Mike Berry is a man with a plan.
Although he has some constraints ---he’s pretty far from a lot of places, he’s limited in his pay scale, and other schools like to “borrow” his staff— he has shared a vision that is catching on. “More success for more kids” is his simple driver.
With support from his district administration, and with smart convening of local business and community members to explain and gain support for his ideas, Berry is bringing his North Country school to prominence and setting up to transform its design from the 19th to the 21st century.
White Mountains Regional High School is an exciting place to work. You can come here to grow as an educator. For me, it’s a return to my roots – I grew up in Concord NH --and it’s great to see this kind of work flourishing in the Granite State. We’ve had a decade-long run of master planning, testing and conventional thinking. Some people are betting on performance assessment, blended technology approaches, competency-based grading, or yet another (!) revival of mastery learning. None of these change the fundamental arrangements of school, arrangements that no longer serve us. As someone who plies her trade helping schools to plan super-thoughtfully and involve students in deep ways, it’s exciting to find this kind of work.
STEM as one launching pad
Among other things, Berry caught on to the promise of STEAM Ahead-NH and has invested in a new vertical STEM initiative coordinated by Mellissa Jellison. Next year, they will add a new grade cohort and, with the addition of an arts/design component, become STEAM. Central to Jellison and her colleagues’ work is inquiry teaching and putting the “thrill” back into students’ daily experiences. Mike is totally on board with that shift as a lever to achieve his mission of more success for more kids, and is using ERC tools to move it forward, flattening out leadership, and inviting others who are excited to help grow and contribute.
I made my way back to NH from Illinois when Mike Berry was looking for STEM professional development and connected with my colleague and ERC Co-Founder Larry Myatt. Berry says that potential vendors for STEM p.d. came out of the woodwork, but in a conference call he and his people recognized Larry’s breadth of experience and proof points, and his “DIY” approach to renewing schools resonated with them. By DIY, we mean that we believe that schools don’t need the pre-packaged, highly prescriptive “how-to” manuals to be great, but that school people can believe in themselves, marshal their resources, and grow their own capacity to improve and flourish.
Upon arriving, Larry connected right away with staff, brought in some new “big ideas” and framing that resonated with Berry’s own philosophy. Larry also helps to coach the administrative team on moving the changes forward. Says Berry, “The mantra that we’ve taken from ERC is the need for shift from a culture of teaching to a culture of learning, and all that goes with that. We believe we can build it right here, and do what’s been almost impossible for high schools to do up to now – take a traditional model and transform it for students who’ll take over a world we adults can’t even understand.”
Teachers as Learners
My work with Berry has been in supporting his staff as they learn about technology and integrate it to support inquiry practices in their classrooms. In interactive, large-group workshops (in-person and remotely), I invite teachers to have fun being learners with new tools and platforms, even when it’s frustrating or confusing, as new technology can be. This means they do all the things we want students doing – working hands -on, discovering, struggling, and reflecting, then applying their experience and knowledge to their own ongoing work.
In my conversations with teachers as they learn with new tools, I keep bringing them back to three critical questions: What do you want your students to walk away knowing? What kinds of questions would you like your students to be asking? What’s the “so what,’ and why is it important?
Not a ‘one-and-done’ version of learning with technology, our sessions provide devoted time to look at a variety of tools for curating and archiving student work. And, I use research-based instructional strategies that bring together teachers’ learning over time. One of my favorite strategies is the use of EdCafes, (See link) which almost always raise the levels of energy and creativity in a collegial setting that transfers directly to work with students.
However, direct support of teachers isn’t enough to sustain meaningful school-wide change. My sessions need to be part of a larger, overall story of change within a culture of learning – instructional, cultural, intellectual (for both students and teachers), and developmental.
It’s big and it’s challenging, but that’s what it takes and that’s why I love this work. To help the instructional leaders work both on-the-ground and at the 10,000 foot level, I coach them to keep their sights on those three core questions as they work with faculty. This coaching involves assessing ongoing school PD rhythms and routines, helping folks to keep an eye on outcomes, and continuing to create authentic situations for teachers to present their ongoing practice. I see it as solid and intentional instructional design. White Mountains’ administrators and coaches have joined me in “thinking like a teacher” as they support the intellectual and creative growth of their staff.
Down the Road
There are other moving parts to the White Mountains DIY plan. Ron Danault, a veteran computer instructor is thriving in an on-going MIT-designed coding seminar that helps him to teach programming by becoming a coder himself. That work is part of “TeachCode Academy”, a partnership among the Governor’s STEM task force, STEAM-Ahead NH, the Manchester School District, UNH-Manchester, and Dyn Corporation. To me, Ron is a great example of a sharp teacher taking on new challenges. Berry has also invited CTE people from culinary arts, horticulture, and pre-veterinary studies, among others, to join STEAM professional development activities delving into inquiry-teaching and being a part of project design and tuning. Myatt recently worked with the entire high school staff for a big picture exploration of instructional design of their own making and flavor, using an inquiry approach to build teacher and student curiosity and capacity.
In early December, Berry presented a portion of his plan at a national Coalition of Essential Schools conference in Providence, RI. Joining him there for an intense three days of workshops, networking and progressive education history were Jellison, Ryan Patterson, science teacher with the STEAM team, and Jeanine LaBounty, who now supports teachers at the school in addition to her teaching. I was there to see Mike’s pitch and it reminded me why I’m excited about my work with WMRHS. They believe in themselves! They are invested in developing their own capacity to decide what and how to teach, how to turn more over to the students, and in each other. It’s a great story at a time when other schools think they have to buy blended learning platforms and color-coded diagnostics to make their schools better.
In the near future, Berry envisions more External Learning Opportunities (ELO’s) to connect students with their passions and with resources beyond the confines of the school. He sees opportunities for more plentiful and robust internships, coordinated by teacher Patsy Ainsworth. Part of the big idea is to be intentional about bringing community members into the high school to work directly with students. He is also interested in networking with other ERC schools that are committed to projects and inquiry, becoming a regional “center of activity” – a place where people recognize that they can learn from the thoughtful things that are happening. Under consideration is hosting a summertime school development and re-design institute with instructional, technology, and leadership strands. I’m counting on being a part of that!
I’m rooting for these proud and independent educators and am pleased and proud of their commitment to Mike Berry’s words, making school a place of more success for more kids.
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