How We (ERC) Spent Our Summer

Hello to our many friends as we hit the ground running for School Year 2019-20. We were busy over summer and want to provide a flavor of some of the work we see as vital and meaningful.

New Friends

Artesian Schools- Memphis, TN

Co-Founder Larry Myatt and Chicago-area ERC Associate, Kothyn Evans Alexander spent time getting to know Artesian School’s Southwest Early College HS in Memphis, TN. Founder and Executive Director Ashley Smith has made a move to the inside of the school, becoming interim Principal alongside her ED role.  We love the Artesian motto and mission- link here – the idea that the talent is here, the soul and spirit and will are here, waiting to be tapped. What a great idea for a school!

Larry Myatt & Kothyn Evans Alexander at Artesian Memphis

Larry Myatt & Kothyn Evans Alexander at Artesian Memphis

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Smith made a supreme career jump, leaving a successful decade and reputation in pharma sales and development to found a school, a school that had to be in Memphis, and that would build on the local people and wisdom. She has added two seasoned and highly talented new Curriculum Facilitators and is taking a first-hand role in re-thinking the school’s social-emotional development/youth development platforms. SWECHS is adding, over this coming year, a thoughtful Advisory setting to the weekly schedule, restoring PYD activities, reaching out beyond the school to create a learning community built on pushing for higher standards –for students, staff and families—while providing the support to get there. Staff will be working from a “guided discipline” lens to support student growth and achievement. It’s a turn-around of sorts but the future looks good, she is raising expectations, and is an open, energetic and super committed leader! We’re all in with her, her team and with Memphis!

Pembroke, NH Innovation Academy

Dr. Katrina Kennett with Pembroke educators

Dr. Katrina Kennett with Pembroke educators

Pembroke (NH) Innovation Academy

Pembroke (NH) Innovation Academy

Last spring, I had the chance to meet with old friend, Chris Motika, Director of Curriculum,. Instruction and Assessment in Pembroke, NH. Chris and I had worked closely in Manchester, NH and he introduced me to his new colleagues – Headmaster Paul Famulari, Curriculum Director Dan Morris, and Dean of Students Amy Parkinson—from Pembroke Academy. They were excited for their high school, to explore new ideas and practices to engage teachers and students, even in a context where students are doing quite well by traditional measures. We had an energetic late afternoon two hours in March as we explored possibilities and they prepared to present to their school board the idea of an Innovation Academy, where students and teachers could explore deep inquiry practices, project design that goes beyond “PBL”, and create new systems and structures, as  a sort of “R&D” segment of the school.

They soon got the okay they were after and a large number of staff came forward to populate the teaching ranks of the Academy over the next 2-3 years. My Inquiry Colleague, Dr. Katrina Kennett, and I were invited to work with their team for an initial kick-off in June. The first cohort of teachers brought energy, curiosity and high hopes. Busy school administrators and other teaching colleagues in the building freely sat in and participated, boding well for a growing investment in more sophisticated and engaging teaching to reach and go deeper with all learners. We dug into our ever-growing Inquiry Tool Kit, introducing EdCafes, our Grand Challenges and Curiosity Key to the PA Innovation team. We’ll be headed back as they rev up for opening!

Calcutt Inquiry Academy, Central Falls, Rhode Island

Calcutt CIA Summer PD

Calcutt CIA Summer PD

Six summer days brought together teachers and hands-on Principal Tim Milisauskas from Calcutt Middle School to get a jump start on building the school’s Inquiry Academy. The Academy will encompass almost all of the school’s eighth grade, is completely heterogeneous, and includes a sizeable number of students learning English as a second language. It’s a high-stakes venture but the team and the administration show every sign of being ready. The CIA team explored tried-and-true ERC tools and strategies, such as Learning Murals, EdCafes, meeting protocols, and Viewing Groups as well as working on hands-on activities, collaborations and visits beyond the school and an interesting set of organizational development “working principles” to guide their work when the going gets tough in the new team ecology.

 

ERC will continue to work directly with the CIA as well as providing full-faculty professional learning in the areas of positive school climate, inquiry tools, and school redesign as Calcutt moves into implementation phases of its district change initiative.  

On-going Coaching and Consulting

ERC Co-Founder and Head of Executive Coaching, Wayne Ogden

ERC Co-Founder and Head of Executive Coaching, Wayne Ogden

Co-Founder Wayne Ogden continued his stellar work supporting leaders coaching in a number of settings. We’re not ashamed to say that he’s prominent among a handful of highly experienced experts on teacher supervision and support. Helping in-service administrators to keep priorities in order and provide granular attention to developing a high-performing culture remains in demand. As Wayne reminds us in his “Six Myths” (link here), “20% of newly hired school leaders leave their position within two years of employment, with some districts routinely report principal “failure rates” of almost 50% within the first five years. Who’s NOT going to invest in support for people at that place in the organization?”

Wayne’s coaching work took him, among other places, to the Tiverton, RI Public Schools to continue his long-time collaboration with Superintendent Dr. Peter Sanchioni and where he mentors new and early-career principals at the middle and high school levels.  He does similar work with Natick, MA Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Anna Nolin, working with principals at the elementary school level.

Wayne also concluded a long and fruitful coaching collaboration with Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, working with their lower school in ERC’s once-home town of Cambridge, MA. The school continues to thrive and Wayne enjoyed a number of productive coaching relations at the school.

Also, among continuing work, Wayne provides leadership and capacity building support at TEC Connections Academy in Walpole, MA also known as TECCA. TECCA is one of Massachusetts’s two public k-12 virtual school districts. And serves approximately 2,300 students. In its fourth year in 2018-2019, the school is led by superintendent Adam Goldberg. Ogden supports the fast-growing school’s efforts by facilitating a “New Leaders Group” and serves as a confidential coach for members of the school’s new Leadership Team.

 

Woburn MA Public Schools

A teams of ERC consultants led by Wayne Ogden pitched in to support Superintendent Matt Crowley in this Boston-West suburb by conducting program reviews at both the Joyce and Kennedy Middle Schools. The reviews offered a deep and comprehensive look at the curricular and co-curricular offerings at each of the two schools including classroom observations, student and parent surveys, document reviews and interviews with teachers and administrator in order to assist in shaping a professional development plan for each school. Joining in the work in Woburn were Dr. Jim Marini and Dr. Judith Malone Neville. ERC provides a range of services that help districts and leaders assess the work of their schools. (link here)

 

White Mountains Summer Institute, NH 

Scenes from White Mountains Summer Institute

Scenes from White Mountains Summer Institute

White Mountains Regional HS conducted their first Summer Institute thanks to a generous grant from the Barr Foundation. Principal Mike Berry invited ERC’s Katrina Kennett and co-founder Larry Myatt to co-design and facilitate the three-day event and to provide mini consultations to teams in the areas of Humanities, Integrated Math/Science, Environmental Studies, Sophomore/Senior Seminar, STEAM and more. It was an impressive professional outing. Staff were cranking despite the midsummer heat outside and food trucks provided fun and nutrition to a staff hungry not only for lunch, but more importantly, for professional growth, intense collaboration, and re-committing to the idea that the school serves as the intellectual center of a community--“doing more for more kids”, as they like to say. Hats off to the Spartans!

 

Albuquerque Middle Schools

Eight middle schools from Zone 1 in Albuquerque came together to explore plans to raise achievement and build positive culture by better supporting students’ social-emotional development. Assistant Superintendent for Zone 1 Gabriella Blakey is a friend and colleague from prior endeavors in the Duke City and we built our two days of work around ERC’s Eight Key Elements of a robust social-emotional and positive youth development (PYD) setting. Principals from the eight schools brought school climate data, as well as information on their instructional and support teams and community connections. Key ideas from our working theory are that high-functioning teacher teams offer greater insights and support for students, that adults engaging young people with a PYD lens can bring out the best in young people, and that community organizations working in schools must play a larger role.  We keep saying it, wellness is an achievement strategy, and we hope for good things for these eight schools.

“Just In”-- Manchester West 2019 STEAM data

Dr. Larry Myatt leads a data discussion.

Dr. Larry Myatt leads a data discussion.

A note sent along by old friend Bob Baines, former Mayor of Manchester, NH and founder of STEAM-Ahead NH indicated that our professional development and coaching at West HS had paid off in a big way. (see link here)

He passed along data that confirmed that our different approach to STEM, to professional development and to deep, inquiry projects paid off. Among the highlights:

  • a 96% graduation rate for STEAM Academy students

  • STEAM students are attending college and earning Honor Roll report cards at significantly higher rates

  • 7 STEAM students finished in the top 13, although making up less than 20% of the school population

Congratulations to the hard-working faculty of Manchester West HS STEAM!!

Those are some of the places the ERC team showed up this summer. The myth of educators having the “summer off” is just that -a myth. These are schools and districts that we can be proud of and we’re happy to work with them.

 

Happy Fall to all!

The ERC team.

 





“The Place to Be”: A Middle School Reimagining Itself

I’ve been enjoying my experience watching the Calcutt Middle School as it looks to reimagine itself and I’m just one of many people who are excited about the possibilities.

Principal Milisauskas and the new outdoor lunch area

Principal Milisauskas and the new outdoor lunch area

Located in Central Falls, Rhode Island, Calcutt has launched a voyage to become “the place to be” in the community. I really like that phrase from new Principal Tim Milisauskas. Its short and sweet but I hear it as a promise to the students and families.

Milisauskas brings a history of teaching in NYC’s progressive schools, a deep interest in inquiry learning and Reggio Emilia and strong expertise in instruction, having been a math coach before joining the ranks of principals. He’s excited to be in Central Falls and committed long-term to the growth of its students and its practitioners.

The Calcutt student body is a beautiful tapestry of languages and heritage, and as with most middle schools, the kids come in all sizes, shapes and flavors, so to speak. To greet them at the front door each morning is inspiring, with their diversity and enthusiasm on full display. Sports, support for new arrivals from other nations, and a strong team that manages after-school activities and tutoring are becoming more central elements of the student experience and fund-raising has begun to add more to the menu, including efforts led by the students themselves. And the faculty have dug into some key aspects of a strategy for raising achievement, which I’ll get to.

But how are they doing with that mission of becoming “the place to be”? One data point from the winter months, a time that can be challenging as cold sets in and days get shorter, was when an estimated 300 families attended this year’s Family Game Night. The evening included all manner of board games, popcorn, pizza and drinks. Even Santa Claus was available for gift requests, small talk and photos with each and every family.

Thinking back, Assistant Principal Katie Gomes felt especially good about the event, recounting inside stories of families enjoying each other’s company, including some recently reunited, eating together and playing board games. Many students whose parents could not attend, came with friends or other relatives, lending the hoped for family feel.  Especially cool was that people were persistent in asking when the next such event would be. While in the past, similar attempts to engage caregivers often resulted in low turnout, the energy this time around was positive and appreciative. Close to three hundred families! Seems to me that one milestone was achieved in identifying the school and its staff as people who want to take good care of this rising generation of Americans.

 I find being around Central Falls to be relaxing and comfortable. These working people are clearly hustling but most take time to greet you, and unlike our home base in the Boston area, they routinely let your car enter at busy intersections. There are some great Latino restaurants and bodegas as well as good burgers. But it also can be said that Central Falls is a community that, to Milisauskas’ point, needs more positive places, given its chronic high unemployment and an ever-growing influx of people looking for a good place to set down roots. Historically, levels of school achievement have reflected low income, lack of familiarity with English, and frequent relocations experienced by many families. (Here is where I have to point out that, since the 1930’s beginnings of achievement testing, the one relentless scientific correlation regarding test performance is with income --one’s ZIP code. If your family has the means, you will be likely be well supported in learning and achieve at higher levels. There are occasional short-lived exceptions, but it’s a given that students in privileged, economically well-off communities outscore others on tests.)

Santa at a Family Game Night

Santa at a Family Game Night

A centerpiece of the Central Falls School District’s improvement efforts is a refreshed and revitalized Calcutt Middle School, including some structural changes and an investment in collaboration and professional learning for staff. I’m pleased to be supporting the Calcutt administration and its newly minted Principal Leadership Team (PLT) as they take stock and plan next chapters. I’m also working on behavioral climate with the school’s Restorative Team and ERC will be assisting with the design of an Inquiry and Innovation Academy, similar to work we have done elsewhere, building on an inquiry-approach to learning and breaking some of the bonds that have limited STEM results in other places.

Students enjoy an “luncheon out with reservations, menus and reading” with teachers Justyna Barlow and Laticia Biggerstaff.

Students enjoy an “luncheon out with reservations, menus and reading” with teachers Justyna Barlow and Laticia Biggerstaff.

Calcutt’s Principal Leadership Team examines data together

Calcutt’s Principal Leadership Team examines data together

The new Calcutt Principal Leadership Team has worked closely with Milisauskas to employ a Design Studio approach that ERC has used successfully elsewhere to take stock of current conditions -challenges and assets from user perspectives (students, staff, families), identify key levers, research effective solutions and pose potential modifications and pilots for the faculty and staff. The work requires careful analysis and consensus, and of course time, which schools never seem to have enough of. But Special Educator and teachers’ association representative Danielle Laferriere says the school is moving in the right direction after an extended era of challenges, “I think our staff sees us leaving ‘survival mode’ behind. There’s lots of work ahead of us, not just improving academics but coming together as a faculty, supporting each other and growing together, but I’m optimistic”. In addition, a new school-based communications team (SBT) helps to monitor progress and engage the community for input and dissemination.

To guide the Calcutt Design Studio work, Milisauskas posed the driving question, what are the elements of an optimal middle years learning environment? To gain thought partnership and perspective in pursuing that redesign question, members of administration and the PLT have been on visits to other middle schools in the northeast region. Milisauskas has been steely-eyed on the benefits of such visits. Historically, funders and intermediaries have built on visits to other schools, hoping for adults’ conversion to new ideas, replacing old pictures of school with new, and relying on a small group of travelers returning to oversee the dramatic conversion of the sending schools. Being the former leader of a school that hosted hundreds of visits a year, I would say the return on investment was, and remains, remarkably low. Milisauskas however has applied ERC’s School Visit Guide and expanded notions of visiting other schools as a learning adventure, with an accent on metabolizing the adult experiences and take-aways for smart use back at Calcutt.  Link to guide here. The PLT members visited East Side Middle and High School and Lenox Academy in New York City where they were impressed by the students’ ability to pursue their own learning with strong academic habits and language.

As a veteran of many similar “make-over” efforts I’m curious as to how a school re-design quest can reflect newly abundant data about key elements: mental health, exercise and mindfulness, reading science, and positive youth development (PYD), among others. I’m also focused with Principal Milisauskas on the importance of adult mindset regarding organizational behaviors such as intense teaming and collaboration and working with students with starkly different language and cultural backgrounds. As I’m fond of noting in presentations, improvement in schools with histories of low-achievement has been shown to depend a great deal on educator mindset --belief in one’s colleagues, in their students and in the mission--- and on skilled leadership, rather than on more instructional, “technical fixes”, especially in the early stages. Those can come later, built upon a strong set of agreements among elements of the school community.

And then, of course, we’re asking what lore is there to draw on regarding the past century’s history of middle years education? Middle schools have often been a neglected or murky entity since their advent in the 1920’s as “’junior’ high schools”. In 1910, only one out of every ten students were finishing high school. The middle years experience was perceived to be at fault, but that failure was attributed to differing rationales -a rigid, narrow emphasis on academics; a curriculum insufficient in its organization and rigor to prepare students for the upper grades; a missed opportunity for steering numbers of students into vocations; or the neglect of a growing understanding of pre-adult psychology. Some believed junior high schools should be places to prepare students for the academic rigors of high school; while others considered young adolescents to be a group at risk requiring, above all, support and understanding. Tyack and Cuban, in their stellar history of American public education, Tinkering Toward Utopia, describe it this way:

The very ambiguity of purpose and comprehensiveness of these aims made the junior high school idea a reform to conjure with during successive decades of the 20th century. Although the junior high school did not become distinctively different from the high school and came to be seen as a rather troubled part of the American educational system, it did sponsor changes that became hybridized in various ways.”

Calcutt STEAM workshop

Calcutt STEAM workshop

 To Tyack and Cuban’s point, varying visions of effective middle school organization still compete today. The stark differences among students in their size and physicality, social and emotional growth and development and location on the puberty continuum, as well as disparities in developmental reading abilities and academic skills have made it challenging to sustain supportive middle years environments that consistently address such a chasm of needs. Some states and districts, with good intentions, have even divided academic services and support in the middle years into two “levels” -grades 5/6 and grades 7/8, but this often means unhelpfully dichotomized programming, schedules, achievement targets and educator certification requirements. Such delineations too often fail to account for the afore-mentioned developmental and academic differences, can limit creativity and flexibility in teaching and learning, and constrain vertical collaboration among staff --the law of unintended consequences at work.

Calcutt’s Restorative Team reviews data

Calcutt’s Restorative Team reviews data

Back at the school, Noel Grant, who coordinates Calcutt climate with the skilled “Restorative” team, has also noted progress, especially among 8th graders. His notion is that although challenges remain, the investment in strategies that build a healthy climate is beginning to show, and as younger students climb through the grades, they will be bringing positive habits and relationships with them, paving the way for higher achievement.

“Calcutt Reads” -students read before gym class

“Calcutt Reads” -students read before gym class

Two central initiatives were inaugurated this year – “Calcutt Reads”, an effort to make reading central to students’ lives by making it central to conversations in the school, as well as a central focus on vocabulary. Teachers committed to these two vital efforts with vitality, and now, along with candid color pictures of students and teachers that have sprung up in formerly barren hallways, signs indicating what books staff are reading and “key words of the week” are everywhere. Students now answer, most without hesitation, questions about what they’re reading as well as new words they’ve learned and practiced. Again, this in a school with many students new to the language and culture of literacy, so these are purposeful and promising efforts.

WhatIf Math

WhatIf Math

As one more sign of the school’s renaissance, May visitors to the school were Arthur Bardige and Peter Mili, Co-Founders of WhatIf Math, a powerful new approach to making math problem solving more of a concrete, consistent, and understandable process across the discipline. With the goal of helping students become more able problem-solvers, WhatIf Math is finding a foothold among schools looking for an inquiry-based approach to learning math for the digital age.  Milisauskas, who was a math instructional coach in a prior life, is excited about their approach to preparing students for high school and far beyond and is in negotiations with Bardige and Mili about concrete next steps over the summer.

As a finale to a special new year, the Calcutt staff offered a “Lock-In”, a supervised and fun-filled overnight for students at the school. Adults were there in force, some for shifts and others for the whole night! The social media post below offers a glimpse of the fun.

Calcutt “Lock-In’s” social media post

Calcutt “Lock-In’s” social media post

As an onlooker, as well as a veteran coach of many similar efforts, I’m impressed by the commitment and understanding of school change leadership that Milisauskas brings to the work --he’s a key acquisition for Central Falls- and by the vitality and increasing buy-in of many educators at Calcutt. Key faculty are stepping up –some with special activities in the classroom, others participating in school leadership, others communicating with families. For many, this is what they’ve been waiting for.

All in all, Calcutt is a very different school from the one I visited only a year ago. It’s making parents, students and staff proud to be part of it. It’s a school becoming “the place to be”.

 

Larry Myatt

Co-Founder









Serious Meddling in New Hampshire’s North Country

Being a school principal, if you work hard enough and enter with the right motivation, can be one of the best possible jobs around. I did it for 21 wonderful years. It’s also relentless, grueling, exhilarating, vexing, work that sometimes seems to defy gravity. Max DePree once defined good leadership as serious meddling in other people’s lives. I think he was right on, especially about leading a school. Its an element of the job that eludes many.

Mike Berry has been doing serious meddling for almost a decade now in a village in the North Country of New Hampshire, principal of a regional high school that has become a mecca for good teachers, new ideas, and most significantly, a place families can count on to take excellent care of their children. That “taking care” of young people, and of each other is something you can feel in and around the school and it takes many forms.

WMRHS Students' inquiry in action

WMRHS Students' inquiry in action

Over the past three years I’ve appreciated the chance to watch Mike’s work and see some of the outcomes. White Mountains Regional High School is a New Hampshire “School of Excellence” and Berry himself was recently named one of five New England NESSC 2018 “State Champions”, an award given to a select group that push for equitable learning for all students. In Mike’s case, I know specifically what that work looks like, doing more for more kids in his words. 

At White Mountains, beware Mike’s serious meddling in your professional life. Its not okay to be complacent. But also expect his energy and support, any unique resources you might need, and pats on the back at just the right time. To work at WMRHS is to choose an active professional life and major commitment to growing your practice in a public setting. That’s some of the magic there, you don’t get to work in private. Berry has converted several classrooms into Silicon Valley worthy collaborative spaces, with all the tech supports needed for documentation, and curation of work. If and when a teacher leaves, their legacy of curriculum thinking and instruction will remain behind in their portfolio of work, intellectual property to be treasured and kept in play.  I’m reminded of the wonderful Ivory Coast proverb, “when a teacher retires, it’s like a library burning”. Its not likely to be that way as much at White Mountains.

Among big ticket items, the school has converted to a Humanities approach in grades 9-11 rather than separate disciplines in social studies, history, literature and language arts. That move was based on Berry’s teaching experience, achievement data from Boston and elsewhere, and the simple notion that big ideas and questions are the best way to avoid learning silos. You can find the arts, classical readings or political theory, social media, contemporary issues and more in those classes.  An Innovation Academy, focused around STEM and STEAM ideas, will occupy a portion of the building next year. The Spartan Steam Innovation Academy (SSIA) is pushing the frontiers of inquiry teaching,  experimenting with alternatives to traditional groupings, scheduling and curriculum thinking, extending beyond the veneer of “PBL” to deeper, more authentic projects, problems and scenarios. Two central ideas of SSIA are, one, to push for more rigorous, long-term individual and small team projects by using the ERC Grand Challenges link as a different and more engaging approach to presenting content; the other is a focus on building each student’s intellectual and inter-personal “tool kit”, skills that help with research, presentation, teamwork, reflection, inquiry and curation.

STEAM faculty Rick Grima and Dan Hubacz, who mentor the new Robotics team, joined by ERC’s Dr. Katrina Kennett

STEAM faculty Rick Grima and Dan Hubacz, who mentor the new Robotics team, joined by ERC’s Dr. Katrina Kennett

ERC is proud to be consulting to these efforts, as well as supporting Berry and his Leadership Team in their plans to keep growing and improving and maintaining smart risk-tolerance. Mike has really latched on to two of our big ideas --“moving to a culture of learning” (much harder than it sounds), and living out the old innovation mantra, “first different, then better”. He’s taken those notions and is running with them, cooking them into the work of the school with help from lots of eager staff. His team recently presented their work at the NESSC Conference in Norwood, MA, drawing large attendance and great reviews. They talked about the evolution of their work, and how working in collaboration and in a public setting has fueled their work. On that team with Berry were Molly Campbell, Patsy Ainsworth, Abby Roy and Melissa Jellison.

The White Mountains team presentation at NESSC 2019

The White Mountains team presentation at NESSC 2019

In more good news, the school learned recently that they will become a regional center for TRRE, a program from the University of New Hampshire that prepares teachers to do high-quality work in rural settings. Practicing teachers from around the region combine 15 months of graduate degree coursework with a full-year teacher residency and initial NH teacher licensure. Having White Mountains Regional High School as a North Country center for TRRE students will allow them to be in one facility under the tutelage of supervising faculty while they focus on creating inquiry-centered classrooms.

And there’s more! Other developments include a new 9th grade Integrated Math & Science initiative, and, one I was pleased to help prompt, a growing collaboration between the school and WhatIf Math out of Boston, see link an exciting new approach to thinking about, teaching, and learning math. Co-founder Art Bardige is headed to the school this spring to work directly with the Math Team and the SSIA. Berry hopes to be among the first high schools in the nation to fly the WhatIf Math pennant, looking ahead to a different, more utilitarian and engaging approach to math.

WhatIf Math is beginning a collaboration with the school.

WhatIf Math is beginning a collaboration with the school.

In another innovation, Berry now employs two school-wide “integrationists”, versatile thinkers and do-er’s with private sector experience who can inject concepts and skills from art, design, music, social media and beyond, to enhance engagement, research and presentation. That’s a job description I hope we will see more of as schools cope with the research on student disinterest in traditional classroom learning. A recently added “elective”, Progressive Styles, taught by Mike Martins, has become a hot spot for students with a range of musical and artistic interests and not one, but two White Mountains students were recently admitted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The Spartan Van kicks up some dust down Boston way -Berry, on the left, with Jellison, Roy, Campbell and Ainsworth

The Spartan Van kicks up some dust down Boston way -Berry, on the left, with Jellison, Roy, Campbell and Ainsworth

As you can see in this last picture, the WMRHS Spartan van is getting around. Serious meddling is paying off. And the winners are the students, families and professionals of a school on the move!

 

Dr. Larry Myatt,

Co-Founder

Education Resources Consortium

THREE STORIES FROM LAST YEAR TO GUIDE US IN 2019: ERC Wishes You a Happy New Year

Greetings--- As we roll into 2019, here are three education stories worth revisiting and talking about with colleagues:

1- Teachers Leaving the Profession at Record Rates

One of the things ERC does regularly is to facilitate school-based “new teacher groups”. They’ve gotten high praise from principals and from participants. We’ve been around and have learned to pay attention to the issues surrounding the attrition of young teachers. We see groups like these as a critical investment. Disturbingly high percentages of educators leave the profession after a brief foray, especially in poorer schools and low-performing settings, and despite a major financial investment in a teaching degree. We base our approach to working with new teachers on the fact that many people leave teaching not because they can’t master the technical aspects – organizing content, planning lessons, using computer programs, etc. but because of isolation and loneliness, on-going anxiety, lack of professional support, and the amount of time and emotional energy consumed by just showing up every day for school. We’ve also noticed over the past 4-5 years more complaints about the grind of getting scores up, a focus on trivial results over more engaging teaching, a relentless march through textbooks and standards to keep pace with demands for “coverage”, and the associated impingement on creativity that led many to consider the classroom to begin with.

 Now we can add meager pay and competing opportunities to that list:

 Teachers Quit Jobs at Highest Rate on Record

 

2-Facebook is not our friend

My instincts always made me leery of Summit Learning. Purchasing that platform seemed too much like a capitulation, an acknowledgement that a school can’t organize its curriculum, design lessons to connect with and motivate students and spark curiosity, or function as a “living system” with the capacity to recognize and address its own shortcomings. The Summit educators I met were largely unable to cite a theory of action, explain their role in making critical decisions about student learning, or comment on how the Summit approach fostered professional collegiality (remembering that adult learning and collaboration are the #1 predictors of a high-functioning organization). I attended Summit events where a common answer to any serious question about teaching and learning was, “oh, just have the students click here”. I also heard thoughtful educators rue the program’s reliance on cartoons and videos to explain and/or teach skills and a trivialization of serious historical and contemporary issues of class, race, gender, and equity.

I wasn’t surprised last year when more reports began to surface about students and families who had those and other issues with the Facebook-backed, Silicon Valley incursion into classrooms. Designed by pseudo-educators to make a buck and expand customer base, its unsavory aroma began to spread. Here's one story, and we think it’s cool that NYC’s Urban Academy, a public high-school bastion of rigorous, inquiry-based teaching and learning and attention to issues of social justice was one of the schools whose students led the way.

Students protest Zuckerberg-backed digital learning program and ask him: ‘What gives you this right?’

3-We Knew It All Along: More Pressure is Not a Solution

 Sadly, but predictably, the “School Turnaround” effort has largely been a costly failure. Few schools have ever turned around, and those that did had short-lived, marginal improvement. Policy-makers under duress, living apart from the reality of schools, have too often tried to address the wrong problems. An emphasis on technical fixes and programs to raise scores, many delivered as part of the proliferation of “school management” organizations (for both charter and traditional public schools), combined with low district capacity to identify and address root causes to make the turnaround approach a major loser for schools and taxpayers (but a boondoggle for “providers” --see Meyers and VanGronigen’s So Many Educational Service Providers, So Little Evidence.) This retrospective look raises questions about whether the meager gains were worth the political controversy, and the educational costs of putting a greater focus on test scores:

Pressuring schools to raise test scores got diminishing returns, new study of No Child Left Behind finds

Looking Ahead

Front-line educators have work to do. We have to do our homework and we need to know our history. We have to ask harder questions, and commit to engage the pubic on the issues that matter to us and to our students and families.

Here’s to a healthy and rewarding 2019.

Larry Myatt and Wayne Ogden, Co-Founders

Education Resources Consortium

 

 

 

 

 

EdHistory 101 Project- Volume 2- December 2018- Our Industrial Legacy

Why do schedules, bells and teaching routines in our schools feel so machine-like and industrial? So relentless and repetitive? It’s not by accident. And it’s certainly not good for learning. In this edition of our EdHistory 101 Project, we look back at the roots of some of the unhelpful correlations among time, learning and subject matter that persist today.

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One summer a few years back, at a shoreline vacation spot bookstore, I picked up a volume called Six Lives, Six Deaths. The book related the lives, and as the title suggests the manners of ritual death of six notable figures in Japanese history. As the book unfolds and relates stories from the 19th century, it so happens that a favored practice in a late-1800’s, “newly-opened”, Meiji Japan was to send promising military men abroad for study in Germany, England, France, and the United States. Notably these were the world’s major coal-powers, and the goal of these study tours was to keep abreast of exploding Western developments in science and technology.

At that point in time, the accelerating industrial revolution was advancing into new frontiers, including an area that became known as “management science” -the detailed study of work and factory production.

In the first half of the 19th century the requirements for precision in the finishing of machine parts increased sharply as steam engines spread and machine-building developed. This brought about the rapid development of industrial measurement technology. The works of Carl Gauss, who had developed the  method of “least squares”  and  the “absolute  system of units” (CGSE), became foundational. New principles and theories abounded, and the field of metrology was established, including the metric system, to insure uniformity of scientific research and production.

As the new field of management science matured, it quickly developed its own canon and lore, ascending into prominence in the burgeoning world of capitalism. Attention turned to how newly-recognized “improvement principles” in industrial settings (i.e. factories) might be applied to other important dimensions of a nation’s growth and development. Industrial technology science was most often applied first to a nation’s military infrastructure, but then its principles began to branch out to other aspects of public works and government services. It seemed that wherever the Japanese visitors travelled a consistent component in the quest to create a secure, wealthy and high-functioning state was the application of “measurement technology”.

In America, concepts from this field soon began to impact the design of a new wave of larger and more uniform public schools, beginning by impacting the beliefs and practices of the educational administrations that shaped and tended schooling “for the masses”. Reading reports and records from that time period concerning the nature of those “scientific” developments I was struck by their potent impact on end-of-19th century thinking about school.

At the turn of the 20th century powerful metrological institutions were founded in industrially-developed countries where their technologies swiftly meshed with emerging knowledge bases in other fields. Some contemporary educational graduate courses (I hope) still spend time on the impact of thinking from Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) on the organization of our work force, and later, on our schools. He was convinced that with study, observation and analysis -and the application of new concepts in measurement science- the "one best way" to do things in almost any arena could be discovered.

Taylor is perhaps most remembered for his stopwatch time study, the findings of which combined with motion studies (now able to be captured on film for analysis) to become the larger field of “time and motion study”.  Just as with factory machines, he could break a job into its component parts and measure each to the hundredth of a minute!  One of his most famous studies involved shovels. Taylor observed laborers shoveling varying weights with the same size shovel. After analysis, Taylor concluded that the shovel load with which “a first class man would do his biggest day’s work” was 21½ lb., and therefore fabricators could design shovels that, for each material , would scoop up exactly that amount.

At this point, it’s worth noting that among Taylor’s aficionados were Elwood Cubberley –arguably the most influential figure in shaping the early 20th century’s school routines and organization (Link to EdProject 101) Cubberley as well as 1930’s-40’s Soviet economists who built much of their social-industrial planning on Taylor’s  ideas and studies. In America, Cubberley, citing the threat from other nations with competing philosophies and economies (and armies), drilled home the ideas of schools as “factories where the raw materials can be shaped to meet the various demands of life”, institutions that demanded “efficiency in all endeavors”.

The extension of that thinking among school-designing policy makers was to use the schools as a “grading” device, so that the top 10% of school performers would become our leaders –the bankers, professors, statesmen, generals, inventors and entrepreneurs – and the rest would be directed where they were “suited”, a paradigm that, despite our rhetoric,  exists today. Other distinct hallmarks of that historic intersection of schooling, capitalism and industry remain largely without examination, such as the “report card” which mimics quarterly reports of production, profit and loss, and stock value to boards and shareholders, and which resembles an accountant’s ledger to quantify “learning” and behavior. Others include the calculation of grade-point averages and the reporting of “class rank”, suggesting the social “class” within which one is likely to fit.

So, there it was, and so it remains. The result of that era’s machine-age thinking was the solidification of an industrial model school, which, as intended, remains separate and apart from daily life, and as Peter Senge articulately pointed out in Schools That Learn, poses the problems which students, families and teachers struggle with to this day. Beliefs from that era include that knowledge is fragmented and arises in separate, distinct categories; that the school should therefore be broken into “pieces” managed by specialists; that there are smart, fast kids and slower, not-smart kids, and when the machine moves forward some students will lag, others fall to the side and require some sort of label addressing their inability or difference. The list goes on, but the upshot of these beliefs is that every day secondary teachers face the impossible task
of addressing dozens of learners in hour-long settings, and consequently, many learners and
their families struggle to fit into a system that is built to impede “fitting in” and a degree of
success for all.

And the brilliant Yale psychologist Seymour Sarason pointed out, the system can degrade the motives and performance of teachers as well. (The Culture of School and the Problem of Change, Sarason, 1996) He writes convincingly that, despite their proximity to children, most educators work largely alone the vast majority of the time, and too many can experience a kind of professional isolation and loneliness. Many suffer the negative effects of prolonged, relentless routine and repetition, similar to those of assembly line workers. Others lose faith by internalizing some of the impact of the failure and “buy-out” they see with many learners, year after year.
As a consultant to scores of schools, these are symptoms that are all too common but seldom discussed, even surprisingly, by groups that represent our teaching corps.

As we close out 2018, growing student disinterest in what we offer as classroom learning is increasingly well-documented. Two decades of flat achievement and our inability to move beyond repeating the same list of failed strategies ought to lead us to look more deeply at the model, and ought to be disturbing enough to make those who guide our policies decide to revisit the 19th-century “science” that has given us the schools we have.

At the very least, we ought to know where these lingering ideas come from.

Larry Myatt, Co-Founder

Now! A More Useful and Engaging Curriculum Framework

We're really excited about some new curriculum thinking that holds huge potential for kids and schools. Here's how we got here.

The first time I got really provoked about curriculum issues was when Coalition of Essential Schools Founder Theodore Sizer visited our school in the early 90’s. He spent most of a day and seemed to have had a great visit, roaming around the school on his own for several hours, asking students about their experiences. On his way out, after a few glowing remarks about the climate, he asked, with a curious look, “You know, schools are funny. I wonder why we’ve decided to offer American History in the morning, but American Literature in the afternoon?” He asked it lightly, in a tone that suggested he wanted me to think on it more than he wanted an answer. That would be Ted.

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As a busy high school principal, I didn’t give it a whole lot more thought that day, but it came back to me that evening, and again the next day. That simple question from Ted led to weeks, and ultimately years of thinking about how we order things, how, in Jal Mehta’s words from The Allure of Order, we attempt to “rationalize” human learning and school behaviors. Ongoing deliberation on his question led our school to move eagerly to a Humanities format that included those two traditional fields, or “classes”, that Ted mentioned, but also social sciences, music, art and design, themes re-cast in deep exploration of issues that matter to us all, that go beyond simple notions of “inter-disciplinary”.

A decade later, I, like 15 million other viewers, chuckled and nodded through Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk- “do schools kill creativity?” Of course, they do. We know that. They are meant to instill conformity instead. But in his delightful skewering of our industrial model, he not only reminds us that the traditional curriculum is wildly unhelpful, he traces its origins to the desires of late 19th century policy makers to prepare a small percentage of learners for academia and the professorship, another small batch, the would-be doctors, lawyers and generals, and the rest for work and various levels of drudgery.

So began my long road of nagging doubts about the effectiveness of the traditional “math, science, history and English” line-up. My experiences as high school principal, college professor, school coach and consultant repeatedly unmasked school as limiting and often discouraging. At each stop along the way I was reminded me that people crave connections to their own “mysteries”, want to ask their own questions and chase big ideas, to find out more about things that really matter, not bounce around each day in a world carved into four or five thin slices.

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In agreement, and likely somewhat out of pity, a good friend, the late and great Ron Wolk, founder of Education Week (he was an early and persistent Jiminy Cricket of our disappointing “standards” movement) urged me to read Marion Brady’s work. Brady’s rich library of thinking on curriculum and standards added perspective and substance to my own from-the-trenches critique. See link.

That talk with Ron, who had his own rich legacy, inspired me to put my mind in a more focused way to contributing to school redesign. Serious redesign. The kind we imagined with Ted in the early 90’s. Not the silver bullets we’ve seen come, go, and repeat themselves --mastery learning, “PBL”, “blended” learning, competency-based instruction. They’re helpful but insufficient, adaptive approaches that accept most of the current “arrangements” of school. Our schools need the kind of redesign that doesn’t skirt the core issues and problems of our school “architecture”. I wanted to surface the hurtful impact of our industrial approach to school on learners and families, issues such as the false correlations between time and learning, the smothering limitations imposed by age-alike cohorts and overly simplistic cognitive and social/emotional development paradigms, reductive concepts of the locus of learning, and above all, the CURRICULUM. The curriculum that’s like carbon monoxide, that puts us to sleep without our knowing. A curriculum whose origins we can’t cite, that seems to have no agreed-upon aim or over-arching purpose and disregards the seamlessness of human perception. As Brady points out, our traditional curriculum thinking "accepts short-term recall rather than logic to access our memory banks, has few criteria for determining the relative importance of what' being taught, relates only occasionally to real-world experience, and fails to encourage creative thought".

I had a breakthrough moment in 2013. I had the good fortune to read a short yet especially thoughtful article, “Synergies”, by G. Wayne Clough, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. His insights in to the urgency of organizing human thinking in a collective effort moved and excited me just as they had inspired his colleagues and collaborators at the Smithsonian. Finally, here was a way of making sense of our intellectual efforts, our potential as social and thinking creatures, and doing so in a way to make for a better planet and a better “civilization”.  See link.

The Grand Challenges presented themselves immediately to me as a framework for re-igniting the passion and curiosity kids bring to the early grades but which are mainly lost as they learn to conform and to please, solving predetermined puzzles, a framework that can help us dig out from under the glut of competencies, do-now's, etc. that no one wants to come to grips with, but which is link here to Gallop poll putting kids to sleep.

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Over the past two years, my ERC colleague Katrina Kennett and I and a small but growing number of teachers and schools we work with are helping us to deepen our understanding of the potential of The Grand Challenges. We’ve developed powerful visual provocations and entry events that correlate to the Grand Challenge topics and issues, as well as new tools to organize and expand the learning environment. We have imagined a unique learning landscape and developed a glossary of terms that explain those new structures and practices. Our “New Architecture of Learning” includes the elements of an ecology that can sustain more robust learning and activate powerful affinities among people, places and ideas, in the spirit of the original Grand Challenges.

Along the way, we’ve also learned that dissatisfaction with the traditional curriculum is not unique to us, is quite long-standing and comes from a wide variety of historical figures and intellectual fields. Link here. 

This new collective energy gives us increasing hope that people can begin to slowly put aside our tired approach to “curriculum” and replace it with explorations and activities that use the Grand Challenges as a framework for learning, activities that erase some of the unhelpful boundaries and structures that inhibit passionate learning. Whether you use it in an existing unit of study, as a larger scaffold, as an alternating curriculum, or as your basic framework, you’re helping us move the dial.

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So, if you’re ready, here’s the Grand Challenges “primer” you’ve been asking for, link below. Check it out. Imagine new, place-based, YES IN MY BACKYARD additions to the Challenges that resonate where you are and far beyond. Join our network, connect with others and help us move forward to meet the needs of our people and planet! Link here to see primer.

Serious School Redesign: ERC Efforts Moving Forward

We’re proud to announce that an ERC-led team has been selected to participate in the upcoming Mass Ideas Summer School Design Studio, a three-day working session for teams that want help to create innovative school models (whole-school redesign or new school design). The experience is intended to support teams to apply key levers for high-quality, innovative learning design and develop action plans for continued work following the event.  According to their website, Mass IDEAS “supports bold education thinkers across the Commonwealth to turn their ideas for reimagining school into reality, and with interest in any Massachusetts public school governance options”.

The team consists of ERC Co-Founders Wayne Ogden and Larry Myatt  joined by community partner Michael Dawson of Innovators for Purpose (iFp), strategy advisor Sharon Lloyd Clark, and Kristina Lamour Sansone of Lesley University, College of Art and Design who brings graphic design for learning expertise. Dr. Katrina Kennett, ERC Consulting Practitioner for Technology and Professional Learning, will join the team as needed moving forward.

Many of the ERC team’s ideas are guided by redesign and inquiry efforts well under way at White Mountains Regional High School and Manchester’s McLaughlin Middle School, through a STEM partnership with STEAM-Ahead NH. Both schools are moving ahead with a strikingly different approach to organizing for learning, adopting a novel framework and practices that the ERC Design Team will seek to refine in the Summer Design Studio. ERC in particular is looking for community collaborators seeking more inclusive, high-performing STEM programming and who are excited about new designs to achieve that.

Beginning in 2020, Mass Ideas will offer implementation grants for school teams who are ready to launch their designs. Mass IDEAS is part of an initiative launched by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). Since its founding, NGLC has grown to include a burgeoning group of organizational and philanthropic partners who are actively expanding the adoption of innovations that completely reimagine K–12 in their regional communities and nationally. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Broad Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Oak Foundation, and the Barr Foundation are among the key funders.

The ERC group has built its approach around “six big ideas”:

1-the equity challenge: high-quality opportunities for learning are distributed unevenly in Massachusetts (and elsewhere); achievement is unacceptably low in many schools

2-a core challenge in secondary schools is student disinterest in classroom learning; loss of curiosity, choice and engagement explain flat achievement

3-the traditional curriculum is increasingly problematic; the allotment of time, adult roles, assessment schema, student groupings and pedagogy that accommodate it prevent and undermine truly “student-centered”, personalized learning

4-a more engaging curriculum framework is available

5-re-ordering key elements of learning will yield greater student engagement and achievement

  • start with curiosity and thrill

  • hands-on, experiential activities and multiple inquiry efforts propel learning

  • learning with generative, big questions, and the uninhibited pursuit of learners’ “mysteries"

  • emphasize skills in a “learning team” context

  • unpack and negotiate a more suitable and generative place for standards

6- a new, comprehensive learning management framework is required and is part of our design

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For more information on the ERC Redesign and Grand Challenges efforts, please email wayne.ogden@gmail.com.

White Mountains Students Join to Help Bees Prosper

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In this time of peril and hope for our global bee population, we can’t help but say that one of our ERC Grand Challenges Network schools is creating quite a buzz! The Spartan STEAM Innovation Academy (SSIA) at White Mountains Regional High School, teaming with the school’s Agricultural Science program, recently was awarded a Whole Foods BEE-cause Grant.   

Things began to hum this past winter, when a White Mountains High School team consisting of plant science and horticulture specialist Rick Grima, SSIA Teacher Leader Melissa Jellison, and science and math specialist Daniel Hubacz joined a bee-keeping workshop at the Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, NH, teaming with White Mountain Apiary and local Beekeeper Janice Mercieri as a Bee Mentor. Beekeeping books, bee-made products, and tools for the hive came from the Savannah Bee Company as a part of the Whole Foods grant through which the program’s students will become co-creators and eventual owners of an on-going project to bring their winged friends to White Mountains Regional High School in New Hampshire’s North Country. Once they have studied where bees are happiest, they will find a permanent and suitable location, measure and clear the land, build the facility, and with their new state-of-the-art bee suits, will activate two new hives to host a bee population provided by the White Mountain Apiary. The goal is to ultimately host 40,000 honey bees. 

Using the Grand Challenges as a framework for exploring past, present, and future challenges to planet Earth, STEAM Innovation Academy students are in hot pursuit of scholarly, experiential ways to understand where bees fit in sustaining our biodiverse planet. See ERC's Grand Challenges Network link here. WMRHS is poised to become the first and only school in New Hampshire to have and keep bees, beginning with a summer work program to maintain the hive when school is out, track bee health and supervise honey production. Grima, who splits duties with SSIA and agriculture sciences, and is one of the Bee program founders told us, “By September we should be in great shape to utilize the hive regularly with students taking over all aspects of the maintenance and monitoring.”

For staff and partners, two chunky Grand Challenge-related learning objectives sit at the heart of all this Bee commotion:

  • Improving understanding of and access to the biology and natural history of the species, their evolutionary and ecological place in global ecosystems, and the processes responsible for population declines and extinction.
  • Developing concepts, theories, tools, and models that contribute directly to halting biodiversity loss, managing species and their habitats, restoring ecosystems, and mitigating threats to the environment.

Scholarly standards such as these are high, but the kids themselves are just raring to get out there and get with the bees. Front office staff and passing teachers get a kick of Grima and his students in bee suits with bright orange "Bee Buckets" as they had out each morning like clockwork. As word spreads, students have already begun to research and develop products at school and in “home food labs” with the beeswax scraped from the first sampling of the frames, including lip balms flavored, so far, with eucalyptus and lemongrass.

As hoped for, curious community helpers are materializing. Geoff Gaddapee, manager of a local hardware store and a beekeeper himself, provides support, hardware and tools and NH Fish and Game biologist Andrew Timmins visits to work with students and monitor bear activity around the hives. Each hive is expected to produce around 300 lbs. of honey every year, so students will suggest unique labels, flyers and develop marketing and advertising plans for honey sales, all of which will underwrite the on-going hive operations. Popular WMRHS Culinary Arts Chef Matt Holland hopes to utilize the homegrown honey in as many recipes as he can.

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Next fall SSIA will kick-off with a survival unit that includes food growing as part of living off the land. The math department will support student team projects revolving on population estimates, calculating population growth in the hive each day, and using scales to track the weight of the hive as the bees build and work inside. Down-the-road plans include working with the local Cooperative Extension and USDA office to create a SSIA Bee-related website, a global resource hub with updated-daily information about local bee keeping, bee projects, bee health and science, explorations of pesticide effect and attempts to rejuvenate bees world-wide. NH Fish and Game could possibly add a link on their site to be managed by SSIA student teams. Although SSIA generally only hosts visitors once a month, staff are arranging for the Lancaster and Whitefield Elementary STEAM programs to visit periodically and work with high school student mentors on several projects across the school year.

All in all, its an exciting time for the Spartan Steam innovation Academy which expanded from its original two-year STEAM-Ahead program, with more students and staff and a range of new learning activities, project teams, inquiry and learning management tools. Principal Michael Berry has been a champion in supporting the effort to create a culture of intense and engaging student learning through greater collaboration among teachers and, with support from ERC, innovative practices in inquiry learning. His motto of more success for more students is increasingly becoming a reality as the school’s reputation grows and continues to attract new, motivated, high-quality professionals to the school.

Keep your eyes and ears open for more news from NH’s newest bee keepers! For more information on the bees and/or SSIA contact jlabounty@sau36.org

 

School Shootings: Things Overheard

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In schools that I visit, here are some things I’ve heard teachers saying:

  •  I try not to, but I’ve had to think of how I would respond if I heard gunfire down the hall
  •  my wife/husband says good-bye to me differently now each morning
  • I have students who don’t want to leave my side
  • teachers have speculated about which might be the students who would come after them
  • students have been asking me if I want to carry a weapon; if I say “no” I wonder does that mean they think they can’t count on me?
  • we say our school perimeter has been “hardened” but in casual conversation we’ve ID’d three easy ways to get into the facility
  • where would I keep a gun?
  • in the cafeteria, I overheard kids predicting which of their peers is that kind of dangerous
  • I never dreamed of discussions like these in my school
  • I had “active shooter” training in my undergraduate teacher education program, so its not a new idea to me
  • if first responders swarm our school and we have multiple people with multiple weapons, who are they going to target?

Spending a lot of time in many different schools, it’s been impossible to avoid the myriad feelings and emotions brought to the surface by the Florida (and other) school shootings. The reactions have been surprising in their breadth, sobering, moving, alarming, and, frankly, new and unanticipated to a veteran educator who did NOT have to confront such issues while leading my school.

But, on the positive side,  here's a huge reason I believe in our kids and in K-12 schools. Check out this video. Go to link.

Dr. Gil Noam, PEAR founder,  speaking at Albuquerque Sign Language Academy

Dr. Gil Noam, PEAR founder,  speaking at Albuquerque Sign Language Academy

Finally, for the past four years, I’ve appreciated being a working partner of and  of and with the Partnerships in Education and Resilience (PEAR) Institute. Their work helping schools to know young people is more important than ever. PEAR Founder, Dr. Gil Noam, has responded with this thoughtful piece and I think it’s a critically important perspective. Go to link.

 

Stay safe.

Dr. Larry Myatt

Co-Founder

 

Treating Students with Dignity

This past August I had the pleasure of attending some professional development activities organized and presented by educators within the Central Falls, Rhode Island school district. One workshop was being presented by David Upegui, a science teacher whom I knew from my days consulting in the district years ago.

David is a big thinker with a huge heart, always active doing things for young people and the community, see link. He’s well-known in the state, see link and I wanted to make sure I took the opportunity to see what he was up to, what he was saying of late.

His workshop was full of great ideas and his unique provocations. It reminded me of how much work we have to do to nourish the spirit of young people. And how important it is, each and every day, to remember the powerful role we have as educators in treating students with dignity. I asked David to recap his workshop in this following essay.

 Larry Myatt
Co-Founder
Education Resources Consortium

 

David Upegui

David Upegui

It so happened that I grew up and went to school in the most economically disadvantaged city in Rhode Island. Even more than I realized at the time, I was in dire need of guidance, support, academic discipline and most importantly, a sense that I mattered, that I had a future. I was among the few and the fortunate to find that one special teacher, one that understood how that idea of agency would determine my future.

Now, as a teacher in my very same alma mater, I see it as my turn. I work as diligently as I can with a new generation of students, trying to provide for them that same sense of agency that freed me from economic -and intellectual- poverty. I had left my job as a researcher at an Ivy League university in hopes of igniting minds, in that very same place I had once sat as a student.

My son was born with an extra chromosome in each of his cells. Life with and learning from a young person with Down Syndrome is not what I had expected when I became a parent, but my son has taught me more than I learned in any class. My work became making sure that he would be treated fairly, with equanimity, and that he would have positive school experiences. It reminded me in the most powerful way of the power of each human being, and the fundamental belief that ALL children can and should learn. That’s what drives my teaching now.

So how do we do our best as educators, every day, to ensure that all our students are empowered and treated with that kind of dignity? Here is a short list of things I try to do that have shown positive results for my students --simple but important things—some having to do with the environment in my classroom and others more specially about my content teaching.

I call students by their last name. As simple as this may sound, this enables all of us to address each other with respect. When some students first hear me say “Ms. Rodriguez” or “Mr. Hernandez”, they are confused – it’s new to them. But I tell them that I try to look beyond their current status, that I see them as significant right now, that they will become even more important as they grow in our community.

I greet all students as they come in to the classroom. As an American-Latino, salutations and recognition of the other person were of importance growing up in my household. It may seem like a small gesture, but a smile and a hardy hello can have a profound impact. Even though I teach students that are in their final years of high school, I still begin each class with a “good morning/afternoon” and I expect the whole class to repeat it – it has become our custom. 

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Being prepared with lesson plans and materials. This may seem like a no-brainer, but one of the simplest ways to show respect to the students is by being prepared for class. When we are prepared we send subtle messages that let our students know that we are thinking about them outside of class. When we are not, that resonates as “he doesn’t take us seriously”.

Discuss the “rules” for all (including teacher). The rules that I have settled on are very simple: be prepared, be present and be respectful. They apply to everyone in the room, including me (and this is stated). It’s our way of agreeing on how we can be at our best with each other as we learn.

Introduce and value student questions. As a way to demonstrate the importance of questioning, I try to acknowledge and reward “good” questions. I have to make time for them, to go with the moment of curiosity. Over time students begin to notice the significance of questions and provide each other with encouragement.

Play music. This may seem trivial, but music can have a great effect on the culture of the classroom. I select playlists that not only have baroque musicians (studies have demonstrated the effect of this type of music on learning) but also include music that represent the wide variety of background my students bring. For example, I may play Sara Tavares or Mayra Andrade (both Cape Verdean), or Carlos Vives and Pedrito Fernandez (Latinos) and follow that with Air Supply, Olafur Arnalds, and Bach.

Regular communications. Some of these exchanges may be in-person or email, and regardless of method, communicating with students about their work, their academic performance, their strengths/weaknesses, dreams and plans, enables students to feel valued and important.

Explicit democratic voicing. I tell my students not to believe anything and everything that people say (even me!), unless evidence and data are provided. In other words, I want my students learn to be skeptical of “beliefs” and begin to recognize that their voice and opinions matter.

Bring in outsiders to the classroom/bring the classroom outside. Our classroom has many visitors each year. Any given week may include visits from college professors, nurses/physicians, graduates of the school, engineers, a swami (to teach the physiological effects of meditation on the body), or scientists. When visitors spend time with my students, everyone wins. My students begin to recognize that there is a larger world that wants them to succeed. And the visitors are inspired by the potential my students hold. Also, I try to take my students out of the classroom as much as possible – even it is just around the block – they are part of a greater community.

Storytelling/circle time. As unusual as this sounds, I hold “circle time” with my seniors in high school. I stop the action and call my students to bring up their lab stools and sit around a circle so we can all see each other. This works for many reasons including the fact that storytelling is the oldest form of communication and education (as well as being able to see who has their cell phone out). The stories I tell may include specific stories about science like the stories of Rosalyn Franklin, Lynn Margulis, Michael Faraday or Alhazen; stories which speak about perseverance, overcoming obstacles and using curiosity as an empowerment tool. Other stories may be my personal experiences or just about inspiring people such as Wilma Rudolph or Michael Jordan. Regardless, stories connect us as humans.

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Specific lessons that address liberation. A powerful examples is what we call “race”. I introduce the science underlying that notion. Skin coloration has historically been used to segregate and discriminate people, but what if we take a look at the data of ultra-violet radiation (UVB) and human skin pigmentation patterns? In this light, students begin to see that skin coloration is based on where our closets ancestors lived: the closer to the equator, the more skin pigmentation they had (as a natural protection from damaging sun rays). Once students appreciate that natural variation, they can begin to question why skin pigmentation was erroneously connected to human capacity. My students leave my class knowing that we are in fact only one human species (otherwise we could not successfully breed and have viable offspring). Undoubtedly, there are tons of lessons in all content areas that can be developed, delivered and shared with our students – we just need to consider them as what they truly are: the future stewards of the earth.

What we do as educators is never trivial. In front of us each day are the future problem-solvers of the world and it is up to us to enable them to recognize their great potential. We have more power than we recognize, and we are either part of the problem or the solution.