Connecting and Reflecting

Reflection has always been a part of my practice both as an educator and as a person, but it has really intensified during this time at home. I think a lot about why we do some of the things we do and when we have missed opportunities that I don’t want to miss again. I recently participated in a reunion with five of my closest friends from college. Some of us have seen each other one-on-one, but we had not all been together in at least fifteen years. We had this amazing night of laughs online that felt exactly like old times and went on for hours and hours. I loved catching up with them, being together, and hearing the great things happening in their lives as well as some of their challenges. We repeatedly asked the question many of us do right now, “Why have we waited so long to do this?”

We have also been having a regular family dinner each night instead of our usual see each other in passing as we all rush off to activities or working late and eating in shifts. Before our “safer at home” order, we ate out often and were usually able to do that together, but this feels better, more connected, more real. Our seventeen-year-old daughter recently hosted a week of theme nights for us. She planned and made the dinners, and we all wore costumes to go with the theme. We were our favorite Disney characters, superheroes, and Scooby and the Gang. We dressed in formal wear, pajamas, beach attire, and our best ripped jeans and big hair for rock & roll night. We laughed a ton and got creative about how to make costumes out of what we could find around the house. I reflect a lot on how great all the dinners have been for us and how I will keep them going when this is all over.  

My mood and my thoughts have been like a roller coaster for the last several weeks. I am usually someone who can always find the positives and keeps pretty upbeat regardless of the circumstances, but that has been more difficult as of late. It all came to a head with the announcement that schools were closed for the remainder of the year in our state. I felt this intense grief about not seeing our learners again this year and knowing how hard that was going to be for our teachers. A crushing wave of sadness came over me, and it was reading the reflections of others and feeling more connected to them that pulled me out of it.  

George Couros has been working with our leadership team for the last few weeks to develop digital portfolios. It was important to us to continue our monthly professional development sessions with our leaders to cast forward to a time when we can physically return to our schools. We have had the good fortune to work with George several times in the last few years so we invited him back as he is familiar to us, but is also someone from the outside who can keep us focussed on continuing to grow as leaders. We are trying to capture the shifts that are happening in our teaching practices given the circumstances and our reflections on the leadership it takes to keep innovative, learner empowered practice at the forefront. He joins our online meeting each week during which we learn how to organize our thoughts and ideas into a digital portfolio to share with others. We then meet in small groups to talk about our progress and how hard it is for us in a leadership role to be vulnerable enough to share our reflections and our thoughts with each other, much less the world.  

We’ve worked to create a collaborative culture within our leadership team over the last couple of years to help the job feel less lonely. Although you get a lot of time with other people, the role of a school leader is much more isolating than people may think. We talk a lot about pushing one another with the support that helps us get the job done. Leadership during “safer at home” has taken on a whole new definition with a different kind of intensity. Many of us now spend our days in online meetings talking about instructional practice or how to support learners and families who need resources from school. We have some staff who are struggling, so we are finding ways to connect to them to offer our support as well as supporting our learners each day. A lot of it is emergency management for emergency remote teaching, which is not what any of us thought we were getting into when we signed up for a school leadership role. We wanted our leaders to still have a place to connect with each other, laugh a bit, and talk about visionary leadership, so they get to think about a time beyond emergency management. They are also learning something new, with the help of George, that we can model for teachers and learners in the years ahead.  

The night I heard we were not going to be able to go back this year, the world felt pretty daunting. I started reading the blog posts our principals, assistant principals, deans, instructional coaches, and district leaders have been writing as part of their digital portfolios. Getting to share in their reflections, both the ones that cast forward and the ones that reflect on how hard this time is, really helped me to feel hopeful. There were so many positives, all collected and shared in one space, that I got to see and experience through their reflections. I have learned things about many of them through this process that I did not know and have really enjoyed watching them make their blog sites/portfolios their own. They’re capturing the amazing work I have the absolute honor to get to support every day, our team’s willingness to be vulnerable, and the power of the human connections.  

George recently said, “Here is the best advice I can give any educator right now. Focus on connection first, everything else is second. And a very DISTANT second.” I couldn’t agree more. The connections I am making right now with old friends, my family, and our leaders through their digital portfolios are special and deeper than ever. What if we spent enough time reflecting on our connections to each other, both in our work and as people, that we never forget exactly how essential they were when we needed them most? Instead of being critical of myself for why I wasn’t doing more of this before, I am setting expectations for myself and scheduling how and when I will continue my new and re-connections at this same level when we are all face-to-face again. It makes me hopeful that my new normal may be a better one.  

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.