This is the Twitter content I’m here for..

For my first year of teaching, I was the only self-contained teacher for students with significant emotional/behavioral disabilities in a middle school.  Our classroom was located at the end of a long hallway at the back of the building with few other classrooms nearby. I was on my own most of the time with a large class of really disconnected learners with little time or reason to collaborate with my colleagues.  There were four of us that started that year in similar programs each at different schools. I was the only one who didn’t quit before the second semester. My learners and I had an amazing year, but they were tough, and it wasn’t always easy to figure out what to do all on my own.  I was missing the opportunity to network with other teachers, share ideas, celebrate successes, and occasionally vent about a challenging day. I gave that feedback to my director, and we moved my program the next year to another building where two of us in one location working together.  We spent that year working on how to be more inclusionary and collaborative within our special education team and between our regular education and special education staff. Although I still served a similar population of learners who had historically been unsuccessful in school and started the year in a fully self-contained placement, it was a lot easier as I had a team of colleagues working together to best serve and empower them.  

Since then, I have always made creating a professional network a priority for me as an educator.  I have had opportunities to co-teach with content specialists and related service providers that have made me a better teacher.  We shared a vision for what we wanted for our learners and were not trying to do our work in isolation. Once I moved into a leadership role, continuing to have a strong network was essential.  Leadership jobs are far more lonely than most people think. You are often the only principal in the building or the sole coordinator for that subject in a district. Having a network of other professionals who do similar roles in other districts or communities has been such an asset to my work and has made me even better as I get to listen to the excellent ideas of others or share some of what we do in our district.  We are starting to take that a step further and do some cross-district programming with other districts in our area. We are all trying to do the same work- to create opportunities for all learners that mean that they are ready to live life on their own terms when they finish public school. Why we try to do that work independently does not really make any sense. We have joined or created some new collaborative networks with other districts in our area that are powerful and are giving us the chance to share ideas and resources in a whole new way.  

In recent years, my online networks have become a great source of inspiration.  I never quite understood the power of Twitter until a few years ago. Now, I would struggle without it.  My ability to connect with other people doing work from a similar lens across our country and our world helps me every day.  I get tons of ideas on which blogs to read, which resources others are accessing, and new ways to create authentic learning experiences for all learners.  In a class I teach at a local university for pre-service teachers, one of the assignments I gave was to get networked. I gave them a list of people to choose from to follow online.  They had to reflect on why that collaboration can be so impactful as an educator. It was an interesting discussion when we got back to class on who they agreed with and who they did not. I encouraged them to consider following someone who had opposing views to their own as I often follow people who present a different perspective than mine. It helps me to grow when my ideas get challenged. Either I am ready to defend my belief because I really stand behind it, or the new perspective helps me to shape the belief into a new version of itself.  While my core beliefs never change, I get a new lens on an idea that gives me a chance to reflect. That constant support and challenge of an online community, which I have found on Twitter, allows me opportunities to think and grow all the time.   

I am seeing a new kind of connection and networking on Twitter that has been absolutely amazing.  We now have teachers across our district collaborating on authentic, learner-driven projects via Twitter.  It has been so fantastic to watch a kindergarten class connect to another kindergarten class in another school around a project or a way to increase our involvement with our greater community.  We have a class of high school students working with a class of second graders turning their comics into movies. They wrote a letter to the high school students that said, “We heard that you know how to make movies. Will you help us turn our stories into movies?  We can’t do it alone- we need your help.” How incredible is it that young learners will have the model of our high school students in understanding plot and theme and that our high school students will get to practice what they have learned about those same ideas by teaching them to others? Another class of third and fourth graders has “contracted” math students at one of our high schools to make them a cart for their coffee business after seeing them build real furniture out of scale models for their math class on Twitter.  The power of becoming collaborative across grade levels and schools is incredible, and it can come from something as simple as a Twitter post about the cool work you are doing in class.  

I am not 100% sure if it started with him, but Rex Chapman often posts inspirational things he sees on Twitter with the tagline, “This is the Twitter content I’m here for.”  The videos he posts are often stories of kindness or examples of humanity that are touching. The Twitter content I’m here for is the power of connection between classrooms, schools, district, leaders and learners as well as my opportunities to see, learn and grow.  That content makes the work we do together more real and far more impactful on our entire community.  

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.

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!