A question I have regularly been asked since I entered district-wide leadership is, “What if…?” You can always tell how someone is feeling by what comes after “What if…?” I used to get a lot of “What if you came into my classroom and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be in the curriculum?” or “What if you came into my classroom when it was noisy and loud?” I’ve shared with staff who ask that it would be tough for me to know what was happening in the class or why unless I asked learners these questions:
- What are you working on?
- Why are you doing it?
- How will you know when you hit mastery?
When learners can answer those questions, they usually have opportunities to take ownership of the process of their learning at some point during the instruction. Our time in classrooms needs to be spent making sure our learners always know what they should be doing, but even more importantly they should know why. This may mean there are times when the teacher is doing whole group instruction, and the learners know why. It may mean that the learners are all working on prototypes of a super cool project, and the learners know why. Sometimes it means the class is taking a mindful minute or in a community-building circle, and the learners know why.
We now have many teachers asking a new kind of “What if…?” They are starting to ask things like “What if my learners took their learning outside the walls of our school?” “What if my learners go well beyond the standards for the grade level?” “What if I had learners run businesses and take their work public by connecting to a community agency or a local business?” “What if I took extra time at the beginning of the year, semester, or week to focus on my relationships with learners while creating a community in our classroom instead of focusing on content?” That one is my favorite question as we know how essential it is for everyone that our learners have meaningful relationships with one another and with staff, which takes time. In a community where the relationships are well-developed, the learners and the teachers are more likely to take risks that result in a deeper understanding of content.
We have a flexible learning community at one of our intermediate schools that is an incredible example of what happens if you ask a new kind of “What if” and get a lot of support to try new things. We have over one hundred twenty learners in grades six through eight who spend their time with four core teachers and a variety of support staff in one large classroom for all of their core instruction. The teachers within the community are amazing educators who are always willing to take risks and create deep and meaningful relationships with learners that are inspiring. They presented at the 10th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning with some of their learners on how important it is to have relationships and community before you introduce content. I get to speak to learners in this community often, which is always a great experience for me as they can always answer what they are doing and why. Each time I am in the room and look around at the beautifully organized chaos, I reflect on the power of the fully inclusive community they have created.
They serve learners with significant special needs who were previously placed in restrictive placements, learners who have had involvement with the juvenile justice system, learners who are identified as Gifted and Talented, and everyone in between. We have had some of their learners present at our leadership meetings, to our high school staff, and at our public meetings to inform our community about the work we are doing in our schools. Each time, they speak with such confidence about their community and the power of the authentic, cross-curricular work they do within it. Their community hosts many visitors from within and outside our school district. Each time the learners are able to share something about a high-level project they are working on either on their own or with others that is meaningful to them and created a deep understanding of a standard.
I recently asked the teachers to send me some testimonials from learners to share with our school board and our broader community. What they wrote was personal and so powerful. I’ve read them many times now and each time am blown away by the impact we get to have on the lives of young people with the work we do each day. Here are a few things they shared:
“I feel there is a lot more room for your own personality. You have three grade levels and over 100 people but you are able to find someone with the same interests to make you feel unique but also cared about. The teachers run the classroom to know that bullies are not allowed and differences are embraced. We have students with many characteristics and struggles, including students from other countries, but you wouldn’t know it. Everyone feels welcome. It’s a great place for people who are different, like me, because I feel like I can be myself and still be cared about. We are a great classroom full of many different people that make us so great.”
“I do more of my work than I ever did before. I also have a better handle on my emotions. I think this is because of the relationships that I have built with the teachers. Because I have been with my teachers for so long now, they really know me and I really know them. I am not perfect and still get into trouble sometimes, but I am much better.”
“My favorite project to work on NHD (National History Day) because I was super passionate about my project which made it way easier get information about it because it wasn’t something boring that was assigned to me. I had choices in what I wanted to learn. Also it made it easier to present because you will feel proud about your creation.”
The school has moved this year from one of these learning communities to four with a plan to continue to grow. I get to support the teachers and leaders who have created this amazing community as well as the others who are trying to create more learning opportunities like this one. I always want to be sure I recognize the amazing work of our teachers and find ways to continue to help them grow, which has also shifted my own “What if…” questions to one big one. “What if we ensured that every learner has the same experience as the learners in this community with the right support for the leaders and teachers?” We are starting to see many pockets of success similar to this one across our district and can’t wait to continue to support more by asking all kinds of “What ifs.”