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.