work and an example of homework.
The Task:

We need to move our instructional practices from the lessons that lead to this worksheet to the lessons that result in Bo's assignment. Some of my teachers are willing to take the necessary steps. Others are unsure if instructional changes need to occur, and if they must occur, what those changes ought to be. I’m not sure how many steps there are between where we are and where we need to be; but it’s a lot. I have a great staff. They care about kids, they want students to learn. Where we are pedagogically is simply our starting point.
Many of the conversations I see and experience on twitter are about who should be leading learning in a school. Should teachers lead learning? Should the principal? I see conversations about trusting adults and students and conversations about everyone’s potential. Here’s our reality; We don’t have a team of people to support our efforts to improve teaching and learning at our school. We don't have a Curriculum Leader, a Chief Innovation Officer, or even Lead Teachers. I drive the instructional agenda because I have the most experience with what instructional can and should look like in school to support meaningful student learning. We need change to occur. But that's hard to do when my team doesn't always know what change should look and feel like. It’s hard to get to “Option 2” when my teachers have never been in a school, where “Option 2” is considered.
I’d love some suggestions about what you would do first, and then next, and again after that. So blogosphere...please help me to think this through. Help me set the professional learning agenda. The goal is the consistent implementation of homework assignments like Bo’s exemplar. The starting point is the worksheet above.
What are Steps 1,2, and 3, and 17? How do you build instructional practices, culture and belief towards wanting to give assignments like Bo’s Option 2?
What would you do to support both teacher and student learning if you were headed to our school on Monday?


  1. Here are my first comments, and hope to have many more!

    First, be confident in what you are doing; it is starting to work and that is more than 99% of other schools with similar starting conditions.

    Second, leadership is the common characteristic of effectively changing organizations and you are a great natural leader. There are lots of things that leadership accomplishes and I am sure there are things you can do better in this regard, but as a natural leader your instincts are probably right more than wrong.

    Third, sure there are many things I can recommend; that is why I am writing my book! I hope it will hold many compass points for you and others. But there are no steps 1-17 for all schools; just ideas for good leaders to consider and translate into what will work for their school.

    But here is something concrete to think about. You have correctly identified that at your school there is just "you", no chief imagination officer; you are the lead visionary...and lead everything else. What if you could change that? How much does Design Innovation have to grow before you get an assistant principal? Or a counselor? Or any other staff position who is not full time in the classroom? What could you jiggle right now to create a position? What if you re-imagined leadership at your school to allow YOU to be the CIO and have someone else be the day-to-day school manager, or at least go some way down that path?

    That is what we are proposing at Design 39 Campus: the "principal" becomes the CIO, where the "I" stands for imagination, innovation, instruction, inquiry, and implementation; the assistant principal becomes the Provost responsible for keeping the lights on. For you it will be different, but the idea is that you need to be able to do what you do best, which is lead. How can we get you headed in that direction?

    Will look forward to see other comments, and work on this with you going forward!

  2. Eric,
    As a friend and colleague of Bo's, I am thrilled that you are taking his lead and throwing your thoughts and concerns out there for others to join you. Your situation is similar to many, where you face a reality that practically scares you away from movement because you feel as if you don't have the capacity you need to move. I would encourage you to push that aside, however, and start small. I would venture to say that you DO have some who either are desiring to move forward but are not quite sure how or also those who are incredibly creative and passionate and only need to feel the support. As a leader, I share your frustration and have "been there," but I found if I began to think about my culture and my group from a different perspective (empathy!), there was much more there than I originally perceived. So, take a step back, step in others' shoes, and seek the glimmers and sparks of creativity, flexibility, drive, and desire to have an impact.

    What reinvigorated me when I was beginning to feel as if I didn't have enough of people around me in my school was to connect with other professionals through Twitter and the blogosphere-- so again, you are ahead of the game. I was able to encourage two or three others to join me in reaching out this way and then coming back to discuss/share things we learned. We then committed together to trying something small, and then more sparks started to fly.

    The reading that is out there to inspire you and continue your reflections (and then I would say discussions, even with a small number) if immense. Your PLN can help you narrow down and take smaller steps.

    Have faith-- the amount of time this takes is not as important as the commitment to taking those steps despite the perfect environment!

  3. Eric,

    I thought of you yesterday. I was reading an infuriating story in The New York Post about PS106 titled “No Books, No Clue at City’s Worst School.” Marcella Sills, the principal, stands in absurd contrast to you and the passionate work you are doing at Design Lab. It made me consider the immense power of one.

    I personally think that’s where you have to start. You acknowledge that you have “a great staff” who “care about kids,” and “want students to learn.” Each of those teachers needs to harness the enormous power they have to change students’ lives. Encourage them to take risks, to recognize that failure will be part of the process. The safety of tradition, especially the worksheet you offer, is an illusion.

    Your central question to Bo’s December post is how you build a team of innovative, pedagogically savvy teachers. You specifically wondered, “ And what happened at school or at home to first help her (the teacher who might craft an assignment akin to Bo’s option #2) make the philosophical shift to this type of learning, and what specifically did she learn to make the pedagogical shift? “

    I’d warrant that she started with questions. She wondered why her students weren’t learning to use pronouns appropriately in their writing even after completing worksheets and listening to lectures explaining the distinction between “your” and “you’re.” She reached out to another teacher to see if they could work together to discover these answers. She built a professional learning community on Twitter. She followed blogs to better understand the world of teaching outside of the walls of her school. She recognized that to develop curiosity and passion in her students, she needed to model that same disposition.

    I know that you expressed anxiety in your December comment to Bo’s post that you’d be uncomfortable if one teacher was offering Option 2 and the rest were sticking to Option 1. I sympathize with that concern, but I think you need to empower one teacher, show your faculty that she is supported, and encourage them to follow her lead.

    I don’t know of any way to engineer the shift without adding weight to the other side.

    I’m glad you’re back to posting. Even though you often write about the challenges at your school and sometimes express how overwhelming they can be, I’m continually impressed by your resolve to keep pushing forward. You’re my hero!


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