Telling Our Story

Everyone is an expert on education as everyone went to school and many people have children in schools. However, school is starting to look different in pockets across our nation as well as all across our school district. School was created on a factory model that has not seen a significant change in many, many years, and has created equity gaps, especially for black and brown learners and those with disabilities. The needed skills for success in our current world are different than what was required for the industrial era and continue to change all the time, but school is not always designed to teach the needed skills. In our district, classrooms are becoming deeper learning experiences that are founded in creating a sense of belonging through the relationships we make with our learners. Teachers and students are discovering their passions and getting the opportunity to explore them through cross-curricular projects with public demonstrations of learning that receive feedback from peers, community members, and families. We needed to find a way to communicate this shift in our practice to our greater community, document our progress, and provide clarity for all staff on our why as some of our schools are further along in our deeper learning work than others.

As we started to learn how to best tell our story, I read a great blog post from IDEO. In it, Jen Massaro shares five tips for storytellers. The first one is to determine the big idea. We needed to be able to define what equity means and how the implementation of the deeper learning competencies is what we hold in common to achieve equity. However, this may look different at each of our eighteen schools based on the needs of the learners in that community. We often think about equity in terms of outcomes and gaps, but equity at its core is not about measuring the outcomes. If we wait until we see the results of standardized tests, graduation rates, and discipline data, it is too late. Equity is about giving every learner the same opportunity at the start and not making assumptions about their abilities based on what we know about learners from their backgrounds or the labels we use in schools. We create equitable opportunities when we believe in every learner and know them well enough to create authentic learning that is connected to our greater community and driven by their passions and interests. When that is EVERY learner’s experience in school, we don’t create equity gaps. That is the big idea of our story.

Jen’s next tip is to get outside your comfort zone. My work provides me many opportunities to learn new skills, but I had no idea how many I would learn when we started working with the Urban Misfit Ventures. We were looking for a partner to tell our story that is driven by purpose and community, which is exactly what the Misfits embody. They started the company as an opportunity to connect to their passions and create, which is exactly the experience we want for our learners in schools and makes our partnership a great fit. They are interested in our shift of practice and tell us all the time that they wish high school would have given them the chance to explore their interests through projects. We have learned about storyboarding, editing, guiding interviews, directing, how much teachers are not used to being on film, and how challenging it can be to get small children to articulate what they are thinking in a few sentences or less. Fortunately, they are patient with us and believe in many chances to iterate as we try to capture each school’s story in less than seven minutes.    

As IDEO storyteller Neil Stevenson says, “Storytelling is like sculpting, where you carve away to reveal something beautiful.” Becoming a sculptor is next. It took us many tries and the opportunity to learn how to be film critics to keep carving away at the interviews and the footage until we found the beauty. As district leaders, we get to see and know the inspiring work our staff and learners do every day, but capturing that in a short video was a challenge. Every interview and piece of footage is meaningful, so deciding what to keep and what to cut has been tough.  

The fourth tip, empathize with your audience, is one that is really important to us. We have made some concerted efforts to listen to our learners more often. When we do, they tell us the same two things that they want and need from us in school. They will regularly tell us that they want to be known. Being known verses being seen is a powerful concept to think about and is especially important as our world becomes more virtual and less connected to one another. Learners and their families want to feel deeply connected to their school and be known for who they are and what they have to offer to our world. The other thing they usually say is that they want school to be interesting, which does not mean learners do whatever they want. It means that school helps them to discover their interests and inspires them to solve problems. Their connections to each other and feeling inspired are what change the learner experience and create equity.  

The last tip is to practice, practice, practice, which is true of anything you want to do well. Over the next couple of years, we will be making a video of each of our schools, so they each have the chance to tell their story of equitable opportunity through deeper learning. We have grown a lot since we started making our first video, which is exciting to see. It is also why it is so important to continue telling our story over and over again. It gets clearer each time we do, and the learner experiences get deeper, more connected, and more meaningful with each iteration. Capturing our story as we go helps us to see where we have been and how much progress we have made in a short time. We are also using the videos to connect our schools to share the great work going on at each, which can be a challenge in a large district.  

We don’t have it all figured out, yet, as it is a feat to scale change in a public school district of eighteen schools. However, we have found some things that are working really well to humanize education and change the learner experience that we are proud of and want to share. Here is the video that tells our current story at Franklin Elementary West Allis, WI, with more and more to come for our learners.

One Step to the Right

I read a great blog post by Mandy Froehlich called Three Ways Resentment Impacted My Engagement as a Teacher. She felt disengaged by education at one point partially due to resentment. She felt resentment towards herself, other teachers, and especially people with different jobs within the organization. She shares how she learned to move past it to a healthy place. “The biggest favor that I did for myself in this area was to let go of the resentment and begin working on who I wanted to be. I could sit back and see if it would happen to me or I could make tiny changes that would eventually add up to bigger ones. I had to understand that someone else’s success or talent did not diminish my own. On the contrary, keeping those people close enhanced any growth that I was trying to accomplish.”  

I always enjoy reading Mandy’s blog as she is very real about many of the struggles we all share, but this post really resonated with me given the work I get to do with and for our teachers. As a district, we are dedicated to providing equitable opportunities for all learners by embedding the Deeper Learning competencies across all disciplines in a way that makes the learning authentic and personal to the learner and the teacher. Part of my job is to guide our professional development plan to make that happen and, within that, create a space for people to feel good about where they are in their practice so they can best learn from others in and out of our district. We want our teachers to recognize what they already do well and learn how to make a shift of practice that will better empower our learners and close the opportunity gaps that currently exist.  

While we have committed to holding the deeper learning competencies in common across all eighteen schools, a school’s or teacher’s pathway to get there is based on their learners and their school community. Our goal is that each of our eighteen schools will become a deeper learning school within the next three to five years wherein the learners can be self-directed and connected to our greater community as the wall-to-wall, every day experience. We want all eight thousand of our learners to feel a sense of belonging that makes them want to contribute and create while becoming problem solvers, collaborators, and communicators who can demonstrate their high levels of content mastery through authentic learning experiences. Clearly, this is a massive task that requires a lot of professional development, reflection, and growth by everyone in our organization. It also takes time and focus, which is why we have set that goal over multiple years and developed processes and systems to support school teams as they work to figure it all out. It is also why we are careful to add tools and resources when the evidence tells us they are needed versus introducing any new initiatives.  

We now have many teachers across our district accomplishing learner-driven, authentic, cross-curricular experiences in really profound ways. This work is creating access, especially for learner groups that have been historically marginalized, to close the opportunity gaps frequently created in schools. It takes a careful balance to celebrate those early adopters and ask them to share their stories with others who are just starting to do the work without creating the resentment Mandy spoke about in her post. We have more and more teachers ready to share their journey and present at our professional development days each time they get the chance. It is incredible to see how many of our teachers are feeling the confidence it takes to try things, grow, and share, but it also starts to become self-doubt for some who are not there yet. We don’t want them resenting others who are simply further along in the process. We want everyone to do exactly what Mandy said, to make tiny changes that eventually lead to large ones by getting to see a colleague who happens to be one or several steps farther along in the work of becoming a deeper learning classroom. 

As a district leadership team, we work with teachers from each of our eighteen school sites to get input on where teachers are and what they need from us next for professional development. We hope that this helps our staff not to resent the jobs we hold and better understand that our jobs as district-wide leaders are about supporting learners and teachers. We will spend some time at our next professional development day sharing how innovation through embedding the competencies leads to equitable opportunities for all with our secondary teachers as the feedback we received from this group helped us to see that that part of our work is not clear yet. They understand we want to create equity for all learners and that we want our classrooms to be authentic and innovative, but they do not yet see the connection between the two. What we thought we were going to do on that day is really different than where we started, which is better as it means we have listened to what our teachers need and adjusted the plan to meet those needs just like we ask them to do with learners every day. 

The feedback was also an opportunity for me to reflect. I needed to realize that while I live and breathe equity, inclusion, and learner empowerment work every day through my social media feeds, books I read, my professional network, the podcasts I hear, and the conferences I attend, not everyone else has the same level of exposure. It was unfair to expect that all our teachers, some of whom have not yet had the same opportunities through professional development to see those connections, are ready to take the next steps. I am grateful that we have created a space where teachers felt comfortable being honest with us about what they need. It gives us the chance to clarify that it is not equity or deeper learning it is equity through deeper learning. When every learner has strong relationships with staff and sees meaning in the learning, we have created a pathway to equitable opportunities.  

We use a human Likert scale to help our leaders and our teachers in our professional development planning group see where they are now and how they are moving. We stand next to signs that say “starting to understand deeper learning as a pathway to equity”, “doing deeper learning activities as a pathway to equity”, “an equitable deeper learning classroom”, or “an equitable deeper learning school”. The language has evolved to be more explicit about our purpose each time we ask people to place themselves on the scale down a hallway or across a room. It puts a visual to the idea that it is perfectly fine to be somewhere on the continuum as long as you are on it and always moving one step the right by trying small things that turn into big things with the confidence to know we will support you as you try. We need to continue to make it clear that we expect all teachers are connecting to learners on a deep level and creating authentic learning experiences that provide opportunities to demonstrate rigorous skills in content mastery, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and self-direction. We also need to continue to provide as many professional development opportunities as possible for teachers to learn how to do that so that they don’t feel resentment towards anyone who may know more right now. 

We have worked hard to shift some language from “the” district to “our” district. We are in this together and want people to know that and feel a sense of belonging to our why that makes it more comfortable to learn from a teacher in another school or at another grade level. I appreciate this quote by Dennis Waitley, “Success is not a pie with a limited number of pieces. The success of others has very little bearing on your success. You and everyone you know can become successful without anyone suffering setbacks, harm, or downturns.” We all need to concentrate on the small things we can learn from one another that make us one step better instead of waiting for the grand moment when everything will change. If we wait too long for that to happen, we will miss the thousands of chances we had to take the small steps that can help us feel successful in our work no matter what anyone else is doing. 

The “A” Word

The first time I heard the word Autism I was teaching Early Childhood Special Education at an elementary school in Kapolei, Hawaii. It was very early in my teaching career, and I moved from teaching students with significant Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities in a self-contained setting at a middle school to teaching three and four year olds with various special needs in an inclusive setting with a Head Start class. Some of you may be thinking, why in the world would anyone move from Hawaii back to Wisconsin? That is an excellent question that I have asked myself regularly from November through February each year since, but my family is in the midwest. Family is more important that constant sunshine and living a few blocks from Waikiki Beach (at least that is what I tell myself :)).

As I reviewed the records of the students I would serve that year, I read about a young girl who was diagnosed with Autism. This was 1996, so it was long before Autism was as well known as it is now. It was also my first encounter with a learner who had the diagnosis. On our first day of school, her mom explained that she had echolalia (a new term to me at the time) and was a runner (another new term to me at the time). I quickly learned that echolalia meant that she repeated everything that was said all day long. Now, if you can get a picture of how much talking you do to a room of three and four-year-olds, you can see where someone following you around all day and repeating every word that you say is problematic. I also quickly learned that being a runner meant she takes off without warning and runs to anywhere and everywhere in the school and even out into the street. I had done all of my student teaching and my first couple of years of teaching working with older children who had a lot of mental health issues and behavior challenges, so this experience was certainly going to be a challenge.

I went home the first day beyond exhausted and started doing my research. This was at the time of dial-up internet, so getting access to information was not as easy and quick as it is now. I read lots of books and went to conferences. I used everything I had learned about shaping and helping learners control and change their own behavior to apply whatever strategies I could. I did not realize what I was doing at the time as there was not as much research available then about the science of the brain, but since I have learned about brain mapping and how you can create new neural pathways that make sense with where we found challenges and successes that year.  

After the first few weeks of school, I realized that one of us was not going to make it through the school year if something did not change, and the four-year-old was winning. I started working closely with her parents, her doctor, other staff, and anyone else I could ask about strategies to help. We made visuals for everything and eventually trained her to follow cues to tell us what she needed instead of running away. The key to success was being more consistent in my practice than I had ever been before and making sure as a team we all used the same language and the same cues whenever we worked with her.  

We ended up having a great year. She learned how to respond to real questions instead of repeating others, she told her mom she loved her for the first time (That was a great day!), she was able to play with others at recess with laughter, and she taught me a ton. I learned new ways to problem solve and how to see behavior as communication in a different way. I always understood that behavior was communication, but I was used to a lot of angry, acting out behavior. This was new stuff for me and helped me to see learners from an asset-based lens. This little girl, who happened to have Autism, had so many incredible gifts to offer the world; she just needed us to look for them in really unexpected ways. Although I went back to the mainland at the end of that year and back to working with older students, I have never forgotten all that she taught me that year and still talk about it almost twenty- five years later in sessions about how to work with children with unexpected behaviors in the classroom.

Since then, I have worked with many students who are on the Autism spectrum and their families. I know even more now about the communication, academic, and behavioral needs of these learners and have continued to learn so that I can help our teachers and leaders have the best skills to include them in every setting. I’ve learned about the entire spectrum and how varying the needs are across it. I know that if you know one learner with Autism, you know one learner with Autism and that what works for one rarely works for all. When I served as the Coordinator of Special Education for our school district, we started one of the first Autism specific programs for high school students in our area. We worked with grants and research organizations to get additional training for all teachers in understanding how to connect to and include students on the spectrum in meaningful ways. I have been able to support amazing teams of teachers and speech pathologists to develop a high school course based on the work of Michelle Garcia Winner in Social Thinking. Since then, our speech pathologists have expanded the work to running groups at most of our schools for students with special needs. Over the last two years, they have also trained many regular education teachers and school counselors to work with ALL learners on lessons in Social Thinking combined with the Zones of Regulation strategies from a very early age. Our goal is always that ALL of our learners can see their own place in a group, learn how to identify their needs, and learn strategies to feel empowered. When they understand their own social interactions and emotions, they are more likely to find a sense of belonging within a group and therefore want to contribute and create.

With all that I know now, you might be surprised to find out that it took me almost three years to use the word Autism in reference to our son, Nick. Our Nick has Autism, ADHD, and Dyslexia, which has turned out to be an opportunity to learn everything that is important in the world. Although professionally I knew a lot when we realized he was on the spectrum, you forget everything you know as a mom. It took me a long time to accept his diagnosis and talk about it with others. In a class for pre-service teachers at a local university, one of my students recently shared that one of her learners has “no support from home. His mom didn’t even come to his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting.” I have been really open about Nick, his diagnosis, and why school getting it right is so essential in our class. My response that it took me three years to say the “A” word when it came to my son shocked her, and it made me realized I should talk about that more.

I have been open about sharing many of our success stories and what we have learned in the last several years both at work and with my family and friends. I don’t always talk about the time when we lived in a world of grief for what he might not become or denial that others just didn’t know him well enough. If that is how I felt with years and years of professional experience, how does someone feel who is trying to navigate an impossible system of medical care with no background or connections to resources to find the right support within the system? If I find IEP meetings ridiculously intimidating when I ran them for many years, how does it feel to be a parent without that background knowledge in a room full of experts talking about what is wrong with their child and our plan to help? I have the support of family and friends who stick by me even when I am not in a place to receive that help. I have access to resources through my professional networks and the privilege of being able to get him to multiple therapies and services each week with the support of my husband and extended family that not everyone has. We recognize that and are thankful for it every day. We certainly don’t have it all figured out by any means, but we have found some alternative therapies that are game-changers and were able to move him to a school that we thought was a better fit for him where he is thriving.

When I think about why I was so afraid of the “A” word, it comes down to not wanting him to be seen as his disability before someone gets to know him as a person. I had accepted that he has special needs for years, but I was really fearful of the “A” word because many people want you to know everything they know about Autism before they ask you or him one question about Nick as a person. He has this amazing, gentle spirit and sees the world in a really beautiful way. He just doesn’t show that side of himself to many people, which also took me a long time to realize as I have always been one of “his people” and made some assumptions that others were having a similar relationship with him to the one that I have.

My fear that his relationships would be defined by his label impacted me and kept me from teaching him to own who he is and express how he thinks differently about the world, why, and what he needs from others for a long time. I feared that others who have sympathy for him instead of empathy and therefore not hold him to the highest standard or simply ignore him if they didn’t understand the disability and that he is more than his label. He has made me a better educator and leader, as I am much quicker to try to see everyone and every situation from an empathetic lens. I don’t always need to be able to understand why someone feels a particular way to recognize that those feelings are real and take that into consideration with a response or some support. In the role I get to serve in now, our experience in supporting him helps me to know why every classroom needs to be a place where every learner feels embraced as part of the community, appreciated for the gifts they bring, and given opportunities to create in ways that connect to who they are even if who they are is different than what we would typically expect.

At the end of the day, we all have to remember that we are each doing the best we can. We each have different levels of education and life experience that contribute to who we are and how we respond to the next challenge life throws at us. People expected my acceptance to be different based on my experience, but it was not. I love my children as much as my parents loved me and as much as the parents we serve love their children. Those without the skills to navigate the system or the background to know what to do to support their child who learns differently in school love them just as much and really do want the best. They may just have a harder time showing it and being vulnerable enough to share their story with us. Given how long it took me to share mine, I get it.

Baking Day

I love this time of year for many reasons, but one of my absolute favorites is baking day. I really enjoy cooking and baking and use my time in my kitchen to process my thoughts and sometimes fill the time when I can’t sleep. Baking day is the one day a year where my family clears the house for an entire day, and all I do is bake for about twelve straight hours while I watch holiday movies or old 80’s movies in the background. I always appreciate my time with my family and involve my kids in baking and cooking whenever I can, but this is one day I take entirely for me. My family, my neighbors, and my colleagues also enjoy baking day as they are the recipients of all the treats. Each year I make some tried and true recipes that are staples, and then I try some new ones to add to the displays for our holiday meals and gifts to neighbors and friends. When I am stressed out at this ridiculously busy time of year, I look for recipes on the internet or in one of my many cookbooks and focus on the joy others may feel depending on the choice and the outcome of the recipe.  

Baking day needed to look different this year as we are moving to a new home. I struggled at first to make it the same experience. When I thought a lot about why the day is so important to me, I actually thought about what we want for learners in our schools. Putting together the display of all these baked goods is like a great Design Thinking experience. The book Launch by AJ Juliani and John Spencer is one of my go-to resources for helping teachers learn about Design Thinking. In this post, John Spencer explains the core steps to the Design Thinking framework they share in Launch. The first one is to Look, Listen, and Learn, which is precisely what I do when I am getting ready for my big day. I remember which treats each member of my family likes best and go to the second step to Ask Questions about what new recipes I should try. I know my brother loves Oreo truffles, my sister-in-law loves butterscotch cheesecake bars, and that everyone enjoys the lemon sandwich cookies, but who knew my nephew would absolutely love coconut macaroons. Once I learned that about him, those became a regular on the holiday baking list.  

The next steps in the Design Thinking framework are to Understand the Process or Problem and Navigate Ideas. This is where I got stuck this year. My process for solving the problem of getting multiple batches of ten different desserts ready to go needed to look different, and it threw me off quite a bit at first. Once I started to navigate ideas on how to solve the problem in a way that made the experience equally enjoyable and meaningful for me, it was not that hard to find a solution. I ended up having to break the day into a couple of half days and evenings and get others more involved. A big challenge for me was finding enough time, which is continuously our challenge in education. I needed to stop trying to find more time and instead use the time I had in a new way that still allowed for the same outcome. Navigating ideas on how to set things up in a new kitchen to make sure I could be efficient with the time I had and still be relaxed to not feel under a time crunch was a challenge, but one that I was able to overcome with the help of getting ideas from others. I also had to let go of some things I would normally do that just did not get done this year, which was okay as it allowed me not to feel stressed by something I usually enjoy so much.   

Being okay with things not being perfect, having to go back to a creative process many times, reaching out to others for support, and eventually working it all through to create something beautiful is what I hope our learners are experiencing every day. Nothing is ever going to be perfect. If that is what we are trying to do all the time, we will for sure be disappointed. What I love most about baking at the holidays is that I make the time to be creative and try new things which may not always work, but sometimes do. I don’t worry about it all being perfect and I get to learn a lot about a new ingredient or baking process through trial and error. I can also tell when I am distracted or other stressors are coming into my brain as recipes that I have made many times don’t work right or taste off. This is true of our learners as well. When they are experiencing tough times in and out of school, things they may have always been able to do well may not go as planned. We need to help them recognize that it is okay and that they should take the opportunity to try again just like I do when I throw out a batch of something and start over.    

New recipes often don’t turn out right the first few times or are just not good. Continuing to try them gives me the opportunity to practice the next two steps in the framework- Create a Prototype and Highlight and Fix. I appreciate the iteration that baking frequently takes. I may need to try a recipe multiple times, adding a little of this and removing a bit of that until I get it just right. The process of documenting what went well and how to adjust helps achieve a product I am proud to share with others. Some recipes are also just not tasty, even when I get them right. I have to accept abandoning an idea that doesn’t work and moving on to the next one.  

Launching to an audience, the last step in the framework, is the most impactful part. I look forward to the end of our Christmas Eve meal so I can bring out the tray of desserts that I have worked so hard to produce. People will tell me how much they are looking forward to tasting their favorite recipes and then give me feedback on any new ones. This was my tenth year of launching my work on Christmas Eve, and it was fascinating to see which desserts come back from year to year as I get good feedback on them and which ones drop off or I make for different audiences as they may appeal to others more. The process of preparation and research, being creative, iteration, and then the launching means something as it helps me to get better each time I do it. I bake all the time throughout the year, but this is a time of year when I do it more and with a real purpose to connect to one another and make memories that carry me forward to doing it all over again on such a grand scale the next year.  

If we think about our most successful moments, they are when the experience is personal to us and our strengths, has an impact on others, and allows us to use a creative process to work through multiple iterations of what we are trying to achieve to get it just right. Baking day, even this year when it needed to look different, does that for me. While it doesn’t solve any major problems in our world, it makes lots of people including me really happy, which is never a bad thing.

Inspiring Hope

Inspiration and hope- two such beautiful words that many of our young people don’t encounter enough. The advancements that technology has brought to our world have been amazing, but just like with anything else there are always two sides. Our young people now live in a world that is superficial and disconnected from others too much of the time. They spend hours on devices that have actually changed the way the brain works, both in significant ways and in ways that have created new challenges. One of the biggest challenges is the feeling that is presented on social media that everyone’s lives, except mine, are perfect. Social media has also very sadly become an easy platform for criticism and bullying as it can be anonymous, and that somehow makes many people feel they can and should be mean to one another. Mental health challenges have significantly increased in recent years, and in 2017 suicide became the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, some of which has been attributed to the use of social media. The lack of hope that our young people feel is a problem we all need to solve, but we also need to be far more proactive than we have been in our approach to a solution.

Two years ago, we had two learners from our school district commit suicide. The impact of those moments on their families, our staff, other learners, and our community was devastating. Our number of suicide risk assessments has also doubled in the last four years, which is scary. We spend a lot of time reflecting on what we can do to help promote more hope and mental wellness for our learners’ verses always waiting to intervene when someone is at a crisis point. Last year, we shifted our work in Social Emotional Learning to be focussed around building resiliency skills from young ages including trying to get staff and students to see working through issues of anxiety and depression as a demonstration of resilience instead of a deficit. We all experience anxious and depressed moments. Some people’s brains are wired to feel those much more intensely and more frequently than others, so they need additional support to work through them some of which may require outside intervention. We need to make it okay for our learners to admit when they are struggling (both with the small things and the ones that can be debilitating), knowing we’re here to support them and that we all believe they can make it through when they get stuck. We added another layer of support a few years ago with licensed therapists from outside agencies in every school so our learners have access to weekly therapy at school through their insurance. These are all things adults are doing for learners to reduce the stigma of needing support for mental wellness and make care accessible. We were still looking to find a way for young people to be involved in promoting mental wellness and finding new ways to support each other. That is when we found Hope Squad.

Hope Squad is a peer support program where learners are nominated by their peers and then receive special training in understanding the signs of suicide and depression with tools to refer their peers to adults for help. In almost all cases of completed suicide, the student told someone first that they had a plan. Unfortunately, the person they likely told was another child who did not know what to do with that information. When we met some Hope Squad members from another school district, we were so impressed by how empowered they felt to help others. They were from all different social groups, a big part of the nomination and selection process, and they were able to share how they look out for other Hope Squad members and all learners in the school. They watch for people sitting alone and make sure they reach out and include them. The learners all still have their primary social groups, but Hope Squad became a bridge to be sure everyone has someone, and people are simply kinder to one another. When we heard those learners share how inspired they felt from their participation in Hope Squad, we moved from a small pilot to implementation at all six of our secondary schools at the start of this school year.  

Our Hope Squads meet during advisory either daily or several times a week. They receive training in the signs of suicide and depression and Question, Persuade, Refer. The training includes some clear expectations that the learners are not counselors and are not providing any kind of counseling. Instead, they are looking for signs that others are at-risk, strategies for reaching out and providing friendship to everyone, ways to get others to seek help from adults, and strategies for self-care as they are the students that are chosen to share in someone else’s struggle. The advisor also gets training in not only how to implement the lessons but also in their own self-care and how to make referrals to licensed mental health professionals as needed. We had a wide variety of staff choose to become advisors including one of our cafeteria leaders and a school secretary as these are often the people kids are reaching out to along with their teachers and counselors.  

I had the privilege to attend the roll-out of the Hope Squads at one of our intermediate schools. It was incredible. The learners, proudly wearing their Hope Squad t-shirts, went to each advisory in their grade level and explained what the Hope Squad is. One student told the rest of his peers that he was not sure why they nominated him, but now that they did, he was not going to let them down. He is a student for whom school is not always easy. His nomination meant a lot to him and empowered him in a new way to connect at school. The Hope Squad members told their peers how we all have bad days, we all need someone to talk to, and we are all going through things that we can talk about. They said things like:

  • “We get training to be the eyes and ears of the school for kids who are having a hard time. You can tell us if you know someone who is.”   
  • “If you are feeling down, we can report it and help you with a problem.”
  • “We can keep each other safe.”
  • “If you have a problem, you can come to us because sometimes it is hard to talk to teachers and adults. We will make time to help you.”

One learner asked a Hope Squad member if they could only talk to him on days he was wearing his Hope Squad shirt. He enthusiastically replied, “No, you can talk to me anytime. I just can’t wear the same shirt every day. You can also talk to me online if that’s easier for you.” Watching our learners try to turn social media into a way to connect with one another positively at eleven and twelve years old gives me hope.  

Our other schools have reported how honored learners and their parents have been to be nominated and chosen by the advisors for Hope Squad. They are all taking it seriously and actively planning Hope Week activities and kindness events for everyone. The advisors shared how empowered the students feel to be leaders within the school, which is really awesome as some of the learners who were chosen are not a part of clubs, sports, and activities where those leadership opportunities usually surface. 

There are great stories from all over our world about young people who are solving the major problems facing us. While I always love reading those stories, we also have to remember that it does not always have to be a world-wide solution to be a huge deal. We had a learner refer someone who was cutting for help to their advisor within the first couple of weeks of starting our Hope Squads. The learner was brave enough to reach out for help, another learner listened, and everyone knew what to do. Our learners are ready to build hope and inspiration even if it takes doing it one peer at a time, which is a pretty major problem to help solve and one we can all easily work on every day.  

Happy from Giving Thanks

Each November, we attend a community breakfast of thanks and giving. Last year when I attended the breakfast, a speaker talked about the value of practicing gratitude. His message hit home for me. I have always been thankful for the advantages in my life and have always been big on saying thank you. His message had me thinking about true gratitude. Do I notice enough when people come into my life who help challenge my thinking or add something to my life that I had no idea was missing? Do I do enough to show my appreciation when someone goes out of their way for me? Do I show my gratitude for the work I am able to do, or am I too focused on the wrong things? Do I take time to be grateful for the small things instead of always looking for the big ones? Do I think about gratitude more often than one week of the year in November?

I started doing some research about gratitude and found many articles and great blogs on how it can actually make you happier and is a pretty simple thing to do. As a special education teacher for many years, I learned to live in a world of small miracles. My learners and I spent a lot of our time together talking about where each individual skill was growing, measuring progress in small steps, and taking time each day to recognize and celebrate the small wins along with the big ones. As adults, we don’t do that enough for and with ourselves and each other. We tend to measure our progress in major milestones instead of taking time each day to reflect on a few things we did well and be grateful for who and what we have in our lives. A year ago, I started spending time thinking about and writing down things for which I am grateful. It was not hard to find them when I started to look and most of them ended up being small things that helped my day take a slight shift for the better, even when it was a good day.

My job is intense, I teach part-time at a local college, and I try my best to be a good wife and mother who volunteers at the school events and helps when I can with all the extra-curricular activities. People often say things to me like, “I don’t know how you do it all.” To be really honest, I never have any idea how to respond to that statement as I do not think I am actually trying to do more than anyone else nor could I do it all if I want to do any of it well. I just do the best I can each day and wake up the next day and try to do it all a little better than the day before. On my drive home, I spend some time appreciating what I could and did get done. Many others do some of the things I attempt to do way better than I can, which I try to celebrate with them. I forget to turn in permission slips and sometimes we are late to school because that was just the morning we were having, and that is okay. Practicing gratitude helped me let go of the things that didn’t go well and value the ones that did more. The one answer I often give to that statement that is very genuine is that I have amazing people around me who work with me to get things done and remind me how to worry about being my best self instead of what anyone else may expect of me. At the end of each day, my husband and my kids always come to mind first, but it is also often my work family that ends up in my thoughts.

Recently, I had a tough couple of weeks between some big things happening at home and work. Whenever I hit a rough patch, I try to slow down and take inventory of all the positives I have in my life. I usually spend a couple of hours at the Hallmark store choosing just the right card and write notes to people that I am grateful are a part of my journey. In the midst of my tough weeks, we needed to interview for a new member of our team as we have a support staff member who is going to retire soon. Our interview questions were interesting, to say the least. We asked how you respond when there are seven of us who all have different needs and communicate in different ways (some of which are only through GIFs and emojis) and who may all need something done at once. We asked how much structure you need in your day as ours rarely starts and ends the same way. We asked how the person will balance multiple projects at one time and shift course quickly if a school has an immediate situation that needs all of our support. We asked what brings you joy and how we can support you when you get stuck. We laughed at some of the questions as we asked them and the stories we told to explain the work we do. At the end of all the interviews, we had several people who were excited to take on the job. They each shared how they felt a really positive vibe from our team and talked about how amazing it must be to support great work in schools so children get the best opportunities in life.

It was just the moment I needed to remind me how incredible my job is and how lucky I am to get to do it with each of my teams. I really don’t see my job as one I “have” to do. Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of it I do not love that are things I “have” to do. However, my primary job is to support teachers and leaders to ensure they have what they need to create equitable opportunities for all learners that go well beyond high school. That’s the job I get to do each day on behalf of many learners, especially those who need school the most as poverty and trauma have denied them some opportunities outside of school. I am grateful each day for parts of my job. The day of the interviews, it hit me exactly how grateful I am that I get to do the whole thing. It is not the easiest job out there, but it is one that gives me a sense of purpose and reminds me each day what matters most.

At the breakfast this year, the speaker again talked about gratitude. He said, “It should not be Happy Thanksgiving, but instead I am happy from giving thanks.” I am happier when I give thanks for what I have and what I get to do each day at work and at home. What I am most grateful for each day is always the people I have in my life and the relationships I have with them as they matter and make all the difference.

The Power of a True Community

“There is a yearning in the heart for peace. Because of the wounds and rejections we have received in past relationships, we are frightened by the risks. In our fear, we discount the dream of authentic Community as merely visionary. But there are rules by which people can come back together, by which the old wounds can be healed. The purpose of Community Building is to teach these rules- to make hope real again- and to make the vision actually manifest in a work which has almost forgotten the glory of what it means to be human.” 

     -M. Scott Peck MD, author of The Road Less Traveled

This statement is the vision of a community building workshop that I had the opportunity to participate for three days last week with staff, parents, religious leaders, law enforcement, and other community members. It was an emotional experience wherein we shared our own stories and heard the stories of others so we could learn to empathize and grow together to build a stronger community. At the end of three days, I felt exhausted and completely exhilarated at the same time. We found connections with one another that we had no idea were there and learned to sit in silence with each other at times to make space for everyone to process and feel. We all entered the experience having no idea what to expect and getting little to no direction from the facilitators, which was really frustrating at first and made total sense by the end. After the three days, we were tied to one another with a tight bond that helped to heal some wounds and certainly made me feel hopeful about how we can make those same connections in classrooms and with families. 

After the first day of the workshop, I went to teach a class for pre-service teachers at one of our local universities on inclusionary practice for children with special needs. It was the first night of face-to-face class as the first half of the course was held online. As I drove there, I could not stop thinking about the vision of our workshop. Our classrooms and schools need to be places where we make hope real again and remember what it means to be human. We have to be less focused on finishing a textbook or getting through our curriculum and more focused on making sure our learners feel a sense of belonging and that they are a part of something important at school that translates into skills in life. 

As the college students entered class, I shook each person’s hand and introduced myself, which seemed to surprise them. Many of them spent a few minutes before class expressing frustrations about challenging students they encountered in their student teaching placements. As I listened to the challenges, that vision again came to mind. We started class by talking about empathy and why it is so essential when working with each other and all learners, but especially those who have disabilities or those who are disconnected from school and life. We spent a lot of time that first night talking about creating community in the classroom, how to help learners find access points to grade level material, and the importance of making sure content is driven by student interests.  

I invited a math and a special education teacher who co-teach at one of our high schools speak to the class. They talked about how much easier teaching is when you have a true collaborative partner and ways they have found to connect the material to some of the most challenging learners. They shared stories about the successes they have found in developing relationships with learners by knowing their interests and their future plans.  I asked them at the end to share their favorite part about teaching. They each talked about the sense of purpose they feel in giving back and connecting with the learners who need school the most as sadly they do not have the opportunity to make those connections or feel that sense of community anywhere else in their lives. 

By the time our class had ended and the last student left over an hour later, I had gotten the chance to hear about what many of those students are going through while attempting to complete college, successfully student teach, and have lives outside of both. Many of them have partners and children as well, which makes it all even more complicated. I made some adjustments to the syllabus that night as I learned what the students wanted and needed to know. I added opportunities to learn about Restorative Practices to help create a sense of belonging in every classroom so learners want to be there and want to work hard. 

We often focus on creating relationships between our learners and ourselves, but do not always work on the relationships they are creating with one another. A restorative classroom starts with community building circles through which we can learn about the learners and they can learn about one another by asking a series of progressive questions. They start with low-risk questions about superficial topics such as, “What is your favorite ice cream flavor?”. As learners begin to trust one another they ask high-risk questions like, “Describe a time you acted on your core values when others did not.” Circles can be used for relationship building or academic activities by asking questions related to content.

After students get to know one another through circles, it evolves into opportunities to support one another and eventually repair harm within a classroom when something goes awry. Restorative Practices are a way for learners to own their actions, take responsibility for them, understand the impact of them on others, and learn from mistakes to do better next time. Classrooms that are genuine communities are full of learners who are far more willing to try and fail as they know they have the backing and support of everyone else in the room. In our classrooms and schools that have embraced the restorative model, learners are able to host circles to help each other reflect on their reading at age seven. They are able to mediate whatever happened at recess without the teacher. They are able to keep everyone in classrooms and communities because they have the skills to work through conflict together within the class instead of heading to the office. We want learners to feel the same level of connection and trust with one another that I felt after three days in a room with people I did not know very well at the start so they can own every part of the learning environment.

I sent my college students a new syllabus later that night with a couple of the assignments removed and a new one to bring back to class the next week. I asked them to do empathy interviews with at least two students with these questions:

  • Tell me about a time you were successful in school.
  • Tell me about a time you struggled in school. What did you do?
  • What are three words you would use to describe this class?
  • What is one thing you wish teachers knew about you?

I cannot wait to see what insight this gives them about their learners and what we can do next week to continue working on how to create classrooms that are real communities where learners feel safe and inspired.  We get to try “to make hope real again- and to make the vision actually manifest in a work which has almost forgotten the glory of what it means to be human.” 

Learning From Each Other

I really enjoy our district-wide professional development days as they provide us with an awesome opportunity to connect with educators from across our district and to connect them to each other. Taking the advice of Shelly Burgess and Beth Hoef, “People are less likely to tear down a culture that they have helped build,” we invited teachers and curriculum leaders from all of our school sites to join a planning group with our district leadership team for the days this year. As we work to be clear in what we hold in common across our eighteen schools and what is a school or classroom level decision on how that looks, creating a district-wide plan for professional development that meets the needs of over five-hundred teachers and leaders is a challenge. We want it to be relevant to each classroom and each staff member’s personal journey, incorporate choice, and model great instructional practice. Building in time for seeing and doing with time to reflect, practice, plan, and engage in professional discourse were key to what we all agreed were the next steps for all our staff. 

After our first meeting, the team realized the challenge of giving all staff tools to move along a continuum of doing activities that empower learners to creating classrooms that are entirely learner driven to turning those classrooms into whole schools that are learner empowered. One thing that was really important to the group was more time to see the work in action and time to connect with other staff. As a group, we felt our staff understands our why of creating more equitable outcomes for all learners that go well beyond graduation from high school. It was time to dig deep on how to plan for and what learner driven instruction looks like in practice.  We would meet each week, send them back to schools to get feedback, and then evolve the idea until it is something we could put into practice. It has been amazing to get input and learn from our educators in this group and for them to connect back to all teachers. This has led to some healthy professional discourse on the how and what of the work we are trying to do and how to get all five hundred teachers invested in the process.

Our groups ended up targeting specific work for each grade band that was different. Elementary and intermediate spent time in small groups working on knowing our standards well enough ourselves to teach them to learners and empower them to take ownership of mastery of those standards within cross-curricular projects. All of our site visits have shown us that standards are an essential part of the work, but they do not have to be only understood and driven by the teacher. The learners can take ownership of the outcomes when they know what is expected of them and can do it in ways that reflect their interests. For our high schools, they felt a big picture approach was needed, which meant hearing from a learner panel of students in one of our sixth through eighth grade flexible learning communities and then having small group discussions on the big picture of what school could be.   

We wanted our teachers to know that how the standards are mastered in your classroom is about knowing yourself and your learners well enough to shift the learner experience wherever and whenever possible to be authentic with high levels of content mastery, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and, most importantly, creating a sense of belonging to the group. We are pushing our teachers to realize that they get to decide on the instructional methods used in their classrooms and schools, which won’t look the same across our district. We trust them as professionals to make those decisions as they know their learners best. Each of these groups also then spent time in collaborative groups working together on breaking down an existing project to be able to understand how and where it becomes learner driven. We wrapped up the first part of the morning asking them to use a similar format on their own lesson and unit plans. Where could they be making shifts toward learner driven, authentic experiences every day?

As part of the opening in one of the groups, we asked them to answer this question with educators from other schools, “What will you make, build, or do with learners this year that they will be talking about in 10 years?” Most of those answers were around larger community-based experiences instead of daily classroom instruction. We followed the discussion with the question, “What will you make, do, or build tomorrow that learners will still be talking about in 10 years?”  We are hopeful that our teachers will use some of what they learned that day to have that question drive more of what we do.

Our staff also need to see this kind of work in action and what better way to learn than from each other. So, the second part of the morning was a choice of over twenty classrooms across our district where our own staff were willing to model learner driven practice in their classrooms. The staff shared what their daily practice is and other staff were able to watch, learn, and give feedback. The participants learned a ton about how to do this work from educators that may teach down the street from them who have already tried new ways of connecting to learners with both successes and many opportunities to learn how they would do things differently. The presenters got feedback on their practice and answered questions for the participants that allowed them to reflect on what they do and why they do it. This was the email we sent to those who were brave enough to go first, “We have asked each of you as we know you are trying new things, having some success with learners, and find joy in your work. We will have the groups be small (hopefully around 25) of teachers from across our district in the sessions. We are hoping you will model a lesson, talk about how you incorporate learner driven skills in new ways, and how you got started with making a shift. It is not expected to be anything that is “perfect” or a “show”. It is meant for you to share your experience with others and encourage them to try new things in the way you have.” We got some great feedback from both participants and presenters about the power of the experience. Some of the sessions went off without a hitch and others did not go exactly as planned, but every one of them provided staff with an opportunity to connect and learn from each other.  

We asked each building leadership team to build in time for reflection, discussion, and planning at the school sites.  We know how essential that time to think about what you learned and then collaborate with colleagues is to create space for a change of practice.  These shifts take a continuous conversation with time to think and time to plan. Finding more time is always a challenge in education, but we want to keep the learning and the learner experience at the forefront by helping staff to find the time where we can.  Teachers need to know we support them in trying new things knowing they may fail with opportunities for coaching and collaboration to know how to go back and try again. We get a lot of feedback that we need to make more time for processing and planning. We are working on new ideas to try some creative things  within our schedules for next school year to help. In the meantime, we need to continue the push and the conversation wherever and whenever it can happen.  

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Targeted professional development puts teachers in the best shape to use the power of the weapon every day to empower our learners and therefore make our world a better place to be. 

What Will They Create That Will Make Our World More Awesome?

As we push for learning that is authentic and empowering for our learners, we decided to try something new this year. We decided to set aside some budget money to sponsor some student-led businesses as start-ups. I was curious to see what our learners would do if we gave them the opportunity to add something to the school that we had not done before and then actually let them do it. We put out a simple five-question form that asked about what kind of business it would be when they thought it would be profitable, and what they would do with the money. It was essential to ask them how they felt their business would make the school and our community a better place as well. It created a great opportunity to hear from some future entrepreneurs that are really inspiring. 

We got to hear from a group of five and six-year-olds about how they are doing a project to draw more families to move to our city. I had the honor of sitting on their expert panel a few weeks ago with our mayor and other city leaders to answer their questions about why I think West Allis is a great place to be. They are now making a promotional video and will be going public with their work at our local Farmers Market next month. They asked for a button maker to create promotional materials and some podcasting equipment as they are starting a learner-led podcast (Thanks- Award Winning Culture for an excellent idea!). The learners will be going out into our community to interview people and document their thinking and insights via their new podcast. This was the feedback from the teacher when I shared that we would be funding their project, “Our room was full of excitement and pride when we told them the good news. Thank you so much for taking the time to hear their ideas and for funding this project! There are so many exciting opportunities ahead for them!” That’s exactly how we want all learners and teachers to feel about school. 

Another elementary group had researched hunger, how it impacts the brain, and what the nutritional requirements are for schools. They proposed a snack store with healthy snacks to get learners through their afternoon hunger and be more productive. Their proposal was very professional and entirely done by the learners. They had dressed up and offered samples of all the snacks for the panel. You could see the pride in their work and the sense of community that had been built in their classroom as they worked together to answer all the questions we asked. That sense of belonging and community really came through when we asked them what they would do with any profits. Each learner talked about wanting to give to charities or support others in school and out who are struggling. The learners were from varied friend groups and able to see past that to want to create a collective impact on our community. Again, that is exactly how we want all learners to feel about school.  

Two young men from another elementary had a great idea to add a more exciting option to their Friday activities that is both educational and fun. They created an arcade on a cart that others can use if their name is called in a drawing. They had quite the sales pitch and are planning to take their proposal to a major supplier for more units once they have some promotional videos from learners using the cart. It was a creative idea that was driven by one learner who had not always felt successful in school. He had challenges connecting with his classmates and his learning until he got the opportunity to design a project of his choosing to demonstrate his learning. It gave him a new outlook on his learning, and I can confidently say he is able to communicate, research, problem-solve, and collaborate with others based on what he showed us in a fifteen-minute pitch. Being able to make his idea a reality through our student-led businesses means he will continue to feel empowered at school.  

Our high school and adult learners want to start a cafe, a t-shirt business, an outlet for students to express their feelings through art, a recycled t-shirt business, a photography studio that offers discount senior pictures for those who can’t otherwise afford them, and a greeting card company. One that really impressed me was a team of learners from our marketing class and our current student-led coffee shop run primarily by our learners with disabilities. They have been working on a revamp of the school book store together and wanted an investment to make it better by adding a satellite location for the coffee shop to it. The two teachers and an educational assistant had obviously collaborated on how to make the experience inclusive for all learners in a purposeful way that closes opportunity gaps. The learners worked together and presented a cohesive picture of what they wanted for their business. We continually reflect on our inclusive practices for students with disabilities as a district team. This was an exciting glimpse into what’s possible for all learners when the work is authentic, project-based, goes public, and the inclusionary practice becomes seamless and invisible in the work. When I asked this group why student-led businesses are important, all four learners gave almost the exact same response. They all said that they need to have real experiences in school so that they feel ready for life outside of school. The expectation for all these learners in this project will be the same, the pathway and the supports may just look different. ALL learners will get the opportunity to feel ready for whatever comes next for them.   

The sense of empowerment that every learner we spoke to demonstrated was remarkable. When we ask our learners to try with the right supports, they do, and they want to do more. As Kid President once said, “What will you create that makes the world awesome?” We have a bunch of learners who are about to see what they can create together. I am sure it will be awesome!  

Listening to What Matters Most

undefinedEvery year I attend graduation at what, until recently, was our alternative high school. It was a credit recovery school where learners who need an alternative pathway to graduation went after they had repeatedly failed at our comprehensive high schools. We are moving to a Project Based Learning (PBL) high school where we provide new opportunities for learners earlier to prevent failure and the need for credit recovery. They usually have two student speakers at graduation who tell stories of their challenging times in school and life before they attended our alternative high school and things turned around. The students are articulate, passionate, and often bring many in the audience to tears. They talk about finding their passions, connecting with teachers on a deep level, and learning resiliency skills at the new school. As I sat at graduation last June, I was struck by the power of what one learner had to say about her learning journey and looked around to realize more people needed to hear it.

I recently read a great post by A.J. Juliani called The Surprising Research about Students and Listening Skills. In it, he writes about an experiment where people missed a gorilla moving through a group of people playing catch as they were asked to focus on watching one pair throwing the ball back and forth. “This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much.” I worry that sometimes what we are missing in our schools is the voice of our learner and we have no idea how impactful that voice can be to inform our practice. He goes on to write, “We have to admit to the fact that our attention does not always lead to full awareness. We have blind spots, and the real power is acknowledging our lack of complete awareness.” The post is mostly about how our students listen, but the same idea applies to our leaders and teachers. Is one of our blind spots to complete awareness of success in school not asking our learners, listening fully to them, and then acting on what they tell us?  

I asked the principal from our PBL high school to invite a panel of learners (including the young lady who spoke at graduation) to speak to our leadership team for our opening kick-off in early August. A panel of four learners spoke to our principals, assistant principals, district office staff, and instructional coaches that day about their experience in our schools. They shared stories of times they had felt successful throughout their school career, and what happened that meant in their junior or senior year they needed a credit recovery option. We learned a lot from learners our system had failed at one point and got it right at another. It was an amazing way to open our eyes to the urgency to get it right for kids and the power of what happens when we do. 

When we met again in September, we opened again with a learner panel. This time we chose a group from an intermediate learning community that is project-based, multi-age, and centered around relationships before content. The learners from this community said things like, “We are able to be leaders. We know that we can make change in our world. Our community is like a family.” The learners talked about closing their own gaps in math and reading because their work had purpose. They shared stories of projects they had created and connections to our greater community outside of school. These learners presented about their learning community in a break-out session at a national conference a few weeks ago. When the opening keynote for the day asked a question of hundreds of people who are leaders in our field, it was one of our learners who answered his question on why personalized learning is so important. She has found her voice about her learning and is not afraid to share it no matter how big the audience.

Our October learner panel was a group of high school students who were chosen to participate in the African American Male Initiative (AAMI). These learners were able to articulate times they felt empowered and supported, but also many times where they felt judged and undervalued. They expressed a sense that there are different expectations for them based on race and different responses to their behaviors than the reactions to their white peers. All of these learners are at our comprehensive high schools where our learning is still pretty traditional, but they have found opportunities to feel engaged and connected through AAMI, clubs, sports, music, and when they felt the teacher was kind and got to know them on a personal level. They are learning to become leaders within our schools with ideas on course offerings and training for teachers, but are also looking for more ways to be heard.  

One young man from this panel was quieter than the others. I had to ask him some probing questions to get him to share his story and he clearly felt nervous. I went to meet with him to thank him for being on the panel and reassure him that he had done a fantastic job. We acknowledged that it is not easy as a high school student to speak to a large room full of administrators and coaches. His entire face lit up during the conversation, and he said, “I get to do that again, right?” The smile on his face made my week as I knew we had given him a voice to share what he needs from school and empowered him through the panel to want to share it with others.  

All our learners have been able to articulate lots of bright spots, which is encouraging. We want to take the time to celebrate those moments. They were also able to articulate some areas for growth that had a common theme:

  • The relationship the learners have with the adults around them is the key to their success. When they felt they could trust an adult in the school and any teacher takes the time to get to know them, they thrive. 
  • They want school to be authentic, exciting, and project based. Each learner talked about the importance of learning being flexible, connected to their interests, and something they could do that would help the world be a better place. Young people want to know they are having an impact. School should be one place where they definitely get that opportunity.  
  • Learners want to be heard and asked about their ideas. They have interesting ones on what school should and could be that are all things we can do.    

We were fortunate to have George Couros with us for our first panel. He shared his thoughts on the experience in his blog and gave us some powerful tools to shift our practice in schools in a workshop for the rest of that morning. “Listening to students who “struggled” in the traditional setting of school (that were now all flourishing in new environments) is something we need to do more often, but listening is only a first step. When we receive the feedback, what will we do differently because of it, and how will the students know?” We have many staff reading his new book co-written with Katie Novak, Innovate Inside the Box. It is full of strategies to help us with exactly what our learners are asking for- ways to create relationships, innovative practices, and taking ownership of change.

In one of the panels, I asked a student what she will need from our high schools when she gets there. She paused and said that she didn’t feel she was in a position to change how a large high school runs. I explained that is exactly why she was on the panel and that she should share her thoughts with the high school leaders in the room. In Innovate Inside the Box, George quotes a colleague who once said, “It does not matter what your position is; you can influence change. If education is going to move forward, you can’t wait for ‘someone else’ to do it.” Our learners are the ones currently influencing meaningful change for us in our schools. I can’t wait to see where they take us next.